I have a problem, and I think most people do as well: I want to do everything.
OK, not actually every single thing, but I want to do more than I possibly can:
- I want to do everything on my long to-do list, today.
- I want to take on every interesting project.
- I want to say “yes” to everyone else’s requests, even if I know I’m already too busy.
- I want to travel everywhere, and see everything that’s interesting.
- I want to try every delicious food, and I always want more of it—and I always eat too much.
- I want to watch every interesting TV show and film.
- I want to read everything interesting online.
- I want to take on a lot of interesting hobbies each of which would take hours to master.
- I want to spend time with everyone I love, and have a lot of time for solitude!
Obviously, this is all impossible. But I bet I’m not alone in constantly wanting all of this and more.
There’s a term for this in Buddhism that sounds judgmental but it’s not: “greed.” The term “greed” in this context just describes the very human tendency to want more of what we want.
It’s why we’re overloaded with too many things to do, and overwhelmed in general. It’s why we’re constantly distracted. It’s also why we are overeating, over shopping, and addicted over and over again. It’s why we have too much stuff, and too much debt.
Greed is so common that we don’t even notice it. It’s the foundation of our consumerist society. It’s the ocean that we’re swimming, so much a part of the fabric of our lives that we can’t see that it’s there.
So what can we do about this tendency called greed? Is there an antidote?
There absolutely is.
The traditional antidote to greed in Buddhism is generosity. And while we will talk about the practice of generosity, the antidote I’d like to propose you try is focus.
If your greed isn’t material, but experiential, or a greed for achievement, then the solution is to narrow things down.
Focus is a form of simplicity. It’s letting go of everything that you might possibly want, to give complete focus on one important thing.
Imagine that you want to get 20 things done today. You are eager to rush through them all and get through your to-do list. But instead of indulging in your greed tendency, you decide to simplify. You decide to focus.
The Practice of Complete Focus
This practice can be applied to all of the types of greed we mentioned above—wanting to do everything, read everything, say “yes” to everything, go everywhere, and eat all the things.
Identify the urge: The first step in this practice is to recognize that your greed tendency is showing itself. Notice that you want to do everything, eat everything, and so forth. Once we’re aware of the tendency, we can work with it.
See the effects: Next, we need to recognize that indulging in the greed tendency only hurts us. It makes us feel stressed, overwhelmed, and unsatisfied. It makes us do and eat and watch and shop too much, to the detriment of our sleep, happiness, relationships, finances, and more. Indulging might satisfy a temporary itch, but it’s not a habit that leads to happiness or fulfillment.
Practice refraining: Third, we can choose to refrain—to not indulge. The practice of refraining is about not indulging in the greed tendency, and instead pausing. Notice the urge to indulge, and mindfully noticing how the urge feels as a physical sensation in your body. Where is it located? What is it like? Be curious about it. Stay with it for a minute or two. Notice that you are actually completely fine, even if the urge is really strong. It’s just a sensation.
Focus with generosity: Then we can choose to be generous and present with one thing. Instead of trying to do everything, choose just one thing. Ideally, choose something that’s important, meaningful, and will have an impact on the lives of others—even if only in a small way. Let this be an act of generosity for others. Let go of everything else, just for a few minutes, and be completely with this one thing. Generously give it your full attention. This is your love.
Clear distractions: If necessary, create structure to hold you in this place of focus. That might mean shutting off the phone, turning off the Internet, going to a place where you can completely focus. Think of it as creating your meditation space.
Practice with the resistance: As you practice focus, you are likely to feel resistance towards actually focusing and doing this one thing. You’ll want to go do something else, anything else. You’ll feel great aversion to doing this one thing. It’s completely fine. Practice with this resistance as you did with the urge: notice the physical sensation, meditate on it with curiosity, stay with it with attention and love. Again, it’s just a sensation, and you can learn to love it as you can any experience.
Let go of everything, and generously give your complete focus to one thing. Simplify, and be completely present.
You can do this with your urge to do all tasks, read all things, do all hobbies, say “yes” to all people and projects. But you can also do it with possessions: choose just to have what you need to be happy, and simplify by letting go of the rest. You can do the same with travel: be satisfied with where you are, or with going to one place and fully being there with it.
You don’t need to watch everything, read everything, eat everything. You can simplify and do less. You can let go and be present. You can focus mindfully.
If you’d like to train in this kind of focus, train with me in my Mindful Focus Course online.
Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net