As one of my readers helpfully pointed out recently, chapter 18 of this book contains the following prescriptive gem about how to succeed in an endeavor that requires you to create value with your mind:
I recently finished Edmund Morris’s epic new Thomas Edison biography. It took me a while to get used to his reverse chronology structure (he works backwards from Edison’s later years to his earlier years), but once I did, I found it riveting.
One thing that caught my attention from the book was the degree to which early 20th century Americans were exposed to rapid technological change. We think the arrival of the internet and smartphones were a big deal, but these innovations were trivial in magnitude compared to the arrival of electricity.
Constraints that had been constant throughout all of human history — the darkness of night, the slow pace of information dissemination — were obliterated in just a few decades.
Edison was born in an age of horses and sailing ships. His death was broadcast worldwide via radio waves, and whole cities — their streets clogged with cars and their skies blotted with steel-girded buildings — temporarily powered down their ubiquitous electric lights to honor his passing.
These changes naturally led to some reactionary technophobia (though, as I argued in a recent op-ed for WIRED, there wasn’t as much of this resistance as popular commentators like to imply). I’m interested in this historical moment of technophobia, as skeptical technology commentators such as myself, or Tristan Harris, Jaron Lanier, and Douglas Rushkoff, are sometimes associated with this tradition by our detractors.
It’s been about a month since I proposed the Analog January Challenge. Accordingly, I’ve begun to receive reports from those who’ve made it through a full four weeks of enhanced analog activity.
I thought it would be interesting to share one of these case studies…
One of the first reports I received was from Edward (not his real name), a young man living in London, who ended up traveling to Florida to visit family during the month.
Edward claimed that jet lag complicated the READ piece of the challenge, but he still managed to finish two biographies, a non-fiction book on psychology, and Gone With the Wind. He also started Little Women, as he figured it was probably smart to have read the book before going to see the Greta Gerwig film.
As for the MOVE piece, Edward noted that “London really does save my butt on this one.” While in the city, he found it both easy and enjoyable to walk its historic streets, observing his surroundings and allowing his own thoughts to keep him company. When the “crazy city noise” got overwhelming, he’d find refuge in Hyde Park.
Edward’s time in Florida, on the other hand, was a different story. As he explained, unless you live in one of the Sunshine State’s big cities, “the incentive to move for any reason is severely curtailed.”
The major social media services are often described as fundamental platforms of the internet age. The companies that control these services use this argument to justify their astronomical valuations, and their critics use it to validate the need for regulatory intervention.
As longtime readers know, I’m often skeptical of this digital deification.
Services like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram aren’t really platforms: instead of providing core functionalities on which others can build a diversity of useful applications (the standard definition of a platform), they instead offer closed ecosystems in which they carefully monitor and control user behavior.
These services are also far from fundamental. Nothing about web teleology, for example, implies that Twitter’s arcane mix of short-message formats, ampersands, and retweet ratios is an unavoidable technological advance. If Jack Dorsey shut down his Frankenstein’s monster tomorrow, few would wake up a year from now really missing what it added to the online universe.
Recently, however, I’ve been grappling with the idea that there’s one immensely powerful social service about which my skepticism doesn’t seem to neatly apply. I’m talking about YouTube.
One of the surprising lessons I learned working on Digital Minimalism is that when it comes to reforming your relationship with your devices, successful outcomes are less about deciding to stop harmful digital behaviors than they are about deciding to start committing to meaningful analog alternatives.
If you simply resolve to quit social media, and end up sitting on your coach, bored, white knuckling the urge to check Twitter, you’re unlikely to experience lasting change.
On the other hand, if you fill your life with hard but satisfying analog alternatives — activities that resonate with our primal urges to connect, to move, to reflect, to be surrounded by nature, to manipulate elements of the physical world with out hands — you’ll find the appeal of animated GIFs and ASCII snark to be greatly diminished.
With this in mind, I’m introducing the Analog January Challenge. It’s a collection of five commitments that last one month. They’re designed to provide you a crash course introduction to the types of satisfying analog activities that will reduce the anxious attraction of your screens.
(Note: you don’t have to begin exactly on January 1st; just block off four weeks starting on whatever day in the month you initiate the challenge.)
Here are the five commitments that make up the Analog January Challenge:
A few days ago, I took my two older boys to a small stage production of A Christmas Carol. Afterwards, me being me, I decided to read up on Charles Dickens and the backstory of his famed novella. In doing so, I came across a neat deep work-themed holiday nugget (the best type of nugget).
According to biographer Claire Tomalin, Dickens crafted much of the tale in his head while engaged in nighttime walks that covered 15 to 20 miles. As a result of this ambulatory cogitation, the entire story took only six weeks to complete in the late fall of 1843.
I like this anecdote: it provides a reminder of what’s possible when you’re able to devote hour after hour of deep thinking on one focused target.
My friend Eric Barker recently pointed my attention to an intriguing paper published earlier this fall in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. It presented a careful meta-analysis of 124 studies looking at the connections between digital media and well-being.
There’s been a lot of academic ink spilled on this subject recently. As I wrote in Digital Minimalism, correlational behavioral studies are exceedingly tricky — you can’t expect slam dunk consistency, but must instead look for general trends in the literature pointing toward some underlying signal in the noise.
Which is all to say, you shouldn’t don’t take any one study too seriously. Even with these caveats, however, I did find this one interesting, as it featured some heavyweight authors, and was clearly written to offer some authority on where the noisy literature seems to be trending at the moment.
The analysis was complicated and contained multiple noteworthy findings, but there was one result in particular I wanted to highlight:
Toward the end of class today, one of my students asked me what advice inspired by my books I’d give them as they headed into the university’s final exam period.
I thought about it for a second before recommending a simple hack that I’ve been experimenting with recently and finding useful:
Use your smartphone only for the following activities: calls, text messages, maps, and audio (songs/podcasts/books).
I suggested that my students try this for one week while studying for their exams. I further suggested that they actually record on a calendar or in a journal whether or not they succeeded in following the rule 100% for the day. One slip to check social media, or glance at email, or look up a website, and they don’t get to mark the day as a success.
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