Life at Reed: Keeping it Simple

“I have too much to do. I just feel overwhelmed! What should I do?” When we ask for advice, we tend to ask for positive advice, not negative advice. What’s the difference? Positive advice tells you to do something; negative advice tells you not to do something. In the gym, people always ask what they should add to their workout. We want to make more money, instead of spending less. We want to know what healthy foods to add to our diet, not which bad foods we should subtract. We don’t want to disappoint anyone, so we agree to hang out with everyone, instead of focusing on a few friendships. We don’t want to be missing out on anything.

Maybe the internet has done this to our brains; it seems really difficult to focus these days. Of course we feel distracted; of course we feel inadequate—it’s the nature of a society focused on always doing or having more, on maintaining constant progress. It is the nature of living in a globalized world, saturated in information, that we compare ourselves to more people than we ever could have before. The solution?

Keeping it simple. Let’s return to the quote we began with: “I have too much to do. I just feel overwhelmed! What should I do?” You should stop doing some things. I know how you will respond. “But I can’t! I agreed to do this and to do that, and I have to take this many classes.” You don’t have to do anything. You chose to do those things. So you want to do them. If you don’t want to do them, then why are you doing them? So you are stuck being busy. Maybe. Let’s take a look at some things you might subtract from your life.

  1. How much time do you spend aimlessly wandering the internet? Responding to emails? Scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed? Do these things make you feel better, or do they fill your mind with clutter? Write a note on your computer that you cannot miss, or use an app like SelfControl that keeps you from accessing these sites while working on homework or hanging out with friends.
  2. Why is that you have trouble focusing? You have given yourself too many tasks, perhaps too many in one day. Take a minute to walk around the canyon; pay attention to the forest, the trees, the sound of water; clear your mind. Then address your task and your task alone. Maybe you have five things due? Doing them all at once will not help you. Set aside a three hour block of time and work on one thing and one thing only—no email, no Facebook, no socializing, no other homework, no music or distractions. If you have done as much as you can, there is no reason to beat yourself up for not finishing or for not producing quality work.
  3. Are you wondering what you should do for your workouts? Keep it simple. If you are a beginner lifting weights, then the squat, deadlift, and bench press will suffice. three sets of five, three days a week. Maybe you just want to exercise in general—go for a nice long walk or run a few laps around the track.
  4. Are you having trouble maintaining good relationships with people? Relationships take time to grow, and it takes time to make friends. Focus on spending quality time with those around you and your relationships will blossom. Maybe there are too many people around you? Say “no” more often. You are not helping anyone when you string yourself out so much that you can’t do well in any one task.

One of the best pieces of writing advice a professor gave me was to “narrow my focus.” I was to “pick a small thesis” so that I could master the idea. The same advice applies to our lives. How can you expect to be good at anything if you are always doing fifteen things and trying a new one each week? Master being focused. When you write down your goals, write down one or two big, main goals. When you think about what you want to accomplish tomorrow, think about one big thing that you want to do. The other things will be waiting for you when you finish, so don’t worry about them now. If you do this, you will be productive, not busy. Productive people simplify their lives and narrow their focus. What will you subtract from your life this week? I challenge you, right now, to write down how you will simplify your life and narrow your focus. For today, try writing down one thing you will do to be happy and one thing you will do to move forward. Note how you feel having only done these two things.