Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

A leisurely time writing at Needmore Coffee

The introduction to this book struck me, but like a lot of Newport’s work the first half is like beating a dead horse from an argument standpoint—because that’s his training as an academic. But the second half is filled with helpful suggestions. The introduction, however, is argumentative gold. He uses early modern and modern sources and ancient. There were a lot of notes:

If you can’t read my notes, here’s what it says. “I call it digital minimalism, and it applies the belief that less can be more to our relationship with digital tools.” Obviously, the less can be more aspect of things is exactly what I’m talking about.

He goes onto quote Henry David Thoreau (“simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”) and Marcus Aurelius. “You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?” 

Newport argues that the key to living well in our connected world is to spend less time using technology. When I read that line, I left the Political Science advising office at IU Bloomington and as I walked the mile to my car I counted how many IU students were walking and staring at their screens, or listening to earbuds rather than talking with each other. In the book I left a count in the margin after the above line—28 students versus 8 that were either talking with peers and two just being in the world. Looking around. Most of the latter were probably freshmen. Still in wonder at the place they found themselves. 

Newport ends his introduction with a quote from Henry David Thoreau from Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…They honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. (Newport XVIII)” This applies not just to my digital life, but my personal one as well—my horrible, debilitating pattern.

Most of the first half is pretty standard academic arguments, but the biggest part that struck me was in the Digital Declutter chapter. It asks: 

“How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harms?” 

He follows with the Minimalist Technology Screen. 

So I asked myself in the margins of these pages how will I use these digital tools like Twitter, Instagram, this website, and my newsletter. What won’t I use and who will I follow? It came down to this: 

1. Twitter is to share my blog posts and links and stories that I find interesting, basically just fodder for the newsletter. It’ll mostly be a collection of links. I’ll only use it four times a year and if something occurs to me to share it on there I’ll use Twitter for that. Like getting a short story published. I’ll follow writers and creators that I’ve actually read and enjoy. That’s about 75 people. That’s it. I’ll only look at it in the evenings, about 8pm. 

2. I’ll use Instagram as a kind of visual diary for the same amount of time as Twitter. Both apps will be on my phone for one week and totally blocked from use from 4am to 8pm during the blogging opening of each season. Both apps will be removed after the week is over. 

3. My website will be about all that I learned the previous season and the newsletter, a kind of seasonal review of what I learned. Like a Sunday New York Times—the season in review. And after the season’s blogging opening, I’ll use the newsletter for basically what I used to use Twitter and Tumblr for but instead, more like a letter from me to you and less time spent online and more time spent writing things that matter to me. 

Finally, I came up with a philosophy:

Marginalia translated: my phone is for taking photos, talking to friends, hearing interesting stories (podcasts) and making notes about my own writing in Bear. So why do I need an ipad?

Later in the book, Newport talks about Zadie Smith who uses the app Freedom so I thought, while reading this book, that I would try it. “Zadie Smith, who thanked Freedom by name in the acknowledgements of her critically acclaimed 2012 bestseller, NW, crediting the software for “creating the time” needed for her to finish the manuscript. Smith is not alone. Freedom’s internal research reveals that its users gain, on average, 2.5 hours of productive time per day.” (226)

I started using it, and I block the websites that distract me. Especially Newport, Austin Kleon, and Warren Ellis’s websites. I could wander around in those websites all day and not get anything done. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc of course. Including Google News and other websites. I don’t know how much time it saves me from being distracted, but it does help me be more deliberate with my time and if I can’t distract myself with websites, well, it keeps me writing because otherwise—symptomatically—I’ll get distracted easily. It’s called Attention Deficit Disorder for a good reason.  

And here’s the biggest thing that I continue to take from Newport: boredom is okay. As someone who suffers from ADD, being bored is hard for me. I often say I’m never bored and it’s true, but that’s also symptomatic. So, the biggest takeaway is to cultivate solitude. I take long walks more, or runs. I don’t bring my phone and sometimes I don’t bring a notebook. And I ask a question before my walk and by the end of the walk I write out whatever thoughts came to mind, but I don’t stop the walk for those reasons to note what I see, because, I realize—the notebook is a crutch. Not every thought I have is worth something. They are just thoughts. They grow faster than weeds and most are just as useful. Depending on the day, I get that more than anything else. 

There’s a lot more I learned from this book and rather than list them, I’ll just give you a photo of my notes at the end of the book. 

The pigs were requested by Squibbish. “Draw pig!”

The Journal of Best Practices by David J. Finch

No not this David Finch
This one.

 

Forgive me for this one because there will be a lot of comic book puns.

David J. Finch is like me—a writer, a parent, and husband. At my age, he was diagnosed with Aspergers. But when he was a kid he was also diagnosed with ADD and got help and treatment for it when I did not. It’s because I wasn’t a behavioral problem. I don’t lose my cool. In fact, I’m pretty calm a lot of the time—very easy-going—until I’m not. I can rage, snap, and treat loved ones like the bad guys whenever I like. And will at least once a week. It’s horrible.

After my evaluation was complete it came with a bibliography for future reading and this book was one of them. The fact that it started with journal and best practices and with the subhead of: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband. I knew I had to read it.

My symptoms—my mental health was exacerbated by a life-altering move. It’s still affecting my personal life. This, obviously, is really hard to admit publicly, but I have to take accountability and I don’t want to use my condition as a stick to beat myself up and use my family as a barometer for expectations that I pile on top of myself and then fail to achieve my goals. Here’s something my wife said: “choose you; choose us.”  My symptoms, while not hyperactive, do manifest as tantrums from time to time so I do behave like a 40-year-old toddler. I make my familythe bad guy and I’m not managing myself, which is the key to this book, a journal of best practices. So I started my own journal of Best Actions. Here’s something that I took from this book, something my wife said: “choose you; choose us.” 

I’ve amended my root productivity document after reading this book to help me manage my symptoms:

1. Listen and give your undivided attention. 2. Perform action to what you’re paying attention to and either achieve the goal of what you’re acting on or receive the stimuli from the result. 3. Seek solutions by managing yourself and doing research and asking questions but don’t blame your mind, your body, or your family for how you’re feeling or falling into your victim pattern where you make excuses, blame others, complain, and turn people into the bad guy. 4. Recognize that your mind is unreliable and it is just doing what it’s used to and it is your responsibility to respond as a creator and change your Victim / Creator alternating pattern. So go back to the beginning until you achieve your goal and stay out of the Victim’s Woods, stay on the Creator’s Path and get to the Ideal Life Summit. Remember Aurelius: “You could leave life right now. Let that govern what you DO, say, and think.”

From my Routines document.

Here’s what that means: it’s me, not my wife or Squibbish, that is responsible for my symptoms. I was born this way and it means that I have things to say about it. And on today, our four-year-anniversary, the ultimate lesson of the Journal of Best Practices is to manage myself and let go of my hang-ups. They are a part of who I am, but I’m responsible for them–and so are you. So that means a better routine for managing myself–and it starts with the above. It’s also one that Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners has helped me explore.

How to Talk So Little Kids Listen By Joanna Faber and Julia King

The first symptoms of my conditions are dysthymia and extreme egotism, which—I think—if you read this website you can see that I have that. 

The first thing that damages one’s relationship with others as someone with ADD and Aspergers is how self-centered they are, unfocused, and inflexible. They are used to managing themselves through their schedule and not interracting with others. Obviously this is a problem when you have children, are married, and you work with people rather than alone. I think this is one of the reasons why writing for a living was and still is very attractive—I’m alone with my thoughts. I make money from my thoughts, my words, and my imaginary friends. I’m good with words, thoughts, setting intentions, and being creative, but I’m not good at action. (See also: Why I never submitted my fiction until recently.) So when I picked up this book as a part of trying to re-frame how I talk and listen to my son (Squibbish), I was going through my evaluation and one of the things that I struggle with is talking and listening to others. That’s symptomatic of someone with High Functioning Autism (Aspergers, HFA, etc.) They are so rigid in their schedules, routines, and struggle with empathy. For me it manifests as self-centered. We don’t come wired well for empathy. I think that’s why I was so well-suited to memoir and nonfiction and fiction that is strongly autobiographical. But in my evaluation I came to realize that my empathy quotient is higher than most people with Aspergers and that’s why I’m tricky to diagnose. I’m good at playing alone, being imaginative, and creative. I think it’s because I love to read, write, and teach. To be good at any of those things you have to be somewhat good with people. And I am. Another reason why I’m tricky but still not “neurotypical.” 

My first fiction short story that was published was something I actually did as a kid. What happened in the story, the people involved in the story were not people I knew, or how things concluded, but they are extensions of my life—fictional takes on my autobio. 

So I lean into my symptoms when I do that and I write it off as “Well all fiction writers do that to a certain extent. They take elements of their lives and mine it in their fiction.” That’s true, but I probably do it more than others. Writers also stick to a strict schedule or pattern and when things don’t go to plan, they struggle. That is, once again, symptomatic of Aspergers. A lack of attention, of focus, of being able to process feedback as information rather than an attack is symptomatic of ADD. A lack of social and communication skills is symptomatic of both. All of the above make for a pretty rough cocktail when you’re a dad who wants to be a fiction writer. 

What do you do when you have this problem? I read. I ask questions, I try to learn, but when you have a hard time processing information as information and processing words into actions, well, you have a cocktail that makes you stagger around psychologically drunk every other day. How do you combat that? You go to therapy. You go to a group. You read deeply, slowly, and you make notes. You talk about what you learned.

So that’s what I did and How to Talk So Little Kids Listen continues to help me. Sure some days are better than others, but that’s life as a parent. You have to learn to go with the flow of your kids. That’s what I learned from this book. Some highlights: 

  1. “You can’t behave right when you don’t feel right.” That’s kind of my mantra with regard to Squibbish.
  2. Acknowledge feelings with words and avoid using the word “you” when expressing annoyance, irritation, or anger.” 
  3. Take action with limits: “I don’t want to be late for work. I’m buckling you in, I know how much you hate that!” 
  4. Be playful and make it a game. 
  5. Describe the effect on others: “The baby loves it when you make those funny sounds. I see a big smile on her face.” 

But the chapter that really did it for me was Chapter 5: Tools for kids who are differently wired. 

“Our world feels wrong to him—too loud or too quiet, too much touching or not enough, too much to look at, and too exhausting to make sense of it all.” (167)

This nailed the book for me because it helps me approach a situation, hypothetically, when and if Squibbish or any of his future siblings manifest my symptoms. This book, and all of this research I’ve done on my diagnosis will help my wife and I work with that possible future, and hopefully be able to help them way earlier than I got the help I needed. Twenty-four years after my first diagnosis is a tragedy but not one I, or anyone else, had any control over.

More on that tomorrow.

The Method.

The book and my journal–open to today’s entry.

What finally convinced me to read the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius was how frequently it was mentioned in the Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll. The other thing that struck me was that Carroll was diagnosed with ADD when he was younger and eventually this led to the development of this method. 

While reviewing the book and taking notes on it into my diary this past winter and spring, I was undergoing an evaluation and was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and Aspergers. For twenty-four years of my life I knew I had a non-verbal learning disability, which is the school psychologist way of saying Aspergers or as it is now known as High Functioning Austism, but I came to realize that this former diagnosis was not the whole picture, and the realization for why the Bullet Journal worked so well for me in the last seven years of my life was because it was designed by someone like me. 

So when Carroll quoted Aurelius, Seneca, and others in the book I knew I finally had to give the Stoics a chance. And both journaling and Stoicism has helped me come to grips with my diagnosis–twenty-four years after an accurate diagnosis may have helped save a lot of strife in my life. In the chapter on control, Carroll writes: 

“We can’t control our feelings, people, or external events. But there is something we can control and it’s powerful. We can control how we respond to what happens to us.” 

My marginalia in the book, because I’m a nerd.

This quote has become the touchstone of my exterior life the last six months. I’ve always considered myself a Naturalist because this is what naturalism is about. The practice Carroll preaches to get this quote from intention to action, or responding vs reacting is to go through what you have to do that day and identify what is and what is not in your control. For example, on Sunday, I wrote that it would be great if I took a nap, but immediately after I did a little premeditation and looked at what I had to do on Sunday—it became clear that a nap wasn’t going to happen. Despite knowing I needed it. I had to look at the manufacturer of our house’s sun-room door, write three pages and do a blog update, write the newsletter, write the week schedule; and primarily, break down the boxes in the garage to be taken out by the recycling service Monday morning. So I resolved that the most important thing that I do is break down the boxes in the garage and get them out of there so we can at least park one car in there. If I did that then I would sit on the couch for a little while and read and put my kid in front of a movie, and I did that and dozed off for about a half hour. 

Most importantly, goals provide direction, they focus on outcomes that are out of our control, so really the only way to achieve anything is to break them down into actions like: use the box cutter to strip the box for the television. Undo the tape on the book boxes and lay them flat so that you can cart them out easily in the morning with the big broom. 

But most of all write down at the end of the day what you’re learning. I do a morning reflection where I talk about what I’m grateful for, what would make today great, and I practice the Stoic method of Premeditatio Malorum, or worst case scenario.  Initially, in my evening reflection, I started out asking of “How Could I have Made Today Better?” Which, if you’re like me, lays blame on oneself for not being “neurotypical.” So instead I flipped that and ask myself: what am I learning? What lessons has [blank situation or relationship] taught me or inspired me to learn? What do I want to learn more about? And finally how will I go about learning it? Because that doesn’t make excuses, or blame others or complain that heads in the direction education and creative problem-solving. It’s staying on the Hike’s path. 

It is one of the reasons why this book led to How to Talk So Little Kids Listen and how I learned how to be sensitive to my son’s needs and how to not just listen to him but others as well, because that’s something Aspie folks like me struggle with horribly. 

Goals Chapter Notes

A Meditation on Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory Hayes

I read a lot of Stoic philosophy this season. I started with daily reading of the Daily Stoic blog, which led me to Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, then Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and the latter really struck me. I haven’t finished it, but I find myself going back to it frequently and making margin notes. That’s the thing about philosophy books is that after a while it’s often beating a dead horse. A thing I go back to all the time is his quote: 

“The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.” 

What I perceive as victim behavior is a pattern. I have days, like everyone else, that are A+ Days—where I’m managing my health both mental and physical, my behaviors as father and husband, my reactions as a writer and employee, and on those days I’m at my most creative. But usually what follows is a victim day. Where the grade for the previous day slides completely backwards, cut in half, or a downright failure on every level. I’m floundering, flustered, and FINE. My days frequently alternate. Last week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday were victim days. Tuesday, Thursday, and yesterday were very good days in fact—and I know that’s my pattern. My perception. So, I’m trying to change my perceptions of this behavior, this attrition back to the norm of getting lost in the woods and staying on the path.

It’s funny, I started reading Drew Magary’s second novel, The Hike, this season on my Kindle and it’s exactly about the last essay of the spring season on this blog —staying on the creator’s path but instead if you get drawn off you die. The main character, Ben, is frequently chased by two men wearing dog faces for masks. It’s like a twisted Alice in Wonderland about a husband going for a walk in the woods and trying to get back to his family. It’s scary how good it is and applies to where my life is right now. It seems like everything I read now is the exact right thing that should be reading in the moment. It’s good. A real page turner. That Magary must be a professional or something. 

Recently, Magary wrote about his traumatic brain aneurism and that’s the trend of this past season—reading about traumatic brain injuries, because in a way I’ve just come to realize that my brain is not so much injured as not typical, or as psychologists and doctors say: “neurotypical.” 

Depending on what day it is in my pattern, I try to see this perception as a good or bad thing. It goes both ways. Like everyone, but what Meditations taught me—and I’m still trying to learn it is that—is this is just perception and if I believe it to be true if I respond to the Victim / Creator Hike Pattern as being true for my daily life—it becomes true. So I’m trying to modify my perception of The Hike, take ownership and responsibility for it, and recognize that it’s just perception but it’s my job as a human being to respond to it appropriately. 

Five things I learned from Theft by Finding by David Sedaris.

Five things I learned from Theft by Finding by David Sedaris.

One: That diaries are not that interesting.

Two: They are necessary as a collection of your experiences that can be mined for better writing.

Three: They’re good to reflect on after years to see how very little you’ve changed and see that and develop strategies.

Four: his index will be helpful— and hopefully not too time-consuming—to see repeated themes and life events for easy reference. That’s something I’m going to work on this year.

Five: Quote:

“That’s the thing with a diary though. In order to record your life you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk but beyond it. Out in the world where it’s so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you need to sit down and write about it.”

I think the Visual Companion to this book will be super-interesting.

Five Things I Learned from Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me

In my year-end newsletter, I talked about how much I loved Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me– his collection of essays on writing fiction. Percy is the author of Red Moon and the recent Dark Net as well as the writer behind Green Arrow and Teen Titans and a recent run on James Bond. I finally managed to gather my fifty-eight pages of notes and create a checklist to go off of when I’m writing fiction. In all there are 30 things I took away from Thrill Me. I’m not going to list all thirty things but here are the five major takeaways: 

  1. Go the Distance: Percy’s tier-based system for submitting short fiction. One of my writing goals this year is to submit more. I’m going to adopt his system which is you set up five tiers. On the first tier you put the New Yorker, the Paris Review, the Atlantic, McSweeneys, Tin House, etc. Publications that there’s no way you’d get into without some form of reputation and you send a copy of one story to five publications in the first tier, and for every rejection you send five more copies of that one story to five publications on the second tier, and so on and so forth. 
  2. Percy has an old dark room in his office where he pins up loose ideas, articles, photos and paintings that could fuel a story. He talks about it in this video. For me, I setup up a “Story board” it’s a bulletin board with loose ideas, pitches, articles, and ripped out sheets of loose paper that might eventually form the genesis of a story. There are four sections: short stories, comics, novel and nonfiction.
  3. Never use back story except in the adverbial clause.
  4. Modulation is key to a good story: what Percy does is create a suspense-o-meter, where he creates—like a mountain valley—rising action and the valleys of that action over the top of his outline. “Action, reaction.” So to have a good story you not only need action but you must also have the emotions that come out of that action. He calls these moments of emotional reality “the Flaming Chainsaws,” these are things that fuel character growth: their financial, familial, ideological, professional, physical, and spiritual goals and how those things create a journey for the character to go on. 
  5. Finally, most importantly for me anyway is submitting. As Percy says: 

“After polishing a story until it shines, nobody is going to approach you on the street and seize your hand and say, ‘congratulations! You did it!’ There’s more work to be done. The same stubborn mind-set that informs your craft must inform the often frustrating, sometimes humiliating work of submission (such an apt word, no?). You need to know that breaking into magazines is about talent, yes, but also doggedness.”

I’m good at the practice of writing, of crafting a story and getting it done and constantly working on becoming a better writer, but I’m not good at going this “distance.” I don’t submit and that’s what I resolve to change this year in my writing life and get one story into a publication by the end of it.

That and get a full-time job. What’s in the distance for you?