the simplify guy

Daily acts of simplification

Month: August, 2012

Book Review – “The Joy of Less” by Francine Jay

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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

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Know What You Value

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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.

Book Review – “The Simple Way” by Simon Tyler

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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!

How to Simplify Your Life

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:

Subtraction
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.

Process Improvement
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.

Financial Benefit
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!

Worry Removal
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.

Complexity Avoidance
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.

Bringing Presence
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!

#102 – Unencumbered Commute Part 4

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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!

#101 – A Simple Bike

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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!

Day 100 – Life 100 Things Simpler

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Day 100. Wow!

109 days ago I was driving back from a relaxing holiday in Scotland’s Western Isles wondering how to tackle the one problem I had with my holiday. Constant interruptions by emails and social media updates, coupled with a terrible mobile connectivity due to my location, meant that I had spent far too much time and energy trying to keep up with everything. I concluded that the vast majority of these interruptions were completely worthless, but the few of value meant that I didn’t want to disconnect completely. I knew I wanted to sort out the wheat from the chaff and kill off all of the noise, so that only the value-adding stuff remained. Where to start? The 600 mile drive gave me plenty of time to ponder this. My mind wandered back to the prospect of returning to work and my ‘normal’ routines. My daily planning sessions, exercise, and running my team all came into my thoughts, and the need to ramp back up from the zen-like holiday mode to the go-getter professional guy who has ’stuff to do’. I knew it wasn’t just social media and emails that could be improved. Our house still wasn’t straightened out from moving in 6 months previous, there was stuff on the back burner of my mind that I wanted or needed to do, I had a million and one obligations to fulfil, I was spending far too much money on I-didn’t-know-what, the list went on.

This could be the recipe for a vicious circle of depression but luckily, rather than wallow in the hopelessness of it all, my mind turned to a philosophy that I held. I’ve written about it a number of times over the last 100 days, most recently in my marginal gains piece. Small daily disciplines, compounded over time, to create breakthrough results. I got excited. I wonder if I could tackle this one step at a time? What if I committed to taking one step, each and every day, to make my life more simple? The commitment was made there and then. I also knew that whenever you set yourself a new goal, or want to create a new habit, then holding yourself to account publicly is a great way to keep you focussed and motivated. Hence, this blog and the Daily Acts of Simplification were born. My progress would be out there. If only one person read it, then that would keep me going. It was a perfect plan. I would start on the first day of the following month. That gave me 9 days to buy the web domain, and set up the blog.

I had loads of questions – Could I keep it up? Would the one-a-day method actually compound over time into a noticeable difference? What would the benefits be? Would anybody be interested to read about it? Where would it all end? Good questions all but there was only ever going to be one way to find out! Also, I am a theorist by nature, so this was a great opportunity for me to get out of my comfort zone and do-first, learn-second. We began.

The last time I reviewed progress was after the first month. Day 100 seems like a pretty good time to review again, take stock, and decide where to go from here. There will be some changes, but changes designed to kick this to the next level. I have been surprised and delighted in equal measure at the level of support I have received, the number of followers, and the comments and suggestions that have been sent in. I’ve met some great new friends and kindred spirits in the social media world. This is now as much about you as it is about me and so we keep moving forward!

I won’t recap all of the 100 Daily Acts because, well, they are all described on this website. I have attempted to group them into ‘simplification types’, and in order of appearance they are:

1. Subtraction (40%)
2. Controlling Inward Information Flows (32%)
3. Process Improvement (10%)
4. Get on top, stay on top (9%)
5. Financial Benefit (3%)
6. Worry Removal (2%)
7. Complexity Avoidance (2%)
8. Bringing Presence (2%)

I will explain more about these types in another post, or this one will turn into a full length book! What is obvious however is that the vast majority of the Daily Acts relate to ‘Subtraction’ (i.e. removing things from my life) and ‘Controlling Inward Information Flows’ (i.e. emails, social media etc). It is fair to say that these are the categories in which most of the ‘low hanging fruit’ has been found. As these easy pickings have gradually become exhausted, some of the other categories have started to come into play. It is the opportunities in these categories that I have found to be the most thought intensive and time consuming, but come with the biggest instant rewards. The last ten days or so have been tough. Not because I’ve run out of things to simplify (that couldn’t be further from the truth!), but because the next big wins on my mind are things that can’t easily be planned and executed in a small time period of one day. This is the first reason why I have decided to make a change to how I tackle the simplifying process going forward. I’m going to keep going, but won’t force myself to do, and write about, one new thing each day. That routine forces me to think small, and I now want to think big! This will also benefit my readers who would soon see more repetition and diminishing returns from sticking with me. I want to bring new, bigger, more interesting things to this blog. I want to turn some of the learning from the first 100 days into practical advice for others to follow, and spend more time writing about simple things. For me, this is the best way to continue the momentum. This decision is also the Day 100 Daily Act of Simplification.

So is this the end of the Daily Acts of Simplification? Not quite…you see I’ve developed a number of new habits that mean that I simplify a number of things each day, maintain my improvement, and avoid complexity going forward. They say it takes 30 days to form a new habit, well I’ve had 100 days so they are pretty well established!

1. I unsubscribe immediately to any newsletters or marketing emails that I do not get value from
2. I monitor my social media feeds to ensure that I only receive updates from those who create value to me
3. I stay on top of all my regular maintenance activities (I don’t like the term “chores” as they can be enjoyable)
4. When walking from one room to another at home, I will scan for any object that can be taken with me to put them back where they should be
5. I open my post and immediately action, file or discard so that I accumulate no filing or to-do trays
6. I always hang clothes back at one end of the wardrobe so that the least worn accumulate at the other end. This makes it easier to identify those which can be discarded
7. I don’t take any distracting electronic devices to the dinner table (phone, iPad, work Blackberry)
8. I don’t carry things on my daily commute that don’t need to be transported
9. I use Spotify for my music and Kindle for my books, which are all housed on my iPad, and therefore don’t buy books or CD’s unless I really need to

I need to make mention of the benefits that the process has produced, after all it’s nothing more than an intellectual exercise unless there are any real reasons to do this. Well I can say that the benefits are significant. I have deliberately kept benefits tracking fairly unscientific. If I had kept records it would have been possible to say that I had saved x hours of time per week, had saved £x, or reduced my possessions by x%, but all of these are just numbers. What matters is whether it feels different. This main thing I have noticed is that I now have more free time. Most evenings I relax, something which used to be a rarity. I am more present in the things I do, with Continuous Partial Attention being noticeably reduced. Even more importantly, my wife has commented that I seem happier and more chilled out. I focus better at work, and am performing as well as I ever have done. I am also excited about this blog and this process. Every day is a joy. I’m not sure there’s a lot else I can say on the subject – it’s been incredible and I would recommend it to anyone!

So here’s to the next 100 days. They will look different to the first 100 but will hopefully be as interesting, fun, and beneficial as the first 100. This is most certainly the beginning not the end – stay tuned!

Day 99 – Socks On Socks Off

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One thing has been bugging me about my morning routine for a while, but an elegant solution has yet to present itself.

There is a gym in my office building, and I like to get to work really early and have a good workout to start my day. However, as I wear a suit at work, I have found the only effective way to transport it on my commute is to wear it. There’s nowhere to store it in the office overnight, and to carry it would mean a lot more luggage. This means I have to dress fully for work at home, change out of my suit, into my gym kit, out of my gym kit, and back into my suit. My morning would be a lot more streamlined if I could commute in my gym kit.

I still don’t have an answer to the overall problem, but inspired by my piece on marginal gains the other day, I have decided that I can commute in my gym socks. I am wearing a pair and carrying a pair either way, so its an effective swap. This is only a very small step, but it is definitely in the right direction. It may only save me a few seconds, but when added to all of the other seconds I have saved over the last 99 days, it is another small part in a very big improvement process!

Day 98 – Direct Debit Delete & Ronald Reagan

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A quick and easy one today. While I was reviewing my online banking, I took a cursory look at my list of Direct Debits. I found one that was no longer relevant so, with a couple of clicks, I deleted it.

As that was so easy, I’ll throw in a quote too!

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They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong. ~ Ronald Reagan

Day 97 – App Cleanup

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I have been pretty good lately at not downloading every app under the sun onto my iPad. I have a core few apps that I use regularly, and rarely feel the need to add any. Since I wrote about the red tagging exercise way back when, I’ve kept a page on my iPad to store those apps that I haven’t used for a while, but as they have data stored within them, I felt safer keeping for a while to ensure they continued to be unneeded. Today I scrolled to that page, confirmed that the apps hadn’t been used for months, and deleted them all.

This “red tagging” process is one that I am finding particularly effective. Allowing my least worn clothes to collect at one end of my wardrobe is another variant in this theme. It’s a great way to sift through those things that you feel you don’t need, but aren’t quite ready to part company with immediately.