In our society we see choice as a luxury, as an indicator of our level of freedom. We tend to think that the more choice we have, the better our life is. But the paradox of choice is that when we have too much of it, we become entangled in a net of decision making which can hamper our ability to flow through life smoothly.
Psychic entropy: The Anti- flow
People who are passionate about the things they do and experience frequent flow in their lives have in common the deliberate removal of choice from their daily lives.
To understand why this is its helpful to understand the concept of psychic entropy and its opposite, psychic negentrophy. Psychic refers to the energy of our mind (attention), and entropy is defined as the process of degradation. Psychic entropy therefore is the degradation of mental energy.
In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes: “The psychic entropy peculiar to the human condition involves seeing more to do than one can actually accomplish and feeling able to accomplish more than what conditions allow."
On the other hand, psychic negentropy is the enhancement of mental focus, the gathering together of psychic energy directed toward an intention or goal. Positive emotions like happiness, strength and alertness are states of psychic negentropy. As we do not need to waste any mental energy on worry and decisions aimed at being more happy, we can channel all our mental energy into whatever task we have chosen.
Therefore, according to Csikszentmihalyi, our "intentions, goals, motivations are also manifestations of psychic negentropy. They focus psychic energy, establish priorities, and this create order in consciousness. Without them, mental processes become random and feelings tend to deteriorate rapidly."
The positive spiral effect of limited-choice living
Inge Wegge and Jørn Ranum are 2 Norwegian’s who created the captivating documentary film North of the Sun.
These 2 adventurers spent nine months of frigid cold, Norwegian winter in isolation, living in a bay facing the raw Atlantic ocean high in the Arctic Circle. They built a simple cabin out of driftwood and took with them expired food the shops were going to throw out. They also took their surfboards and good humour. As they toiled to build shelter and relaxed by surfing in the frigid water their new life in the wilderness took on a new level of simplicity. Inge and Jørn talk about this feeling of freedom, being cut off from communication, emails and other people. But another freedom they experience is in the lack of choices they have to make to live in an optimal existence in the wilderness.
Their daily activity became focused around 3 basic goals:
- Collecting materials, building shelter and chopping wood to keep warm, sourcing food (survival)
- Cleaning up the rubbish and debris that washed up onto the beach (something worthwhile)
- Surfing and playing (having fun)
In this simplified existence the 2 guys found profound freedom. Their life flowed from one activity to the next. Psychic entropy was eradicated by the simplicity of their routine and their relative lack of choice. The activities they chose to channel their psychic energy into were rewarding, resulting in a cycle of flow.
Their feelings of independence, happiness at doing something for the greater good and pleasure seeking through surfing created acute psychic disentropy-meaning that very little mental energy was wasting choosing what to do, what to eat, how best to spend their time. Instead their attention became laser focused on their 3 main goals.
The result was a spiral of positive emotions and positive productivity. The shelter they spent weeks building was solid, cozy and warm. They collected and removed from the beach 3 tonnes of rubbish, giving meaning to their existence. The fun and adventure they had surfing and playing gave joy to the whole endeavour.
By doing the same things over and over again, they also gained expertise in what they did. Perhaps the most important lesson for our fast paced technology focused society- their pared down life of limited choice gave Inge and Jørn the mental space to see things from a new persepctive and to really appreciate the things in life we take for granted.
The Art of Simplification
Simplification is the act or process of making something simpler. One major way to simplify is to deliberately remove choice in our life. Here are a few ways to take on the process.
1. Create habits and routines. A first thing in the morning (little stretch, then making coffee and breakfast for me) and last thing at night (brushing teeth, flossing) routine is a good way to start and end the day. If we do these things with all our attention focused on the task, they become mini-meditations. An eating routine or meal plan could cut down on psychic entropy at the supermarket, when we are faced with limitless food choices. If you think eating the same thing day after day is boring, maybe you just havn't discovered your perfect meal.
2. Develop strong concentration. Sometimes we are engaged in a task, but there is a voice telling us we could be doing something else. This creates a moment of decsion which can be avoided all together by having stronger attention. You can shut that voice up, or channel it through training. Mindfulness, meditation, sudoku, crosswords, reading books, yoga, working out or chess. There are endless ways to train our attention. All you have to do is really concentrate on something and do this for increasing lengths of time. If you feel like you lack concentration, take action as success in all things is rooted in the ability to focus your mind. Check out Fit Brains, a new brain training website.
3. Know your priorities. Become a planner and a list writer. If you know exactly what your goals are at any given moment, you always know the optimal way you can be spending your time that is congruent with these goals. This will eliminate the psychic entropy resulting from having to think about what your goals or intentions are, or from questioning and doubting yourself about how best to spend your time. For example if you have decided and written down that this week your main goals for the week are to go running, play music and practice yoga, you can work these into the free time slots you have and eliminate wasted energy thinking about it. I recommend Wunderlist for keeping track of to do lists and jotting down ideas.
4. Create digital boundaries. Nothing drives psychic entropy more than technology. These days we are bombarded with choice and stimulus in a way our pre-digital ancestors would have found unbearable. The internet has created a new dimension of infinite information and choice. It is up to us to create the boundaries so that this choice becomes limited. If you allow yourself to get sucked into the digital void, you lose your time and your psychic energy. I'm still working on how to create these boundaries, but I believe there are a range of apps and services designed to do just this. Check out this list on lifehack.org
5. Choose your activities and don't just commit to them- build your life around them. Decide on the 1 or 2 things you want to become expert on, or learn more about and focus hard on these activities. If down the track you decide it’s not for you, no problem, move on to the next hobby or endeavour. In focusing on that activity you have trained your mind in a positive way. Like the Norwegian’s Inge and Jørn, maybe you want to decide on 3 or 4 goals related to your values: Something for fun and relaxation, something that fits into your values or the higher good, and something related to your survival/income/career. Make sure at least one of these activities you are doing purely for the fun of it.
Playing is a major flow and happiness driver. Find an activity you really want to be an expert in and focus on it. Remember the 10,000 hours theory- would you rather be a jack of all trades or a master of one? Limiting your activities (unless you are freakishly talented or time-rich) is a powerful way to master your craft/sport. Strip away whatever is not essential or related to these activities.
Much like minimalist architecture or sculpture, simplifying our lives can become an art form. Ask yourself, what can stripped away to add more beauty and efficiency to my life? By taking action like this you profoundly increase your capacity for achieving the sort of simplicity in which harmony and joy flow.