Lessons from an Idealized Life

My week-long experiment in leading the idealized life of an academic has nearly come to an end, and I’ve learned two important lessons:

  1. I am either too slow, dull-witted, or require too much sleep to make such a leisurely life work.  Not if I want to get anything done, anyway.  This week, I did a little bit of brainstorming on my dissertation and sketched out some ideas for teaching in the fall, but that’s about it.  No writing, no outlines, no concentrated periods of thinking or musing.  Just skipping around from the newspaper to the Internet to my e-mail to whatever happened to be lying on the desk.  Of course, I rather enjoyed the break, but if I’m going to revise one chapter a week for the next five weeks — which I plan to do — I need more time for my actual work, not the crossword puzzle.  In other words, it turns out that real-life academics don’t have time for shit like getting up late and drinking espresso.  There’s work to do, dammit.
  2. My junk-food news diet has wreaked havoc on my mental health.  For years, I have consumed the latest in world affairs through Google News and its links to assorted media outlets.  But my attention span has waned; I can barely muster the patience to read the headlines and one-sentence follow-ups on Google News, much less read the full articles.  It’s become an addiction: I check Google News at least a dozen times a day, lingering anywhere from 5-15 minutes.   I just can’t do that if I want to read the paper in the morning, which takes about an hour.  And I do want to read the paper in the morning: it forces me to slow down, read about issues that I would normally just ignore, and — when things are going well — actually think for a while.  Which is exactly the frame of mind I need for my work: deliberate, thoughtful, and comprehensive.  In short, the newspaper provides better food for my brain than Google News.  Moreover, I am better equipped emotionally to handle the speed of news presented by newspapers rather than Google News.  I often feel whiplashed by Internet news: the latest stories and trends flash by without a chance to consider their meaning.  There’s no time to build a narrative with Google News: it’s all a jumble of updates and disappearing people, places, and events.  There’s no sense to it, because there’s no time to put it into a story, and stories and narratives are the ways we understand ourselves and our worlds.  And so I’m changing my news diet: no Google News (or other Internet sources) for me, at least until the late afternoon when my brain starts shutting down.  With luck, this will not only help me think more clearly about my academic work, but also provide a deeper sense of calm or serenity or something.

And so, I’m developing a new schedule for next week, one that keeps the newspaper, drops the Internet, and gets back to the business of writing a dissertation and becoming a good teacher.  But first, I think I’ll have one more peak at the latest developments in US soccer…

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