“What's new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. — Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The ability to curate your life is perhaps one of the most important skills you can cultivate. It’s no secret that modern humans are psychically bombarded. Drowning in seas of information, blasted daily by advertising, stymied by endless decisions on what to do and opportunities to acquire more stuff, thriving in the 21st century requires, perhaps more than anything, the ability to pare down, to remove, to simply say “no” to things.

Curated living is more than living simply or living minimally. It is a process of continually asking: “What is best?” and being able to answer quickly and confidently. It is simplicity guided by awareness of values and purpose.

The word “curation” derives from the Latin “curare,” meaning to “take care.” And it is in this sense of the word that I talk about a curated life. It is taking care of your life by focusing only on what matters most to you. It is, paradoxically, freedom from choice through a refined series of strategic decisions. It is the deliberate act of protecting your most precious resource: time.

Time, Decisions and Acquisitions

Decisions and acquisitions are like debits on your life’s balance sheet. All acquisitions compete for time, energy and resources. It doesn’t matter if the thing you acquire is a new iPad, a new t-shirt, or a new account on a social networking website. If it is in your life, it is taking your time. Similarly, all decisions compete for time, energy and resources. Every decision you make in a given day requires mental energy and time for consideration. The more decisions you have to make, the less energy and time you have to devote to things that matter most.

Time spent on those things that matter most – serving others, enjoying nature, communing with family and friends – are the only credits. These are the things which bring joy, happiness, peace and fulfillment.

The key, then, is to maximize credits and minimize debits. But how?

I believe this comes down to one simple concept: values. What is best – i.e. what matters – is that which aligns most closely with your core values.

The Strange Loop of Values

Most people understand values to be those intrinsic philosophical principles that we believe to be good, beneficial, desirable, important, even beautiful. They are like internal standards of measurement that we employ on a daily basis to determine the worth of things. Often, we often see our values as untouchable internal gems, permanent and unchanging once fully formed, ready to serve us through the remainder of our adult lives. Yet values are largely culturally derived. In a kind of strange loop, our lifestyle and culture shapes our values as much as our values shape our culture and lifestyle. And more importantly, if we pay little attention to our values, one side of that loop quickly comes to dominate the other.

Consider the Amish. They offer perhaps one of the most extreme examples of curated living guided by a strong sense of values. Family, religion, community, discipline, simplicity and hard-work – these are all values commonly associated with the austerity of the Amish way of life. The Amish eschew most modern technology because they believe that it will lead them astray from a life guided by their values. But, they are not complete Luddites. Many Amish, for instance, use telephones. Some even use fax machines or mobile devices. Yet in all cases, the decision to include these modern conveniences in their day-to-day living was not made lightly. Instead, there was a process of curation, of taking care by using their value system to weigh the pros and cons of each tool before approving its adoption. This process both reinforces or alters their current ways of living, and helps shape the value system inherited by future generations. But it does so in a very conscious and deliberate way.

Now consider the average modern human in a capitalist society. If a company – say Apple – introduces a new technology – say the new iPad – most of us will often adopt (or wish to adopt) that new technology automatically. We see technology as an inherent good, and we do not consciously or deliberately consult our system of values.

An iPad is a beautiful tool (I have one), but it does require time and energy. You must remember to charge it. You must spend time choosing from the myriad apps available to install. You must work to pay for those apps. You must keep it clean and out of harm’s way. You must decide whether or not to buy one of the myriad accessories available to do keep it clean and out of harm’s way. You must work to pay for those accessories. Perhaps these sacrifices are worth the time; perhaps they are not. The problem is, many of us (self included) have never stopped to consider the question.

Many of us have never given a second thought about our values. We have never written them down and we do not think about them on a daily basis. Instead we have vague notions based on what we’ve been told is important, often by family, friends, political pundits, the news media, even advertising.

Because of this, everything becomes important. Everything becomes worth having. And by acquiring more and more and by doing more and more the cycle perpetuates itself, and third-party influences continue to dominate our lives and eat away at our time. The values-culture strange loop becomes lopsided towards culture, a culture defined by those not always acting in our best interests. Our lives become an accumulation of time debits.

This is not curated living.

Fixing the Loop

The first step towards curated living involves writing down your values. What is important to you? What brings you happiness, joy, peace and fulfillment? What makes life worth living? At first, don’t sensor yourself – write down everything that comes to mind. Then, ruthlessly prioritize and whittle down your list to the five or ten most important.

Post this list in a visible place. Review it every day.

Every time an opportunity arises for buying something new or participating in a new activity, remember the Amish. Do not automatically buy. Do not automatically say “yes.” Do not listen to others who tell you to say yes. Rigorously consult your values and then decide. Do not allow something in your life simply because it is shiny or new, for in due time the shiny and new will simply be, as Pirsig reminds us, the “silt of tomorrow.”

Curate your life. Every second is precious.