Writing in his column for the BBC online, Lewis Hamilton describes how a simplifying philosophy underpins his success.
It is fair to say that I eagerly awaited the release of this book from the moment it was announced. Matthew E. May is one of my favourite authors. His previous books: The Elegant Solution; In Pursuit of Elegance; and The Shibumi Strategy have all resonated with me and offer a wonderful take on making things simple. I proudly possess a Daruma Doll signed by Matt (you’ll have to read The Shibumi Strategy to find out what one of those is!) and follow his Twitter feed for regular inspiration*. So when The Laws of Subtraction was announced, you can imagine my excitement.
Subtraction is a concept that I have embraced for some time. Long before I started The Simplify Guy project, I came across the idea whilst studying photography. When taking a photograph, what to leave out of the frame is just as important as what to include. The idea is that everything in the frame ought to add to the message you are trying to convey to the viewer, and anything else serves only as a distraction. The less distraction, the more powerful the message. Executing that with a camera can involve all kinds of things like positioning yourself to get the optimum angle, using zoom to focus only on the subject, clearing a scene of litter or debris, using mono instead of colour, etc etc. Upon starting The Simplify Guy, subtraction was one of the first ideas I used to get to work on simplifying my life. It covered a multitude of things such as decluttering my house, reducing my social media feeds, unsubscribing to emails, all manner of things. It has been the single biggest driver of benefits to date, as those who have followed this blog will know.
In this book, Matt comes at the subject more (but not exclusively) from the angle of creativity and design, and the examples he uses only serve to enhance the power of subtraction as a force for good. Headed under 6 “Laws of Subtraction”, Matt describes a multitude of applications from logo design to town planning to Mars landings, and all sorts in between. Whilst I have seen subtraction described in part here and there, this is probably the first (only?) comprehensive view on the subject. There is also a good dose of neuroscience to emphasise how the brain can be freed from its day job of complexity-generation and tuned into a simpler path. The closing piece around why the film The Artist was so powerful was superb. The book is engaging throughout and cleverly switches between applications to keep the content fresh and interesting, and I’ll never look at the FedEx logo in the same way again!
Having watched some of the promos for the book prior to release, I was initially concerned that the book may re-cover some of the same ground as In Pursuit of Elegance. I was delighted, however, to find that this wasn’t the case and this book follows on perfectly where the previous left off. Even if you are new to Matt’s work and simplification/subtraction in general, this is still a great place to start. Very inspirational and highly recommended!
* Note: I am a genuine fan; there is no sponsorship or commercial endorsement involved here. In case you wondered…!
Since reinstating my daily reminder entitled “Daily Act of Simplification”, I am pleased to report that the simplifying process has gathered renewed momentum. I don’t think any of the individual improvements have been particularly ground breaking, but the cumulative effect is one of increasing satisfaction. Discarding unworn clothes, rearranging the kitchen, clearing the last of the ‘unpacking pile’ from when we moved into our house, selling a load of camera equipment – all pretty easy stuff but its made a big difference. And so we continue! Upcoming planned activities include using an online service to turn stacks of old CDs and DVDs into a little bit of cash and, more importantly, more space. Do I really need the Best of Bananarama on CD?? Do I need CD’s at all? Hmm…
I am also currently reading “The Laws of Subtraction” by Matthew E May, a book that I’ve been waiting for which has finally been released. Once I’ve finished it I’ll do a review…needless to say it will be a good review, I’m thoroughly enjoying it so far!
Hello everyone. I am very conscious that it has been two months since I past posted, and thought it was about time I provided an update.
As previously described, after Day 100 of the Daily Acts of Simplification, I decided to cease forcing myself to write about a daily act as this was becoming a little burdensome. I was confident that new habits had been formed, and the simplification process would continue without too much deliberate effort. I also wanted to spend some time tackling some larger things, stuff that needed to be made more simple that couldn’t be ticked off in one day. I also reflected on my piece on Values, and decided that it had been a while since I reviewed my own values/roles/goals, and took my own advice and had a good review.
The only part of that which didn’t work out as planned was the new simplifying habit. In addition to not writing about daily simplifications, I deleted the recurring daily task on my to-do list which prompted me to simplify something, deeming it unnecessary. However, whilst I was finding that whilst I was still looking at the world through simplifying eyes, I wasn’t actually taking action as often as I would have liked. In fact I’m quite embarrassed by how little I did! It seems that deliberately planning in your important tasks each day is the only way to get them done, no matter how automatic you believe them to be.
So as a result of all that, the daily recurring task marked “Perform Daily Act of Simplification” is back in, and I am using my own How to Simplify Your Life findings to resume momentum.
With regards to the review of my values/roles/goals, I have renewed my vows to my values (they hadn’t changed), trimmed my list of roles, and drawn up a fresh set of goals. These now inform my weekly and daily task planning to ensure I am focussed on what is important, whilst still chipping away everything else.
As an example of the rebirth of the Daily Acts, I was standing at the petrol pump the other week, filling up the tank as usual, and I found myself doing something that I have always done without thinking about it, and left myself bemused at the realisation. For some reason, at the end of the fill, I always to try to get the petrol pump to stop at a number of whole pounds e.g. £64.00. I do a series of short squeezes as the next whole pound (after the first tank-full-click) nears and try to stop it on the button. If I go too much and end up with £64.01 I’ll try to squeeze another £0.99 in so that I can finish even. Why on earth did I do this? I KNOW lots of people do it too, I can watch them all around at the pumps! Some vague idea that my accounts will look tidier with whole pounds? Pass. It wasn’t even like it was a fun game (maybe it was when I first started driving!). Anyway, that habit was cancelled with immediate effect. Fill until it’s full, then stop. Simple!
Francine Jay, aka “Miss Minimalist”, is a writer who I came across on Twitter whilst I was nearing the end of my 100 Daily Acts of Simplification. This week I have managed to find time to read her book “The Joy of Less“.
The Joy of Less is another one of those books that I found myself nodding in agreement all of the way through. The simple living philosophy, and the decluttering methods described, match precisely what I discovered during my own 100 day experiment. This book is primarily about decluttering but also touches on living a minimalist life in general, encouraging you to think about everything from your current possessions, new purchases, commitments and priorities.
For me, the first 90-odd pages were the most useful. These describe the general minimalist philosophy and decluttering using the helpful STREAMLINE acronym. Those who know they need to declutter, but don’t know where to start, will find this book very helpful to grease the cogs and get things moving, as well as holding your hand through the entire process. The middle third of the book takes each room in turn and walks through the STREAMLINE method for each. For this reason that section is probably best used as you tackle each room, as the theory is duplicated but with helpful tips specific to that area. The remainder of the book looks more widely than just your possessions, and the minimalist life in general.
From her description of her own home and life, I would describe Francine as a true minimalist in the literal sense – things are pared down to their bare minimum – but what I really liked was how she asserts that minimalist means different things to different people. Only you can decide how much is “enough” and wherever you decide to draw your own boundaries, this guide will help you get there.
Another thing that resonated with me was the suggestion of a “One-a-Day” approach to decluttering as an alternative to taking it all on at once. As someone who committed to making one thing simpler each and every day, most of my Daily Acts of Simplification (which included quite a lot of decluttering) were of this small bite-size variety. I can vouch for the fact that this incremental approach really does compound into a significant difference over time. Some of my improvements, when I have more time, are of the larger variety, tackling a whole room or area at once. This book has taught me that I have a lot more to do in this area. I particularly took on board Francine’s suggestion to empty the room or area completely as a starting point, and only put back in what is deemed critical. I haven’t really done this, and will do so going forward. Her method of sorting the rest is similar to my Red Tagging Exercise, only more structured. Another powerful synchronicity was the description of visualising your ideal room which is so similar to my Subtraction Exercise that I nearly fell off my chair!
The message here is that this stuff works, and if you try it you will know it to be true! Simplification is simple, you just need the resolve to make a start and to keep going. Read my piece on entropy for more on how science tells us that attainment and maintenance of order is a continuous process.
Readers will find the writing style in The Joy of Less humorous and engaging, and the content full of practical wisdom. I am now a big fan and will continue to follow Francine’s work on her blog www.missminimalist.com
A question I have been asked is “So where does all this simplification end?” It is easy to give a very flippant response saying that simplification never ends because maintenance of simplicity involves a lot of work, but this is actually a very good question. Much of making things simple involves subtracting things out of our lives – decluttering, challenging the importance of our possessions, reducing electronic information, saying “no” to unimportant things etc etc. So where do you stop?
Minimalism is a term that, for some, has come to mean living a life devoid of possessions. The word may make you think of a sparse white apartment with the odd piece of white furniture, plain walls, and no decoration. This isn’t a destination that most of us would like to get to. Most people want to live in a cosy home not an empty museum right? For some, a simple life may mean sitting under a tree for 40 years contemplating the meaning of life, but again is this for you? I’m not here to judge – maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, we are all different! What I am getting at is that we each have our own idea about what perfection looks like, and that paradigm is created by our personal values.
Values are the things we hold dear. They are the standards that we live by, the things we want to be known for.
Many times, I’ve sat at work in a room with new colleagues when the boss has decided that we are going to sit down and decide what our team values are going to be. Everyone calls some out, somebody writes them on a flipchart, and they are then trimmed down into a small manageable set which we plaster all over our walls, and put into our literature. The thing I have noticed with this process though, is that when you do this exercise with a group of people, you always end up with a very similar list. Honesty, Integrity, Respect, Teamwork – the usual suspects are always there. Conversely, when I work with an individual to help them to identify their personal values, everyone is different. VERY different. Of course you get some common ones that reappear in different people, but when you look at a list of a person’s highest values, you get a real window into who they are. You can identify what motivates them, how they define success, what they will and will not do, how they have fun. Just as you create a rainbow of colour when you shine white light through a prism, you create a spectrum of diversity when you take a person out of a team and look at their values through an individual lens.
So what has all of this got to do with simplification? Well, my assertion here is that your values are the places where you stop chipping away with the simplification chisel. The point of simplification is to discard the things in your life that you do not value, and reveal those things that you do. Reveal, enhance, improve things that you value, and minimise, eliminate or avoid those that you don’t. I refer back to the classic quote by the great artist Michelangelo:
“David was already in the marble, I just chipped away the excess”
By knowing what you value, you can identify the statue within the marble. By simplifying your life, you are chipping away the non-value so that you can reveal and enhance the value. Most of us can start chipping away at the outer layers without too much problem – we all have clutter, junk, unnecessary commitments, complex processes that we know are excess and can be worked on. In fact my 100 Daily Acts of Simplification were mostly in this space. As these outer layers are chipped away though, you need to know what you value in order to know when to stop chipping. Another quote to return to is the Einstein classic:
“Things should be as simple as possible, but not simpler”
You need to stop chipping where one more strike of the chisel would render the statue imperfect. That happens when you chip into one of your values just as if Michelangelo had chopped off David’s nose! Effective simplification means knowing what these values are. Do you know yours?
There are many exercises that you can do to help you to identify your values, and a quick search on Google will reveal lots of them. If you haven’t done this sort of thing before then I would recommend spending some time on these. You can start now though. Once you are done reading this piece, look around you visually and also explore your mind for those things without which you wouldn’t be you. It might be a relationship, a hobby, or your exercise regime. It could even be a possession! Possessions aren’t evil but most are not things that we hold truly sacred. Be honest with yourself too. I am quite happy to admit that as well as my more selfless and philanthropic values, I also value having a nice car and a nice home, and am well aware that my definition of “nice” partly includes what other people think of them! I like to think that I have my ego on a leash, but it is still there and it likes nice things!
The key here is to be honest with yourself and put the time in to know what the perfect you looks like. Success guru Brian Tracy has some simple questions that you can ask yourself to point towards your key values:
What would you do if you were to win a million dollars tomorrow?
What would you do if you were told that you’d have six months to live?
What would you attempt if you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you could not fail?
What are you doing when you feel the most alive?
Having a list of values that you review regularly is a great way to check that your life is on course and that you are being the best you that you can be. It also helps you see the excess, clutter, and complexity to be targeted with your simplifying chisel.
Reveal and leverage your values, remove the rest. For me, that’s what elegance looks like. That’s what simple looks like.
A colleague who read my blog recommended this book to me, as she had read it previously and thought it was very relevant. From the title alone I knew i had to read it, so I downloaded the Kindle version and read it immediately. In the introduction, Simon recommends dipping into relevant chapters, or taking one per week, but I am afraid I flouted that rule and read it cover to cover over the last three days!
As you may know, I spent 100 days making my life 100 things more simple with a do-first, think-later mindset. In recent days I’ve written about some of the learnings from those 100 days. As a result, as I began reading this book, I found myself nodding in agreement with just about everything Simon wrote. This is a book born out of years of practical experience with real people, and as such contains real wisdom packaged up in easily digested chunks. So this is why I just read my way all the way through it, violently agreeing with it all and reflecting on how I had discovered similar things over recent months.
To me, The Simple Way is first and foremost a book about success. It just so happens that a large part of being successful comes from the ability to make things simple. Topics such as goal achievement, time management, productivity etc are all here, presented in a way that you may find more helpful than some other, more lengthy texts.
The book is organised into 53 “Simple Notes” which are 2-4 page nuggets, each starting with an inspirational quote, and going on to challenging you to consider how this wisdom can be applied to your situation. There is a very handy grid at the beginning of the book which allows you to dip straight into any areas where you need immediate help. I would agree that the way to get most value out of the book would be to take each note one at a time, and consider and apply the learning before moving on. Theory without action is pointless right? However for the interested reader, it is still very powerful to read through and challenge yourself along the way when inevitably the words will expose something that you know you need to work on.
The other thing I really liked was how Simon references his sources all the way through. As the notes are short, it would be impossible to cover the underlying inspiration in detail, but the references allow the inquisitive to look them up and explore further as your interest takes you. I was pleased to see that we also have common sources of inspiration – where I see similar things many times, I see underlying truth and reinforcement of wisdom that I hold dear.
If you are following and enjoying this blog, then I would thoroughly recommend checking out The Simple Way!
As mentioned in my Day 100 Review, I thought I’d expand a little more on the ‘simplification type’ categories that I assigned to each of the 100 Daily Acts of Simplification. The acts themselves were quite varied, but I found that they followed a smaller number of themes. I have tweaked the categories slightly from the Day 100 Review, now that I have given it more thought, and polished it a little. Here goes:
This is essentially just removing things from your world. From throwing stuff away, to reviewing and trimming your lists of commitments, subtraction is a powerful way to simplify your life. In order to do this successfully however you need to have a clear idea of what you value, what is important to you, and what you have that would diminish you if you were to lose it. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater! As Einstein said “Things should be as simple as possible, but not simpler”. For most of us, the end point isn’t living in a minimalist white box, it is something warm, rich, meaningful, and personal to us. We are all unique, so there is no off-the-shelf solution. As Michelangelo said “David was already in the marble, I simply chipped away the excess”. You need to know your David, then proceed to chip the excess.
Control Information Flows
We live in the information age. Most of us these days are “knowledge workers”. We trade in information. The power of mobile computing and social media have led to vast quantities of information available to us at all times. Unfortunately for us, this information likes to scream for our attention. The polite “you have mail” has now become a Gatling Gun of pings, chimes, push notifications, emails, and texts. Continuous Partial Attention is a modern day syndrome that seems to affect increasing numbers of us. How often do we see people occupying the same physical space, but with their mobile phones out may as well be in a different country. Our brains love to multi-task, but doing so makes us counter intuitively less productive. Taking control of this information stream is essential for a simpler life. Unsubscribing to emails, trimming your social media feeds, opting out of marketing approaches via phone and mail, taking care not to subscribe to every newsletter going, are all techniques to get back in control. For me, controlling my information flows offered the greatest benefit out of all the simplification types within the first 100 days. In some ways this overlaps with subtraction, as a large part of getting in control requires a cull.
This category is about bringing awareness to everything that you do, and asking yourself “Is there a better way?”. We do so many things automatically, and we rarely have a think about whether we are doing them in the most efficient way. It can be new technology making things faster/easier (for example getting a faster broadband). It could also be rearranging the contents of your kitchen to reduce the amount of movement required in your most frequent tasks. It could even be removing a step or task completely because you decide it actually adds no value. Think about what you do, consider it as a series of process steps, and think “If I were to design this process today, would I build it in the same way?”.
Get on top, stay on top
This is all about staying on top of your most important tasks. Don’t let things build up. Do you have a pile of unread post, or a to-do or filing tray bursting at the seams? Do you have a list of things you are meaning to do but haven’t gotten around to? Have you got things that you have started by haven’t finished? Take a dose of Zero-Based Thinking to reaffirm whether these tasks are still relevant, and if so, work to complete them. Then aim to stay on top by completing things in priority order as soon as they hit your to-do list. Another way to describe this one is “finish the unfinished”. All of these things weigh on your mind, in some cases causing anxiety and depression, and you feel lighter and more relaxed when they are done. If you don’t keep a to-do list of all your unfinished tasks then starting one is a great way to get an instant relief from this burden.
This one is very simple. Life is simpler with less financial obligations. Anything that puts money in your pocket, reduces debt, or protects your future moves you towards a state of increased peace of mind. Think about selling stuff you have “subtracted” from your world (recycling mobile phones/DVDs/CDs etc for cash is a good one). Cancel any subscriptions that no longer give you value for money. Review your direct debits and other outgoings regularly. Keep it trim and tight. Spend on things that give you fulfilment, cut any spending that doesn’t. Again, you need to know what you value and make the distinction between good spending and bad. Oh, and save. Savings ease a worried mind!
This is about creating peace of mind. Any of the categories above can create worry, anxiety and stress. So, any of the above simplification techniques can be used to remove that worry. There are as many things to worry about as there are people in the world, so covering all angles in a few sentences would be impossible, but bringing attention to your own mind and identifying those niggles and worries is the first step. Once identified, take steps to remove that worry. Some might be quite simple (e.g. get that Will written, go to the dentist, arrange that insurance policy), others may be more psychologically complex and there are many professionals to help here.
This can be done right away, but it is the key to maintaining a life of simplicity once it is attained. Those emails, newsletters, whimsical purchases, things to say “yes” to when you should say “no” are everywhere and need to be avoided. Take care to check or uncheck the right boxes when buying online to prevent marketing emails, check you really want to accept that Facebook Friend Request, ask yourself if you really need that juice maker – having a simplicity mindset will protect you from these complexities.
This could turn into a long piece so I’ll only cover this briefly now, but I’ll say a lot more on the subject in the future. Bringing presence is all about being alive in the present moment, not consumed by thoughts of the future or the past. It’s doing one thing at a time and focussing fully on the current thing. It’s about beating the Continuous Partial Attention and living in the here and now. Do you actually taste your food when you eat it? Do you feel the wind on your face as you walk down the road? Do you see what’s around you or is your head elsewhere? Call it Zen, call it what you like, but living in the moment is the essence of simplicity. Removing distractions to enable you to do it is one thing, actively spending time doing simple activities (or nothing at all!) is the next step. It can seem weird at first. Having created loads of space in my life over the 100 Daily Acts of Simplification, at first I was looking around for things I should be doing to fill the space. I would even say that I briefly felt BOREDOM for the first time in years! Now I am striving to use the space to spend more time connected to the now and rediscovering all the things I normally walk straight by.
I hope that the above helps to expand a little more on what I have learned throughout this process, and how you may be able to apply it to your own situation. Please do let me know if you try anything and how you got on!
Days 77-79 of the Daily Acts of Simplification focused on making my commute less encumbered, starting with the decision on Day 77 to leave my business laptop in the office overnight when I know I’ll be back in that location the next day. I badged it as a pilot, and I would say it partly worked. Where it didn’t work was where I didn’t have many consecutive days in the same location (I have worked from home a couple of days during the Olympics to reduce travel chaos) or when I needed to use the laptop overnight (this only happened once but was a pain).
So I now have a better solution. A quiet word with my good friends in IT and I now have a desktop PC in the office, so my laptop can stay at home. It took a bit of work to organise my files so that the important ones were available from different machines, but I got there. That laptop need not go to London again!
I thought I’d share some simple things I have discovered and enjoyed that predate the Daily Acts of this project. Here is a picture of my bike. It’s an “All City Nature Boy”, and it couldn’t be more simple. It has a frame, two wheels, and just one gear. If you go uphill you just have to pedal harder! It has a road bike frame and grippy tyres so I can go just about anywhere on it. It is man and machine, with very little intervention from the machine, which gives me a similar enjoyment to running. No gear selection to think about, and a lot less to go wrong.
I love my bike!