A screenshot of a text thread, including an image of a theatre marquee reading "Poor Thing," and the comment "Prequel," and further replies.

Notifications are bad and dumb and you should stop using them, ok?

I was reading my pal Malcolm’s new newsletter (new-news!), to which you should subscribe if you can handle the Substack of it all*. Particularly, I was reading his issue (? episode? ‘sletter? what do you call a single installment of one of these newsletters?) on how to work online when you’re addicted to the internet. To me anyway, that feels like it’s broadly applicable to just about everyone.

Since life tips has become the growth market on this blog in the past month, I figured I’d walk through some recent changes of my own in this category.

*On the Substack front, I am culling my subscription list steadily, with the ideal aim of being off the platform completely by midyear. I’m no longer paying for any Substack subscriptions, which was a good first step — no longer funnelling money to Nazi profiteers! But I recognize that finding alternative platforms is going to take most of the writers I follow a period of time, and (of course) the smaller they are, the harder it’s going to be, cuz life. So, patience.

So first of all, to catch you up, I am now writing full-time. This means, among other things, treating both the writing itself (i.e. drafting, revising) and the meta-activities that surround the writing (connecting with writing partners, writing groups, potential producers, potential publishers; preparing materials for submissions, reading relevant emails, etc., etc., etc.) as my actual 9-5 job.

A few things immediately fall out of this:

1/ If it’s my 9-5 job, I can’t do it the rest of the time too, as much as my mind leans that way. Whoa, habit trap! I almost turned back into an office drone! I’m trying, as much as possible, to conduct the activities I’ve planned to conduct, in the order I’ve planned to conduct them, at the time I have earmarked for them.

So yeah: if an email on one of the projects comes in at 9:30pm, and I’m excited about the project, I’m inclined to read it… but then I’m just thinking about the email, and the project, and how excited I am, when it’s time to go to bed. That’s dumb and bad.

2/ If it’s my 9-5 job, then when I am doing it, I need to — as much as possible — only do it. This leads back to Malcolm’s post.

Communicate with your writing

I’ve always been a reasonably successful limiter of distractions. Mostly because distractions tend to piss me off: I’m less enticed by a blinking unread email or Discord ping than I am annoyed that it’s insisting upon my attention. I’m not a great multitasker; or perhaps more accurately, I can certainly multitask, but rather than 2 tasks taking the time that 1+1 equals, it’s more like 1+1+whatever cognitive lag slows me all the way down and makes me need a coffee.

Writing, though, is a manifestly different cognitive process than, say, data hygiene tasks or sitting in a Zoom meeting. A few years ago in a writing workshop, I was given an instruction that during the writing process, we could do no other communication. The guidance was basically: you are communicating through your writing for whatever period of time you have deemed to be the writing time, whether it is 15 minutes or 5 hours. So: you can’t read or send messages. In the workshop example, you couldn’t even talk to someone in your house. It was basically: you have something to say? Say it through your writing.

That one habit has stuck with me almost every day since.

So now, when I am writing, I am committing myself to doing only that thing until the task at hand is done (or the time available has elapsed). This also ties into Malcolm’s point about doing one thing at a time, which — as much as possible in the modern world — is a great practice to cultivate, not just for creative work, but for washing dishes, listening to a podcast, and just about anything else.

I’ve worked up enough mindfulness around where I’m placing my attention that some days — writing this post, for example! — I’m able to just do it. The urge to tab over to my iMessage, or to see what’s going on in the American clusterfuck (on which more in a moment) by visiting a news website, isn’t surfacing.

Use “Downtime” for uptime

But when it is surfacing, the answer is simple: I go into Downtime on my various Apple products, and don’t come out till I’m done. Downtime (and Focus states, on iOS) are customizable, in terms of which apps they kill and which they allow, and it takes some time to come up with settings that work best for your creative practice, but take that time. Take an hour and figure out what I am talking about here, if you don’t recognize it. If you’re on a different software platform, find out what options you have there, and figure that out, too.

Build yourself a kill switch that you can turn on at a moment’s notice, and recognize when you need to use that kill switch.

I used to make fun of people who needed to jerry-rig their entire device ecosystem to keep themselves from making a choice that was ultimately within their own control, but I don’t anymore. Malcolm’s metaphor re: cocaine and crack isn’t far off; and also, even if I can hold the line via my own discipline most of the time, most is not all. This is my 9-5 now. It’s good to have the option of guardrails when I’m careening down a mountain road at night (i.e. exercising my creative practice).

As described previously, I’m also starting to ease out of the bath on my Xitter replacement (Bluesky), and Mark Zuckerberg’s Xitter replacement (Instagram/Threads). Above the basic considerations of the distraction economy interfering with my 9-5, there are larger cognitive elements to how those platforms work on my brain that feel like they are better left behind me, or at least significantly tamped down.

There’s a general mindfulness practice at play here, too: for example, I’ve noticed that after about 20 minutes, my TikTok feed starts to suck; I’ve noticed that 90% of what’s served to me on Instagram is garbage. I’ve noticed things, which is a mindfulness practice.

I don’t recommend being so hyper-vigilant that you’re assessing every single experience you’re having as you’re having it; but, it’s valuable to check in once in a while on old habitual behaviours and try, as much as possible, to ask yourself: “is this still working for me?” “Do I still enjoy this?” Or perhaps most importantly, “Does this get me closer to the Iron Throne, or further away?”

Unfollow America

And now, here’s a big one: it’s that time again. It’s time to unfollow America!

I’m a big fan of Sarah Kendzior’s writing, so much so that I just unsubscribed from her on Substack. That seems counterintuitive, right? But I was reading her recent post about the American criminal soap opera and I realized I had reached a perfect equilibrium: I fully undertake and understand everything she has said about how the country nominally called the “United States” has unalterably collapsed in premise if not in deed. I need no more of her wise words. The argument has been accepted.

The point of her post, though, is that Americans are tuned into a neverending soap opera around cultish leader figures operating in a mix-and-match autocracy, and can’t turn the soap off. Like most Americans, the one error in understanding here is the fact that we all have to watch it, too! I’m sure there are places in the world where the machinations of American imperialism and warmongering are heard less often, but here in Canada, at least, that fucking show is playing so loudly we can’t hear our own show.

So, as in 2020, and as in 2016, it’s time for me to turn down the volume as much as I can, while accepting that no one in the world is allowed to set the knob to “zero” on America, because America is just that Special and Loud and Important. (One might even say, Exceptional.)

Try it: unfollow as many Americans as you can, on every platform you use. You can follow them back in a year, if there’s still an America. Trust that people in your own community are going to re-skeet, re-thread, re-post most of the headline news out of that shithole country anyway, so you aren’t going to miss anything; and on the subject of missing things (and mindfulness), take a moment to notice whether your FOMO is actually serving you, because it is likely that it is not.

Try to remember that we, as beings, were not designed to witness the scale of degradation and collapse that America (among other things) represents. Do yourself a kindness, and turn the volume as far down as you can.

And finally

Is it irksome that the reality we now inhabit requires this much manhandling, just to get an honest day’s work done? Sure. But here’s something to remember (cuing Robin Williams from Good Will Hunting):

It’s not your fault.

Truly. The most important thing to remember about the things that distract you on the internet is that that is literally what they are there to do. It’s the only thing they are there to do.

(Wait, that’s false: distracting you is step one of what they’re there to do; step two, once you’re distracted, is to sell you something you don’t need.)

With increasing desperation, all of these tools, apps, sites, and networks are trying ever harder to make sure they have burrowed so deeply into your habits that you assume they have always been there, have actual value, and cannot be removed.

Two, if not all three, of these premises are false.

There are entire economies of labourers whose only job in the universe is to make it harder for you to stop using Instagram, or to unsubscribe from Substack. The thing where Google is no longer a search engine so much as a shopping console? Someone designed that. Developers built it. Marketers packaged it and sold it to you.

It’s not your fault. You’re a person, not an army of product managers working for a late-capitalist mirage that will lay off another 10,000 people next quarter no matter what level of “success” they enjoy.

Every once in a while, it’s worth poking your head up and acknowledging that even the premises by which you started adopting these tools may no longer be in play. All of these products evolve over time — some have called it enshittification — and the evolution is almost always net-bad for the user, hence the word.

If something isn’t working for you any more, cull it, cut it, or walk away from it. You don’t owe a free platform where you post pictures of your kids anything. But for the love of Thor, don’t make yourself feel bad about using it or not using it. It’s not your fault.