Ah – the bliss of writing outside! – sun on my face, the sound of trickling waterfalls around me and the scent of freshly budding flowers. Not bad at all, thank you. And it’s all down to my now complete tech setup, ready for the ravages of the road towards Syria. Continue reading “The Tech Setup”
This question has fascinated me for a long time. Why does anyone do a Thing, when doing no-thing is so much easier, more secure, and more comfortable?
- What makes a middle-aged man with a young family quit his steady job as a computer programmer and spend five penniless years retraining as a chiropractor?
- What makes a retired marketing manager, who had until his sixties showed little to no aptitude or interest for music, suddenly join a community choir?
- What makes a woman in her thirties quit a lucrative career as a management consultant in the city to row single-handed across the Pacific Ocean, and become a United Nations Climate Hero for her environmental work?
(These are all people I know, by the way, all great role-models.)
Inertia, doing nothing, is the favoured course of (in)action for a human being. Inertia is defined as:
The tendency of a body to maintain its state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force.
Do you recognise this tendency to inertia in yourself? I certainly do.
- Staying in a dreadful job or a miserable relationship.
- Not breaking the silence and telling someone exactly how you feel about them.
- Pushing to the back of your mind that day-dream of cycling around the world / writing a novel / falling in love.
(All things I have done…)
If the natural disposition of a person is to keep going as they are, then what makes someone divert course, and do a Thing? The answer to this question is crucial for anybody interested in pushing their own boundaries of existence – and encouraging others to do the same.
I should say right up front that I don’t have the answer. But I do have a few answers, which I’ve noticed over the past few years of trying to do Things. Using myself as Subject Zero, in this blog post I’ll examine three different Things I did, and try to dig down to that critical Why?
Why did I break university rules and go abroad to study Arabic in Egypt and Tunisia?
In the summer of 2007, I was miserable. I was studying for a part-time Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS in London. I scraped through my first year, passing gruelling courses in history and music despite my complete prior ignorance of those subjects. For my second year I just had to learn Arabic and write a dissertation. But I dreaded going back to London, where the rain fell in spadefuls and the teaching was dry as desert sand.
I have never felt so uninspired, so lifeless. Emerging into adulthood had been a shock and I could scarcely believe what I found there. Surely there was more to it than this? Continuing along this path might not have killed me, but I’d have certainly failed my Arabic exams, and even today I’m scared of imagining the hollow person I might have become.
Inertia was not an option. In this case, doing a Thing came from hitting a road block. I felt that I could not go forward any longer, so I changed direction.
Realising that I could learn much better Arabic in an Arabic-speaking country, I spoke to my course convenor and proposed the idea that I go abroad to study. I was shocked when, from behind his paper-strewn desk, he told me that university rules stipulated I must attend a certain percentage of classes (I think it was something like 70%). This rule, he explained, was protection against legal action. Apparently SOAS receives a lot of wealthy young Arab men, who are sent to study in London, but spend all their time and money on sex and drugs. Then the families sue when the university fails their sons.
So I wrote SOAS a letter promising that I wouldn’t sue them, and left for Cairo.
Why did I leave everything behind and spend 2 months cycling 4,110 miles around Britain?
Hitting a brick wall in your path is one motivator, certainly, but it seems to be more of a stimulus to the essential process of imagination. You need to have the idea of doing a Thing before you can do the Thing. This seems obvious, but I think is often overlooked. Without engaging the imagination, when you hit a roadblock you risk descending into frustration.
For me, this act of imagination manifests itself as an idea that I can’t shake off. I dream up a million and one ideas every year, but only a few lodge themselves in my head like spines I can’t pluck out without action. Cycling around Britain was one such spine.
The idea bubbled up from a soup of disatisfaction with what I’d seen of the world. I knew Cairo better than I knew anywhere in Britain beyond my bubbles of London and South Oxfordshire. I wanted to fix that.
An inciting disatisfaction is not quite enough to stir me into action, however. I need to know that my idea is possible, that I can turn imagination into reality.
Somewhere on the BBC, I ran across an article about a kid who’d walked around the coast of Britain with his dog. So I stole his idea, thinking that if he could do it, then I could too. The only problem was that he’d taken 9 months over the journey and I didn’t want to commit to something so vast. So I decided to cycle (despite not having a touring bike or having cycled further than 10 miles in the past 2 years).
This was the idea that I couldn’t get out of my head. But still the question remains: Why did I end up acting on that idea, rather than suppressing it like so many others?
There are a few influences that I could draw on here, including some pretty life-shattering experiences, like the death of my nan and the messy break-up of a relationship. But these are distractions from the true first cause, only coming after I had committed to the journey. No: the moment when this imagination started to become reality was forgettably insignificant.
I told someone.
That was it. I just mentioned my idea of cycling around the country in passing, in casual conversation with my sister and my (then) girlfriend. While an idea stays locked inside your head, it is neutralised, safe. It’s only when you let it out into the world, first as a vocalised intention, that it takes on a power of its own and action becomes inevitable.
That first step is always the smallest, but takes the greatest courage. It’s only after you’ve vocalised your idea that other factors conspire to push you out of the door. For me, those other factors were not just losing my nan and my relationship, but also a question: Do I really want to be the person who walked away from such adventure?
Telling my sister and girlfriend was the tiny first step on a journey of more than four thousand miles. The bike ride changed my life in many ways, but there was still something missing. To this day, I don’t feel like I got the most out of my Thing.
Why did 80 cyclists ride 70 miles to give their bikes away to migrants and refugees?
Last Spring, a friend I didn’t quite have yet had an idea: to cycle from London to Calais and donate her bicycle to the destitute migrants living there. I thought this was a great idea. We put a call out on Facebook and very soon people from all over the UK were messaging us, joining the ride.
At Barnehurst train station, the set off point for the ride, shivers ran up my spine as more and more people arrived, saddle bags full, chattering excitedly, bikes oiled and ready to ride.
Why did all these people come together on the ride? There are two answers to this questions, the Big Reason and the little reason.
- The Big Reason we were all doing this was to ride in solidarity with those migrants who had travelled thousands of miles to escape certain death in Syria and Sudan, in the hope of a better life in the UK.
- The little reason, though, was friendship. Everywhere you looked on the ride were little clusters of pals, three or four here, five or six there. Anybody who came alone was soon embraced. By the time we arrived in France, we were brothers and sisters.
The Big Reason could be called our higher purpose, the lofty ambition that bonded us all, but it was the little reason that actually held the ride together. It was the little reason that gave us belief in our higher purpose, and it was the little reason that gave us the belief in ourselves to persevere through the hard ride.
Over the next 24 hours, we went through the full 70 miles of hills and woods, rain and thunder. Strangers worked together to navigate the back roads of Kent, leg muscle massages were passed around, food shared, bikes repaired. We became a community and that community sustained our belief that we could succeed in our endeavour.
A higher purpose is needed to make your Thing about more than just you, but it’s surely impossible to sustain belief in any higher purpose without support from your friends and your community.
- I would not return to Calais again and again if I wasn’t certain that I would find friends there (even if it’s just ones I haven’t yet met).
- I would not still be living in London if it weren’t for my friends.
- I have forgotten almost as much as I learnt at school, but I will always remember the friends I made there, and the lessons they gave me.
If you doubt the centrality of friendships to doing Things, then perhaps the following true story will help.
In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, volunteers from across the Untied States travelled down to the deep south to help register black voters. This was dangerous work, even for privileged whites. On the 21 of June, three young volunteers were killed, one black and two white.
Understandably, this discouraged some from making the journey from their safe homes to take up this deadly cause.
Fascinatingly, however, social scientists have been able to discover what kinds of people followed through on their initial enthusiasm: friends. Those volunteers who had equally committed friends or who were part of a committed community (a political organisation or church group for example) were much less likely to drop out of the mission.
Friends hold us to account and inspire us to be the people we would like to be. Friends help us believe in ourselves and in the value of our Thing. If you’re unsure that you can commit and follow through on doing your Thing, invite a friend and do it together.
Side note on relationships versus friendship
Relationships can be inspirational in the same way that friendships are, particularly in the early stages, when the fires burn strongly. But friendships are more powerful. Perhaps surprisingly, friends are more likely to influence our behaviour than our partners or families.
Over time, we tend to take even the most passionate partners for granted. We start to believe that they will never leave us, and we can comfortably let our tendency to inertia show. But because our friends can drop us any time, we tend to make a bigger effort to live up to our best selves.
What makes a person do a Thing? Four stages.
- You feel some dissatisfaction in your life, some hole that stimulates the imagination.
- You let your imagination play over the possibilities, gradually solidifying the idea that you can succeed. Here is where other people’s stories help: “If he can do it, so can I.”
- Tell a friend. Don’t boast, but feel the courage to take the first tiny step towards pulling the idea out of your head and into reality.
- Connect your idea and action with a higher purpose, supported by the belief you find in friendship and community. This will help you persevere through difficulties, and get the most out of your Thing.
EXTRA: One bizarre reason why people do NOT do their Thing
It sounds counter-intuitive, but one of the biggest reasons why people don’t do a Thing is, not because they lack the dissatisfaction or the imagination, and not because they fear failure, but because they fear success.
It seems extraordinary, but we do get scared of our power, we do fear our greatness; we sometimes feel like we don’t deserve such responsibility, or we feel like imposters when we do presume to act. There are a couple of explanations for this strange modesty that I can think of:
- Success means putting your heard above the parapet, putting yourself up to be shot at, perhaps more than failure might draw mockery.
- If we believe that we are powerful, then what excuse do we have for not acting? Remember that inertia is the default setting for human beings. But if we are powerful, then we must act; we have a moral duty to use our power for good, and that takes us well out of our comfort zone.
So, in addition to the four stages outlined above, there must also be a courage to act up to your potential greatness.
This can actually manifest itself, less as courage, but more as an entitlement to greatness and power. Some people are raised with this sense of entitlement, the schools of Eton, the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge seem to raise students who have no trouble believing themselves powerful enough to act on a global stage. Other young people draw such belief from their religion, or from powerful role models and mentors who lead them through their early successes, expanding their scope of the possible.
For the rest of us, we must “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Slowly, that feeling of being an imposter will dissolve, as our comfort zones expand into new territory, and we realise the extent of our power and feel the humility of our greatness.
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.
Listening might feel passive, but it’s still a cognitive distraction. Hence why music helps beginner runners forget the pain, but has no effect on more advanced runners – and might even slow them down.
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.
Why multitasking is bad, according to science
- Task-switching means you have to devote effort to the switch that could otherwise be employed in doing the task. Switching tasks eats up as much as 40% of your productive time.
- Even just being physically near a classic task-switching tool, like a phone or computer, can make your brain go into meltdown as if you were multitasking.
- Task-switching is stressful. Behave like a stressed out multi-tasker and you’ll feel like one. And get less done.
- Multitasking while eating makes food taste crap. And you’ll eat more.
- Task-switching might damage your creativity. (Or maybe not? – see below.)
- Multi-tasking regularly might be making you mentally disorganised, including harming your working memory.
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.
This is part of a series of blog posts on positive constraints. You can read much more here.
Today’s post will be short, but show you three positive constraints that I guarantee will make you more productive at work.
No Desk for Creativity
This positive constraint works for anyone who spends far too much time in front of their computer. I constantly have to remind myself that spending hours on the computer does NOT equal productivity.
The environment we live in is constantly giving us emotional cues. Whether we listen to Bach or Megadeath, whether we can smell lavender or gasoline, whether we stand or sit at a desk will have an influence on our mood and thence the work we do.
I associate desks and computers with Work. That’s Work with a capital “W” because it’s stressful Work, Work that feels like Work: chasing emails, answering queries and junking spam. I needed somewhere I could escape.
But how? My default “relaxing” hobby was to flop down in my nice swivel chair and drag the mouse around the computer screen for an hour or so. I had to disrupt this mindless habit. So I built a No Desk desk, a desk that folds flat against the wall.
With a permanent unfolding desk, my computer was always out and the opportunity to work was always there. A folding desk gives me an alternative. Now, whenever I fancy a change of scenery or a break (and always at the end of the day), I clear the desk and fold it down.
The critical point is that I can’t work on a desk that isn’t there. The computer goes on a shelf and I can sit on my sofa and relax. That relaxed state is where we find day-dreaming, imagination and creativity.
It’s like an off-switch for my work-related stress and an on-switch for creative thinking. It has transformed my working day and I love it.
What you need: Two strong hinges from a hardware shop or online (mine were £26 for two), a flat piece of wood for the desk (mine’s varnished), a couple of wall batons and some screws (all recycled). The build took me about two hours. If you have a bigger house than me, then separate your working space from your relaxing space – and make sure you spend time in both!
No Phone against Distraction
When I’m working, I put my phone away into a drawer, with the ringers off. This is surprisingly simple, but devastatingly effective. The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” is no less true for being ancient.
After my experiment with No Phone, I am now acutely conscious every time I check my phone. I know that, when I leave my phone on my desk, I will check the thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s gone off or not, I still check it, several times an hour.
These are called microchecks and they are toxic to our focus. Every time you look at your phone, you are distracting yourself from the task you were engaged in. Every time you distract yourself, it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain your focus. By which time, you’re checking your phone again…
Putting my phone into a drawer when I’m working is a really simple way to safeguard my focus.
What you need: A drawer, a bag or a different room.
No Computer for Writing
I often write using my Neo Alphasmart instead of my laptop. The Neo is a full size keyboard with a four line screen and a memory for hundreds of thousands of words. That’s all.
There’s no internet connection to distract me. There’s no hunching over an eye-straining glowing screen. There’s no clunky weight to carry around or rest on my knees. There’s no power cable because there’s hardly any technology to power so the batteries (3xAA) last for years.
This is a great example of what I mean by minimum viable technology. I could use a pen and paper to write; that would certainly be less tech than even a glorified typewriter like the Neo. But I type much faster than I handwrite, so this glorified typewriter is a more viable technology for the task of writing than pen and paper. (For me.)
The Neo does the job of writing better than anything else. Even so, I still habitually turn to my laptop, with all its distractions and discomforts. I have to remind myself to leave the desk or the house, with the Neo in tow and rediscover writing purity, just me and the typing machine.
A computer can do a million things, but when combined with human distractability that’s a weakness, not a strength. The Neo does only one thing and that means more writing, less Tetris.
What you need: A Neo Alphasmart (~£50 second hand from the US), or any other more basic technology. Hats off to you if you can manage with just pen and paper.
So there you have it. Three dead simple positive constraints that you could get working with today.
If you’d like to be first to hear of the positive constraints book, please sign up to my mailing list here.
I joined Facebook on April 27, 2007. I left, over six years later, on September 22, 2013. Contrary to my friends’ expectations, I have survived the last two years almost unscathed. This is the story of my against-all-odds survival.
Why No Facebook?
I’m going to go with just three reasons why I quit Facebook. Only three, but they’re big ‘uns.
- Facebook is proven to make you miserable.
- Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.
- Why do any of us use Facebook? I know it’s a bit Confucian to answer a question with a question, but still. Does anyone actually ask themselves why they’re on Facebook? When I eventually did, I had no good answer.
So let’s go through these in order.
Facebook makes you miserable
Have you heard of FOMO? It’s a highly contagious virus, that spreads rapidly through online social media. FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. I’m sure you know FOMO: it’s that feeling of mild dread that you could be having a much better time elsewhere.
- When you’re at a standard house party and see on Facebook that there’s another happening across town and it’s fancy dress: FOMO.
- When you’re at the BFI watching a François Truffaut double bill and see on Instagram that friends are having cocktails without you: FOMO.
- When you take a trip to Paris with your mum and everyone’s tweeting about Jeremy Corbyn at a demo for refugees back in London: FOMO.
None of these experiences of FOMO would be possible without Facebook and other social media, amplified by the mobile power of the smartphone.
What’s the problem, you may well ask. The multitudinous benefits of social connectivity surely outweigh that mild feeling of FOMO dread, don’t they?
Not sure how to break this to you, but no.
In a 2013 study published in Computers in Human Behaviour, researchers confirmed that FOMO was strongly linked to higher levels of social media engagement. The study also confirmed the obvious: that FOMO was associated with distracted driving and use of social media during lectures. Then the bombshell: FOMO was associated with “lower need satisfaction, mood and life satisfaction”.
FOMO, that modern virus of social media, makes you less motivated, more depressed and less content with your life.
Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.
This is the one I guess everyone already knows about. You know that Facebook is a business and has a business model. You know, I’m sure, that this business model is predicated on your personal data and selling that personal data to companies who want to sell shit to people, and that the most likely victims are your friends.
This business model is pretty much common knowledge; it’s part of the contract that we enter into with Facebook when we sign up. We agree to give away our names, emails, date of birth, family and friends, photographs, likes and soon dislikes, the events we attend and the groups we join – in short, everything we hold dear. In exchange, we don’t have to pay actual money to actual Facebook for access to their social network.
The problem is that not many people have thought through the full consequences of this business model. I certainly hadn’t until I heard Shoshana Zuboff, of Harvard Business School, speak at the Elevate Festival.
Shoshana directs her analysis at Google, but the same applies to Facebook. She sees a new form of capitalism emerging, which she calls “surveillance capitalism”. This new form of economics is distinguished from the old forms in two ways:
- Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as employees. Facebook has nearly 1.5 billion users (as of August 2015), but employs less than 11,000 people (as of June 2015). That’s one employee for every 136,000 users.
- Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as customers. Facebook makes its money from selling data to other businesses: advertising makes up around 90% of its annual revenue, which was $12.4 billion in 2014.
If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need the people as either employees or customers, then what do these companies need us for? As we all know: product.
But the problem goes deeper. If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need us as either employees or customers, then the people have no control over what these companies do. We can’t withdraw our labour or withdraw our custom. As Facebook pursues its ambition of becoming more and more tightly integrated with the running of our societies, this has serious consequences for democracy.
Why do any of us use Facebook?
However, I’m going to turn a blind eye to that doomsday scenario, partially because it makes me feel sick to think we’re sleepwalking into a future where Mark Zuckerberg can, on a whim, command an army of billions, and partially because it’s not why I quit Facebook.
Facebook is distracting. We pay a high price for social media. We don’t just hand over our personal data, we hand over a large dollop of our daily attention and focus. I used to scroll around Facebook, liking all the things my friends had done and getting little bursts of dopamine in return whenever anyone liked something I’d posted. Then I’d realise that a hour had passed and I still hadn’t written anything or done anything meaningful.
That attention and focus is limited. Every minute we spend attending to something on Facebook is a minute we can’t use to focus on our work, our garden or a good meal.
First of all, I used a technique I called Facebook Zen to clear my News Feed. For a few months, it was bliss: total silence. Then I started to wonder why I was on Facebook at all. Couldn’t I get everything I needed from the world? So I quit.
The most shocking thing was that I didn’t miss Facebook for a moment. I had been expecting some cold turkey horrific withdrawal symptoms. But all I felt was a little part of my brain that I hadn’t realised had been constantly thinking about Facebook was no longer thinking about Facebook. I had freed up roughly 1% of my brain’s bandwidth to work on a knotty problem, dream up a new book idea or notice the passing smell of jasmine.
I was liberated.
Two Years Later…
I still don’t miss Facebook.
I have, however, noticed that Facebook is increasingly becoming the main driver of content on the web. Facebook have the advantage over Google in that people will always prefer a friend’s recommendation over an anonymous search result. While at the moment Google is slightly better at precise searches for information, Facebook will triumph in the long term because of its social element.
Furthermore, as the whole world, every person and every business becomes embedded in their social graph, the internet could effectively cease to exist outside the four walls of Facebook. This is a bit frightening, isn’t it?
Thanks for reading. Now… Follow me on Twitter! That’s a joke (it’s not). Twitter is, in some ways, the social media of positive constraints: only 140 characters. I’d love to hear your stories of Facebook disconnection.