"When it comes to the overwhelm; the easiest way to solve that is to turn it off. Really just turn it off" - Patrick Rhone in Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things
Since around a month ago on the 5th of October I've had myself locked out of Twitter. I achieved this by ensuring that two-factor authentication was turned on, and by asking my friend S to change my password (I actually did the same for her). This way I couldn't log in because I didn't know the password, and if she proved untrustworthy she couldn't log in without access to my phone or email.
I thought my motivations for this were pretty straightforward; less distractions. I'd developed a bit of a Twitter 'twitch', and endlessly scrolling the site or flicking between it and Mastodon was dramatically affecting how much I'd been able to achieve in recent months. I did the same thing when I staged my withdrawal of Facebook I didn't think it was too much of an issue; since I don't have any social media apps on my phone, I can't receive the summons of notifications. Turns out it had permeated my life in a few other ways.
I thought I had a pretty good handle on curating my input. I only subscribe to a few YouTube channels and Podcasts at a time, which I've arrived at from years of striving to understand the form and topics of media that I like to consume. What I hadn't quite landed on was the connection between Twitter / microblogging's rapid-fire, consumable, format and its ability to increase my overall desire for just… input. It's like how my stomach expands whenever I often have too-large portions. The pace and overall serving size of reading Twitter or other microblogging sites just increases my appetite for mindlessly consuming more entertainment.
Really, that's what concerns me the most. I do believe that humans deserve to have a good time, and relish the playfulness that comes with our existence on this planet. Not everything has to be work. I just think that there exists a semantic difference between enjoyment of a playful activity and entertainment. As a phenomenologist at heart, I think that there just might be a difference between an activity being entertaining and the phenomena of entertainment. One is an attribute, that tells us and others that this activity, work, or interaction holds our attention and brings something into our lives. One is its own phenomena; that says we've extrapolated the attribute of being entertaining into its own noun and created this Thing which we seek out instead of thinking about the material thing that we're actually doing or watching or reading. For me, entertainment amounts to what I do in order to distract myself from what matters. I'm fine with something being entertaining, or sitting there being entertained while doing or experiencing something, but I'm very cautious about something that exists almost purely in my mind to distract me or hold my attention. This is not to say that Twitter or Mastodon are products of pure entertainment; they're very valuable communications tools. For me, the phenomena was that they were entertainment and they served that purpose of distraction.
I'm not sure about you, but I don't want to turn around in a few years, reflect on what I did with my time and come up with the answer of "Oh, I consumed entertainment".
Linked to the above, I spend a lot more of my time in quiet these days. Previously I used to consume podcasts in the evening, and have a selection of YouTube channells I would enjoy checking up on. I still do, but now my actual hunger for these things has decreased significantly. I don't feel the urge to consume content as I get the opportunity these days, and while I definitely still enjoy listening to podcasts about various topics or watching YouTube videos or reading satire on the web; these things have fallen into a "natural" rhythm rather than being a relatively constant demand or hunger in my mind.
Since locking myself out of Twitter, I've not logged into Mastodon either (sorry fediverse! You're still my favourite), only visited YouTube once a day and usually to retrieve some specific information (usually around propagating a plant cutting), and barely read any web articles during the work day. It's almost like what happened when I started fasting in the mornings, and my body just started telling me what its actual needs and desires were rather than the holding pattern firing constantly.
I've still got a way to go with curating my input and determining what I'm doing purely to entertain myself rather than fulfill myself. But I'm a lot happier in the quiet now.
I… I don't think I'll go back. One thing Twitter was useful for was keeping up with world events because of the trending hashtag system. I'm pretty sure I can find a workaround for that somewhere. I will maintain my Twitter account but treat it as a bot (I may actually rename it to Marshallbot) which just posts my content from Brimstone.
I was using the direct messaging feature in Twitter somewhat at the end, so I think I'll use the api to wire them into Brimstone's inbox (which I promise I will finish at some point!) and outbox so that people can actually get in touch with me if they need to.
Anyway, catch you later Twitter. Maybe. Probably not.
As of last night I've been journaling every day for a solid year. I began on 2019-11-05, after several months of putting it off. I had just finished returning from a wonderful trip across Europe with one of my closest friends and was very tired and run down; owing from a really weird and busy year of adapting to my new life and work. I'd put off starting to journal for a few reasons: for one I wasn't sure whether I'd enjoy it or whether I liked the idea of journaling from all these lifestyle blogs; I wasn't sure what I'd be writing in my journal (like at all) and I don't blog very much any more so was wondering if I actually had anything to say; and "people who journal" are sometimes (most of the time), quite frankly, annoying.
The reasons I wanted to start a journal were actually pretty much the reasons you'd expect. Do a search for benefits of journaling and you'll find umpteen lists and blogs dedicated to the habit. Specifically I was keen on: boosts to mood and sense of well-being; potential benefits to long-term memory; and aiding sleep. Don't get me wrong, I was already sold on other benefits of journaling such as it being an inherently reflexive practice and good for the soul. Brett over at AoM has been pretty good at documenting various aspects of journaling that I knew I'd like. What I knew I wasn't attracted to was what some blogs centred around which was inevitably tied to being "more productive" and "more creative" at work due to the other benefits.
The thing that pushed me over the edge to start was actually a bad night's sleep. The benefit I was most interested in from journaling was the potential for a better sleep. A year of stress from work, stress from travel, and stress from my then-shitty PhD thesis was all contributing to a consistently bad sleep cycle. I'd just spent nearly a month travelling across some Central/Eastern European countries, and the latter third of that I spent basically being rained on in Ljubljana and Venice. I was ready for my own bed and every single sign from my exhausted mind and tired body pointed to the fact I was due a good night's sleep when I returned. Sadly it evaded me. During my undergraduate years I'd read about (sorry can't find a link) and subsequently adopted a short-term habit of keeping a pad of paper next to my bed to scribble down thoughts before sleeping. This helped me get all the thoughts out of my head and onto paper and stopped my mind racing as much; like software on a laptop and freeing up memory. I abandoned the practice largely because I couldn't build a habit, but I remembered it working and thought that sitting down and journaling and using that to process my thoughts and feelings would in some way help me sleep.
This gave me the 'in' that I needed to start: one of the key things to building a habit is finding a when to do it and I figured that if journaling was going to help me sleep then it'd be most sensible to tie it to my bedtime. This also had the related benefit of giving more structure to my bedtime routine which (supposedly) helps with getting off to sleep. It also gave me a what to journal about. As noted part of my apprehension was centred around not knowing quite what to write about; the slew of journaling prompts just really didn't appeal to me whereas the idea of just sitting down and getting thoughts out of my head and onto paper seemed reasonable enough as a start. I checked AoM for advice as it was the only site that had written about journaling in a way that made it seem appealing (I swear I'm not a shill for Brett) and this gelled with what they were saying: "Just write about your day. No need to get fancy with those cute little journal prompts. Some days might be pretty routine, but other days you might be feeling philosophical or have a problem that will require you to write more in-depth entries. Just write what comes naturally to you on that day." (source). With these two points aligned, I had my motivation raised and my barrier to entry reduced sufficiently to start.
I actually had the next day off of work when I arrived back home so spent it around Newcastle centre acquiring bits and pieces and made a point to swing by a stationary shop to grab a notebook that I wanted to use as a dedicated journal. Not wanting to intimidate myself I bought a nondescript A6 lined notebook; figuring that the small page size meant I wasn't going to be feeling bad about not filling up an entire page with thoughts. Turns out this was definitely the right move. My first entries were barely half a page of A6 each but worked well enough for me to continue and build the habit. Here's the first page of my journal:
2019-11-05 First day back home after my travels; didn't sleep well. Watched a movie, read, and bought some misc useful items. Turns out nobody in NCL stocks safety razor blades except 'Cuban Cigar Club'. It's cold out and I love it. 2019-11-06 Tired. Back to work today and [redacted] already extended my work day into my evening -_- In the grand scheme of things it means nothing but it irritated me a bit. I did, though, love being back at Goodspace.
And honestly that was it. Really mundane right? As the muscles for journaling were flexed I found myself writing more and more each time. I went from a single paragraph to a main paragraph and a reflection on a problem. Then from that to writing two paragraphs, and then around three or sometimes four. By 2019-11-14 I had found my perfect balance which was to write until I'd just-about filled an entire single side of A6 lined paper. By that point I was using it as a reflective practice and actively teasing out lessons from the day:
2019-11-14 A pleasant day overall; work was 360-based; then Goodspace Tea-Thursday; then CPB Meeting. An interesting reflection on work -- whereas OCDS is stressful because of the granular and specific time tracking which causes me to stress about the time taken / spent on items… 360 is stressful because I don't do it enough to know all the moving parts and I'm often left needing to do some personal triage before I can get any work done. A lesson from this is that I should hold a personal version of the weekly check to keep on top of the 360 work
I am aware of the irony that I was not attracted to the benefits of journaling for productivity and that this entry was entirely about making myself really productive. As it happens, I work in an amazing worker-owned business and do stuff I'm passionate about. Other things in my life became regular features of my journal such as my current challenges and approaches in my strength training and running (I took up running around this time too, on 2019-11-17 apparently), my dating life, my struggle with particular thought patterns, my attempts to control my yo-yo eating habits.
As each of these found their way onto the page I was able to interact with that part of my life a little bit more. It's not all problem-solving and deep reflection. Some of my entries are very mundane and quite a lot of the early ones involve pointing out things that have made me happy. One thing it did allow me to spot was trends; if I'd been writing about struggling to control snacking for around five days in a row it meant that I could dedicate some time to figuring out what was causing that, or realise that it was more of a problem than I thought. With 2020 being so bat-shit (as a result of late-stage capitalism mind, not it just being weird) journaling has helped a lot there too. It lead me to making a few changes since writing down the positive realisations about my relationship to myself and others made that stick. As a result I feel I'm genuinely a better person for it. I've clearly kept up the habit as it's a nice way to sign off my day and I get a lot from it. I've managed to totally fill two of the little A6 books and I've started on a third. I think once I'm finished with that one I'll "graduate" to an A5 book. Again, I'll not try and force myself to fill an entire page but the extra room might allow me to do some interesting things.
I don't really have a 'winning formula' as I sit down to write a page in my journal but I do seem to have a habit or a framework. I start with giving an overall impression of my day, then go into the detail about some key events in it and how they made me feel. Being a worker and a human being with hobbies these tend to appear more often than not and I find myself writing about strength training, writing my PhD, cool open data stuff, my awesome flatmate, food etc. I don't expect this to change particularly but I've thumbed through my older entries in preparation for writing this post and I've noticed that my focus and style does evolve and change over time, in the order of months rather than days; so I'm excited as to where I'm going next and what my journaling may look like in a year's time. I'm aware that recently there's been a bit of a push-back against journaling (e.g. here and here). I think those are making some good points and I'm not so emotionally tied to or dependant on journaling that I'm defensive. In fact I do see myself stopping journaling when it ceases to be useful to me. Until then I'm a bit late to the game because I didn't spend most of my 20s journaling and I haven't really reached a point where it's stopped being useful or becoming a burden. One day I'll retire the practice but until then I'll keep writing about my boring day.
Oh, and I do sleep better now ;-)
As it turns out, I'm way too impatient to wait a week for my next journal prompt. Today's prompt is Via Negativa. According to AoM this term originally comes from Christianity where one explains their god by focusing on what they are not. This term, then, can apply to personal growth by a focus on not doing things. Ie avoiding bad habits. Today's journal will thus be discussing a habit that I want to get rid of, a habit that's holding me back, and how I plan to eliminate it from my life.
My habit, funnily enough, is idleness. Those closer to me may sound shocked by this, as I'm always dipping into personal projects; and I'm famed in particular for my early rises in order to undergo my morning strength training ritual. I'm generally thought of as being in quite early to the Lab, which is how I justify extending my personal evening time by leaving at 1600. However, as my training schedule has developed over 2016 I've begun training literally half as often as I used to. I now train two very heavy days (Monday and Thursday) whereas I used to include the Tuesday and Friday as well. This means I've not had motivation to wake up early on those days, and have used the time to "get myself some extra rest" as part of the catabolic phase of my weekly training/life. Don't get me wrong, this has had some very good impacts on my training and I've continued to improve steadily. My problem stems from the empty space that has been left behind. I resort to laying in bed, watching YouTube or Netflix to "chill out" before work and inevitably wind up spending way longer than I want to and have thus developed an unfortunate habit of arriving into the lab a bit later than what I'd normally be comfortable with. This has been consistent since September at least, but I think it was creeping up on me beforehand.
On top of this, the non-habit of empty space means that I feel frustrated that I've resorted to consuming entertainment instead of working on my goals or projects. It's not that I feel that I can't enjoy entertainment at all, it's just that I want a particular balance of production and consumption in my personal sphere that's been thrown off-balance. One of my goals is also to read more philosophy and more fiction, instead of video. Provided that I go to bed early enough, I can still give myself extra rest by sleeping in until 0630 and then working passively and at peace that I'm actually doing something that has purpose for me (purpose being a key element in happiness).
Sorry again for another Guardian link. Of all the broadsheets that review things they're often the first in my searches, and are at least not explicitly right-wing
I think the main steps to producing a blueprint of eliminating my bad habit is to replace it with a good one. I mentioned that I'm sleepy when I haven't trained, so until I'm already in the habit of meditating then I'm not comfortable jumping in there. This also provides space for a greater variety of activities in my life, by using my mornings better. The goals that spring to mind at the time of writing are:
Since I'm a creature of schedule and habit, it's probably best for me to produce a weekly schedule of these morning activities. They have to be completeble by about 0730 so that I can get into the lab nice and early to begin my day there; giving me more time in the evening (We'll deal with idelness in my evening routines later...). Having a few weeks, or a month, of performing each of these activities on a daily rotation will give me a good overview of where my priorities are and what is sustainable (as well as which activities can be performed concurrently). Here's my proposed schedule:
I've deliberately left of my Saturday and Sunday schedules, as they're often dependant on a work schedule or how late my partner returned from work the night before. I've also deliberately left out certain goals, in order to really focus on the low barrier to access ones. All of them are really low barrier to be honest, but in terms of the physical or cognitive grinding; I've chosen the easiest.
What I need now, is accountability for these. I could check in with a close friend / colleague each morning; just by sending a message telling them what I was up to and what time I woke up? That's the positive aspect of accountability. I need a consquence as well, and that's the tough part. Conversations with colleagues before have resulted in them being uncomfortable with the idea of donating my money to a nasty cause, and there's nothing else really they could do. I could ask them to walk over to my desk and yell "Shame!" at me?
I will need to reflect on this further.