I learned a lot about what didn’t work in 2016. Here are the radical experiments of 2017 that have made it one of the best years in my life to date – and how they changed me for the better.
In 2016 I was largely unfulfilled and unhappy with how I was living. I wasn’t enjoying my work, in poor physical and mental shape, and was constantly drained. Whenever I could find time to escape, I did without much thought, mindlessly gorging myself on the vices of the modern world. This was all drawn in stark relief and clear irony after having finally finished David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest, a novel whose central and titular MacGuffin is a form of entertainment so potently entertaining that it could be used as a weapon. The novel bounces primarily between a halfway house for recovering addicts and a tennis academy for ambitious child prodigies, and both interweaving narratives made me step back, look at my life, and determine how I was going to correct course.
To combat a 2016 of excess I turned to a 2017 of asceticism. While I was hesitant to write about them and pat myself on the back too soon, passing the halfway point in the year seemed about as good as any to take stock. Expect further entries detailing these experiments and results in more detail. Without further ado, here is what I tried and why.
1. No Film and TV
In 2016 my Trakt.tv account tallied my annual film and TV viewing at over 1300 hours. That works to be a bit shy of a third of my waking year watching a screen, consuming content, and chasing the dopamine hit of just one more episode. Even if some of those hours were a screen playing something in the background while I worked, the majority would not be. To put the nail in the coffin – I’m sure that doesn’t account for all scripted entertainment I watched that year.
If there was a right time to read a book with themes about a culture obsessed with entertainment, addiction, and ambition – this was the year. Despite some fantastic-looking products coming out I haven’t had much issue sticking to it. It’s given me time to pursue hobbies that were difficult, time consuming, and more rewarding. Stay tuned to find out why I don’t think I will ever consume as much as I had ever again, how I broke the habit, and how this gave me a newfound clarity in marketing entertainment.
2. No Social Media
Like most people I know, I’ve dealt with feelings of missing out, social anxiety, bouts of depression, and feelings of isolation as a result of social media. I spent more time than I would like to admit finding the right photo, editing and applying filters, and crafting the most perfectly balanced ironic, self-aware, and sincere caption I could. I was aware of what posts had the best comments and the most likes and how they fit within the image I tried to portray. I did it over and over, because the slot machine payoff of notifications for likes, follows, retweets, and comments kept me coming back for hit after hit. Not so often as to break the effortlessly cool brand I aimed for, but not so infrequent that those I wanted to see it would have forgotten about me.
This was by far the most difficult experiment to undertake and habit to break, especially as I moved across the country away from friends and family, but has proven to be the most fruitful with positive results. I feel a day-to-day sense of freedom I haven’t felt since I first received my driver’s license and car as a teen, with none of the awkward hormonal rage and pretences that dominated my life then. Stay tuned to hear how I detoxed, what digital media insights I gathered from it, and how I plan to use it after this year.
3. No Alcohol
Alcohol has played a role in most social activities of my 20s so far. Grabbing a drink is the default for catching up with old friends, an excuse to hang out with day in and day out friends, a bonding experience for hopeful new friends, and an easy ease for nerves on a date. It was a given that a few beers would be had at each concert I attended and often also with coworkers and clients when the time came. In 2016 I was often drinking close to 6 days a week between the many activities it fit, and while not often more than a pint or two a day, it had become physically taxing to be drinking that consistently. Worrying for me was the self-reflection that I often drank more when I was uncomfortable or nervous at parties that I knew few people at.
This has been the most socially interesting experiment I’ve undertaken this year. Some have reacted with support, others with hostility, and even some with genuine bewilderment. My biggest takeaway is a more developed confidence and ease in situations that were previously awkward. Check back to hear how I plan to manage drinking habits going forward, handling uncomfortable social situations without alcohol, and finding substitute activities.
4. No News
One of my greatest strengths is my insatiable drive to learn. I am always in the process of reading a book, frequently enrolled in an online class, and even have a 30+ day streak in Duolingo. This drive bleeds into all aspects of my life. I want to know as much as I can about what’s happening in the world, whether that be local policy initiatives to alleviate traffic congestion, the straining of relationships between European powers, or the story behind the latest viral videos.
On an intuitive level people understand ripping the bandage off and taking a break from social media and alcohol. Some even understand taking a long break from Netflix and binge watching TV and movies. Few understand consciously deciding to abstain from the news of the world around us.
The straw that broke camels back of my frenzied consumption of the news was the 2016 US Presidential election. I read article after article, think-piece after think-piece, trying to understand what was happening and get a better idea of how it was going to end up. Despite devoting hundreds of hours to reading and thinking about it, the outcome caught me by surprise. I took a step back and realized that no amount of news consumption made my life better. I can count the number of meaningful life decisions that were bettered as a result of staying up to date on the news on one hand.
Next week I’ll be writing what I’ve learned so far from abstaining directly from the media cycle, and how it’s changed my approach to advertising and media strategies.
5. Mindfulness, Meditation, Exercise
Three books that I finished early this year were Cal Newport’s Deep Work, and Yuval Noah Harari’s two books – Sapiens and Homo Deus. Newport makes a compelling case for creating distraction free environments to work and being mindful with your time. It highlighted the ways I was conditioning myself toward shallow, low-impact work and how I could change it. Despite this being an important realization, Harari’s work left me floored. I was mostly mesmerized by Harari’s razor sharp perception and ability to clearly communicate how he saw the world, from the rise of humans to the coming techno-religious future he predicts. His dedication of Homo Deus to S. N. Goenka, the Vipassana meditation teacher, and the credit he gives it for his success in his interview with Ezra Klein sparked my curiosity.
I decided to give meditation a try. While difficult, it has become one of my favourite activities of the day. I’ve noticed a clear increase in my productivity and general well-being. Paired with a regular yoga practice a few times a week I’ve found a combination that given me more focus and left me in better physical shape.
6. Creation over Consumption
Ira Glass’ short speech about the gap between taste and the work you do is one of the most potent bits of advice I’ve ever heard. I had stopped myself over and over from creating the things I wanted to because I got discouraged at the gap between what I knew was good, and what I was capable of producing. I told myself if I consumed more of the things I wanted to create, my taste would become better and the work I did would be great when I tried it. But that’s not how skills develop. To get better at something, thinking about it isn’t enough. I’ve learned you have to do the things you want to get better at, even if the end product isn’t good at first. This might be obvious to others but to me this was a new realization.
This year I changed my mentality about creating. I adopted a mindset of a startup that needed to ship minimum viable products, fail early, and fail often. I was only going to grow in the ways I wanted by not being discouraged by failures and setbacks. I pulled together a few friends to make a podcast that fills a niche that is underserved, and while the gap between our taste and ability still exists, we are making real progress to close it. I’ve started writing 500 words a day and can see an improvement from when I started, and I’m making music that I would have otherwise abandoned after my first bad chord progression. So far I’m happy with these results. In the coming weeks and months I plan to share more of what I’ve been doing.
2017 has been a fantastic year so far and a far cry from how I spent 2016. I can’t wait to share more of what I’ve learned over the coming months.