the corner office

a blog, by Colin Pretorius

Student

Something which happened over the past six months, is that I've become a (part time) student again. I enrolled for an MSc in Applied Statistics at Birkbeck, because as I used to say during my earlier studying days, having free time is highly overrated.

Actually, this comes just over 10 years after the start of my previous foray into the world of studenting, and is both a continuation of what I was doing, and in some sense, taking care of unfinished business. Life, work and everything else back then meant that most of my studies were a stressed-out blur, and while I graduated and got the piece of paper, I never got what I'd really wanted from the experience. This time around, the hope is that things will go differently. With life, work and everything else now being a bit more amenable to it all, I'm also trying to avoid some of the mistakes I made before.

Still, it's a lot of work. I intend to write very little about it because, well, I'm too damned busy.

{2020.01.25 20:45}

Digital Minimalism - 6 Months On

I started my digital declutter almost 6 months ago... and after months of me writing about nothing else, it's time for me to wrap things up and move on.

I'm wary of now calling myself a 'digital minimalist' because 1. it sounds pretentious and 2. I don't know how minimalist I really am. Safer to just say that I read the book, to my own surprise actually started doing the digital declutter recommended by the book, and having ended up changing quite a few of my habits, and I'm rather happy that I did.

My main goals for doing it were to boost my productivity, and to get away from some of the more negative parts of online life. Things are better (but not perfect) on the productivity front, and much, much better on the negativity of online life part.

Six months on:

  • I still don't follow the news and have no urge to find out what's going on the world. I still think this has been the biggest boost to my productivity and general mood.

  • I've visited Facebook about 3 times. Every time I do, I'm reminded why my life is better off without it being a regular feature. I wouldn't go as far as closing my account, and I'm interested in what at least some people are up to. Having not yet figured out how best to use it, I mostly just don't use it at all.

  • I no longer follow politics/economics blogs. I do miss some of the interesting things I used to read (especially non-political), but it's mostly too close to the news and current affairs, and generally not relevant to things I'm more interested in.

  • I spend less time with my phone at hand and I enjoy being free of the reaching-for-my-phone compulsiveness I used to have, and still see in many other people.

  • The boredom/solitude/being alone with your thoughts aspect of the experience has been rewarding and has become something of a renewed interest for me.

There are two areas where things could be better:

  • I still end up going down online rabbit holes. It happens far less frequently than before, but my attempts to manage it via "operating procedures" aren't always successful. I'm in a slightly dangerous limbo where it's infrequent enough that I don't think it's a huge problem, but would be happy for it to not be a problem at all.

  • With the exception of writing more by hand, I've not yet resolved the "do more physical things" versus "not fun" conflict. This is partly because I have very little free time these days, and perhaps I'd do more physical things if that weren't the case. Either way, my DIY list is as long as ever.

And with that, it's time for me to stop talking about Digital Minimalism. Onwards.

{2020.01.06 14:24}

Back To Paper

While I didn't do much in terms of 'going analog', one way in which I did, was by switching back to keeping a paper diary.

I've kept a diary, off and on, since high school. I started an electronic diary (using my blog software) in 2006, and in recent years it's been a regular part of my life. I use it as a (sometimes mundane) record of what I've been up to, but also a place for career and life thoughts, and everything in between.

I've also kept a far less frequently visited paper diary, in which I'd write every few months, and in some cases, years. I think it started with me wanting to get all angsty at some point while studying at my desk, without my laptop at hand, and writing something in an old notebook. It became a diary-away-from-diary where I could reflect on things a bit more, and get more perspective by seeing things spaced further apart than the day to day entries of my main diary.

(One could split hairs about the former being a diary and latter being a journal, but I won't; both had elements of both at times, and I called them both diaries and had no time or need for such pedantry until I started writing this blog post. I digress.)

Point being, the bulk of my diary-writing happened electronically, and was a regular habit. As part of the declutter, thinking about avoiding electronic devices and trying to do more physical things, I asked myself whether the time spent typing at a keyboard mightn't be switched to time spent using pen and paper? I was ambivalent at first, but about a week into my declutter, I took the plunge and switched to my paper diary, exclusively.

I was worried about switching away from electronic diary-keeping for two reasons. The first was searchability - it's going to be a looong time before software can decipher my scribbling. The second reason is that electronic diaries are easily backed up and far more immune to fire and floods. I could scan the paper diaries, but it's a hassle, which is why 'scan old paper diaries' has languished untouched on my TODO list for years.

On the other hand, there were good reasons to switch to paper-writing. I knew that I sometimes rambled on too much and the immediate productivity change was - I hoped - that the impedance of writing by hand would keep me more focused so that I spent less time doing it. Beyond that, I was curious about the idea that without being able to use a text editor, and without the write/edit/write/edit cycle that typified my diary-keeping (and blog-writing), I'd be more inclined to think ahead, and better structure my thoughts.

(I'd recently read an article about the famous - and sometimes famously cranky - Computer Science pioneer Edsger Dijkstra, who insisted that his students submit hand-written assignments: his belief was that the number of corrections in students' writing was a sign of how not well thought through their ideas were.)

Finally, it was one way to be more analog, and try to get some of the touted benefits of doing physical things, that didn't require me trudging through the long and un-thrilling list of DIY projects I need to do at home.

When it came to the end of my declutter, I was still undecided. I wasn't sure whether to wrap it all up and go back to the electronic diary, or to stick with pen and paper. I decided that since I was mostly undecided, I may as well just keep writing by hand.

A few months later, and I'm glad I did. I'm not sure that I've really saved much time relative to my old keyboard-based diarising, or whether my diary entries are any more structured or better thought out than they were as text files, but I've come to enjoy it, and the practice of writing. It is, in one small way, a case where a physical activity has supplanted and is more satisfying than its electronic equivalent. Scanning the old (and new) paper diaries should probably more of a priority, again.

{2019.12.01 22:00}

On Leisure

Another chapter of Digital Minimalism which gave me food for thought was the one on reclaiming leisure. The gist of this chapter is "ok, you're not spending all night on Netflix or Twitter, now what?" Unsurprisingly, Newport favours and pushes pretty hard on physical hobbies and activities (especially doing/making/fixing things) as a form of what he calls high-quality leisure. This got me thinking about my physical hobbies of the past - drawing, guitar, etc etc etc, all of which lost out as I became an adult with a PC, and pretty much died completely when I got online in the 90s.

On the other hand, I hate DIY with a passion, and had a hard time squaring that with the book saying "fix stuff, you'll feel better for it." I wasn't sure whether I'd become a full convert but armed with my 'attitude matters' mantra, it was enough for me to consider re-evaluating my views, or at least be more open-minded about it.

I wouldn't say that I succeeded much. The problem is, a lot of this stuff I see as work, not leisure. To me, working on a pet programming project, is leisure. Studying something interesting, is leisure. Playing Minecraft or Snakes and Ladders with my sons, is leisure. Writing a blog post is leisure. Fixing a broken curtain rail, is not leisure.

But maybe it is? What is leisure? Is it "doing things I think are fun?" The OED says "use of free time for enjoyment" - I like that definition the most. No amount of positive attitude is going to turn curtain rail fixing into "enjoyment" for me. Maybe a better definition would be "things which make me feel rested and less stressed," which might allow for a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment, having repaired said curtain rail.

This is probably closer to what the book is aiming at. A lot of emphasis is given to the idea of high quality leisure, of which making or fixing things, of crafting and handiness being rewarding and satisfying, is only one aspect. The bigger idea is that that you get a lot more from your leisure time if you're exerting or pushing yourself in some way. Favour demanding activity over passive consumption is one of the lessons from the chapter. This sounds counterintuitive, but doing nothing is overrated, is how I think the book puts it.

No arguments from me on the passive consumption front; I'm hardly a couch potato. The two problems remain: first, the demanding things I enjoy doing most tend to involve a computer screen, and second, curtain rail repairs aren't fun. I haven't done a great deal on the screenless leisure front, but I did try to think of ways to be more 'analog,' and I'll write about one thing I did in particular, separately.

{2019.11.17 22:01}

On Giving Up The News

As I younger adult I was generally unaware of current affairs. I never read the news and had no inclination to. Sure, I'd see headlines and sometimes see the news on TV or hear it on the radio, but for me it was unimportant, and mostly ignored. I can't say I was engaged in nobler pursuits or anything, but the point is that whatever was going on in the wider world wasn't a big part of my day to day life, and that suited me fine.

It changed with 9/11. In the days and then weeks after, I would regularly visit news sites to see if there were any new developments. And then even when things quietened down, I kept going back. I have a distinct memory, where I found myself doing the news equivalent of what had been an old internet joke about email: you hit refresh, there's nothing new, so you hit refresh again.

Then came blogging, and current affairs became even more topical. And then we moved to the UK, and politics here wasn't as dysfunctional as it was back home, and it was interesting, and soon I was better informed about UK politics than I'd ever been about SA politics. I liked the idea of being well informed, of being able to weigh in when people were discussing matters of the day. I had a bunch of news links I'd rotate through, and blogs with opinions and discussion and links to even more news.

None of it was good for me. Wasting time on news sites and blogs was one part of it, but the other was just the negativity of it all. I'd be annoyed by the partisanship I'd see from most people on social media, or in life generally, and I made a point of reading both left and right-leaning websites, for "balance". I'd joke that this just made me twice as angry - which was true. And I mean true. The news just made me angry.

That was mostly politics, but even non-political news isn't great, because bad things get reported far more often than good things. So politics or otherwise, following the news boiled down to me expending time and mental energy on negative and depressing things.

Why do it? Whatever the benefits, the detriment wasn't worth it, and part of me knew this. A good few posts on this blog have been variants on "I should just give up the news."

Last year, I read a blog post by Australian academic Jason Collins, entitled How I focus (and live). He wrote something which stuck with me:

I used to apply a filter to political news of "if this was happening in Canada, would I care?" That eliminated most political news, but I have found that after a few years, I have become so disconnected from Australian politics that most of it flows around me. I don’t recognise most politicians, and I feel unconnected to any of the personalities.

There was something about this idea of disconnecting, of not caring about things that weren't really that important to me, of instead being preoccupied with things I valued more, of being free of the news, which appealed to me.

No surprise then, that my digital declutter started with me intentionally avoiding the news one day, and when I put together my declutter list of things I'd stop doing, it was right at the top.

The strange thing is ... I'd expected giving up the news to be difficult, especially with all the excitement that's been happening in the country this year. But it wasn't. In fact, of all the things I did as part of my declutter, it was probably the easiest. It was as though having committed to doing it, a switch flipped inside of me, and I very quickly lost interest.

For the most part, I still know what's going on. Headlines are everywhere, I occasionally scan the Bloomberg front page at work to see what's going on in the markets. And if big things happen, people talk about it.

But since starting the declutter, it isn't so much that I don't know, as that I don't want to know. No longer following the news, I've developed something of a Pavlovian aversion to it. Faced with a newspaper or the prospect of visiting a news site, my thought process now is something along the lines of: likely to make me unhappy; avoid.

Digital Minimalism suggests giving up low-quality news sources, and instead consuming higher-quality news, less frequently. Which is to say, the book doesn't say you shouldn't follow the news, just that you should "optimise" how you consume it. I started the declutter expecting to re-establish some form of optimised, higher-quality news intake once it was over, but it quickly became clear to me that my personal, optimum level of news consumption is around zero.

In this respect, my sense of identity has changed. I'm no longer the well-informed dude who can hit the ground running in political conversations. Now, my first question is invariably to ask what's happened. ("Oh, there's going to be an election?") Then maybe I can still say something useful based on my background knowledge and first principles, if you will, but that's it. If I'm still newsless in a year or two's time, will I have even that?

I consider it a small price to pay, though. In the past few months I've gotten back whatever time I'd have devoted to following the news, and I'm far and away happier without it. Much like my younger self, whatever's happening out there just isn't that important to me, and it's hard to believe I ever thought it was.

{2019.11.07 21:18}

On Solitude III

My final post on solitude: has any of this really made a difference?

In some respects it's hard to say. If it's good for your mental well-being, how do you measure it? I wasn't solitude-deprived before, how do I calibrate for the changes I made? It's not like I was MISERABLE before and feel AWESOME now. How do you decide that staring into space and thinking about things without music is better than staring into space and thinking about things with music? When is staring out the window on a train better for you than reading a book? Sometimes I do one, sometimes I do the other, I can't say which is better.

What I can say, is that having tried some of these things, I keep doing them, and that has to be uh, saying something.

I've become more open-minded about "boredom". Maybe it's just awareness, maybe it's just a slight attitude change, but I feel less averse to being bored. And I enjoy letting my mind wander, and I do it more often than before.

As for waiting in queues and so on without a phone, it no longer bothers me, and in fact, not only does it not bother me, I rather like it. Beyond the opportunities to just be with my thoughts, I like being free of the itch. It's a small thing, but it's liberating.

I mentioned previously the small 'literature' of pro-solitude books, and a number of them are now on my reading list. I've always had an interest in solitude and that's been re-awakened, slightly. If I think the small changes I made brought benefits, what else is possible?

{2019.10.30 19:12}

On Solitude II

One solitude-related change I made came after being taken by a phrase used in the book: the quick glance.

This is about always having your phone at hand, and reaching for it whenever boredom strikes, or you're at a loss for something to do. Guilty as charged, and it struck a chord with me, for two reasons.

The first was the solitude-related angle. The book's argument is that the quick glance eats away at one of the last few places where you might still get to experience solitude - the in-between moments, like standing in a queue, or waiting for something, or having a few minutes to spare. As I said in my last post, I don't feel solitude deprived, but for the declutter I was happy to embrace the idea of taking extra solitude wherever I could get it.

The second reason was the compulsiveness of always reaching for my phone. The much-mentioned chasing of dopamine hits from clicking through links or checking social media, looking to find something interesting. It's an addictive behaviour, it becomes a habit, and (at least to me) not a good one. There are worse addictions to have, for sure, but it still bothered me.

So I resolved to stop doing it. I made a point of leaving my phone in my pocket, or bag, or back at the office at lunchtime. And instead ... I'd just twiddle my thumbs, or look around, or stare into space, or generally just think about stuff.

In the beginning, it took some adjusting. I had the small but-I'll-be-bored! anxieties. But within a week or so it bothered me less. Now, I occasionally still have the urge, or maybe more accurately, the reflex to reach for my phone, but I generally don't give into it, and choosing not to doesn't stress me out.

{2019.10.26 09:15}

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}

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