Consume Less, Produce More: On Priorities, Focus, and Using My Brain Intentionally

A square painting of a landscape with a body of water in the foreground and mountains in the background.
Boone Lake in Winter, 2015. Private Collection.

At the beginning of 2016, in addition to making a couple of specific resolutions, I set an intention for the year: Consume Less, Produce More. I wasn’t talking about shopping habits or solid waste, but creative output. I had come to realize that I was spending 30-45 minutes checking Facebook every morning, indiscriminately reading content that others had posted and shared. I was watching Hulu and Netflix while cooking and doing chores, and reading articles online before bed. My focus was being pulled and directed by people other than me. My attention span was shorter than I would have liked, and my once robust flow of ideas seemed to have slowed to a trickle. I reminisced about how much mental energy I’d had ten years before. I decided it was time to take back control of my brain and my time.

For about the first three months of the year, I meditated before work in the mornings. I started journaling, something I’d tried unsuccessfully to do several times in my life. This time, following a friend’s lead, I used a five year One Line a Day journal that allowed me to jot down as little as one sentence each evening. There was truly no excuse for not sticking with it, and writing in my journal became a reflective part of my bedtime routine. In 2015, I had set a goal of completing at least one new painting per month, and I recommitted myself to that effort. These things were positive steps, but a few months into 2016, I still didn’t feel like I was fully honoring my commitment to Consume Less, Produce More.

Then, one weekend in late March, while traveling with my husband and reading a memoir, a familiar thought crossed my mind: One day, I want to write a book. I didn’t know what it would be about, but I felt I had a story to tell. That day, rather than brushing the thought aside and leaving it for some unspecified day in the future, I decided that I would actually start writing. I was already writing in my journal every night; why not replace my morning meditation session with a morning writing session? Those who know me well already know the rest of the story: daily writing became my therapy, my release, and my new creative passion, leading me to begin writing a novel, some poems, a long-form personal essay, and eventually this blog. My energy has rebounded and ideas are flowing freely again. I almost feel like my 22-year-old self, only a lot wiser.

But all of this creativity takes time, and I’ve had to think hard about my priorities. I no longer read whatever is on my Facebook feed. I still check social media regularly, but I scroll through the posts quickly, pausing only for things that really pique my interest. I installed a timer add-on to my web browser to keep me from getting sucked into the abyss. I don’t read articles on the spot anymore. I save them for later, amassing a long list. Then, when I decide I want to read them, I ruthlessly edit the list, deleting most of the articles because I don’t really care about them and I’ve decided they aren’t worth my time. I read only what truly interests me.

I perform triage on my to-do lists. I jealously guard my writing time. I say no to invitations much more often now. I don’t say yes just for something to do. I make time for people who are important to me, but I no longer seek out new friends, groups, or activities. I’m eliminating hobbies and commitments that are no longer meaningful to me. My days are quite full, but I use my time deliberately. I am more efficient. I am more present, more able to focus on what I am doing in the moment. I am more attentive to the people in my life. I wish I’d made these changes sooner.

We live in a world full of stimuli constantly competing for our attention. The internet and smart devices have put an overwhelming amount of information at our fingertips at all hours. It’s all too easy to abdicate control of our minds and simply react to what is flashing before our eyes. Our lives can be much richer, though, if we consciously limit how much time and space we devote to social networks and news cycles, choosing to exercise our brains intentionally rather than settling into passivity and reactivity. Life is short, and when I’m laying on my death bed, I doubt I’ll wish I’d spent more time reading articles online and checking Facebook.

Have you made a similar effort to prioritize your time and attention? How do you Consume Less, Produce More?

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