“My speech was going to be very simple,” Antonino D’Ambrosio says with leather jacket Italian-American charm. “The Elevate festival is creative response, thank you.” He takes a step back off stage and smiles.
Antonino steps back, more serious. “I’d like to acknowledge the refugees who were on stage,” he adds. “Please give them a round of applause.” The applause rises again for migrants who are fighting for compassionate and humane treatment in Austria and around the EU.
The Elevate organisers used their opening show to give a louder voice to migrant protesters who have set up a permanent camp near the police station in Graz. That voice is broadcast live on Austrian television and videostream online around the world. They’d been welcomed to the stage with the biggest round of applause of the Elevate opening night.
The refugees gave a simple speech also: “We are not from Iraq or Syria, we are just humans like you,” a young man called Hussain says. “Many of us want to serve this country as a thank you for putting us in a safe place. We can do something for this country, but we are unable under the current conditions. Please help us. We are humans, just like you.”
Back to Antonino: “This is a point that makes me fucking very angry, being an immigrant kid from the United States and seeing what’s happening.” He echoes Hussain’s words. “There are only one people. When you’re creating situations through wars of aggression in pursuit of expanding a dying economic system and watching countries like Greece collapse, you’re affecting your own people.”
For Antonino, this idea is deeply embedded in the concept of creative response, and the Elevate Festival embodies the concept perfectly: “Ideas that turn into action, actions that bring people together, [helping] people to think differently about the world around them, to remember that we are indeed one people.”
“Creative response is about reminding people that we share the human condition,” Antonino says. “And that requires storytelling.”
Antonino developed his concept of creative response as a counter to the Reagan and Thatcher ideology that was dominant when he was growing up – and that has been successful to a great degree in fostering today’s political and social cynicism, the idea that “society” does not exist, that compassion is a form of weakness and that self-centred consumerism is selfless.
But Reagan and Thatcher were wrong. Compassion is not weakness; compassion is central to the human condition, central to the cooperation, coexistence and communication of families, which are the founding blocks of a society that does exist.
“Don’t fight back, fight forward,” Antonino urges us. Creative response stakes out what we are for, not what are we against. Antonino uses storytelling to look back at the past, understand the present and, in the words of punk demigods The Clash, “grab the future by the face”. This leads us to the overwhelming question: “What kind of a world do you want to live in?”
That question raises a discussion over “the possible”. Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, notes that, in the United States, flying to or even colonising the moon is talked about as being “possible”, but decent healthcare for all or eliminating poverty is not “possible”. Here, creative response has the power to change our definitions or ideas of what is possible.
“Before I step off the stage, I want to ask you a question that Ai Weiwei had asked me: Imagine one day that the hateful world around you collapses and it is your attitude, your words and your actions that put an end to it – would you be excited?”
“This is our challenge, our creative response, our big vision of the world. Not I, not you, not them, but we. A dream that we dream together is reality. We are creative response. We own the future.”
We stand, raise our hands above our heads, join them with our neighbours. We are creative response. We own the future.
The hardest positive constraint ever. Impossible, in fact. Mainly because I had no idea what multitasking was.
What is multitasking?
Multitasking is doing more than one thing at exactly the same time. This is what I’m doing right now, in fact: I’m writing this blogpost while listening to Bach’s Toccata in D minor.
Okay, that’s probably not what you think of as multitasking. Writing feels active, while listening feels passive. Nothing bad will happen if I zone out of listening to Bach. Something bad will happen, however, if I zone out of writzifljds.
But I am only able to multitask in this instance because writing and listening to Bach use different parts of my brain. If there were lyrics in this piece of classical music, then I would be unable to multitask writing and listening.
Except for the very rare times when different tasks use different parts of the brain, multitasking is only possible if one of the tasks has been fully automated. I can walk and talk, just about. But that’s pretty much it. I can’t drive safely and talk on the phone at the same time – and neither can you.
Aside from walking and talking, almost everything else that I thought of as multitasking – doing the washing up while cooking dinner, reading a research paper in one window while watching YouTube videos in another, brushing my teeth while tidying away my clothes, speaking to a friend on the phone while scrolling through the rugby scores – isn’t actually multitasking, it’s just rapid task-switching. Or being a dick.
Either way, it sucks.
What is task-switching?
Task-switching is exactly what you think it is: starting one task, then switching to another before the first is finished. This is what I do a lot of. In fact, my day often resembles a vast Russian doll of activity.
Take one simple set of tasks that I performed today, under the title Returning Home From The Greengrocer:
I throw my coat onto the sofa, but don’t put it away.
I start to unpack my bag, until I reach a banana. Ooh!
I unpeel the banana and take a bite. I put down the banana.
I finish unpacking my bag, but don’t put the cheese into the fridge.
I take the banana over to my computer and check my email. Ooh!
If I’m lucky, the cheese hasn’t completely melted before I get around to finishing the simple task of unpacking groceries sometime around midnight.
Task-switching is what I’m doing when I catch myself automatically going over to my computer while talking to a friend on the phone. It might feel like I can scroll while talking – but I can’t. How on earth can I read about Scotland getting cheated in the Rugby World Cup while also listening and reacting to my friend’s story about her leaking pond? It’s impossible.
Instead, my brain rapidly switches between the two tasks, so fast that I pretend to myself that I really am multitasking. But I’m bound to miss something (just like referee Craig Joubert in the rugby) and then there’ll be an awkward pause in the conversation. “Hmm? What, sorry?”
But it’s too late – the conversation has gone sour.
There is one positive aspect of task-switching that I know of, but it’s certainly not the random, distraction-led task-switching that so many of us get addicted to. Ending a task before it’s finished means that your subconscious can work on the problem without you, while you do the washing up or go for a walk.
This is useful only in a restricted field of activity – putting my coat away doesn’t require a creative breakthrough – and only after you’ve put in a sustained period of effort into the task already.
How did I do?
This has been super hard, but worth it – and for two reasons that stretch beyond the science-supported examples above.
Mono-tasking makes things more fun. I’ve found that, when I’m task-switching, I enjoy each task much less. If I throw all of my attention into cooking and then eating dinner, I will enjoy the rich sensual experience fully. If, however, I’m half-watching an episode of Maigret while shovelling porridge into my face, then I’ll not fully enjoy either.
I’ve started a new morning habit that attempts to instill this mono-tasking frame of mind: reading 20 pages of my book. Sitting down and reading 20 pages can only be done by mono-tasking and I’ve found that this new habit has disrupted my old task-switching routine of thrashing around on my computer, checking email, brushing my teeth, going to the toilet, showering and cramming in breakfast.
Secondly, the exclusive attention of mono-tasking is an extremely powerful tool – and not just for learning, getting tasks done quickly or enjoying my food. As more and more of us get distracted by task-switching devices like our phones, a little burst of exclusive attention lavished on us feels more and more special.
So when you’re with other people, agree to switch off your phones and hide them in a drawer. Because mono-tasking = love.
Just a swift note to say that my book on positive constraints has finally hit the crowdfunding shelves (hurrah!). Read more – and watch my scandalous No Clothes promo video – on the Unbound website. Or go right ahead and SUPPORT THIS BOOK!
You Are What You Don’t is an unconventional celebration of what happens when you turn your habits on their head. What if you tried to live with no aeroplanes, mobile phones, supermarkets, money, English or borders? Not appealing yet? Okay, what if I did?
This loving-crafted book is part (mis)adventure story and part philosophical / psychological / sociological investigation of why we do what we do – and what happens when we don’t.
To catch more of a literary whiff, read this free sample chapter on No Walking. Yes, I didn’t walk for a whole day – much more fun and educational than it sounds. Although it did end in comic tragedy. But enough.
What is Unbound?
Unbound are a publisher for the 21st century. You won’t believe this, but publishing used to consist entirely of bleached skeletons holding glasses of sherry stumping up millions of pounds to put out a book, written on dead organic matter by another sherry-toting skeleton, in the vain hope that someone in the Skeleton Sherry Review of Books would like it. Madness.
Unbound, on the other hand, lovingly proffer their books to the shooting zoo of the internet. In this digital Darwinian discotheque, if a book sounds like a good idea, then you and I will want to put up money to make it happen. Simple. Be my guest.
Miraculously, it works. Check them out – loads of fully funded books by intelligent humans. And Steven Gerrard. Only joking of course – his header against AC Milan in 2005 alone surpassed the intelligence of a whole keyboard full of correctly employed semi-colons.
Anyway. I digress. Of course it works: it’s the internet, where YOU run the show.
This cunning crowdfunding business model means there is next to zero risk to the publisher – if a book doesn’t reach its funding target, then no one has lost anything (pledgers get their money back, no questions asked). And this means they can take on unproven or risky prospects (= me).
It also means that the book must prove it has at least 500 people willing to buy the thing, which avoids embarrassment and wasted time all round.
That win-win becomes a win-win-win when you factor in the fact that everyone who pledges for the book gets, not only a special hardback edition, but also their name in the credits. Never before has it been so easy to pretend you’re a medieval sherry-swilling skeleton.
Without you, this won’t happen. The task is, frankly, daunting, but I believe in the book, I believe in the ideas behind the book and I believe in you, dear reader.
As a little fillip, Unbound say that if I can reach 30% in the first 30 days then we’re odds-on to reach our target. So it’d really be awesome if you could share this around and dig around the back of the sofa for a sneaky tenner or what have you.
ps: We’ll be throwing a wee party on the evening of the 19th of November, at the Horse and Stables pub in Waterloo, London. This will essentially consist of me talking + booze + free badges + live music + a man standing on his hands. So that’s loads of fun and you’re invited. Now go and watch that video. It’s gold.
My name is David Charles and I own 975 things. That figure would be comfortably over 1000, but those other bits and pieces are scattered around other people’s houses so I’m going to ignore them for the moment.
That figure does however include 12 colouring pencils, 11 batteries (mostly AAA), 10 incense cones, 9 screwdrivers, 8 magnets, 7 plants, 6 thirty inch bungee ropes, 5 souvenir coins, 4 feathers, 3 juggling balls, 2 old bits of wood and a partridge in a pear tree*.
Wait a second, wait a second. You counted all your stuff?
Oh yeah. I forget that’s a weird thing to do. I come from a family that has a proud history of counting stuff and putting the data into spreadsheets.
In my opinion, our magnum opus is my dad’s spreadsheet of everything he might want to take on holiday. Not so special, you might think, until I tell you that everything is meticulously weighed. The spreadsheet includes memorable data lines like “Credit cards: 1g”.
This means that he can, not only ensure he falls within stringent baggage weight limits, but also politely inform airport staff of any inaccuracies in their equipment when weighing his bags at check in.
The idea for No Stuff comes not from my dad, but from the minimalist sub-culture. I don’t just mean traditional ascetics or hermit monks, but modern minimalists too, people who prioritise quality over quantity.
This minimalist culture is thriving online, where people boast at each other of how few things they have. It makes a nice counterpoint to the usual materialist urge to hunt and gather.
James Wallman’s book Stuffocation gives an excellent introduction to this new form of minimalism and suggests that we can all benefit because “memories live longer than things”. His book is a manifesto for experientialism, the doing of things, over materialism, the acquisition of things.
No Stuff: How?
One of the most memorable techniques for stuff reduction that I read about in Stuffocation is the box trial. According to this method, you pack all of your stuff into boxes. Over the course of the next thirty days, you can gradually repatriate your stuff into your life – but only if and when you actually need to use it. At the end of the month, everything left in the boxes gets chucked.
In lieu of boxes, I’ve done a countback on my spreadsheet instead. Of those 975 things, I estimate that I’ve actually used only 289 in the last month. By the box trial rules, I should chuck the remaining 686 unused baubles.
This is extreme. There are plenty of things that I haven’t used in the last month that I would miss heartily, like my beloved bivvy bag.
It does, however, make me ponder why I haven’t used my bivvy in the last thirty days. I have no answer to this ponder, which leads me ineluctably to the conclusion that I really should be using my bivvy bag on a monthly basis, minimum. Use it or lose it. Not a bad way to live.
The 100 Thing Challenge
But the box trial isn’t even nearly as extreme as the 100 Thing Challenge. The name gives it away really: live with 100 things or less.
Rules vary, but usually don’t include shared items like kitchenware, nor furniture or books. My count of 975, I should say, does not include kitchenware (none of which is mine), but does include 21 items of furniture and 102 books. Some people also count similar items as one, like “underwear” or “tools”, but I think that’s cheating (except for socks, which I count in pairs).
Personally, I love the idea of the challenge. I fantasise regularly about being able to fit all of my worldly possessions into a single backpack. But I’m also quite clear-sighted about the fact that this will likely never happen.
No Stuff Holidays
One alternative to grown up No Stuff is to play around, like when you’re on holiday.
Clara Benson writes about what I assume her editors at Salon forced her to call “the craziest OKCupid date ever”, which is a scandalously crass way of describing what was actually a fascinating experiment in No Stuff.
She and her date, Jeff, travelled through Europe for twenty-one days with no luggage, pretty much just a couple of credit cards, their passports and the clothes on their backs. Clara sums up the secret yearning we all have to throw caution and weight to the winds:
What would it be like to say no to heavy backpacks full of coordinating outfits, Lonely Planet travel guides, and cheap souvenirs?
I won’t spoil the story, but suffice it to say that Clara and Jeff had an absolute blast and No Holiday Stuff, far from being restrictive, was like all good positive constraints and the doorway to adventure.
The Rule of Thirds
Back in the real world, I will content myself with slimming down by one third. I will, by the end of this blog post, have got rid of 325 things, leaving me with “only” 650.
This is still, obviously, a massive numbers of things: more than twice as many as I need according to the box trial rules and nearly triple according to the 100 Thing Challenge. But it does at least mean I can lose at least two of my three bow ties. Why do even I own these things? I can’t remember the last time I wore a suit, let alone a Ferrari-red bow tie.
Why No Stuff?
Enough fun and games, here are five rock solid reasons for going on a No Stuff binge.
Your environment dictates your state of mind. Less clutter in your life means less clutter in your mind.
Possessing a thing causes mild anxiety about that thing. If I don’t own a car, I can’t worry about it being left out on the street and getting bumped and scratched.
Why do I have a thing if I don’t use it? Why do I have 25 pencils, when I don’t use them? Could someone else be making better use of them? Yes. So give them away.
Having less stuff that I don’t want means I spend more time with the stuff I actually do. In some way, you become the objects with which you surround yourself. It sounds stupid, but I would never have learnt to play the guitar if I had never gone and got myself a guitar.
Likewise, the stuff you don’t use is still stuff in your possession, still stuff that is liable to become a distraction, an interruption or at the very least an irritant when you’re scrabbling around in your bottom desk drawer looking for your phone charger.
Out, out, damned wax!
So I have committed to throwing away, giving away, recycling and charitying 325 things. Some of these are easy to lose, like the empty tub of hair wax that I was mysteriously keeping for posterity. Some of these will be very hard to part with, souvenirs of far-flung adventures or gifts from long lost loved ones.
Almost four years ago, me and my friend Patrick wrote a superb Christmas song that involved various parts of the world and beer. For the video he skilfully created a “Cool Saharan Beer” out of a can of Carling and a home-printed label. Since 2011, that can has sat on top of my medicine cabinet. Now it is gone.
I know I won’t miss it, in the long run, but I cherish the memories it is attached to in my brain. I can only beg forgiveness and hope that this blog post, in some small way, is a fitting memorial.
As you know, I’ve been trying all kinds of different positive constraints over the last month. These aren’t just happening in a weird blogging vacuum – this is my life. So I thought it’d be interesting to let you know whether I’m still getting on with them.
I have had exactly two hot showers in the last 5 weeks, both in the last two days because I’m currently the proud owner of a stinking cold. No excuses, but I’m going back to No Hot Showers tomorrow, for that icy thrill of electricity in the mornings.
This was a deeply silly positive constraint, but one that I still enjoy. Except when I’m the only person getting off.
Excitingly, though, I did get an actual train driver commenting on my post:
People don’t seem to understand that you have to wait for the buttons to light up before pressing them will do anything. I wait until they light up and press it but always get someone tutting and pushing forward to press it before the driver has released the doors.
As you’d expect, such a radical change to my diet is still having repercussions on my life. So here are a few more short observations.
I’m still finding the No Meat diet a little hard on my stomach. I find I’m uncomfortably bloated more often than I’d like, particularly at night when I’m trying to sleep. I’ve also had multiple bouts of heartburn or acid reflux, which were previously very rare. I suspected this might be down to increased nut intake, but that hypothesis doesn’t seem to stack up. Any ideas?
On the plus side, I managed to train for and run a half marathon as a vegetarian without any discernible impact on my performance. Unfortunately, I didn’t do any before and after controlled testing, but I don’t feel any weaker. I ran the half marathon in 1:29:12, which is perfectly respectable, especially with the aforementioned stinking cold.
People expect me to have spent less money on groceries since going vegetarian. I have not found this to be the case, or only slightly. On a meat diet, I average £47 per week on food shopping. Since going meatless, I have spent an average of £45.50 per week, rising to £50 if you include supplements (these are bulk bought, so I’ve adjusted for approximate per week consumption).
What has been interesting is that, aside from one slightly extravagent trip to Waitrose at the beginning of the experiment, I haven’t been to any supermarkets. It simply isn’t necessary. I can get almost all of the food I need from my local greengrocer and anything else from markets or from the Suma food cooperative.
This is a good example of how two positive constraints can dove-tail quite nicely, and No Meat and No Supermarkets are far from the only such cases.
Experiment with something like No Hot Showers and suddenly you start to question why we need things like boilers or central heating. Could there be a better way? Likewise with No Toilet Paper – I had an interesting discussion with a fellow coop member about installing a compost toilet in our garden. No Plumbing. Why not?
All in all, digestive struggles aside, I’m very happy with my No Meat experiment and it shall continue.
I have used toilet paper only once and that was on Sunday, just before the Oxford Half Marathon, when I had to use a public portaloo. I didn’t really want to run without washing!
Otherwise, I’ve been very pleased with the experiment. I feel cleaner and more thoughtful about what I’m doing in the bathroom. A tiny little part of my brain is free from worries over whether or not there is any toilet paper left on the roll.
I have, however, found that some public toilets are better suited to my new habits than others. My mum recently got home from Sweden and reported that, over there, public toilet cubicles have wash basins inside, as well as outside. That would certainly help clean people like me.
A friend of mine also pointed out that, in my original article, I didn’t mention any toilet techniques for reducing faecal filth. In many cultures around the world, people squat when they shit. This opens up the colonic passage, meaning the waste comes out more cleanly. (There’s also less straining involved, which means you won’t rupture a spleen or something.)
The squatting technique, I discovered on a podcast yesterday, is also enjoyed by Hollywood director and screenwriter Evan Goldberg (Superbad, Pineapple Express, The Interview). Evan’s comedy partner Seth Rogen even bought him a special toilet modification so that he can squat on Western style toilets.
You should be squatting when you shit. It’s natural, it’s better for you. It’s bad for your back, it’s bad for your bowels to sit on a toilet. Pop a squat.
Who am I to argue? This experiment, too, shall continue. Possibly with unicorns.
I’m still not on Facebook. However, I am noticing that Facebook is becoming an increasingly public-facing network. I can still read much of the information on public profiles, groups and events, even though I am not part of the network. (At least overtly – Facebook actually still store all of my old data and there is evidence and suspicion that they collect data on individuals even if they are not on Facebook – yet…)
Recently, many people have insisted that I simply have to be on Facebook in order to promote the Unbound crowdfunder for my book. One of my friends, also a writer, opened a blank profile so that she could create a page for her book. I would love not to have to do this, but we’ll see. I’m not ruling it out.
In this post, I didn’t really write about my relationship with plastic bags. It was more of a comment on the efficacy of positive constraints (where you decide) versus negative constraints (in this case, government imposed).
So what’s my plastic bag use like? I very rarely ask for them or accept them when offered, but since writing this post, I have become much more aware of the frequency with which I nevertheless use them.
Staying at a friend’s house last week, he uses plastic bags to store his litter and recycling. I did too. At least this does extend their life-span, but it does make me uneasy. There simply must be a better way of dealing with waste and our plastiphilic culture.
After the half marathon yesterday, for example, I was given a plastic bag with all kinds of nutritional freebies inside. I’m now using that plastic bag to transport some leftovers back to London. Once home, however, I’m sure it will go straight into the recycling.