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Arnold Bennett’s Fight Against Steampunk Social Media

How to Live

In 1910, Arnold Bennett published a short volume titled How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. He was alarmed with the way the newly emergent British middle class seemed to waste their time outside of work. The average salaryman of this era doesn’t live, he noted, but instead “muddles through,” wasting time — that “inexplicable raw material of everything,” the supply of which “though gloriously regular is cruelly restricted.”

Bennett being Bennett decided he could tell these muddlers how to live better. So he wrote this guide.

I come back to this book from time to time. If you look past the standard Bennett snobbery and occasional dash of Victorian ornateness — “inexplicable raw material of everything”…really?  —  it’s both surprisingly pragmatic and relevant to all sorts of contemporary issues.

In my latest skim, for example, the following passage caught my attention. It’s Bennett’s summary of the standard post-work evening for a British white collar worker:

“You don’t eat immediately on your arrival home. But in about an hour or so you feel as if you could sit up and take a little nourishment. And you do. Then you smoke, seriously; you see friends; you potter; you play cards; you flirt with a book; you note that old age is creeping on; you take a stroll; you caress the piano…. By Jove! a quarter past eleven. You then devote quite forty minutes to thinking about going to bed; and it is conceivable that you are acquainted with a genuinely good whisky. At last you go to bed, exhausted by the day’s work. Six hours, probably more, have gone since you left the office…”

To Bennett, these six wasted hours (“gone like magic, unaccountably gone!”) are a tragedy. What caught my attention about this vignette, however, is that he seems to be describing, in essence, an early-twentieth century version of killing time by messing around on your phone — it’s steampunk social media.

This interpretation is important because it underscores something I often overlook when I chastise people about mindless digital tinkering: this attraction toward the mindless is not new, but instead something that we’ve been struggling with since the initial introduction of leisure time.

Learning to live, then as now, is hard work.

I mention this not to offer a definitive solution, but to remind myself that the depth I preach, both in work and personal affairs, is not a default mode subverted only recently by new technology. It is instead an aspirational goal that requires intention, practice, and perhaps even some wisdom from an antiquated British social critic.

With this in mind, if you’re looking for some concrete ideas about how to train your mind for more substantive fare, you could do worse than to consider the following intriguing suggestion from Bennett: take just 90 minutes, only three nights a week, and dedicated them toward a quality pursuit.

“If you persevere [with this habit],” he writes, “you will soon want to pass four evenings, and perhaps five, in some sustained endeavour to be genuinely alive.”

29 thoughts on “Arnold Bennett’s Fight Against Steampunk Social Media”

  1. Great post as usual. I came across this book a while back as well, and it definitely serves as in inspiration to the working man. Thanks Cal!

  2. I’ve just thought of a system similar to Bennett’s. What if we treated personal project deep-work like fitness? In many areas?

    e.g. You need to be working on your personal-projects at least 30 minutes a day.
    You need to schedule them,
    You need to get into the ‘mode’, i.e. go into a different room, perform your deep work ritual
    You need to (mentally) sweat
    You can treat yourself afterwards with un-cognitively demanding entertainment
    And above all, you need to do is CONSISTENTLY TO SEE RESULTS.

    There are actually a lot of similarities. And if we treated this ‘personal’ deep work as seriously as fitness is now being treated, I’m sure people would find a lot of benefits (like there is to exercise).

  3. Great post.

    I think one of the biggest reasons for people wasting their time outside of work is not having a conscious plan.

    Every Sunday I spend 2 hours planning the following week. And every morning I take 30 mins planning the day ahead. I break the day into morning (before work), AM (working morning), lunch, PM (working afternoon), and EVE (everything after work, until I go to sleep).

    I hardly ever start a day not thinking about what I should spend my time doing and when I should do it. The days I don’t do that, are the days I tend to fritter time away on useless pursuits.

  4. Before social media and personal computer games, I used to subscribe to numerous daily newspapers. Probably one would have been enough, but I was able to fritter away embarrassing amounts of time reading endless, soon forgotten, details of the news. Still, my modern news feed is even more addictive.

  5. It is very simple.
    All I know about leisure time i learned by watching my dogs.
    If one is to ocupied to watch and learn from our surroundings, we are wasting our life.
    Simple as that.

  6. Sounds great for a single man with means! All goes to pot if you are the one cooking the dinner, cleaning up afterward, trying to put screaming kids to bed. Then “By Jove! A quarter past eleven,” and maybe you can brush your own teeth. Are there strategies for incorporating deep work and personal projects into life with familial obligations? Surely it’s possible, even for a mom?

    • Hi CM,

      I found similar problems in that these types of manifestos seem primarily geared toward guys who don’t want to spend a lot of time on or hold major household, life admin, or family commitments. I found Laura Vanderkam’s work much more applicable to managing time and doing worthwhile things (incl. family) if you’re a woman. I’d recommend her book 168 Hours to start with.

      • Thankyou – I was thinking “90 minutes, all at once, 3 nights a week- really?” (And I have a lighter load than many: only work around 8 hours,commute 2 hrs,husband does a lot of the household, only 1 child)

  7. Well… don’t we perhaps need a bit of wasting of our hours? Should every minute of the day be “accountably gone”? What is quality pursuit and should we always be in pursuit of it? What about play, doesn’t it play a part in life?

    That reminded me of “Little Women”, by Lousia May Alcott: “All play and no work is as bad as all work and no play”.

    Thank you for the prompt to reflection, professor.

    • I agree. Doing something for the sake of doing it is undervalued. Not everything we do necessarily needs to have a purpose for our future.

      I watch movies for no reason other than to watch and enjoy them. Is that not a good enough reason to spend my time on it?

    • Probably something that is

      1. Deeply meaningful to you, will make a felt positive impact on your life, and on your deathbed you can say, well, I didn’t do everything on my bucket list, but I’m glad I didn’t fail to do THAT!
      2. MIGHT take sustained effort and discipline to accomplish
      3. You are glad to have done and will remember. Vs, say, mindlessly surfing Youtube after work.

      Some examples:
      1. Learning to play my favorite sonata by Prokofiev
      2. Learning kenjutsu
      3. Building my hydroponics garden and eventually growing all my own greens and herbs

  8. What struck me in reading Bennett’s summary of the ‘standard post-work evening for a British white collar worker’ is how much more worthwhile and happiness conducing his ‘early-twentieth century version of killing time by messing around on your phone’ sounds. He describes seeing friends, taking a stroll (exercise), as well as reading a book and playing piano.

    Bennett’s ‘wasted’ evening trumps almost all of my post-work evenings (although admittedly mine are generally 2-3 from leaving the office to lights out, which is somewhat limiting).

  9. You need skills taught in deep work today to survive. Distractions are everywhere and they are malicious. Your phone, new video games, an empire of entertainment built on the dead dreams of many.

    We won’t realize how much time we’ve wasted until we are almost dead.

    • As one of the almost dead 83 I have had a great life driven by curiosity and work ethic. I think my Yoga mind exercises in my teens helped me to concentrate and see things that others did not see. Two of my biggest mistakes were possibly declining meetings with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. I was told they had no manners and I have been brought up with manners make the man. Definitely my biggest mistake was selling PCYC under $10 because I didn’t like new CEO again a question of manners. It was bought out for more than $500 about five years later. Parents should be careful what they teach children.

  10. Hey Cal. Have you read ‘Leisure, the Basis of Culture’ by Josef Pieper? It’s right along this vein. Also, I really enjoy reading about your crusade against contemporary mindlessness vis a vis electronica moronica. Being a Millennial, you must feel totally alone in this thinking. You’re not.

  11. Great post Cal.

    It’s nice to revisit this book after reading it a number of years ago. I’ve taken on a couple things in the past five or six years I never thought I would have time for.

    1) I began practicing yoga. It began with about 25 minutes four times a week. Now it’s a morning “ritual” of 75 minutes that has changed my health and life.
    2) I began writing a blog. There were many benefits including learning how to think more concisely.

    Bennett says, “I do not care what you concentrate on, so long as you concentrate.” My encouragement is: Pick something valuable to do or that you love to do and schedule a small amount of time for it. Just don’t try to do everything at once.

  12. Very Interesting. This book pivoted me since last year. Bennett’s conversational writing style is very different from what you find in typical motivational books.

    Have recently released a book on Amazon with premise if Bennett would have been living in this world, would he take diffrent view on things and offer another perspective altogether.

    Book is called – How to Live Every Day ( Feel free to check out.

  13. Hello Cal, I wanted to provide you with another deep work example in the music field. You may find it interesting. It is from the NY Times article of Glenn Gould, the famous pianist who died too early. Apparently the cottage theory is strong.

    “In his teens, Mr. Gould has said, he admired Artur Schnabel, for whom the piano was never an end in itself, only a means to reach the music. He also expressed admiration for the ”ecstatic” quality of Leopold Stokowski’s conducting. But though such figures represented aspects of performance he respected, their styles seemed to have little influence on Mr. Gould.

    He believed that he learned the most about music when, in 1952, at the age of 20, he went into almost complete isolation at his parents’ cottage at Uptergrove, Canada, with a piano and a tape recorder.”

  14. Dear visitors,
    this is one of the few blogs I consult regularly. What’s more – it is the only blog where

    I read all the comments, all the time.

    I think Cal receives a lot of praise. But thanks also to the people commenting!


  15. Cal, was this skim of Arnold Bennett’s _How to Live on 24 Hours a Day_ for the ‘Reclaim Leisure’ chapter of _Digital Minimalism_? The quote on squandering one’s leisure hours makes me conjecture that it could’ve been so.


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