Today I discuss order inside and out. Order in thoughts, experiences, and behaviors. Order in your inbox, on your desk, in your closet, on the kitchen top, but especially the order in your mind.

Watch

The film “Perfect Days,” awarded at Cannes in 2023, seems to me a masterful illustration of order for the sake of a meaningful life. Although on the surface, the film and the character exude austerity, on a deeper level, there is a rich sensory and emotional tapestry. True richness comes when we let go of everything that is not absolutely essential. Important things are rather subtle and delicate and require space to be noticed and enjoyed, much like in a sanctuary. When we reach the important things, we reach beauty and meaning, and life is good. But we need to build the physical and mental sanctuary for that.

Read

“The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen R. Covey

“Getting Things Done,” David Allen

“Indistractable: How To Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life,” Nir Eyal

Dive deeper

Order is not an end in itself; it’s not good for its own sake. Order is good because it brings us peace, mental and physical space to relax, to do what matters: enjoy important relationships, pursue our passions, create, be present and content. So, I invite you to take a look at your own mess and see what you can tidy up (but not swipe under the rug).

Recap

So far, I’ve given you three tools for today’s exploration:

  1. A growth mindset: choose to develop it in yourself and those around you.
  2. Maintain a consistent level of stress in your life as a growth tool; it helps you stay adaptable to whatever life brings. Never get too comfortable. Learn, explore, exercise, live in nature, systematically give up comfort.
  3. Increase your level of self-control and get used to doing what needs to be done whether you feel like it or not. Without limits, we collapse, both literally and figuratively. We need to learn moderation. We set healthy limits for ourselves when we can do what we need to do and refrain from what doesn’t help us. That’s how we navigate from one goal to another.

Order or chaos: Are you creative or just stuck?

A study showed that at any given moment, we think of about approximately 150 things, and this mental list constantly evolves. The problem is that attention arbitrarily shifts from one item to another, regardless of what we’re doing. When we have a lot on our minds, it’s challenging to pay attention and stay focused. Furthermore, we have conflicting desires or goals.

Imagine your mental landscape as a crossroads in a busy Indian city, where everyone is going about their business, some on foot, others in tuk-tuks, on scooters, with luggage, children, animals, in an indescribable hustle and bustle, honking horns, people shouting, smoke and dust. Okay, maybe you’re luckier, and your mind is not exactly like India. Perhaps it’s more like Southern Italy. But it’s still a lot of noise and kind of chaotic. Your attention is constantly scattered, you’re overstimulated and tense. Functioning this way is exhausting.

Also in some cases for some reason or another (rarely inner peace, often avoidance, denial, and profound depression), you completely ignore everything around you. But that is a different scenario and I will not discuss it here, though you might notice it in people around you.

The problem with having so many thoughts at the same time, whether it’s 10 or 100, is that:

a) Sometimes, there are conflicting thoughts or goals, leading to action paralysis, regardless of whether we acknowledge what’s in our minds or not.

b) We don’t have a resolution plan for them, so they continue to haunt us until we do something about it (sometimes for years).

Imagine you have three priorities: your career, your relationship and somebody in your care (a child, a pet, a sibling, a parent etc.). Imagine a day when you have to put in extra work, then you come depleted to your partner and the person in your care might also need you just at the same time. Now multiply that with years.

Another study showed three significant consequences when dealing with conflicting goals:

  1. We experience worry, rumination, and repetitive thoughts that are largely unintentional and unpleasant.
  2. We act less because we replace physical action with mental worry (we play all these scenarios in our mind and our brain thinks we’re actually doing stuff).
  3. Health suffers, both physically and mentally.

Multitasking: The summit of inefficiency

Distributed attention is not the same as the scourge of doing multiple things at once. Yes, we can allocate our attention to various stimuli, have a primary focus with peripheral attention, be aware of our work while noticing the smell of something burning or if our leg is stiff, or hear the phone ring. But that’s not the same as paying attention in a meeting while playing on the computer/phone, with the TV/a podcast/music in the background. This is more likely hyper stimulation bordering on a manic episode and unfortunately it’s becoming more and more common.

People are exhausted and overstimulated and they confuse this scattered attention and action with efficiency. It’s not. And they endure with an empty tank, using physical resources that will give in sooner than necessary. Not to mention that the results are dismal under such conditions, both professionally and personally. In the best case, you’re superficial; if not, you’re outright ignorant, confusing others (unless they’re in the same situation as you, which is entirely plausible).

Performance and efficiency require concentration on a single goal for extended periods of time. If you want to succeed at something, focus on one thing. Examples of sports performance are perhaps the most obvious, as are those of musicians, because the goal isolation is very clear. But the principle is the same in any field: if you want to solve this particular problem, put everything else on hold or on a lower priority and work on it until it’s resolved. Maybe you want to get a driver’s license, take a trip around the world, change careers, raise a child, etc. Adjust your priority list, and the results will be directly proportional to your level of concentration and dedication.

What works

There are countless resources on productivity and efficiency. I’ve recommended some above, and I encourage you to use them. Here, I’ll give you some general principles to have as a constant guide.

  1. Systematically look at everything in your mind. Get it out of your head and onto paper. You can’t work with a mental list of 25 items, let alone 150.
    • Divide the things you have to do into the 4Ds of David Allen: to do, to delegate, to discard, and to defer.
    • Review the list monthly or every two weeks.
    • If you have something to work on and can’t concentrate, stop and jot down what comes to mind so you can address it later.
  2. Make a list of your long-term and short-term goals. Some will be clearer than others. That’s okay. You need both specificity and flexibility.
    • Create a plan for your goals.
    • Choose one to start with.
  3. Work consistently from both directions: from general to particular and from particular to general. Refine the long-term vision and become increasingly skilled at solving problems efficiently here and now. You need to control both the direction and the speed. And both are within your power.

Conclusion

We can live randomly, or we can live with intention. Self-discipline and order are skills, a means to a goal that you choose. Perhaps you want more time for yourself, maybe you want to wake up without thinking of a huge to do list, perhaps you want to invest your resources in a plan for a major change. If you want to have time and resources and deal with what matters to you, take control. Create order. Determine your priorities. Make a plan and take the bull by the horns. It will take time, effort, and taming of the ego/pride, but it is within your power.