How to live

The Beauty of Silence

This is an essay about technology and modern life. My hope is that the discussions I will be having in these pages can be easily transferred to the many other challenges that will appear in the future, especially with the advent of advanced robotics, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence.

It is interesting to note that one cannot choose not to have a philosophy of life because doing that is itself a philosophy of life. In very much the same way, one cannot simply ignore technological advancement, short of retreating to a remote cabin in the wilderness, and even then there are no guarantees.

So if we decide that we are going to live in the world, then we need to learn embrace change, whether that is political, technological, climatic, or personal.

Things that we did one-way last year, we are going to do in a different way next year.

People or organizations that don’t understand that, fall by the wayside and are shunned by their peers and the rest of the world.

Think of the Nokias and Yahoos of this world or anyone above the age of 50 who didn’t take the time to learn to use a computer during the transition in the ‘90s and early 2000s.

They became irrelevant in less than ten years. That is the harsh reality of the times we live in.

Previously, technological change was so slow that if you moved a hundred years either way from the time you lived in, you would feel right at home, but now the same cannot be said for even a decade of time.

With things moving so quickly, with the equivalent of what used to be hundreds of years of advancement happening in a matter of years, we need to change our approach to technology, to make sure technology is always helping us to flourish as human beings, not holding us back from our potential.!

So what worked before, won’t work anymore. Remember, the only constant in life is change.

So while we should be fast in embracing technology, we should not do so in a thoughtless manner. Currently, it is almost expected for a person in First World countries to own a smartphone, and one probably should, there are a huge amount of advantages to owning one.

You will never get lost, as you have interactive maps a touch away.
You can look up phone numbers for any business you need, at any time.
You can look up any information on the internet at any time.
You have an instant source of entertainment at any time.
However, while there certainly lots of advantages to owning a smartphone, there are also disadvantages that are sometimes not so obvious.

I always think about how embarrassing it would be to go back in time and explain to some of the greatest minds that have lived how the average person uses that tool in their pockets that can access the entire world’s collective knowledge.

Being always connected means that other people expect you to be connected, and if you are not, that can cause feelings such as anger, disappointment, or resentment.

So my idea is this: we should retain a healthy scepticism for technology, and be on guard for technologies that radically alter our behaviour

While we shouldn’t glorify the old ways of doing things (Where is that quote about viewing things from the far past with admiration?) we also should not discount them.

Remember that because things changed very slowly in the past, people had a lot of time – generations of time – to slowly improve each and every facet.

Different cultures did this in different ways. For instance, in Europe, we kept trying to improve our technology, and to make it accessible to each and every person, while in Japan they tried to improve themselves. An example of this can be seen in the bow, one of the most deadly weapons that reigned supreme for thousands of years. The west continuously tried to improve the bow itself, while the Japanese refined their techniques and drill practices to the point of perfection.

Neither side has the correct approach. The approaches differ because of the different geo-political situations across the world.

So we should think about how to mix both approaches in the way we handle new technology, because we need to remember that while technology can make things faster and easier, it cannot replace us as the final thinking and decision machines.

For instance, calculators have essentially removed the need for anyone to learn calculation tables by heart, or to be able to do long multiplication or division quickly in their head or on paper.

However, now that the bar has been raised, the real question is not how to calculate, but what to calculate. And this is something that a calculator cannot tell us.

And so we need to accept the wisdom of the philosophers of the ancient world and understand that wisdom reigns supreme, and so nothing is good or bad, but it’s the way we think about it or approach it.

Shakespeare got it right:

Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

So keep this is mind as you read this essay. Because you may well be able to have notifications on your phone and be completely unaffected by them.

If that is the case, then well done, you’re a far stronger person than I!

Introduction

This is my first lengthy essay on notifications, and even as I am typing this very sentence I am excited. Admittedly, the topic is small, but I feel that it is a good start for me. I harbor ambitions to write a book on the philosophy of life, or how to live a good live, but I fear that at twenty-seven years of age I do not believe that I have either the experience nor the mental capacity to get through such a monumental task.

And so, here I find myself writing on what may at first appear a mundane topic:

Why you should turn off your mobile phone notifications.

The idea behind writing on this topic came after I wrote a short thought in my diary:

I’ve recently made the decision to turn off all notifications from my phone, with the exception of the ringing sound when I actually receive a phone call. It is an incredibly liberating decisions. I used to receiving hundreds of notifications a day, and my guess was that I checked my phone more than 200 times per day. Analyzing my behaviour, it felt like this was almost an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it was having a negative impact on my life. Now I check my phone every few hours, and I can batch reply to all the messages and notifications as I see fit, and I find that I also use my phone far less than before. The issue isn’t technology, it is us. We don’t stop to think about how the advancement of technology is not always positive, that what we might gain in convenience we may lose in other ways.

I create these short thoughts as a repository for future ideas on essays, which I fond of writing, and looking through my short thoughts was a natural thing to do while hunting for a simple enough idea to turn into an essay.

So why did I choose this topic? I guess this combines many ideas and broader topic that I am enthusiastic about.

The very first Apple brochure had at the top: Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication, which was in turn a quote by Leonardo Da Vinci.

As the world has grown increasingly complex, the basic tools available to us (i.e. our brains!) have not really changed. We are much better adapted at solving the type of problems that we might find out in the African Savanna than in the modern corporate boardroom, the trading floor, or even in fairly mundane modern jobs and situations.

One clear example of this is how we are aware on a rational level that we live in a time where many things are of an exponential, or disproportionate, nature and yet our brains still cannot understand this on a subconscious level – we have to actively remind ourself. Think of the distribution of salaries in a company, the distribution of military power in the world, and how certain types of actions can have huge consequences.

I love giving this example to people I meet:

If you take a standard piece of a4 paper and fold it fifty times (imagine that it is possible), how thick would the paper be? I’ve asked this to a really wide variety of people, from college professors to business executives, and nobody has been near the correct answer.

Most people will estimate between 30cm and 60cm, while the true answer is somewhere around the 56 million kilometer mark, which to put into perspective is about a third of the way to the Sun from Earth.

How could they be so wrong?

The question was a simple one, and they were not even under time pressure,. The issue is that our brains cannot possibly process how the thickness of a piece of paper (0.05mm) can turn into 56 million kilometer, because we are not primed to understand exponential growth in this way.

Let’s run the maths:

  1. Your average piece of paper is 0.05mm thick.
  2. At 8 folds and the paper will be about the width of a hand (5cm), that’s not so impressive, but we can see how this might work..
  3. At 20 folds your piece of paper is now an impressive 50m high.
  4. Add another 10 folds for a total of 30 folds, and your piece of paper is 50km high, several times the height of the highest mountain on Earth. Fold it one more time and congratulations, you are then officially in space.
  5. At some point between the 42nd and 43rd fold, your piece of paper would touch the Moon from Earth, quite impressive.
  6. If we now move forward to 84 folds, your piece of paper will now be 204,458 light years thick (so the distance that light would travel in 204,458 years at a speed of approximately 300,000km/second!) which is quite a bit bigger than the Andromeda Galaxy.
  7. 105 folds, you might actually run out of space – your piece of paper is now as wide as the entire observable universe.

Let’s move closer back to home and go back to the African Savanna.

If as an early hunter-gatherer back in the day you spent twice as much time gathering nuts, it is likely that you will end up with roughly twice as many nuts as someone who only spends half as much time as you do. That sounds fair enough and it is very easy for anyone to understand.

Unfortunately for us, the world is not so simple anymore.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Because we have the ability to mould and shape the world around us, we can choose to consciously simplify the world around us.

There are two ways we can do this:

  1. Is avoiding anything that is “complex”. This may mean being careful in what jobs and responsibilities you take on, and where you live. This is quite difficult for most people to achieve as it means living a very different life to the rest of the people around you.
  2. The second way, which is what this essay is essentially advocating, is to pick and choose your battles. Making small but significant behavioral changes so that you can make life in your current society as simple as it can be without having too many adverse affects.

Of course, one has to remember that it is always a tradeoff. To make things simpler, it essentially means saying no to choice and variety, and some may argue that this is exactly what makes life exciting, having all this chaos flying around us and not being quite sure what we can and cannot do, what is easily reachable and what is not.

That is not a bad argument, but unfortunately only a select few (i..e the lucky ones) are going to benefit from this, because the average person is, by definition, going to mediocre, and so they won’t benefit from chaos as much as they will benefit from simplicity.

The Use (and Misuse) of Technology

As I mentioned at the beginning, we cannot ignore the advance of technology, but we must understand that with each step we take forward, we are essentially opening a new Pandora’s box.

We never quite know how new innovations will pan out.

I remember watching a video a while back in which a computer scientist in the ‘70s predicts that in the future computers will be so powerful that they will be small enough to fit in a pocket and that this will free people to work anywhere and everywhere they like, and stop us from wasting time commuting to work.

He was partly right, but what he didn’t foresee is how the same technology that frees us also enslaves us. Tests have shown that young teens now experience quite severe anxiety when their smartphone is removed from them for significant periods of time.

But what is worse is how technology simultaneously gives us free time, only to then take it again by giving us endless opportunities for distractions. For instance, Youtube offers billions of hours of videos on any subject, more than you could watch in tens of thousands of years.

Of course, this is the duality of human nature at play. In “A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Tree”, the author, writing hundreds of years ago, makes the point that while the abuse of alcohol really is a terrible thing, there are also immense pleasure to be derived from enjoying a cup of sake beneath a cherry tree.

The point being is that there is nothing wrong with alcohol per se, it merely amplifies the defects that we already personally have.

And perhaps it is the same with technology.

While it is a common sight to see groups of friends or even couples at restaurants and bars not talking to each other but simply having their heads buried in their phones, you can make the personal choice not behave that way.

However, humans by default have a fairly addictive personality, and this is where notifications come in and make it very difficult to act as rational beings.

Communication

If you look at the contenders for the top inventions of all time, you will often find that inventions that help us to communicate are often nominated. The printing press, the phone, the internet, to name but just a few.

This is not a coincidence.

Without a way to communicate effectively and, more importantly, store the communication for later, we would not be able to advance as a species, because there is simply too much knowledge for it to be effectively stored in the brains of various individuals and for it to be shared and passed on effectively.

There is an interesting theory, which I alluded to earlier when I mentioned alcohol, called the Inverted U Curve theory. This states that things have an optimum quantity. So with zero quantity you get zero benefit, and as you increase the quantity, the benefits increase, as one would expect.

But then, something strange starts to happen. As you keep increasing the quantity, suddenly the benefit growth starts to slow down, and then eventually starts to reverse.

We can apply this to almost any facet of life, from financial wealth, the number of friends you have, the amount you drink, and yes, even the amount of communication in your life.

As I will discuss later, for communication to have depth and meaning, in needs to be thoughtful. Constant, cheap, communication does not encourage us to be thoughtful, in fact it encourages quite the opposite.

Gone are the days where lovers sent long poetic letters to each other, each taking days or weeks to arrive, and then having an excruciating wait for a reply. However, the letters themselves had far more meaning than a quick exchange on instant messaging, because you knew back then that this was the only chance you would get to communicate for a substantial amount of time.

Change

Change is the only constant, and at the heart of things, this is a essay about change. If you believe that notifications are having an adverse affect in your life, at some point you made the (un)conscious decision to allow notifications in your life, and so now you need to make a conscious decision to remove them from your life.

It is said that the person who can accept and master change will constantly be happy, which seems to be a paradox, but in practice I have found it to be completely true.

Daily Habits

The things we do each and everyday are exactly what makes us who we are.

You are not really your past actions, you are your current ones, and your future ones. So it must be a part of a coherent philosophy of life to take great care in the things that we decide to do each and every day of our lives.

What is also important, is the environment that we choose to spend our daily time in.

The Broken Window Theory

I really like the radical idea behind the Broken Window Theory, first popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, that states that small behavioral changes can and do effect larger behavioral changes, even without us noticing. The Theory gets it’s name from the following observation:

In neighborhoods where broken windows were not fixed, this lead to the belief that one could get away with other things, such as stealing, which then lead to the belief that it is fine to peddle drugs openly, and so on and on. If the windows are always fixed when they are broken, the next logical steps is removed and the neighborhood stays a safe place to live.

Obviously we can poke holes in the Broken Window Theory, as there are plenty of intertwined and conflicting complex socio-economic ideas why certain areas are dangerous to live in while others are perfectly safe.

However, I have found that in the case of turning off mobile phone notifications, this theory really does work, and there are widespread behavioral changes due to simply changing the settings on these ubiquitous devices that we all carry around with us, but correlation does not equal causation, so we should careful before awarding superpowers to living a notification-free life.

Form

This essay is split into two main sections:

  1. The Problem
  2. The Solution

In the first part I discuss what I think is wrong with having mobile phone notifications, especially for white collar workers who can consider themselves hyper-connected due to the nature of their work.

I will also tackle this subject from a higher level, discussing how technological advancement is not always positive, and perhaps how there might be a better way to approach things a society.

The issue that once something has been invented it cannot be uninvented causes lots of issues.

Think about how difficult it would be to fully ban small arms or nuclear weapons. Anyone with the knowledge could rebuild them from scratch without too much difficult – it is a solved problem.

And so it is with technology.

We cannot become luddites and ignore the advancements, because it will make us isolated, marginalized, and unable to operate within the boundaries of our society. To truly flourish, we need to understand that we are just as much, if not more, a product of the time and place we happen to live in, than the individual peculiarities that are inherent within us all.

If you were born in the Roman times, you probably would have thought slavery as something natural and right, not because you have the capability of being a bad human being, but because the societal paradigm shift in thinking towards a topic like slavery had not happened yet.

Final Thoughts Before we Begin.

It does almost feel too good to be true, that we focus on small easy changes, and the rest of the issues in our lives automatically follow suit and sort themselves out.

Well, it is too good to be true.

I am not going to tell you that doing something as simple as turning your phone notifications off is going to be the action that suddenly gives a spurt to your career, rebalances your life, allows you to lose 10 pounds of fat, and turns you into a philosophical beast of a being, able to cope with any situation.

What I will tell you in these pages, however, is how you should go about making the decision to turn off your notifications, and why.

You can then take this framework of thinking and apply it to the other areas of your life, and see what happens.

I will make no guarantees, this essay is just about how a young man made a simple change in his life, and his observations from before and after the change.

That’s it.

Time is Limited.

So, time is precious.

Notifications can easily taken up an hour or more per day. That is over two weeks per year, or 3 years out of an 85 year life, dedicated to responding to odd pings and beeps from a device in your pocket.

That is crazy.

Also, keep in mind this:

You are what you do.

The main issue I have with phone notifications is that it is a habit, and a rather unconscious one.

Because a bunch of engineers at various software and hardware companies decided that mobile phone applications should have notifications, suddenly you find yourself flooded with them.

Notice that the default setting on all smartphones is that notifications are on, and we discussed the reason why in the previous chapter on Owning Your Own Attention.

Our daily habits are incredibly important, they quite literally make or break us. Because, by their very definition, they are something which we do everyday, our daily habits don’t just make up our days, they make up our lives.

So spending 30 minutes each morning browsing social media is not just 30 minutes a day, it is 2% of your entire life, and if you discount sleep, it is a much higher percentage of your conscious time.

If you discount working time and only concentrate on available leisure hours, then you might find yourself spending up to 10% of your free time in your life on social media.

But it is not only that daily habits make huge chunks of our lives – up to 70% according to some experts – it is that they also change us.

Repetition works both ways, good habits get better, bad habits get worse.

Now let’s think through what 100+ notifications a day do to your brain.

Let’s assume that you are awake for sixteen hours per day, so that is 960 minutes. If we receive 100 notifications, that is one approximately every ten minutes of our waking time. That means you will be disturbed roughly every ten minutes with a beep from your phone.

From experience, I know it can be even worse than this, because notifications tend to clump together. You will get less during the first and last hours of your day. They start light, then build to a crescendo during the day, and then quieten down again.

So, by enabling notifications into your life you are essentially training your brain to receive a new buzz at least every ten minutes, which is not something that is conducive to doing meaningful work.

In a true work scenario you will often find yourself working for hours at a time on single issues. Personally, the way I work is in 25 minute sprints where I concentrate on only the problem at hand, followed by 5 minute breaks, and then another 25 minute sprint. This is often called the Pomodoro method, or time blocking, and it is a fantastic way to boost the amount of work you can do in a given period.

I also like that there are almost meditative aspects to it. Because you know that you only have to focus on the one task at hand, you can let go of everything else in your life, and just focus. It is a great invitation to just relax and get into your work.

When you’re multi-tasking, on the other hand, you will find that lots of random thoughts are constantly crossing your head, and that the quality of your work will suffer.

Now it is impossible to practice anything similar to the methods described above if you have notifications enabled on your phone, because you will be distracted by them. Even if you have enough self control to not look at them, you will still be distracted by the thought of them, because you won’t help but wonder what is going on, who is messaging, etc.

This is very much like asking someone not to think of a pink elephant.

Whenever we do something, it becomes easier and easier for us. This is due to multiple reasons:

  • We become psychologically used to it.
  • The awareness that we are capable of doing it gives us confidence for the next round.
  • We build and enhance the connections in our brain that are related to the action. This is quite amazing, our bodies literally change in response to what we do. Different parts of the brain grow in response to what you do.

So, you actually are what you do!

Perhaps notifications are an essentially part of your life and work, and that’s fine, you should develop the ability to deal with them further and keep them on, but if anything you do requires you to work for longer periods of time with a deep focus, then you should seriously consider an alternative.

Depth & Meaning

What gives something a certain depth and meaning?

Surprisingly, such a simple question does not bring clear answers right away, at least to me.

However, the opposite question does.

Things that are superficial and lack meaning normally are:

  • Done in a hurry.
  • Done without consciousness.
  • Done without intention.
  • Capable of being done by anyone.

Does this sound like the habit of answering notifications all day long?

If you want your communication to lack depth and meaning, then try instant messaging. It is the equivalent of having an all day conversation with no clear goal, each and everyday of your life.

I am not saying that someone cannot thrive with notifications, but I believe that they are the exception, not the rule.

I have found this to be true in my latest relationship.

I met a beautiful girl, but a month after I met her she had to leave the country for two months. We decided to stick with it and try a long distance relationship even though we had just met.

I am not going to lie and say that it was smooth sailing – it really wasn’t, and we almost broke up twice during the two month period, but I learnt some really valuable lessons regarding instant messaging.

The etiquette around instant messaging is interesting, because it is something that is still relatively new, and it is quite distinct from old fashioned text messages – especially in the fact that they are free, while old style text messages cost money on a per-message basis.

Now because they are free, messages have lost value, and that is one of the reasons why many of us are bombarded by them each and every day.

To put this into perspective, between the ages of 18 and 22 I had a four year long-distance relationship, and I didn’t have most of the issues that happened in these two months.

Granted, this is not a fair comparison as I was a different person back then – I am the grand age of twenty-five at the time of writing! – and also the girl is different, but there are still observations that could be made.

I didn’t own a smartphone at the time, and so daily instant communication was out of the questions as calling mobile-to-mobile across Europe was out of the question as it was prohibitively expensive for two young people studying.

And so we communicated less, but then it mattered more. Because the communication was relatively rare, it was actually worth something, and it felt like it had depth and meaning, instead of having this feeling that we have to speak each and every day, and having to force out conversation topics out of thin air, because often not much happens on the typical day.

Owning your own attention.

Companies like Google and Facebook make money from knowing lots of information about you, so they can deliver the best targeted advertisements possible, and achieve a higher conversation rate – the number of people who buy something vs the number of people of view an advert – for their clients.

You personally are not a client of Facebook and Google.Their clients are business of all shapes and sizes all over the world.

So if you’re not a client, what are you?

Well, the usual reply to this is that you are a user, but in fact, there is actually a slightly more sinister way of looking at this.

If you're not paying, you're probably the product.

More specifically, your attention is the product.

Networks such as Facebook and Google essentially sell your attention span to their clients, in the form of text, image, and video advertisements, and any other method they can come up with in the future.

And you know, this is actually okay.

It’s a very decent business model which allows to create huge revenues and employ tens of thousands of highly skilled staff and create some awesome innovations.

However, there is a question you should ask yourself:

What is the value of my attention? And your attention most definitely has value, because otherwise companies would not be able to sell it!

Google, Facebook, and anyone selling advertisements probably have a pretty good idea, and this can be calculated by diving their total annual advertisement revenue by the number of active users, and especially the total number of active hours of usage on their services.

Even more important, you should think about this:

If Google or Facebook are the ones capturing the value of your attention and selling it, they are taking the value from your attention, not you!

Why do you think Google as of 2016 is investing in creating self-driving cars that will one day free up all that otherwise-wasted driving time? Because freeing up millions or billions of hours of extra time each year means that there is more attention available to capture and sell!

But wait, what does this have to do with notifications?

Firstly, my hunch is that many of the notifications we receive on our phone arrive via companies who’s sole purpose is to sell our attention, and they have absolutely no problem distracting us from whatever we are doing all day long in order to achieve their objectives.

Secondly, if we believe that all the above is true, then a logical step to take is to start taking our attention back from these companies, and start making good use of it. This might mean actually doing something with our lives like learning something a new skill instead of aimlessly browsing our social network feeds or watching cat videos on YouTube.

So here we begin to see notifications in a different light.

They aren’t these things that have just been created as a convenient way to notify you each time a friend sends you a message or updates their profile picture, but are actually carefully crafted tools to maximize the amount of time and attention that companies can take from you.

They are part and parcel of what make networks like Facebook so addictive that it become almost inconceivable for a young person not to be part of them.

And yet, there is a growing number of people, like myself, who do value their own attentions highly and who want to stop being sold on the open market to the highest bidder.

We all have aspirations in life, but are we aware of how much we might be blocking ourselves from achieving our goals just because we are not able to focus on them for much longer than ten minutes without being interrupted?

As we will see in the second part of this book, the ability to keep focused over long period of time is essential to achieving anything meaningful, and we need to train ourselves for this.

Being distracted two hundred times a day is essentially training for the opposite: superficiality.

Testing Yourself

There are numerous ways to test if notifications, or you general lifestyle, have had a negative impact in your life in terms of the ability to focus and your attention span.

My favourite method is one that I read in a fantastic short book called “How to Stay Sane” by Philippa Perry, which is part of the School of Life series.

The aptly-named Thirty-Minute exercise takes exactly half an hour.

The requirements are quite simple:

  • Yourself
  • A quiet room free from distractions (phone, TV, computers, radios, other people, etc)
  • A notebook and a pen.
  • Something to countdown 30 minutes with.

All you are going to do is focus your attention on breathing and try to empty your mind of all other thoughts.

When thoughts to pop in to your head, you are simply going to write them down, summarizing them in a couple of words.

If you feel like you want to quit at any time, just treat that as another thought and jot down “Quit”.

By the end of the 30 minutes you should have a list of one or two words going down the page.

All you’re going to do at this point is categorize them into the following:

  • Sensory-Awareness Thoughts
  • Planning Thoughts
  • Anxiety-provoking Thoughts
  • Playing Back of Memories
  • Fantasies about non-existent situations, relationships, or event.
  • Envious, angry, rebellious, critical thoughts: wanting to stop the exercise or critical thoughts about others.
  • Take-Over: any thoughts you were unable to clear and that took over the exercise?

And then note the number in each category. That will already give you plenty of food for thought, and this is the type of exercise that you can repeat days or weeks later and compare notes and see how you’ve changed.

There are no “scores” here as such, but one viewpoint would be that the more thoughts you have, the more difficult your mind finds it to quieten down, and so you should consider taking affirmative action to learn to slow down.

Closing Thoughts

And so we’ve made it.

Hopefully, you know have read enough to make an informed decision regarding the role of mobile phone notifications in your life.

My personal experience has been so positive that I urge you to commit to simply try it for thirty days. That is long enough to experience the benefits without making it an impossible task to accomplish.

I am certain that even if you decide not to stick with a post-notification life, you will gain valuable insights regarding your relationship with your cellular device, and also the human beings that it connects you to.

As I mentioned in the introduction, I chose such a small and apparently simple topic because I wanted to start to create a framework for change.

Turning off notifications is a comparatively easy change as it is one of those habit changes that require you to do nothing. You just set the notifications off, and wait.

This is a much easier type of behavioural change than, say, going running first thing in the morning five days per week.

So this is a great way to kickstart future life-changing behaviour, as it is physically easy change to make (a few taps here and there) and then it is just about coping with the changes. This is great psychological training for some of the larger changes that we all want to accomplish, whether it is our relationship with food, our sexual habits, or our work and life balance.