Get rid of what doesn’t matter so you can focus on what does
Weall have a list in our heads of things we want to do ‘at some point’: go to the gym, budget our finances, meal plan, so on and so forth. When I started reading Medium, I very eagerly hopped on the self-improvement bandwagon and tried to make the things on my mental list a reality. I made commitments to myself to get up at 6 AM every day, to take cold showers in the morning, to go to the gym every day, to write every day, so on and so forth. I committed to doing it all.
None of these commitments lasted more than a week.
My problem wasn’t laziness or lack of self-discipline. Psychologists are coming to believe laziness doesn’t even exist. My problem was my daily cognitive load. My working memory was like a room with too much furniture; there was nowhere to put a commitment like ‘go to the gym every day’ or ‘meal plan’, so these audacious commitments came to nothing.
What ended up actually turning my life around was not adding things that matter, but subtracting things that didn’t.
Before subtracting what didn’t matter in my life, I never did anything on the list in my head. After, though, I found I naturally started actually doing the things on my list. The best part? I started doing these things without any exertion of willpower on my part. I go to the gym three to five times a week now, but at no point did I say to myself “I am going to make a commitment to go to the gym.” Once I had more mental space, I just…. did.
This list, therefore, is a list about subtraction. It’s a list of ways to free up mental and emotional energy, so you can use it for what matters to you.
1. Declutter your space
I’ve always wanted to learn how to paint with watercolors. Watercolor paintings capture my imagination, and my ideal home has watercolor art hanging on every wall. But it’s really hard to get myself to pull out my watercolors and practice when there are discarded clothes all over my floor and my desk is covered in papers and books. It’s hard to find the willpower to do anything when a mountain of stuff stands in your way.
Most messiness is a direct result of having too much stuff. Everything you own is something you have to keep clean and put away. The more stuff you have to keep clean and put away, the harder it is to stay on top of cleaning. Getting rid of some of that stuff reduces the amount of cleaning you have to do forever. Decluttering is even backed by science: one study found people who work in cluttered environments were not as productive as those who worked in clean ones.
You don’t have to go all Marie Kondo on your entire home if you don’t have the will. Just do a little bit. For instance, we all have clothes we never quite want to wear — bag up those clothes and sell them to a resale shop. Or, go through all the papers in your house and decide which ones can be scanned and recycled (or just recycled). Any decluttering you do today is cleaning you never have to do again.
2. Spend less time on social media
I don’t feel the need to remake the case that we spend too much time on social media. As a society, we seem to be waking up to this on our own. But, spending less time on social media is easier said than done. Anyone who’s tried to spend less time on social media through sheer force of will knows how difficult it is.
The key to spending less time on social media is not a misguided force-of-will attempt, but changing the notifications you get about social media so you are triggered to get online less often.
Get on your social media apps and disable global notifications for the following types of interactions:
- People liking your posts
- People liking or commenting on other people’s posts
- People posting to their own pages
Go ahead and disable any kind of notification that doesn’t involve someone speaking directly to you. You don’t need it cluttering up your mental space.
Here is a full-length guide on how to spend less time on social media:
3. Disable most of your phone notifications
Your phone beeps. You stop and look at it. You realize it’s not that important. You set your phone down and get back to what you’re doing (or you start goofing off on your phone instead).
Multiply that by 150, because that’s how many notifications most people get every day.
Does that sound like it’s good for your mental health? Because it’s not. The micro-doses of stress caused by a phone that’s constantly getting your attention are the exact kind of stress which leads to increased cortisol, the hormone responsible for the statement “stress is bad for you.” Not to mention, every time you check your phone, you’re getting pulled away from whatever it is you’re trying to do.
Most of these notifications don’t even matter. They definitely don’t matter so much they deserve to interrupt you in the middle of your day. Check your phone when you want, not when your phone wants.
Pick up your phone — right now — open it, and look at your notifications. What notifications are there that you could go for the rest of your life without receiving ever again? Chances are, more than a few. Here are some common offenders:
- Notifications from mobile games
- Notifications about deals
- Notifications from apps about new features
- Notifications about the news or current events (this includes sports)
- Notifications from your YouTube, Netflix, or other subscription services.
Go ahead and disable them.
Here is a full-length guide on how to spend less time on your phone:
4. Give up commitments that don’t excite you
Do you have any weekly or monthly commitments you routinely dread? Give them up.
You feel good about your life when you spend your life doing things you want to do. Ultimately, if you don’t want to do something, it doesn’t matter how much you ‘should’ do it, because if you don’t want to go, the enterprise is pointless. For instance, it would be “good” for my career if I attended Project Management classes and got my PMP certification, but only if I wanted to be a project manager. If I dread going to my project management classes, it’s probably because I don’t really want to be a project manager.
If you have some kind of commitment in your life you routinely dread, your body is likely trying to communicate something you refuse to accept: that this is something you don’t want. You’re not going to find what you do want in life if you keep doing things you don’t.
5. Give up a minor vice
I used to eat a lot of potato chips. Like, a lot. I would park on the couch in my living room and eat an entire bag of potato chips while watching Supernatural reruns. Supernatural is one of my favorite shows, but I don’t need to eat an entire bag of potato chips while I watch it. I always regretted it, too; the potato chips made me feel kind of gross, which made me feel lazy, which led me to watch far more reruns than I originally intended.
There are a lot of bad habits like this that compound underlying issues. Consuming coffee late at night can keep you awake, which keeps you scrolling around Reddit in the middle of the night instead of getting restful sleep. An afternoon hit of cannabis makes you feel lethargic, which leads you to take a rest on the couch watching TV for a few hours. Potato chips, coffee, and cannabis are fine when used appropriately, but these are not appropriate uses.
Take a look at your life and see if you can identify any self-soothing behaviors you have that are working counter to your goals. Some common offenders include:
- Coffee after 5 PM (keeping you from sleeping)
- Alcohol or cannabis before 5 PM (keeping you from being productive)
- Sugary snacks (making you feel sick, keeping you from being productive)
- Watching YouTube at night (keeping you from sleeping)
- Partying too much (keeping you from relaxing)
- Playing video games into the night (keeping you from being productive and sleeping).
Once you’ve identified one, stop buying whatever it is. If it isn’t in the house and available to you, you’ll be forced to make do without it. After a few weeks without it, you’ll have forgotten why you wanted it so badly in the first place.
Making these changes won’t fix all your problems. No internet advice will do that. But if you feel stuck in life and you haven’t made these changes, doing so will give you some of the mental space and energy you need to get started.
“Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that really isn’t you, so you can be who were meant to be in the first place.”