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.