An experiment in phonelessness

The plot thus far

In 2017, I lost a new smartphone. In the aftermath of its disappearance I decided not to replace it, a feat which I managed for about a month, with an additional few weeks on an old Nokia phone. During this time I found life more serene, serendipitous, and I was happier. It did somewhat improve my relationship with technology, but when I got a new phone I still resumed most of my mindless habits.

Fast-forward to 2019. I am writing my first novel. On Friday I hit my word goal of writing 80,000 words, about a week ahead of schedule.

I’m now starting to re-read, revise, edit. It will also require a substantial amount of new composition for me to reach a coherent first draft. I’ll admit I’m daunted by the amount of work, and frightened to find out whether what I’ve written makes any sense.

To ward off fears of formlessness I spent Saturday formatting my baby behemoth in LaTeX, although some have made a case against doing this in the humanities. I can’t help myself; LaTeX is just too beautiful not to use. It took me about two hours to typeset my text. The main issue was with quotations, and silly symbols like dollar signs and underscores.

A rough estimate from how novels are printed would suggest I’ve written something like 320 pages, but I’ve condensed this for printing. Single-spaced A4 at 12pt, my writing came to 178 pages. Editing a few LaTeX lines, I typeset it in two columns at 10pt, which came to 112 pages.

I’m reading through it on paper, and this requires sitting somewhere and not getting distracted.

An Ascetic Start to the Inevitable Edit

While I was writing, I normally woke up and wrote away until I hit my word goal, with stretch breaks but little else, mostly described here.

Now that I’m editing, I’m taking a slightly different approach. Here’s what I’m doing for the coming week:

  • I’ll still write 750–1000 words when I wake up in the morning. These will not necessarily be intended to go directly into the novel, but will allow me to get any thoughts or scenes from the previous day out of my brain. Failing that I may just rant about how difficult editing is.
  • I will write out a paper list of tasks I want to accomplish, as well as bring a Gymboss interval timer. It is designed for workouts, and I bought it for meditation, but it’s also a perfect pomodoro timer.
  • I’ll then take a suitable chunk of paper and walk somewhere outside, without my phone.

I tried this for the first time yesterday, and it was a success. I walked to Regent’s Park in strangely pleasant weather, for London in February. I got a lot more done than I usually would in just a few hours. I did it again today, walking to the Barbican, although I did not work as long as I’d intended due to forgetting a few essentials.

There are already several benefits.

  • The first is obvious. Without a screen I’m less distracted. Naturally I wanted to send messages or look things up, but I couldn’t. I took notes instead, and batched up the tasks for later.
  • A related benefit was that I took fewer breaks, because in a way, I wanted to go back and check my phone. This, along with the mild separation anxiety, is probably a sign of addiction. (Even though I keep the screen in greyscale, and I only get notifications once per day thanks to Siempo, I still like to be near it.)
  • Less obvious is the virtue of paper. Provided clement weather–and, as I said, it’s been unseasonably sunny–it is much more pleasant to work outdoors with beautifully high-contrast paper than to squint at a screen. Honestly it would have been too bright today to use a laptop outside, and I felt sorry for all the people inside the dim Barbican when the bricks were ablaze outside by the fountains.

The weather both days was beautiful. I’d show you pictures but I didn’t bring my phone. I might still have a digital camera somewhere though; if so I’ll bring it next time.

Walk the walk

I’ve also resolved to walk each day. Walking does, as alleged, seem to stimulate creativity. On my walk to Regent’s Park, I wrote a poem, in twenty-six couplets of tetrameter, that came to mind spontaneously as I walked. This made me an odd sight on Pentonville Road, but I didn’t mind. I’ve therefore resolved to walk five miles per day before I work, and without my usual indulgences of audiobooks or podcasts (since I won’t have my phone).

I am far from the first to observe the correlation between walking and thinking. Frederic Gros wrote a book on the connection in A Philosophy of Walking. Cal Newport, in Deep Work, describes Darwin, while writing On the Origin of Species, taking a walk every day when he first woke up, and a longer one at noon: “He would walk until satisfied with his thinking then declare his workday done.”

Newport expands this theme in Digital Minimalism, writing a practice instruction to “Take Long Walks,” and another section on “Solitude Deprivation,” in which he advises people to take breaks from “other people’s minds.” Phoneless walks fulfil both goals. Newport cites Nietzsche’s insistence on writing and walking; he would walk up to eight hours per day, writing along the way:

Remain seated as little as possible, put no trust in any thought that is not born in the open, to the accompaniment of free bodily motion—nor in one in which even the muscles do not celebrate a feast. All prejudices take their origin in the intestines. A sedentary life, as I have already said elsewhere, is the real sin against the Holy Spirit.

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

I’ve found a few other adherents on my own. Schopenhauer had a predilection, one might say mania, for walking:

Consider the daily two-hour walk. Among Schopenhauer’s disciples of the late nineteenth century this walk was a celebrated fact of his biography, and it was so because of its regularity. There was speculation as to why he insisted on going out and staying out for two hours no matter what the weather. It suggests health fanaticism, but there is no other evidence that Schopenhauer was a health fanatic or a crank. In my view the reason was simple obstinacy: he would go out and nothing would stop him. It is a minor manifestation of that rooted immovability of mind.

R. J. Hollingdale, introduction to Schopenhauer’s Essays & Aphorisms

Kant was known as the “Königsberg clock” for the regularity of his ambulation. And here’s Kierkegaard, in a letter to his niece Henriette Lund:

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.

Søren Kierkegaard, letter, 1847

Raskolnikov knew that it was exactly seven hundred and thirty steps from his apartment to Yusupov Gardens in Crime & Punishment. Since the description of this walk is exact enough that it can be google mapped, Dostoevsky must have himself been a rather punctilious perambulator. Tolstoy, meanwhile, reflected on long-term goal setting with a walking metaphor, appropriately to be found about a thousand pages into War and Peace:

When a man finds himself in motion, he always thinks up a goal for that motion. In order to walk a thousand miles, a man needs to think that there is something good at the end of those thousand miles. One needs a vision of the promised land in order to have the strength to move … A man walking a thousand miles must say to himself, forgetting the final goal, ‘today I will walk thirty miles to a resting place and spend the night,’ and during this first march, the resting place overshadows the final goal and concentrates all desires and hopes on itself.

Tolstoy, War & Peace

Given such august recommendations I think it’s worth a few weeks, to look a bit stranger than I usually do, walking my distinctive walk around London.

Fancy the old-fashioned?

Since I’m analogue it will be harder for me to procrastinate. My choices besides editing are reading, composing prose or poetry, writing in journals, meditating. If you approve of my analogue experiment and would like to send your support, please write me a letter, and I will compose some prose to you. If you don’t have my address you can contact me here—but, with apologies, I might not respond right away.

Update, 27 February 2019: Must be something in the outdoor air. The podcast The Philosopher’s Zone has just done an episode on Nietzsche, More specifically speaking with John Kaag, who has written a book called Hiking with Nietzsche. The podcast begins with the quote above. When Kaag was 19, and again at 36, he hiked the Alpine trails as Nietzsche. Worth a listen.

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