I’m probably a bit old-fashioned, but how can a reporter quitting email for a week be a news story? The piece I refer to is called What I Learned After Quitting Email For A Week and includes gems like these:

As a generally well-functioning workplace human, I found the first few hours to be problematic and uncomfortable. A phantom limb syndrome set in immediately — I felt vibrations on my phone from emails that would never come. Every 20 minutes I absent-mindedly clicked the Gmail bookmark on my browser only to be locked out. I felt uneasy, and disappointed at how uneasy I felt.

[…]

When I mentioned the experiment to friends and colleagues, they responded for the most part incredulously, the way a person might if you told them you didn’t believe in modern medicine.

Hmm. Not the world I live in. Those of you who have suffered from my slow email response times might suspect (quite correctly) that I quit email for a week every other month or so. Often this is because I simply don’t have web access – just as last week, when I went on an Amazon jungle adventure with four friends, six liters of rum, and a machete. Where there’s no electricity, no showers and no toilets, don’t expect great wi-fi coverage.

It’s probably all a matter of habit. I love email and use it as my main form of computer-based communication – but I’m simply not addicted to it. It surprised me to see I might be an exceptional case here, though.1

Temporary Quitting: The Inverted Cheat Day?

Thinking beyond email, I started to wonder: What are the things that I have quit temporarily at some point in my life? And what could be things that would be hard to quit, even for just a week?

A few successes come to mind: I once fasted for a week. I have quit alcohol, wheat, sugar, milk and other selected edibles for longer periods of time. While I couldn’t quit sleeping for a whole week, I did adopt a biphasic sleep schedule once when I lived in Berlin. I have spent weeks without telephones, computers, and the internet. Months without family and friends.

Temporary quitting is like a cheat day, turned on its head: Instead of allowing yourself a break when adapting a new habit, you challenge yourself to give an old one up, even if it’s just for a few days.

My thesis: Our ability to give up familiar things and ingrained habits is an indicator of a higher degree of personal freedom and sovereignty. It could hence be worth to get better at it.

The 1-Week Quitting Challenge

Here are a few challenges for me: A week without talking, reading or writing. A week without seeing another person. A week without music and noise. A week without light. Some of these might be tough, but I’m quite sure I could pull them off if I had to. But I probably won’t, because I just can’t see a benefit in many of them (the notable exception being talking).

What challenge comes to your mind, and why? Any recommendations? And what would be the hardest thing for you to quit for even just a week?

  1. Together with my weird friends, of course. []

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“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” —Jorge Luis Borges

My main asset is time. I’m putting a considerable effort into organizing my life in a way that allows me to decide about my time freely, and it has worked out quite nicely so far: I’m not necessarily wealthy in terms of dollars, but I’m quite wealthy in terms of freely available hours.

As of 2014, my general schedule includes 8 hours of technical writing each week, at whatever time I see fit, plus a 1-hour conference call every 14 days.

Everything else is negotiable.

I would pat myself on the back for this, if it wasn’t for one thing: Just like owning a lot of money makes you spend it on ridiculous stuff, owning a lot of free time has similar consequences: If you don’t make a conscious effort, you don’t spend it wisely anymore.

Full disclosure: My own understanding of “spending time wisely” may strike you as being just as frivolous as buying annoying Italian roadsters or – God forbid – gold watches. That said, we can probably agree on some not-all-so-wise uses of time, as in:

Hence, this proposal: Improve my asset management. Time being my main asset, this could be seen as mainstream time management. But it’s not: One of my main goals is to have enough unstructured time that flows freely (and allows me to do whatever I feel like at the moment). A strictly planned workday couldn’t be farther from my idea of the perfect lifestyle.

As so often, a goal that’s far from being clear-cut black and white. The good thing: I feel that merely being conscious about it is already making a difference.

More on that later, I’m off to the Amazon.

[This is my fifth Moderate Proposal for Daunting, Delightful and Dilettantish Deeds I’m pursuing this year. See the introduction, part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.]

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Ben, doing some intense kite-surfing. You cannot see the storm he was entering at that moment. I suspect it was a wild ride.

A big inspiration for me is my friend Ben. You look at him and you always see him doing interesting things: Learning new languages, acquiring craft skills, joking with strangers, working weird jobs, you name it. And you can see how he profits from it.

Don’t get me wrong here. Ben is a very laid-back person. He doesn’t stress out. But still you can see how he’s getting better at stuff. For me, that certainly entails a notion of interestingness.

Once I asked him how he manages to do it. He told me this:

“No matter what I do, I always do it as intense as I can.”

Now wait: I know this sounds abhorrent.

Intense.

You think of the guy you met at that cocktail party yesterday. He got pretty intense. What a sucker…

But wait.

That’s not what this is about.

I really think that Ben has a point.

We all wish for life to be comfortable. And often enough, it is. But if becomes too comfortable, it can get boring: Things get stale. We don’t learn anything new anymore. We get covered in dust because we’re not moving away from the sofa anymore.

This is a moment when it pays off to consciously make things a little harder for yourself.

Fun, The Hard Way?

How do you do stuff “as intense as you can”?

I’m certainly not the inventor of the concept, but to me it looks something like this:

You’re afraid to drive on icy roads? Doesn’t have to stay like that.

Just free up some time when road conditions are bad, take out your car, and go for a ride. Drive very slowly, without any pressure. Go somewhere where there isn’t any traffic, like an empty parking lot. Then start playing: Slide around a bit. Do a handbrake turn. See how your tires and brakes behave on the ice. Learn what they can cope with. Learn where they fail. Go to that point, and then go a tiny bit further. You’re in a safe environment, after all. What’s the worst that could happen? Try to experience how it feels to lose control – and what you can do to get it back.

There’s one obvious benefit to doing this: The next time you have to drive on icy roads, you’ll be prepared. But there are  two other benefits that might be less obvious: Learning things the hard way – but in a playful manner – is a lot of fun. It also builds confidence.

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Play some Buzkashi. Or, like, whatever. Just do something.
[This is my fourth Moderate Proposal for Daunting, Delightful and Dilettantish Deeds to Pursue in 2014. See the introduction, part 1, part 2 and part 3.]

I’m an idler. Sometimes, I prefer staying in bed over doing new things. But when there isn’t nice company in bed, doing new things is often more interesting. As I still deem interestingness to be a good thing, I figured pursuing it more consciously would be a nice proposal for 2014.

Superhuman Passivity

Pursuing interestingness means (occasionally) overcoming our desire to stay in bed and watch Netflix. Reasons to do so, there are plenty. Remember this brilliant column by George Monbiot:

How did we acquire this superhuman passivity? […]

Almost universally we now seem content to lead a proxy life, a counter-life, of vicarious, illusory relationships, of secondhand pleasures, of atomisation without individuation. Those who possess some disposable income are extraordinarily free, by comparison to almost all our great-grandparents, but we tend to act as if we have been placed under house arrest. With the amount most of us spend on home entertainment, we could probably buy a horse and play buzkashi every weekend. But we would rather stare at an illuminated box, watching other people jumping up and down and screaming. Our political constraint is one aspect of a wider inhibition, a wider failure to be free.

Call me pathetic, but I think Monbiot has a point here: Our passivity is directly related to our lack of freedom. And while I don’t spend a lot on home entertainment, I definitely think it wouldn’t hurt to play more buzkashi. Metaphorically, you know.

Maybe not every weekend.

But at least every once in a while.

Pressure

I’m no productivity guru, so I don’t want my proposals to become stressful.

Thankfully, there’s an easy way to avoid overwhelm, reflected in this Metafilter post on how to figure out your life goals. What stuck with me there is the suggested approach of implementing things on a minimalist level, even when that might look piffling:

If there’s anything that you can do right away – do it! And do it more often – maybe one of the details of your perfect day is “brewing a cup of coffee that I’d ground from whole beans fresh”, and up to this point you’ve been making do with Maxwell House. If that’s the case, all you’d need to do is get a coffee grinder and start buying whole bean coffee instead. Even though that’s only a small detail, go ahead and do it right away – you’ll be that tiniest bit closer to what you want for yourself, and that’ll be that tiniest bit of a boost for your mood.

As with anything, taking baby steps is a smart approach. Traveling to Afghanistan, meeting a group of warlords, mounting a horse for the first time and attempting to drag a goat carcass toward a goal looks like a bit of a challenge. I might just start by visiting a pony yard.

What about a measure?

Measuring interestingness is a hard thing to do and I wouldn’t freak out about it. Here are a few pointers I came up with:

  1. Different people have different interests. Maybe I prefer buzkashi while you’re all about football. The good thing is that it doesn’t matter: Interestingness is measured best by how we personally feel about it. If something is interesting to you, that’s all you need.
  2. New experiences are often more interesting than well-known ones. But then, achieving mastery1 in something can be interesting as well. As for me, I’ll simply aim for something else than same-old for starters.
  3. Active rather than passive: To pick up the football example, organizing a tournament with friends and strangers in the park definitely cuts it. Going to the stadium could still be okay, especially if it’s something new for you. Staying home alone watching a match on TV could be enjoyable, but it probably wouldn’t count in my book.2

I’ll explore this further over the course of the year, but it should be enough to get me started. Bring on those horses. (And make that a dummy goat. Thanks!)

  1. Or merely getting better… []
  2. But then, it might be extremely interesting for the seasoned Buzkashi player who has never seen a flatscreen TV. Return to point number 1. []

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You need to get a job.
You need to take your anti-depressants.
You need to have six-figure income.
You need to marry a beautiful spouse.
You need to perform flawlessly.
You need to look like the TV starlets.
You need to drive a bigger car than your neighbor.
You need to be fit as a fiddle.
You need to create a revolutionary movement.
You need to see a doctor.
You need to become way more productive.
You need to buy an iPhone.
You need to eat your greens.
You need to dominate others.
You need to fit in.

Alternatively, you need to go beyond rules.

Happy Beyond Rules Day!

It’s Beyond Rules Day once again!

Three years ago today, I released my first book, Beyond Rules. In 2012, I released an updated edition for the Kindle platform.

To celebrate, I’m happy to announce it’s available for a reduced price of $0.99 right now on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, or any Amazon store of your preference. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re invited to take a look.1

  1. Quick pricing info: I just reduced the prices worldwide, but Amazon may need a few hours to update their systems. If you still see the old price, please come back a bit later! []

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