No Mobile Phone

I have had a mobile phone since 2001, over thirteen years, but for thirty days, from Tuesday the 10th of February until the 12th of March, I shall live without.

The big question is:

Why?

This project is part of a long term experiment with positive constraints, which are ways of opening up the imaginative space behind ingrained habits and unquestioned social customs. Having had a mobile phone for over thirteen years, I’ve fallen into lazy habits and lost both the benefits of a life without and my appreciation of the phone itself.

One of the best things about using positive constraints is that you don’t know what you’ll discover during your experiment. One of my friends recently gave up her smartphone for what she called “a shit phone” (it still made calls and thus would be considered a miracle in any other age but ours). She was expecting to experience a vast reduction in her communication; what she wasn’t expecting was that she would write more music, improve her relationship with her mother and become a graffiti artist.

Having said that, here are a couple of reasons why anyone might want to give up their phone (at least for a while):

  • Using mobile phones make us more anxious, which has unexpected knock-on effects.
  • According to a Science Museum survey, the mobile phone is the tenth most important thing people “couldn’t live without”, beating out central heating, fresh vegetables and shoes.
  • In New York, a third of people can’t even walk down the street without their mobile phones. Check out this video, part of a campaign by New Tech City called “Bored and Brilliant”:

So that’s it. If you need me, you can catch me online or at home. Otherwise, I guess I’m out!

Update: A New Website

As you can see, I have a new website. I appear to have leapt before I looked, leaving everything somewhat amateurish. But I am trying to ween myself off FATMAGS* and that means that Blogger (Google owned) has to go.

So hello WordPress and my own server space.


*Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and SalesForce – the seven tech giants without whom we cannot live. Apparently.

Experiments in Productivity: CompuTen

Last week I did something counter-productive. I switched off my computer at 10am. Switched OFF.

This meant that, after ten in the morning, I couldn’t do any writing on the computer, I couldn’t edit any of my works-in-progress, I couldn’t connect with people online, I couldn’t work on my blog, I couldn’t promote my book or advertise my English classes.

By switching off my computer so early in the day, I successfully cut out 99% of my capability for productivity.

How on earth could this help me become more productive?

Before starting this rather drastic computer-diet, I used to be on my computer all hours of the day. Some days I would be tied down for as much as 7 hours 34 minutes.

How do I know this? I signed up to RescueTime, which logs what programs I use and what websites I visit. RescueTime tells me that about 3 hours of that was spent on email, on reading the news, on social networks and on entertainment. Less than two hours per day (on a good day) was spent on writing.

The Plan

So the plan was that, by cutting off my computer-use at ten in the morning, I would be motivated to get up earlier and do more writing.

The rest of the day, when my productivity dips anyway (RescueTime tells me that I’m 50% productive in the morning, but only 48% productive in the afternoon – with a 50% reduction in time at the computer as well), I would be able to get out into the world.

I would teach, I would go on adventures, I would read and think and cook and perhaps do some writing with pencil and paper. I would, in short, become more human and less virtual.

The Results

In the last week, when I was on my CompuTen diet, I averaged less than 2 hours of computer-time per day. Great!

In addition, because my computer-time was squeezed, I became more efficient at doing the important things. Like social networking. I found that I still spent 20 minutes a day on Facebook or Twitter or Google+ (whatever that is).

And I spent significantly less time on the less important things like writing – just 2 minutes 23 seconds last Friday, for example.

Success!

Wait. That doesn’t sound like the plan. The plan was that I would get up early and write like hell for as long as I could, until the 10am cut-off time.

What actually happened was that I would wake up, somewhere between half seven and eight, and immediately get stuck into email and news-reading, pretty much until my alarm went off at 10am. This isn’t the healthiest thing in the world.

So what went wrong?

Well, as it happens: nothing. But as with all experiments, you don’t always get the results you’re expecting. 
I was expecting to get up earlier and be more focussed when I was on the computer. I certainly didn’t get up any earlier, but I was more focussed on the computer. I teach English, so I had to make sure that I prepared any worksheets or articles for my lessons first thing in the morning. No more procrastinating.
However, this compression meant that I had no time for computer writing or editing. I found myself mildly frustrated when all this free-from-computer-time brought writing ideas to the surface that I couldn’t implement.

So what went right?

It was easy. I had a concrete rule to follow and there was nothing so urgent that it couldn’t be achieved without a computer, or couldn’t wait until tomorrow.
It was relaxing. There was no rush and panic to check something immediately. If I thought of something I wanted to do, I would write it down on a piece of paper to do the next morning. And then, often, when I got to it the next morning, it wasn’t worth doing anyway.
I stopped using the computer for entertainment. Instead of watching the recent Montenegro-England football match online, I listened to it on the radio. This took me way back to my childhood and it was a real treat for my senses and my imagination.
I didn’t read so much news and comment online. I did read a lot more fiction and non-fiction offline. I learnt the obvious: offline reading (from a real book!) is deeper and more meaningful. Last week I read the entirety of The Impact Equation and I feel like I absorbed more of it than I would normally (for those interested: it’s all right).
I spent more time on my sofa. I spent more time in the kitchen. I spent more time idling. These are all good things in my book.
But, best of all, the CompuTen diet pushed me onto my AlphaSmart Neo 2. This cunning device is perfect for writers. It is nothing more than a keyboard with a tiny display. It does one thing and it does it brilliantly: it writes. Over the course of last week, I wrote more than 5,000 words on the dear little thing (including the kernal of this blog post).
Neo: The One.

Conclusions

I consider CompuTen to have been a success. However, it’s not a long-term solution. The main problem with it is the forced computer usage in the early morning. I would rather fill this time with meaningful writing (not necessarily on the computer), eating breakfast and showering.
However, CompuTen showed me a number of things:
  • I can resist the computer, if I have a concrete rule of when I can use it and when I can’t.
  • There is nothing so urgent that it can’t wait until tomorrow.
  • Multi-tasking is a killer.
Multi-tasking is surely the most pernicious capability of computers. My PC can deal with everything I throw at it: a to do list, six documents, a couple of PDFs, a novel in YWriter, iTunes, a couple of browser windows, each with five or more tabs open on news, social networks, Blogger, YouTube…
The problem is that I can’t keep up. Humans are programmed to be able to deal with one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is for dweebs. 
So my new computer regime (which I am using right now) is to use the PC like a precision instrument.
  • I will only use the computer for 25 minutes at a time.
  • Before opening the computer I will write down the goal of my activity. One concrete, defined goal, so that at the end of the 25 minutes, I can answer the question: Did I achieve my goal? 
  • Having just one goal should eliminate multi-tasking, but to make it easier on my will-power, I will only have one program running at a time (when building the links for this blog post, I nearly got distracted by another review of The Impact Equation – but stopped myself just in time!).
  • At the end of the 25 minutes, I will close my computer and walk away – no matter whether the goal is achieved or not. I can always set a new goal and work for another 25 minutes, after a short break.
  • If the computer task is likely to take less than 25 minutes – DON’T DO IT. I will batch these tasks until I have enough to fill 25 minutes. Email falls into this batch as well.
So that’s my experiment over. I do anticipate that my new regime will be harder. I’m going to need rock-hard will power. But I have only 1 minute 22 seconds left of this 25 minute block, so I’m going to press Publish right now! 
What are your techniques and tricks for staying on-task at the computer? Please do let me know in the comments – we can get through this if we help each other!

Having Hair

It all started over a pint of peanut butter milkshake. For the twenty-seventh time in seven and a half months, I take the piss out of Mike’s luscious locks of red hair. They reach to his shoulders in opalescent curls and have to be flicked out of his face whenever he laughs, which is often and loud. I know that taking the piss out of a man with long hair is childish and lazy, but I am both of those, so it seemed appropriate.

But there must have been something about that twenty-seventh insult because, instead of brushing it off like so many fallen leaves, he leans in over the milkshakes and says: ‘I’ll be cutting it soon.’

Like a wingey child who instantly regrets his playground cruelty, I shudder in alarm: ‘Why! It’s a part of you, Mikey – you can’t do it! How will I recognise you?’
‘Because,’ he replied, ‘I am making a wig…’
I laugh and start to say, ‘Who would want a curly ginger wig!’
But he cuts me off (pun alert): ‘…For little girls who have cancer.’
Oh. I felt so bad that I vowed there and then to do the same myself.

Little did I realise that my careless promise would involve eighteen months of hard work, as my lazy follicles strain to reach the requisite seven inches of cut-offable hair.

June 2011
June 2011

Now, as I stand on the cusp of returning to the normal world of normal hair, what have I learnt?

There are many phases to growing hair. There is the initial phase where nothing is happening. My hair was just growing, silently. I’d done a one-inch buzz cut a couple of weeks before the fateful promise, so during the first four months it grew to a normal length and nobody noticed.

August 2011
August 2011

Then I started to look like Shaggy from Scooby Doo for another month or so before something extraordinary happened. It poofed. Suddenly, without warning, my hair was cool. It stuck out all over the place and adolescent girls on the street walked past me, shouting things like, ‘Look at that guy’s hair – it’s so cool!’

November 2011
November 2011

It wasn’t to last, of course. Spring brought a growth-spurt, the poof fell in on itself and I was left with serious eye-flop.

May 2012
May 2012

Over the course of the summer it struggled manfully towards Kurt Cobain, defined as the point at which long man hair becomes cool. But Kurt Cobain is dangerous territory. It could, under certain conditions, look awesome. It could also be a total pain in the ass.

November 2012
November 2012

If I managed to eat breakfast without getting beans in my hair, it was a good day. Brushing my teeth took on a new angle: literally. I had to tilt my head to one side – like a GIRL – to flop my hair out of the reach of my toothbrush. It didn’t always work. Last night I dreamt of getting my hair stuck between my teeth, like dental floss – and it was a realistic dream. Any form of exercise had to be undertaken with a Bjorn Borg headband, which looked cool, until it didn’t.

The petty practicalities I never quite got the hang of. When to wash hair? How often to wash hair? What do you mean the hair blocks up the drain! It takes two years to dry instead of two seconds? There were times when my hair actually felt uncomfortable to wear after washing. It was dry and brittle and set my skin on edge whenever I touched it. Then someone told me to use conditioner. That helped. But it still looked puffy after washing and I was only happy with it about two days after a wash – by which time it needed washing again.

I had to learn how to brush hair – and that hurts! I learnt that if you hold the hair, then you can stop the hair brush from ripping from the root. I learnt the different in pull between a comb and a hair brush (thanks Cat for the hair brush donation). I learnt that hair gets everywhere, picking it off chairs, books, faces. I learnt about the smell of hair, the smell of grease, hanging down into my face.

Whatever my hair was doing, it wasn’t normal. I had joined an exclusive gentleman’s club of long-haired don’t-give-a-fuck dudes. Look at all those dorks who buzz cut their hair every month and for what? So they can carry on looking like every other dork on the street.

Hair on a man equals rocker, hippie, celeb, hipster – depending on where you are and what else you’re wearing. I am none of these things, so I felt like an imposter, as if I’d had a hair transplant from the eighties. That didn’t stop drunk people shouting at me in the Underground: ‘Look – it’s Allan Carr’s mate!’

Long hair was also most useful for my secret life as an undercover cop, instantly putting multiple disguises at my disposal. Hair up, hair down? Hat hair, bandanna hair? Top knot, pony tail?

I had assumed that I would become a hate figure for street urchins, but the worst came when a Tunisian lad squinted up at my beard and asked, ‘Are you man or woman?’ One of my ex-girlfriends refused to even look at me, demanding that I tie up the offending hair and squash it under a hat: ‘Better.’

More favourably, only last week I drew comparisons to Brad Pitt in the new Chanel adverts. But I still prefer the Kurt Cobain. I remember, when I was twelve years old, my sister telling me that (being blonde) I should grow my hair to emulate the suicidal pop star. I didn’t of course; I wanted to be normal as well back then. Well, she finally got her wish.

Now it is cut. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it next. I did quite enjoy the poof-phase, but it’s not for grown ups. On the other hand, the first comment my hair-dresser makes is, ‘You’re going bald!’ So maybe I will grow it out again, for the comb-over.

Long hair is an identity. I’d never had to identify with my hair like that before. It wasn’t an identity that I had chosen, but society foisted that identity upon me. The long-haired outsider. It was an entertaining eighteen months and maybe I feel like less of a person now I’m back with the short stuff. But then again, as my house-mate says, ‘A hairstyle is not a lifestyle.’

Now, for those of you with more patience than sense, a video of my locks being hacked. Warning: High pitched sqwarking may distress farmyard animals and the nervous of disposition.

No Money Mondays

This is something I’ve been working with for a while. The premise is simple: don’t spend any money on Mondays. This is a fairly meaty post, so I’ll cut to the chase:

Why No Money Mondays?

  • It helps me to be more mindful of money, of how easy it is to spend, and how pointless. A day without money somehow frees my mind. I feel less stressed. I’m out of the game for a day. I can look at adverts, but I’m not part of that world.
  • It helps me live more healthily. I can’t just buy a nice packet of biscuits when I feel like it; I’ve got to finish up those lentils that have been sitting in my cupboard since January. I can’t pay for the bus; I have to cycle or walk.
  • I realise how possible a day without money is. It makes me dream of a life without money and what that would mean.
  • It helps me become more creative with how I spend my time and energy. A quick thought comes into my head, like: ‘I need to buy some new batteries for my dictaphone.’ I hear myself think this, but I have to reformulate a solution. I can’t just buy some new batteries. I can take the batteries out of my bike lights for the time being.
  • It saves me money! Every day, I record my spending. Over the course of a year, this forms a fascinating record of my spending patterns. On weeks when I have a No Money Monday, not only do I reduce spending on one day of the week, but that parsimony spills over into the rest of the week. This is another good reason why I do it on a Monday, the first day of my week. (The main reason is, obviously, alliteration.)
  • I am more productive: no more time-wasting shopping-excuse excursions.
  • Monday is when I do my accounts (usually with horror). It feels good to have a money-fast after that.

The History of No Money Mondays

I’m not the first person to think not spending money once a week is a good thing. No Money Mondays used to happen every week in Britain. Not on Mondays, but on Sundays. Shops, markets and businesses were forced to shut down for a day – by law. But now Sunday trading is part of every British high street – and even if it wasn’t, the internet would provide for every fleeting desire.

Sunday trading surged forth as a result of the free market reforms of the moribund Conservative government of John Major. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 made buying and selling legal. I’ll rephrase that: before 1994 it was illegal for shops to open on a Sunday. Illegal. Those of a younger generation will find this hard to believe, but it’s true.

But Sunday trading didn’t come into Britain without a fight. It was vigorously opposed when initially put to the House of Commons by Maggie Thatcher back in 1986. It wasn’t just vigorously opposed, but it became Thatcher’s only policy defeat in the House. The only time Maggie Thatcher was defeated in the House of Commons was when she tried to let shops open on Sundays. I’m sorry for the repetition, but this seems impossible to believe today. She wasn’t defeated on the Falklands War, she wasn’t defeated on privatisation, she wasn’t defeated on emasculating the trade unions. She was defeated over her Sunday trading bill.

The Bill of 1986 was defeated by an alliance of Christian Conservatives and Labour trade unions. The Christians wanted to ‘Keep Sundays Special’, to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath, and the trade unions opposed workers being forced to work on Sundays. When the Sunday Trading Act finally passed in 1994, it was only because of amendments that protected workers rights: Sunday working would be voluntary.

I’m interested in why Sunday trading was opposed. I can see why trade unions wanted to protect their interests: a seven-day working week isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. I can see why Christians wanted to defend the Sabbath: the Book reserves Sunday as a day of Holy rest.

But is there something more? I would say yes. I would say that behind this opposition was an instinctive desire to protect ourselves from continuous striving. A day with an open shop is a day with the possibility of buying and selling. And if you’re buying and selling, you’ll profit or lose: you’ll move up the escalator or down.

Close those shops and the escalator stops. A moment’s respite from the pressing needs of survival.

The Rights of Religion

I am a big believer in religions. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a Believer (or even a Belieber), but I can see that religion grows out of an instinctual need. And these instincts are usually good for us, or serve some purpose. Religion dominates in three domains:

  1. Community.
  2. Contemplation.
  3. Charity.

These three areas are not well served by other organisations and none cover all three, all together, all the time. Large, participatory organisations like Amnesty International offer us a combination of community and charity. Certain activities, like yoga, might give us community and contemplation. But religion alone nourishes all three. This comprehensive coverage explains both the rise of religions – and their ongoing popularity, in spite of all their absurdities and inherent threats.

It is with absolutely no surprise whatsoever that I see science gradually demonstrating the crucial importance of these three areas of life to our well-being as humans. A healthy network of colleagues and friends is an excellent marker for happiness. Purposeful contemplation, of the sort that prayer or meditation offers, is great for our physical and mental health. And charity, including volunteering our time, makes us feel happy.

To me, it is obvious that such a recurring and popular phenomenon as religion must provide the human race with some large benefits. I remain an unbeliever, but I am happy to take my lessons from religion. A money-fast Sabbath is one such.

I believe that the fight against Sunday trading in Britain, although economically indefensible, was an instinctive response to a real threat. But because it was a threat that we could not frame in a logical way, the Bill passed when all logical opposition was overcome (the trade unions’ objections to Sunday working). However, both the threat and our instinctive response to it, represented by the religious Christian Conservatives, remain.

So I would like to bring back the money-fast Sabbath. In my own irreligious fashion, I propose No Money Mondays. Instead of using laws, we will have to use our will-power, but I think it is worth it.