Issues of focus


I’m not sure if it was my friend, Merlin, who led the charge, but at some point, many of us, myself, included, gave up on streamlining, optimizing and other kinds of organizational navel-gazing and started turning our attention to attention.

What it was made of. What obscured it. What attracted ours.

As things accelerate and old structures crumble around us, a shift like this makes perfect sense. Power and money still mean something, but the means to them has changed quite a bit, a phenomenal amount in my working lifetime, to the point where I regularly find instances of people caught with their pants down all over the Internet, not to mention real life. The speed of life and the volume of stuff that fills it is staggering, which is to say I (and I daresay you, and that fella sitting next to you) regularly stagger under the weight of it.

And stuff. Let’s talk about that stuff, shall we? While I was too much of a pantywaist-commie-pinko-hippie to join the Masters of the Universe in the bloodthirsty late-last-century race to see who died with the most toys, I dined on their dime and drank their whiskey. Mea culpa, and I’ve been actively taking steps to address it ever since I realized my folly, from getting rid of shit to riffing less often to putting more time into what I really care about.

At the risk of sounding like a new age spongecake, the chief questions seem to me to be:

  1. What is getting in the way of what I want?
  2. How do I remove those obstacles?

What is missing from this list is, of course, the all-important “What do I want?” To those who would point this out, I would say either, “You already know that part, bub” or “If you don’t know, try getting rid of some stuff.” The excavation process is subtractive: heaping more crap, even really well-written or beautifully-made crap, is going to hurt you more than it helps. As one who spent many, many years wandering through the psychic equivalent of the Container Store, looking for neat solutions to organize my neuroses rather than haul them into the light where they might shrivel or at least be sterilized, I know. I know. That cheap crap from China is mighty alluring on the surface.

But now, well over two years into this wandering-in-the-desert shit, I’m here to say that there is no magic book or info product or life-changing seminar, or, yes, blog, that holds the answer. Like Dorothy, ain’t nothing in that black bag for you, son. Go declutter a closet, or take a long walk, or send that email to your friend with the great shrink and begin the sometimes-arduous, always long process of excavation. Because your inability to get traction or to focus is directly related to the myriad ways you’ve chosen to numb yourself.

Nobody’s blaming anyone, least of all me. I am currently grappling with a layer of clutter so tacky and tenacious that I can only hope it indicates the imminent breakthrough my clutterbusting friend, Brooks, seems to believe. Yet this layer feels as whisper-thin as it does dense, so that at the end of this all, the happy ending I’m trying to hold in front of my heart, I will look at this discarded skin/film/filter that separated me from my wholeness with wonder and disbelief: This? This was the Supposably Huge Thing standing between me and the Next Thing? That’s it?

The greatest gift you can be given is to be born with that clearly defined passion inside you. If you are so blessed, you must pay back the gods by pursuing that passion with laser-like focus in a way that helps the rest of us.

The consolation prize is ruthlessly, bravely, systematically eliminating what obscures that passion, keeping yourself sharp and light and open along the way.

Either way, focus is mandatory. Focus is the means by which all the good things happen (and, yes, the bad, but those are not concerns of ours right now).

Focus. Eliminate. Focus. Pursue.


Image by Thomas Shahan (Opo Terser) via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Few things can make me laugh at 7:30 in the morning. The phrase “new age spongecake” is now officially one of them. Thanks for being so damned smart (and funny, too).

  2. I am ashamed to say that I just shoved some papers behind my laptop so they don’t distract me (yeah, I stopped to file them). So today’s message rings (bongs) true.

    Ah, a morning to embrace focus. Keep ’em coming, Colleen!

  3. Great post! I am in the middle of some pretty cool decluttering. First the hall closet, then the other little closet on the side over there. Next? World domination! Uh…not really…maybe next is the garage ;)

  4. “The excavation process is subtractive: heaping more crap—even really well-written or beautifully-made crap—is going to hurt you more than it helps.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Finding what I want was for me the result of a whole year of simply doing nothing. I eliminated a source of income that was more an obstacle for my realization than a means towards it. I got rid of the notion that accumulating physical stuff is necessary. I obliterated my prejudiced view about achievement as the way to happiness, and finally understood that it has more to do with being than doing. And I learned to allow myself to grow, rather than trying to.

    Thank you!

  5. Colleen, I am in the midst of my own serious wanderings and excavations and clutter busting. THANK YOU for writing about all of this with such clarity and courage and for helping keep me sane and hopeful in the midst of my own process. Found this quote that I find encouraging when I start to berate myself for not getting my personal growth “right.”

    “If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led—make of that what you will.”
    —Wendell Berry

  6. Thank you, all! This was another REALLY HARD TO WRITE episode in what is, confoundingly, a continuing series. Ah, well. So be it. And dammit.

    Let’s all support Peggy and either call someone (as in, out loud) or label someone (as in, quietly, to oneself) a “new age spongecake”) today.

    Hurrah! to all declutterers! I cannot wait to see what we all make in the spaces we are creating.

  7. Often the breakthroughs are quiet. The distractions seem loud. Or they point a big finger and say, “No, not here, look over there!” But the discoveries and insights are often at whisper volume, and they are a small amount of words. “I like this.” “This is what I want to do.” That’s why they often go unnoticed. We can’t blame ourselves, we’re encouraged to get and stay distracted. Distractions wear us out and make us numb. From here it’s near impossible to have the clarity to see what’s happening. But still a feeling can get through and say, “I want to enjoy my life. I want to create some space so I can do what fits me.” I think it’s a back and forth experience. Life tends to move in extremes. I love your courage to take honest looks at your life for the sake of seeing what works for you.

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