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Blog // Thoughts
May 31, 2019

This Week I Quit This Week I Quit

The semi-regular series, This Week I Quit, is now finished. Here’s a summary of the things I quit, and why in the end the series itself became something I needed to quit.

A couple of years ago I was listening to an interview with the writer and philanthropist, Bob Goff. He mentioned an odd habit. Every week, he gave something up. He had a weekly quitting habit. This reflected his desire to live a simpler, less distracted, less materialistic life.

At that time my life felt cluttered and unfocused. I had habits that I urgently needed to change, commitments that no longer served any good purpose, and burdens that felt too heavy to bear. So I made Goff’s idea my own. Every week I would quit something. And write about it on the blog.

Since then the list has grown into an interesting catalogue of change as I deleted apps, forms of entertainment, habits, contacts, practices, social obligations, and traditions.

This Week I Quit Medium
This Week I Quit Saying – My Younger Self Would’ve Liked
This Week I Quit Leaving Clothes On The Chair In My Bedroom
This Week I Quit Being A Food Blogger
This Week I Quit 79 People
This Week I Quit Asking What’s The Matter
This Week I Quit Discussing Identity On Social Media
This Week I Quit Apologising For My Holiday Schedule
This Week I Quit Checking My Email Every Day
This Week I Quit Talking To Myself (Kind Of)
This Week I Quit Tumblr (And A Bad Social Media Strategy)
This Week I Quit Snapchat
This Week I Quit Checking My Online Analytics
This Week I Quit Not Weighing Myself
This Week I Quit Being A Film Critic
This Week I Quit Late Night Satire
This Week I Quit Pinterest
This Week I Quit 2016
This Week I Quit The Super Bowl
This Week I Quit The Twitter App (along with 122 others)
This Week I Quit Night-Time Meetups
This Week I Quit Letting People Pick My Brain
This Week I Quit Lynda (Rethinking Online Learning)
This Week I Quit Evernote
This Week I Quit Flickr (Properly At Last)
This Week I Quit SoundCloud
This Week I Quit Omnifocus
This Week I Quit Houzz
This Week I Quit Vimeo

The Challenge Of Writing Once A Week

The irony of course is I that I was unable to maintain the once-a-week tempo. This wasn’t because I didn’t quit something every week; it was because many of the things were so small they didn’t warrant a blogpost. Like not leaving metal bottle caps on the kitchen counter, and instead putting them away in the metal trash (incombustible) bin under the sink. Others were too weird and idiosyncratic to write about. Like compulsively stroking my beard when caught in conversations I didn’t want to have.

This series pushed me, time and time again, back into the question of when and how to explain my own pathology. It’s a question biographical writers have always faced. And maybe also many of us as we use social media. To what extent do you need to know everything that’s wrong with me? And how much should I be looking specifically at the changes that can help you in your own life?

So, over time, the focus of the series shifted to quitting digital commitments. Or overcommitments. All those apps and platforms and services we joined and no longer enjoy. You could call these experiments in Digital Minimalism.

A Question Of Security

What I learned is how sticky these commitments are. The developers of these services make them very hard to quit. And in some cases, like my attempt to delete myself from Harmony Central, they make it impossible. I quit Flickr and deleted my account, only to find it still there, months later. I had to ask to be deleted again. And I thought I’d quit 500px a long time ago. But a security breach showed they still had my details on their servers.

Security breaches were a recurring theme in This Week I Quit. An email would arrive, suggesting I change the password for some long-forgotten account. The fragility of this digital ecosystem is unnerving.

Digital Commitments Are Not Weightless

“How much do our digital commitments weigh?” I keep asking myself. It’s an odd, abstract, metaphysical question. But also a very real physiological one.

We play a funny game with our digital lives. On the one hand, we want to say our digital communications matter. The online friends, the chat and message exchanges, even the emails, these all make a meaningful human connection. But then, on the other hand, we want to believe the vast digital chain we’re part of, together with all the prompts, alerts, notifications, and reminders, don’t weigh on us.

The thing I realised, over and over again, was that cutting digital commitments had surprisingly similar effects on me to changing real-world habits. Both changed my mindset. Both helped make me calmer and more focused. It might not seem as if quitting Pinterest is in any way similar to quitting the habit of leaving your bed unmade in the morning (another thing I didn’t write about). But to me, it was.

Our External Brains

Our habits and commitments, the way we do things, the stuff we buy or subscribe to; these are how we structure the world around us. They make us who we are, quite literally. They are like external thinking machines.

Arrange the sofas in your lounge around a TV and everyone will go straight into watching mode. But arrange things so people face each other and conversation is more likely to happen. Our rooms do a lot of thinking for us.

Our habits and commitments think for us as well. If your smartphone is constantly chirping away with notifications it’s training you to be interruptible. You’ll grow to expect them. You’ve programmed a real-world algorithm to teach you to be distracted.

If you want to take a break, to sit in a cafe and read, then the best way is to carry a book with you and leave your smartphone behind. You can write the programme for the behaviour you want to exhibit.

Quitting Can Be A Good Thing

We’re too quick to stigmatise quitting. Being a quitter is seen as a bad thing. OK. Sometimes it is. Giving up as soon as the going gets tough isn’t great. We never achieve mastery of anything that way.

But never quitting means we lock ourselves into patterns of life that don’t work for us.

Sometimes quitting can be a very good thing. A liberating experience. I quit Facebook in 2009. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted. If anything, every year that passes, it feels like a better choice.

And when I quit my PhD it hurt so much I feared I’d never recover. But I didn’t just get over it. That decision set me up to enjoy an amazing adventure over the last 15 years.

But somewhere along the way I became quit-averse. It happens to all of us. We settle into our ways. A mix of once-good habits that outlive their usefulness and bad habits that creep into our lives, like weeds in an unkempt garden.

Part of what This Week I Quit did for me was to retrain my quitting muscles. It gave me a series of strong questions to aim at every habit and commitment. Why do I do this? When did this start? Is it yielding benefits? Does it make me a better person?

Quitting Shows Us Beliefs Can Change

Our habits and beliefs can be bent and shaped. Often we believe things about ourselves, our place in the world, or how we need to act, which feel rigid and unchangeable. But many of these beliefs are optional.

Time and again during this series I found myself butting up against things I simply didn’t believe in any more.

Like the digital funnel. The idea that you should be on lots of different social media platforms, trying to speak to all those disparate audiences, hoping they will travel back to your main site. Or the notion that digital tools are better than analogue for personal planning and organisation, simply because they can handle more information. Or that I needed to look like an expert in technology in order to do well professionally.

Giving up these beliefs can sting. It hurts to admit you’re wrong. Or that the world has changed in ways you didn’t anticipate.

But it’s worth going through that for the pay-off. A less distracted mind. More time and energy to focus on the things that matter to you. A greater sense that the habits that remain are ones that are good for you as well.

The Joy Of Marie Kondo-ing Your Mind

It’s fascinating to bring to mind your personal beliefs, commitments, and habits, and to ask – do these spark joy? Like doing a Marie Kondo style clean-up of the algorithms that shape your life.

Now I’m letting go of my This Week I Quit series. I’m not writing about it any more. Because it’s permeated into everything I do now. It’s an algorithm. A question I’m constantly asking. Do I really need to keep doing this? Or can I just quit? And it’s such a relief when the clear and calm answer is – yes.

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