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A simple, clearer, easier life

Why do our lives feel so overwhelming? Why do we procrastinate all the time? Anita Chaudhuri explores the latest psychological insights to find simple, practical tools for a more streamlined life. It’s easier than you think to give your world a shake-up this spring!

by Anita Chaudhuri

Organised

7 minute read

These wise words are being written from the tranquil oasis of my study. Books are shelved alphabetically and by subject, so I can easily locate any title I need. Bills, receipts and magazine clippings are meticulously filed in colour-coded order and hidden in a customised storage system. The surfaces are clean. Plants on the windowsill are blooming. Somewhere in the distance, there is the tinkling of wind chimes…

A cluttered life and brain

Actually, I lie. Before me are three abandoned mugs of tea and a leaning tower of books. The truth is: I live in a state of creative chaos. I also appear to be suffering from what the Wall Street Journal recently identified as ‘errand paralysis’ – failure to deal with life admin. A trip to the post office fills me with dread. Give me a piece of paper, and I guarantee I will mislay it in seconds. A case in point: my GP wrote me a prescription and, somewhere in the three-minute walk to the pharmacy, it flew out of my bag into thin air. It took two hours of explanation and hanging around to get another, so it wasn’t a trivial incident.

My realm of disorder doesn’t end with paper. I’m surrounded by half-finished projects – balls of wool for jumpers I’m never going to learn to knit, boxes of paint for imagined artwork – and you don’t want to go into my kitchen, with its wall of recipe books and three types of pomegranate molasses. I don’t want to throw out these things but, every time I go into a room, I’m confronted with another creative idea, or seed of an idea, and I forget what I am actually working on. It’s not good and I am getting nowhere.

Barbara Sher, the coach who coined the term ‘scanner’ to describe what’s now known as the multi-hyphenate personality, came up with the best description of clutter I’ve seen. ‘Clutter is like a modern sculpture you’ve assembled all around you, a monument that pays tribute to indecision.’ This is true, but what can I do about it? I tried decluttering but the problem is not that I have too much stuff, it’s that I’m fantastically disorganised.

Life feels like an uphill struggle. I can never keep track of my time or finances. On the phone to my bank, I am asked how much is in my account as a security measure. Me: ‘Um, no clue. How am I supposed to know?’ Bank: ‘You’re allowed a 10 per cent margin of error…’ Me: A sum plucked wildly out of thin air. Bank: ‘That’s incorrect. We’ll have to try another protocol.’ I tell myself I will sort out ‘all the money stuff’ and ‘all the house stuff’ later – ‘when I have more time’ – but, of course, I never get there.

Let's do a hack job

Exasperated, I turn to Anna Newton, author of An Edited Life (Quadrille, £16.99). Her philosophy is simple: everyone could use a life edit, not just the chronically disorganised. And by ‘edit’ she’s not talking about taking a bag of junk to the charity shop. ‘These days, our schedules are rammed,’ she says. ‘A life edit encourages you to create systems and routines so you save time and use it more wisely. The idea of editing everything, from your belongings to your budget, to your kitchen cupboards to your shopping list is that, ultimately, you will have more time to do what makes you happy.’

It's not rocket science

I decide to experiment with one of her ideas – meal planning – because I like the idea of being a 1970s housewife with a vast Tupperware collection. ‘The idea is that you cook in batches so you’re not cooking every night and you eat leftovers the following day. I got the idea from my mum.’ Newton also suggests putting your bread in the freezer and taking out what you need as you go. To be honest, all of this sounds a bit dreary. How is it going to change my life?

Telling myself I have to try it, I devise a list of meals and do a giant shop. In order to accommodate the groceries, I am forced to tidy my kitchen. On the Sunday, I make a big pot of stew, I pre-chop carrots and cucumber for workday snacks and, yes, I put my bread in the freezer. By Wednesday, I realise I’m in a much better mood. I don’t have to drag myself to the supermarket for bread and snacks, like I usually do every day. I’ve eaten fewer biscuits and there’s no decaying salad in the fridge!

Another of Newton’s ideas also resonates: edit your social life. ‘Most of us are people pleasers who don’t like saying no,’ she says. ‘So we end up agreeing to go to the party of a person we’ve only met twice, and we overthink it. “If I don’t go, they’ll be disappointed.” A lot of the time, they won’t. There are nice ways to negotiate by thinking before you respond. Use delaying tactics like, “How about the week after next?” rather than just agreeing.’ This proves to be a game changer. When I tell a friend I can’t meet on a weekday evening because I’m exhausted, she sounds elated: ‘So am I! Let’s do the week after.’

I start cancelling pretty much everything to stay home and chop veg. I seem to have gone from one extreme to another and now my diary is empty. Well, it would be, except I don’t actually have one. I started the year with a digital planner and two paper planners, but I never remember to use them. Yet again, I appear to be making life way too complicated. Not only that, although I have more time, I still don’t seem to be taking action on any of my more important goals, like home renovation or picking a project for my summer photography exhibition.

I seek help from Adela Schicker, co-author of the optimistically titled The End Of Procrastination (Murdoch Books, £12.89). ‘Why can’t I cope with life?’ I ask, and she laughs. ‘Why? Because we have so many options in front of us. In the past, we believed that the more choice we had, the happier we would be. Now that we have 40 brands of cereal to choose from, we can’t cope. Choosing between two is easy, but more than that and we’d rather not choose at all; it’s too hard. What that does, in general, is make us procrastinate more,’ she says. ‘Also, we become unhappy with the decisions we do make, which sets us up for a lack of motivation.’ This makes sense – up to a point. I’m sure I am not alone in having decided what I need to do, yet still falling prey to procrastination. ‘I don’t have decision paralysis – I have big goals,’ I announce proudly. ‘I’ve decided what they are. See… no paralysis! Yet, I still put off taking action. Why is that?’

I get the feeling I’m not the first person to raise this. ‘It’s always big things,’ she sighs. ‘We see ourselves, say, running a marathon… Or we give ourselves a long list of things to achieve… The problem with this is that you become a goal junkie. You achieve the thing you set out to do but then hedonic adaptation kicks in.’ Hedonic adaptation is the phenomenon whereby whatever happens to us, good or bad, we quickly get used to it, and go back to the same level of happiness we had before. ‘So you swiftly set yet another goal. And the problem with big goals is that they’re too big and we simply can’t face tackling them.’

Schicker advocates ‘kaizen’, a Japanese method and philosophy that focuses on continuous incremental improvement. So, if you want to run a marathon, you learn the habit of running by jogging around the block every morning, making it a natural part of your day. ‘You don’t need to set a reminder to brush your teeth every morning, do you?’ she asks. ‘Same idea. And, the more you act, the more it builds your willpower, and the less likely you are to give in to procrastination.’

Tiny change, big reward 

This is great advice for tackling the niggling, small stuff like finances and scheduling. Using the kaizen method, I download an app from my bank and get into the habit of checking my account every morning when I listen to the news. This one simple act revolutionises my spending habits. ‘Not another £25 to Amazon,’ I groan, and resolve to go to the library. But I can’t really see how kaizen is going to help with bigger goals. I don’t need to get into the habit of designing a new kitchen or staging an exhibition, I need to summon the will to do it once.

The heart of my desire

Schicker has strategies for this, too, as it happens. Apparently, it comes down to motivation, of which she has identified three types. ‘There is external motivation, which is basically the carrot-and-stick method of reward and punishment. Then there is internal motivation, which turns you into a goal junkie. Finally, there is a third way called ‘intrinsic journeybased motivation’. This type is based on the concept of having a personal vision. A personal vision answers the question: how would you most like to spend your time? It focuses on actions, not results; on the journey, not the destination.’

Rather than setting goals, which provide only shortterm gain, with this type of motivation, the emphasis is on setting milestones. As with any physical journey, a milestone is an indicator that you’re making progress and heading in the right direction. Ultimately, if you follow this motivational strategy, you’re more likely to spend more time in what’s known as ‘flow state’, a condition which research has shown to be vital for wellbeing.

I try it out with fairly low expectations. For me, extrinsic motivation, like a reward or fear of disapproval, has been quite effective in the past. But I admit that approach has become exhausting and isn’t working any more. What personal vision might I adopt for my photography project? As I ponder this, I realise that Schicker is right. All of my focus has been on the end goal – getting a series of images displayed, worrying about whether they will be good enough and how they will be received. I need to get back to the process and find my ‘why (do I love photography)?’ Eventually, I decide my ‘why?’ is to connect with my environment – both people and landscape. And, in a way, this comes back to kaizen, which I had dismissed as being of no use for big ambitions. If, every day, my why of taking photos is to go out and connect with the people and landscape in which I live, that’s an easy habit to adopt. A daily camera walk, even for 10 minutes, would bring me to that state of flow and meaning. As I practise this over the coming days, the whole enterprise seems less fraught and ideas come bubbling to the surface.

Nibbling, not wolfing

Miraculously, after a fortnight, I notice something else. Not only is my project inching forward, without that panicky focus on the future, there is more space in my head to think about other things. I start to actually read the pile of papers on my desk and, slowly, the mountain gets smaller. My Tupperware collection – colour coded, might I add – is growing, too. The only thing I still procrastinate about is going to the post office. But Schicker has some reassuring advice about that, too: ‘It doesn’t matter where you live in the world, people will always postpone going to the post office.’

Three habits and beliefs to ditch

1. Having it all. Yes, we’re entitled to a wonderful career, family and love life – but it’s important to understand that it’s not possible to give 100 per cent of your energy to everything simultaneously. Outsource as many routine tasks that provide you with little pleasure as you possibly can.

2. Compulsive comparison. If you have a tendency to compare yourself to others, be gentle on yourself. When something goes ‘wrong’ and you start beating yourself up – stop! Regain your sense of humour and share your ‘failure’ with someone who can help you see the funny side. Break free of these chains, urges author of Burnout To Brilliance Jayne Morris.

3. Perfectionism. This prevents you from following your desires and keeps you chained to your desk working. Try to take off the pressure and accept that things are complete when they are ‘good enough’.

Image: Getty