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{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Distraction

Mid-August. Summer holidays. Long days. Sunshine. Warm weather.

At least that is the theory!

Instead, I slouched contentedly on a picnic chair as dusk approached, rugged up in jeans and a hoodie, staring out over the forest treetops at the rapidly approaching dark storm clouds.

A motley collection of fat ducks, fatter pigeons, and squabbling squirrels battled over breadcrumbs at my feet.

On the edge of the treeline, a couple of female deer tentatively munched on apples I had rolled their way a few minutes earlier. Much like remote working laptop jockeys, whether they were too smart or too timid to fully emerge, I had not yet decided.

It was a beautiful spot. Calm and relaxing, providing you weren’t a hungry duck.

Bad habits

Curious about the time, I automatically patted my pocket in search of my phone.

Instead of the momentary panic I have been conditioned to feel whenever my phone was not within arms reach, I grinned.

One of the best parts about being on holiday is escaping the everyday ruts and routines we construct around ourselves. Prisons of our own making. Habits, rarely sought out, which conspire to occupy so many of our waking hours. Doing things other than what we would consciously choose to do.

I hadn’t been carrying my phone during this holiday. It lay unloved and ignored, switched off somewhere in the bottom of my bag. As a result, I had little idea what was happening out in the world. Markets up? Markets down? COVID lurching in yet another seemingly random direction? I neither knew nor cared.

Out in the world” was how this holiday felt. It was the first time I had been away in about a year. Not out of fear, or particular concern for my family’s health. Simply a lack of opportunity and will. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to create that feeling. Just a change of scenery and a break from the everyday.

I would be lying if I pretended I hadn’t checked my phone at all during the vacation. Much as I may have liked to, some things can’t be ignored for days on end.

Each time I had checked in with the world, I had instantly regretted it.

One of my long time property managers had suddenly cashed out without warning, selling his book to a competitor. A career of always being too busy finally catching up with him, when a late-stage terminal diagnosis ended his retirement plans before they had even begun. Unfortunately, I had previously fired the competitor, for invoicing phantom maintenance jobs supposedly performed by his “trusted” preferred supplier. Such is the lot of a long-distance landlord.

Another day, the town where my elderly mother lives alone had gone into COVID lockdown for the first time in over a year. After two days she was angry. Bored. Restless. Scared. Wanting to vent. Such is the lot of a long-distance son.

Sad and difficult both. Neither about me at all. And yet, each managed to seize my attention and reprioritise my day. Temporarily at least. The endless ebbs and flows of external influence, demonstrating once more that control is mostly an illusion. A comforting fairy tale we tell ourselves as we drift along in a current.

I must admit to genuine alarm at just how often I had similarly patted my pockets in search of my phone during the first couple of days on holiday. Dozens. Possibly hundreds. Not because of imagined phantom vibrations, the kind that announces some very busy distraction. No, it was nothing more than conditioned habit.

A bad one.

This had given me pause. Causing me to consciously consider what I get out of using those distracting apps?

Happiness or contentment? Certainly not.

Feeling connected or loved or stimulated? Bwahaha…. no.

Entertainment? Rarely.

Convenience? Perhaps, though this can be a trap. Gaining very little while giving up a lot.

Perhaps it was my limited imagination, but I failed to come up with a single good reason to use them at all.

The next morning, during the brief daily moment I allowed the world to intrude on my holiday, I deleted the apps that were the worst of the time sucks and distraction agents from my phone. LinkedIn. Slack. Twitter too.

If I really wanted to use them, I could manually log in via a web browser. Introducing an element of friction, to ensure I really wanted it. Banishing the idle scrolling during those in-between moments. Past experience when exiting Facebook suggests this would happen infrequently.

The holiday provided a similar circuit breaker that shone a spotlight on other habits, both good and bad.

Snacking after dinner had proved to be difficult when there are no snacks in the cabin to be found. Yet despite wandering aimlessly past the kitchen several times each evening, I hadn’t missed the empty calories.

Exercising proved to be as simple as lacing up some shoes and going for a run. Not the excuse riddled extravaganza I had managed to turn it into at home. Getting changed into training gear. Running or going to the gym, but only if it wasn’t raining. Or cold. Or icy. Or the footpaths covered in slippery autumn leaves. Then showering and getting changed again. A humble twenty-minute jog mentally inflating into a production lasting an hour or more. Time I seldom felt I could spare or justify. Probably because I wasted so much of it on noise and distractions!

Reading a book. It had been more than six months since I last escaped into the world of fiction. My commute used to be where I did most of my reading, devouring stories at a rapid pace as an escape from the daily grind. A once favourite pastime that had gotten crowded out by distractions.

An ominous peel of thunder rolled in from the horizon. Heavy raindrops spilling from the bloated grey clouds. First one. Then a handful. The menagerie at my feet scarpered, breadcrumbs abandoned. Figuring the locals might know something I didn’t, I escaped back inside as the skies opened.

Monopoly

Later that evening, I was playing Monopoly with my kids. An often frustrating game, that teaches the players more about futility, greed, luck, and behavioural psychology than money management. Board games are a rare event in my house, something that only occurs during the slower pace of holiday life.

As we played, we talked about their plans for the future. Again a rare event. Despite having spent more time than ever before together over the last 18 months, most conversations are about the trivia of the everyday.

My elder son revealed he was planning to move to Canada or New Zealand. Neither were places he had previously visited. He had been researching English speaking countries, seeking somewhere offering the promise of a high quality of life and reasonable career prospects.

His long-held previous plan of attending an Australian university had evolved. The spectre of long hot summers full of 40+ degree days and endless bushfires motivating him to look further afield. Family ties to “the old country” had weakened during COVID, as closed borders and mandatory hotel quarantines meant our once annual pilgrimages home were replaced by fleeting Facetime calls that none of the cousins really wanted to participate in. The younger ones no longer remember the last time we visited.

Unfortunately, his growing awareness of and interest in current affairs had coincided with a period during which Brexit and 130,000+ COVID deaths had put the worst aspects of British culture proudly on display. A scaled-up version of the boorish football fan behaviours which regularly see bouncers, security guards, and riot police deployed throughout our neighbourhood every time there are home games.

He isn’t wrong in what he has observed about Britain, yet his certainty of youth failed to see many of the redeeming qualities. Nor recognise that people are people wherever they happen to live, he had just never experienced a drunken All Blacks supporter or Canucks fan in the flesh!

My younger son declared he couldn’t wait until he started high school. At which point he would get his own bus pass, house key, and phone. Then he could come and go as he pleased. Tired of being bossed around by everyone, he is in a great hurry to grow up and be his own man.

He planned to jump on the first plane to Australia the day he comes of age. Living in my elderly mother’s house with its ample space, huge yard, and view of a lake. A far cry from the mid-terrace shoebox, located more often than not under the airport flight path, that he resides in today.

It was unclear where his grandmother was supposed to live once he arrived. Not in her house anyway! She would be allowed to come and visit. As was I.

At that point, they both looked expectantly at me. I replied that it sounded like in the far distant future I would need to adopt a follow the sun lifestyle, visiting each of them during their local summers.

They both laughed, then the younger one observed with his patented sledgehammer bluntness that it wasn’t so far away. He would be at high school in three years, his brother gone to university in four.

It was my turn to laugh. I joked that I would worry about it when the time came. There wasn’t any point thinking about living locations before then. The boys exchanged uncomfortable glances, and changed the subject.

Distraction

Later that evening we headed off to bed. A string of hotels down the expensive side of the Monopoly board having determined the outcome of the game, as they so often do. My elder son paused, squared his shoulders, and looked me in the eye. “Think about it now. You don’t have that long”. Then he gave me a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, as I had done to him numerous times over the years in the face of adversity or disappointment.

The boy was growing up. Almost as tall as me. Almost as fast. Almost as strong. Now trying to take care of his old man. Something I appreciated and found unnerving in equal measure.

That night I lay awake in the uncomfortable bed, staring at the unfamilar ceiling. One of the worst things about being on holidays is escaping the ruts and routines we construct around ourselves. Defences against uncertainties. Keeping us busy, so that we have neither the time nor the energy to just think.

Alone with our thoughts.

Free from distractions.

With nowhere to hide.

Now, where did I leave my phone?


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19 Comments

  1. Q-FI 14 August 2021

    I enjoyed this one. Particularly the ending. There’s so many distractions in this life, however, I seem to always find the time to think. I guess reflection has never been an area I’ve been short on, which can also be a double-edged sword. Whether it ever does me any good is a whole other story. Haha.

    Great to see a glimpse into your life with the boys. Probably starting my own family journey soon, I’ve been contemplating children a lot. How to raise them, can I influence generational wealth or is it all hopeless… countless things that don’t matter in the least at the beginning of the journey.

    Glad you got a quick reprieve. It’s always refreshing what smiles even a small change of scenery can bring…

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 14 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Q-FI.

      Kids are an entertaining pursuit. Probably teaching us more about ourselves than we ever teach them. Every now and again they will offer a thought or insight that stops me in my tracks, wondering where it came from or how they got to be so astute. Inevitably they will then spoil the moment by doing something so incomprehensibly stupid that it defies understanding, like eating dirt or trying to give the lockdown kitten a bath!

  2. Impersonal Finances 14 August 2021

    Excellent story. Sounds like your boys have it all figured out! As an American, I am not surprised to see Canada and Australia as the preferred destinations rather than our great nation haha. I have trouble unplugging as well–it’s bad. I won’t go more than 30 minutes of reading or something without a cursory glance at the phone. I debate whether these devices are a net positive or not.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 14 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Impersonal Finances.

      I asked him about the US, it offers a lot of opportunity, and there are some amazing places to live. He cited guns, healthcare costs, and the price of tuition for foreign students as the three main reasons he had ruled it out.

      I have mixed feelings about smartphones. Having the internet in your pocket is certainly convenient, plus the maps feature is invaluable. I’m less convinced about the alerts, those vibrating little red circles of doom manage to steal our attention in a multitude of ways.

  3. FullTimeFinance 14 August 2021

    We’re behind you in age with a 9,6, and 3 year old. Our 9 year old is the questioning type. Never really stops asking questions…. Anyway I must admit sometimes his questions are inane… but every once in a while you get that poignant one…. Or worse that one you are trying not to ask yourself.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 14 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks FullTimeFinance.

      The questions evolve over time. Less imaginative, as they age and lose that sense that anything is possible. Most astute, as they make connections and gain understanding. Sometimes probing, calling bullshit when they hear it. Occasionally uncomfortable, those same questions we hope they won’t ask because we either don’t know or don’t believe the accepted answers either!

  4. Donna. 15 August 2021

    I stare down the barrel of a soon to be empty nest. Uncomfortable feeling, and I can only now appreciate how my parents must have felt at that time. Hoping that we don’t end up leaving too far away, yet acknowledging that the local area does not offer many opportunities career wise for either of us and that lockdown has not made that much a difference to how employers think long term.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 15 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Donna, uncomfortable is a good word for that feeling.

      You raise an interesting point about better understanding what our parents went through. My experience was a bit different, getting pushed out the door. My parents grew impatient waiting for my younger brother to move out, so they moved out on him!

      In my father’s eyes, enjoying life began with retirement and an empty nest. He had a decades long busy retirement mapped out for when he was cashed up and responsibility free. Both his kids moved away and then abroad, taking the grandkids with them. Eventually one returned to live a few hours away, but only visited at Christmas.

      Eventually our own kids will make their way off into the world. They may end up living just down the street or having contact with us every day. Alternatively, they may choose to reside much further away or maintain little contact at all. It is hard to predict how these things will play out, families are complicated!

  5. FI-FireFighter 15 August 2021

    Another good one
    I have taught myself to be disciplined with the phone, its a tool for many jobs that I choose when I use. I only have one alert which is for texts (which is the tweet so often I don’t even hear it).
    I have it on silent in pubs or cafes or even if just having a chat with a mate.
    When I choose, I look at messages etc and deal with those and anything else that might be on the few apps I use.
    Once you break the habit of looking its quite easy and actually quite funny.
    I have received a text but not looked at it immediately and people I am with have got twitchy about it, asking me if/when I am going to look at it!
    Quality time with children is priceless and precious. When they want to converse with you can be some of the best moments, you really get an insight into their thoughts and dreams. Get a glimpse if who they will be as adults.
    Those years do seem to go by very quickly though.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 15 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks FI-FireFighter.

      That’s a fantastic perspective on your phone.

      I love that description of your friends getting twitchy when you neglect to immediately react to a ping. My elder son is similar, can’t stand to see those little red circles. His mother enjoys winding him up when she proudly displays her unread email counter featuring > 5000 messages.

      You are absolutely correct about time passing quickly!

  6. steveark 15 August 2021

    My youngest is 30, middle is 33 and oldest is 36. They’ve got six university degrees among them and one is working on the seventh. They’ve all been off the bank of mom and dad for years and all are doing well. None live closer than 100 miles from us, two live 800 miles away. The empty nest is not bad at all provided you maintained some good active hobbies shared with your spouse. We run, play tennis, pickleball, fish, hike, ski, cook and travel together and also do all those things with our own friends separately. Life is very good with the kids grown and gone. Just like it was good when we were training them to be adults. It is all good!

  7. David Andrews 18 August 2021

    “Think about it now. You don’t have that long”.

    Wise words for all of us.

    Don’t I know it. It feels like I blinked and my son has gone from 0 to 7.

  8. weenie 19 August 2021

    I have several apps which provide distraction but I think like @FI-Firefighter, I can be quite disciplined when I want to be. Most notifications are switched off so I only really check my phone if I was intending to do so, not because I’ve been prompted to do so.

    One of the reasons I love going to the gym is that I am ‘disconnected’ for over 1.5 hours as I leave my phone at the bottom of my bag while I work out. It makes me chuckle when I see people checking their phones obsessively in between doing their reps – I wonder what is so important or urgent that they have to check every few minutes for updates!

    When on holiday, I would feel lost if I didn’t have my phone but only because I would be using it for taking photos – perhaps I need to dust off my old digital camera! If idle in the evening and not in a social gathering, I would likely scroll through news, catch up on a few blogs but generally, I like a sense of not really knowing what is going on in the world and not being bothered by that.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 19 August 2021 — Post author

      Sounds like you’ve got it figured out, weenie.

      That twitchy behaviour sounds sad to me, incessantly checking for likes or notifications that somebody had messaged them. Certainly sucks the joy out of the day.

      That said, some presenteeism focussed work sites I’ve encountered monitored/reported on idle time, or time away from the computer. Automatically marking a worker’s status as “away” if their device had not been interacted with for a couple of minutes. Some sites go even further, highlighting for all to see within the internal communications app exactly how long the worker has been idle for. This breeds a fear culture, where workers are scared to go for a walk around the block, go to the gym, or take a lunch break because somebody might notice they aren’t working as “hard” as their colleagues or risk being named and shamed.

      Seems self-defeating to me, if you can’t trust your workers to behave like responsible adults and get their jobs done then you’ve hired the wrong workers.

  9. Sas 21 August 2021

    Lovely post. I particularly appreciate your ideas on how holidays get us to take our head out of the sand and look at the big picture of life.
    I find I give my every day routines, and in particular work ones, most of my thinking time at the expense of the more difficult big questions like how could I live my life when work and kids are not an everyday part of it.
    My kids are at similar ages and I recognise that it is time for me to give some thought to the big questions. Look forward to hearing how you get on.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 21 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Sas.

      It is certainly easy to get bogged down in the day to day, then come up for air while on vacation only to realise we are drifting. Little progress made towards achieving our goals since the previous holiday. Little closer to figuring out the answers to some of those “big” life questions. Just another year older!

      Of course another way to look at that is we must have things reasonably good, or at least ok, otherwise we would have been driven to doing more/better/different to improve our lot in life. The default option is always apathy. I guess it is like those wise old fortune cookie philosophers say when they observe that happiness is found in acceptance and low expectations, while comparison and constantly yearning for “more” leads to unhappiness.

  10. Nick @ TotalBalance.blog 26 August 2021

    This was an enjoyable one indeed.
    I understand where you’re coming from. I have the exact same experiences from “unplugged” vacations, albeit my kid is only 7, and I doubt she will be leaving the country once she leaves the nest. But you never know.
    I love my country. – In the summertime. I hate it during the colder months, which is the majority of the year I guess! Haha
    I’m pondering this sentiment that I often here among the FIRE seekers, of wanting to design a life from which you would never need to take a vacation from. But if life becomes one big vacation, these shifts in our perspectives that happens when we break out of our daily routines would disappear. How would we then realize, if our lives have become dull, meaningless and full of distractions?…

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 26 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Nick, you raise an excellent point about the importance of taking a time out from real life in order to assess how closely that real life lives up to our hopes and dreams.

What say you?

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