I firmly believe that the human mind is limited in its ability to function properly when excessively encumbered. I also believe that this is the reason for a great deal of unhappiness, at least in the fully industrialised parts of the world where fulfilling basic needs is not a problem. The goal with this piece of text is to explain what this means and what one can do about it in order to live a more harmonious and happy life.
First and foremost, there are some terms that need defining before we go on. For the remainder of this article, the word “mind” refers to both the subconscious and the conscious part of the human mind. Encumbrance is then everything that weighs on the mind and occupies some of its processing capacity, be it consciously or not. Furthermore, some processes are involuntary and is therefore not interesting in this context. For now, we are only interested in things we ourselves are able to influence and change.
As a means of introducing the concept of encumbrance, let us make a brief experiment together. You do not need anything except perhaps some self-knowledge or a will to acquire some. A way to jot down a few lines of text would also be good, but not necessary. Here is what you should do: List everything that you think that you ought to be doing instead of reading this (I mean at this very moment, not something that you will be doing tonight or have scheduled for tomorrow). Here is my list (of what I should do instead of writing this, of course):
– tidy up my desk
– finish a draft of one of the chapters in my writing project
– study Chinese characters
– running (marathon planned this summer)
– check why I have not receive academic points for last year
– check possibilities of studying abroad (many subtasks omitted here)
– e-mail certain people I have been neglecting (details irrelevant)
Though I can only guess, I think that most people’s lists are longer than mine, at least if they took some time and really thought about this for a while. The reason is that I actively try to keep my mind as unencumbered as possible and all these items are examples of what burdens the mind. My thesis is that harmony in everyday life is in many ways inversely proportional to the amount of encumbrance; the less encumbrance, the more harmony. Our ability to function in life has a similar relationship to encumbrance. This is of course a sweeping statement that neglects all the trivialities and issues of everyday life, but I am only after general truths at the moment.
The positive side of this is that it is relatively easy to amend, at least compared to changing things with the bizarre notion that happiness and harmony is something that you are born with. If you have done a list of your own, similar to the one above, you will probably notice that a good deal of the items require relatively short a time to accomplish. If I decided to, I could finish all but one item this evening. By not doing so, and instead postponing it to some undefined future date, I allow my mind to get more and more encumbered. Tasks accrete into a seemingly insurmountable pile of encumbrance, which somehow is much bigger than the actual contents of the pile. Even small tasks add an disproportionate amount of encumbrance.
By clearing things on the list, I relieve my burdened mind and allow it to function properly and freely. The optimum remedy would of course be to monitor encumbrance and always keep it as low as possible. I have not decided yet if I should write something on the subject of to-do lists, because there is such a plethora of articles on the net already (check them out in the mean time).
However, there is a problem with such a solution. People (including me, of course) are lazy and seldom have the determination to clear the whole list at once. Also, other tasks, like working and studying might render free time almost non-existent occasionally and even people who are not lazy might pile up tasks.
Fortunately there is a remedy for that problem as well, and it is about trusting yourself. The difference between postponing and scheduling is essential here. What you should do is not to start right away and clear the list, but instead, sit down and decide when each item should be cleared. Do not set deadlines when they ought to have been done, but rather define when you should do them. Preferably, spread them out in a fashion that you feel you can manage.
Now, it is of paramount importance that you follow your own planning and clear the items when you have decided to. I will now repeat what I have already said: Make sure that you divide items and distribute them in such a manner that you know that you will manage. Even if you do this properly, you will fail, but since learning is one huge trial-and-error process, you have to accept that failure is a way forward, a way to learn. Do not simply cry because you failed, but consider why you failed and see what you can do in order not to fail next time. Also, take a few minutes of regularly checking your list of encumbrance and feel proud about the many tasks you actually clear when you have told yourself to.
The crux of the matter is that as soon as you know that you can trust yourself to follow what you have planned, items no longer count as encumbrance. For example, checking why I have not received academic points for last year only counts as encumbrance as long as it is not done or scheduled. Thus, there is no danger in itself in have a long list, but every item on the list that you do not have under your control, disrupts your daily life and burdens your mind. After a while, once handling tasks like this has become a habit, the feeling of having too much to do will dissipate and, at least for me at times, go away completely. This is a wonderful feeling.
Conclusively, maintaining a list of encumbrance, and make sure that you either clear the items straight away or schedule when to do it, will make life a lot easier. Once you clear an item, make sure to mark the accomplishment, since it feels good to know that you have done something you wanted or had to do. When this has become part of your way of doing things, inspiration and creativity will flow a lot easier.