Simplify your external world to Amplify your internal world + 5 books to help you


What, me worry?

Collaboration and connecting with others is a beautiful thing, but in the end, creation is done in solitude. All great art is done in isolation. All creative work must be done by shutting out the outside world, sitting down, and creating.  (Leo Babauta, Zen Habits)

Nice idea.  Yet, for most of us, immersed in the online of today, it can be difficult to tone down that outside world.  It is for me.  It was driven by my own interests in keeping focus (or maintaining some semblance of), that I’ve been reading different books on the topic; of attention, distraction, focus, in our ubiquitous wired world.  Here’s five I’ve recently read, and recommend.  The titles speak of the content.

  1. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
  2. Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers
  3. Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winnifred Gallagher
  4. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz
  5. Ten Zen Seconds: Twelve incantations for purpose, power and calm by Eric Maisel

Simplify the External

Culling from those books, and our shared intuition, here’s a few of the ways to simplify the external: (note: if you’re really keen on this topic, I append my brief review of each of these books, at the end of this blog post)

  • Distance. Geo-locate yourself to a quieter place, for important thought, conversations… Plato did this.
  • Have your own Walden Zone. A place where you can retreat to.  It could be a room in your house.  Or maybe a cabin in the woods, yet still connected to the city – a la Henry David Thoreau.
  • Schedule it. Early in the day.  First thing at your office.  Late in the day, whenever.
  • Reduce clutter. Clear the top of your desk, close computer programs (windows) you don’t need open, clear the walls.  Also, maybe reduce number of social media links, RSS feeds, accounts, connections.
  • Use simple tools. Old tools ease overload.  Shakespeare simplified his tools, and could one say his productivity suffered?
  • Reduce your number of choices. Too many choices up the stress to decision-making. Choosing from 3 options is best.
  • Pick one task to work on at a time.
  • 90-minute rule. Block 90 minutes (or less?) of time, for uninterrupted work.
  • Disconnect. Having difficulty leaving the Web, on your own initiative? Try Freedom, or software like it.

And how about supporting (the above) with:

  • Meditation. Even for 10 seconds.
  • Positive rituals.  Design ritual around the amount of time dedicated to the new positive pursuit, rather than how much you’re taking away from the old negative one.
  • Reframing. Dull work? Do it a little differently.  Reframe.
  • Lower your inner thermostat. Pay attention to what’s affecting you, and how.  Adjust appropriately.

There’s tons of stuff being written around keeping focus in a wired world.  There’s laws to help you navigate the digital world. However you do it, its important to be able to zone in when you need to.
Question for you: What other technique do you use to simplify your external world, in order to better focus on your work-at-hand?  Leave a comment.


Book reviews (by Ben)…

The Shallows: From the author of bestseller “The Big Switch”, this book held my attention (no pun intended). A fascinating expose on language, communications media, and how we think. The “shallows” refers to our inclination to flit about, when online, as opposed to any “deep thinking/reflection”. Lots of historical perspective (a real eye-opener for me), combined with insight into the neuroplastic nature of our brains… this book takes a balanced approach, in addressing the challenges posed by trying to keep focused in a Google, hyperlinked information world. Still, by the end of the book, I wasn’t left with any warm and fuzzies about where the Internet is leading us.

Hamlet’s Blackberry: Similar to Shallows, this book explains why depth of experience/thought matters, and how balance is needed – a philosophy that takes into account the human need to connect outward, to answer the call of the crowd, as well as the opposite need for time and space apart. Strike a balance between the 2 impulses, advocates Powers.  The author explores how our digital busyness, building on the latest screen technologies, compares with previous eras and times, and how leading figures of those times dealt with technology advances; i.e., Socrates, Cicero (Roman), Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, Walden, and McLuhan. Many insights here!

Rapt: A book about keeping our (“rapt”) attention/focus in an age of information surplus. A holistic look at the challenges we face. Good stories, examples, and perspectives. And, quite a few helpful, practical strategies; e.g., the 90-minute rule for blocking out distractions, the “fortune cookie” rule (if tense, remember nothing is as important as you think it is when you are focusing on it)

The Paradox of Choice: Do you make choices decisively and quickly or is every decision a major project? Having many options and opportunities to choose from may not be a good thing.  This book explores the dynamics of too much choice… and the positive, and more likely, negative consequences that can follow.  This book is very readable, and has many a nugget; re: when to “choose” vs. “pick”, objective vs subjective quality of decision making, the emotional impact of losses vs. gains, expectations and choice… Next time you are offering someone a choice… this book will help you frame your options. Really.

10 Zen Seconds: This book is about centering yourself amongst all that busyness.  Seemingly easy to grasp and simple to use, the author offers a practical exercise (12 different incantations) that blends Eastern breath awareness with Western positive psychology.  If meditating for 15 minutes or more is not your thing, how about 10 Zen seconds.  The basic exercise (breath in 5 seconds, breath out 5 seconds, accompanied by an incantations, eg – “I am equal to this challenge” can be applied anytime, not just sitting in a darkened room without distractions.  The author has written scores of books, and is well known as a creativity consultant to artists and other professionals.  (learned about this author from, Vern Burkhardt on IdeaConnection)

Photo credit: Chimothy27 on Flickr



  1. Another great post, Ben. I sure appreciate your summaries of the books – and the succinct suggestions. I need to work on these – as I suspect many of us who are heavily involved in online communities do.

  2. Thanks Lorne. I enjoyed all of the books… especially the historical perspectives provided… fascinating to discover how people in the past dealt with the introduction of new communications technologies. We’re different, yet not that different, from those who have gone before.

  3. Susanna Jani says

    Thanks for this timely post, Ben, especially at this busy time of year! You mention the “cabin in the woods” technique, which I think is an increasingly important one in our fabricated, overly-packed lifestyle. Time spent away from things made by man, immersed in natural world, is something I personally find immensely helpful. It not only helps me focus better when I do work, it also helps remind me what is really important to me. Maybe that is the key – finding what is truly, deeply important to us and then spending time there.

  4. Hi Susanna. You are indeed wise to have such a place to spend time at. I think many of us have forgotten the value of “time away” from our urban, man made world, and many of the latest generation may not even be aware of it… life beyond the city. And I’m with you… there is lots we can draw from nature, including a space to reflect, focus and connect with our true self. Thanks for sharing.

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