After ten years away, I reread Anathem by Neal Stephenson, a book I’d suspected might be my favorite novel. Now I can say that it is. It’s set in a culture of monastic mathematician-scientist-philosophers who retreat from society for one, ten, one hundred, or one thousand years at a time. They disconnect from the banalities and frivolties of the world to focus on long-term contemplation and study. The premise is so nerdy and esoteric that I kind of can’t believe that a book so perfectly aimed at my brain exists, is popular, and is so good.
Upon returning from three slow-paced, minimally-connected, meditative months in Tokyo, I took inspiration from the avout of Anathem and planned out a miniature version of their Discipline to decide how to spend my available time. I am doing my job, participating in my family, and keeping up friendships normally. But the precious time that remains, which it’s so easy to fret about using properly and so easy to waste, is now neatly allocated by the Discipline.
Each day has a focus assigned, from among five possible focuses:
⌘ Connect — Catch up on what’s going on in the world and generally be a normal modern human.
❥ Read — I read at least a bit every day anyway, but on a Read day, I’ll try to spend all of my available time reading. This should be solid, healthy stuff with something to teach.
❖ Study — Deliberately trying to understand or get better at a specific subject. Lately it’s been programming Haskell; later it may be systematic study toward level N1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.
✿ Play — Allowing my mind to get carried away by something imaginative. A video game, comic, concert video, or whatever other input that seems worthwhile if not entirely intellectual.
✽ Create — I’m writing this guide on a Create day! This could also mean building software, playing music, drawing pixel art, working on websites… any variation on making something.
Time is divided into ten-day decades. (We commonly use the word “decade” to mean ten years, nowadays, but prior to the 16th century, it could mean any collection of ten things, including days.) I love my desynchronized rhythms; the 10-day decade and the 7-day week create a healthy polymeter that drifts in and out of sync over time. At the start of each decade, I choose a template for how I’ll spend the next ten days worth of available time.
The standard decade is ⌘ ❥ ❖ ✿ ✽ ❥ ✽ ✿ ❖ ❥. There are other templates for when I want to bias toward a particular pursuit or two for the next decade, but every template includes each pursuit at least once. For instance the Study Focus decade is ⌘ ❖ ❥ ❖ ❖ ✿ ❖ ❖ ✽ ❖. Create & Play Focus is ⌘ ✽ ✿ ❥ ✽ ✿ ✽ ❖ ✿ ✽. And so on.
Note that Connect only happens once every ten days, and it’s always the first day. The first-order aim of this system is to spend nine out of ten days disconnected from the wider world, focusing on deeper, longer-term concerns. At its heart is the thesis that something that’s not of value after ten days is not of value. Now — remember that this Discipline is about available time left over after fulfilling the responsibilities of the day. So I still talk to friends, family, and colleagues every day.
Connection that can happen on any day:
Connection that happens only on the Connect day:
Connection that shouldn’t happen:
On an ordinary day, the goal is to do the focus pursuit at least a little. Writing for 20 minutes on a Create day is good. Getting through a chapter of Haskell exercises on a Study day is splendid. It’s also fine to move on to other pursuits if I’m already satisfied with how much of the focus pursuit I’ve done for the day. If I end up with no available time at all, that’s okay too; it means I had lots of normal responsibilities to take care of that day.
Some people I’ve described this system to say that it sounds tiring. When their available free time finally arrives, they feel too exhausted to do anything but turn their brain off and watch dumb videos or TV shows. That brings me to the paramount rule of this system: when in doubt, go to bed. If I’m exhausted, especially mentally or emotionally, nothing I can do will fix that except sleep and then maybe a good morning meditation.
So that’s how the Discipline works. After practicing it for sixty days, I’ve found that so far it’s solving the problems I designed it for and then some. My in-the-moment self doesn’t fret about how to spend time anymore; a wiser, longer-term version of me has already decided it. I don’t worry about whether I’m letting an important pursuit languish too long, because each of them happens at least once every ten days. I genuinely care way less about the frivolous, day-to-day nonsense of news, politics, and online life. When the Connect day comes, stuff that would have consumed hours of my attention every day now seems downright dumb. Oh, and of course, I’m making steady progress on things like learning functional programming, absorbing heaps of books that are utterly worth every moment I spend on them, and writing my own little book.
(In retrospect, this is an upgraded version of an older system I developed, Periodic Table of Priorities)
I’ve been hooked on two very different records lately. Spangle call Lilli line’s fresh and miraculous 11th album Dreams Never End (especially the song “mio”) and Yes’s underrated 1994 masterpiece Talk, which I imagine sounds cheesy and dated to almost anyone today but which I genuinely can’t get enough of. Both are fine specimens of the genuine warmth and positivity to be found in YouTube comments on music these days.