Proliferation seems the great tendency of life. Not just that it tends to become more and more full – like the branchy tree outside our window that suddenly leapt into leafiness one day – but that each branch splits and multiplies.
This complexity often manifests itself as a shortage of time. Our commitments have multiplied, so we say we are so busy we don’t have time for things, and try to address the problem by being more efficient.
Lately, though, I’ve begun to wonder if the perception of overcrowdedness is often due to fractured attention, rather than shortage of time. I’ve noticed this because I can honestly say that my time, at this point in my life, doesn’t feel too over-burdened. I’m busy, but in the positive sense of being fully occupied, rather than of being frantic and rushed. However, I do sometimes still feel that my life is simply too crowded and distracting. It dawned on me one day (while I was washing dishes) that perhaps it isn’t because of busyness in the temporal sense, but of too many different claims on my attention, too many things in my peripheral vision at once.
Simplifying cluttered routines
As I’ve adjusted to a new life over the last few months, I’ve tweaked various things in my routines to make them easier. I noticed immediately that I felt better able to breathe, not because I had any more time to spare but just because something that felt onerous or ‘bitty’ just became simpler, less a big Thing.
One of these onerous routines was laundry. I started out doing it all on the weekend, which was actually very hard to achieve if we had any other plans, and the whole flat would be full of damp clothes for at least two days. I always felt like I needed a concerted strategy each weekend to make sure it got done. Fed up of it, I threw my schedule to the wind and just started doing a load of laundry here and there, whenever there were enough clothes or the previous load had dried. I did the same amount of laundry, but it shrank to nothing in my attention. I noticed a full basket, I put it in the washer, I hung it up to dry whenever it was convenient. While this doesn’t save me any time, it turned a weekend task – Laundry – into a non-task task which occupies very little of my notice.
The other routine has to do with skin care. I’ve always had bad skin, and if you venture into the world of cleansers, moisturisers, scrubs, toners…you can spend not endless time necessarily, but endless attention on the sequences of products that have to be used in order, usually twice a day. Recently I’m trialling a new method which involves an oil-based wash just once a day, with no moisturisers or anything else; it even removes waterproof mascara. It does require steaming your skin with a hot cloth, so it takes a couple of minutes to do, and thus doesn’t save any time. However, it’s just one thing, one bottle, once a day, and it’s funny how much more spacious my routine feels just because a bitsy task has been replaced with a single one. It isn’t faster, but it is simpler.
I have to say it…Facebook
While we were travelling at the beginning of April, I was out of my normal routines and so wasn’t online as much as usual. I checked my email quickly and periodically, but not much else. I couldn’t be bothered with Facebook, though in my normal routine I used to check it daily just to see any new photos or engagements or babies. Instead of withdrawal from checking the site (which some describe), what I felt was primarily relief, and a sense of spaciousness. Once we got back home, I no longer checked Facebook every day; just every few days at the most, or if someone sent me a message.
I’m not someone who ever sank a lot of time into Facebook. I didn’t find that absenting myself from the site suddenly gave me lots of time I didn’t have before. But it did give me mental breathing room. This is what I mean: Facebook was a complication in my life that didn’t suck away much time, but did fragment my attention and, dare I say it, my peace.
Too many choices
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that attention is as great a commodity as time. There’s a book by Barry Schwartz, which I admittedly have not read, called The Paradox of Choice; I know about it because I’ve seen it referenced in a couple of other books. Schwartz’s main argument is that having too many choices in life (between items to purchase or anything else) in fact reduces our ability to be happy with any choice. To me, this is another variety of the same problem of split attention, the problem of having too much complication producing a mental unrest.
I first heard this idea cited in a book called Mr Good Enough (the US publication is called Marry Him), where Lori Gottlieb argues that women can suffer from the too-many-choices problem in dating. I have to say I never suffered from this problem! However, I easily recognise the mindset she describes: the feeling of there being so many possibilities that you can never be sure you’ve chosen the best one.
I read Schwartz’s idea of the too-many-choices problem again in a book on anxiety. There, the problem of having too many options was linked to anxiety over decision-making.
The commodity of attention
In short, I’m realising that, as much as I need to be careful with the valuable resource of my time, I also need to be careful how I parcel out my attention. I definitely suffer from the too-many-choices anxiety in everything from buying clothes to ordering from a restaurant menu to choosing what to do with a Saturday afternoon. I also suffer from a tendency to let my routines get overly complicated, fixing problems by adding new things in rather than cutting back, and making my tasks more and more bitty by adding new steps.
So, while spring is often a season to declutter (at least in theory – I don’t know how much spring cleaning actually gets done!), I think it’s good to declutter our mental space once in a while too. That doesn’t necessarily mean saving time in some cases, but making things simpler to restore some mental rest.