Why Simplifying Your Life and Pursuits Is So Important

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Life is complex, and modern technology, despite its greatest efforts, has made it more so. We’re assaulted with information, opportunities, challenges and new responsibilities. And it only gets more complicated over time.

In my own life, obligations have mounted. And because of my disposition, I feel the need to actively pursue more. This pursuit comes with a myriad of mistakes, stressors and questions—lots and lots of questions. How do I manage the many roles I play: Father, husband, employee, employer, writer, friend, brother, son? Which comes first? When is it appropriate to take it easy? Am I making the right choices?

While the tools I’ve accumulated and the lessons I’ve learned give me a solid shot to succeed against the onslaught, by no means am I, or anyone, guaranteed success and fulfillment. So why continue this pursuit of more? Why risk instead of relaxing? When a stable existence can be guaranteed by doing less, why do we take on more?

The truth is, this pursuit of more is programmed into us. The evolutionary process to which we’re all genetically predisposed is based on growth and change. And capitalism, our economic and political system, is built on the foundational belief that we want more. Therefore, it’s up to us alone to determine how to harness these desires in a positive, manageable and fulfilling manner.

To me, this all comes down to simplifying our pursuits.

Simplify Your Pursuits

We must make the choice to focus our energy on the things most important to us and eliminate the non-essential. Or as artist Hans Hofmann said, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Without removing the things we don’t need from our lives, we aren’t able to put the necessary energy into what’s important to us, leading to mediocre performance in all areas.

Social media is a great example. Like TV for the previous generation, social media is the great time-waster. Many people I know spend hours a day scrolling through their Instagram feed—time and energy that could be spent with their children, growing their businesses, helping someone in need or reconnecting with friends. The simple reallocation of this time to a pursuit that’s more aligned with what’s important to you will greatly improve your level of fulfillment and your creative output over time.

(The flip side, of course, when it comes to social media, is that a platform like Instagram creates opportunities for rapid, free brand-building. That’s a separate, business use of social media from what I’m referencing above).

MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya recently published a book called Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, which he describes as “a self-help book in that it is an attempt to help myself.” In it, he talks about Aristotle’s idea of telic and atelic pursuits. Telos is a Greek word for goal, or ultimate object. A good way to understand Aristotle’s distinction is to consider the difference between cultivating a practice and pursuing an object.

Telic vs Atelic Pursuits

Doing yoga or playing backgammon is an atelic pursuit; it’s something that’s ongoing and evolutionary. Buying a car or building a house are telic pursuits—goal-oriented projects with an end. The problem with telic pursuits is that you always have this sense you’ll be fulfilled when the object is acquired, when the project is completed. But that fulfillment is notoriously fleeting, while an atelic activity, like learning to play the guitar, is continually fulfilling, both now and later.

As Setiya explains, “The problem arises from being excessively focused on and invested in telic activities and the solution, I think, is to reorient oneself to become more fully invested in atelic activities. Then you won’t have this sense that what you want is at a distance from where you are now, because one of the features of atelic activities is they don’t have an endpoint that you’re aiming at in the future. They’re realized in the present as much as they can ever be realized…”

The average life expectancy for a male in the United States is 76; for a female, 81. That means I’ve already reached midlife, an incredibly sobering thought. Are there things I would change from the first half of my life? I don’t think so; that’s just not my approach. I measure my life in experiences, knowledge and relationships. The ones I have and have had, I’m incredibly grateful for. That said, over the past few years I’ve seen life becoming very complex—too much for my liking. And while I’d like to think I’m unique, I’m sure many of you are going through the same experience. With that in mind, I feel it’s important that I, and probably you, simplify. That we take stock of where we sit today, decide what means the most to us, and discard the excess that’s getting in the way. That way, we can give ourselves the best possible chance to make an impact during the limited time we have on this incredible journey we call life.

Alan Philips’s new book, The Age of Ideas, is available Oct. 23, 2018. To read more of Philip's work, head to his website.

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