Busy

The idea of busyness being a de-facto justification for our existence isn’t a new one. I think those of us who live in the US are constantly hearing about our Puritan forefathers, who bequeathed to us (among other things) what’s come to be known as the “Protestant Work Ethic”. As Tim Kreider notes in this New York Times article entitled The ‘Busy’ Trap, “The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.”

But honestly, when someone responds with “Busy!” when I ask how they’re doing, it drives me crazy. I know that, most of the time, with a few modifications on how they interact with the challenges that life throws at them, they could be a lot more relaxed and have the time to fit in what’s truly important to them.

There are two groups of people from whom I’ll willingly accept “I’m busy” as an answer. The first group are the single parents who work two jobs, run kids to after school events, and manage a household (and other folks with an incredibly high level of commitments due to life circumstances beyond their control). I grew up with a parent like that, and I don’t really recall him saying the word “busy” much. You know why? Because he was too busy to actually talk to anyone about it. It just never came up because he didn’t stop to talk about it. I wouldn’t even say that he was busy; I’d say he was exhausted (like Kreider states in that earlier linked NYT article). I don’t have much to say to these folks, except that you have my respect and my honest hopes that things get better for you in the near future. I’m not sure how my dad did it for all those years.

But the other group are individuals who I don’t think are really being honest with themselves on the issues of schedule and priorities. Because if there’s anything that I believe in the whole realm of “self improvement”, it’s that in order to really begin to change your circumstances, you need to quit lying to yourself.

That up there is the crux of these people’s issues. They have too much going on because they’re unable or unwilling to say “no” when approached to add one more thing into their lives. And there’s a simple way to fix it: learn to say “no”. It’s hard, I get it, especially for our super-charged, high-octane, achievement-oriented society. But truly taking the time to determine what’s most important to you will give you the clarity you need to stop being “busy” and start having the time you need to live an important, focused life.

I really do understand that it’s tough, I wasn’t just saying that. I have a family, with a young son who’s getting more and more involved in activities outside our home. Home-school groups, field trips, sports teams. As an 8 year old, he can’t just drive himself to these things, and we as parents want to make sure that he’s able to be a part of stuff that he wants to be a part of. But there comes a time when I think we can cross over from doing things he wants to do to doing things because we think that kids his age are “supposed to do” them. There’s a difference there.

The motivation changes from focusing on what’s good for him, and what’s good for our family, to keeping up appearances. We think that other families may judge us because our kid isn’t in violin lessons AND Little League AND pottery class AND AND AND. We begin letting other people’s notions of what’s important (or, even worse, our assumption of what other people value) set our schedules and priorities. That’s something we can’t turn over to them; we need to do it for ourselves.

There’s an old story about a college professor who comes in to class on the first day, stands behind the lectern and pulls out a large, clear glass jar. She pulls out two large rocks about the size of a fist or a bit larger, puts them in the jar. Being stacked on top of each other, they rise to almost the brim of the jar. The professor looks up and asks the class if the jar is full. The class says, “Yep, that looks full”. The professor then pulls out a jar of pea gravel from behind the lectern and pours the gravel into the glass jar, filling up the spaces between the large rocks. She looks up and asks the class, “What about now? Is the jar full?”. A few of the students smile to each other, but the majority say, “Sure, that’s full”. The professor AGAIN reaches down behind the lectern, pulls out a bag of sand, and pours it into the seemingly full jar. Now the smaller spaces between the gravel are filled with sand. The professor quirks an eyebrow at the class… She doesn’t even need to ask the question this time. Everyone knows it’s coming, but this time none of the students are willing to say it’s full. Finally, the professor pulls out a pitcher of water and proceeds to fill the jar up, occupying all the remaining airspace in the jar. She tops off the jar, and looks at the class.

“What’s the point here? What am I trying to teach you?” the professor asks. She continues, “The rocks are your life’s priorities, and the jar is your life. You have room in your life for whatever you want, but you have to choose. Because the water, sand and gravel are things in your life that clamor for your attention, as well. If I had added the ingredients in reverse order, they would have taken up space that should have been occupied by the rocks. Then, when I went to add my “priorities” to a life that was already pretty full, I wouldn’t have enough room for what I really wanted to accomplish,”.

In her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, author Laura Vanderkam tells us that we all have (or should have) priorities in life to which we want to devote our time and energy. Doesn’t matter what they are; could be your kids or your job or the Seattle Seahawks. I’m not here to judge your priorities. What I am here to do is to tell you that you’re always going to be “too busy” if you don’t give those things that are most important to you their fair amount of attention. Take what you consider to be the important things in life and put those in your jar first. All the rest of the stuff then fits in around it, or if it doesn’t, it gets discarded.

But please, stop lying to yourself by saying “I’m too busy”. Be honest and say that you’re not making whatever you’re talking about an actual priority. If it’s not your priority, then you should be able to admit it and move on. But if it should be, this should be a freeing exercise by allowing you to really assess what you want to be spending you time on and which things you need to let fall by the wayside.

Simplicity

I often look around my office at home, see the bookcase in the corner, and wonder how long it’s been since I’ve opened a lot, or even most, of those books. We moved into the house we’re in now almost three years ago; have I opened those books in that time? Will I do so before it’s time to pack them up and move to the next house (whenever that is)?

Simplifying my life by minimizing possessions is something that I’m becoming more and more attracted to, because it seems fairly obvious to me that the fewer things I have, the fewer things I have to worry about.

The human mind has a limited capacity for focus (multitasking is a myth), and for every thing you concentrate on, there are plenty of other things that you don’t (or simply can’t). Possessions have a kind of “psychic load”, for lack of a better term, that requires you to consider them (even subconsciously) even if you’re not necessarily using them. That subconscious consideration leads, I believe, to a level of stress and worry that can be unidentifiable but very real.

I was told a few years ago that when I had a difficult time falling asleep or concentrating on a task because my mind was racing, I needed to do a “brain dump”. Just write, stream-of-consciousness style, into a journal. Or not even in a journal; this isn’t really something I’d refer back to later or even save if I didn’t want to. According to the person telling me this, my mind would calm down and I’d be able to sleep or focus or whatever I was trying to do. I was initially skeptical, but holy smokes, it really works.

This concept has been popularized as “morning pages“. Morning Pages in particular is an activity done (obviously) first thing in the morning, but the concept is the same. Releasing this pent up flow of disorganized thought allows you to get rid of it. The act of writing everything that comes to mind allows us to crystallize and then discard it. Personally, my main problems were a lot of nebulous “worries” and “concerns” that were unrelated to any specific issue or topic that I could identify. It was just a general feeling of unease, accompanied by a mind that just wouldn’t stop running in circles.

In the same way, by removing possessions (actually, I consider them to be detritus of a former time that I don’t use any longer), I can focus on the things that remain.

I recently got rid of a lot of clothing that I didn’t wear, or didn’t want to wear, any longer. Whether it no longer fit my sensibilities, or was just redundant, I consciously narrowed down what I had in my closet and in my dresser to reflect only that stuff that I truly enjoyed wearing.

This isn’t to say I’m down to one pair of shoes or pants, but I got rid of probably half of the clothing that I previously owned. This allows me to circumvent the paradox of choice each morning. Like the much-discussed “Steve Jobs uniform” (although my wardrobe has a bit more variation), it removes a lot of mental effort.

Studies have shown that each of us have a limited well of selectivity from which to draw. Every time we make a decision, we draw on that resource, which reduces the amount that remains for making choices later on. So, if we’re spending some of that decision making capacity on choosing what shirt to wear, there’s a very real possibility that we’re taking it from some time later when we’ll need to make a much more important choice. It sounds drastic (or even alarmist) to imply that the fact that we attempt to choose between 5 different breakfast options could reduce our ability to make a good decision about a merger later at work that same day, but that’s truly the case.

So, by making an effort to reduce the amount of things in my life that I don’t truly care about (like a lot of the polo shirts that I once had in my closet), I’m trying to have fewer things on my mind (even subconsciously). If I can remove anything that distracts, then I can more easily focus on things that I want to focus on. Like my wife or my son or a board game that I really enjoy. You don’t have to get rid of everything, you just have to get rid of the stuff you don’t really care about.

To me, this level of simplicity will vary from person to person and from life’s season to life’s season. As I grow and change, I assume the possessions I care about will change, as well. I may be willing to get rid of things I wouldn’t consider right now. The importance in the exercise of simplicity isn’t about reduction, it’s about being mindful. It’s about having what you need and no more, but not allowing anyone but you to determine what your “needs” really are.