Ryan Nicodemus was climbing the corporate ladder.
He had new clothes, nice shoes, a fancy apartment and money to burn. He was also unhappy.
When his friend Joshua Fields Millburn (they now run the popular Minimalists website) introduced him to people who had deliberately stepped away from a busy life full of lots of possessions in order to lead a simpler, happier lifestyle, Ryan decided to experiment.
In one long night he packed up all his possessions into boxes: “After nine hours and a couple pizza deliveries, everything was packed. There we were, sitting in my second living room, feeling exhausted, staring at boxes stacked halfway to my twelve-foot ceiling. My condo was empty and everything smelled like cardboard.”
His plan was to demand test everything he owned: if he needed it then it came out of the box. If he didn’t need it – gone.
“I spent the next twenty-one days unpacking only the items I needed. My toothbrush. My bed and bedsheets. Clothes for work. The furniture I actually used. Kitchenware. A tool set. Just the things that added value to my life.”
As you might guess, most of his possessions were unnecessary.
“After three weeks, 80% of my stuff was still in those boxes. Just sitting there. I looked at those boxes and couldn’t even remember what was in most of them. All those things that were supposed to make me happy weren’t doing their job.”
All the remaining boxes and their contents were given to charities.
While Ryan’s experiment might seem wildly extreme, I am interested in what’s possible – even necessary – to live a great life, undistracted by the meaningless minutia we all tend to attract.
I’m especially interested as the Age of Distraction we all seem to be in becomes increasingly “normal”.
The Age of Distraction
We live in a world that involves many, many more moving parts than any generation before us had to deal with.
We live in a world that involves many, many more moving parts than any generation before us had to deal with, and we simply have more stuff and more stuff to think about.
The stuff we’ve accumulated over the years, the crap littering your desk and everything we look at online is conspiring to keep us distracted and busy (Stanford has an entire department training future employees of Instagram, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and the like, in the art of manipulating our attention).
Just like mastering the squat toilet in a third world country, in the Age of Distraction, you also need to master new skills.
It’s helpful to first understand why you are so damn distracted.
Why you so damn distracted
Think of your brain as a sentry on speed. It’s job – all 3 pounds of it – is to keep you safe—anything that appears to need attention gets it. Now.
Spot a sticky note with a phone number – for a moment you’ll think about it. It might only be for a second, but for that second all of your attention is on that phone number. Remembering why you wrote the note, considering the person the note is about, and thinking about making the call you intended two weeks ago to make but still haven’t – and why is that?
All day long you battle with your brain-sentry: sticky notes, alerts on your dumbphone, a journal you haven’t updated in weeks (see journal: feel guilty), a new email alert, calendar reminders that traffic is slow and it will take and extra 20 minutes to drive to your next meeting across town, to a frayed computer power cord that needs replacing but you heard from a friend they are really expensive, and you should really look them up on Amazon before ordering from Apple, to that conference invitation that came in the mail two weeks ago and has now gone up in price but you don’t want to go anyways, to that note to buy the book that seemed like a good idea when you heard it being recommended on a podcast by some author who’s name you’ve now forgotten.
And that was just the first 10 minutes of your day.
The problem with letting distractions take the steering wheel of your brain is that – at least temporarily – all that unfinished business occupies a room in your brain (often referred to as the Zeigarnik effect) and, secondly, you can’t get real work done—the value work that moves your business/charity/family/life forward is stalled, parked on the side of the highway, waiting for direction.
It’s no wonder that professor of informatics and expert on the science of attention fragmentation Gloria Mark says that even short interruptions from a task are “very detrimental.”
Face it, you’re a pinball pushed around by the unfinished work that’s quietly piling up in your world.ff
Even while reading this post you’ve probably been distracted by open tabs on your screen, or what’s on your desk or other people in the room.
The solution is two-fold: 1) follow Ryan’s lead and start collecting a lot of boxes and 2) master the art of completion.
Enter the Art of Completion
Everything you do has a start and end to it—open/close, beginning/completion.
Everything you do has a start and end to it—open/close, beginning/completion. Open an email – reply to email. Open an envelope (remember how we used to wait for the mail?) – file the bank statement. Get off the phone with a client – add whatever you committed to into your Flight Plan.
That’s the binary, nice-and-clean-thank-you-very-much approach to complexity. I spot something that needs doing, I do it – I move on. In the Art of Completion, you need to constantly address tasks, complete them and then move on.
In theory, everything you need to work on or make a decision about should be that way: start/finish…move on.
What gets in the way is indecision.
That’s why I’m going to teach you how to force a decision. There’s no unfinished business because you won’t allow it.
Force a decision to avoid distraction
This doesn’t have to mean you have to always complete the task – but you do need to make a decision to move it forward and erase the mental To-Do list. Research by willpower expert Roy Baumeister and E.J. Masicampo discovered that by “committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits.”
Here are 4 pretty common examples of what adding completion to your day can look like:
You know you need help—you’re swamped. But the whole process and hassle of hiring feels both exhausting and overwhelming. Your goal is to always move to completion, so you need a short-term completion target, like: make a list of the skills and experience the perfect candidate would need. Total time 30 minutes.
Upgrading, or designing from scratch, a new site – whether using a contractor or going DIY – is a big deal and can easily consume 2-3 months of your time. Your goal is to always move to completion, so a short-term completion goal could be: block 1 hour to bookmark sites you like and to make a list of all the attributes of those sites you want in your own site. Total time 1 hour.
You’re tired of making fitness goals and then quitting before you get started. In the spirit of completion, you make a new goal (that might feel uncomfortably tiny) to walk 10 minutes before work and 10 minutes after work. The morning walk is at your normal pace, in the afternoon you pick up the pace and get your heart moving. Weekends are 20-minute walks (10 regular pace, 10 faster) and you add whatever else you are doing fitness-wise on top. Total time/day 20 minutes.
If you need a design done and will have to find and hire a new graphic designer to do it. You don’t have time for all that, but you could move part of the project to completion with a milestone like to go on upwork, post the job and invite freelancers to apply (I like to filter for my country to quickly narrow down the field). Total time 20 minutes.
You haven’t completed any of these tasks, but you’ve moved them all ahead. And the best part is they’re not burning up cerebral bandwidth. Feel confident that you overcame the urge to procrastination—you moved the project forward and now you have the freedom (guilt-free) to apply your full energy and attention to what matters.
Want more advice on getting stuff done and leading a great life?