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This magician’s trick of shifting the units of measure from money to time is the core novelty of what the philosopher Frédéric Gros calls Thoreau’s “new economics,” a theory that builds on the following axiom, which Thoreau establishes early in Walden: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
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On the other hand, solitude can be banished in even the quietest setting if you allow input from other minds to intrude. In addition to direct conversation with another person, these inputs can also take the form of reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching TV, or performing just about any activity that might draw your attention to a smartphone screen. Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences—wherever you happen to be.
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Perhaps predictably, this clash of old neural systems with modern innovations has caused problems. Much in the same way that the “innovation” of highly processed foods in the mid-twentieth century led to a global health crisis, the unintended side effects of digital communication tools—a sort of social fast food—are proving to be similarly worrisome.
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As Aristotle elaborates, a life filled with deep thinking is happy because contemplation is an “activity that is appreciated for its own sake . . . nothing is gained from it except the act of contemplation.” In this offhand claim, Aristotle is identifying, for perhaps the first time in the history of recorded philosophy, an idea that has persisted throughout the intervening millennia and continues to resonate with our understanding of human nature today: a life well lived requires activities that serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates.
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Every example below is something that either I or someone I know was able to learn and execute in a single weekend. Changing your own car oil Installing a new ceiling-mounted light fixture Learning the basics of a new technique on an instrument you already play (e.g., a guitar player learning Travis picking) Figuring out how to precisely calibrate the tone arm on your turntable Building a custom headboard from high-quality lumber Starting a garden plot
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Here’s my suggestion: schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure. That is, work out the specific time periods during which you’ll indulge in web surfing, social media checking, and entertainment streaming. When you get to these periods, anything goes. If you want to binge-watch Netflix while live-streaming yourself browsing Twitter: go for it. But outside these periods, stay offline.
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A good seasonal plan contains two different types of items: objectives and habits that you intend to honor in the upcoming season. The objectives describe specific goals you hope to accomplish, with accompanying strategies for how you will accomplish them. The habits describe behavior rules you hope to stick with throughout the season. In a seasonal leisure plan, these objectives and habits will both be connected to cultivating a high-quality leisure life.
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The boundary between habits and objectives is porous. In our above examples, our hypothetical planner might have added “practice guitar twice a week” to her habit list instead of including it in her Beatles-themed objective. Similarly, she might have transformed her “read every night” habit into an objective about reading a specific group of books during the season, an objective that would end up requiring daily reading to accomplish.