The last few weeks I have been wasting time with thing that are not meaningful. My time and attention have been eaten away by things that don’t add value to my life and leave me feeling slightly guilty.
This morning I recognized, when I took advantage of an extra 30 minutes in my schedule, of how important it is to keep valuable things in our lives by cutting out the wasteful things. The easy path through life is filled with distracting, quick, and ultimately meaningless parts and pieces. We stay up too late watching pointless tv. We oversleep and eat low nutrition and thoughtless breakfast foods. We purchase large houses and put up with long and wasteful commutes. We make decisions all along the way that we don’t realize sacrifice our time, attention, and ability to meaningfully contribute to the world.
These observations on how society pushes our lives lead me to reflect on our daily decisions. I believe we all need to think critically about what are the most important factors in our lives. From there, we can begin to consider the large overarching decisions that we make to shape our lives. Once those decisions have aligned with our core values, we can start to think about the million small decisions that we make each day. This will bring our lives into alignment with our core values and help us cut out things that do not bring us value. It will help us think about what is meaningful and what decisions will help us build a meaningful, thoughtful, and fulfilling life. Without this approach we won’t be able to think about how we live and our life choices, and we will fill ourselves with meaningless distractions and wastes of time.
Looking back at quotes I have written about
, a quote from Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be
seems particularly fitting with these thoughts. He writes, “Pursuing what’s meaningful is important, but just as important is understanding why we’re pursuing what we’re pursuing and how we’re undertaking that pursuit. Pay attention to the why behind your actions, and the how and what become a lot easier to define and control.”
Understanding that why helps us see what we need to do to get to a place where we can have a valuable impact on the world. Each of the daily actions that we can take become more clear when we understand our motivations and what we truly want to work toward. Thinking deeply about purpose and meaning gives us a sense of how to make the most out of the short time we have on this planet.
I listen to a lot of podcasts. When I am driving, cooking, cleaning, doing yard work, and any time I have a task to do around the house I like to have a podcast going. I love listening to interesting conversations, discussions about new scientific ideas, and stories about things I never thought of. Podcasts are great, but something I recognize is that I tend to fill all of my time with some sort of medium produced by another person.
My wife and I often watch movies at the end of the day, I put on a podcast when I do dishes so that I don’t have to stand at the sink in silence, I read when I eat or take a lunch break, when I am in line at the grocery store I instinctively pull out my phone to scroll through something. In all of these situations, I could engage with whats in front of me or let my mind wander, but instead, I normally choose to put something in my mind. Cal Newport calls this an inability to deal with isolation. Colin Wright calls it a compulsive reflex and in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be writes, “But saturating these channels [social media] just for the sake of not having to deal with silence, of having to think our own thoughts and listen to our own internal monologue for a while, is part of the problem.”
I’m not great at dealing with silence and I am in some ways afraid of it. I grew up with a Gameboy and never had to live a moment without some type of entertainment. Whether it was driving around, going to the bathroom, or hanging out with Grandma, I always had a Gameboy to keep me entertained. Today, I am working on concentrating at work and focusing at the boring non-stimulating office environment. I am working on thinking more deeply about specific subjects and building my awareness of the world and stories I tell myself about the world. These are skills I need to develop that are quite atrophied because I grew up distracted and still feel and urge to flood myself with information and distraction through my phone and through media created by other people at all times.
It is important that we learn to step back and put devices, podcasts, TV, music, and Facetime in a planned time and space. It is important that we be able to live with ourselves in isolation, so that we can understand and recognize the thoughts we think and how we interpret and understand the world. If we don’t, we won’t be able to build deep focus, we will have trouble truly connecting with others, and life will rush past us in autopilot.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness helped me think about the value of the present moment and the value of engaging in the present moment. Returning to his book to write about the sections I highlighted when I read it almost a year ago is bringing my attention back to the present moment and helping me reflect on why it is so important in our lives to ground ourselves in the here and now. I often find my mind wandering onto other things, often on things that I don’t want to think about or know that I should not think about, when I have the opportunity to do something productive. The result is that the actual thing that I am doing is lost in a haze as I move about on autopilot barely aware of my surroundings and sensations, and the time I had that could have been productive is squandered as I accomplish next to nothing in a distracted fog.
Sometimes I try to think about my life if I had lost one of my senses. How would I live if I could not see or hear? What would I miss the most about losing one of those major senses? How would the world become less contextual and interesting? These types of questions help me understand why it is so valuable to live in the present and fully examine our surroundings using the senses we have. One day I know that my experiences and sensations of the world will cease, so I should take full advantage of the time I have to sense the world and live in the world.
Throughout his book, Hanh encourages the reader to bring mindfulness to each action, and to try our best to avoid thinking beyond or outside of the thing that we are doing in the moment. “You’ve got to practice meditation when you walk, stand, lie down, sit, and work, while washing your hands, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, drinking tea, talking to friends, or whatever you are doing.” Each of these things are areas where we can be engaged with something while our mind is completely focused on something else, which I explained frequently happens to me. The banal activities that Hanh suggests we bring mindfulness to are activities where our senses can be alive, and they are areas where we can train our mind to concentrate, rather than allowing our minds to be distracted and to flutter about aimlessly. It is a time where we can truly use our senses and value our ability to experience the world.
Returning to this segment a year after reading the book reminds me that there are a lot of aspects of even tedious and boring activities that are rather fascinating. The feel of soap on a smooth metal pan, the textured feeling of plastic on the handle of a pot, and the warm feeling of water while washing dishes are things we would never notice if we watched tv, or thought about what we would rather be doing while washing dishes. But by being mindful, we can fully experience these different sensations and recognize that it is incredible just how sensitive our hands and brains are. Being present helps us appreciate the tiniest details of the moment, because it reminds us that we are alive and we are actors in the world who have the unique privilege of being the only one experiencing our particular sensations at any given moment. What mindfulness in every moment does for me is remind me to be grateful for my life and reminds me to soak up the world around me. Living with our mind in the past or with our mind on future possibilities robs us of actually experiencing the present moment. Our mind is oblivious to the multitude of sensations that we could focus on if we brought mindfulness to the present moment.
In my last post, I described the ways in which much of our life happens on auto-pilot in habitual decisions and actions that often don’t register with our conscious mind. Not everything we do needs to be a conscious action (think about how tired your brain would become if you had to focus on every step you took and how annoyed you would be if you had to think about every blink), but becoming more aware of our unconscious decisions is incredibly valuable for making changes in life. Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the ways we can actually change our habits in his book The Coaching Habit and he identifies five specific components to changing behavior. He writes, “To build an effective new habit, you need five essential components: a reason, a trigger, a micro-habit, effective practice, and a plan.”
If we think about our habitual actions that we barely notice, we can see that we will never actually change those habits if we don’t first build self-awareness around our actions and behaviors. It is not enough to just think to ourselves that we want to write more, exercise more, or have a more tidy home. We have to actually recognize what habits are shaping the end state that we want to change. We have to have awareness of a problem, issue, or what could be different, and then we have to dive deeper to understand what it is that causes to the thing we want to change. It all begins and is shaped by a self-awareness that is like pancake batter poured in a single spot. You focus on one thing but your awareness and recognition slowly spreads outward around that one thing.
Changing a habitual action requires a reason to change. You may recognize that your house is messy and that it stresses you out. From there you have to recognize something that leads you into the original habit that you want to change. Do you automatically roll out of bed and grab your phone as a flashlight and then find yourself checking emails or Facebook for 30 minutes instead of making your coffee? What can you do to prevent yourself from grabbing your phone? For me, purchasing a flashlight allows me to leave my phone in another room, helping me keep away from habitual morning distraction. This solution is somewhere between a micro-habit and an environmental modification to try to replace the trigger (my phone) that lads to the habit I want to avoid (wasting time online). An important step toward change might be small and may not even seem related to your original habit, but can still shape your behavior in a powerful way. Thinking through these changes and building this awareness is what allows you to create a plan to actually make the changes you want to make.
This is a very quick and simplified version of changing a habit, but throughout, you can see the importance of self-awareness in making changes in your life. Habits stick because they go unnoticed. We don’t recognize what it is that drives our unconscious habitual decisions, so we end up with the same habits shaping our same behaviors and actions. We must be aware enough to recognize the change we want, what leads to the behaviors we want to avoid, and think through our actions to plan ahead.