The Overflowing Teacup

The Overflowing Teacup

“Once, a university professor went to visit a Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked continuously about Zen, his thoughts, his ideas, his understands and his questions… As he spoke the master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, but then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself “It’s full! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. “You are like this cup,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.””

I am, I have to admit, a terrible “grass is greener” sort of person. I have always been afraid I am missing out on something…

And, I have very broad interests, because of this I am easily (very easily) distracted, and can spend hours thinking about or researching (the internet can really be a curse) something completely irrelevant that I will forget about almost as soon as I have learned it.

I often feel like my teacup is flowing over and I can’t fit any more in. So I end up scattered and, to quote Bilbo Baggins “I feel… thin. Sort of stretched, like… butter scraped over too much bread…”

Which is not really the “Slow Way” (or if you are trying to sound all pretentious, you could be all faux Eastern, mystic and say the “Tao of Slow…”).

In fact, one of the things that first attracted me to the Slow movement and the Idle philosophy was the idea that I could reduce my field of interest. It showed me that I don’t need to know, do or try everything. That I am not really missing out on something if I am not at the forefront of it, if I don’t know everything about it with five minutes.

(I tell you, I am marketers dreams…)

But how do you practically stop yourself from doing this? How do you start to cut back on your fields of interest, of reducing your desire (addiction?) to the new, the fresh, the exciting, the smell of the grass over the fence?

How do you start limiting yourself?

The ‘Not Reading’ List

Ironically, I started limiting myself many years ago, before I had even heard of the Slow movement or before I even realised that I really, really needed to.

When I was at school I was told I was “word blind” (whatever that is?) and that I wouldn’t able to read very well (nothing like a nice positive suggestion is there??), so I hated reading, I was slow and it would take me weeks to read something that other people would read in a day.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, when I left school and thought “Stuff ’em, if I want to read, I will read!” and started devouring books (I was – and still am – a slow reader, but at least I was motivated to try and read).

I fell in love with books, but soon found that (because I read slowly), if I just rushed to read a book just for the sake of reading that book, I wouldn’t retain any information and it was a pointless waste of time.

I realised I was probably not going to be able to read every book I wanted (or felt I should) and that I needed some form of plan.

At that point I started a ‘NOT Reading’ list and listed books I had no intention of ever reading:

Number one on the list was Gulliver’s Travels.

Number two was anything by Stephen King.

It was of course a dynamic list and I have since read some of the books I had placed on that list (I put “3 Men and Boat” on there as a bit of a knee jerk reaction, because someone kept pestering me that I should read it…), but the sense of relief I got from the decision not to read a book (and stopping beating myself up about having not got round to it) outweighed the gnawing sensation that I was missing out on something…

I still buy too many books. But there you go…

Anyway, I used this same principle to begin a ‘NOT to Do’ list…

The ‘NOT To Do’ List

Since getting into Slow and embracing its philosophy I have expanded this idea to write a ‘NOT To Do List’, things I never intend to do. Ever.

Number one on the list was “Extreme Sports”. There seems to be an odd belief that to “live life to the full” you need to have bungee jumped off a high bridge in Africa or other such pastimes. I spent most of my teens hanging around with these extreme sports guys, doing climbing and white water canoeing and such. And I hated every minute of it (other than the climbing – see my obituary of John Bachar here). It just scared me silly (it was only years later that I discovered the principle of high and low acting arousal systems and found out why I was so scared when everyone else seemed to love it.)

So when I decided to develop my NOT to do list that went straight at number one.

Number Two was backpacking (or “travelling” if you are more of a pretentious ilk). For years I felt like I had missed out on something because I didn’t go travelling when I was younger (it was besides the point I didn’t fancy the idea of cheap flights and fleapit hostels), and always thought I should do it.

Once I added those two to the list I felt an immense sense of relief. I managed to shrug off 2 massive hang-ups that I had.

Then I was on a role!

(Not that I am saying you shouldn’t be doing those, I am just using them as an illustration of things I have added to my not to do list and why. You may love extreme sports and backpacking. In which case, go for your like!).

Recently I have added Internet Forums to the list  (I just can’t cope with all the bickering) and I am seriously thinking about adding Twitter. I don’t get it and I can’t be bothered and it stresses me out because I feel I should be on twitter (because everyone else is, right? See, how this works?).

Tim Ferriss calls this “selective ignorance”, he uses it mainly in the context of information overload and doesn’t read papers and only checks his email once a week (I am still developing my slow email strategy – I will write about it once I have it sorted-ish).

Sherlock Holmes, that famous fictional detective, was well known for having very little “general knowledge” and avoided anything that didn’t directly effect (or is that ‘affect’? I am never sure) what he is currently working on. Although he knew a lot (he is often considered a polymath), he only knew it in the context of what he needed it for (I am not suggesting you be this strict with yourself!)

How Do You Start Your ‘NOT To Do’ List?

Easy. But it does take a bit soul searching and discipline; you have to be honest with yourself.

I highly recommend you treat your ‘Not To Do’ list in the exactly the same way as a ‘To Do’ list: Write it down. Not on a scrap of paper, but in a decent notebook (so you won’t lose it). I also add a date and a reason why (some things I have added to my list I have come back to years later and can’t remember why I added them in the first place).

So, what do you put your list?

Well, listing things you never intended to do in the first place can act as catalyst to get you going, but it does seem a bit pointless if you have already, resolutely, made up your mind you are not going to do it. I could add “join the BNP” to my list if I wanted, but that seems rather daft…

So, begin with things that you feel you should do (see the “dreaded shoulds” here), these are often the things we struggle with in a our daily lives, never really get round to doing (because you don’t really want to do it), but they seem to gnaw await at you, you get a nagging feeling you ought do them…

Then start listing things you are doing now just for the sake of. You probably have lots of habits that have just developed over the years that no longer really have any reasonable function, you just do them because you have always done them.

Not sure if it should be on the list? Put it on for a week and see if you miss it, if you last a week, leave it there for a month, if after a month you still haven’t needed to do or missed it, put it on forever.

You see, the idea of a good ‘NOT To Do’ list, is to start cutting back on what you are doing now as well as resolving not to do new (irrelevant) things.

Then of course, it frees up time and energy (and, often, money too) to do the things you actually want to do, but we will talk about that next time…

Matt