The remarkable effects of going 24 hours without the internet

Last weekend, I challenged myself to spend an entire day offline. No email, no Facebook, no news websites, no YouTube…

It was a challenge to break that default habit of going online at the first hint of boredom or distraction, to see if I could do it and what the effects would be.

The results were more profound than I expected…

Planning ahead

Because the internet is now ubiquitous, we don’t think about it any more.

When you turn on a computer or phone, the first thing most of us do is get online without a moment’s thought, in the same way that you turn on the lights when you walk into a room.

But if you know that tomorrow you won’t be able to check the internet at all, it forces you to plan ahead. The internet becomes a scarce resource, and you start to think about what you need to do in the limited time available.

  • What do you need to get done while you have time?
  • What information do you need for tomorrow?

If you not only think ahead, but also take small steps to prepare, you are much more likely to be physically and mentally ready the next day.

Space to think

When you remove the option of going online, it leaves a vacuum which has to be filled with something.

It is very difficult to sit and do nothing. If you have ever tried meditation, you will know that there is a constant stream of thoughts and ideas flowing through your head which is impossible to stop.

As an academic some of those thoughts and ideas might be useful, but the internet acts as a kind of creative anesthesia… it stops you thinking by filling your mind with fluff.

Some say that the best ideas happen when you are taking a shower. Maybe this is because you have the space, in the absence of incoming information, simply to think.

Learning to relax

If you go a full day without checking email, then you know and accept that there will be unread messages sitting waiting for you when you come back online.

I think if you want to do good work, you have to learn to ignore that which does not matter in the short term to focus on the more important.

My mantra, when I was writing my PhD thesis, was to say, “it’s OK, I’ll deal with that later” whenever I was distracted by the temptation of some other task unrelated to what I was working on.

Likewise, on Sunday I told myself, “it’s OK, I’ll deal with email tomorrow”. The surprising effect was that this meant I was better able to deal with email by doing it all in one chunk, rather than individual emails competing for attention with the work I was trying to do.

Cold turkey is easier than rationing

Cutting off the internet completely is easier than rationing it. You could try saying, “I’ll just go online for 2 hours per day”, but this is incredibly difficult to stick to! How do you monitor it? And once you are in that internet-numbed mental state, how do you stop yourself rationalising “just 5 minutes more”.

It is much easier to stick to a binary rule, than a quantitative one. This is why no-carb diets are so much easier to stick to than calorie counting ones; it is clear-cut, do or don’t do, rather than do, but only up to this arbitrary limit.

The effect on productivity and quality of life

I got a ton of work done during my offline day, but I also had more time to relax.

Because I didn’t use the internet as a break, whenever I ran out of momentum I stepped away from the computer. It opened up other options, like going for a run, phoning a friend, tidying up; all small things that improve the quality of life.

When the internet is the default whenever you get bored, the opportunity cost is huge.

Recommendations

It is not easy to escape the internet, and the best way is to remove the option wherever possible. I recommend using freedom, a program which turns off your internet connection for a set period of time. It costs $10, but pays for itself many times over in terms of the time it gives back (no affiliation, I recommend it because I use it).

I also recommend practice. When you get stuck in your work walk away from the computer and give yourself time to think. When you get bored, stop and do nothing and see what ideas come to mind.

Do those few simple things, and I believe it will not only improve your work, but your whole life.

Offline Sunday: a challenge for the internet-addicted

The internet is now so ubiquitous in our daily lives that it’s hard to imagine living without it. It is an incredible resource and invaluable tool, but for many of us (myself included) the line between useful tool and harmful addiction has blurred.

The internet is, without doubt, the biggest productivity killer, because it is the comforting presence always within easy reach whenever you lose momentum with your work or get distracted. It is the default habit we often resort to under stress, to escape momentarily from the responsibility, burden, or boredom of the task at hand.

In this blog post, I’m not going to suggest a cure, but rather a challenge to show the scale of the problem.

The Challenge…

The challenge is simple: spend 24 hours completely cut off from the internet

No email, no Facebook, and definitely no Twitter. No news websites, no blogs, and no amusing videos of cats on YouTube.

Although the challenge is simple in principle, it may not be quite so easy in practice. But the idea is to help you develop an awareness of…

  • your dependency on the internet (if you fail)
  • what can happen when the internet isn’t an option (if you succeed)

Sunday is a good day to choose to try the challenge, because it’s easier to get away with not answering emails. I’m going to try it on Sunday 15th December 2013, and will write a post about the experience afterwards.

Join me in the challenge by not joining me online!

offline-sunday

The default habit…

For me at least, the internet is a default habit.

Whenever I am unsure what to do, the first thought that comes to mind is always to check email. Then while the email is loading I’ll open another tab with my second email account, then another with Facebook. Then after scanning those I’ll often open a news website, check for new TED talks, open Google Analytics to check traffic to the site, check Mailchimp to see how the email list is growing, then back to Facebook where I’m chatting with 3 people at the same time, then I’ll notice another email has come in…

Since getting a smartphone, I sometimes do this before even getting out of bed. I’ll then get up, have breakfast, and still be checking my phone while eating… There’s no good reason to do so, it’s just a compulsion.

It’s a problem when a useless habit takes precedence over a basic need, such as food!

Why the internet is so addictive

In terms of usefulness, the internet spans a range from essential to utterly and mind-numbingly pointless (search for “nyan.cat” if you don’t know what I mean).

If we only used when there was some positive benefit then it would be fine, but often the possibility of finding something useful is used as a justifiable first step towards the pointless crap. You convince yourself that you’ll “just check email quickly, in case there is a reply from the boss…”, but it’s never quick, and it’s never just email.

This possibility of there sometimes being something useful or interesting or amusing is what makes it so addictive. The occasional reward reinforces the behaviour in the same way that an occasional win reinforces gambling addiction.

What happens when you remove the default option of the internet

When the internet isn’t an option, you’re forced to think. You have to decide what to do, rather than automatically taking the default option.

It might not be comfortable at first. You might find yourself creating reasons why you need to go online, but if you resist for even just half an hour, you’ll hopefully find that you start getting creative in terms of things to do.

Even if you do nothing, you are at least giving yourself some time to think, which is pretty important for an academic.

It’s an experiment

I don’t know if this will work, but let’s try, just out of curiosity to see what happens. Who’s in?

Free-writing or deliberate writing: a crucial distinction!

For the purposes of this course, I’ve defined writing as a form of communication. In the context of a PhD, this usually means the written thesis you submit for examination or papers written for publication.

You are writing for somebody else, with the aim of effectively communicating your research retrospectively once it’s completed.

If this is the primary purpose of writing, then clarity of structure and detail are vitally important and require careful thought.

However, in many fields it’s common practice to write for a different purpose. Sometimes writing is used as a way of generating ideas and arguments. The purpose is not necessarily to communicate, but rather to explore ideas for your own benefit.

In this case detail and structure may not matter so much. You can allow yourself to run with ideas and see what comes out, without worrying about what anyone else thinks about it.

The value (and limitation) of free-writing

In any kind of creative process, it’s important to allow yourself this kind of playful exploration, without the pressure of worrying about the end result. It’s good to allow yourself to have bad ideas, because they often serve as stepping stones to better ones.

If you just write, without thinking too much, it might lead you to interesting new ideas and help you form connections between ideas.

So free-writing has value, but it is important to distinguish between this kind of free-writing for your own benefit and the kind of writing intended for communication with someone else.

When you communicate research, usually you will be presenting something you have spent a long time working on. You will have examined a particular question or problem in depth, and possibly from multiple perspectives.

In other words, the majority of the ideas you present should not be completely new to you.

Idea generation vs consolidation & communication

If you are at that stage where you are close to submitting a report of your work, it should be less about idea generation, and more about consolidation and refinement of ideas you have already developed.

Let’s look at two possible situations. In the worst-case scenario, you’re a week away from a deadline for submitting a paper, but have no idea what you are going to say and you start writing without knowing what is going to come out. Any ideas you come up with you won’t have time to really consider. You might get something done in time, but it is unlikely to be very insightful.

But if you are a week away from submitting a paper with a good understanding of the relevant ideas, then the challenge is to select what you want to cover from those pre-existing ideas, and express them clearly while putting them together in a logical structure.

In this latter case, you don’t need to write thousands of words in a thoughtless panic. You can think through how to structure your argument. You can write calmly and deliberately, with conscious control over the process and you have a far better chance of writing something good at the first attempt.

Free-writing is for you, deliberate writing is for the reader

So I think it’s important to make a distinction between free-writing (for yourself) and deliberate writing (for other people).

freewriting-vs-deliberate-writing

I do this by free-writing on paper, throwing ideas down all over the page and (literally) drawing connections between points. This builds up a stock of ideas, many of which I may never use. I can then consciously select what to communicate to others through deliberate writing.

I find that free-writing by typing thousands of words without thinking leaves me with a huge lump of text which is very difficult to reorder, partly because it’s difficult to get an overview all the ideas. By doing it on paper, I can see everything at a glance and it’s far easier to move things around.

If you free-write as a form of analysis, or if you use writing as a way of thinking as many people do, but struggle to then edit it into a presentable form, try separating the two types of writing. Generate ideas fast, but then put that writing to one side and start again taking more time to think about how to clearly communicate the best of those ideas to others.

The secret behind success: It’s not what you might expect…

I’ve been extremely successful in many areas of my life.

  • I completed a PhD in physics, writing a thesis in just 3 months which the examiner described as one of the best he had ever read
  • I’ve represented my country as a competitive martial artist (and am the only person to have won the British Universities aikido championship twice)
  • I’ve cycled the English coast to coast trail in a single day (more than 130 miles, with a total climb of 4000 m)
  • I’ve climbed a mountain with a broken ankle
  • I’ve lived in 4 different countries other than the UK (Japan, France, Spain, Iceland)
  • And I’ve created this site, which receives between 1000 and 2000 unique visits daily

My life is pretty good, I do meaningful work that by I’m good at, I’m in superb physical shape, and genuinely believe I can do anything I put my mind to.

There’s a secret behind this success, but it’s not what you might expect. Many other successful people share it, but few talk about it. And you can’t learn it, but you might already have it…

The secret

I suffer from depression.

There are times when I’m torn apart by self-doubt and self-expectation. There are times when I feel like there’s a hole opening up underneath me. Or worst of all, there are times when I just feel emotionally numb.

There have been times when I’ve fallen asleep on the sofa, and woken up feeling paralysed, literally unable to get up under my own strength. It’s hard to describe what it’s like, but if you’ve been there, then you know.

The contradiction

Some of the world’s greatest achievers and most creative minds have suffered from depression, including;

  • Buzz Aldrin
  • Bob Dylan
  • Fyodor Dostoyevski
  • Michel Foucault
  • Angelina Jolie
  • Akira Kurasawa
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • JK Rowling
  • Oprah Winfrey

The contradiction is that what you feel on the inside can often bear little relation to how your life looks from the outside. You can have all the success in the world but still feel like a failure. You can be surrounded by people who love and care for you, but still feel alone.

It’s not easy to talk about

This contradiction makes it difficult to talk about. If you feel like crap, well-meaning people will try to help by pointing out all the good things in your life. They will treat it as a logical argument where all they have to do is provide a solid counter-example to convince you life is actually OK.

But sometimes it just fucking isn’t OK and there’s no logical reason for it.

If you have a broken leg, nobody tries to convince you it isn’t broken. They’ll tell you to take it easy. They’ll ask you if you need anything. They’ll understand. With depression, most people don’t know how to help so they try to tell you there isn’t a problem.

But you should talk about it. We all should. It’s a part of our society, and if you don’t suffer from depression yourself, I can guarantee you know someone who does.

Talk about it…

There are so many reasons to talk openly about depression, most of which I’ll leave to this video since he puts it so well:

 

For me though, one of the best things that has come from acknowledging my depression is a deeper understanding of myself, why (or how) depression manifests itself, and how that relates to my creativity and success.

I believe my depression, my creativity and my success come from the same place. They come from two character traits I have quite deeply engrained.

The first is obsessive thought

When I get depressed, it’s often because I am stuck with the same thoughts going round and round and round endlessly in my head. I won’t be able to sleep. I will be distracted during conversations or during writing while I obsess over something I can’t do anything about. On the surface I’ll be fine, but I’ll be tearing myself apart inside.

It’s not something I would wish upon anybody, but I’ve come to realise that this obsessive thinking, when focused and directed towards action, is the source of everything I have ever achieved.

When I cycled across England in a single day, it’s because once I got the idea to race the sun from the east coast to the west I had to do it. I couldn’t let go of the idea.

When I write, I’ll stay with an idea for days if necessary. I won’t let go of it until I understand the concept and find a way to put it into words I’m happy with.

The second is self-belief

It might seem strange that self-belief is a source of depression, but it can easily turn into self-expectation, and there is a subtle difference between the two.

Self-expectation can cause deep depression if I don’t meet those expectations. It’s knowing I could do more. Knowing I could do better. It’s regretting not doing something I should and could have. It’s pressure. It’s a burden.

Self-belief is when it doesn’t even occur to me that I can’t do something. It’s knowing that I can cope with whatever happens, taking things in my stride that others would be terrified by. It’s this self- belief that allowed me to say, “I don’t care whether I pass or fail my PhD, I trust in my ability that I’ll be OK”. It’s liberating

These two traits combined can tilt me towards supreme confidence, creativity and action or depression, pain, and inertia. I don’t always know how to control or channel it, but understanding helps.

Speak out

I don’t have any solutions to share, but I know that talking about depression is essential.

Leave a comment below and share your experience (anonymously if you like), share this post on Facebook or Twitter, or check out the resources below

Resources and links

  • Talk to your university counseling service or GP
  • The habits of happiness (video)
  • Authentic happiness (includes online questionnaires to measure depressive symptoms)

Is technology making PhD students lazy?

There was a time, not so very long ago, when searching for an article meant a trip to the library, finding a physical copy of the journal and taking it to the photocopier.

There was also a time, not so very long ago, when theses were typed on a typewriter. There were no word processors, there was no referencing software. Everything was done by hand.

Technology has made life much easier for academics; you can find, download and print an article in seconds, plus there are countless pieces of software and online resources now available. But is this same technology making some PhD students lazy?

Please note: I am not saying you should use a typewriter and search for literature by hand. These are examples of technology being a good thing! I’ve had some comments reacting as if I am arguing against the use of any technology. This would be ridiculous!

Lazy questions

By far, the most common question I get asked is,  “I’m studying X, please provide me with a thesis topic“. I must have been asked this 100 times in the last few months, and I’ve seen the same question in a number of online forums.

This is a lazy question, not because a student should think of it themselves, but because they haven’t taken the time to think about whether I’ll be able to answer. How on earth does anyone expect me to  instantly come up with a viable topic on demand? Yet the question keeps coming…

OK, so most students don’t ask this kind of question, but there is a sizable minority expecting instant answers. To those students, sorry, but it doesn’t work that way… The availability of online help does not absolve you of the responsibility of thinking.

Lazy use of software

Some analysis would be impossible without the use of software, but there is a risk that you end up not understanding your own analysis.

Take statistical software for example. It can save you a huge amount of time, but it is possible to use it without understanding what it is doing with your data nor the results it presents.

If it spits out a bunch of numbers, what do they mean? What is a p-value? What’s the difference between standard deviation and standard error? You have to take the time to understand these terms before you use them in a report.

Don’t pass responsibility onto the software!

Lazy searching

While search engines and other online resources give you instant access to information, sometimes what you need isn’t at the top of the results list. Sometimes it’s hidden away on page 27 of an article published in volume 4 of The International Journal of Obscure Research. Sometimes you need the patience and persistence to dig a little deeper and search a little longer.

Patience and persistence are crucial attributes for successful researchers. While search engines are great as an initial tool, what do you do when they don’t give you what you need? Do you have the patience to try searching in other ways?

Problem solving

Research is all about problem solving. It rarely, if ever, goes exactly according to plan, and you will have to adapt and solve problems as they arise.

Often, the first solution you try won’t work, so you’ll have to try something else… and something else…. and something else, but eventually you get it right.

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer

– Albert Einstein

Success is often determined by the amount of time you are willing to spend with a problem, plus your willingness just to try things out and see whether they work, or in other words your willingness to make mistakes and keep going. Technology, whether search engines, discussion forums or software, is no substitute.

 

The blank page is your friend

There is a lot of advice for writers, and while some of it varies in approach there are also some ideas which seem to be universally accepted. One of these ideas is the fear of the blank page;  of that empty white space staring accusingly at you and demanding to know why you haven’t written anything.

Many will argue that you should still get words down quickly without thinking too much as a way of overcoming the fear. This might be a useful tactic in some circumstances, but to me it seems like a way of avoiding the issue.

Personally, I don’t find a blank page particularly frightening. Sometimes I might find it difficult to get started, but the blank page isn’t the problem. The problem is finding a starting point by deciding what to say first. If you solve that, the blank page problem disappears.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy — it takes a lot of patience and persistence — but by focusing on the more fundamental problem, your attention is directed towards creating something of value, rather than avoiding some abstract, poorly defined fear.

As a writer, you will face blank pages every day. So you can either build your writing strategy around an irrational fear of an essential medium for your work, or you can try to get comfortable with it. The latter, surely, is a more confident approach.

It’s time we writers got over this collective fear. The blank page is your friend. The blank page will hold your words for you when they are ready. It will be forever patient, and when one is full another will be waiting to serve you.

 

“Advice is a form of nostalgia”

Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

– Mary Schmich, “Wear Sunscreen”

This is so true, especially in the field of advice for students.

There is a huge amount of advice out there, and those of us giving it all believe our tips are useful.

But the truth is, none of us have discovered “the secret to end procrastination” and there is no perfect system for time management, no perfect system for working with literature, and no single approach to writing or research.

There is a danger, in our field, that we start to believe our own hype and that we make claims which aren’t really substantiated. The best we can hope for is that it works for some people, and doesn’t do any harm to others.

How can advice do harm? When we over-sell our advice, there is a possibility that those for whom it doesn’t work start to blame themselves. If that’s the case, and that person is low in confidence already, they aren’t likely to tell those of us giving advice that it didn’t work for them.

This introduces a kind of confirmation bias… we only hear from the people who like our work, and that can lead to a distorted view of how good our advice really is.

The common phrase (and I used to use it myself) is that “if I can do it, you can too”. But maybe the way I did it won’t work for you. Maybe I worked under different circumstances. Maybe I just think differently.

I can’t promise results. I don’t have all the answers, and I haven’t discovered a secret. I have just spent a really long time trying to figure out ways of working to make PhD life easier. The blog posts on this site and in my book are my best efforts so far, and I hope you find them useful.

UPDATE: This comic from XKCD kind of sums up what I’m talking about…

A beginner’s guide to statistics for PhD research

Statistics can be invaluable for adding a level of rigour to your analysis, but they can be extremely technical and difficult for non-specialists.

This is not by any means a comprehensive guide, but I will try to give some basic working principles to help reduce the pain and avoid the most common mistakes.

Plot your data

Before doing statistical analysis, wherever possible create a visual representation of your data.

This will give you a much better intuitive understanding of what is going on.

For example, if you have survey data using a Likert scale, where answers to questions are given as;

  1. Strongly disagree
  2. Disagree
  3. Neither agree nor disagree
  4. Agree
  5. Strongly agree

You may want to see how the answers to a specific question are distributed across all respondents. You can do this by plotting a histogram showing the number of responses at each point in the scale.

Here are 3 examples of possible distributions:

likert histogram 1 likert histogram 2 likert histogram 3

 Without doing any statistics, you can instantly see how the data is distributed, and you can use this as a basis for your analysis

What does the mean mean?

If you take the means of each of the three distributions above, you will get values of 3.7, 3 and 2.8.

But what do these values mean? In the top histogram, 3.7 clearly correlates to the peak at 4. In the second, the distibution is flat, so the mean just represents the middle of the range, and in the third, the mean is the least selected option.

It is up to you to then interpret what the mean means, but you can only do that when you can see the distribution of the data.

Standard deviation

The standard deviation is a measure of the spread of data around the mean. It is widely used, but you need to be careful.

If you use the standard deviation without plotting your data, then you can end up with a meaningless number.

Standard deviation is best used when you have something approximating a normal distribution of data (the classic “bell curve” below)

from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Standard_deviation_diagram.svg
from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Standard_deviation_diagram.svg

When you say the standard deviation = x, this indicates that about 68% of the data lies within ± x of the mean.

But what if you have a graph with 2 peaks? Then the standard deviation becomes meaningless, even though a statistical program will still give you an answer.

from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bimodal.png
from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bimodal.png

Don’t include numbers you don’t understand

When you use statistical analysis software, it will spit out countless different results, some will be useful, some not.

Do not include in any report or table of results numbers you don’t understand. Imagine an examiner asking, “what do these numbers mean?” and if you can’t answer, either find out or don’t include them.

How many decimal places?

Another potential hazard is that stats software will often give you numbers to many decimal places.

For example, let’s say you measure the height of every adult human being on earth and look for the mean. With several billion data points, your calculation of the mean might look something like 1.68234597864422 m (I just made this number up as an example). If you copy and paste this number, you are effectively claiming that you can measure the height of a human being to an accuracy of  0.00000000000002 m, which is much smaller than the radius of an atom.

Much better to give the value as 1.68 or 1.682, since this reflects the accuracy with which you can make a single measurement.

Quoting errors

The same is true when giving an estimate of the error on a measurement. Giving an error of ± 2.336598774654654 is ridiculous! You can’t be that precise in an error estimate! Stick to one (or two at the most) significant figures.

Do analysis at a small scale early in your research

If you have 1 month left to submit your thesis, and you are doing analysis for the first time, it’s going to be difficult.

So do some analysis early, on a small scale, so you have some experience before you do the full analysis. You will be able to take your time, while the pressure is still low. Most mistakes happen when doing things in a rush at the last minute, especially if you have never done that type of analysis before.

If you know what methodology you are going to use, do a small trial run and analyse the data you get. Not only will this help you refine your methodology, but it will make the final analysis much, much easier.

Any questions?

I am not an expert in statistics, and cannot answer questions on specific analytical techniques or software, but am happy to answer questions on these basics.

If any statisticians want to contribute, you are more than welcome!

TK

Here’s a quick writing tip used by the professionals…

When you are writing and there’s something you need to come back and insert later, like a reference, figure number, table etc, you probably leave a note for yourself as a reminder.

Do you have a consistent system for these “notes to self”? Or do you do it a different way every time?

When you have a tight deadline, it is easy to miss (insert figure here) or (find reference on X) when you scan through your document in a hurry.

So it’s better to have a system where you can’t possibly miss them!

TK

TK is wisely used in journalism and printing as a placeholder for missing material, standing for “to come“.

The reason TK is used rather than TC is that it is an unusal letter combination (try to think of any words in English containing “tk”… there are a few, but not many), so if you do a CTRL-F search in your document for “tk” you will find every instance easily.

You could use XXX or any other letter combination that doesn’t appear in the rest of the text. If you are doing a thesis on pocketknives, for example, XXX is probably a better one to use.

Whatever you use, be consistent, and you will avoid submitting a thesis with an embarrasing (insert example here).