Desiderata: How to Enjoy Serenity and Focus

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

I once wrote about “the scalable factor of time”  being the sense of spaciousness, of there being ample time for everything. It’s well documented that you need an alert, but relaxed state to drop into Flow, and once there, time behaves oddly. You are simultaneously expansive as the universe and focused on a pinpoint. There’s no sense of movement, but your speed and productivity is electrifying.

I strive to achieve that sense in my day to day life, but it remains a transcendental goal. It’s a tricky state to achieve; it can’t be chased, but you have to set up conditions that are favorable to it, and practice them faithfully, because it’s a state of mind as much as anything else. You have to convince yourself that there is no better use of your time in this moment than what you are doing, and you have to give yourself wholly to it– not so much though, that you become attached to the state. You have to just be present.

Isn’t this maddening?

It’s like that terrible advice people give you when you are unhappily single or unemployed; “Don’t think about it so much. It will happen when it will happen. Do something else for a while. Give it a chance to sneak up on you.”

This correctly identifies that you cannot force placidness and serenity. However, it fails in giving you anything that’s actually useable (like, for instance, how to stop being pulled into the vortex of stress and worry that is modern life.)

Luckily, I have better advice.

However, you won’t like it. I know this because I don’t like it. It’s a lot of boring, tedious work. It is, however, necessary.

In this day and age, we’ve made a bit of a fetish out of busyness.

It’s totally absurd, but it’s become a sort of badge of honor to breathlessly reply when someone asks you how you’ve been; “Busy!” Of course you have. Not to be busy is practically to fail as a human being, amirite?

And everybody else is busy, too, so this seems normal, even reasonable.

But what if I told you, you can choose not to be busy?

You would probably agree in general terms, but in terms of your specific situation, you would not see this as a viable alternative.

Not being busy is like budgeting. It is. You’re basically deciding not to “spend” all your time. You’re going to just keep it tucked away for yourself. And, similar to budgeting, you’re going to look at your list of bills and be like “I can’t give up any of those things!”

Which I’m not going to argue with you on that point. Maybe you can. Maybe you can’t.

But a lot of the time what I see is people get a lot of things on their plate, and all those things are OBJECTIVELY GOOD THINGS. They’re totally cool, fun, rewarding, and all that. They’re a good investment. Whatever.

So the objection is not to those things, per se. It’s to the stress and pressure and general clutter they add to your life.

We can recognize this in others; imagine an overscheduled twelve-year-old. He has school, and homework. Then there’s soccer, Cub Scouts, and guitar lessons. And as a pretty popular kid, at least one or two of his friends have a birthday party every month, and he’s got a very involved family who wants to see him, so there’s family dinners and outings a couple times a month. And there’s family game night, there’s trips to the museum and the mall, grocery shopping and helping out around the house.

And I can hear you thinking, “That poor fucking kid. When does he get a chance to just play in the yard with a tire swing or a tree fort? All that running around can’t be healthy.”

But all that stuff is good. He enjoys it, (well, except the homework), and it’ll look good on his college application later. More importantly, what should he cut?

So my argument is not that you should cut things, which would feel like a sacrifice. It’s that you should pay attention to whether they add more stress to your life than the pleasure you get from undertaking them.


It’s easy to think to yourself, “oh, well, things have just been a little backed up this week. When things get better it won’t be so stressful.” False. Think back for the last six months or so. How many weeks can you recall where things were humming along, everything going well? Hmm? 2? 3? Nowhere close to MOST, I’ll bet.

This is your status quo. Embrace reality, so that you can take steps to change it.

We tend to think that this status quo is actually an anomaly; that if we can just be better, more efficient, more disciplined, then the machine will work as it should. So we bend all our efforts to becoming faster, more efficient. But the problem is, fast is slow and slow is fast.

This is what we’re talking about when we say “the hurrieder I go, the more behind I get,” because trying to be faster or more efficient is ineffectual and often burns the candle at both ends.

Conversely, when you can be slow, methodical, even plodding, you wind up getting results much faster. Yet another one of those maddening aspects of life.

But how can you slow down when every aspect of life urges you to keep up with everyone else?

That is the question, isn’t it?

Like A Rat at a Pellet Lever

The first thing I want you to understand is that you’re suffering from an addiction.

Yup. You’re addicted to stimulation.

Basically, you run on adrenaline. There’s no stigma to it; practically everyone does. If you’ve ever come home to a quiet house, turned on the TV for the noise, couldn’t sit still through a show so you played with your phone, you can see what I’m talking about.

(Over)stimulation is our normal. Lack of stimulation, and the decompression and perhaps bone-deep exhaustion that accompanies it, feels profoundly uncomfortable.

Try it. Try to sit for five minutes and do nothing. Hell, even one minute.

I bet you can’t. And even if you do, you’ll dislike it, for some reason you can’t really articulate.

So, you’re fighting this “Go placidly” war on at least two fronts: societal, and your brain conditioning. However, the payoff is tangible:

1. Your quality of life increases
2. Your quality of work increases
3. Very likely, your productivity will increase (see also “Throughput vs Capacity”)
4. You are able to focus deeply and fully at the task in front of you, and access a flow state more readily.
5. You are able to enjoy life more at the new, slower pace because you are more alert, aware and present.

But how, specifically, does one do that?

Well, I think the answer is encapsulated in my favorite quote of all time,

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Like so much of life, you can achieve a good bit of success by just showing up with the right tools for the job. If that means locking yourself out of social media, shutting the door, putting on headphones, trekking to the local coffee shop, or whatever other ritual is necessary to impress upon your mind that this moment is for work, specific, valuable work. It’s eating properly, and exercising enough so that your body isn’t jumpy or sluggish. It’s routines, it’s filling the well, its being mindful of how your environment impacts your state of mind. Do these things. And do them habitually, because it’s a muscle you’ll need to strengthen.

Also, take some time each week  to reflect on whether you can improve on your process. For instance, I used to work out on the porch in warm weather, but I found that I spent too much time assessing my comfort levels. Now I work in my office where that consideration is unnecessary, and I can focus on my work more easily.

My “Success” Story

I myself have a long way to go on this front, but I’m better than I was. I’m not socially anxious or agoraphobic, but sometimes I don’t go into town for many days at a stretch. If you take out grocery shopping, that number stretches to weeks. And I’m perfectly happy; thrilled, even. Typically, the stimulation of going to town is neutral at best. The silence of the house and yard are far preferable. The Internet, Google Hangouts and Skype bring me high-quality stimulation in the form of cool people and articles, so in my view, I live the 20th century ideal of Walden Pond.

Don’t freak out if this is not your ideal. You get to choose your own ideal! Just get off the hamster wheel of busyness and overstimulation so that you can “go placidly” when you need to and enjoy, if not the silence, then the reprieve from the mental chatter that so bedevils us.

How would your work and life change if you could “go placidly among the noise and haste” all the time? And if you’ve had success on this front, offer your tips to us in the comments.


8 thoughts on “Desiderata: How to Enjoy Serenity and Focus”

  1. I recently realized that I need boundaries before I can feel free. Paradoxical, perhaps, but true. And I think I’ve always been like that — preferred coloring to drawing, writing an essay on a particular topic in school to writing something open-ended, being told I have 1 hour to finish something to having all the time in the world. So the newest experiment is to see if putting a light schedule in place for myself will help me focus better on what I’m doing — remove some of the stress, as you put it.

    1. remadebyhand There’s a great post up at Productive Flourishing about the two different types of freedom; freedom to do ANYTHING, and freedom to self-actualize. The latter comes at the expense of the former, because of the necessary focus required.

  2. michaelwroberts

    I’ve found myself over the past several weeks stopping out of over-stimulation and just being still, waiting to catch up with myself. It’s been a very real process of re-evaluating in which parts of my life I want to invest. 
    I like the idea of going quietly among the noise and haste. The rest of the world isn’t slowing down. It’s a choice that we have to make, but that seems doable. I don’t actually have to slow down the rest of the world, just me. 
    By the way, where did the “violent and original” quote come from?

    1. michaelwroberts The ‘violent and original’ quote is from Gustave Flaubert, although he traveled widely, he worked punctiliously.
      I think it’s doable to slow down ourselves too, but it takes a conscious effort, like maintaining stillness in a swift-flowing stream.

  3. Most of your sweeping generalities seem accurate, but I don’t think as many people are addicted to stimulation as you think they are. I believe that humans are wired to want silence – or in some cases – need the nothingness of silence. That includes silence of the ears, but also the absence of brain stimulation via the eyes, touch, temperature.
    It was heavenly when I took my first trip in the isolation tank last year and experienced true nothingness for the first time since I was in my mother’s womb. Just me and 90 minutes of nothingness. It… was… awesome!
    I spend some days trying to partially recreate that isolation tank experience. Moments free of stimulation. A small chunk of time where I simply exist without attempting to be influenced by anything external. Sadly, they are fleeting. But when I get these glorious moments, I don’t say, “Get me out of here!” I say, “Please let me stay here just a little longer.”
    Not everyone wants or needs to feel the adrenaline rush. To paraphrase my friend Jessie, “Sometimes all I want is more nothing.”

    1. joeyjoejoe I agree that many people want more of nothing, but that many people, having got it, tend to spook themselves. Writers who take retreats, professionals on sabbaticals, even stay-at-home parents, often speak of the intimidating nature of the silence, and all that space that cannot be filled. 
      That’s not to say they don’t adapt, or come to love it, but the first impulse usually seems to be “Oh, shit!”

      1. Shanna Mann joeyjoejoe  The rare times I get a babysitter so I can have personal time, I don’t even know what to do with myself so I agree with that first impulse. The nothingness Joel’s talking about is what I need in between one type of stimulation and the next. I think ‘nothing’ is a way to recharge and put things in perspective. I can’t be there for too long though.

  4. I know I’m addicted to stimulation… if I’ve been out doing something and I get home and it’s “too early” I tend to want to go back out, or at least, I will want to go out again the next night. I have slowly been learning to catch this behavior in myself, trying not to put things on the calendar more often than every *other* night, and one day a week of out-of-the-office play (although with the move, I only got to try this schedule for two weeks, but it felt pretty good.) I know when my calendar has no white space in it, it kind of makes me want to cry, but at the same time, I need a high level of social interaction to be functional in the world. The good news is that I’m starting to understand the kinds and quality of interaction that actually refill my cup, versus the ones that are just indulging in stimulation but not actually helping me. I guess that’s the paying attention that you speak of, but man (or Mann?), I have a long way to go!

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