How Unpacking Your Life Helps You Find Clarity and Focus

Our lives are packed.

Just check your calendar, review your internet browsing history, or go to your email inbox. Peruse your latest credit card and bank statements.

Look at the pile of laundry to be done, or the length of your grocery list. Notice how much is in your closets, cupboards, and drawers.

Or consider your aspirations:
  • the books you want to read
  • the movies you want to see
  • the things you want to buy
  • the places you want to visit
  • the tasks and challenges you want to accomplish

For most of us, these lists are long and growing.

so many books to read

Our tendency to overdo

There's not a single one of us who doesn't say yes to invitations and commitments, take on new hobbies, join groups, and embark on new relationships (online or IRL). All of this while trying to keep all of our old commitments, hobbies, and relationships going strong.

As a result, we're always busy, usually in debt, often feeling anxious, and forever trying to catch up. Even during the COVID pandemic when we had so few places to go, many of us spent even more time than usual scrolling social media and binge-watching TV. We may not have been able to physically go to the mall, but many of us did a ton of online shopping.

Maybe it's human nature, and we just can't help adding to what we've already got. Maybe having more than we need gives us a sense of security. But our tendency to overdo can leave us feeling trapped and burned out.

The answer is to unpack your life.

  • Unpack possessions. Get rid of clutter that's weighing you down, and find joy in owning less.
  • Unpack commitments. Consider everything you've agreed to, from boards and committees to coaching, volunteering, classes, and more. Why is it so hard to say no?
  • Unpack online activity. Social media has its uses and benefits, but at some point the negative aspects become more prominent. What is that point? When is scrolling and clicking a relaxing break and when does it become a huge waste of time or a source of envy and discontent?
  • Unpack to-do lists. During COVID restrictions a couple of years ago, days might have seemed long and uneventful. But being over-busy can make each day feel like an endurance race, which isn't great either. What makes a good balance?

  • Unpack aspirational activities. I would never suggest that we shouldn't have goals, hobbies, or travel plans. But some of our sense of pressure and dissatisfaction comes from overfull bucket lists. We should decide what matters most, and pare down to that.

At its core, unpacking is about choosing what's valuable. You decide what you want to cultivate in your life, and what you'd like to remove. Suddenly your focus becomes clear.

How to unpack

bicycle in a city park
Leo Babauta, who blogs at, suggests that we mindfully start from scratch. It's possible to do this for real, but for now he suggests that we imagine having only the bare essentials:

  • A comfortable bed and a set of clean bedding, a few changes of clothes and shoes, a jacket, a computer and phone. A couch or a couple of easy chairs. A lamp or two. A chest of drawers and/or a desk, if needed.
  • A pantry stocked with basic foods. A few dishes and cooking implements. A stove, refrigerator, and dining table.
  • A bathroom with toilet paper and a shower with soap and shampoo. A handful of other toiletries, a few towels and washcloths.
  • A small shelf of books and a few cherished photos or artworks.

  • Minimal equipment for one or two hobbies such as container gardening, walking/hiking/running, yoga, pickup basketball or soccer at the park, knitting or crocheting, photography, drawing/watercolors, writing, chess, crosswords, etc. Or you might have a bicycle or a musical instrument.

Lots of people in the world don't have anywhere near this much! You would need a few tools and cleaning implements, and maybe a few other items depending on your circumstances, but let's not get caught in the details.

What I notice about Babauta's list is that it looks like what I might have if I were staying at an Airbnb for several days. Having just the basics puts you in vacation mode, when you focus on where you are and what you're doing rather than on your stuff. How can we make that an everyday reality?

Next, choose what's valuable.

Now imagine that you could choose to do just five or six things each day. That forces you to focus on your priorities. For me, that might be:

  • accomplishing meaningful work (mostly writing, along with some necessary administrative tasks, plus a few household chores)
  • spending time with/communicating with my husband, kids, grandkids, and a few close friends and family members
  • practicing (I'm a singer) or listening to music (I stream it on my computer)
  • reading
  • walking in the park
  • preparing and eating simple foods

What would your list look like? What would you want to add, or take away? Imagine a stripped-down life, pared to your essentials.

Stop living on auto-pilot.

I realize life isn't always this simple, and that sometimes we have to manage things that are beyond our control. We don't always have a job with meaningful work. Relationships can sometimes be complicated. We may take on difficult commitments from necessity, such as when an elderly parent needs regular help and care.

Situations aren't always ideal. I get that. But sometimes we're just making excuses not to change.

Unpacking – even just in your imagination – dares you to stop rationalizing the status quo. It challenges you to let go of your fixed beliefs. And when you do that, you might just see possibilities you never expected.


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