If you’ve been reading tech blogs for any amount of time, you’ve probably read about life hacks. Life hacks are when you essentially use some technical, psychological or social trick to be more productive. For instance, a very simple life hack might be having a script that emails you a reminder about something you often forget. These productivity hacks often become more systemic: Getting Things Done is used a lot by the sort of people who do life hacks and so is the idea of maintaining Inbox Zero.
Life hacks are cool, but there is a problem with life hacks: they are hacks. Sometimes you need a much bigger refactoring than just a hack. To use the coding analogy: you may have two dodgy, badly-programmed systems that need to talk to each other, and you hack together something. The hack does the job, but it isn’t ideal, and if you had any real choice in the matter, you would rip it all to shreds and build something that’s actually fit-for-purpose from scratch.
Hence life rebooting. Rebooting is probably the best description of what I’ve done in the last few months.
I didn’t set out to reboot my life, but I seem to have done it somehow. And I feel amazing for doing so.
It all started when back in March I got extremely fucking angry and wrote my magnum opus of a coming out post. I can’t honestly say that I wrote it with the intention of completely changing my life. I wrote it to say “fuck you”, I wrote it from a place of bitterness and anger and utter frustration, so much so that my friend Oliver described it as “bile and passion spat out in prose that could melt through sheet metal”, which I rather liked.
And I thought that would be that. An angry grumpy blog post and I’m done; back to life as per usual, right? Except, the very process of doing so seems to have made it possible for me to actually take charge of my life and fix lots of things that are getting in the way of being happy and contented.
The big one, which I’ve written about privately but not publicly is this: I left my Ph.D programme and am going back to work. I started a Ph.D programme last autumn working on Alvin Plantinga. Rather than bore you with the full details of what my research was on, I’ve bundled it up into a sort of appendix like thing and posted it on Gist. It’s an interesting topic, and Plantinga is an interesting person to research. Why did I quit?
Simple. I realised that I didn’t go into it for the right reason. I started doing a Ph.D because it seemed like the least bad of a small range of what seemed like really bad choices. The world of business filled me with cynicism, and the academic life seemed marginally less bad than the alternatives. Of course, this is a sort of romanticisation: there’s plenty that’s fucked up about academic life too, like, well, having to spend four to five years working like a dog unpaid in order to then have a very small chance of getting a job that might, if you are lucky, turn out to be permanent and might, if you are lucky, pay… about the same as what I can get paid already with my self-taught programming skills. And don’t get me started on the other little matter of location. If you aren’t lucky, you might end up finding the only job you can get is at the other end of the country. Yeah, and if you have a partner or a family and want to settle down? No, sorry, gotta uproot and move to the University of Eastern Shitholia for a one-year position. At which you have to balance a massive teaching load with the ever more onerous requirements of the Research Excellence Framework.
And with undergraduate tuition fees now at £9,000 a year, what great moral purpose will one be pursuing in academia? Teaching philosophy to the few remaining rich fucks who can afford it? Oh, bugger that. In my capacity as a Wikipedia admin, I believe in free knowledge and sharing, but my day job would (if I’m lucky) consist of basically being the philosopher-clown at what we once called universities and what will rapidly become finishing schools for teenagers with names like Tarquin, Penelope and Rupert where they can learn a strange academic curiosity called ‘ethics’ so they can get a degree before they move on to a job in the City of London where they can make enormous profits by killing African children by gambling on world food prices or whatever the fun new hobby of suited psychopathic gamblers is this week. But, you know, I’m sure the research would make me happy: writing obscure books which can be read by about 200 other people interested in epistemology.
On the positive side, I had a perfectly amicable relationship with my supervisor; I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about people who have terrible relationships with their supervisors, and am happy to say I was not in that category. I did have a certain little issue: the procrastination demon. Procrastination is a massive problem for everyone doing a Ph.D, especially in the humanities. Here’s why. Imagine getting about four bathtubs and filling them completely with books. That’s basically what you have to read to do a Ph.D. I have a bibliography of books and papers that’s 20 pages long. And you can never truly switch off. If you are on the train home, you probably ought to be reading a paper or a book. Pop out for a quiet walk, and you’ve probably got research stuff buzzing around in your head. And the next paper you need to write, and the one after that.
Procrastination makes for a bad working dynamic with one’s supervisor, even if you get on okay with him or her. You don’t get the work done, so you then feel guilty, and you then work harder getting the work done, and the procrastination demon fucks you up even more. The harder you commit yourself to working, the guiltier you feel when you fail. Urgh. There is some kind of satisfaction in getting your head around a difficult concept. But then you do some real world menial task like clean one’s bathroom, and you actually feel like you’ve done something.
I knew eventually it wasn’t for me, so I left. I’m very happy that I did. I have no complaints or regrets about starting the course, and I have no regrets about leaving it. Sometimes you have to do things in order to know they aren’t for you. I’m going back into the workplace, and feel great about it.
I can’t quite put my finger on what has changed, but I suddenly feel like I’m actually living life the way I want to, rather than just turning up and going through the motions. I’ve become (gasp) less cynical, more open, more confident, more able to say ‘no’ to things I don’t actually want to do. I’m living healthier, taking better care of myself, getting more exercise, and actually feeling like I want to get out of bed in the morning. Subjective, perhaps, but I think my writing has become better (which is very important to me). Most importantly, I think I have worked out how to have the courage to fix shit in my own life. I’m not sure whether I’ve rebooted life, refactored out some bad code, cleared out some dodgy registry entries (I do hope I’m not actually running on Windows)… but it’s a lot more than a hack.
Amazingly, people have noticed and commented on it. Family members say I seem happier and more contented. Oliver told me recently that “out Tom is so much more fun than closeted Tom”. Which, again, is lovely… and true.
I am using a few life hack-type techniques. For work, I’m trying the Pomodoro Technique. I’m also using Joe’s Goals to ease myself into doing the stuff I mean to do everyday and make it routine. So, “get 20 minutes of exercise outside” is one of those things. If I miss a day, I double it up the next day. But it becomes addictive… and you just have to not break the damn chain. You start with something achievable and practical like 20 minutes of exercise, then do that every day for a few weeks, then ramp it up to 25, then 30 and so on. That’s the plan.
I mean, it’s not too challenging: you do it the first day, then you do it the second day, then you try and do it every day for a week, then you do it every day for the rest of your life. Not scary at all…
I did previously nerd around with some Android pedometer app, and putting all that stuff in a spreadsheet, all Quantified Self-like, but I realised that the statistics aren’t actually yet the important part, it’s the changing of habits to make things part of one’s daily routines. Tracking and stats is something that one can care about (or not) later, but fixing one’s broken daily routines isn’t about quantifying, it’s about bloody well doing something every day, even if some days, one’s efforts or results are sub-par.
Another important thing is that I’ve realised is that I actually have only a certain tolerance for Wikipedia Drama. I’ve decided in order to remain sane, I’m cutting large chunks of drama out of my life. I’m sort of aware now of when I’ve reached the ‘too much’ point, and some friends and fellow admins now understand where my head is at on drama. When I say “I’m taking a few days off from this shit”, they know it’s not something they’ve done, and I just have had enough. There are people who are made for handling drama, and I’m glad some of them seem able to remain sane and cheerful while handling some of the craziest people on the Internet: but I can only deal with it in small doses.
Doing things like this is what I mean by being able to “fixing shit”. You just have to apply your brain to how life is going, figure out what is going wrong and sort out a solution and bloody well get on with it. Next on the agenda is to learn to drive.
I guess with all essays on life hacks and personal development, there has to be some ham-fisted moral at the end. This is it, I guess: have the courage to sort your life out, kill off any stray processes that aren’t working for you or are leaking memory all over the damn place, reboot your shit, de-cruft your settings, whatever computing analogy you prefer, it basically boils down to work out what the fuck is wrong and fix that shit. You can actually do it if you want to. And if there are things getting in the way of doing so, like, oh, big scary closet doors, university courses you don’t really want to carry on with, or whatever, punch your way out of them. All the life hacks in the world won’t help you if you aren’t actually happy with your life’s overall direction or you have some big overdue life issues that you need to sort out. Fix those and everything else becomes a lot more doable.