Principle 6: Vigilance

My Teetering Inbox

Pay attention to what is happening in your life. Maintain focus on what is truly important.

It was January 2009, and simple living had come off the rails:

Sunday, our day of rest (ha!) began with driving my 6th-grader to an 8:30 am volleyball practice, returning home to drive my teenagers to church to sing in the choir at 9:30, getting myself ready for church, driving to pick up my 6th-grader from volleyball so she could get ready for church, then going to church with her at 11:30. Somewhere in there the teenagers reappeared, having apparently wheedled a ride home, so at least I didn’t have to go back to church a third time: all those trips back and forth were giving me highway hypnosis, and it wasn’t even noon yet…

I was also working full time, trying to go to an early morning exercise class three times a week, one of my daughters was an altar server at church, I was spending my lunch hours trying to do the errands and other household business.

Every time I began one task, it was impossible to focus because I felt like I had a chorus of hooligans behind me shouting out all the items on my to-do list. For every task I said “yes” to I seemingly had several dozen equally important tasks I had to say “no” to.

…this maelstrom I found myself in proved that in modern America, you have to fight to keep things simple. “Stuff” is always creeping in, piling up on my desk and on my bedside table, adding itself mysteriously to my schedule and my to-do list, insinuating its way almost imperceptibly into my life and into my family, until a week like that comes along and slaps me awake.

If I may be permitted to paraphrase Wendell Phillips, the price of simplicity is, truly, eternal vigilance[1] because “entropy increases.”[2]

(To read the entire post, go here: “Simple Living in a Complicated World.”)

Emergencies and special circumstance arise and overwhelm us, and we must deal with them, but being chronically overwhelmed is not good for us. The key to dealing with incremental overload is vigilance. Other words and phrases for this concept include mindfulness, watchfulness, paying attention, attentiveness, intentionality, or, as Thoreau put it in Walden, living “deliberately.”

Without vigilance, you go through life on autopilot and eventually start to wonder what happened…

Behold my wonderful desk:

Behold the same desk about a week later:

Stuff creep!

To avoid creeping stuff and the unsightly, teetering, Dr. Suess-like piles of things all over your house, you could employ one or more of the numerous personal productivity systems out there, in print and on the internet, including:

Getting Things Done by David Allen. He recommends regular “reviews,” in which you take care of all loose ends daily, weekly, monthly, and so on.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Peopleby Stephen R. Covey. He suggests we categorize our various tasks into four quadrants: urgent & important; urgent & unimportant; non-urgent and unimportant; non-urgent and important.

Organized Simplicity by Tsh Oxenreider. She blogs at And no, I did not misspell her first name. It really is spelled “Tsh.” 🙂

 The Power of Lessby Leo Babauta. Leo is a minimalist. He suggests we make a “short list” of 5 essential things that we want to do daily or at least regularly. He also blogs at

Keep this in mind, though: any personal productivity system, by its very nature, buys into the myth that maximum “productivity” and “getting things done” are one of the highest and loftiest goals to which a person may aspire. Susan K. Rowland, in her book Make Room for God: Clearing Out the Clutterchallenges this modern truism:

I believe our Western (American) culture keeps us from developing spiritually…This is not surprising. We live in a fallen world. Our particular culture seems to worship the god of productivity. It is isolationist and consumerist. [We] believe a whole set of cultural tenets: Good people get a lot done. God expects us to work hard in this life. Everyone else is doing fine, and I am not if I can’t do what they are doing. These beliefs are actually part of our cultural “religion,” which many of us accept unquestioningly and unconsciously. They are not true…

When dutifully doing things becomes the focus of our lives, we will never fulfill [our] true purpose or our deepest longings. We will never come to the end of our to-do lists. The world will never excuse us from one task or duty. We will never get to the really important things in life unless we intentionally carve out time for them.

Our essential selves, our purpose in life, our relationships…have too long been put aside and belittled by this culture that worships accomplishment.

So here’s the question: what’s at the top of your to-do list?

[1] “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) American abolitionist, orator, and writer. A contemporary of Henry David Thoreau.

[2] The Second Law of Thermodynamics.