The Analogue January Challenge

I have a morbid fascination with Cal Newport's writing. I did not get along well with Deep Work, even though I'm basically on board with the theory of reducing the interruptions that get in the way of achieving things. But is publishing six books which boil down to “stop using Twitter, and use the time to get your work done efficiently and take up some hobbies” really a good use of one's own advice?

His recent post The Analog January Challenge promotes a rarely-spotted quintuple verb: READ • MOVE • CONNECT • MAKE • JOIN. It continues his theme of undermining reasonable suggestions with what seem to me unfounded claims about human interaction and physiology and projections of his own life circumstance onto others, but ploughing my way though the frank exchange of views on MetaFilter made me want to engage a bit more constructively with it. So, here goes.


Commit to reading 3 – 4 new books during the month. It doesn’t matter if they’re fiction or non-fiction, sophisticated or fun. The goal is to rediscover what it feels like to make engagement with the written word an important part of your daily experience.

I'm satisfied that I have not forgotten the importance of engaging with the written word.


Commit to going for a walk every single day of the month. Try to make it at least 15 minutes long. Leave your phone at home: just observe the world around you and think.

I drop my daughter off most mornings at nursery so I kind of get this by default. In the summer I was in the habit of returning to my home office via a quick jog, and each time I get back on this horse I remember how beneficial it is. I generally fill the time with podcasts, though. Maybe I'll take the long route home without headphones more often.

CONNECT Hold a real conversation with 20 different people during the monthlong challenge. These conversations can be in person or over the phone/Facetime/Skype, but text-based communication doesn’t count (you must be able to hear the other person’s voice). To hit the 20 person mark will require some advance planning: you might consider calling old friends or taking various colleagues along for lunch and coffee breaks.

In general, I take exception with his blanket dismissal of the value of written communication, but OK, I see the point here.

An interesting and slightly unexpected thing about parenting is how it brings new, local friends and acquaintances into one's life. Each morning at nursery, I at least say hello to at least one of a dozen parents plus a half-dozen nursery staff every morning – much needed human interaction for this remote worker. “Real conversation” is another matter, though.

For a while I've been using Tinyblu to help nudge me towards keeping in more regular contact with certain people. Nothing like a technical solution to a social problem! If, like me, you have a tendency to lose track of days outside of work, I recommend it.

MAKE Participate in a skilled hobby that requires you to interact with the physical world. This could be craft-based, like knitting, drawing, wood working, or, as I’ve taken to doing with my boys, building custom circuits. This could also be athletic, like biking, bow hunting, or, as is increasingly popular these days, Brazilian Ju Jitsu. Screen-based activities don’t count. To get the full analog benefit here, you need to encounter and overcome the resistances of the physical landscape that surrounds you, as this is what our minds have evolved to understand as productive action.

Well, easier said than done when you live in a two-bedroom flat, your partner also works full-time, and all your spare time is spent with a two-year-old who shouts at you if you try to practice the guitar. Time for Brazilian Ju Jitsu is limited. (Unless baking, cooking and making paper dolls count as skilled hobbies?)

I have to say I'm sceptical that our minds have evolved to consider building custom circuits to be productive action, but not screen-based creative activities (such as blogging, live-coding or writing Twitter bots). Does pushing an LED into a breadboard really constitute “overcoming the resistances of the physical landscape”?

It would be nice to make more time for the guitar again (modulo the physical landscape question).

JOIN Join something local that meets weekly. For many people, this might be the hardest commitment, but it’s arguably one of the most important, especially as we enter a political season where the pseudo-anonymity and limbic-triggers of the online world attempt to bring out the worse in us. There’s nothing more fundamentally human than gathering with a group of real people in real life to work on something real together. This has a way of lessening — even if just briefly — the sense of anxious despair that emanates from the online upside down.

I spent New Year's Eve Eve (sic) playing board games on the other side of town and found myself wishing I could do something like that more regularly, more locally. But again – time and opportunities seem limited, unless toddler football club counts.

Was that constructive engagement? I'm not sure. Let's check in in a month.