A few months ago I had a simple insight that had a profound effect on my life.
How many things can you think about at once? How many complete thoughts can you really have in a single instant? Stop and look around you. Find the thing that is farthest away in your field of vision — perhaps something on the other side of the room or a cloud far off in the distance. Notice the detail of that object for a moment. Consciously notice that object and let it’s existence fill you until it has consumed you so much that you are no longer aware of your own existence.
Great, you may have just learned how to meditate. Hopefully you noticed that it’s only really possible to consciously think about one thing at a time. You may be able to multitask and you may be able to subconsciously combine all of the sensory observations of an experience into an overall awareness but actual conscious thoughts are a one-at-a-time phenomenon. Our attention is a synchronous emergent property of our minds.
That might seem like a very abstract idea to you. Perhaps you still don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. If so, I’d suggest going and trying meditation for awhile — deep into a good meditative state you’ll find the one-at-a-time phenomenon undeniably clear.
What a random and insignificant idea, right? Not so! Take a few minutes to clear your mind and reflect on what your subjective experience has been for the last 24 hours. Don’t think about where you’ve been, what you’ve been doing, or who you’ve been with. Think about where your mind has been. What has occupied your consciousness for the last 24 hours? How have you felt for the last 24 hours? Excited? Bored? Anxious? Calm? For me, abstract ideas about programming filled my mind while I was at work, metacognitition about socializing with my coworkers and friends afterwards, and then possible scenarios about the future filled my mind for most of the morning while I contemplated various life paths. Only a small percentage of my conscious attention has been devoted to absorbing the here and now — noticing the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of what’s around me. The majority of my focus has been dedicated to logistics — where should I go to meet up with a friend later? How much money have I spent today? How much sleep will I get if I go to bed now?
Since we can only consciously think about one thing at a time, we are where our minds are. It does not matter if you are relaxing on the beach on a tropical island if your mind is consumed by what you have to get done for work. You could be getting coffee with your best friend but if you are focused on what errands you have to do later, you are effectively not with your friend at all.
Every day for the last three weeks I’ve sat down at the end of the day and taken the time to ask myself where my attention as gone throughout the day. It’s impressive how much of it goes into planning and analyzing and how little of it goes into observing my surroundings and feelings — and that is understandable given my lifestyle. I move around and travel frequently and I’m constantly meeting people looking for opportunities and starting new freelance projects. Such a lifestyle requires a lot of planning. Even just going about a normal daily routine takes a lot of thought cycles: wake up, get a shower, eat breakfast, make coffee, get dressed, get on the subway, subway is down — find alternate route, take elevator to work — need visitor pass first because I don’t have a badge yet, work work work, need lunch, go downstairs, find food… etc.
As I become more aware of how my mind is consumed by logistics, I realize that this takes away from time I could be paying attention to how I feel, appreciating my surroundings, and thinking about higher-level things like solving the world’s problems or learning new things. How many new languages could I learn if I never had to spend another minute thinking about what I’m going to eat, wear, or what I’m going to do next weekend?
A lot of highly successful people are very aware of this fact: Obama only has two suites so that he never has to decide what to wear. Steve Jobs wore the same thing every day to eliminate decisions and maintain a personal brand. Busy people that can afford it recognize the value of a personal assistant so they can focus more on doing their jobs and less about how to get around and keep up with their schedules.
Through this new perspective, I’m beginning to aggressively reduce complexity and decision-making from my life. I’m just getting started but I’m already beginning to feel less stress. My main strategy so far has been to build my life on rules. I eat the same thing for breakfast every single day — a bowl of high-fat, low-sugar yogurt with blueberries and honey (total cost: $3). I drink a single cup of coffee with half-and-half (total cost: $0.50). I wear the same outfit: jeans, whatever t-shirt is next in the pile on the shelf, and my gray sweatshirt. If it’s cold then I wear my button-down jacket. I carry an umbrella and sunglasses everywhere I go so I never have to think about whether it’s going to rain. As a general rule I buy the exact same ingredients from the grocery store every time and make one of three favorite meals. I just moved to Brooklyn so I’m still honing down my exercise routine, but it will probably involve Ving Tsun on Tuesdays, climbing on Thursdays, and running at the gym on other days. Hopefully walking as my primary means of transportation will also add enough exercise so that the amount of intentional exercise I have to think about is minimal. Sundays are reserved for writing and catching up with friends and family. I try not to make plans for Sundays.
When it comes to making decisions, I’ve made a rule to go with my gut instinct. No more worrying about thinking everything through or overthinking things. If it’s a complex or lifechanging decision like a career move then I make a series of gut-instinct observations over the course of a few days or weeks to gauge if I feel the same way in different moods and after having more time to process it. If it’s something truly complex then I set time aside to think about it intentionally.
When it comes to money, I’ve become more willing to spend money to avoid stress — but I have more to spend now too because my rules make it easy to be frugal. I don’t have to expend energy trying to resist expensive meals and drinks because I just stick to my routines. When I encounter a situation that is potentially stressful, I am willing to pay a little extra if it means not losing a lot of my time and attention worrying about it. While normally as a rule I don’t spend money on cabs, I was willing to pay the extra cash to catch one getting to my apartment with my snowboard bag from the airport last Tuesday because I realized the hour and a half and two subway switches it would take wasn’t worth it. I could better spend the time researching grocery stores and gyms in my new neighborhood.
It’s exciting to have so much more mental space with this mindset. Life is just simpler this way. But I also make a point to think of these rules as defaults, not as laws. They are meant to be broken. There are plenty of situations that call for going against routine. There are plenty of days where I wake up and just don’t feel like eating the same thing I always eat — and those days I happily eat whatever I feel like.
If you are interested in making the shift and thinking about life this way, check out The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz — though a bit repetitive, he goes into a lot of detail about decision fatigue and how having more options actually creates less freedom.