People Power: The power of simplifying - Oct 2020

By Sam Allman

At start of the pandemic, the world seemed a very scary place. We were all afraid for the health of ourselves and our loved ones. People all across the world began saving to pay rent and support their families. Parents were forced to find alternatives for the schooling and care of their children. And everyone everywhere had to stay away from social situations. It was scary, isolating and lonely. But hopefully, we have learned something and have noticed that there have been some positives, even in this crisis.

I believe that the biggest benefit of a crisis, a tragedy or a loss is what it does to our thinking. It causes us to rethink our lives. Where we are going? Why are we here? What should we do with our lives? What do we need? What do we want? What could we do differently that would make our lives less stressed or more satisfying? The pandemic has done this for me.

Frankly, being retired, I’m on the path I want to be. I am happy where I am and where I am going, and I feel lucky to still be here and be relatively healthy. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t fine-tune my direction, my goals, my expectations and my situation. There are actions that I can take to improve the things within my control. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Our life is frittered away by detail. …Simplify, simplify.” There is only one success: to live your life your own way.

Let me explain. According to scholars, our early ancestors fed themselves by gathering plants and hunting animals that lived and bred without human intervention. In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Youval Noah Harari, the writer asks, “Why do anything else when your lifestyle feeds you amply and supports a rich world of social structures, religious beliefs and political dynamics?” Their lives were relatively simple: live off the land, acquire little, move to another location when necessary.

This all changed when humans started devoting most of their time and effort to manipulating a few plant and animal species as they moved from hunting and gathering to farming. They spent most of their days sowing seeds, watering plants, plucking weeds and leading animals to prime pastures. They thought these efforts would provide them with more fruit, grain and meat. Some scholars claimed that this was a great leap forward. But I wonder. Rather than heralding a new era of easier living, it left farmers with lives that are generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. According to some experts, the average farmer worked harder than the average forager. Though the farmer could now stay in one place, he had more to worry about: his land, his crops, the weather, insects, etc. His life became more complicated and tedious.

Then came the Industrial Revolution. Scores left the farm in search of an easier life. After all, industry produced machines that saved time and made things easier. No longer did we have to produce our own food or clothing. We simply had to go shopping. But we did have to find work to pay for what we needed. It was supposed to make living easier. But it didn’t. It actually made it more complicated.

Ironically, this pursuit of an easier life created much hardship. We have been trapped in a quest for money and “stuff.” In our materialistic society, they are the measurement of success. Many young college graduates take demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are 35. But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate two cars and a sense that life is not worth living without fine wine, exquisite cuisine and expensive vacations. Many of us feel the pressure to keep up with the Joneses or play the game of “he who dies with the most toys wins.”

History has taught us that luxuries tend to become necessities and burden us with new expectations and obligations. Once we get used to a certain luxury, we take it for granted. Then we begin to expect it. Then we reach the point where we can’t live without it. Have you been trapped in the quest for luxury? The quest for stuff? I joined in. I was owned by possessions. In the ’60s, many of my friends tried to check out of this game; they became hippies or joined communes, but eventually they acquiesced and joined in, too. Work was not a choice for me. I had a growing family, a mortgage, a car payment-sometimes two. Unlike foragers, I couldn’t pick up and leave. Changing locations was not easy. I had a lot of stuff.

Then came the Digital Age. In addition to managing stuff, our lives have become much more complicated because now we also must manage information and technology. While technology has certainly lifted many humans out of poverty and enriched our lives in many ways, it has also made the world increasingly complex and difficult to navigate. We are not weaker or stupider than our ancestors, the world is just more challenging than ever before. It’s much more difficult to secure a comfortable existence. We are smarter. We know much more than our ancestors. Knowledge is not the problem; the problem is our minds are not capable of handing the sheer volume of issues modern man faces and must think about.

Focused human effort has made the modern world what it is today. But by its nature, it is more distracting and overwhelming.

We are distracted by our cellphones, social media, TV, clutter, stuff, flashing lights, sirens, advertisements, each other and our thoughts. We are overwhelmed by too much choice, by how much we have to accomplish, by too much information, by new software and technology we have to learn, by figuring out how to bank, pay taxes, bills, shop and by digitally controlling the locks on our doors, our thermostats and our exercise.

Our minds function well when focused on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is very difficult. We hear of those who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s true. It’s not easy doing two things at once. That’s why driving and texting is so dangerous or listening to someone and watching TV at the same time is ineffective. Confusion and cognitive dissonance or paralysis is the result when our minds are overwhelmed with too many things to do or too much information. When the undone, unfinished and unmet commitments fill and clutter our minds, stress and anxiety are the result. These are sicknesses of modern life and of the mind. The constant preoccupation with the things we have to do is a large consumer of time and energy. When our minds are on overdrive trying to control and cope, we become stressed and anxious.

When we are focused on one action or issue, our minds become totally engaged in the moment and are free of non-associated thoughts. The ability to pay complete attention to the issue at hand by clearing our minds of extraneous thoughts is the essence of people power. Not an easy task when our minds are cluttered, overwhelmed and on overdrive. Simplifying facilitates focusing. Simplifying is discovering what we can do without. We can start by evaluating what can be control.

Prioritize: Clarify your values and prioritize your daily tasks. Do what matters most. Learn to say “no” when appropriate. When you know your major priorities, saying no becomes easier. Decide what you value most and commit your time and effort to those things. The essence of simplifying is figuring out what to ignore.

Declutter your mind: If you can’t sleep at night, your mind is usually on overdrive, and it needs to be decluttered. Whether you use a pen and paper or technology, make lists of things you need to do. Empty your mind of the things of which it’s trying to remind you. You can clear your mind, if it trusts you to review those lists. Use technology to remember passwords, phone numbers and addresses. Use your mind for solving problems, not accumulating information. He who has the best notes, wins.

Declutter your environment: The best way to organize your stuff is to get rid of most of it. Practice giving things away, not just things you don’t care about but also things you do like. Clear your desk of papers and nonessentials, your closets of clothes you haven’t worn for a year, your garage and computers. Fact: clutter limits productivity as well as increases anxiety and stress. It’s incredible how much more room you have when you’re careful with the things you bring into your home. When you own less, you don’t need as much space.

Get organized: Find a place for everything. You will save time and eliminate stress when it is easy to find your things. Organize your tools, your personal papers, your computer files and your closet and storage. It is liberating to know where you can find anything when needed.

Limit media and interruptions: Reduce TV time. Switch off notifications on your smartphone and computer. To increase productivity, close your office door and turn off the ringer on your phone. Sounds distract and will take you out of a focused state. They sap productivity.

Establish routines: Routines can provide us with a focused time to commit to specific actions. Put things you use back where they belong. Maintain your organizational systems.

Live frugally: Avoid the luxury trap. Spend less than you make. Invest wisely. Avoid debt. Enjoy the physical and mental freedom that comes from being debt-free. Think about how you can limit the excess and enjoy the freedom that comes with having more money to spend on what you really value. Figure out what enough is for you, so you know when to stop mindlessly accumulating. Avoid the disease of more.

Rest your mind and body: Meditation will teach you to not let your emotions drive your decisions, and ultimately, it will save you a lot of unnecessary stress. Meditation slows down and quiets the mind. When we slow down, we can hear our inner anxieties and stress more clearly. Rather than ignoring these, listen to what they have to say. Seek solitude and space to rest and relax.

Get physical: When done regularly, physical exercise can be a form of meditation that relieves stress, boosts alertness and clears the mind.

The pandemic reminds me that I need to simplify my life regularly, to make it a periodic practice. After all, I am always accumulating more stuff and more information. If not, my mind will not operate optimally.

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook and to discard. Knowledge is a process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification. I do not believe we should return to foraging, but I do believe though, as Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” That is within our control. Clear your mind, and you will increase your personal power.

Copyright 2020 Floor Focus