Seeking Quiet in a Noisy World: A Personal Experiment
When I withdrew from my PhD program I knew I would have more free time than I was used to. Instead of having to find time after work or on the weekends to move my research forward I would now have time for… anything else. Instead of diving into immediately figuring out ways to use that newfound time I decided to let my schedule breathe a little bit.
What I thought/hoped might happen was that I’d use this time to get into great shape, read difficult books, and develop a rock solid mindfulness practice (among other good intentions). Instead, what happened was that the stuff I was already doing in other parts of my life just oozed beyond their normal boundaries. For example, I started playing just a little bit more video games. I started reading just a few more blogs. I followed a few more people on Twitter and started up my Instagram account again. I re-followed everyone I had unfollowed on Facebook and I started having less clear lines between work and the rest of my life. After making the huge decision to withdraw from the PhD program I discovered that my life wasn’t nearly as different as I expected it to be.
And that’s not okay.
To that end, I’m going to try something a little bit radical for the next few weeks as I rebuild the structure of commitments in my life: I’m going to start from scratch basically everywhere I possibly can.
I’m going to hold up each expectation and request for my attention and make some clear eyed decisions about whether it’s something I want to keep in my life. I’m going to re-train myself to be okay with less stimulation, with less information, and with just less overall.
This is largely thanks to the course of reading I’ve put myself on over the past few weeks including re-reading Essentialism, Deep Work, The Power of Less, and reading for the first time, The One Thing. I’m obviously on some kind of quest to figure out how to feel better about the way I spend my time. I think the best way to do that is by doing something a little nuts.
This means looking at the role of social media, technology, entertainment, online services, and nearly every other component of my life and asking some tough questions about what I allow to remain.
My aim is to recalibrate my sense of what’s essential by first removing everything I possibly can.
I’ve learned that I’m extremely good at adding new things to my life because my workflows are so good. Basically, it hasn’t been a big deal for me to add more and more “stuff” to my life because on the margin it has a nearly imperceptible impact on my time and attention. Over time, though, those marginal additions add up into something much larger than I realized in the moment. You could say I’ve accrued some attentional debt over the past few years and it’s time to scrape it all away.
I’m going to write about my experience as I do it because writing helps me make sense of what I’m thinking and feeling. I’m going to share this writing because — why not? If it helps one person examine their life in a useful way then it seems worth doing. And if it provides entertainment for everyone else, then even better.
The basic plan is to a.) spend a few days (possibly weeks) removing as much as possible, b.) living in that minimal state for at least a week or two, c.) noticing what I’m feeling and making sense out of whether I need to actually act on those feelings, and, d.) slowly adding elements back into my life while clearly articulating the reason for doing so.
At the end of this process (which, really, never actually ends) I should feel great about how I’m spending the vast majority of my time. Meaning, most of my time is spent doing truly essential work like writing, researching, and learning. My leisure time should be better spent as well with more time spent doing truly restorative activities and fewer spent doing mindless things.
Stage 1: Demolition
The goal is to remove every source of information, distraction, entertainment, or attention-hoarding piece of technology, service, or software as possible (or is at least somewhat reasonably possible). There is no judgment here. No good and no bad. Everything needs to be first removed in order to be considered for reinstatement later.
I love tech gadgets. But I’m curious to see how much I truly need. I’m not making any radical decisions like selling anything at this point. Just putting things into a closet in order to try out what it’s like to not have certain things around.
- Phone: I need my phone as my primary communication tool. However, all removable apps removed.
- iPad: All removable apps removed and device is turned off and stored for the time being.
- Laptop: This is my primary computing device. I’m running 95% stock in terms of the software I use.
- Sonos: Unplugged and put in a box in my closet.
- Playstation 4: Unplugged and put in a box in my closet.
- Apple TV: Unplugged and put in a box in my closet.
- TV: Covered with an extra blanket.
- Bose Headphones: Put in a box in my closet.
I’m very skeptical of services that provide “infinite streams.” I’m going to still allow myself to purchase media from the iTunes Store if I’m so inclined but I’m going to remove myself from the various streaming services I’ve been subscribed to for awhile.
- Netflix subscription: Cancelled.
- Apple Music subscription: Cancelled.
- Amazon Prime subscription: Cancelled.
I’m a fairly light social media user to begin with but deactivating my Facebook account felt like a big deal. My intention is to still use Twitter to post things from time to time but I don’t currently follow anybody so I won’t be spending much, if any, real time using the service.
- Facebook: Deactivated account and unistalled app from all devices.
- Twitter: Unfollowed everyone but left account open.
- Medium: Unfollowed all people, topics, and publications.
- Instagram: Unfollowed everyone I was following.
News and Entertainment
Podcasts are probably my #1 source of entertainment. I didn’t listen to too many but the ones I listened to I’ve been a fan of for a very long time. I’ve also noticed that I don’t ever really work while I’m listening to a podcast so I think they are actually one of my biggest time wasters. It’s going to be strange not having them as an option for the forseeable future.
- Podcasts: Unsubscribed from the 14 podcasts I was subscribed to. Uninstalled Overcast and blocked the native Podcasts app on all devices.
- RSS: Unfollowed all blogs & deleted Unread app.
- Audible: Deleted app.
- Email newsletters: Unsubscribed from all.
- Reddit, Digg, Hacker News: These are my three main sites where I go to kill time (with Reddit being by far the biggest offender). I’ve blocked all three in my computer’s hosts file so I can’t reach them from my laptop.
- Slack: Removed instances that were no longer particularly active or relevant to my life. Removed app from phone and iPad. Still exists on my laptop.
- Email: Removed all notifications from all devices. Removed app from phone and iPad. Still exists on my laptop.
- Things: Removed from phone and iPad, still exists on laptop. This feels dumb. I have a feeling I’ll be putting it back on my phone soon.
- Calendar, Notes, Music etc. on phone: Remember, I removed all removable apps from my phone and with the new iOS 10 that means I deleted a bunch of default apps (and didn’t replace them). Do I truly need a calendar app on my phone if I have my calendar on my laptop? Probably — but I’m about to find out for sure.
- “Why go with the laptop as your main device? Wouldn’t it be more minimal to go iOS only?”
Maybe. I am intrigued by going iOS only but that is probably an experiment for another time. The main reasons I decided to go with my laptop as my primary computing device is a.) I type much faster on it and I’m hoping this experiment results in me writing more, b.) I haven’t found a good solution for recording podcasts on my iPad, and c.) I haven’t found a good solution for recording screencasts of my iPad (granted, I also haven’t really looked).
- “Aren’t you going to get fired doing this?”
Doubtful. I don’t think anything I’ve done so far is actually going to make me worse at my job. In fact, by really focusing on the essential I should actually get much, much, much more effective at my work. It feels strange to not have Slack on my phone at the moment but after reviewing my last few days of direct messages and mentions I’ve realized that I very rarely need to respond immediately.
- “What do you have against fun?”
I like fun. I really do. In fact, this is actually fun for me (I know — I must be a little bit broken inside).
- “What are you going to do? It sounds like you’re just going to sit at home and stare at a wall all day?”
Well, I do plan on meditating much more than I currently am. I also have some ideas bouncing around my head for some extremely long and potentially complex articles that will contain a bunch of new ideas. A large reason for doing this experiment is to figure out how to carve out more time and attention to do things like that.
- “Doesn’t your family hate you?”
I live alone so doing things like draping a blanket over the TV or putting my PlayStation in the closet isn’t affecting anyone except me. (I realize I didn’t actually answer the question but it seemed a little mean…).
- “This is ridiculous.”
Yes, yes it is.