A couple more days offline [en]

[fr] Encore quelques jours à la montagne, et une réflexion sur l'e-mail.

Oh well — the text I wrote this morning was wiped by a computer crash. Maybe I should use a text editor with autosave.

So, back at the chalet after another day walking. About 4 hours today. 5 yesterday. The day before: raking, sawing, chopping, cutting, carrying branches — in short, transforming the jungle around the chalet into something resembling a garden. So, I’m physically exhausted, but I feel great. My brain on drugs. It must be all those endorphins.

I want to come here more, go walking in the mountains more, spend more time out of the city. I almost found myself wondering what kind of seasonly job I could find here — but it was just idle wondering, I don’t really want to do that. What I have done, though, is opened up iCal and blocked 3-5 days here every month. I wanted to do it before I left, because when I’m here I always want to come back more, but as soon as I go back to “regular life” all the “important things” get in the way.

I’ve been so busy doing physical stuff that my brain has been on hold these last days, which is a really good thing. I’ve tired myself out (went to bed and actually turned the light off before 10pm last night — something I hadn’t done in ages).

My time, when I haven’t been walking or cutting down trees, has been eating, looking at the view, chatting (a little) with the friend who came up here with me, reading, writing (this) and… sorting photos.

I’ve been taking photographs again. I think that one of the reasons I almost completely stopped taking photographs these last six months is that it had started to feel like work. Completely goal-driven, get the photos online, publish fast, sort, title, tag, sets, collections… I’ve known for a long time that one of my problems in life is that I’m too goal-driven. I don’t put enough energy into enjoying the process. Singing and judo are two process-driven activities I enjoy. But maybe I need more. And maybe I need to move most of my activities towards “less goal, more process”. Hmmm, maybe painting.

Being without e-mail has turned out to be easy. I had not decided beforehand if I would use my phone to access e-mail, chat and tweet while I was up here. I told everybody I would be completely offline, but I knew I had the possibility to “break the fast” if I wanted to. I think the first step was the most difficult one: the first evening here, I was tempted to check my e-mail, and almost did, actually. I think what kept me from doing it was that I had company. I could feel that the short moments when I was alone, I would reach for my phone and think about having a peek at my e-mail. But I didn’t. And right now, there’s no point. I mean, there is a pile of it anyway, and I’ll have to sift through it anyway.

I’m quite happy with how things have gone. In final, I’ve succeeded in taking my mind almost completely off my professional and personal worries, and when I think of them right now, typing away on the balcony with the mountains in front if me, they seem much more bearable. I guess that’s what holidays are for.

On the topic of e-mail, I have a theory about why it’s the first step that costs, and once you’ve gone without e-mail for a day, it’s easier with each day that passes (well, more or less). One book that I’ve been reading during my idle moments up here is Fooled by Randomness. At one point, Taleb explains how checking stock prices many times a day exposes one to the many ups and downs of random fluctuations. Lots of ups and lots of downs.

He also notes the psychological impact: if one is happy when the stock price goes up, one is unhappy when it goes down — but more unhappy. This is something I read about in The Paradox of Choice: losing 20$ makes you more unhappy than winning 20$ makes you happy. What this means, in Taleb’s example of constant exposure to random fluctuations, is that if the stock price at the end of the day is roughly the same as at the beginning, one’s psychological state, however, will not. All those “downs” take their toll, and the whole experience ends up making one more depressed or anxious.

Now, back to e-mail. For me, clearly, there is a “reward” factor in checking e-mail. We’re all familiar (I hope) with the intermittent reward reinforcement phenomenon which plays a part in how we train ourselves to check our e-mail more and more often. Good news, exciting news, a message from a friend we haven’t heard of in some time, a prospective client… all those are “reward” e-mails, “ups”. And then the downs: problems or simply… no interesting news.

So, imagine you check your e-mail 50 times a day, but you get about 10 “exciting” e-mails. That’s 10 ups for 40 downs. Now, imagine you check your e-mail 5 times a day. Even if your exciting e-mails aren’t spread out evenly during the day, there is a chance you might only experience one “down” (no news) e-mail check.

Should this argument be used to support the “check your e-mail twice a day” technique? I have a problem with that. E-mail is a rather high priority communication channel. Less than the phone or IM, though. I tend to deal with most e-mail either immediately (if it doesn’t require much processing or action), or within a few days. So… I’m not sure.

I do, however, think that this explains why it’s not very difficult to go another day without checking e-mail: I know that the next time I check it, there will be exciting news in it. And I don’t have the pressure of hoping to compensate for a series of “downs” due to checking it every five minutes on my cellphone for the last hour (particularly on a Sunday).

I also know that since I turned off Google Notifier for my e-mail, and put Gmail in a separate OSX Space, I’ve been checking my e-mail way less often (when I think of it, rather than when it thinks of me) and I’m much happier like that. I guess that if people send me an e-mail they need me to look at now, they can send me a tweet or an IM to tell me. (Assuming they’re Twitter- and IM-enabled, of course. But then, the people who aren’t probably don’t expect me to respond to their e-mail within an hour.)

This entry was back-posted upon my return online.

7 thoughts on “A couple more days offline [en]

  1. As it seems not to be so far away from your home, could you not make a kind of share time ? 3 days a week in a place, 4 days in the other ?
    A lot of people do that around here…

  2. It's actually a good two hours from one place to another (not a lot by world standards, I'll admit). 3/4 days would be too much moving around for me (and the cat), I think. For the moment, I've blocked at least one extended week-end (4-5 days) per month up there. If I manage to stick to that, it'll already be way better than what I've been doing for the last year!

  3. “What I have done, though, is opened up iCal and blocked 3-5 days here every month”

    This is especially good. When you feel you're too busy emptying your inbox to find the time for vacation, just put vacation in the GTD-system itself 🙂

    “Completely goal-driven, get the photos online, publish fast, sort, title, tag, sets, collections…”

    Couldn't agree more that this prevents you from being fully at peace. Having too many “I have to do that” might make you feel more in control, but it's a stressful way to look at pleasurable things – kinda like parents rushing their kids through Disneyland, “we have to have fun, we have to have fun!”

    I was surprised to see you posting pics in Twitpic. First thought was “haha, she HAD to be at least a bit online :)”, then “wow, TwitPic is so not her: not tags, no collections, no easy way to retrieve… it's vacation alright :)”.
    Just dumping pics here and there for the simple pleasure of showing them to friends, and not having to make sure they have all the right metadata and such associated with them, not having to make them findable absolutely… This Is Good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *