I’ve always been drawn to a life of simplicity. As a child growing up in the 60s and 70s, I didn’t have much in the way of personal belongings. It wasn’t because we were poor, it just wasn’t my thing. I was very different from my siblings. I was the middle child, bookended by two rebels. My sister was the fiercely independent child while my brother just didn’t give a shit about anyone else. And there I was in the middle, learning from the two extremes on either side. As the Scottish folk/rock band Stealers Wheel put it in 1972…
Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am, Stuck in the middle with you.”
I was also the saver among my siblings. As a child I resisted squandering my allowance and the money I earned mowing yards on trinkets and cheap toys, choosing instead to save it and buy something of quality. In the absence of any parental teaching about money management, I learned to focus on something of value and do what was necessary to obtain it. There is little quality in clutter. As I grew and matured I wasn’t fond of knick-knacks, chotskis, and extraneous stuff in general. Over the years as I moved around the state of California educating myself and working, it was not uncommon for me to discard entire rooms of stuff in order move less stuff. It became a habit. In fact, I’ve made it a habit to downsize with increasing frequency even though I don’t move very often. Today I live in a 192 square-foot room and ride a motorcycle for transportation. I have everything I need. With my children grown and raising their own families, a life of simplicity and less stuff is my normal operating mode. However, even as a minimalist I still encounter periodic interference in my ability to focus. Usually it’s because of mental clutter. Keeping my mind clear of needless thoughts is a skill I diligently practice. It’s not only physical clutter that dulls my focus, but mental clutter as well. It’s why I meditate and practice mindfulness – both of these practices help my to keep mental distractions to a minimum.
The Age of Distraction
In Leo Babauta’s book Focus, he refers to our present age as the Age of Distraction and I agree. Accompanying all of our technology increases and advances are the many items associated with them. For example, when you buy a smartphone the box contains the phone, a charging cord, a wall unit, and earphones. That’s four items; three more than you bargained for. Our inboxes feel like a crowded elevator. We have too many unread PDFs residing on our computers. We are interrupted hundreds of times each day by notifications from email providers, social media outlets, and all the rest of our content sources that push information toward us. Yes, Leo had it right when he called this the Age of Distraction. From the packaging of goods to our online spaces, we are bombarded with messages and stuff that don’t ask for yet to which we make ourselves continually available.
Distraction blurs the lens of our focus. When we’re distracted our focus is dull instead of sharp and blurred instead of clear.
How I Experience More Focus
I’ve found living with less distraction and less stuff enhances my ability to focus. When I can focus clearly without obstruction, I get more done and get more clear on what it is that’s important in life. Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists wrote:
We must fix ourselves. We must create the disciplines necessary to be alive in this complex world. We must become aware of what’s going on around us so that ultimately we can be aware of what’s going on inside us. Only then will we be able to know what’s truly important. Click here to read the full post.
Living with less is my key to better focus and greater productivity. My professional life is multi-faceted but centered around writing: I write this blog, a second blog, write and publish non-fiction books, and run a successful consulting business. Monitoring my environment is key. In order to keep myself focused, I monitor my physical environment by living with less stuff. I also monitor my mental environment by meditating and practicing mindfulness.
The Take-Home Messages
- The key to a sharp focus is clarity
- Clarity comes from less distraction
- Distraction arise from cluttered environments
- Cluttered environments prevent us from knowing what’s important
- Not knowing what’s important leaves us listless and unfocused
It isn’t rocket science. It’s what I’ve learned over nearly 58 years of experimenting and applying what I learned. If you want to gain a sharper focus, I’d encourage you to begin looking at your environments, both physical and mental and, if needed, get busy decluttering. I recommend this post on The Minimalists’ site to get started.