Updated: Oct 31, 2020
Not too long ago, I was looking over my productivity for the week and was puzzled by why I wasn't getting that much done. Where was my time going? How could I possibly have only worked 3 hours that day?!
I decided to do a time audit and kept track of what I did each hour for a few days. It didn't take long for me to recognize that I was wasting a ton of time distracting myself from the work that really mattered. I was keeping myself busy so that I felt productive, but wasn't getting as much done as I'd have liked. Plus, because I work for myself, no one was looking over my shoulder and scolding me about it. (Both a gift and a curse.)
Many of the things I was doing perhaps needed to be done, but didn't warrant me prioritizing them over my work. For example, cleaning, going to the grocery store, running errands, doing food prep, etc. Other things were obvious time-wasters such as social media, watching TV, and shopping.
Particularly with shopping, I wondered why I was repeatedly falling into the trap of retail therapy, despite knowing everything I do about the industry and despite trying to minimize my belongings.
I realized that, in looking at clothes aside from the ones that hang in my closet and home decor aside from what already rests on my walls, I imagine different versions of myself and my life. I subconsciously play pretend, like dressing myself up as a paper doll. I imagine how I'd look and feel and how others would see me.
I think it's inherently interesting to imagine different versions of ourselves, especially if we're trying to define who we are. As much as we may like routine, change is interesting, particularly when it's within ourselves. The act of shopping, though, pushes past those thought exercises and adds a consumerist twist.
Combined with playing pretend, the highly curated way stores look (1), feel, sound, and even smell (2) make it easy to buy into the power of the purchase. Even if we know deep down that a superficial change won't fulfill us, it's easier to pretend it will than to deal with the real reasons we're unhappy. Advertisers have us on their hook, reinforcing the belief that, if we had these things, it would change us into a different version of ourselves—and that would make us happy.
When it comes down to it, shopping is just a distraction, like endlessly scrolling through social media or binge-watching Netflix.
Imagining who we could be separates us from who we are, and distracts us from the goals that we haven't yet achieved. It distracts us from the reasons we haven't achieved them, from the fact that our excuses may or may not be valid, and from the notion that the only thing standing in the way of our success is us.
Shopping is procrastinating on becoming who we really want to be.
It's offering a temporary answer for a lifelong question—which is way easier than sitting with the ambiguity. By using a material object to imagine ourselves as different, we're imitating change rather than making a concentrated effort to create it.
I do believe that in order to feel true joy, we need to experience the depths of sorrow, and I think the same principle applies in this instance: If we choose to fight the distractions and let those difficult thoughts in, we'll likely find ourselves curled up in a pit of depression, hard truths, and disappointment in ourselves. We'll experience the deep pain that comes from feeling lost as to who you are at your core. (Great selling point, ey?) But after sitting with all that for a while, we climb out a more enlightened and determined person; in fact spending some time in a dark place may be the only way to become one. There are a million inspirational quotes about how "calm seas never make a skilled sailor," and "flowers need rain to bloom," blah blah blah...and ugh—it seems like they're true.
So I'm trying to focus on knowing myself and prioritizing the things I value: family, friends, travel, nature, art, taking care of myself, and taking care of the earth. I'm certain I will stray from the path and spend my time and money on things that don't align with my values, but hopefully I can remind myself often of what I find important so my life can more closely reflect those beliefs.
There's one question has been ringing through my mind:
What if we found as much joy in taking care of our current belongings as we do in purchasing new ones?
What if we found joy in nurturing what we already have rather than accumulating new stuff? What if we repaired the tear in the jeans, gave the table a fresh stain, really considered the value of our belongings and the resources used to create them?
As it relates to ourselves: What if we found joy in nurturing who we are rather than imagining ourselves as different? What if we faced ourselves in our truest form and sat with it, flaws and all, so we could address ourselves honestly?
I wanted to explore these questions—and be more productive—so I developed a 30-day challenge I'm calling the Distraction Cleanse. Here's how it works.
Pick three habits you use as distraction, such as social media, watching TV, talking on the phone, or even things that feel productive like cleaning or organizing your desk. Break up the 30 days into three sets of 10 consecutive days. During the first set of 10 days, abstain from distraction #1. During the second set of 10 days, abstain from distraction #2. During the third 10, distraction #3. If you have trouble giving up any particular distraction, roll it over into the next set of 10 days.
For example, the first time I did this I tried to give up watching TV during my second set of 10 days. I failed miserably. I was aiming to give up social media during my third set of 10 days, so I tacked on TV as well and abstained from both.
If you give this challenge a go, remember that you're breaking deeply-ingrained habits; you're probably not going to do it all perfectly right off the bat. Acknowledge that you relied on a distraction and keep going. It doesn't have to ruin your day or your set of 10 days. That's life.
Also, remember that the goal of this cleanse is to reduce the distractions that prevent us from seeing who we really are. That means some real sh*t may come up. Acknowledge that, try to see it for what it is, and keep going. I promise you that you're better off in the long run dealing with your issues rather than continuing to repress them.
Good luck! Please come back and tell me what you learned. (If you're interested, you can hear about what I learned here.)
For more tips on mental health and wellness, check out my series on how taking care of yourself helps you take care of the earth. Here's Part 1.