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    Busyness is a Kind of Debt

    My friend Cait and I have been exchanging zeros. I posted a screenshot of my newly empty Gmail inbox, and challenged her to do the same, and she did. Now we’re competing to get to zero as often as possible.

    Email has become almost a breeze for me (after struggling with it for years) due to a discovery I made during my extreme decluttering campaign: having zero clutter is an entirely different experience than having a little clutter. The psychological effect of reducing any type of mess to zero is profound. It feels like a noisy fan has shut off.

    Now I love the feeling of being at zero, and I never want to be far from it. Every neglected possession, unanswered email or open browser tab is like a little hook in your brain. There isn’t a huge difference in how it feels to have six of these hooks in your brain versus having eighty, but there is a vast difference between having some and having zero.

    The decluttering post was an international mega-hit— 8,800 12,000 Facebook Likes and counting—which surprised me initially because it seems so pedestrian: arranging items in containers and tossing ugly clothes. But I think most people realize that it’s not really about beautifying your shelves. It’s about turning your home into a better habitat for the mind, one that minimizes the abandoned, the unfinished, and the out-of-place—and creating a lifestyle with fewer “mental fishhooks” snagging your attention.

    Whatever is normal to us becomes invisible, no matter how counterproductive, and we’ve simply become accustomed to tracking too many ongoing concerns in our heads. 

    Living in the red
    We use the word “minimalism” to describe a conscious effort to reduce physical and mental clutter by owning fewer things. But maybe minimalism isn’t so much a trendy subculture as it is a return to the kind of environment our minds are best suited for. Imagine explaining to most of history’s human beings that “minimalists” are those unusual people who have reduced their possessions to a few hundred and their time commitments to a few dozen.

    As information and entertainment become more abundant, mental clarity becomes a more unusual experience. To get it back, we need to become unusually stingy with our time and attention commitments, by either finally fulfilling them or finally dropping them, instead of letting them pile up unresolved.

    These unresolved commitments are what David Allen called “open loops” in his zillion-selling productivity Bible Getting Things Done, and he says open loops are exactly what stress is made of. Part of us might realize this, but it’s still fairly normal to drift miles from “zero” in several areas of clutter at once. In our over-committed, under-focused culture, it’s normal for one’s attention be overextended.

    Another way to think about it is this:

    If attention is a kind of currency, our culture has a habit of living in debt. We’re trying to buy too much with what we have, and it creates problems—stress, distraction, inefficiency—that outweigh the benefits of all those purchases. Just as consumer debt is the consequence of buying more than our means can cover, our overflowing inboxes and unread bookmarks are evidence that we are chronically overspending in the attention department.

    Just like money, attention is limited, and by spreading it around too freely we accumulate too many expenses, bear needless debts, and pay too much interest, in the form of stress and extra work.

    Any time you can cut loose an attention-draining commitment, it’s like cutting a household expense. Cutting out your weekday-morning Reddit-surf might be like canceling cable: you think it’s a solemn sacrifice until you do it, then you wouldn’t go back to it even if it were free.

    Paying it off
    There are commitments you can’t or don’t want to cut though, such as email, your primary work duties, and household tidying. Any time you get one of these going concerns to zero—namely by putting all your possessions away or processing everything in your inbox—it’s like paying the balance off your credit card.

    Most people can understand the absurdity of letting a credit card bill go unpaid for no reason. The bill never shrinks with time, it only grows, while the value of what you bought with it remains the same, regardless of what you end up paying. Yet we don’t have the same efficiency with our attention. We often let the house get messy enough that it takes a whole weekend to get it back to zero, or let the email pile up until you need to prefix every reply with an apology.

    It seems like keeping your inboxes (and household clutter, which is essentially a different form of inbox) close to zero is way too much work for most people to manage, but it is always less work. After all, the work either has to be done eventually anyway—and the sooner you do it the less there is of it—or it doesn’t have to be done at all.

    Of course, you can’t always be at zero—you may have gotten a new email while reading this—but there is something to be said for always living close to it. I’d rather stay up till midnight getting everything to absolute zero at least once a week than just get “close enough” occasionally, never achieving the clarity and confidence that only appears at zero.

    To live near zero, however, you have to get there in the first place, just as you have to pay off your debt before you can attempt to live debt-free. For household clutter this means doing KonMari or some other structured decluttering, and for email it means sitting down with a pot of coffee and going through it all until you see the empty box.

    The idea of attending to our commitments sooner rather than later obviously isn’t a new one, but framing it as “getting to zero” has made my routine work much more attractive. After years of hating email and tidying, I am actually enjoying them both, because the sweet bliss of reaching zero is always so close.

    Of course, smart people have been employing the number zero for far longer than I have:

    Cait Flanders realized that while she bookmarked websites all the time, she never looked at her bookmarks, so she deleted them all and never looked back.

    Derek Sivers had enough of superfluous commitments, and decided he’s done saying yes to requests on his time—it’s either “No” or “HELL YEAH!”

    I had a conversation with Jonathan Verrecchia a few weeks ago about managing time and attention better, and he introduced me to the beauty of the number zero as a value to live by. He’s aiming for all sorts of zeros: zero phone notifications, zero un-backed-up files, zero desktop clutter, as well as keeping his home looking AirBnB-ready. (As I was writing the draft of this article, he published these ideas on a tidy new site called Zeromalist.)

    Procrastinatory habits have a certain comfort, but they can’t compete with the liberating feeling of zero. I’m happily in love with zero and I would crawl over hot coals to stay close to it.

    Doing the better, healthier thing always seems to come down to forgoing short-term rewards for bigger, longer-term rewards. But what’s so brilliant about the staying-near-zero approach is that it’s driven by its powerful short-term reward. When it’s within reach, it’s too good to pass up.

    Cleaning up a big mess is much more of a grind than cleaning up an equivalent quantity of small messes. Putting away the first few of a hundred out-of-place books, garments and papers is never very fun, but doing the last few is always glorious.

    The solution seems so obvious now: always be doing the last few.


    Photo by Hans Poldoja