Simplifying in an Age of Complexity ~ Part 2
I spent a lot of time in Part 1 talking about the state of the economy and the ways that we work. Some readers may have wondered – what’s this got to do with simplicity?
“Work” consumes more time for the average person (especially in the U.S.) than ever – the highest numbers, in fact, since statistics began to measure the average work day.
We’re caught up in 24/7 work cycles made possible by technology and in systems still measuring time rather than energy spent. The fierce intensity of time is driven by the demands of constantly outperforming last quarter’s revenues. And although automation and the internet have contributed to the economic expansion of the past twenty years, increased worker hours have played a major role.
We’ve accepted the idea that the gains of productivity and efficiency will largely benefit the corporate bottom line since real wages for workers have stagnated over the same period. At the same time, the cost of workplace stress in annual U.S. healthcare spending is now at 190 billion dollars.
Because the U.S., interestingly, does not keep much data on the correlation between workplace stress and healthcare costs, it’s hard to accurately determine the impact, but most people in today’s workplace feel the ever-escalating demands and pressures.
When Welsh social reformer Robert Owen came to America in the early 1800’s , he championed the idea of an eight-hour work day, heretical in the era of industrialization. Owen’s idea was based on a simple model – 8 hours of work, 8 hours of recreation and 8 hours of rest.
In 1914, the Ford Motor Company was the first to adopt this idea – with good economic results – and a century old norm was established. And although few salaried people today actually work eight hours, with few having equal recreation and rest time – we’re still hemmed into a routine that has no scientific facts to support its efficacy. In fact, data like the workplace stress figures show that the brunt of the toll of worker “productivity” is falling on employees and the healthcare system.
While you may not be in a position to change workplace demands, you can choose to respond to them differently. There’s nothing smart about working the way we do. There’s abundant science that supports that worker exhaustion is harmful and counterproductive. Most companies choose to ignore this information or simply do not know how to retool their systems. Despite years of data on employee disengagement, the fear of economic disruption keeps them mired in the past.
The choices you make, however small they may seem, are a form of reclaiming your time and energy in relation to one of the most demanding parts of life –work.
”Should I Kill Myself or Have a Cup of Coffee?”
Existential philosopher Albert Camu’s acerbic but apt quote was used by author Barry Schwartz in his classic 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less – to drive home the point – we have choices.
Every day we make hundreds of choices and often those choices are routinized, unexamined decisions that become our lives. According to Schwartz, “Every second of every day we are choosing and there are always alternatives. Existence, at least human existence, is defined by the choices people make.”
If anything is at the heart of simplicity, it’s choice.
Essentially, emphasizes Schwartz, making a decision begins with the question – What do I want? But knowing what we want means being able to anticipate accurately how one choice or another will make us feel – and that he says, is no simple task.
To help us understand how we come to know more of what we really want, Schwartz draws on the work of Harvard psychologist Daniel Kahneman. His research showed that what we remember about pleasurable past experiences is mostly determined by how the experiences felt at their peak (best or worst) – and when they ended.
Based on the insights offered by both Schwartz and Kahneman, it’s clear that one major factor complicates and deludes our ability to make life-affirming choices – lack of self-knowledge.
That’s why it is easy to see how external pressures and a belief we have either too many choices – or not enough – can freeze us to inaction.
Making better choices requires us to get far more intimate with our internal dialogue. The problem with internal dialogue is it’s either generating too much noise or is dominated by rationalization. In any case, we have to be listening carefully and tuning into the constant connection between what we think and how we feel to discern what is really important.
Learning to turn off the unhelpful noise is part of the equation. Inviting in more quiet time and creating internal space is essential. We can’t do this if we’re constantly moving at breakneck pace. Since we live in a consumptive culture which measures productivity with speed, this becomes nearly impossible unless we learn to slow down the pace of our lives. This includes how we think and manage our emotions.
So learning to protect our mental and emotional space becomes a crucial skill in the art of simplifying our lives. Understanding what brings us alive and what negatively triggers our energies is the key.
Learning to detect what is most meaningful to us becomes the gold standard of living more simply. As we begin to more closely connect the actions we take with their intrinsic value, what is superfluous in our lives becomes clearer.
This is particularly true with the material objects in our lives; although simplifying our lives is not just about things. It’s also true with goals we’ve long held as essential for our identity and behaviors that have become statements about our self-image. The more we simplify, the better able we are in separating the wheat from the chaff, selecting experiences that enrich rather than deplete us.
Harvard psychologist Matthew Killingsworth, who studies the nature of what makes us happy reminds us that nothing material is intrinsically valuable except in whatever happiness it promises. Killingsworth’s studies show that purchases that buy “experiences” are far more satisfying than material goods.
When we start making more conscious choices about the things we buy, how we work (and what we do) the people in our lives, the amount and quality of information we take in, the food we eat and how we eat it and the hours of screen-time (TV and online) that consume us – the more empowered we feel.
Simplifying raises our sense of self-worth in surprising ways.
First, it takes us off the endless grid of consumption. The more we simplify the less we compare ourselves to others and what they have. This often opens up a sense of unexpected freedom and self-reliance. In a culture with too many choices (especially material ones) simplifying helps us become clearer and more comfortable with making decisions – even the bigger ones.
Meaning makes itself felt more explicitly when we are fully exercising conscious decision-making. And many emotions, like envy, frustration and regret start becoming rarer as we find ourselves less reliant on emotional and material clutter.
Finally, there is one outstanding benefit that simplifying your life will increase – gratitude.
Lives cluttered by excessive thinking, activities and stuff, don’t leave much room for appreciating the ordinary. It’s only when we can step back and fully inhabit a moment in our existence filled with the presence of simply being that we understand the gift of life – always free and always available.
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Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants