How To Choose A Focused Life In A Noisy World
I'm forever at odds with technology because I fall into the camp of being a tech nerd, but it's so damn easy to overindulge. Crack open a Costco-size bag of chips and you'll find me battling with knowing when to say I've had enough. The smartphone is the mental equivalent of junk food if you're not intentional with how you use it. It's far too easy to reach the bottom of the bag and realize you've been mindlessly consuming for hours.
Author Ryan Holiday points out the spirals we often find ourselves sucked into with mindless consumption, "We live in the freest time in the freest places in the history of the world. Yet many of us feel far from free. We are slaves to vices and devices, to our schedules and our poor self-talk. We’re reactive. We look at the world through the lens of other people’s vision for success, often in things we have no interest in."
And Holiday goes on to lead the charge by saying, "We are chained down in a prison of our own making and it’s high time for us to break out, to break free."
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius would have been a fantastic Starbucks barista. He had the uncanny ability to boil wisdom down to a couple of pithy lines that could fit on a latte cup. His advice for someone looking to break free starts by recognizing that, "Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you'll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, 'Is this necessary?'"
Aurelius may have been on to something. Associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, Cal Newport found in a study of over 1,600 people that the key to thriving in our high-tech world is to spend much less time using technology. As he describes in the aptly-titled book Digital Minimalism, it applies the belief that less can be more to our relationship with digital tools.
Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was a man of reflection. He saw the value in the experience versus the consumption of second-hand knowledge. People often confuse consumption with an understanding of a topic. But as Emerson reflected “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” The lessons we've all learned about the addictive nature of junk food turns out to be the Siamese twin of technology use. They share the same vital organs.
Just as chips are loaded with salt and fat, technology is loaded with the same addictive deliciousness. They both trigger the release of dopamine, the chemical messenger that controls your brain's pleasure center. Once your brain gets that first reward hit, it starts craving more. Lay's "Bet you can't eat just one!" slogan is like being enticed into a back alley dice game where you're getting hustled by design.
In Digital Minimalism Newport put it like this, "People don't succumb to screens because they're lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable."
In a piece titled Willpower Isn't The Key To Success, Brad Stulberg discussed a study from his book Peak Performance, that found even when we don’t check our phones during a face-to-face conversation, merely having a phone present—say, on silent mode, sitting facedown on the table—detracts from the quality of the conversation. Stulberg went on to say that researchers speculate this is because we use so much energy just to resist the magnetic lure of wanting to check our phones.
All of this comes back to one of my favourite operating principles here at Simplify Your Why. It continues to be an eye-opener for a lot of people I work with. By starting with the things you value most, then working backwards to ask whether a given decision, routine, or strategy performs more harm than good, you're given an opportunity to take a proactive approach to prune things that are unnecessary. Because it's so simple, there are no distractions.
Willpower is a fool's game of distraction. From an energy perspective, it's like driving a gas-guzzling Escalade while pulling a boat with your foot smashed into the gas. You can't expect to go far when you're relying on a resource that's easy to deplete.
Stulberg points out that, "Perhaps a better option than always relying on willpower is to consciously design our environments to remove the temptations that regularly get in the way of us living our best lives."
So what does that look like in practice? Keep it simple. Unless I'm throwing a party, you won't find chips on my grocery list. I can't be distracted by the thought of the savoury salted perfection sitting in my cupboard if I don't make the mistake of putting the temptation there in the first place.
I've done the same for my phone. I had already deleted my Instagram and Facebook accounts earlier in the year, but I found I was starting to simply substitute those for more time on Twitter and LinkedIn. I started by setting time limits so I'd only engage with Twitter (and other apps) for a set amount of time each day. After reading Digital Minimalism I did a straight up cleanse and deleted nearly everything from my phone. I now need to log onto my laptop to use Twitter or LinkedIn.
I've used all of these platforms long enough to see that they get in the way of me living my best life. In the same sense, no one reflects back on their life wishing they spent more time at work. I can say with a sense of certainty that I don't believe anyone will look back and say I wish spent more time on Instagram because my life could have been so much better.
Again, keep it simple. Use the following prompts as a means to voice what you're thinking and design a plan for living your best life.
What are the five most important things in your life?
What do you do in your day to get the most out of each of these?
Are you doing what's *urgent* (answering e-mails, texts, the phone, running errands, mindlessly scrolling on your phone etc.) or intentionally prioritizing what's important?
Hell, if you can name five of the most important things in your life, set time to get the most out of them each day and continually make progress on what's important to you. You're way ahead of the game.
I know how challenging this can be so I've put together a free workbook for people who want more positive, focused energy to invest in their work and life. Think of this workbook as a lifestyle-design blueprint. It’s a working plan for taking your life from where you are now to where you really want to be. Click here and I'd be happy to send it to you.