Life is a Series of Events

Hi everyone,

This is the weekly free issue of “Overthinking Everything” which goes out every Wednesday. There is also a paid issue every Sunday. The last one was How to be weird, which was about how we treat people who don’t fit in and how to navigate that, especially as an adult.

Today I thought I’d tell you about a simple reframe that I’ve been finding very useful recently: Life can be viewed as a series of events, and when there is something about our life that we want to change, it is often useful to view it in terms of a change to the events in our life.

This is useful in two ways. The first is that you can think of changes in time usages as changes in event distribution.

e.g. Rather than “I want to read more”, it is better to think of it as “I want to spend more of my time in reading events”. Rather than “I want to spend less time on social media”, it is better to think of it as “I want to spend less of my time on social media events”.

The second is that by thinking of things in terms of single well bounded events, we are more able to evaluate them. You probably don’t just want more reading events, you want better reading events.

These two interplay: Events you enjoy will tend to naturally lead to more of those events, events you do not enjoy will tend to cause you to want to avoid similar events in future.

Both the reading and the tweeting example are particularly on my mind right now because I made a change to how I use Twitter and suddenly my reading rate went from a book or two a week to a book or two a day.1

How to read more

The main way to read more is to enjoy reading. If you’re not enjoying reading, you will generally grow to find reading mildly to severely aversive, and you will (consciously or otherwise) end up going out of your way to have fewer reading events in your life.

The main way to figure out if this is the problem is to read more, which leads to the other main way to read more: Arrange your habits to increase the number of reading events in your life.

Here are some examples of such habit changes:

  • Bring a book with you to the bathroom rather than your phone.

  • Read first thing in the morning while drinking your coffee.

  • Leave a book2 lying around prominently in places you spend a lot of time (e.g. where you work) and pick it up when you feel like it.

  • Read a little bit before bed.

  • Read a book on your commute once those are a thing again.

Doing all of these things will increase the number of reading events in your life, and that is good and helpful. It might even work, but it probably won’t because if it was going to work you’d already have been doing most of them.

Instead these create opportunities to pay attention and notice why you don’t want to do them, and fix those issues.

A possible but non-exhaustive list of such reasons might be:

  • You’re reading stuff you don’t actually want to read.

  • You’re reading something that you’re too tired to read right now (e.g. stop trying to read that dense philosophy book right before bed!)

  • You feel guilty about not reading “properly”.

  • You feel guilty about spending your time reading when you could be doing something “important”.

I can recommend Daniel Pennac’s “The Rights of the Reader” as a great and charming exploration of our disordered relationship with reading. I’m aware of the irony of recommending you a book about how to read more, but I think you will find it enjoyable enough to read that that in itself may be lightly curative.

How to spend less time on Twitter

Here is my considered opinion on how to spend less time on Twitter: Don’t. It’s a bad goal.

The solution instead is:

  1. Learn how to consciously choose whether to spend your time on Twitter.

  2. Have things you would rather be doing than spending all your time on Twitter.

Here is the set of rules I’ve personally adopted:

  1. I leave Twitter logged out but can log back in whenever I want, I just have to log out when I stop using it.

  2. No Twitter on phone.

  3. When I notice that I've been on Twitter for a bit I go "Wait do I actually want to be on Twitter right now or is there something I’d rather be doing?" and if there is something I’d rather be doing I log out and go do it. There’s no judgement implied - if I want to be there I can be - and I'm allowed back whenever I want.

  4. If I tab in to Twitter and realise that this means I forgot to log out, I immediately log out.


Importantly nowhere in there is there a judgement as to whether I should be on Twitter. If I want to be on Twitter, I am allowed to be there, I just have to consciously make that decision.

I’m not holding to these especially rigidly, they’re more descriptive than prescriptive, but they seem to do the trick. They insert just enough friction into the decision to use Twitter to make it a deliberate decision, and a little bit of mindfulness to remind myself when I’m there adds to that, and then given that awareness it is entirely my choice how much to spend time there

…or at least that’s what I thought when I wrote this piece nearly two weeks ago. Since then this attempt to keep my Twitter usage under control this way has somewhat fallen apart. It’s not not working, but the problem is that I keep finding that the answer to “Do I want to spend time on Twitter?” is “Yes, actually”.

I don’t necessarily think this is a problem, as it’s partly a response to feeling a bit tired and under the weather and partly a response to even further decreased social contact off Twitter, but it’s something to keep an eye on. I’m going to think about this further, and see what to do about it. I suspect the answer is that you need to figure out better substitute events to do instead, and if paying attention to it doesn’t help you reduce it then it’s more load bearing than you were giving it credit for.

Avoiding Avoidance

The big problem with all of this very clever logic is that it probably would not have worked a month or so ago while I was still doing my PhD, because when I was doing my PhD I had a big omnipresent task that I didn’t want to do, and I would have felt guilty about working on anything else.

Yes I could have spent all day reading a book about something unrelated to my PhD, but I’d have felt very guilty doing so. So instead I spent all day on Twitter.

I could probably have not done that (and indeed had days where I did that), but I’d have found myself watching YouTube, or playing Slay the Spire, or cleaning, or really anything low cognitive load, because if I was actively working on something it should have been my PhD, so my day naturally filled with things that weren’t my PhD but that I didn’t feel guilty “just spending a bit of time on”.

Sometimes it’s worth looking at where the events that occupy our days come from, and the answer is it often turns out avoidance: We spend our time doing things that are not the things we want to do, because we don’t want to do the things we “should” be doing and feel guilty about doing the things we want to do when we’re not doing the things we should do.

I don’t necessarily have a great solution to this - my solution was to quit my PhD after all3 - but one thing that seems to work is explicitly earmarking time as time you’re allowed to spend on other things, and to create events within that window. Even if you’ve got a PhD you don’t want to do, if you can internalise the idea that it is good and virtuous for you to spend about an hour reading a day, or to write a newsletter a week, and you can carve out some time from the fog of avoidance in which to try to fit in the things that are useful and you actually want to do.

That being said, if you find yourself in this situation, you should probably either figure out how to stop feeling avoidant to it or do what I did and quit your PhD.

Coaching Auction

Every week I auction off a one hour coaching session around the theme of the newsletter issue. You can bid in this week’s auction here. The auction is run as a Vickrey auction (the details of which are explained in the form), which means that you will typically pay a bit less than you bid (and will never pay more). The last winner bid £43, and is paying £40. This is under half what I’d currently be taking on new coaching clients at, so this is a very good deal.

1

This is of course critically dependent on the fact that I have the time to allocate to reading a book or two a day, and you won’t get the same results without that, but the same principles apply.

2

I am a big advocate for physical books over e-readers but this also works with an e-reader.

3

I have a sneaking suspicion that it would have been psychologically impossible for me to figure out a great solution to this while