the corner office

a blog, by Colin Pretorius

On Solitude I

As I mentioned in my review of Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism, the chapter on solitude - "Spend Time Alone", took me by surprise.

I'm happy to be a hermit at the best of times, and I started the chapter thinking "Solitude. Yep!" because I was expecting the book to tell me that what I already liked doing was good for me and that I should keep doing it. Except... it didn't.

Newport uses a much stricter definition of solitude, taken from one of the books which seem to comprise a small body of pro-solitude 'literature'. The book defines solitude as:

A subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.

In other words, solitude means being alone with your thoughts, with nothing to intrude on them.

It's not solitude if you're in input mode. Reading a book. Or watching TV, or listening to a podcast. Or music. Or browsing a website, or doing many of the things people often do during 'quiet time.' Quiet time might be good for you, but it isn't solitude.

Does it matter? The book (drawing from said 'literature') lists all sorts of benefits: creativity, focus, relationships, allowing your mind to work through important issues, moral dilemmas, recharging, mental balance, all that good stuff. A bit like social and existential sleep, if you will.

And yet, we live in a world where headphones and devices are everywhere and always at hand, and the average Westerner has less solitude than ever. The tube and trains and cars and streets and homes are full of people, often solitary, but starved of solitude.

This caused some re-appraising for me. I do experience solitude, even by the strict definition, but far less than I thought. Yes, I've always enjoyed being alone, but how often was I alone? I pondered the definition. Music? Really? Music!? What if there's no singing? Classical music? Was I being too strict in my interpretation of the meaning of input mode, or was I just trying to fudge my way around it? I wasn't about to delete the mp3s from my phone, but as with all the other parts of the declutter, I was open to seeing where Cal's advice would take me.

(Aside: it wasn't long before before Cal Newport became just 'Cal' at home, especially as I bored Ronwen to death with my experiences. "You know, Cal has an opinion about that", "Cal knows", "trust Cal", "no, I don't know where your mp3 player is but Cal says it's good for you to go for a run without it... seriously, just try it. For Cal". "Ok, I will. For Cal", etc. Nobody has yet said "well you know what Cal can go do" but, you never know).

Where was I? Yes, reappraisal.

For example, one of my gripes about my less-regular-than-it-should-be cycling to work was how boring I found it, especially because while I might be crazy enough to cycle in London traffic, I'm not crazy enough to cycle in London traffic with earphones on. Don't want to cycle, boring, I could be on the train reading a book, moan moan moan, so booooring. And here was the book, telling me to embrace it. My new open-minded, reappraising self got to thinking about it. The truth is, being on the bike and letting my mind wander was always part of cycling for me, and it had bothered me less in the past. So instead of seeing it as a bad thing, I realised that maybe I should just be trying to see things differently.

And, I did, and it helped. I can't say why, and I wouldn't say I bounce onto the bike thrilled at the prospect of keeping myself company for an hour and a half, but my attitude is now different, and attitude matters.

{2019.10.19 15:01}

The Digital Declutter II

So what did my digital declutter entail?

I gave up on pretty much all web browsing and internetting that wasn't looking something up when I needed to (as in, really needed to for work or the like. Not just "hmm, I'm curious about Central European climates, what does Wikipedia have to say on the subject?") Blogs and news sites were specifically off limits for the duration.

I decided to avoid social media completely. Easy enough on my PC, and I uninstalled/logged out of all social media apps on my phone. I wasn't that worried about the temptation because I wasn't spending much time on social media anyway, but I figured I may as well do it. I learned that some of these apps simply couldn't be uninstalled from my phone - they're "system software" (my foot). All you can do is factory reset them, so they're right there if the urge to sign in again gets the better of you. That annoyed me enough to reinforce my view that nixing them all was worth doing.

I didn't ban learning apps I have, like Anki or Duolingo, since the whole point of this for me was about devoting more time to valuable things. And I had Real Life things to do on the computer, but they weren't about the web or social media, and so I kept doing them.

In fact, that was the general theme of the declutter. I knew that I wasn't doing this to escape the clutches of Facebook, it was just to get rid of the distractions and be more productive.

For the most part, it went well. I still fell over occasionally with web browsing and going down rabbit holes. This was where the "operating procedures" thing came in. I complained about the term in my review, but the point of an operating procedure is to set yourself clear rules about when and how you're going to use an app or do something online. It sounds a bit extreme, but it helps. For me, my rule was to be specific about what I was browsing for, try to be as focused as possible on what I needed to do and then close everything once done. Doesn't sound like much but doing this mostly worked, even if just by making me more aware of what I was doing when online.

I'd also decided (bravely) that I wouldn't ban listening to music on YouTube while working, but my rule was to choose something long enough and leave it playing. No hunting or exploring (a common way for me to lose an evening). I had exactly one YouTube fail. One night I had the "I really feel like listening to song X from my youth" urge, found myself having fired up YouTube and listening to the song I wanted to hear, and then thinking of another. This time around though, instead of it turning into 2 hours of me being my own personal DJ, I quickly realised what was happening, said "that's quite enough Colin, quite enough," and then closed down the tab and went back to whatever it was I'd been doing.

What else is there to say about my experience? A few things, and I'll just list them here and perhaps write more about them separately:

  • avoiding the news was a huge change for me, and if I had to choose, I'd say this has been the most positive outcome from the declutter.

  • the book has a chapter on solitude, and as I mentioned in the review it caused me to see some of my own habits and attitudes in a different way.

  • I wasn't screen-free for the duration, but I devoted some thought to the whole idea of being more analog. It's still an open issue for me, but it did result in a few changed habits, which I'm glad I made.

To be continued.

{2019.09.29 11:57}

The Digital Declutter

And so I started doing a Digital Declutter.

This was a Thing for me, because while I don't read many Improving Books, when I do read them it's usually with more of a touristy attitude than anything else. They have Advice and Recommendations and Five Step Plans telling you to do things and you never do them because it's an effort and you didn't feel that strongly about the subject in the first place, and it's a self-help book, dammit. Reading it is one thing, actually doing what it suggests is an admission of guilt, of something. Failure? Anyway, I'm digressing. All you wanted was for your horizons to be expanded a bit, and feeling good about reading the book is all the kick you were really after.

But this time was Different (that's the end of me Capitalising Everything, promise). I did start the declutter, though truth be told, it was sort of by accident. Enthused by the book and still thinking over what it had to say, I got on the train one night and rather intentionally decided not to check the news. Not a big thing in itself, I don't always check the news on the train anyway. But the intentionality of it struck a chord, and when I got home and sat down in the study in the evening, I intentionally didn't open up a news site, and the next morning was the same, and somehow that ended up with me thinking to myself "Is this the start of a digital declutter? Am I really going to do this? Sounds like I already am. OK, digital declutter it is".

Having decided that, I took the book's advice and jotted down the Dos and Don'ts which would define my declutter, and then... I just did it.

It's been a positive experience. I don't have a lot of spare time to start with and I wasn't whiling it all away on social media and the web anyway, so it's not like it suddenly freed up tons of time for me. In fact, halfway through the declutter, Something Came Up, which kept me so busy that my spare time dried up completely for a couple of weeks. So much so that at the end of 30 days I decided to extend my declutter for a bit longer just to prove to myself that it wasn't a fluke.

(Actually, it's been a couple of months now, and in some respects, the declutter's still going, simply because I haven't bothered to go back to many of the things I was doing before, and haven't gotten around to deciding when and how I'll approach them when I do, if ever.)

I have plenty more to say, about the book and my declutter experience. I should admit, Dear Reader, that at the risk of boring you senseless (unless you're Ronwen, in which case, it's too late), I sense a Series of posts coming along.

{2019.09.15 21:02}

Digital Minimalism

Having set the scene in my previous post, this is my review of Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport.

You could guess from the title that the theme of the book is some form of turn off your damned phone. Pretty much, but needless to say there's a bit more to it than that.

The book's argument is this: the Internet, digital technology, online apps and social media have been revolutionary, and our world has changed enormously in the space of a decade or two. But it's happened so rapidly that we've never stopped to consider whether all of this is actually good for us, and whether how we use it really adds to our lives.

A development alongside this has been the rise of the attention economy: how much money gets made as a result of keeping people staring at their phones and web browsers, and how addictive apps and online experiences are now intentionally designed to be. To many tech companies, we're link and like-clicking dopamine junkies to be cultivated for eyeball time. We're not the customer, we're the product.

All fine and well, and if you're reading the book this is a message you're probably amenable to. Newport argues that good intentions and tweaks to your online habits are unlikely to work against the onslaught of tricks and temptations arrayed against you. Instead, he proposes that you approach the online world with an intentional philosophy, which he calls Digital Minimalism.

The idea is the opposite of our current approach to technology, which you might call Digital Maximalism. Instead of using the web, apps or social media because it might be fun or possibly useful, start with a default of "nope." The minimalist approach is to ask whether the technology really adds to your life, and even if it does, are you using it in the best possible way to get whatever you want done? And if the answer isn't a clear yes, you don't use it, or you find a way to use it differently (you "optimise" your use of it, which generally means "far less of it").

That's Digital Minimalism in a nutshell. It isn't about Luddism, or avoiding technology completely - just changing how you use it, and approach it.

With this explained, the book then consists of two parts.

The first is Newport's suggested way of breaking free: the Digital Declutter. If you're going to go minimalist, your best way of achieving this is to spend 30 days in which you turn off everything except what you need to avoid getting fired or divorced, basically. Then have a life that isn't tied to a screen or the Internet and at the end of the month, add back things if you really think they're going to add to your life, and do so "optimally". Hopefully your 30 days of freedom have shown you that a life without screens is possible, and more rewarding.

The second half of the book covers a number of topics intended to help you along your way, and provide food for thought as you're doing the declutter. With chapters titled "Spend Time Alone", "Don't Click 'Like'", "Reclaim Leisure" and "Join the Attention Resistance", you get the gist of what they have to say.

The chapters on Solitude and Leisure had the most impact on me, so much so that I'll probably do separate write-ups about them. But in summary, solitude has a much narrower definition than you'd perhaps think, meaning being free of any imposition of other minds on your own. That includes things like music, reading, etc. This surprised me and led me to question some of my own notions about how much "solitude" I actually experience. The chapter on Leisure challenged me and my "programming and computers" hobby interests the most, with arguments in favour of a more physical, analog approach to leisure.

In some respects, the book feels more geared to outright social media junkies, and as I mentioned, that's not me. So some of the case studies and suggestions that I'd have hours and hours of free time and take on awesome new hobbies if I turned my back on Facebook were off the mark for me. My problem isn't sinking hours and hours into the Internet every night, it's more like losing the occasional hour or two, more often than I'd like, and knowing that my life would be better with less negativity from the news and social media.

There were also parts of the book which felt a little over the top, where anti-attention economy polemic got in the way of making good points. This was particularly so in the last chapter, eg. "my research on digital minimalism has revealed the existence of a loosely organized attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services - dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set by these companies can spring shut".

That kind of writing doesn't work for me. But I should say that bits like that are infrequent and they don't define the book: for the most part the book is solid advice and a lot of good food for thought. And even the 'operating procedures' thing, which I thought was a bit much when it first came up in an earlier chapter, is actually a decent idea that I ended up putting to use, and I must admit that as much as I didn't like the term, I couldn't think of a better one.

In summary, I was just expecting something to tell me to turn off my damned phone, and instead the book told me a lot more. It told me what I wanted to hear, and sometimes told me things I wasn't expecting to hear, and sometimes didn't want to hear, but I think were worth hearing anyway.

This is a self-help book which I've actually taken to, and started putting the ideas to use. I'm writing this towards the end of a digital declutter, and it has been refreshing. I plan to write more about the experience, assuming I'm not too busy doing non-digital things to find the time.

{2019.09.12 21:37}

Productivity

I've become increasingly unhappy about my productivity during my spare time, and especially how it's affected by the Internet.

People who know me might chuckle, because there have certainly been stretches of my life which have been completely caught up online. That isn't as much the case these days, though. I'm not much into social media, blogs and the like are a much smaller part of my life than they once were. And over the years, I've studied, I have projects, I do things.

Instead, it's a feeling, knowing that no matter what I've gotten done over the past week, or month, or year, I could've accomplished more. It's still all too easy to get caught up reading the news, random stuff on the web, one site to the next, half an hour lost from an innocuous web search, opening up a browser on my phone on the train instead of reading something more interesting, losing the occasional evening to YouTube.

Frustration builds, and then all you need is a nudge. For me, the nudge was coming across Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism, which is really the reason for this post. Having set the scene, review to follow.

{2019.09.02 21:03}

Overheard (On An Airplane)

Overheard while our plane was taxiing down the runway after landing, some kids and their father:

"Why do airports always smell like this?"
"That's the smell of jet fuel"
(pause)
"WHY'S IT LEAKING?"

{2019.08.31 10:09}

Boris

I've been avoiding the news (more on that another time) but I'm reliably informed that Boris Johnson is the new Prime Minister.

By 'reliably informed', I mean it's been on every billboard, headline and TV screen for the past few days and everybody's been talking about it. Except me (mostly) because I am staying well out of politics, here and in real life.

But yes. Politics aside, poisoned chalice and all that. Gluggety glug.

{2019.07.28 15:33}

Leadership Election 2019

I avoid politics on the blog mostly, but leadership elections are an indulgence I can't deny myself.

It's been 3 very short, or very long years since the last Tory leadership election (take your pick). Back then, all ra ra and blue rosettes on the coffin lid. Now, Theresa May, bereft of authority, respect, and most of all, a Withdrawal Agreement.

The papers say she's now trying to rush spending commitments and legislation through parliament to establish her "legacy", which strikes me as rather optimistic and not just a little misguided. A bit like her Brexit strategy, come to think of it. The poor aunty's only legacy is likely to be "Botched Brexit" and "WORST PRIME MINISTER EVAR". These days, Gordon Brown goes to bed every night with a smile. Worst. Evar.

A sad way to end a career, but while I have some empathy for her on a human level, my overriding sense is just, as they say in Afrikaans, jy wou mos. It didn't take a genius to see that this particular stint of Prime Ministery was going to be a poisoned chalice, but she took the thing anyway and drank loooong and bloody hard from it.

And so again, a Leadership Election. People are caught up in the tribalism and spectacle of it all, but really, this is still just politicians being politicians: that poisoned chalice is still there, whispering "driiiiink meeee, driiiiink meeeee", and while poor old Tezza slinks back to her crypt, a shadow of her former cadaverous self, the greedy buggers have all still lined up for a swig.

Things are different this time around, though. Whereas the previous affair seemed to be over before it started, the new one seems to be dragging on forever. And whereas the previous one saw Boris' campaign end up like one of those rancid mushroomy things in horror movies which go 'pssssh' and deflate when you prod them, this time around he's played it just right, and he's firm favourite to become the next Leader of HM's Goverment.

In fact, with a couple of weeks to go, I think most of the country are now just sitting around thinking "can he get to the end without cocking it up entirely?" Given it's Boris, nobody would bet on it.

{2019.07.07 20:55}

TCO v4

I started writing up a little post in which I indulged in some first-rate navel-gazing about blogging and how my blog is 16 years old and how things have changed and how I blog less and less and have come close to shutting the whole thing down a few times but don't because this and that and etc etc etc.

But who needs that? Suffice it to say that while I blog far less frequently than I used to, I do want to keep my blog, but felt it was time to make a few changes.

The main and most obvious change is that my blog (and tech blog) now live at my personal site, colinpretorius.org. For over a decade, my blog's been at thecorneroffice.org and my personal site had a single page saying "there nothing here, my blog's over there though". Ten years ago, it was sort of cool, a nice touch for my blog to have its own domain name. Ten years on, my blog is quieter, and I had a hankering to consolidate things, so I have.

I felt slightly guilty about breaking links to the handful of posts which are linked to from elsewhere, and still get traffic, but those are easily dealt with. I may flog off thecorneroffice.org domain one day, but for now it just redirects to here.

The second thing that's changed is how it looks. What actually happened is that I changed the blog's stylesheet to be mobile-friendly for the first time, and in doing so, I couldn't resist tweaking a few other thing as well.

... and with that done, The Corner Office can now continuing ticking over with minimal attention from myself and reader(s) for a while longer.

{2019.06.12 22:14}

Maggie

Overhead in the local Tesco, a mother to her adult son.

Yeah, you have to flush a couple of times because Maggie (something) (something)

It's possible that if I'd heard the rest, this blog post would never have happened.

{2019.05.06 07:57}

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