NOTE: This post has nothing to do with our usual fare, and very little to do with running, though it will get mentioned a little. However, if you’re interested in the idea of a depth year, then read on.
Mindfulness is “on trend” just now. There are plenty of books and blogs on the topic, and you can even sign up to a 6 week Mindfulness course at my place of employment. But I’m not sure whether this embracing of Mindfulness is in itself just a fad: something novel to discover and flirt with, until it becomes mundane and boring – at which point we’ll move on to some newer, shinier philosophical movement that promises to enrich our lives.
This brings me on to the main crux of this article. The only mindfulness blog I have ever read (and on an intermittent basis at that) is Raptitude. I do enjoy David’s posts, but keep forgetting the name of the blog (showing how mindlessly I must read it). So I was rather surprised when Michael, my significant other, tweeted a link to a Raptitude blog post entitled Go Deeper, Not Wider.
David’s idea is that you spend a year where you don’t take up any new hobbies, or purchase any new products you don’t need. Rather, you have to find the value in what you already own, and the hobbies you already have – improving your current skills and appreciating your current stockpile of possessions and entertainment.
Michael is the kind of person you might expect to turn up on a TV show about hoarders. He is a chronic hoarder and combining our possessions largely involved throwing away or donating a lot of mine in order to make space for his ridiculously large book collection. We did that first move ourselves, and all I can say is I was glad that I do regular weight training. There were over 30 boxes with an average weight of over 30kg, and Michael has chronic shoulder pain, so I got to carry most of them. 90% of those boxes then just stayed, unopened, in cupboards and in a pile on the living room floor, for the best part of a year until we moved again. He also often starts projects but doesn’t finish them: he gets bored and moves on. He does have an ability to get obsessed about certain things though, and when that happens he can be extraordinarily productive: something I have always been in awe (and slightly envious) of.
I don’t share his tendency to purchase almost infinite amounts of media, but I do share his ability to start hobbies then let them slide (ukulele, viola, keyboard, photography, reading regularly,…). I usually blame this on being time poor – whilst spending most of my free time on one hobby (running, and blogging about running, and arranging runs, and talking to people about running, and arranging vacations around races and race training schedules…) – and wasting a lot of time on social media and mindless internet browsing.
As one of my favourite bloggers/ podcasters says “You can Afford Anything, but not everything.” Similarly, you can do anything, but not everything. Time is our most precious and limited resource so we need to be very careful about spending it wisely. Generally, though, our long-term goals (to become a better marathoner, or a published author, or to lose 20kg, or to be able to afford to retire) fail because we make short-term choices based on what is important to us in the present, rather than our future selves. Michael often curses past Michael for leaving him in terrible predicaments (for example, by not having not bothered to write enough surplus reviews and teardowns for Meeple Like Us, meaning he has to write multiple reviews during a week when he is feeling under the weather and busy at work). I also sometimes castigate myself for failings such as not getting to the gym to lift weights 3 times a week, because on two of the days I meant to go I got stuck at work or was just so tired after work that I couldn’t face going to the gym. (I’m actually doing that right this minute, but at least I’m writing this post – which kind of counts as productive, right?) If I really wanted to achieve my goal of being able to do multiple unassisted pull ups I would be working more consistently towards that goal on a long-term basis.
Everyone can be more productive. We all tend to rationalise that we’re too busy, but tracking how you spend your time will reveal large chunks of time spent mindlessly. Afford Anything podcast #38 with Laura Vanderkam was an eye-opener on this, but it’s taken me over 2 years to fully accept it rather than rationalising my need for mindless time-wasting to “decompress” after a hard day at work.
I’m aware that this is all very self-indulgent and positively reeks of First World Problems. In relation to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this very much falls into the self-actualisation pinnacle of it. Michael and I are aware that many people don’t have the luxury of worrying about this kind of stuff because they’re not DINKs with actual free time on their hands.
We are told it’s better to spend money on experiences than objects. And there may be some truth to this. But that can also lead to a hedonic treadmill of always seeking new and novel experiences rather than putting in the effort to deepen your experience and expertise in a few well-chosen pursuits. For me, this is a big reason for attempting a depth year. It is said to take around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery at a skill, and mastery can lead to the delights of entering a state of flow : if anything is about being in the moment then flow is. Many people (myself included) have a tendency to bail out of putting in the effort when things get hard and we plateau at something. But putting in the effort to achieve mastery is worth it in the end. Deciding not to take up any new hobbies leaves room to strengthen your skills and therefore hopefully enhancing your enjoyment of existing hobbies.
The idea of a Depth Year is very flexible. For Michael, who is already amazingly productive and is more of a mindless purchaser than me, it is largely about culling his rate of consumption so that he can enjoy the things he currently owns. For me, I tend to agonise over most purchases, and buying things I don’t need largely equates to purchasing and owning a ridiculous quantity of gym leggings because I like the patterns rather than because I need yet another pair. (It wouldn’t be so bad if I could wear them for running, but they don’t have pockets to store my keys, or drawstring waistbands.) I do also have a tendency to purchase camera equipment that I rarely use. I own around half a dozen camera lenses, but a Lightroom search will show that around 80% of my images are taken using the 9 – 18mm lens, whilst the rest only get used very occasionally. Asides from those though, which will be tackled, my main issue is with how I spend my time.
As I’ve mentioned before, the idea of a Depth Year is pretty flexible. Michael has created his own rules here. But it can be what you want it to be, and my aims are more time-related. So, what are my rules for my depth year?
- Limit my social media time to 20 minutes per day, except if I’m involved in an important group chat about something: no mindless scrolling.
- Uninstall or block notifications from Instagram and Twitter. Turn off Strava notifications and most Facebook notifications so they’re not distracting me when I’m trying to do deep work.
- Set aside dedicated time each week to play board games and shoot the breeze with Michael. You’d be surprised at how little that happens due to a combination of my fitness training schedule and mindless time-wasting.
- Look at ways to improve how we run the house, so that less time is wasted on mindless chores. Spending money on this is fine as long as the utility value makes the costs worthwhile.
- Allocate (realistic) time limits for tasks. If I haven’t got the task completed in that time then move on, and work out how to do it more efficiently next time.
- Identify a personal project to work on over the year, and track my progress on a monthly basis.
I’d also written some rules relating to not purchasing unnecessary things, but ended up deleting them. As I’ve mentioned earlier, that’s not really my big issue. I promise not to purchase any unnecessary electronics, clothing or books. But if there are things I really need that will be beneficial from a time or genuine quality of life perspective then I’ll purchase with little guilt.
So, given my interpretation of the concept, what do I hope to achieve from my depth year?
Firstly, I’d like to be more aware of how I am spending my time, and to spend it in mindful ways that are productive or enjoyable to me. This might even involve purchasing products or services to help achieve this – such as a dishwasher – if I can be sure this will have sufficient utility. I’m also hoping to come up with streamlined systems for things such as food preparation and household chores in order to free up more time to spend on more enjoyable things.
Secondly, I’m hoping to be able to focus on becoming as good as I can be at running. This past year has been pretty incredible for me, with some amazing achievements, but it’s not been particularly focused other than the 14 week marathon training block. I’ve had something of a scattergun approach to training, and being a beginner I’ve been able to improve over all distances simultaneously. Now I seem to have plateaued (or even regressed a little), and I need to work out where best to focus my efforts: you can do anything, but you can’t do everything – at least not if you want do everything well. I need to set aside time to work out an overall training plan and race schedule, and only sign up for races that fit into my overall plan – not just sign up for things because friends are doing it or I like the look of the scenery or medals.
Thirdly, I’d like to read more paper and/ or Kindle books than I have managed this year (which stands at an abysmally low 9). I could easily do this by reading for 15 minutes before going to sleep each night, rather than browsing the web or Facebook. I need to seriously curtail/ reign in the amount of time I spend mindlessly scrolling my Facebook feed due to FOMO. Often the only reason I logged in was to set up a running event or reply to a Facebook message, and before I know it 30 minutes have somehow passed and I’ve done nothing beneficial with that time.
Fourthly, I’m also hoping to strengthen my (already pretty solid) relationship with my other half by spending more time together playing board games together, and on other shared hobbies. (Unfortunately running is not a shared hobby. I don’t live in hope on that one.)
Finally, as someone who is probably going through a bit of a mid-life crisis (what else would you call getting seriously in debt, becoming obsessed with running, and coming up with plans for retiring to Romania – a beautiful country where we don’t know anyone or have any understanding of the language other than apa plata?) I’d like to have more time for contemplation. I probably already spend a bit too much time pondering the purpose of life, and being too future-focused. But I would like to be able to spend some time working out what I want out of life in the long term. I know there is no meaning to life other than what meaning you give it, but I sometimes feel like a lot of life happens to me and I’d like to take a more active role in it. I need to work out what I would like to have achieved in the next 5 years, and where I would like to be, and then come up with a plan to make it happen.
It’s easy to make a promise like this, but accountability is improved by writing it down and making it public. A lack of consistency creates internal conflict, so you’re more likely to act in a way that you believe holds true to your values, to the kind of person you think you are. Sometimes motivation is about deciding how you want to feel at the end of a process and working your way back. How do you want to feel at the end of 2019? I want to feel more in control of my life, more in control of my time, and more sure of what I want to have achieved and be doing with my life in 5 years time.
Why might you, the reader, be interested in taking on a challenge like this? Maybe you start watching tv shows at a rate you can’t keep up with, and feel that the tv schedule controls your “spare” time? Maybe you feel overwhelmed by the amount of stuff you have, which has taken over your garage so you can’t get your car parked. Maybe you get analysis paralysis when deciding what to read because you have such a large pile of unread books. Maybe you want to carve out time and space to improve your skills in one hobby or area of your life? Or maybe you just want to feel more in control of your life. In order to commit to something like this you need to decide what is feasible for you. Make your goals SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound). There’s no point in setting yourself up for failure – most New Year’s Resolutions fail by Blue Monday (the third Monday in January), but if you can set realistic goals on how you will curtail your spending or how you will spend your time, then you could be on the path to a more fulfilling year. If you want more information, or support, you can join our Facebook Group at Depth Year 2019.
If you can consistently change your behaviour for a month, you can change it for a year. If you can consistently change it for a year, you can change it for the rest of your life. Perhaps your Depth Year could be the thing you reflect back upon in your twilight years as the thing that put your life back on its truest and most authentic thread.