Matt Gemmell

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2018 Resolutions

personal 8 min read

Happy New Year, my friends. I trust that the holidays, if you’ve had some, have been kind to you. I hope that this new year will bring both happiness and satisfaction. They’re not always the same thing.

On this first day of 2018, I’d like to talk about my resolutions for the coming year and beyond. Whenever I’ve followed this custom previously, I’ve been brief, and listed only my goals. Today, I’m breaking with tradition: I want to talk about my intended actions instead, and the reasons behind them — the main one being that 2017 was a pretty bad year for me.

Personally, I’m fine — great, even. I have a wonderful marriage. We added a family member, in the form of Whisky the puppy. I’m healthy, as far as I know. No major setbacks or personal misfortunes that particularly spring to mind. I’m in a better position than most of the world’s population, certainly. I’m conscious of all those things, and grateful for them every day.

That said, 2017 was a low point for me. The only thing I can meaningfully compare my own present to is my own past, and I’ve also promised to be honest with you. So here’s some honesty.

Last year (and I’m thankful that it’s now in the past) was a time of considerably reduced productivity, darker moods, fewer days with a general feeling of happiness, and a very noticeable uptick in anxiety, frustration, and even despair. I’ve felt diminished hope for The Future, with the capital letters indicating that I’m talking about the wider destiny of societies and countries and cultures. I’ve spent portions of the last six months hearing that familiar voice again. It’s very troubling.

I think that a lot of creative people are probably experiencing similar feelings, and effects. I see a kind of backsliding all around me, and bleak resurgences of things best left in the past — except that nothing has really changed. It’s just more visible. It’s newly re-validated, by being allowed into the light of popular consciousness. Geopolitics, and the news in general, become darker places as each month goes by. It’s taken a toll on me.

I was naive, and unprepared. I don’t blame myself for that, because I think my unpreparedness was due to an unconscious, unexamined, and fundamental optimism — which is now in shorter supply. I’d like it back, but only when it seems prudent. For the moment, it’s absent.

My own priorities in life haven’t changed much, but my means of servicing them must. I can’t take my emotional environment for granted any more. In this new year, I have to protect myself.

Primarily, I’m going to make changes to how I interact with the world. I’m opting out of as much as I can, to the extent that it’s within my power to do so. The word that springs to mind is asceticism, which gives you an idea of my intentions. I need to push the world away for a while, so that I can live, and work, and even just survive within it. That’s a sobering statement to make, but I’ve realised that I have limits of tolerance, and that I’ve exceeded them.

I need to fix that. I need to fix myself. Here’s how I’m going to go about it.

I’m stepping back a bit. You could also call it running away, but I’m partial to the term actively hiding instead — which means that I’m going to immediately, substantially, and very deliberately reduce or filter what I’m exposed to. The onslaught of bad news, uncertainty, regressiveness, segregationist and isolationist thinking, glorified pugnacity, the celebration of idiocy, and all the rest of it have damaged my mental health. That’s the unvarnished truth. Clearly, I can’t allow that to continue unchecked. It would be a failure of my duty of care towards myself, and to those who are dear to me, and who would like to continue having me around in the way that they’re used to.

I’m not consuming news anymore, beyond the limited spheres of my professional and personal interests. No politics, or world events. No news feed subscriptions. No newspapers, or television news. I can’t avoid it all, of course, so I’m limiting my intake to whatever crosses my path via acquaintances, or my own reading or social interaction. I’m also pursuing a policy of politely excusing myself from discussions on those topics in person. I believe that everyone has the right to do so. I also believe that the tacit expectation of exposure to breaking news is a form of emotional aggression, and has a cumulative and lasting negative effect on peace of mind.

This probably qualifies me as a snowflake to certain people; I gladly accept the appellation. I’d rather be someone who’s emotionally affected by things, as a rule.

One area of particular note is social media. I participate quite heavily, and derive a lot of enjoyment from it, to say nothing of the professional benefits. Maybe it’d be better for me to give it up entirely, but I don’t think that’s a realistic option for me right now. What I’m doing instead is reducing my social attack surface for adverse interactions and content. I need to take a heavy-handed approach, because filtering is an imprecise and flawed practice, and I have to err on the side of caution. I hope you’ll understand my reasoning.

I enjoy Twitter the most of all social networks, and I participate there most often. I’m not going away, but I’m changing how I participate. Most importantly, I’ve purged the list of people whom I follow. My criteria were simple enough:

  • Unfollow anyone I’d muted, because that’s a silly state of affairs.

  • Unfollow most accounts whose content is primarily tech-related (hear me out). Not because of the topic itself, but because the laudably large intersection with progressiveness and liberal thinking has led to tech twitter being a hotbed of (entirely deserved) political outrage for a long time now. It makes for grim reading, and I’ve been part of it. I can’t do it anymore.

  • Similarly, unfollow any account that’s predominantly outrage, frustration, or is otherwise stressful. It’s what I need to do. I’ve given myself permission.

  • Generally, favour following accounts that are (1) related to writing or reading, (2) not men, and (3) diverse in ethnicity and background. I need a different view of the world, as far as possible from the white-male-tech silo I’ve inhabited up til now. I need to see that other views exist. My current following list is here.

I’ve enabled various filters on my notifications, as provided by Twitter: keyword and hashtag muting for various things, plus the so-called “quality” filter, and muting of those who don’t follow me (a key metric for abusive accounts, by the way). I’ve also filtered out notifications for newly-created accounts, those who haven’t validated an email address, or those with a default avatar (I know, visually impaired community; I know). I haven’t filtered replies etc from those I don’t follow, of course. That’s taking the echo chamber to what seems like an extreme and counterproductive level — but everyone’s situation is different. If you need to do that for your own account, more power to you.

(I should note that, whenever I see a reply from someone I don’t follow, I invariably click through to their profile to see what they’ve been tweeting about recently; I do it all the time. If I like what I see, and notwithstanding what I’ve said above, I’ll often follow. I need to keep it just as simple as that, at least for now. If any of this offends you, well, I’m sorry. It is personal — but to me, not you.)

I’ll be posting about writing, books (including my own), personal stuff, and the occasional bit of tech. I’ll be making an effort to avoid much else. This puts me in an uncomfortable position regarding my own causes, which include feminism, equality, Scottish independence from the UK and membership of the EU, gun control, rationalism, and so forth. Much of that stuff engenders and entails conflict by its very nature, and I need to limit my exposure for that reason. My principles are unchanged, and I daresay that I’ll periodically compromise in favour of making statements rather than suppressing them. I hope you’ll understand that this is a self-protective measure.

Relatedly, I’ve removed the Twitter app from the Home screen of both my iPad and my phone, in an effort to moderate its level of influence on me. I’ll be using Facebook mostly as a publish-only medium, and of course to respond to things I’m directly involved with. I’m keeping Instagram around, though, because it’s a window into a better world than this one, populated largely by puppies and brunch.

I need to clean-out, refocus, and scale back. That’s what I’ve done, and that’s what I’m going to do.

I’ve assembled some priorities that I’d like to guide my life over the next year or so. I’ll be focusing on:

  • Self, and family. Me, my family members, and my friends — and I further expand that definition to include anyone who’s part of my support system, including my beloved patrons and site members. These people should occupy the vast majority of my non-work time, and a large chunk of each day. The rest of the world will get on just fine without my input.

  • Work, and pleasure. I need to devote myself to my own creative output, as the underlying structure of my day, not just a scheduled portion of it. The usual advice is to vigorously defend a balance between life and work; I instead plan to lose myself in my work, as a barrier against the world. This is a conscious choice of imbalance on my part. I want it to swallow me.

  • Health of mind, and health of body. I’ve been guilty of sleepwalking into a poor emotional situation. From now on, I have to actively guard my mental health every bit as much as I take care of my body, to avoid further injury or dysfunction.

  • Deadlines, and accountability. I’ve been guilty of drifting, and of concealing it. I’m ultimately accountable only to myself, but I’m choosing external accountability too. I’ve known for a long time that I need some rigidity and pressure in order to be most effective. I’m acknowledging that fact publicly, and resolving to act accordingly — and measurably.

  • Rationed time, and conscious choices. Everything that isn’t related to my work, or to those who are dear to me, is basically optional: it’s something I’ve chosen, and which has to justify that choice. I’m going to be a lot more mindful of where those discretionary hours go, and I’m going to ruthlessly optimise for personal happiness.

It’s in the nature of withdrawal, and filtering, and decoupling, that some will find it objectionable. It can seem (or just be) arrogant, vain, presumptuous, ungrateful, precious, hypersensitive, and a host of other things. I’m not going to claim otherwise, or defend against any such charge. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m wrong. But it’s my choice to make.

When you get right down to it, this is all simple enough. I’ve had a bad year, and I’ve put myself at risk — I accept that. Platitudes aren’t enough anymore. I’m making a planned change, and I need to make it stick. I want to rebuild myself, and my equilibrium, even if that means stepping back from the world to some degree. I’m privileged to be able to try it, or even to talk about it. I accept that, too.

In a way, that’s really what I’m talking about. I’m very fortunate, but I haven’t been happy during the past year. I need to fix that, and urgently.

I’m going to do what I need to, so I can love my life again — because I bloody well ought to.