Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Overthinking When Examing One's Life

The unexamined life is not worth living. This is an axiom passed on to us from Socrates and followed by many today.

Blog posts abound (here and everywhere else on the web) showing that people have taken this to heart. We spill our heart's secrets to the world, record our most trivial thoughts on Twitter or Facebook for the world to see, and otherwise share our everyday ramblings and life dreams with anyone who will listen or read. Our age is the age of communication. We put out more of our thoughts into the world than ever before and consume more media (otherwise known as other people's thoughts) than any generation before us. It is a world of self-expression--much of it shouting here I am, this is who I am.

Personal Development blogs are particularly popular on the web (and the related personal finance, organization, diet....what have you blogs). In each of these blogs you will find people telling you how you should track what you spend, record your time usage, chart your progress, set goals and make spreadsheets, record your daily word count, or otherwise make your life a series of records. We are told that only by recording the minutiae of our day can we make the changes we want in our life.

And apparently we all have things we want to change. The web is filled with people looking to change their lives for the better (just like me!) and recording how they do it or how others could/should do it.

What I have been wondering about is our obsession with tracking, listing, charting and recording it all. I want to figure out my life in order to put it on track (because on my 41st birthday I felt so uncertain about my career and where my life was going). The first thought I had when planning this was to start a blog--to help me talk my way through my plans and "keep me on track" and "accountable." It was my way to record my thoughts and maybe even build a community of people on a similar journey who would have advice and thoughts on the challenges ahead of me.

However I note that one word has returned time and again to the comments I have received in this blog--overthinking. I may be "overthinking" my life--making things too complex. This is what started me wondering, is there such a thing as too much examination of one's life?

All of these blogs which insist that we cannot improve ourselves without first setting down a record of what we do--does the tracking actually help in the long term? Is it even healthy for all of us to be so obsessed with charts and statistics about our lives?

There was a time about two years ago when I tried to record my day in 15 minute increments and show what category of occupation I was involved in during that time. Last year I had a spreadsheet where I recorded the money I put into savings and had a pie chart showing how I had designated the money for future use and another chart which showed my monthly progress in reaching my savings goals. Two or three years ago I was a member of a diet site where I had to enter in every meal I ate and my progress on a prescribed exercise routine. For each of these projects, I lasted between 4 months to 1.5 years in recording my progress before I gave it up in disgust. I felt like I was obsessed with the charting but not actually happy with my life. I wasn't really gaining knowledge from my charts; I was only gaining obsession.

I find that looking at web statistics for traffic has a similar fascination for me. I will check my statistics on various web sites I run plus this blog--to see if anyone has visited the sites in the last day. I poke around at all of the charts and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that this week I increased readership or yesterday I had better numbers than the day before, or even that my web site has decreased in traffic and wondering why. I'm obsessed with the statistics, but why?

Some people have argued that women are encouraged by society to diet, not because there is a true value in every woman being as thin as can be, but because the obsession with tracking and obsessing over every bite uses up so much brain energy that she will not have the time to be political or otherwise cause trouble. For those who argue this, dieting and the obsession with the minutiae of calories and exercise counts is keeping women from more important issues--and being a full and equal member of society.

I wonder sometimes just how much we could do if all of us were less obsessed with tracking, recording, and listing (my great weaknesses--the list), and more obsessed with simply living. Our society is getting drowned in data and self-expression so that we no longer live our lives but simply examine them.

I realize the irony of this idea. I've dedicated this blog and my upcoming year (10 months to go!) to examining my life and now I find that one of the things that needs to be examined is my need to track, record, list, and (in fact) blog about my life. I'm not quitting my blog and I'm not suggesting that everyone else should ignore the suggestions to track and chart our lives but I am suggesting that perhaps that everyone, myself included, should examine just how much charting and examining we each need to be happy.

Overthinking can be killing the very goals which it sought to find. A step back may be needed, to give us room to live, explore, and grow. Too much examination can wither us, like a plant exposed to too much sun through a magnifying glass fixed on it. The light of such an intense examination can kill the thing which is examined. So we may be killing our lives with our charts and deadening our ability to be more spontaneous, flexible, and open in our lives. Worse, the time and brain energy needed to maintain such vigilance in our lives takes time away from joy. I may find charts fascinating but they will never bring me joy. Joy in life usually comes from simpler and less examined moments and that's where I will try to spend more of my days from now on. I'll examine my life but maybe not quite so much......

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely agree with you on this. It's really, really important just to let go and live more spontaneously right now. Over-examining and quantifying gets in the way of just living (and as you observe drains energy from living), and it gets you constantly chasing after stuff outside your own heart. It also creates limitations - basically it's keeping score - let it go and the possibilities become limitless.


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