April 2020: In China, we are beginning – cautiously but gratefully – to emerge from the shelter-in-place phase of the pandemic. For me and for many people still homebound, it is ironic that the free time we were unexpectedly gifted by the pandemic has not resulted in an outpouring of creative productivity. In the good old days – so recent yet so irretrievably far away – we would usually be away from our homes. Now, we were stuck at home with ample discretionary time. Confession Time: I did not use it well. Indeed, speaking only for myself, I found that my procrastination/rationalizations reached new heights. Others describe similar experiences. Many people have explored the psychological and emotional causes but the causes don’t really matter. Rather than feel frustrated or guilty about wasted time, it would be wiser to have a brief self-talk: “Just acknowledge that you were doing what you had chosen to do, for whatever reason. In the future, beginning immediately, you can choose differently”… and go from there.
As part of exploring this topic, I will republish an article from the archives which is both dated (old life) yet strangely appropriate for coping with the post-pandemic era (new life).
Henry David Thoreau is the author of the classic book Walden which contained his famous admonition to “simplify, simplify”. Henry David Thoreau, hereafter simplified, simplified to “Hank”, was so earnest in his search to identify the true fundamental necessities of life – and eliminate the fluff – that he voluntarily exiled himself to a solitary life in the forest for two years. Living quietly in a tiny cabin with none of our modern conveniences, he reflected on life in his journal.
(Yes, almost two centuries ago, Thoreau self-isolated himself.)
After many years of self-examination, especially of my faults and failures and incompletions, I conclude that my next book should be titled DAHIK: Don’t Ask How I Know. After reading dozens of time management, goal setting, and motivational books, and making use of many splendid digital tools, I find myself, once again, back at the original starting point of trying to get organized. It is so frustrating to work relentlessly yet see such meager results at the end of the week and month and year.
Perhaps part of the problem is that modern life, with its technological marvels, offers too many opportunities. It is clearly impossible to take advantage of all of them. There is a term in the internetspeak lexicon, FOMO, which means Fear Of Missing Out. We worry that, without constant vigilance and 24/7 availability, we might miss something – some vital tool, app, exercise, or technique – that would make us happier, healthier, and wealthier. And God help us if we don’t follow the latest influencer celebrity on the latest social media platform. In the daily flood of new input vying for our attention, there is much that is openly dross.
Additionally, I believe this prodigious input of opportunities, information, and tools has, with its sheer numbers, actually become the cause of a self-created impediment to personal productivity. We are constantly changing our goals, techniques, or tools as we become aware of new opportunities. The time devoted to struggling up new learning curves takes up a considerable amount of our daily resources, as does the continual evaluation of the latest of the latest-and-greatest offerings. Frequently changing our goals to move in new directions means a constant restarting from a new zero point.
I visualize an eager prospector in the era of America’s California Gold Rush, dashing from one place to another as new strikes in different locations become known. Instead of staying in one spot and thoroughly exploring all the possibilities there, he is forever moving to another place. (Adding to the folly, while he is in the process of traveling to a new spot, he is moving, not prospecting.) As Hemingway said, never confuse motion with activity. Ultimately, this poor prospector finds that his endless relocating to new sites is very inefficient and very confusing. Even more frustrating is the realization that, despite all the good intentions and efforts, nothing meaningful was produced.
So, what’s wrong with me?
Using this perspective, I have self-analyzed my problem as being too vulnerable to the newest appeal, too eager to rush after the latest shiny object dangled in front of me. I am too prone to changing course when I become aware of new opportunities. Yes, there may occasionally arise some new and wonderful opportunity that truly is unique, time-sensitive, and offers rewards that are an order of magnitude superior to my current choice. There may be some. But those quantum leap-opportunities are rare indeed. Mostly, we can do just fine if we simply choose one gold mine… and fully develop it.
That, then, is my new and enlightened vision. I have resolved to stop being tantalized by the newest attractions. I will simply not open those alluring messages, explore the latest digital device, and attempt to pursue several goals simultaneously. One gold mine should be enough. Sometimes, that means something as simple as wearing a wide-brimmed tennis visor while typing (especially at the library or coffee house) to minimize distractions. It may mean withdrawing to a distraction-free, internet-free environment. (Can you say “self-isolation”?) This is like that old metaphor of burying your head in the sand but in a positive sense.
Amazingly enough, my epiphany is not new. There are numerous snippets of wisdom available from the past. Let me offer just three.
1) Put all your eggs in one basket… then watch that basket closely. (Andrew Carnegie)
2) A seven-word formula for success: Plan your work, then work your plan. But, implicit in this simple statement is the presumption that you don’t constantly change the plan.
3) For a truly inspirational parable, I refer you to the famous story about “Acres of Diamonds” by Dr. Russell Conwell. Look it up and contemplate his lesson about fully using the resources we already have.
Could this be what Hank Thoreau was thinking about when he wrote, “Simplify, simplify”? (He was self-isolating before it was fashionable. Thanks to that, we have his classic book Walden.)
So, I hope this proposal to activate your filters, put on your blinkers, and become less distractible may resonate with some readers. Like me, you can now breathe a sigh of relief as you stop searching for something newer-and-improveder over last week’s new-and-improved… and resolve to stay with one plan, one gold mine. Let us join with Hank and … simplify, simplify.