Digital Declutter: Week Two
Last week I outlined my reasons and plan for undertaking Cal Newport’s month-long “Digital Declutter” for April, but didn’t get as far as sharing any of my struggles/findings etc so far. So this week I’ll give a bit of an update on it, though I promise not to write about it every week of April, and next week will probably go back to writing about other stuff. So, I’m now well into Week 2 of the Declutter, so what have I discovered, and what have I struggled with?
Difficulty 1 – Illness:
I had hoped to spend the first week of the Declutter leaning heavily into lots of really fun analogue leisure activities, but annoyingly it coincided exactly with my feeling really ill for nearly a week, so I spent a lot of week 1 laid up in bed. I did do my best to fill this bed-time with analogue stuff – I’ve finished a bunch of books in the first 2 weeks, and played a bunch of board games and stuff, and done a lot of journalling – but did cave in a couple of times to mindlessly go on my phone. It’s been interesting to notice how strong the urge to just look at it is when you’re on your own, for no other reason than to satisfy the idle curiosity as to whether there’s anything on it that needs your attention. There rarely is.
Lesson 1 – Being In The World, Being With People
Happily, since feeling better I’ve also got better at addressing this impulse in contexts outside of my being alone in bed. I’ve been particularly struck by how completely the impulse to look at my phone or use any sort of tech has disappeared while outside on my own, or with other people in any context. As soon as you tell yourself you’re just not going to do that, the stimuli of being in the world or being among friends is more than enough to replace that low-level itch, but I’m clearly still struggling to assimilate that lesson while lying in bed on my own.
Difficulty 2 – Social Media “Obligations”
Social media is both the main thing I want to use less, and also the main thing I’ve found myself obligated to use in the last 2 weeks. I had hoped to go on no more than once a week, to check messages and share any necessary work updates, but it just hasn’t worked out. I’ve had promoters asking me to tweet about gigs, producers asking me to tweet about podcasts and radio shows, festivals asking me to tweet about live shows, and so on. “Sorry, I’m not going on social media much this month” is obviously an acceptable response, but also one that’s likely to antagonise people I’m trying to work with. “Fine, what a lot of help you’ve been,” they could reasonably reply. I’ve also been told I’m being naive in not treating social media as a necessary work tool, because apparently even tweeting funny thoughts now and again is a really important part of remaining active and employable in the comedy landscape. To be completely honest, that sort of “just because” attitude – “You should be on it because if you’re not on it you might miss out on stuff” – is the exact reason I’m trying to get off it more, and I do suspect that some of the people telling me I simply have to be on there are people who have to a certain extent bought into a lie. BUT clearly the comedy industry’s relationship with social media is more intense than I realised. Even James Acaster, someone who has legitimately built a large enough following and audience that he can quit social media without huge repercussions, is currently finding that the best way of trying to promote his new book about quitting social media is to ask friends to post about it on social media. It’s a bit of a “The genie’s out of the bottle” thing, frankly, much as it depresses me to accept it.
A cute lil cartoon of some poor guy trapped in his phone. I bet we can all relate to his sad plight.
Lesson 2 – Intentionality:
The big, big lesson from these last 2 weeks is that what I’m trying to foster here is not an anti-tech attitude, it’s an attitude of optimised intentionality. My attitude to my computer has completely changed since April the 1st. I’ve spoken before here about optimising my to-do lists, so that I only ever have two or three main jobs to do per weekday. Previously, those two or three tasks would naturally bleed out to fill as much time as I allocated for them, so a day would easily be filled along with plenty of googling, message-checking, and other distractions along the way. Since embarking on the Digital Declutter, I’ve noticed that, if I optimise my to-do lists and am very clear about what I need to do each day, I can get it done in no more than 3 hours, no matter what it is. That’s as a result of setting an intentional attitude – “I am sitting down at my desk to go on my computer to get these three things done,” not “Time to spend a day at my desk getting my work done,” which is an important difference. Getting it all done in 3 hours frees up maybe as much as 3 further hours per day of potential leisure time, or time to invest in other work projects that don’t normally get to receive much of your attention because so much attention is being absorbed into a screen.
Having observed the specific difficulties I’ve outlined above, I’d now like to set the same intentional objectives for my phone. Perhaps avoiding social media entirely as a comedian is naive, but if I can permit myself to go on purely to achieve a specific objective, not to spend time on it, then maybe I’m still fulfilling the goals of the Declutter. My mantra for social media-related stuff, I think, should be: Creating good, consuming bad.
So as long as I’m going on there to share a specific thought or idea, or to plug a specific gig or programme, as long as I’m in some way using it to pursue the agenda of creating, and not consuming other people’s thoughts, I can allow it. Or am I just diluting my own attempts to go low-tech for the month, and backsliding? I can’t really tell. That’s where I’m at on it currently, anyway.
Lesson 3 – Rediscovering Leisure:
The other big thing Newport stresses in Digital Minimalism is that you need to be clear what it is you’re going to replace the tech void with. If you don’t set clear goals for leisure and activity, then you’re far more likely to fall into boredom and start using tech mindlessly again, as I found when I was ill. So, since those first few days, I’ve been trying to prioritise analogue leisure and rediscovering, mastering and practicing physical, practical skills. Newport suggests trying to learn a new skill each week, so last week I focused on “handy-ness” – learning to take apart and fix our hoover, fixing the water heater under the sink, fixing the oven display, learning how to use a stud-finder – all fairly unremarkable things, but it felt nice concentrating on them. This week I’ve been getting back into running, and going forward I’d like to try more new recipes, draw more, and maybe get back to practicing the saxophone.
How’s it been for you guys? I know a couple of you have also decided to have a go at a low-tech, no-tech or minimal-tech month alongside me, so what have you found easy and what have you found hard? Have you had to modify any of your rules as I have, or have you found it easy to follow through on initial intentions? What physical skills and experiences have you rediscovered? I’d be keen to hear, and to hold my own attempt to account alongside other people’s!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Channel 4 have announced the latest round of Blaps, and they include a very exciting-sounding sketch show from Kiell Smith-Bynoe, who I think is brilliant. Other exciting projects include pilots from Jordan Brookes, Rosie Jones, Harry Trevaldwyn and Jess Thom (Touretteshero), so a lot of very cool stuff. Have a read, and check them out when they’re released!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I enjoyed the first live, in-person gig I’ve been to in a while this week, at the excellent Factually Inaccurate Comedy night at the Miller. Sam Nicoresti successfully managed to convince me that Carl Sagan hosted a reality show about druids in the late 90s called Sagan’s Pagans. He did not.
Book Of The Week – A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. This is very much in the young-adult mould, but it’s really beautiful. A sort of magical-realist study in grief. It reminded me a bit of Max Porter’s brilliant Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, and predated it, so Max Porter’s got some explaining to do!
Album Of The Week – Seventeen Going Under by Sam Fender. My best friend Emily recommended this guy to me by saying “He’s like the new Bruce Springsteen.” “Pah!” I thought to myself. “A likely story! This guy’s young and currently making music, no way is he as good as Bruce Springsteen, music’s terrible these days.” Then I listened to it and oh boy, this kid sounds like Bruce Springsteen! I love this album.
Film Of The Week – The Worst Person In The World. I think I use hyperbole a lot in these “Thing of the week” sections, so just to flag it that I’m using it deliberately this time because I really mean it – this is by far the best film I’ve seen in many years, and maybe one of the best films I’ve ever seen. It’s a Norwegian romantic drama by Joachim Trier with an incredible lead performance from Renate Reinsve, and it touches on pretty much every theme I love most in art. I was an absolute wreck at the end. Try not to read any reviews or watch any trailers. I just beg you to go and see it.
That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you thought, and if you’d like to recommend the newsletter to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Here’s a portrait I took of Sunil Patel backstage at the Pleasance because the light was nice. I think he could rebrand as a serious novelist with this portrait.