The Dueling Forces of Focus and Curiosity: Following Up on a Minimalism Experiment

A couple weeks ago I wrote an article about a minimalism experiment I was undertaking. My minimalism practice was already well developed so this experiment wasn’t about shifting from some kind of normal state into some slight decluttering, but about taking my pre-existing minimalist tendencies to a whole new level.

I won’t go over the parameters of the challenge in excruciating detail here (you’re welcome to read the original article if you want the gory details) but the basic gist was that I would basically remove every source of novelty or information in my life for a set period of time and notice the effect it had in my mind.

The impetus for the experiment was my own low-level frustration in not doing the things I knew I should be doing (writing regularly, meditating, and working out, mostly). Particularly when it comes to writing, I knew that I was not giving myself enough quiet time to work through or develop ideas truly worth writing about. I’ve had experience with the kinds of insights I can tap into when I systematically remove some of the noise in my life and I wanted to try to make that space for meaningful ideas and writing again.

Now, several weeks after my minimalism proclamation I feel like I owe people an update as to how everything has gone/is going.

First, my true extreme minimalism stage lasted an embarrassingly short period of time after publishing the original article. Within a couple days I found myself diving deeper into the world of third party apps across all my devices (iPhone, iPad, MacBook, and Apple TV) than I ever had before. Other aspects of the experiment stuck around for a bit longer. I didn’t listen to any podcasts for a couple weeks (although I have since caught up on the approximately 10 shows I’m subscribed to), my RSS reader remained empty for awhile (and now has about 8 sources in it), and only yesterday did I put my Withings wireless scale back in the bathroom.

Mentally, I noticed a couple of interesting things. First, and I’ve known this for months, maybe years, and have been wanting to write about it forever, but I seem to have two modes that I’ll call Expansive and Minimal. This whole experiment represents the desires of my Minimal mode. When the Minimal mode engages I look for ways to gain control over my environment and my mind. I declutter my already sparsely appointed apartment, I delete third party apps off all my devices and resolve to “run stock”, I look for ways to automate life tasks (hello Blue Apron, FreshDirect, and Cleanly) or I look to cancel every unnecessary subscription or service (goodbye Blue Apron, FreshDirect, Cleanly, Netflix, Apple Music, etc.). It’s hard to predict how it’s going to manifest and it’s very rarely rational to behold. The Minimal mode wakes from its slumber when I’m frustrated by the way I’m choosing to spend my time and generally feeling like I’m letting myself and the people around me down by not being better. I think it’s equal parts the desire to remove distraction and a way to punish myself for dropping the ball.

The Minimal mode’s antithesis is what I’ve been calling the Expansive mode. This is the equally enthralling state of mind where I break out of the confines of minimalism and decide to guzzle from the fire hose of information and entertainment and social interaction that our modern technology makes so easy to do. When the Expansive mode comes out to play I find myself following more people on Twitter, reinstalling Instagram, adding a bunch of stuff to my RSS reader and actively looking for new podcasts to check out. I’ll eschew the default apps that come with my devices and dive deep into finding the specific third party apps that allow the customization and features that let me use my devices like the semi-power user I am. I revel in novelty. I skip from distraction to distraction.

Since that original article I think I’ve gone through both of these mindsets at least once, maybe twice.

Somehow I feel like the Minimal mode is the “right” one for me to be in and that if I could only find a way to remain like the urban monk I become during those phases I would somehow do all the things I feel like I should be doing that I’m currently not. Of course, though, it’s not that simple.

I’m trying to find my healthy middle way. I think I found my preferred baseline standard operating procedure a long time ago (it’s very minimal but it is much more reasonable than when I’m under the influence of my full blown Minimal mode). Because, spoiler alert, making physical and mental space in my life to be productive and do great things isn’t the secret to actually doing those things. The removal of distraction and novelty is not sufficient in itself to bring new creative endeavors into the world. On a logical level, I know that. But when I’m deep in the throes of hating myself for being so goddamn mediocre it can feel so much easier and straightforward to find some shit in my apartment to throw away, delete some apps from my phone, wipe my Twitter followers, and sit in the quiet comfort that, “Now there’s nothing left to distract me. I have no choice but to write/workout/read/whatever I’m not doing but feel like I should.”

I do think there is value to occasionally wiping the slate clean and starting fresh. I do think challenging myself to do with less is better than becoming accustomed to more. I do think eliminating distractions and carving out time and attention to dedicate to difficult work is a worthwhile endeavor. What I don’t believe, though, is that this is only “right” way to live and any time I stray away from it I am giving into temptaton or taking the easy way out.

The past couple weeks have made me more interested in what it looks like to live a deliberate and conscious life full of meaningful work in the midst of the chaos of life in NYC in 2016 while working at a start-up and while being an insatiably curious person with wide interests. True mindfulness is being able to take the device with the hundreds of third party apps and know how to flip it over and silence it when it’s time to write and not need to go through the acrobatics of neutering its functionality and hiding it because that’s the only way I’ll leave it alone long enough to do anything worthwhile.

True dedication to my craft is being able to carve out the time I need to do the things I say I care about (like writing) not by making grand gestures of wiping my calendar clean or cancelling every social commitment but by taking seriously the snippets of time that are underutilized or unappreciated right now. Or, even better, knowing how to create the space and distraction-free environment I know I need to wrestle with big ideas and complex tasks without having to become some kind of proto-digital hermit in the process.

Anyway, I suspect ill keep swinging between my Expansive and Minimal mindsets in the future but I’m going to try to keep the really deep, dark dives into either end of the continuum a much less frequent thing. Instead, I’ll try to hang out in the middle a little bit more and will get better about identifying how and when I should step a little further toward Expansion or Minimalization. When I’m in between article ideas or sitting on the front end of a new and large project then maybe that’s the time to open my aperture a bit further and indulge in more of my Expansive tendencies to get the information and perspectives and ideas that I can use as raw material later on. Once that raw material is gathered, though, and it’s time to actually crank on some kind of product I can put on my metaphorical monk robes, put my phone in a drawer, stop trying to perfect my “information consumption strategy”, and get lost in the Minimalism that lets me focus long and hard on one thing.