Resolutions don’t work. We know this. New Years is no better a time than any other to make a change in your life, aside from the fact that it’s satisfying to mark up a fresh calendar page. Still, my birthday is also in January, and these dual reminders of time passing do make a person want to take stock of things, at the very least.
This year, instead of any hard-to-keep promises to do less of this unhealthy thing or more of that healthier-but-less-pleasant thing, I have one goal. In a sense, it’s the boiled down essence of all New Years resolutions ever, all crammed into one — a sort of life resolution — and less an optimistic short-term goal for change. It’s simple, but important.
Really pay attention to how I spend my time.
Spend more time doing things that make me a happier and/or better person.
Spend less time doing things that don’t.
Note the “and/or”, which is key. Watching the NFL playoffs with a couple friends in a crowded pizza place certainly doesn’t make me a better person either intellectually or physically. But delicious food, a few pitchers, and the feeling of excitement in the air made me extremely happy (go Niners). The prospect of sitting down to write this didn’t make me happy (at first), because I was feeling uninspired and I wanted to read some of my favorite blogs instead. But writing is good for the brain, and now that I’m typing away, I happen to be feeling pretty good.
This year’s mantra is part process, part demand. I’ll have some self-evaluation to do along the way over the difference between ‘occupied’ and ‘happy’, as well as what constitutes ‘better person’ vs simply ‘person who feels better about himself’. For example, will reading more books this year make me happier or better, or am I lazily pinning my self-worth on a data point to uphold the image I have of myself? Maybe it’s what and how I read that matters more? So learning to define happier and better will be gradual. Then, having reflected on those things, the trick will be learning to catch myself in the act of totally wasting, or just poorly spending, my time. Having the presence of mind to divert myself from killing time to filling it with more constructive pursuits may take some force of will too, and that will take practice. Still, as a plan for the future, this mantra is hard to argue with.
Not to make this just a diary entry though, let’s get back to this “I’d rather be reading a good blog” thing. Related, but more useful in making a finer point.
I’ve realized that I spend a LOT of time on Twitter. I love it. I check my feed several times a day for a total of, what, half-an-hour? An hour? More if you count actually following links to things worth reading or watching. That’s a lot of time per day, per month, per year.** I supplement it with my favorite blogs, and try my best to keep up with Good Citizen things like The New York Times, a local news site, some professional stuff, some cultural stuff. Let’s just say that between Twitter and my preferred RSS reader, there’s a lot of daily input. But how much of this daily media time in particular is making me happier and/or better as a human being?
(**Couldn’t help doing the math. Conservatively: at an average of 30 min per day x 365 days = a total of 7.6 days per year spent just on Twitter. Probably more. That’s a whole vacation!… Taken in increments, all year long… Maybe not terrible?)
I would argue that Twitter is a net positive for being the most consistently interesting, immediately informative, occasionally hilarious and always diverse source of ideas in my life. I can safely say the time spent in this one channel is making me both happier and better, a large portion of the time. Plus, it’s easy to brush past the waste. Maybe I need to unfollow a few duds.
My policy has always been to quickly abandoned those that over-Tweet and abuse the privilege of my attention. Media outlets especially just tweet everything they post, often without respect to the form (tip me as to why I should click from within the tweet; stop obfuscating or baiting me). The narrow context of a scrolling column can go from easily-skipped to just-plain-cluttered pretty quickly, and that ruins its beauty as a channel.
As for non-Twitter sources like blogs, I’ve grown a new appreciation for outlets like The Morning News, who offer a quirky compendium of important, thought-provoking, or curious items twice daily. And of all things, Dave Pell’s Next Draft has given me a new found appreciation for the lost art of the email list, with a daily top ten list of stories worth knowing about, from world-shaking to merry-making. These sources — like Twitter without the strict character limit — are quickly scannable, well-curated, and link to all the great places like The Atlantic or NYT I’d normally have to spend time digging through to find the best bits.
Which brings me to the weird realization that of all my media inputs, it’s the New York Times I no longer want in my feeds. Any of them. I love a lot of their reporting. Their long features are especially good — usually through Instapaper — and I would gladly pay the appropriate sum for the right to read those things, just as I would with any great outlet. What I don’t want is to spend time flipping through ten pages of New York-centric stories, reviews of high-end fashion shows, sports recaps, or trumped-up trend pieces only to click on the three links to current events or opinion pieces I actually care about. I have a job and a wife and hobbies and books; I want to spend time reading, not looking for what’s worth reading. I have Longreads to find the best features. I have favorite writers who tweet interesting links with much greater personal filters than the outdated ‘front page’. And I have The Awl, where I somehow enjoy reading almost everything they post, long or short, thoughtful or frivolous.
It makes me feel like a traitor to the classy intellectual I want to be, but part of spending more time doing things that make me happier AND better means not trying to keep up with a magazines’ or newspapers’ full fire hose of content. It’s an outdated model that doesn’t fit my life. I’m done feeling like I’m always behind. I’m going to let the curators, who’ve chosen this as a specialty, do that job properly where I am doing it poorly. I’m going to immerse myself more and browse less.
So there we go. Realization number one. And the year’s just beginning.
Every business based on a physical location selling us media products is having a tougher and tougher time of it. We’ve grown used to saying goodbye to local record stores. Video stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video are finished; even LA’s classic Rocket Video is on its last days. Borders is dissolving as we speak, surely Barnes & Noble is facing some tough decisions. We even heard recently that this was the lowest box office summer since 1997, and seen small theaters fold and multiplexes with huge, empty lobbies.
Part of the problem, surely, is that these places either a) feel like sterile dispensaries of product, in the case of the large chains, or b) serve a small niche very well and loyally, but just can’t pull a sufficient profit when faced with the low-priced, conveniently distributed digital version of their products. A chain store may be able to stay afloat on volume, but doesn’t inspire loyalty. A beloved local shop inspires loyalty, but can’t maintain volume serving their small following. No matter how much we enjoy books, or comics, or records, we can’t spend enough to keep their lights on. And so we, as lovers of culture, stand to lose both.
I recently heard about a seemingly wonderful place that may offer an alternate solution, as well as some hope. The Bookshelf, an independent outlet in Guelph, Ontario, pulls a sort of hipster hat-trick (an appropriately Canadian metaphor): it’s a book store, an independent art-house cinema, and a gourmet bistro all in one.
Now I haven’t been to Guelph to check it out — if you can believe it, Ontario college towns aren’t in my regular travel calendar. Nor do I know how well they’re doing business-wise. But there’s a bit of magic about this.
Instead of struggling to serve one slice of the local cultural appetite well while still making a living, they’ve found a few closely tied, overlapping segments to serve in one place. This lets them sell tickets, paperbacks and meals to the same community. By offering more in one place, they’re forced to use the space smarter, which means curating their selection more personally — one of the only remaining reasons to keep going back to a physical store run by real humans anyway. And by offering more of the things that specific community loves, they give that community more little reasons to love them and keep coming back.
Personally, I’ve had similar fantasies of a book club/comedy venue/beer bar. An intimate, not-too-loud place to celebrate the written and spoken word with a pint to ease the ensuing conversations. Of course, those may just be my own eccentric tastes overlapping in a venue that would only do a good job of serving me and a few of my nerdiest, brew-lovingest friends.