I’m happier without a smartphone

It’s now just over a month since I gave up my smartphone and began an experiment with a Nokia 3310.

Much has already been written about smartphone sanity. Books, blog posts, tweets – just Google it to see other people doing the same, or poke this blog or my links to see some of the stuff people are saying about health, attention, kids and phones, life balance, etc.

So, I don’t want to go into this side of things – but it has been interesting, so here are a few thoughts.

The context

Prior to giving up my smartphone I already had a bunch of worries about technology use and what it does to family life and sanity – so had already done what (frankly) any sane person should do, right now, with their phone – stuff like this:

  • remove work email
  • turn off ALL non-critical notifications (and yes, definitely email notifications)
  • remove all social apps
  • have a policy to leave it upstairs on silent at night
  • never use it in the bedroom
  • never use it at the dining room table
  • be very aware about use, particularly when the kids are around

I’m also one of the 3 people on the planet without a Facebook account. I have been this way since being a very early Facebook adopter way back and deciding back then that:

  • Facebook are basically pretty evil
  • there’s a reason I lost touch with most of those people
  • I could see even back then that it was going to eat lives

I was, however, a news junkie – with a bad “first thing in the morning” addiction to the Guardian / BBC / Hacker News. I’ve also been through patches of getting a little bit Instagram obsessed (it’s easy to post narcissitic-fuckpump pictures of how great your life is when you live in Cornwall) and managed to get around not having a Twitter app (see above) by using the mobile web version.

I was also an information junkie – mid-way through a conversation I’d need to look up that word or fact, take a note, check my calendar, etc. Actually (more below) – not just mid-way through a conversation but mid-way through articles in the paper, books, magazines…

Even given the fact that the above pretty much doesn’t position me in the loony-check-it-all-the-time smartphone user category – I increasingly didn’t feel happy with the total, unremitting reliance that I felt on this device. The fact that I’d rather leave home without my wallet, without my keys or without my children than without my smartphone was a warning siren to me. I don’t like these sorts of external pressures – and when you start looking around and seeing THE ENTIRE WORLD looking out through a 3″ screen, you have got to start thinking big questions about why we’re here, what we’ll regret when we die, how we’re being and – frankly – what it’s all about.

Giving it up

So, I gave it up. And I can say – only a month in – that it has been absolutely transformative, in ways that I was completely not expecting.

The biggest, most important and most profound thing for me has been my attention and presence. I’ve found myself massively less distracted while doing, well, pretty much everything – but most noticeable is that I can read again for stretches of time without feeling the jitter and without having to look up every other word. It is incredibly ilberating to sit and not even think about whether I should check the news or a fact but to simply not have that option. And, bizarrely, I actually feel better informed than I did before. When I watch the news or read something I actually get into it rather than dotting around endlessly snacking on shit news-snippet-morsels.

Connected to this – it is strangely amazing to not have to take a damn picture every 5 fucking minutes, but just to be able to look at the sea or my kids or whatever and not be thinking about what a great shot that’d make. For me this isn’t “..what a great shot…for my [social] account..” because I didn’t really do that stuff anyway – but just being able to be in the picture rather than thinking about taking it all the time – this is pretty wonderful.

Having bored moments was also pretty strange at first: “go for a shit, take your phone” became instead ..take a book – or – nothing, and just think. Stand in a queue – just stand. Wait for a friend – just….yeh, wait..

It is also a royal fucking pain in the arse

Being in London this week highlighted the utility that comes with a smartphone. Most obviously: maps, having a podcast player, being able to look up when the next train is… and, fuck, no damn Spotify either…

..but also: wow, sending a text without being able to do it properly is truly, mind-blowlingy, appallingy awful. Dumbphones pretty much force your grammar into a ditch where it is left bleeding to death: my capitalisation has gone to shit, I simply cannot bring myself to deal with apostrophes, and YES I may be a mere 45 years old but fucking HELL I look like an old person when I am trying to text. I lean over the screen in a way which is just incredibly lonely and old and sad – I might as well switch the fucking key tones on as well..

The upside is: it’s SO awful I have started actually “ringing” people. I know. This is when you speak into the phone and the other person replies, and you hear what they say and then…anyway, yes, that. And it turns out this is really quite nice, to hear my friends and talk to them properly.

The Not Mobile Saviour

The real learning for me here is this: put all your shit – all your email shit, all your social shit, all your podcast and music shit – even What’s App – and put it on your desktop machine or laptop.

Why? Because here, you have a huge amount more control. You can – and I do – use an app like Focus to make sure there are good chunks of time when none of this is in your face. You aren’t carrying this thing around with you all the time; you don’t pop it on the table in the cafe or bar or have it open when your kids are trying to talk to you over food: or at least – you sad fucker – you really shouldn’t.

The compromises

A few of these:

My smartphone lives on my desk where I can get to it for critical things like Google Authenticator or my banking apps. But I’ve also realised it’s ok to take it out and about sometimes without the SIM in it so I can listen to podcasts in the car or whatever.

I’ve realised I probably will want some kind of camera at some point – but actually a good one, one which is a joy to use and which I will choose to use with some distinction rather than in the scattergun smartphone way of fucking-hell-another-shot-better-take-that-and-never-look-at-it-again way.

[ I realise absolutely by the way that this would be a story of terrible irony if I ended up with a pocket full of other gadgets which merely replaced the previous really rather elegant single gadget solution – this is not the intention… I am aware… ]

Finally

Will I be doing this forever? I honestly don’t know. I feel way, way more connected to the world than I have done for a long time, which given the promise of connectivity spouted by the tech is supremely ironic – and as of right now I don’t think I’ll be going back any day soon. But who knows.

Is this for everyone? No.

Should everyone try it? Yes, I think you really should, even if it is for a day or a weekend or a week. Give it a go, see how it makes you feel. You may be very surprised.

In the way of the old Buddhist saying (“If you don’t have ten minutes to meditate, you should sit down and meditate for twenty minutes”) – if it makes you uncomfortable not having your smartphone for a day, maybe you should try not having a smartphone for a week…

“Free” lance

It’s generally thought that the earliest written usage of the word “Freelance” was in Walter Scott’s historical novel Ivanhoe, written in 1820:

I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them—I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.

So this was a two-word construction – a free lancer, a medieval fighter who would battle for whichever side offered to pay them the best wage. (Already, this sounds kind of familiar…)

Battles aside, what’s interesting about the phrase is the word “free”. This is someone who has freedom: an ability to choose their own path – to follow the work, follow the money, determine their own way through a working life.

Freedom is what motivates many freelancers, myself included. It’s been 7 years since I last worked for someone else in a traditional sense: 7 years that I’ve been deciding my own direction, waking up and deciding whether to go to work or sit on my arse for the day, 7 years of trying and failing to work out whether there is such a thing as a “balanced cashflow”. 7 years where I’ve been able to decide to dip out for a day, a week or a month ..and so on..

“Free” is all well and good, but at it’s heart, the basic freelance equation for most of us* goes something like this:

do more work -> get more money

..which quickly becomes this:

Take a holiday -> get less money.
Take time off sick -> get less money.
Spend time with the kids -> get less money.
Look at the sea -> get less money.
Take time out to meditate -> get less money.
Go for a run -> get less money.

..which ultimately boils down to..

DO ANYTHING OTHER THAN WORK -> get less money

[* this is of course if you work (like most freelancers do)
with clients, and not (as many freelancers aspire to)
with some kind of product ]

Store than in your mind for a moment, and now pop the person who is dealing with this already hard equation into an environment in which they’re working on their own – possibly with a partner, but ostensibly without a supportive organisational structure to hold them up. Now throw in some “I don’t know if there will be any work at all next month, I’d better say yes to this bit” and it becomes clear why freelancing can quickly become anything but “free”. Stress is high amongst us, and it’s easy to see why.

On the other hand… this is the most liberating, exciting, wonderfully deterministic way of living that there is. For me, this has been, and continues to be, bloody brilliant. I love it, and have absolutely no idea how I’d ever work for someone else. It’d almost definitely be a disaster [note to self to not include this on my CV] if I ever found myself in a more “traditional” business with a boss and a fixed week.

But: there is no doubt that I have to fight to retain balance – which means I have to actively watch the way I live. Watching in this way reminds me very much of mindfulness practice – it’s about observing the self, being aware at all time as to what is meshing, and what is crashing. Sometimes I get it wrong (for me, my indicator of things being out of kilter is that I begin to suffer nasty bouts of insomnia) but it is only after a bunch of years doing this that I am getting to know myself and my ways. I don’t get it right all the time: I’m still very much a novice, and I learn new things all the time.

The finding of this balance is what I find interesting, and what I intend to write more about in future posts. I see freelance as something which has to be viewed holistically. Living a freelance life has (almost by its “free” definition) to involve fitness, good eating, balance of work and life, family – as well as all those things we’ve already been fairly exhaustive as a community in writing about: to-do software, deep work, attention deficit, limiting mobile use, and so on.

So: coming up – some thoughts on exercise, software, in-box strategies, quick recipes for freelancers (vegetarian, obviously), that sort of thing. Now: I’m stepping away from the screen to go do something more interesting instead 😉

We stayed on holiday by mistake

Sometime in 2012, my wife and I and our two boys (aged 5 and 8) moved from Bath — our home of more than a decade — to a tiny shack in the woods in North Devon.

We’d been happy in Bath: we’d started two new lives with the births of our kids, founded a business and a digital festival, met many lifelong friends, and we lived in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Our move was an itch, and we were lucky enough to be in the position to scratch it. It started with my wife looking at houses in Orkney and Shetland and that usual fantasy of living a different kind of life, just for a little while: a remote, more self-sufficient, more simple way of being. Our itch morphed from fantasy to reality with the realisation that we could do up our holiday home (the shack) and spend a year living in the country. A friend separating from his wife and needing a new home quickly gave us an easy option to rent out our house, and the planets aligned still further when we got the kids into a fantastic school just down the road in Devon.

Fast forward 5 years and we’re still here — no longer in the same house (we still own it and eventually managed to do it up, too — the proof is on airbnb — and yes, you should book up and stay, it’s the loveliest place you can possibly imagine…) but still in the area, 10 miles away over the border in Cornwall.

We never meant to stay. It was going to be a year-long project, and then back home to Bath. As it is, we found some things that we didn’t even know we were looking for — among them balance, simplicity, freedom and perspective.

Our move to the middle of nowhere happened at a time that is typically called a mid life crisis: I was hitting 40, when previous assumptions about longevity and health are no longer as easy to rely on. Suddenly you’re half way through a typical average life span, and the big questions — why am I here, what is it all for, what is the shape of the life I want to lead, how can I make a difference to the people I care about — loom large. The smaller questions take on new shapes, too: should I be saving, am I eating ok, is my work eating my life and, fuck, how many times have I looked at my mobile today…

When you don’t have a belief system mapped out — and I’m one of those people who was never religious (more C of E by default just because it was there and I quite liked a hymn) but has become more and more convinced about a secular life as I’ve got older — questions like this feel as if they need a different kind of framing, one which is a bit more deliberate and thoughtful. The move and our now-life has led me to think hard about the way that people can choose to live — particularly about how a freelance working life can be moulded to fit a deeper and more satisfying balance in a wider spectrum of reflection, reading, friendships and family.
I’ve written a lot before: a book, numerous articles, blog posts for myself and others, courses, essays, short stories, workshops, and (my ten-year project, still going..) a novel — but now feels like a good time to focus some thoughts on this particular set of questions.

So: that’s my intention with Coast. If you work for yourself, maybe if you’re middle-aged, if you’re someone who is trying (not always successfully) to find balance and flow while juggling (not literally) kids and life, if you’re someone who has the black dog at their heels sometimes…maybe what I write might resonate with you.

Peace out x

The life project

My good friend @bealers just posted “Make life a side project” and it got me thinking.

My first reaction was something along the lines of shutup-you-crazy-person but now I’m veering slightly more to ah-i-think-i-kinda-see-what-you-mean. But not much.

The main thing that I reacted to was this notion of “sideness”. Putting life (yeah, we need to talk about what we all mean by that in a mo..) into a box marked “side project” seems to me to do something that’s potentially quite dangerous: It makes life “just another activity”, one which can be stalled, cut down to the minimum, fitted in around everything else, somehow made efficient.

I try* to think of this shit in a different way, a way that is a bit more redolent of Buddhist ways of thinking. I tend to think of us as being submerged in our lives, in life – and that the other shit that comes along: money, stress, illness, death even – are momentary interference. Another way of putting it: we float in life, and these things are ripples, tides, storms – but passing, not enduring.

There’s another complication here – one which Tolle alludes to when he talks about “life situation” – he famously said “Forget about your life situation and pay attention to your life”. This distinction between life and situation is crucial, I think, and “making life a side project” seems to miss this point.

* I say try above – because I am, like many of my peers – struggling a bit right now to keep things on the straight and narrow. Work balance, life balance, ill parents, moving house, finding time for the important things – this stuff can be a bit of a battle, and I’m not at my most shining at this moment.

But if there is one thing that I’ve taken away from all the reading, meditation, study and listening that I’ve done over the past ten years it is that things aren’t going to get better – by that I don’t mean fuck this shit, it’ll never get better but the notion of future-me-is-a-BETTER-me (or it’ll-all-be-great-as-soon-as-I’ve…) is a mind construct full of deceit. Those highlight reels on Instagram, the 18th new Javascript framework that just came out and YOU JUST GOTTA LEARN IT TO BE COOL, the new way of working, the smarter office you’re dreaming of, the future when business just ticks along and you get to spend time with your family on your yacht – these are all ok things to aspire to but as soon as they start running your life, you’re sunk.

The truth is this: you’re you, and life is now.