Lessons Learned in 2021: Less busy is easy, more meaning is hard

As indicated in my Happy New Years post, I feel like I have learned somethings about myself in 2021 and that I am in a better position to post to this blog as a result. Obviously, I did not set out to learn things simply so I could blog here.

Like many during the never-ending ongoing pandemic I was trying to figure how I wanted to structure and approach my life.  What would I spend my time on? Where would I put my focus and energy?  What ultimately brought joy and meaning into my life?

There were a number of factors involved:

  • I am now working from home for the foreseeable future while my wife has a longish commute.
  • I continue to focus on my health. Having lost nearly 45 pounds, my focus is on finding a workable balance when it comes to diet and exercise. Not losing weight or gaining it back but finding a healthy stability. I run three or four times a week but still eat too much sweets and carbs.
  • I still read quite a bit but seem to struggle retaining knowledge and information from what I read.
  • I have a rather large library at home and yet still struggle not to buy more books and check out books from the library.
  • Despite wrestling with what you might call digital minimalism for many years now, I still find myself distracted by electronic devices and gadgets.

What has been reinforced for me time and time again in 2021 is that distraction is easy and focus is hard. A cliche right?  But nonetheless true.

Just limiting social media is not enough

In my attempts to remove things that added stress or didn’t bring value, I have paired back my social media use drastically.  I have to use social media for work, but I don’t post to Facebook except as part of a local running group and I haven’t posted to Twitter (excepting auto-generated posts) since the end of June.

As an aside, I have found it difficult to completely disconnect from social media. I still occasionally check in on Twitter (especially during football games) and probably spend 10-15 minutes a day scrolling Facebook.  It’s like I can cut back my usage by 90% but I can’t completely quit. Weird and frustrating but here we are…

Which brings me (finally!) to the point of this post.  What I have found is that clearing out more space and eliminating easy distractions is pretty easy.  What is hard is replacing that time and focus with meaningful activity.  Most things that are rewarding in any deep sense require hard work and sustained focus.  They are hard.

So despite not watching much TV or movies, rarely playing video games, and having largely eliminated social media, I still feel like my mind is constantly tempted by distraction.  And I think a big problem is the constant jumping from one thing to another.  This type of multi-tasking undermines focus and cognitive energy.

Instead of sitting down and reading for a chunk of time, I pick up my iPad check my email, scroll through RSS feeds, play a quick game, etc.  Instead of working on a project, I busy myself with cleaning up clutter around the house or run an errand that isn’t urgent in any way.  I am often bored but cant seem to concentrate or focus and get into that groove where you can read or write or think for long stretches.

Distraction is still the enemy

I have taught myself to embrace distraction and just getting rid of a few social media habits isn’t going to fix that.  Also, since I now work from home I spend untold hours in the same place which makes me stir crazy.  Combined this leads to another bad habit: retail therapy. Bored? Drive to a store and buy something.  Groceries, clothes, gadgets, books, etc.  Just buying something is distracting, gives me a little jolt of enjoyment and gets me out of the house. Which is why I have too much stuff.

Switching from social media to RSS feeds and email subscriptions hasn’t really helped either.  Far too much of it is also just distraction even if it is deeper intellectually.  And reading book reviews and articles inevitably leads to me want to buy more books.

So what?

I know what you are thinking (if you have managed to make it this far). So what?  This is something I have been musing on and writing about for years.  Why is this year any different? Why should you care?

To be honest, maybe you don’t care.  I don’t really know.  But this is part of the process whereby I start processing what is in my head and regularly blogging.

Also, I think I have grown some in the last few years and I have some strategies that can help me be more successful. And two, I have something concrete to focus on for 2022.  I have accomplished other significant goals in the past: losing weight, reading 100 books in a year, reading the entire Bible and Apocrypha in a year, etc. So there is no reason I can’t successfully tackle this goal.

So here is my focus for 2022:

  • Buy less: drastically cut back my book buying, checking out, etc.  I really want to focus on reading books I already have on the shelf. I also want to stop the retail therapy.  I have to many clothes, too much stuff in general.  Focus on quality not quantity. Can I go a whole year without buying a book? Probably not. But I am aiming for like 4-6.
  • Read less, and slower: I need to cut out consuming information without focusing or building on it.
    • Stop reading so many book reviews that will just cause me to want to buy more books I don’t have time to read.
    • Stop reading nonfiction books (that require focus) before bed.  I read a dozen books I had wanted to read focused on St. Paul.  But having done that I realized I could offer very little insight or wisdom when I was done. I had physically read all those words but had retained very little.  When I am tired I can move my eyes over the words but not really even have the content stick in my brain.
    • Only add subscriptions that add real value to your day. I thought subscribing to the New York Times and Washington Post would add value.  Instead of getting news via Twitter I could get news briefs once a day. I could read their books coverage and a few columnists I like.  I found instead that it led to inbox clutter and distraction. I’m cancelling them.  I still subscribe to local newspapers for news FWIW.
    • Focus on topics that build on each other. Subjects for 2022: more Paul, conservatism, and communication/storytelling.
    • Re-read books as needed. I did that this year when working my Apostle Paul reading list but I need to do it more and when I have the cognitive energy needed to really retain information (take notes, etc.).
  • Build good digital habits: I need to keep working on building habits that keep screen time to a minimum.
    • I started using Hey.com to manage my email and help me focus, but I still have a bad habit of mindlessly checking email.  I want to set times specific times to check email a couple times a day but ignore it otherwise.
    • I need to find a way to stop mindlessly (that word again) picking up my iPad.  Maybe I will keep it put away and only pull it out when I need it for a specific task.  In a more drastic step, I’m actually contemplating giving my iPad to my daughter so I have one less device to distract me!

So what’s in it for you dear reader?  Well, one of the results of the above (fingers crossed) will be to work on my thinking and my writing in such a way as to produce something worth posting to this blog.  Which has been a goal of the website since I started it lo these many years ago but which I have failed to do in any serious way for years.

Plus, as I document this journey perhaps you can learn a thing or to as well.  As I like to say at the end of book reviews: your mileage may vary.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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