hanging out with your own mind

It’s been a deeply weird week. I went on the Today Show to (very briefly) talk about millennial burnout. I said some things about the Covington teens (specifically, the look on the one teen’s face, familiar to so many of us) that made some #MAGA people very, very angry, and led to numerous doxxing attempts and a whole lot of hate emails. (That’s all I want to say on that here; I feel like the entire situation was reverse engineered to inflame the culture war and think the best take on the entire situation is Adam Serwer’s, which you can find here).

And then there were the layoffs — 15% across BuzzFeed (as well as sweeping layoffs at HuffPost and Gannett). It’s one thing to think of layoffs in the abstract, it’s another when it affects your close friends and colleagues. (I thought this thread was smart on the current state of media (same with this historical context from a journalism professor); I also think venture capitalism and the accompanying demands for imaginary "profit targets” are to blame, but as anyone who’s read my burnout essay knows, our current iteration of capitalism is responsible for so much). If you’re a media person and want recommendations for any/all of the people we let go, let me know — all of those let go were doing amazing and important work and will get snatched up quickly.

I’ve been doing a seemingly endless stream of interviews about burnout, each interesting in their own way (here, for example, I talked with Pantsuit Politics about evangelicalism, politics, and the intersection with burnout). No matter the angle, each interviews somehow ends up asking: what are you doing about your own burnout? Because you know what doesn’t help with burnout? Doing a lot of press. But naming it remains powerful — and so do very small things, like turning my phone on airplane mode before entering the bedroom (and reading instead), and not feeling embarrassed about feeling accomplished when I actually drop off the shoes at the cobbler. I’ve also been thinking a lot about “digital minimalism,” as described by Cal Newport in his upcoming book (I loved this interview with him on Ezra Klein’s podcast).

Newport calls the thing we’re lacking “solitude” — not as in being all alone, but having no other “inputs” (from podcasts, the radio, talking with other people). You can be on the subway, in other words, and still be in mental solitude. I’ve long thought of it as “hanging out with your own mind.” It’s why I don’t listen to anything when I go on a run, and don’t listen to podcasts when I walk my dog. But I’m trying to give myself permission to do it even more, and one way of doing so = deleting a ton of apps from my phone. At the moment, I only have my work email and Instagram on my phone. Facebook, Twitter, Slack, personal email — all gone. After checking both of those, I’ve caught myself several times thinking “wait, shouldn’t there be more?” Of course there is. But I don’t need to look at it while standing in line at the grocery store, or at any number of other interstices in my life where I could just be hanging out with my own mind.

When I flew back and forth from New York this week, I didn’t pay for internet. Instead, I worked on my sprawling current project on student debt (like the piece on burnout, I’m trying to think about it, and the discourse that’s accumulated around it, in a much more historical and contextual manner). When I reached a pause in my writing — a moment when I’d usually flee my draft to Twitter — I just stared at the seat in front of me, or out the window, or watched seemingly every one of the other people on the plane watching Crazy Rich Asians.

I’ve long known that creating an internet-free space is good for my writing. The app Freedom from the Internet made writing my dissertation possible. Actual freedom from the internet, in whatever form, makes so many other things possible. This isn’t news to me and it’s certainly not news to you. But it’s incredibly difficult to make the decision for freedom on our own — we need apps and wifi-less locations to force it. When we say it’s a bad habit, we focus on the “bad” part and not the “habit” part — we feel shame, or regret, instead of actually thinking about the fact that habits are incredibly hard to change.

Which is why, as Newport points out, a digital “detox” doesn’t work — because you just re-enter into your old habits once you come back from it, immediately retoxifying yourself. You have to commit to a different sort of relationship with your phone — one that will feel awkward at first (what do I do with all this time!) until you start new habits (in your mind, in the physical world) that supplant the ones you had with your phone (or you computer, or your iWatch, or DadPad, whatever, I don’t know your life and your gadgets).

Newport has specific suggestions on how to do this, but I think he’d agree that everyone has to think through what it looks like in their own lives. For me, it’s just taking small steps and slowly reorienting myself — to an app, but also to my phone generally — while also filling that newly discovered space. I helped make this to-die for recipe from SALT FAT ACID HEAT. I’m devouring this book. I’ve been going cross-country skiing like a real Montanan. I’m not saying you should do those things. I’m saying you should find the things you do want to do. And sometimes it takes staring at a wall, and hanging out in your own mind, to figure out what they are.

Some Things I Read and Loved This Week:

As always, please forgive any typos or weird sentences; the lack of attention to small detail is what gives me the mental space to write this thing. If you know someone who’d like this sort of hodgepodge in their inbox every week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. If you have thoughts or feedback or your own strategies for hanging out more with your own mind, just reply to this email.