I sense it. That suffocating feeling of “too much.”
It often comes when there’s too much stuff cluttering my physical space. But that’s not it this time. There’s something else bogging me down. Making me slow. Inefficient. Exhausted.
It’s the unseen presence of too many voices.
I refer to external voices. If my life were a comic strip, the panel would be crowded with speech bubbles, overlapping each other and drowning out my own ability to think or create. It produces inefficiency at best. Paralysis at worst.
So many voices I encounter present me with a whirlwind of decisions of how or if to engage. There are some that soothe and bolster, such as those from music. But others agitate or require a response. Do I ignore the voice or engage with it? If engage, what do I think about it? Do I need to respond? Then how? You see the flow chart forming here. Multiply these questions by every voice and that adds up to a deluge of decision fatigue.
This is not my normal Going Green topic, but my definition of green living promotes life and growth and beauty. None of this can happen when my days are so clogged with voices that responding to them – or choosing not to respond to them – takes all my time, leaving me with little resource for pursuing my goals or joys. That’s not abundant life.
How many voices are in my life? Especially in this time of lockdown, how many can there really be? I started counting yesterday’s. It was pretty easy when it came to in-person voices, books, and music. It got a little harder to keep up with texts, emails, digital comments. Then I started adding up those from the media and social media. Hundreds. Literally hundreds.
How did all these voices get into my life? I don’t recall inviting them. But I did. I wasn’t careful and left the door open. Fortunately, I do have control, and I can clean house. Here’s what I need to do:
- Audit the voices: Count them. The in-person voices. The in-print voices. Those from TV, radio, podcasts, streaming. Social media, news sites, blog posts, comments.
- Prioritize the voices: Identify the most important voices and make sure they get my primetime, so that I don’t come to the end of the day and realize I gave my best attention to voices that don’t ultimately matter. I find that dinner time is an ideal and regular time to make sure I hear my most loved voices –face-to-face, no distraction except sharing food. For important voices that I am not physically with, intentionally reserving time to connect. I think of how my mom has weekly phone calls and FaceTimes with each of her siblings and her best friends, none of whom are local. But she has carved out those times for undivided connection.
- Schedule the voices: Voices that inspire and feed should come first in my day, before voices that take. When my kids were younger and rose early, it helped when I got up even earlier, to be proactive rather than reactive in how my day began. So often I didn’t do this, but I was glad when I did. Nowadays the temptation is strong to check my email or social media before I’m even out of bad, and I always regret it because I start having to decide and give before I’ve been filled. Instead, I try to read something that inspires me first, or see the sunrise, or take a walk before letting the world in. While I can’t always control what voices are in my day, I can somewhat control the order, to cushion the taxing ones between the replenshing.
- Limit the voices: What voices have wandered into my life that really don’t need to be there? They don’t benefit me. They’re not part of my responsibilities. In a sense, I’m borrowing someone else’s burden, or even giving audience to a voice that doesn’t need one. Sometimes I need to go through and quiet these. I can ask the same questions I ask of physical clutter: do I need and use this voice or does it bring me joy? If neither, then off it goes.
- Confine the voices: Some voices, whether I like them or not, I cannot disconnect. There are some, that though draining, I must engage with, as part of a job or other responsibility. There are other voice sources that are fun in moderation but burdensome in abundance – social media, I’m looking at you. For these sorts, I can set times and places to let them in. Confine social media’s access to one device, and not my phone. (Hardcore!) I decide when and how I’m going to engage with certain difficult voices, and intentionally seek positive voices or even silence to balance those encounters.
Most of the overabundance of voices in my life stems from mindlessness. I just let them all wander in because I’m bored or procrastinating or lazy. Usually this is with media or social media, when I succumb to the temptation to see what’s going on in other people’s lives instead of addressing what’s going on in my own.
This sort of decluttering must be done with some regularity because circumstances change and we change. Voices that were once relevant are no longer. They were useful once, but their time has passed. Eliminating these voices can bring closure to events, jobs, or responsibilities that have passed.
Depending on exactly how crowded I’ve let things get, I might not be able to gain control all at once. I might have to declutter in steps. Perhaps establishing that first-thing-in-the-morning habit of picking up a source of inspiration instead of my phone. Then proceeding to disconnecting from digital voices 1 hour before bed. Then setting aside one evening a week to call a valuable but distant voice.
I fear I may be misinterpreted here as rude or antisocial. My intent is quite the reverse. Many of the voices in my life I really enjoy. Love, even. But like a room crowded with too many objects, when there are too many voices, the ones I cherish are obscured. And they know it. My kids are old enough to recognize my “staring at the screen” voice, my “listening but not really listening” voice. I see the knowing look in their eyes. My husband knows and calls me on it, bless him. I can discern, too, when I have squandered too much time reading or thinking about distant, impersonal voices that don’t really matter. I feel the poorer for it.
By no means am I advocating cutting oneself off from the world. Rather, this is about being intentional. Protecting time to go deep with the important voices in your life. To let people or inspiration that encourage, replenish, restore do just that. These are the stuff of life, but often I have wasted myself in the onslaught of impersonal or irrelevant voices.
Our world is noisy. Even stuck in our houses, we have access to so much valuable information and valuable voices, but we also have access to so much junk. If we’re not careful, we get consumed with the latter, because it’s easy, fleetingly pleasant, or clamoring.
When I think about living on the frontier of the American West, one thing that strikes me is how quiet it must have been. The only voices would have been the people you were with and books, if you had them. So much time for introspection and going deep. Of course, so much time spent on mere survival.
I thank you for letting me be one of the voices in your life. I write from the whirlwind here. I am due for a hefty round of voice decluttering. Wish me well, as I do you.
A friend shared with me a timely quote from a voice I don’t know, but I appreciate: “May you grow still enough to hear the splintering of the starlight in the winter sky and the roar at Earth’s fiery core.” -Brother David Steindl-Rast. That’s a thought worth letting in and allowing to fill me.