Two Weeks of Simplicity

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About a month ago, I decided I needed to find some clarity in my life. Having moved back to California a little over a month before, my life was on autopilot, with my days basically consisting of work and Netflix binges. Not the stuff fulfilling lives are made off.

In order to find the clarity I was searching for, I made the decision to cut out most of the distractions that normally filled my days. Those included social media, Netflix (TV and movies in general), the internet, and music. I even committed to only drinking black coffee for a little extra challenge – not that I need any more of a challenge. While I wasn’t perfect at cutting everything out, it ended up being the most austere two weeks I had experienced since being grounded as a child. Fortunately, I gained a lot more from the experience than I ever did from any punishment, no matter how much I deserved it at the time.

From Emptiness to Fulfillment to Action

It wasn’t until I didn’t have a screen to distract me that I realized how much I was dependent on TV and social media for my entertainment. I’d even go so far as to say that I depended on those things to give me a sense of fulfillment in my daily life. Still, that realization did little to make my new found austerity any easier, at least not at first. I was at a complete loss for how to spend all of the free time I had just reacquired.

For the first few days, I resigned myself to just sitting in silence with my thoughts while I wasn’t at work or around my family. Not exactly the most thrilling activity. However, that solitude turned out to be exactly what I needed. As the days went by, I started to feel a sense of peace that I had never really experienced before. My thoughts slowed down. My impulsive desires stopped controlling my every action. The feeling of emptiness that I had been trying to fill with digital distractions started to fade away. I started to realize that I could be just as happy sitting in silence as I could hanging out with friends or watching Parks and Rec.

Along with a greater sense of peace and fulfillment, I also started to feel a genuine desire to take action in my life. Glancing up at my bookshelf one night, I saw the dusty, unread copy of “The Lord of the Rings” that I always planned on reading but never started. Almost without thinking, I grabbed the book off the shelf and dived in (I’m currently about 250 pages in and loving it). The next day, feeling a desire to make something with my hands, I decided to pick up the age-old craft of wood carving. I went out that evening and bought a pocket knife and some blocks of wood and got to carving. Since then I’ve carved three pieces and thoroughly enjoyed the process.

A Life of Simplicity

The feeling of peace that came from living with fewer distractions was pretty eye opening. However, cutting out all of the distractions in my life was pretty extreme, and definitely not sustainable. What’s interesting to me is, in the time since those two weeks ended, how quickly I’ve fallen back into the trap of letting all of those distractions dictate my life. This is especially true for social media. I’m now more aware of how often I check my phone for updates, likes, and friend requests, usually to the detriment of my own sense of inner peace.

My goal now is to start cultivating a life of intention and simplicity, though in a much more organic way than my forced austerity. I suppose it’s all about finding the right balance. Not deleting my social media, but limiting how much time I spend on it. Indulging in Netflix, but not letting it become part of my daily routine. And most importantly, giving myself some time every day to disconnect from the constant stream of distractions and connect with my own genuine desires.

 

 

 

 

 

Quote of the Week #12

-It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is- what are we busy about--

 

If you’ve kept up with this blog so far, it’s probably obvious that I love quoting Thoreau. I’ve been a huge fan of his since reading Walden a few years ago.

This particular quote resonates with something I’ve recently been focusing on a lot: proactively planning how I spend my time.

I’ve been reading a great book on time management called “First Things First,” by Stephen Covey. The basic message of this book is that most people spend their time focusing on things that may seem urgent, but aren’t necessarily important for their future growth and happiness. They get caught up in a myriad of duties and tasks that never seem to end. Yet at the end of the day, they don’t feel as though they accomplished anything of value.

I feel that way quite often. So I’ve started taking the time to ask myself just how important the things I’m doing really are. And by important I don’t mean urgent. I’m talking about actions that are in line with my core values and will help move me closer to the life I dream of (the things that normally get lost in the fray of daily concerns and duties). These are things like writing, researching future travel destinations, spending time with family and friends, or simply taking the time to relax by the beach.

I’ve already found that just being aware of this issue has created more time in my life for the things that really matter. Hopefully this quote can inspire you to take a conscious look at how you spend your time as well.

A Great Renunciation

I once heard someone say that every great life has had in it a great renunciation. Now I don’t know enough about great lives to sway whether or not that’s true, but it definitely resonates with me. Ever since I turned 21 I’ve been on a journey of personal growth, determined to change myself and my life for the better. In the three years since then I’ve undoubtedly changed a lot. Yet the whole time there has been something keeping me from making the types of changes I’ve really wanted to make: the core level changes. That something is the past.

By past I don’t mean just the past events that have made up my life. I’m talking about the old habits, actions, beliefs, and thought patterns that have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. The remnants of my past have stood out clearly to me as of late. Two weeks ago I finished my 8 month stint teaching English in Spain and moved back home to California for the summer. This isn’t the first time I’ve returned home after being away, but 8 months is the longest I’ve been gone.

I can’t say that I’m a completely different person than when I left back in October. I’ve definitely changed though. I’ve got new experiences under my belt, new perspectives, new insights into the inner workings of my mind. Yet upon arriving home, all of the “new” has quickly managed to take a backseat to the old. I’ve found myself instinctively falling back into old patterns, regardless of the changes I made while abroad. For me those old patterns include a lot of negativity, a lot of sitting in front of the TV, and a general lack of action. All of the great habits I built up while abroad like meditation, eating healthy, reading, and writing seem to have gone straight by the wayside.

The big issue for me isn’t how I’ve struggled in the two weeks since coming home. To be honest I expected to need a week or two to get my positive momentum back and generally adjust to life back in the states. But seeing how quickly and easily I’ve gone back to old behaviors has made me question just how badly I’ve been wanting change in my life.

I’ve talked a lot about wanting change in my life, about wanting to live a life of excellence. While that is my genuine desire, I’ve also been holding onto my comfortable past. Things like laziness, negative self-talk, judging others, complaining, staying in my comfort zone, and allowing fear to control me. These might seem like pretty normal habits, and they have been for me, but they are not congruent with who I say I want to be. They aren’t congruent with the desires that motivated me to start this blog.

I’m starting to realize that I can’t have a new and exciting future while holding on to the mindsets and behaviors that made up my past. It’s as if I’ve been driving, but the whole time I’ve had one eye on the road in front of me and one on the rear view mirror. Sure, it’s okay to occasionally look behind me, but having one eye always focused there makes it a lot harder to stay on the proper path ahead.

So as I sit here contemplating my attachment to the past, the idea of a great renunciation keeps crossing my mind. Am I willing to renounce all the things in my life that aren’t contributing to the bright future I desire? My instinctual answer is yes. But saying yes is a lot easier than actually acting on it. I’ve held onto my past for a reason. It may not bring me the happiness I desire but it’s comfortable. It’s safe. The future I want is full of unknowns. Plus there’s a big part of me that doubts I can even do it. What if I fail? What if I go back to my old ways after a few days or a few weeks?

Of course, these are all hypotheticals. The only way to actually know whether or not I can make such a great renunciation is to try it. So here goes nothing…

Living Intentionally

I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of achievement. There’s an undeniable satisfaction that comes from knowing you’ve put in the work to accomplish something, no matter how small it is. Hell, even as I write this, I feel damn good for get getting these words on paper.

I suppose the simplest way of experiencing the satisfaction of achievement is through goals. They are straight forward. Black and white. You always know when and how you accomplished them.

Yet despite how much I enjoy achievement, I’ve always been terrible at following through with goals. For as long as I can remember I’ve been setting goals and subsequently failing to achieve them. Everything from getting a six-pack to writing every day. Nothing ever seems to stick.

This isn’t a new story of course. Goals are something most people struggle with. I read a statistic that out of the 45% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% successfully achieve them. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but it doesn’t sound too far from the truth. I don’t think this is an American phenomenon either.

For a long time I attributed my inability to follow through on goals to my own laziness or lack of will power. This translated into me telling myself things like, “I can’t achieve my goals because I’m a lazy person” and “I don’t have enough will power to accomplish anything significant.” With this kind of negative self-talk, setting and working towards goals became less and less about the goals themselves and more about vindicating myself from those negative labels (which, ironically, I had self-applied). As you can imagine, this didn’t make sticking to my goals any easier. All it did was make the pain of failing so much greater. My failures to achieve my goals became indicators of my own inadequacies.

About a month ago, after years of dealing with this internal conflict, I decided to take a step back from goals all together. I didn’t really have a plan or even a time frame (it took a lot of effort to not make not setting goals a goal). I just knew that my current method of setting goals and working meticulously to achieve them wasn’t bringing me many positive results.

Upon making this decision, it felt as if a weight had been lifted off of me. What I had essentially done was give myself permission to not accomplish anything. No goals. No mission statements. No super-important tasks to get to outside of going to work. It was liberating.

The Conflict

Unfortunately, along with this feeling of liberation came a huge feeling of guilt, at least in the beginning. For the past three years all I had done was focus on improving myself, usually by way of setting goals and working towards them. While letting go of those goals felt good, I also felt as though I was letting myself down in some way. If I wasn’t working towards something, then how could I possibly be happy?

This internal conflict was, at its core, a symptom of my underlying belief structure, mainly in regards to how life is supposed to be lived. For simplicity’s sake I would characterize my normal way of thinking as “achievement-oriented.” I’ve always based my self-worth on what I could achieve, or at the very least what I was working towards. Going even deeper than that, I’ve always assumed that true happiness required struggling to overcome challenges, that I didn’t deserve to be happy unless I was working towards a bigger purpose in life and challenging myself every day.

Still, it was obvious that setting goals is not an effective strategy for me, regardless of the reason why. Yet my own happiness is still in many ways tied to achievement and the idea of working towards a purpose. It’s a paradox that I don’t see changing any time soon. So I came up with sort of a mental compromise.

Living Intentionally

What’s interesting is that in the month since I abandoned goal setting, I haven’t been any less productive. In fact, I’ve made more progress towards the life I want than I had in the several months prior to this change. I began meditating consistently. My diet improved notably. I’ve read more. I started this blog. Overall, I’m feeling a lot happier, which is most likely the result of constantly feeling as though I’m achieving something.

So how have I been able to be productive without any clear goals to work towards?

Simply put, instead of setting goals I just started focusing on what I wanted out of life. Not what I thought I should want, or what I thought I should accomplish. What I really WANTED. I started getting in touch with my core desires.

Waking up in the morning I didn’t think of my normal checklist for that day. I just paused and considered what I wanted my life to look like. To give you an example, some of the things I thought of included being more present to the moment, being more positive, filling my days with things I love doing, and creating an amazing blog.

I found that, by simply having what I wanted at the forefront of my mind throughout the day, I naturally started taking the actions that would bring me closer to those things. I began to live intentionally instead of in reaction to my environment.

Up and Down Cycle

For most of my life I repeated the same cycle of rapid progress and equally rapid burnout. I would be super consistent when it came to my goals, using every ounce of willpower I had in order to reach them…for a couple of weeks. Then, one day when the willpower just seemed to escape me, I would end up on the couch, binge-watching Netflix and hating myself. A few weeks later I would start the process over again, vowing that this time would be different, this time I would stick to my goals. On and on the cycle went.

While it’s only been about a month, I haven’t experienced any of those drastic motivational ups and downs. I might spend an hour or two watching Game of Thrones or catching up on some NBA highlights, but I don’t find myself binging on entertainment the way I used to. After a couple of hours of doing anything that doesn’t bring me closer to the life I want, I just get antsy and want to start taking action again.

I think what this really comes down to is allowing myself room to be imperfect. What I’ve found with goals is that they box me in to a specific result and a specific course of action. Maybe it’s just the rebellious kid in me, but being told I have to do something, even by myself, makes me really not want to do it. I think meditation is the most relevant example in this case. If you were to come up to me right now and ask me how I feel about meditation, you would only hear good things come out of my mouth. I freaking love meditation! Yet whenever I’ve set a goal for myself to do it every day, meditation and I stop being such close friends.

However, when I simply start my day by thinking about how much I want presence and positivity in my life, it seems only natural that I would meditate at some point. I go from begrudging it to looking forward to it. Now, after about 30 days of doing it, mediation just feels like a normal part of my life.

A lot of people would probably argue that the point of goals isn’t to have a rigid structure, but to give you a direction to head. That may be true but for whatever reason I have a hard time viewing goals in a healthy way. That’s just me though.

If I really analyze the past month, all I’ve done is simply make my goals a little less strict, a little less absolute. Either way I’m glad it’s working.