Dog days of summer

A lot is made of the Like button, of the societal impact of the dopamine-inducing blue thumbs-up. But as a generally reserved social-media poster, and only sporadic “liker”, I am relatively indifferent.

Far more sinister, in my mind, is the infinite scroll, and its auto-play video cousin – on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and friends.

Not because of the clear connection with the culprits’ business models – where eyeballs and time spent drive ad impressions, which drive revenue. That much is understandable – these are publicly listed companies.

I think the problem I have is that it is playing on a particularly human vulnerability, evolving as we did in a world of scarcity, rather than abundance. Where evolutionary pressures favoured repetitive behaviours, as in general things would run out. Make hay while the sun shines, because at some point autumn will come.

But on the endless tracts of social media the sun is always shining, without respite. And instead of introducing patches of shade, where travellers might rest, or step away from their smartphones, our social media overlords have built a desert, where users stagger towards an imagined oasis that never comes.

Meanwhile the new demi-gods of TikTok have learned their predecessors’ worst habits, as video after snack-size video plays off into the distance.

We are in the dog days of the digital summer. The onus is on us as users to find shelter, or to escape the desert altogether.

Elephants

In February this year I read an article about Elephants. Not about the large mammals, but about a system of the same name, concocted by four friends ten years ago or so, and articulated by one of them in a blog post in 2013. It’s a collective system for planning, reviewing and improving one’s life. It piqued my interest, I shared it with a couple of friends, and we actually got round to giving it a try.

After struggling initially to find time to do the required kick-off (The Start), we are now three months in, and so I have had a bit of room for reflection.

The Start, where you spend quite a concentrated period of time with your fellow Elephants talking about your strengths and weaknesses, and hopes for the future, is worth doing regardless of whether you are interested in the long haul process. We spent a couple of days together, during which we were much more candid, vulnerable and open than we had been in the ten or more years we have known one another. And it has been a one-way door – we have been more open and honest ever since. It is funny that it took some random blog post on the internet to let us make that step. But whatever works.

The Start also includes a process of goal-setting, over quite hard to imagine timeframes (up to ten years!) Planning on that timescale isn’t something that I do naturally, so I found it quite difficult. But it was useful to see what I eventually came up with, and to highlight things I should maybe think a little more about.

With our (iterative) goals in hand, we are now in business-as-usual Elephants.

The Weekly Reporting was something which we didn’t necessarily commit to, but which I have managed to keep up. It is now part of my weekly ritual, and I am happy for it. It gives me an opportunity to check in with myself, to reflect back on the week that was, and how I felt about it. I am not sure it always makes interesting reading for my fellow Elephants, but it is always interesting writing for me.

And we have also had our first Quarterly Review, which first and foremost was a great excuse to see my friends after a busy summer. It also highlighted how long ago The Start felt, how much can happen in three months of time. Which is helpful as we look ahead to the next three months or so, as we continue with our Elephants into 2020. We’re not necessarily following the system to the letter, but we have made it work for us so far, and I am glad we are doing it.

Swimming in public

If you have encountered me in person in the last 12 months (almost exactly), there is a high chance I have bored you on the topic of outdoor swimming. If you haven’t, then today is your unlucky day.

But fortunately for you I’ll keep it brief: I have done quite a lot of swimming outdoors in unheated pools and rivers, and I have enjoyed it.

The reason that I bring it up isn’t to wax lyrical on the restorative nature of cold water (stop it — Ed.). I bring it up because that very act of (endless) broadcasting has (I think) played an important role in making me stick with it for the last year, to the point where it’s a habit rather than just a few frigid dips. Because if I’ve told so many people, it makes it that much harder to stop, past the point where it’s now just something I do.

The impact of feeling watched is significant, whether or not anyone is actually looking. This blog is another example for me. An impetus, that precious habit-forming gift.

I should use it more often.

Habits and habitat

I got back from San Francisco on Tuesday. It was a good trip, but between the time difference and the unfamiliar surroundings, my normal routine was thrown off somewhat.

I wouldn’t say I have always thought that much about routine, but reading Principles by Ray Dalio last year gave me a renewed appreciation of the importance of habits – what he calls “the most powerful tool in your brain’s toolbox … If you do just about anything frequently enough over time, you will form a habit that will control you”.

Since then I have made a concerted effort to build certain habits, with some success. Though as Ray says in Principles, “developing this skill takes some work”. This is particularly the case when you are away from home, and while I was away last week, a few of my newer habits fell by the wayside.

I have picked them back up from the wayside now, which is good. But I am reminded of a nice turn of phrase my sister used when we talked about this a while back, resolving “to make my habits into my habitat, keeping them with me as I go”.

I didn’t quite manage to do that on this trip, but I am hopeful that next time round I will do better.