How to… do selfcare as a PhD candidate – Part II: Why do physical exercise?

You might have guessed it already by seeing our blog subtitle the first time, but yes: We both are really into bouldering and climbing. 😉 Well, we are beginners and not so skilled, but it is fun and we love it. Every Monday for a couple of weeks now we are meeting at our favourite climbing hall and we try for an hour and a half to let go of all the work, the stress, the frustration.

Welcome to our second part on How to … do selfcare as a PhD candidate. (For part I you may click here!)

You might be in grad school, working on your PhD, your master’s or bachelor’s degree, basically it is always the same – your workload is amazing, you wish that you are actually in possession of one of Hermione Granger’s timeturners just to get a full night’s sleep and some kind of private life.

We all know, how good it feels to stay on your couch in the evening after work. BUT: There are those nasty backpain issues, there is the wish to do something with your body just to cope with the 8 to 10 hours a day you spent sitting around, writing, reading, studying.

The truth is, you must train your body to be ready to take these sitting hours. Your back, your butt, your arms, your neck and your legs will thank your for considering this. So, the best way is physical exercise. You have not to run a marathon, but hey, every two to three days a slow 5 km run, why not? Every two days an hour of yoga, maybe the gym, maybe you are taking your bike to get to work. Everything helps, just keep moving your body.

We both try to do some type of sports up to three times a week, which is not easy, when you have a 30h project job, which technically includes no PhD writing – and oh, there is your family as well, friends, partners. Social life, too, is a very important part of selfcare! In fact, it is that important, I will write a whole blogpost on it. And yes, you must eat, drink and sleep. However, sometimes I wish my days would have up to 36 hours, just to cope with my life outside university.

But let’s get back to our sporty theme for this post: Just exercise. Take a walk every evening. Call your friends and ask them, if they are into doing any type of sport – it is always much more fun together, but please, never forget, you should get enough alone-time for yourself. You may need this. I have often heard that it is one hour a day, where there should be just time for you, you alone. I see the smiles, yes, it sounds rather ridiculous. In our huge world of academic work, there is no space for these kinds of thoughts. Well, just be the first to think them.

Take a run, just you alone, with your favourite music or in silence. Breathe. If possible, try to run in a park – nature helps. Concentrate on how you run, on how your feet touch the ground. After half an hour you will fell calm, relaxed – and ready for some hours of work again.

The same magic happens to me while climbing. Of course, I am not alone in my climbing hall, but I concentrate on my grip, my hands, my feet and I enjoy myself when testing new routes.

The best thing to calm myself down, to get rid of my working day in my thoughts, is actually some yoga practice. I took several courses, yes, but there exists a huge number of videos and apps too, so, just try it! It is important to focus on yourself and your needs.

I will describe a little evening routine to you – I do it while already lying in bed in the evening. Just lay down, close your eyes and breathe in deeply. Feel your body. How does it feel? Is there any pain? Are there lots of thoughts wandering around your head? It’s okay, just let it be. Don’t blame yourself for overthinking too much. Just accept it. The thoughts are there, the pain in your back is there, you feel tired – everything normal, so far. Just remember, we are all human beings. How do your feet feel? Your hands? Your legs, your arms? Your stomach? Your neck? Your head? Your back? Just wander over your body, over each part, look after it – how does it feel, what is there? Note it and then accept it.

Do it as long as you want to do it. I always sleep in while thinking… In the beginning it was very hard, because I thought that yoga and meditating is about being one with the universe or whatever – well: yes and no. You come first. Nobody can ever be a better you, so just watch yourself, train it. It will get easier and better and suddenly – you might be calmed and relaxed. Is there any better thing after a hard day’s work? Right. There isn’t. And you certainly know this yoga-wisdom: We do yoga because we are all nuts. 😉

I really need to do something with my body during the week; you may not believe this, but once I started I could not stop it. I get angry and moody without exercise. My back is hurting – which stops every time after some kind of workout I do, may it be running or yoga or cimbing.

So, if you are looking for a healthy hobby and somthing that is really good for your body and your mindset – try exercising. Start very small, build up a routine and let the magic happen. Always remember, you have the time to watch Netflix or to hang out on your couch, you can spare half an hour of that time and take a walk, right?

All the best, you heros of everyday PhD (or academic) life, and keep on moving!

Astrid

 

 

Book Review: Make Time

As promised, I wanted to follow up my digital minimalsim series with a review of Make Time. It is definitely influenced by Cal Newports ideas of Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, but a bit more on the productivity / personal development side of the spectrum. But actually, I found the most valuable part to be the underlying philosophy. But see for yourselves.

An average American spends 4h watching TV and 4h scrolling their phones every day. Thus, the authors of Make Time conclude that “distraction is a full-time job”.

The Theory

They identify two big destructive tendencies of today’s world: The “busy bandwagon” and “infinity pools”. Like I already mentioned in the post on my fight with the screens:

“In Make Time. How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky argue that there are two destructive tendencies of our time, traps we ought to avoid at all costs. And that is on the one hand, “the busy bandwagon”, i.e. our culture of constant business and “infinity pools”, i.e. scolling dashboards which refresh themselves for all eternity, providing an endless amount of distraction. In the introduction to Make Time, the authors write:

“Nobody ever looked at an empty calendar and said, “The best way to spend this time is by cramming it full of meetings!” or got to work in the morning and thought, “Today I’ll spend hours on Facebook!” Yet that’s exactly what we do. Why?”

Change your defaults to make time for what matters

By saying “We can’t do the 57 things bloggers tell us we should do before 5a.m.”, the authors stress that this book is not meant for perfect people. It doesn’t require a will of steel. It stresses that you can make changes without crazy amounts of willpower if you just change the defaults which lead you to make bad choices. It’s not about doing more. It’s about making time for what matters. To you. The authors stress multiple times that the techniques were not written for super-humans.

Most of the techniques suggested in the book are probably already known to those who are into productivity tools and techniques. But, in my opinion, the most important thought they proliferate is that a lot of things which are non-optimal about our lives are based on the fact that we use the default option rather than actively making a choice for what we want.

The most important thing about Make Time is the philosophy behind it, according to me anyway. Since “most of our time is spent by default”, changing the default to a new default isn’t such a big deal.  But it makes a huge beneficial difference. And yet, it mostly requires that you make the mental shift: You need to come to the conclusion that you don’t want to live the default life.

 

The techniques

The main tips are based on the four steps from the authors’ previous Sprint, which shaped the popular technique of ‘design sprints’.

Highlight

The highlight is your main activity for the day. The goal, the thing you look forward to, the thing you will remember about your day. It can be something urgent. It can mean batching administrative tasks so you don’t get distracted by them at other times. Or just something very important to you or something that you will enjoy. It can be playing with your kids or writing a few pages ofyour PhD thesis. It takes around 60-90 minutes and you block time for it as if it were an important appointment. Be focused and don’t allow distractions. You will feel accomplished and up your life quality. Write down what it will be in advance, best in the morning (in one word reminder, on a post-it). All of the other to-dos go on a “might-do list”. That way, you don’t let the spirit of the ‘busy bandwagon’ and the feeling that you have to work as much as possible and be as “productive” as possible ruin what’s important to you. Try doing this highlight early in the morning or late at night. Any other time theoretically works too, but the authors have found one of these two options to most likely work for you in a reliable way.

Laser: Get rid of distraction

This can include switching off the internet, leaving your phone at home, getting a dumb phone or just un-installing the browser, the email app and social media apps on your smartphone. Without them, you disable this “swiss-army knife of distraction”. Get rid of the TV too. (Or just get the no-internet-plug, like I did, to switch it off between 19:00-08:00). 

Create as much of intentional inconvenience (logging out of all apps after each use), friction and barriers as possible (stashing the phone / TV away, unsubscribing from Netflix, unsubscribe from newsletters, delete apps, have empty tabs and an empty home screen without quicklinks to your favourite distractions; disable notifications). In short, make it as hard as possible for you to succumb to your old defaults.

One Thing to rule them all, One Thing to find them,
And in the darkness bind them.

(Tolkien on your smartphone)

JK and JZ exemplify this on “the distraction-free phone”. Maybe go back to wearing a wrist-watch. Don’t check your digital life first thing in the morning nor last thing at night. In order to get many of those benefits in one simple action which requires no willpower whatsoever, I have installed a timer plug on my wifi: it’s only available between 08:00-18:00. That way, I have gotten rid of most screen-induced losses of time and energy, am encouraged to read a book instead and still don’t miss out on any of the benefits.

And it was easy. Really no self-control involved. This is, I think, the strongest point of the book. Most books rely on super-high willpower you probably don’t have, especially in very stressful times when we’re at our most vulnerable.

Also, I found that disabeling “mobile data” on my phone really did the trick for me. I still check it when I have wifi. I can switch it back on if ever I get lost. That way, I can save my time until my light (dumb) phone comes in July. And also, you don’t get tracked as much if you’re not constanly online.

Check digital stuff only once per day, if possible. Check news once per week: How many ‘breaking news’ actually influence decisions you make daily? Hardly any, depending on your job. Also, to make sure you digital life (which you are not required to give up on completely) doesn’t eat up your real life, save it for the end of the work day. If you need email and social media for work, just do it in the late afternoon when you wouldn’t be productive anymore anyway. Also, wanting to get home will probably cause you to be less overly motivated to write 5 pages long emails and thus, help you streamline.

Also, if you are slow to respond, you reset expectations. As a detox, try to not respond to email straightaway. I have successfully made Wednesday my administration day where I batch administrative time-wasting and time-consuming tasks. It feels good to get it all done that day, but it also makes sure the urgent but not all that important stuff doesn’t ruin your focus capacities for everything else.

You will realize that once something else is “easier” and wasting time becomes an inconvenience, you won’t do it so much anymore. But of course, like we also saw in my last two posts on the topic (Fighting the screens and Digital Minimalism), tech companies spend a lot of time and energy to make their tools as alluring, conveniant and easy as possible, tapping into all of our psychological weaknesses.

But, like they write, perfection is another distraction. It’s okay to fall off the wagon some days.

 

Energize

Like the popular saying from strength training “leave one in the bar” suggests, even leaving work half an hour early, just before you get tired, can have tremendous effects on your productivity for the days after.

Exercise every day. Take 45 minutes for that. It is agreed that this will really boost your energy and reduce stress. However, don’t let this become yet another source of stress. If you’re too busy, squeeze in a super short workout. Just do something. And then again, you might have heard about this meditation quote:

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.

Most of the Energize part is made up of sound, but well-known advice like “reduce sugar”, “take naps”, “drink green tea”, “don’t have caffeine first thing in the morning” (get light, movement and water first), swipe sweets for dark chocolate and nuts as a default, etc.

It ends with the important point often announced in airplanes: Put on your own oxygen mask first. By that, they mean that you can’t help others and be a good person before you have taken care of yourself (see Astrid’s post on that). So be egoistic, so you have the energy needed for altruism.

Reflect

Which means that you should test out a new tactic every day and write down what has worked and what hasn’t. Then use this data to learn from it and fine-tune. Journaling or a simple notebook can serve for that. Keep notes of what you find out. You might not remember it next year but it can be beneficial to have some data on what works for you in the future. Even if you decide to discontinue something now, maybe you’d like to go back to it next year and would be happy to have a record of what has worked for you in the past. Also, journaling has been proven to have tons of benefits aside from that.

Conclusion

Overall, the book is not all that long (despite being almost 300 pages). The words are not dense on the pages, there are a lot of visualizations, etc. I listened to the Audiobook anyway. I found the book to be very valuable and packed with interesting thoughts, despite it being rather short and even though the tips by themselves are not all very innovative. Combined with the more ‘philosophical’ ideas it brings up (our culture as “busy bandwagon”, digital tools as “infinity pools”, living on defaults which means its easier to change the default than bring up willpower, etc.), all these tips can be seen in a different light as in other books. That’s why I liked it. Definitely worth it, but – even while you’ll miss out on the cool illustrations, maybe rather listen to the audio book, if you’re into that.

 

Best,

Sarah

 

Resources

Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky, Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, NY 2018. https://maketime.blog/

A lot of articles are available for free on: https://maketime.blog/articles/

London Climbing – at Vauxwall Climbing Centre

So, this is going to mark a new sort of posts here on our Bouldering Epigrammetry Blog – whenever we get the chance to visit and train in a new climbing hall, we will give you a very short experience-report on it.

So, the first climbing centre “abroad” I have ever visited was the Vauxwall Climbing Centre (here you can find their website with all informations on prices, shoe loan, opening hours etc.).

I tried to find a cimbing centre near to one of my major tube lines for reasons of not getting lost (I am quite an expert in getting lost in big cities you should know), and without any further thinking I decided for the Vauxwall West at Vauxhall.

I had to registrate myself online (which you can do at the centre or at home before you go there), then I got some saftey questions asked, in order to assure the staff that I know about the main rules of indoor climbing. The Vauxwall West ist quite small, I think, but this may also be because of the building is full of nooks and crannies and you can wander around like in a little labyrinth. They have enough “wall space”, showers and changing rooms, lockers for valuables and an area to rest and have a talk and a drink.

I got confused with the levels of difficulty, just starting with the green boulders, thinking of back home, where green is the second level you can take. It worked out fine, because actually at Vauxwall West, this is the first level. 😉 I was motivated and went for my next step, which back home is blue – but blue at Vauxwall West is orange with blue dots, so, I ended up wondering why this routes are so damned difficult… yeah, I was sitting in a room with inscriptions the whole day, I was not that well able to think. I finally noticed the table with the degree colours and started with the violet routes again, for violet is the second level. And I was really good, I have to say… 😉

I felt really good and I enjoyed myself a lot. I even started some discussions with other people climbing, we tried some difficult routes together. It was really nice and despite the first sight that there will not be enough space, it was quite fine and worked out well.

So, all in all, I really appreciated my two visits at the Vauxwall West, I had a good time and the staff was both times very helpful, friendly and qualified. When you are a first time customer, you will get 50% on your second visit’s payment, which is also a very nice thing to have, because bouldering is one expensive type of sport to do in London, I am afraid…

I look forward to visiting new climbing centers on my next stays – I do hope that I have the time. 😉

Always remember: Keep going –

Astrid

London calling …

Workshop on Digital and Practical Epigraphy
(London, April 29–May 4, 2019)

As you might have seen on our Twitter or Instagram-Account, I spent a week in London, participating at a really interesting workshop. It caught me while flipping over some homepages on epigraphy and classics in february this year. I was working on my catalogue for my thesis back then and somehow really frustrated about the fact that some archaeologists have no idea about epigraphy at all. Well, there are also some epigraphists who do not think inscriptions are archaeological material either, … So, it is time that we change this view, don’t you all think so?

I want to show my network and the people around me that (mainly) stones with letters on them are far more interesting than any epigraphist or archaeologist has ever thought of before. And because of that I decided that it is time to show the world my fascination. And as an archaeolgist, I use pictures for sharing my research, before I use words. And, good thing for me, this workshop was actually on taking pictures of inscriptions – or, so to speak, different methods to produce images and/or a proper documentation of inscriptions.

So, what did I learn at this particular workshop?

We started with the various methods of documenting inscriptions. And we really started from scratch, talking about the method of making squeezes (basically pressing and smashing wet special paper on a wet stone by using a great brush – acutally you can watch a video on how to do it here), about taking drawings of the inscriptions and so on. We talked about printed epigraphic ressources as well as about online sources.

We had a very interesting introduction to photogrammetry as a method of documentation for inscriptions. We tried it out at the wonderful St Pancras Gardens – next to making squeezes, we had to pick one stone of our choice – I decided on a little broken one who stucks in the earth and has a pretty angel face on it. We took the photographs wth our smartphones. This was completely new to me, for I am used to my DSLR camera – but I was very surprised to see my results after the whole aligning, dense cloud building and mesh building on Agisoft Metashape (looks quite the same like Photoscan, does the same, feels the same – at least for me).

As you can see, it does look really nice…

After our work with 3D-models and squeezes, we got into the “serious” DH-stuff… I am talking about TEI, EpiDoc and EFES (EpiDoc Front End Services, which is a custom and a platform for publication and search/indexing of EpiDoc files). I have heard the terms “TExt Encoding Initiative” and EpiDoc before, of course, I knew that there was something about coding and tagging and XML, but how all these things are really connected, never ever came clear to my mind, because I simply never ever had the time to read through the amazing amount of information on these things.

Basically, it is a way to encode your inscriptions with all the metadata and information you have about them (e.g. finding spots, description, the museums where it can be found today, transcription etc.) in XML and to make them accessible online on a database or website of your project. There are many different projects running on these kind of scheme, just scroll through the short Wikipedia entry on EpiDoc and click on the various links!

Coding means “keep the cookies coming” – and thank God they had really tasty cookies there. And coffee. Now I finally understand all my friends who work as programmers…

The people behind EpiDoc which gave this workshop are very interested in getting people to know about their project and sharing their knowledge on how to get inscriptions online to make them accessible and useful for science and research to happen. So, go ahead and inform yourself on the various possibilities of participating at a workshop where you can learn the basics of EpiDoc!

… and EFES, of course. This is one of my first tests with EpiDoc files I had to run on EFES, and it worked – it may not look that aesthetic, but, hey, it worked out the way I wanted it too!

By the end of the week, I have to admit it, I was really exhausted. There were so many new things criss-crosing in my mind, it took me nearly four days to recover my brain… For now, I am busy trying to summarize my notes and to work them through again, just making sure not to forget anything important. I hope that soon I can find the time to write more extensive posts on the single methods I learned about.

For now, it is just a very short summary on this amazing week.

I hope you enjoyed this little overview –

take care!

Astrid/archaeogirl

 

 

 

 

The fight against the screens: Getting my Life back

As you might know, I recently read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and decided I had to make some changes for the better. And I had already done back then. Now I wanted to keep you posted on first experiences of my experiment and also stress some aspects I left out last time because they didn’t fit nicely in the line of argument: The last blog was, after all, a book review and I didn’t want to inject too much of my own practical applications. This post now is full of them.

Some more theoretical inputs

The attention economy uses psychological tricks to maximize screen time. Rebel against this enslavement by only taking what you need and finding ways to ignore the other bids for attention (notifications, always being available via your phone, etc.). Maybe get a second phone if you want to keep the apps, but leave the one with all the apps at home. Bring only the indispensable with you every day and read a book instead of mindless scrolling. How much more there is to life when our time isn’t drained from us by social media and binge watching series.

How much more time would you have for activities you actually care about without being glued to a screen? Passive recreation robs you of time and leaves you more drained than before. In any case, Newport lists a lot of real life examples from people who adopted this lifestyle, so you might want to adopt what has worked for them.

 

Turning FOMO (fear of missing out) into JOMO (joy of missing out)

Newports TED talk offers 3 arguments for quitting social media are actually retorts to common objections to his message that we should quit social media:

  1. You won’t end up a hermit without these “fundamental technologies”. Social media is like a slotmachine, a tool which will make you addicted and a good source of money for the attention economy. They sell your screen time and data.
  2. Your work networking won’t be harmed, you will not be invisible in the economy. Since, per his last book Deep Work (review to come), we know that the economy wants high value produced from deep work, not superficial outcomes like networking.
  3. It’s not harmless. It causes anxiety and robs you of time. It ruins your capacity for concentration. Nobody can focus with a slotmachine in their pocket. Don’t let your fear of missing out cause you to inadvertently suffer from these negative impacts.

 

Actions Taken

Realization 1: The smartphone is not your friend, so get rid of it

Like Astrid wrote in her Selfcare Part I post, you have to plan your free time. If you don’t, somebody else will plan your day for you but it will contain none of the items which are important to you. Is that what you want?

She also suggested using the Pomodoro technique or setting your phone to flight mode. Flight mode is actually a good thing. Or just put the phone in another room. You will probably be too lazy to get up and get it just because of a little habitual urge to check your phone. I sometimes find it hard to ignore the phone but when I’m on holiday and don’t have wifi, I don’t need it any more after a few days. The point here is that you need to find a balance between being available at work and unavailable in your free time. But these spaces intersect so much. I use my phone for social stuff too. This, of course, I want to do at home. But then I go on to check my (work) email as well. Then I get distracted by social stuff at work.

But I really don’t want any of those things. The idea of being ‘available’ while at work might work out for an office worker. But not for someone required to do ‘deep work’, like writing a dissertation. (Deep Work is another book of Newport’s which I will review and discuss as well, because it’s so central to the PhD life.) Being available and instantly responsive will lead you to do superficial work which, by defintion, produces sub-standard results which are in no way unique and thus, basically, will not advance your career.

 

So one of the main things I did, like I indicated in the last post already, was getting a light phone 2. The point is, it won’t come until July (at the earliest) and I really can’t wait. I want things to change for the better now, so I made some changes and have tried to formulate them in a actionable way so you can follow them too, if you like.

 

Realization 2: Screens (streaming and social media) rob me of my time and rest

 

Like Newport stresses, they are in no way as harmless as we often tell ourselves. While Newport’s reasons are helpful and convincing already, I wanted to add one of my own. These apps don’t only steal my time and attention. They steal the time I have to do some things which are incredibly important to me: getting some substantial reading done, planning, language learning, exercise, good eating and keeping my appartment tidy. These things are actually super-important to me and massively contribute to my overall happiness. When I don’t get around to doing them, I feel horrible about myself and stressed. When I do, I am living the life I really want.

Actively paying attention to my digital habits now made me realize that it is exactly these digital habits which stop me from doing those things. The sacrifice I make (mindlessly) using these tools (to no discernible end) is pretty big. Those 2h a day are the two hours I’m missing to be my best self and live the life I want. That’s crazy! How could I let this happen until now? Probably because clutching to those screens and avoiding boredom is the lazy, easy default and it’s facilitated by some psychological factors.

But then again, these companies earn money by holding me back from being my best self and living the way I want. It’s actually disgusting! Yet, it is still hard to resist. I notice when the moments are when I usually would have switched on the tablet to stream a series. It is quite apparent to me now why it works. It’s easy. A nice default to mindlessly “relax”. You don’t have the initial hurdle of turining towards active rest. It all happens on the couch. It’s so easy. And so detrimental.

 

 

Reaction 1: Streaming is limited to 2 episodes OR 1 film per week and only in company. I can’t watch alone anymore. This will hopefully stop binges.

 

TV and series work because it’s an easy default thing to do to relax. In our leisure time we are at our most vulnerable to attention predators, so we end up stealing our own time. Then we’re annoyed we don’t have time left after work. We do have time. We just don’t use it well. Ergo my new rule: No more than 2 episodes of a series per week. Take time to disconnect completely instead.

Eating well, for example, happens when I get around to cooking and taking the time to prepare a nice meal. When I have the default of wanting to watch another episode of a series, I just quickly grab something so I can get back on the couch. But actually, now that I don’t have this opportunity, I remember that I really enjoy taking time to cook and eat well. Like it is said in Make Time, the next book I will review, it’s all about changing your defaults.

Also, not watching series is just that little bit of extra time I need to keep up with language learning (which I am very passionate about but have difficulty finding the time lately) and reading more which is also a goal I only achieve on-off so far. Hopefully this will change with my new habits in place.

 

Reaction 2: I vow not to scroll.

 

Like I hinted in the last post, I thought it might turn out to be problematic for me to delete all social media. Some of them (like Twitter) I had just recently joined to advertise my blogging activities. After some evaluation however, I am pretty sure that I end up spending at least 2h on them daily in mindless scrolling sessions. It’s not so much the constant checking which is the problem (it only sometimes is). It is the infinite scrolling which leads me to stay on the apps longer than I had intended. And it’s so hard to resist once you’ve allowed yourself more than 5min on the app. Mostly, I am quite successful so far trying to only check notifications (not all that often) and then leave the app straightaway. I don’t let myself get on the dashboard anymore at all. As you can imagine, it doesn’t always work. But I think that even now, in this imperfect implementation, I am already saving tons of time.

 

More tips to counter constant distraction which have worked for me

 

Filter email

 

Another smaller measure I took (and had already taken beforehand) is to have email filters in place for my work email. This helps distinguish spam from urgent or important mail already at reception. It helps me with the urge to check my email. So now, when I open the folder, a quick glance is enough to determine whether anything requires an immediate answer. However, I have become pretty selective with that, especially on weekends. Mostly, only my boss gets answers rightaway because he usually only writes when he’s really pressed for the answer. So much for getting distracted by work email.

 

That, I feel I already have under control at this point and I also don’t feel any inclination to relapse. Email is part of the “busy bandwagon” (Make Time review about to come soon…) which I have come to reject. This was a difficult thing to do in terms of mindset but not difficult to maintain once it was done.

 

Batch administrative tasks

 

I do my administrative stuff only on Wednesdays, the day which is already full with meetings anyway. This works out super-well for me and batching administrative tasks and answering email is a widely recommended tactic. Also, I have paired this “admin day” with my “office hours” for social interaction, like detailed in the post on digital minimalism. It’s the same day our PhD lunch takes place which  I hugely look forward to, so it provides me with a highlight to look forward to in the jungle of otherwise annonying office work. I’ve done this for a few months now. I still sometimes answer urgent stuff during the week, but overall it works really well and I wouldn’t want to go back.

 

Delete and Unsubscribe

 

Also, another one-time thing to do: Unsubscribe from “dangerous” newsletters and feeds. Delete problematic apps for good. You can still access most info from your browser. But then, better don’t carry a phone which has a browser. Change the default to an environment with less temptation if you’re really serious about getting your life back.

 

 

The difficult parts: Things to do instead of relapsing

Sleep

 

I often find myself engaging in meaningless (re-)activity, i.e. mindless scrolling or streaming, when I feel “too tired to do anything”. But hey, when we’re “too tired to do anything”, why don’t we just go to bed or take a nap? I mean, that’s what our body wants, right? Our culture’s new default option of on-screen reactive unrest, however, will not make us any more awake. The only thing it really does is pass the time. So unless you want your time gone with no noticable effect having been achieved in the meantime, you’d best skip those kinds of behaviours altogether, right? But then, why don’t we and why is it so hard? Why is it generally seen as laziness to take a nap instead, even though everybody knows that studies have shown that we only do real work approximately 10% of our “work” time and that naps actually make us more productive? In any case, I will try to nap more often or go to bed early instead of engaging in screen-related time-wasting behaviours. Let’s see how this works after the holidays when it’s more difficult to nap due to work responsibilities…

 

Identifying the culprits: Underlying tendencies

 

In Make Time. How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky argue that there are two destructive tendencies of our time, traps we ought to avoid at all costs. And that is on the one hand, “the busy bandwagon”, i.e. our culture of constant business and “infinity pools”, i.e. scolling dashboards which refresh themselves for all eternity, providing an endless amount of distraction. In the introduction to Make Time, the authors write:

 

“Nobody ever looked at an empty calendar and said, “The best way to spend this time is by cramming it full of meetings!” or got to work in the morning and thought, “Today I’ll spend hours on Facebook!” Yet that’s exactly what we do. Why?”

 

On-screen passive leisure activities are engineered to make you spend more time than you intended. Pre-bedtime blue light ruins your sleep. For me, it doesn’t seem to directly ruin my sleep but screens still screw with my natural daily rhythm somehow. The possibility of infinite scrolling or the ever self-starting new episodes of a series will make me go to bed a lot later than I would be tired. Often, they wake me up again at a late hour, so I can’t sleep and continue using those tools. It’s a vicious circle. Then I get up too late the next morning (which is guaranteed to be the start of an unproductive day) and, of course, am awake until late at night where digital attention seekers are already waiting to reap my life time from me.

So I succumb to both destructive tendencies: The “infinity pools” cause me to lose time in the first place. Then, the next morning, I am confronted with the “busy bandwagon” mindset in Academia and get stressed because I’m not productive enough. Living up to my own expections is hard, however, when I didn’t sleep well. Frustration. I allow myself some evening screen-indulgence because the day was so hard. Circle repeats itself.

 

Amping up your high-quality social life to fight Digital Addiction

In this TED talk about how addition really works, it is pointed out that even substance abuse (compared to which habitual addiction to a smartphone is way less severe) doesn’t work the way we think. Addiction has got less to do with the thing we’re addicted to than the environment we live in. In a perfect environment, neither our bodies nor our minds even care about alluring, potentially addictive things. This perfect world has  a lot to do with social life.

“Disconnection is the driver of addiction.”  “We’ve traded floor space for friends, stuff for connections.” – “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”

In an experiment with rats, it turned out that rats with empty cages were very prone to drug addiction and overdoses, whereas rats in fun cages that had everything they might want (connection to others, toys, etc.), they did not care for the drugs at all. Even though behavioural addictions like our screen addiction are not the same as substance abuse, the same methods might help to overcome them. We engange in addiction-style behaviours when we feel disconnected. Once we connect, there is no more reason for us to cling onto a screen. And I really felt that this is true. I said that I sometimes find it more easy to disconnect on a holiday and we all have probably already found ourselves getting distracted by our phones despite being in a social situation where it’s actually impolite. This TED talk made me realize that I don’t need my phone when with people I find socially stimulating who give me a deep sense of connection whereas, as an introvert at heart, hanging out with loose contacts stresses me rathering than being relaxing. This is why I sometimes cling to the phone in these situations. Like people cling to cigarettes in times of stress. This is also why Newports advice on reforming our social lives together with our digital habits is so crucial. First of all, if we don’t manage to create an engaging social life for us, chances aren’t so good we succeed in our digital endeavours. And also, it helps us stay on track.

Games didn’t work: They’re passive recreation and engineered for addiction all the same

Another approach I have tried is replacing social media scrolling wit playing a (digital) game. Scrolling, I had identified, meant that I just really wanted a break. So wouldn’t playing a game be a better choice than mindless scrolling? At least allowing myself to play a gave was an acknowledgement of the fact that I wanted a break and to celebrate giving myself one. But the problem is, games of today are engineered to be just as addictive as every other on-screen activitiy. Their goal, too, is to maximize your screen time. So games often aren’t playable without constantly waiting by the phone. Like my Harry Potter Mystery game that I really wanted to play because I like Harry Potter. It was quite disappointing to me that I had to stop because it just robbed me of so much of my time and didn’t really leave me more relaxed, if I’m being honest. It got me through a very stressful time and I really needed some diversion. But I am determined that there must be a better way.

Avoid the multi-purpose trap

Newport warns reforming our digital lives using quick “life hacks” from technology journalism. He thinks we should rather think about the bigger issues and underlying psychology. Why did it come this far in the first place? What do a need 122 apps for?

Newport stresses the fact that the biggest culprits in our digital tools are multi-purpose devices. While this seems to be their biggest pro, it is actually the main reason we over-indulge and have a hard time regulating our use. Sure, I can put my phone away to get work done on my laptop. But then, all the bad sites are also accessible from my laptop. Still, try to re-mono-purpose your devices as much as possible.

Switch off the internet if all else fails

I could buy a time-switch plug (10€ on Amazon) to have my internet switched of automatically. But then again, you sometimes really need it. I will get that plug anyway. No internet before 08:00 or after 18:00. I decided not to work evenings anymore anyway. This could leave me with tons of time to do something which is actually meaningful to me.

 

Conclusion

Social media is a source of entertainment which, like a slotmachine, treats you to a few shiny gadgets but really it’s traded against minutes of your time and glances into your personal life – data which can be sold. Social media giants hire “attention engineers” who use techniques from the gambling world to make their products as addictive as possible.

Series make you binge because it’s easier to keep watching than to stop. Scrolling gives you infinite diversion. So refuse to scroll. Avoid your “dashboards” like a deadly enemy. I’m trying hard, but it’s hard to be successful here, especially if you have gotten used to scrolling social media as a diversion when you don’t want to work.

I hope my experiments have inspired you to start a journey of your own. Maybe you can take away some of the tips I learned about for your own (PhD) life. Also, feel free to comment and share your own experiences.

Best,

Sarah