Last year, the pandemic was more ‘annoying’ to me and my family than damaging to our health or finances. So, if there’s one thing that 2020 showed me, it was my privilege.
I turned 40 in December, which means I’m now inescapably middle-aged. I’m also a straight, white, male. Thankfully, somewhat unrelated to the pandemic, I also spent 2020 learning a bunch of things about myself and how I relate to others. This happened primarily through CBT, research and learning around the Black Lives Matter movement, and doing some work around Nonviolent Communication.
My two biggest takeaways from the above were:
I don’t need to have an opinion about everything. As Marcus Aurelius said, “We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and to not let it upset our state of mind—for things have no natural power to shape our judgments.”
I should stick to only discussing my own experiences and context. I have no idea of the internal world of others, and how things which seem major/minor to me might be minor/major to them.
I guess this is a lo-fi version of Hume’s fork. In other words, there are statements that can be made about ideas (which are either true or false by definition) and statements that can be made about the world (which are true or false based on experience).
Over the last six months, I feel that there’s been a shift in my writing here since starting the #100DaysToOffload challenge. This has been incredibly useful in weaning me off assertions meant to provoke a response from others towards more introspection and self-documentation.
I downed tools on 2020 today, deciding to stop working for the last three weeks of the year so I can rest and recharge.
It’s been an incredible year in every sense of the word; there’s been the good, the bad, and the ugly. While I don’t particularly want to rake through the negatives, I thought it might be worth sharing five things I’ve learned.
1. Don’t expect things to be easy
The man who does not attempt easy tasks but wants what he attempts to be easy, is often baffled in his wishes
There’s no point in spending your life doing easy things. For me, these are things that have been done the same way before. Instead, I want to do the difficult thing and stuff that challenges me. The problem is when I’m tired I just want things to get easier for a bit. That’s not the way it works, unfortunately.
2. Money can’t buy me love
To be clever enough to get all that money, one must be stupid enough to want it
My biggest problems this year have been caused by interactions with those who have different approaches to money than me. I see numbers on a spreadsheet as a means to an end. To others, it’s seemingly a yardstick by which they measure their self-worth.
3. Keep something in reserve
There is no need to show your ability before everyone.
I think one of my biggest traps before starting therapy last year was the need to be seen as a ‘good’ person and talented at what I do. While I still prefer people to think well of me, I’m now very aware that I cannot control other people’s perceptions. Which is quite liberating.
4. Stand up for what I believe in
Respect is often paid in proportion as it is claimed.
I’ve often said to my kids that people can only treat you the way you allow them to. I’m pleased to say that this year I’ve stood up against racism, bullying, and gaslighting. Hopefully that’s earned me some respect, but it’s generated plenty of self-respect.
5. We’re all in this together
Whatever you may be sure of, be sure of this: that you are dreadfully like other people.
James Russell Lowell
It’s perhaps a funny thing for someone to write who’s approaching the midpoint of his life, but it’s only this year that I’ve really felt that I’m similar to other people. I’m not a special snowflake, other than in the sense that we all are.
I’d like to thank the good people at Outlandish for allowing me to work with then during the second half of this year. It’s been an eye-opening experience to work with a well-run tech cooperative that goes out of its way to be inclusive, transparent, and emotionally mature.
Right now, I’m not sure where 2021 will take me. I’ve got some work to dive into immediately in the new year, but beyond that I’ll follow my values and interests.
Back before the pandemic, when I ran out of steam sitting in my home office, I’d go somewhere else to work. Often that was a coffee shop, but sometimes it was the local library, or even the beach.
I don’t have the same flexibility now that it’s getting towards winter and we’re in the second Covid-related lockdown in the UK. So what is a remote worker to do when they’re feeling less motivated than usual?
Here’s three things that I do, just in case they’re useful for other people:
Take a moment to reflect — what’s going on? I’m not suggesting a full OODA loop, but I consider how I’m feeling and why I’m not getting on with stuff. Is it because I don’t have anything to do (unlikely!) or because I’m not sure how to do it, or something else?
Gain clarity — can I move somewhere else? I’ve realised that, pre-pandemic, moving physical location was a proxy for moving conceptual location. So can I go for a walk to figure things out? Or shut down something that is taking my attention (e.g. social network) and move it somewhere else (e.g. email/Slack)?
Act — what can I do? If there’s something that needs clarifying, I try to gain that clarity as soon as possible. If not, I have to decide how comfortable I am in sitting in the uncertainty. If that’s the case, instead of ruminating, I act, often by doing something else. Like writing this blog post!
This might seem like the world’s most obvious advice, but the first step is the most important. A healthy introspection helps me move from feeling stuck to understanding what’s going on, and then to action.
Every man rushes elsewhere into the future because no man has arrived at himself.
Michel de Montaigne
This year has been a bit of a rollercoaster for me. I’m not going to talk too much about my Moodle work, partly because I’ve written a lengthy retrospective about the (ongoing) project, and because I want to focus on more personal things here.
I’ve been to fewer places for work than in previous years, but that’s to be expected given how little time I’ve had for consultancy work. Outside the UK I’ve been to Barcelona (twice), Lisbon, and New York. With my family I’ve visited New England (summer) and Iceland (winter) on holiday.
Back in July I made a decision to take a back seat with We Are Open Co-op for a few months. That turned out to be a great decision as my colleagues flourished in my absence, re-configuring the co-op to be less dependent on me. I got back involved in early December and represented the co-op at the recent CoTech Winter Gathering in Newcastle. In fact, I’m very much looking forward to playing a much bigger part in 2020 now that I’m reducing my Moodle days.
Everything was put into perspective this year by my good friend Dai Barnes passing away unexpectedly at the start of August. While I’ve had to deal before with the death of older family members, I was so unprepared for the passing of someone who was only a decade older than me that it hit me really hard. He was such a great guy.
Eylan Ezekiel and I recorded a memorial episode of the Today In Digital Education (TIDE) podcast of which Dai and I had recorded so many episodes. It was also my honour and privilege to give a eulogy at the memorial service held at Oundle School.
The grief I experienced around Dai’s death made me realise that I needed to step down from my position as a Scout leader. I’d been thrown in at the deep end a few months before and, because I always appear (as Sarah Wilson puts it in First, We Make the Beast Beautiful) “high-functioning,” I was just left to get on with it.
The more anxious we are, the more high-functioning we will make ourselves appear, which just encourages the world to lean on us more.
In actual fact, the Scout leader role triggered a whole lot of things from my teaching career that I hadn’t fully dealt with. For example, I’m plagued with perfectionism, and, it turns out overly-anxious about health and safety issues. Ultimately, I took too much on and, as ever when it comes to voluntary roles, others were all too happy for me to take things off their plate. I don’t blame them; everyone’s busy and I looked like I knew what I was doing.
It was actually a pretty big deal for me to step down from my position in Scouts citing mental health reasons, as it was an admission to myself that I couldn’t cope. There was something there that needed confronting, so I sought help through the NHS. When the waiting list was too long, I decided to start paying for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It’s been great so far.
So 2019 has been the year when I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am, despite my protestations, an anxious person. Some of this is to my benefit and keeps me on my toes, driving me forward. Some of it, however, can be pretty debilitating at times. I’m learning to manage it by first acknowledging it.
While I made the decision to seek some professional help, I’ve realised that (just like my migraines), to a great extent my anxiety just part of who I am. Yes, I take medication and seek therapy for the worst excesses of my mental health issues, but in many ways, my differences give me some ‘superpowers’. I do seem to have a bit of a spider sense for how things are likely to turn out.
Ultimately, I’ve realised that it’s OK to not be ‘OK’ — and to let other people know. I’ve learned to let go a little and draw more boundaries. It’s alright just to be me, and not some idealised version of me that either younger Doug, or the wider world, expects.
One material difference in my life as a result of these realisations, and also partly inspired by Morrissey, is that I’ve largely stopped watching, listening to, or reading the news:
Stop watching the news! Because the news contrives to frighten you To make you feel small and alone To make you feel that your mind isn’t your own
Morrissey, ‘Spent The Day In Bed’
I succeeded in this venture to such an extent that my wife even had to tell me there was a General Election coming up! It’s remarkably freeing to disconnect from the news cycle, which, after all, is basically having your attention focused by someone else. People tell you about the really important stuff anyway.
It’s common for us all to complain about not having enough time, but when you strip away the inessentials, it’s remarkable how much time we really do have. No-one actually needs the 24-hour news cycle.
Something that’s counted as a real achievement for me this year is to complete a Mountain Leader course. This took place over a series of weekends this Autumn in the Peak District, Lake District, and Snowdonia. I was able to book a place after completing 20 Quality Mountain Days (QMDs) over the last three years.
Whether or not I go on to do the week-long Mountain Leader Assessment (which requires me doing at least another 20 QMDs beforehand) it’s been a fantastic experience. I feel so much more prepared to take friends and family on expeditions now, including wild camping!
Again, this is interesting when I reflect on what has been my default approach to life. A side-product of my upbringing was that I’m competitive in everything, so to do this just for my own benefit – without thinking about whether I’m the best person on the course, or how to ensure I get the assessment done as quickly as possible – is wonderfully liberating.
I think all you can do in life is aim to be better than the day before. That’s been tough this year; I’ve fallen out with family members, berated annoying tradesmen, been unduly harsh with my children, and generally acted like an entitled middle-aged white guy. But I am trying to be better, and find reading that the works of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Baltasar Gracián really helps. (And yes, I’m very aware that these are all dead white guys. I’m trying on that front, too…)
When the world around you appears to be going to hell in a handbasket, when political engagement seems pointless, mincing around with a sign on a Global Climate Strike seems… not enough. However, as Sun Tzu reminds us:
However critical the situation and circumstances in which you find yourself, despair of nothing; it is on the occasions in which everything is to be feared that it is necessary to fear nothing; it is when one is surrounded by all the dangers that it is not necessary to dread any; it is when one is without resources that it is necessary to count on all of them; it is when one is surprised that it is necessary to surprise the enemy himself.
Sun Tzu, ‘The Art of War’
We can choose to be fearful, to allow others to dictate the narrative. Or we can choose to grab it and live our own lives. That starts with simple things like how we choose to live and work, what kind of food we put on our plate, our purchasing decisions, and the way we relate to one another.
For me, because many of my interactions with the wider role are mediated and I spend a lot of time in front of a screen, the choices I make around technology play an important role in reflecting my thinking and values. This year, once again, I’ve flip-flopped between trying to make my life easier and more seamless, and then retreating based on my investigations into surveillance capitalism.
There are no easy answers here and choosing to retreat from the world feels like giving up. So I’ll keep on keeping on, even if it seems like sometimes I’m inconsistent. What was it that Emerson said about a “foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds”? (and I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that “consistency is the hallmark of the unimaginative”)
This year, I ended up getting into what I think is a good routine with Thought Shrapnel. After attempting to write an article a day in January and February, I took a break for Lent. During that period, I realised that what I was attempting was unsustainable, and so came up with a rhythm that has me posting three times per week (one article, one microcast, one link round-up). I then pull this all together into a newsletter to go out every Sunday.
In terms of the most read Thought Shrapnel posts this year, the list goes:
I’ve been fortunate enough to be backed in this endeavour by my Patreon supporters, whom I appreciate greatly. Thank you all.
I’ve experimented with a range of things this year such as Wednesday surgeries and a Slack-based book club. I’d like to experiment much more next year, through both the co-op and Thought Shrapnel. I think it’s time to be a lot more radical in my thinking, or at least the way I choose to write and talk about my thinking.
One frustration for me this year has been that I don’t feel that I’ve given myself time to just ‘sit’ with the ideas from the things I’ve read and listened to. While Thought Shrapnel continues to be a fantastic outlet for initial processing, it takes time and reflection to synthesise these into new coherent structures.
One outlet for that might be a new e-book. I’m amazed that the book of my thesis, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, continues to be reasonably popular. After six years, though, it’s probably due an update – or a sequel!
I never used to understand why people would pay money to go and see where famous authors or artists cranked out or otherwise created their masterpieces. I remember being shown J.R.R. Tolkien’s desk at house of the friend of a friend. It was a nice desk, but so what?
These days, I’ve come to realise that it’s not the artefacts themselves that are of interest but the milieu in which the author or artist created their work. It’s led me to think about my own, much humbler work, and how our house and my home office is set up.
What kind of activities does the layout of our home prioritise? What’s the default thing to do in our shared spaces? Because I work from home, these things are important. One small step we took this year, which took a whole campaign of persuasion was reconfiguring our lounge. I bought, at a steep discount, a Samsung ‘The Frame’ television which genuinely looks like a piece of art when in standby mode. This means that our seating is not longer pointed at a screen but is more suited to reading and conversation.
This stuff matters and, since reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work a couple of years ago, I’ve been thinking about organising the various kindw of work I do into different, intentionally-created, spaces. At the moment I tend to spend about 70% of my working time in my home office, separate to the house. The rest of the time I spend at the kitchen table or in the lounge, while my kids or at school, or once or twice a week I venture to a local coffee shop.
I admit it’s a bit of a digression from this retrospective but I can imagine working in a three-room home office based on the Eudaimonia Machine. Mine would combine gallery and salon, as well as library and office. The most important space, after all, is the chamber, which I would probably call my Fortress of Solitude…
Other than the time spent with family and friends, there have been a lot of things I have greatly enjoyed this year. In particular, whole host of new music that was either been released 2019 or I’ve discovered this year has made my life better.
Here are a few examples:
Bat For Lashes – Lost Girls
The Chemical Brothers – No Geography
Hot Chip – A Bath Full of Ecstasy
Quantic – Atlantic Oscillations
Tycho – Weather
In addition, Bonobo and Disclosure dropped some tracks which makes me hopeful that they’ll both release albums in early 2020!
I listen to very different music when running and in the gym. In fact, when I’m not lifting weights I’m often listening to podcasts, with my favourites this year being:
THE ADAM BUXTON PODCAST by Adam Buxton
Akimbo by Seth Godin
Athletico Mince by Bob Mortimer and Andy Dawson
Friday Night Comedy by BBC Radio 4
The Tim Ferriss Show by Tim Ferriss
I’m subscribed to a whole bunch of podcasts, so just to highlight some particular episodes from those not mentioned above:
How big tech is dragging us towards the next financial crash (The Guardian’s Audio Long Reads)
Lauryn Hill: An Education (Dissect)
Orlando Figes on Cultural Change in 19th Century Europe (Dan Snow’s History Hit)
The Rapture (In Our Time)
Victoria Coren Mitchell (Off Menu)
When I’m doing focused work, I use Brain.fm. This app, to which I have a lifetime subscription, is also really useful for sleeping on flights and strange hotel rooms.
I’ve read so many books this year that the following list leaves out many fantastic books that I enjoyed greatly. Nevertheless, of the books I read (and re-read) this year, here’s an eclectic top ten:
Against Creativity by Oli Mould
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
Being Numerous by Natasha Lennard
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Independent People by Halldór Laxness
Maybe Zombies by Laura Hilliger
Obfuscation: A User’s Guide For Privacy and Protest by Finn Brunton & Helen Nissenbaum
The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born by Nancy Fraser
Psychopolitics by Byung-Chul Han
I watch very few films and TV programmes by myself, which obviously has an impact on the kinds of things I end up viewing. On a flight earlier this year I did end up watching a documentary called Free Solo which was incredible. I’ve also enjoyed watching all of the series of Billions and La Casa de Papel with my wife (the latter is more prosaically translated as ‘Money Heist’ in English).
I’d rather spend my screen-based free time playing on our PlayStation 4 than watch television. This year was, I think, the 23rd or 24th year I’ve played a game in the FIFA series. We bought FIFA 20 when it came out and my son is now able to beat me on occasion. My daughter’s pretty good too…
Other than that, while Dai was still with us, I played a lot of Red Dead Redemption 2 with him. It’s an absolutely incredible game, and I used to love dramatic shoot-outs with the law, while drinking whisky and talking with Dai about life, the world, and everything.
I wrote this retrospective over the course of a couple of weeks, stealing time here and there to type words into the WordPress app on my phone.
Smartphones are, or can be, an existential threat to our peace of mind and individuality. While I love feeling connected to the world, I very much regret the thoughtless way organisations have adopted messaging apps to augment or replace email.
On top of this, social media apps are increasingly designed to be addictive, meaning that the amount of time we spend sharing stuff with one another, whether professionally or personally, is growing exponentially. I’d love to thing that all of this was contributing to the health and wealth of humanity, but I fear the opposite is probably true.
I’m being careful about the apps I put on my phone, reminding myself that replying instantly to family, friends, and work colleagues is a choice I can choose to make. Conversely, I can choose to prioritise what I’m doing right now, be it a thought I’m having or a conversation I’m engaged in. Some things can wait.
I’ll finish, then, with another quotation from Montaigne, one that I’ve read many times before, but truly come to understand this year:
The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.
It’s entirely possible to make a massive effort and write that lengthy report in a weekend, pull an all-nighter to get that code committed or spend all your holidays with those lesson plans. Of course it is.
But that’s not being productive. That’s panic-working. Being productive is all about the everyday routine. ‘Hack’ that and not only will you consistently get more done but you’ll also avoid negative knock-on effects on your health and energy levels.
I changed job last week. In fact, it was more than a change of job: it was a change in so many respects that it was almost a complete break with what had gone before. I’ve at least changed:
My method of transport to work (car –> train)
The hours I work (now on flexi-time)
My working environment (classroom –> office-based)
As a result, I’ve had to re-think my whole system of productivity. In fact, given that it takes a while to get into a routine, I’m still iterating it. Such things take time to tweak.
1. Write down the top five things that you need to fit in to either every day or at least most days. If you’ve never done this before you may need to brainstorm 20 or so things and then narrow them down. For me it’s (in order of importance):
Spend time with my family
Work on my Ed.D. thesis
Write daily blog posts
Research things that interest me
2. Think about time constraints when doing these things. For example, it’s impossible for me to spend time with my family whilst I’m at work in my current position, so I need to make sure that I’m available to spend time with my son, Ben, from when I return home until his bedtime. It’s also important to think about things that have to be done in ‘chunks’ (like exercise) as opposed to things that can be disaggregated (such as writing blog posts).
I’ve decided that I the best time for me to exercise is in the morning. It makes me feel better, enhances my productivity, and fits in better with with my working day. I’m also spending 30 minutes each way on the train each day. Unlike driving, this is time I can spend doing things (although even when I was driving I’d be listening to relevant podcasts). So, whilst I don’t want to lug my Macbook Pro to and from work each day, I have found a way I can work on my thesis by reading journal articles on my iPhone.
3. Finally, consider changing your sleeping habits. This, I think, can have the greatest effect on your productivity. I’m not a huge believer in people stating they’re a ‘morning’ or ‘night’ person, but if it were true I’d be in the former camp. Getting up and going to bed half an hour earlier can have a huge effect on your productivity. Find out what’s the best time for you. At the moment I’m thinking of shifting from 6am to 5.30am to get some blog post writing done! 🙂
Productivity is a very personal thing. But it’s important to reflect constantly on what you’re doing and why. It’s not about spending every single moment of your day working, but it is about organizing it so everything in your life points in a direction you’ve consciously chosen.