the simplify guy

Daily acts of simplification

Category: World of Simplicity

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.

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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!

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!

Entropy – The Complexity Generator

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Left to their own devices, things get dirty, broken, cluttered and disorderly. It is a fact of life. In addition, it’s not just a fact of life, it’s a fundamental law of our universe, and it’s master goes by the name of “Entropy”. The evil Lord Entropy resides within a law of physics called the “Second Law of Thermodynamics”.

Apologies to the physicists out there, I am going to attempt to keep this simple so if the science suffers a little as a result please forgive me. A person who is vastly more qualified than me to explain entropy in an understandable way is Professor Brian Cox, who did so very well in his BBC TV series “The Wonders of the Universe”. A YouTube clip of this piece can be viewed here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQSoaiubuA0

(As this isn’t an official BBC source, I feel I ought to point out that if you enjoyed this teaser trailer, the entire series can be bought on DVD and BluRay from your favourite online stockists!)

The analogy of the sandcastle that Professor Cox uses in the clip can be translated to things in your own life such as your home. The reason a room becomes untidy (less ordered) is because out of all of the millions of possible states you could find your room in when you walk in, there are only very few possible states that will match with your expectation of how it should be. It is VASTLY more likely that you will find it in a less ordered state than you would like it, and hugely UNLIKELY that you will find it in a more ordered state than you left it. This is why your bedroom gets messy, your car gets dirty, and your garage can’t tidy itself up.

Bummer huh? Fortunately for us, the Second Law of Thermodynamics offers the solution as well as the problem. All of the above is true “unless acted on by an external resultant force”. Which, translated into English, means that if you apply energy to the situation then you can hold back the tide of entropy and keep things orderly or indeed make it more ordered. When you clean, tidy or repair you are actually reversing the effects of entropy by exchanging your own personal energy for more order in your surroundings. When people “potter about” they spend a lot of that time straightening things out, tidying, putting things back where they should be, throwing stuff away. This is entropy reversal in action.

The moral of this story? You have to “do stuff” in order to keep things orderly. You have to act, exchanging your own energy for order. Just a little bit here and there is all it takes – when moving from one room to another, pick up something that belongs in your destination and take it with you, or as you walk past a wonky picture, straighten it up. You don’t even need to potter – just a little bit of multitasking is all it takes. Small disciplines compound over time to create breakthrough results, as described in my post about The Slight Edge. Hopefully the science in this post helps to explain why it has to be this way, even though I am sure that the practical advice is common sense to all. It is often said that common sense isn’t common practice though, and sometimes a little science can help make a penny drop (it did for me!)

Subtraction – An Exercise

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I recently mentioned that, as I get through the “low hanging fruit” with my Daily Acts of Simplification, I will need to come up with some methods to identify simplification opportunities. I am not at the point of running out of easy stuff yet, but it’s getting time to have a think about those methods.

Today I decided to work up a method based on subtraction. This is what I come up with.

1. Choose a place. It could be a room in your house, office, garage, desk, car, loft etc
2. Find a place to sit or stand comfortably
3. Close your eyes. Breathe slowly and deeply, focussing on your breath for about 5 minutes
4. Now start to visualise how you would use this room or space in a perfect world. What would it feel like when you walked in? What would you be using the space for? What is necessary in that space to accomplish that purpose? Visualise only the necessary things in that room. What would they be? Where would they be?
5. Get a very strong feeling of peace and harmony as you explore this space in your imagination, noting every detail of the clutter-free, enriching environment.
6. Sit with that feeling for a few minutes
7. Open your eyes and immediately note something that is there that didn’t exist in your visualisation. Go straight to it and resolve to do something about it.
8. Ask yourself the zero-based thinking question: “Knowing what I now know, would I bring this item into my life in the first place?”.
9. If yes, then it must have a place to be that is somewhere else. Tidy it up, put it back in its place, or decide on a place for it.
10. If no, then remove it. Discard, donate or recycle.

You have now successfully subtracted something from your space!

I will use this technique and let you know how I get on.

Grey Mail

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As a Hotmail user, I received an email today from Microsoft telling me about the perils of “Grey Mail” and introducing their new tools to help deal with it.

I hadn’t heard the term Grey Mail before but it describes a lot of the emails that I have been ridding myself of – newsletters, daily deals, marketing info etc etc. Apparently the average user gets around 15000 emails a year of which 80% are Grey Mail. I am not sure how they do their statistics, that does sound like a hell of a lot, but the message is clear. Also the 80/20 rule rears its wise head again!

Personally, I am looking to completely remove as much of this Grey Mail as I can, but for people that get value out of receiving it and want to manage it better then the new Hotmail tools look really useful. A video introduction is here:

http://windows.microsoft.com/en-GB/hotmail/conquergraymail/autoplay

Equally, if you are totally swamped by your inbox then this could be a very good place to start!

A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place

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It has been a number of years since I was introduced to the concept of “5S”, which was introduced to my workplace as part of a “Lean” intervention. I won’t go into the detail of the latter right now, but the relevant information is that 5S led to many skips worth of stuff being removed from our offices, and what was left was made to be very orderly and purposeful.

The phrase “a place for eveything and everything in its place” sums up the point of 5S – it is about only having the things you need, where you need them. If I asked you to tell me where your birth certificate, sunglasses, or spare batteries were, would you be able to direct me straight to them?

5S was devised in Japan in the manufacturing industry. “Just in Time” manufacturing, that made Toyota world leaders, was dependant on it. The S’s in 5S are Japanese words, but helpfully they have been translated into and English set of S’s. Together, they form a simple methodology to get your stuff in order and to keep it in order. And it works! It is worth targeting a small area to start with – a desk, a room, a garage or a loft, as this will keep it manageable. The steps are:

1. Sort (seiri)
Go through all your things and discard what you don’t need, and only keep what is essential to you in that place.

2. Straighten (seiton)
This is “a place for everything and everything in its place”. Each retained item should have its own “home” so you can put your hands on it at exactly the moment you want it.

3. Shine (seiso)
Clean, polish, tidy. This is a regular stage in the process to keep everything in its place, nice and clean and well maintained.

4. Standardise (seiketsu)
This is probably more relevant in the workplace where you can write the above into your procedures and manuals. Ensuring all colleagues know the right place for everything and help to keep it maintained. If someone wants to change the items or the places then there should be collective agreement, and the procedures updated. At home this can still be relevant. I’ll bet there are things in your house that you like to have in a certain place, but your housemates like somewhere else, or just leave all over the place. Endless aggravation ensues as things move back and forth. Worth a conversation to agree possibly?!

5. Sustain (shitsuke)
You’ve gone to all of the effort of the above – keep it that way! Regular cleaning, tidying and checking that the items and locations are still relevant as life changes.

For many people, stage 1 is the hardest. Throwing stuff away can be really difficult. You might need it one day, you’ll miss it if its gone etc etc. Helpfully, 5S has another technique to aid that process. It’s called “Red Tagging”. Taking the workplace as an example, what you would to is put a sticker or tag (yep – a red one!) onto any items that you aren’t sure if you’ll need. They’re not obviously essential, but not easy to throw away either. Once that’s done, you collect them all up and place them somewhere out of sight e.g. a storeroom. You then set a time limit and, if you haven’t gone looking for it within that timeframe, it all gets discarded as a job lot. For many people, that safety valve is just what they need to be really aggressive about their decluttering.

If you give it a go and have any successes I’d love to hear!

Subtraction

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For me, Subtraction is one of a few key pillars of the simplification process. Before I explain, I’ll start with a disclaimer. I was going to write a longish piece on this subject but, since I started thinking about it, I have discovered that one of my favourite authors is releasing a book on this very subject later this year. The Art of Subtraction by Matthew E. May is due for release in October 2012. For more information visit Matt’s site here. Matt’s other books are also relevant to this subject, in particular In Pursuit of Elegance – needless to say, I am a fan and take inspiration from these works. As such, it would be wrong of me to stray too far into this patch, but I will explain how I came across the concept of subtraction and how it found its way into this project.

For a number of years, I have been a keen photographer. I have studied the subject and worked hard at learning ways to create good pictures. Subtraction is a key technique used by photographers to enhance visual impact. Essentially this involves arranging yourself, the camera, or the scene, so that the only things within the frame are those things that contribute to the effect you are trying to achieve. The average snapper will place a camera between themselves and a nice scene and press the button. The great photographer will spend time envisioning the impact, emotions and connections they want to make with the ultimate viewer, and clearing the frame of everything that takes the eye away from the intended vision. Less is more.

Just as Michelangelo created the statue of David by subtracting marble from a large slab of stone, the photographer removes distractions to create the perfect image, and a person can create the life of their dreams by removing worries, clutter and excess.

We are nearly one month into this process, so this week I will summarise my findings to date. Subtraction will certainly feature as a significant contributor to the Daily Acts of Simplification so far!

Continuous Partial Attention

Wow, I have discovered that I have a disorder and that disorder is called Continuous Partial Attention! Apparently we all have it to some extent but the extent to which we let it control us differs greatly. Without recognising it as a common problem with a name, I have been guilty of having a rather acute case of it and have been making the effort for some time to get control back.

The term Continuous Partial Attention (CPA) was coined by Linda Stone, a former executive at Apple and Microsoft, and it’s probably best if I let her explain it in this article.

In a nutshell, what Linda is saying is that many of us live in a permanently distracted state. Always wanting to be on the pulse with multiple inputs of information, our attention is spread more and more thinly by emails, social media, tv, work, play, people etc etc. This makes our lives complex. Also, it is widely noted that the most successful people have an ability to focus on the most important use of their time in any given moment, ignoring distractions. So it could be concluded that over-active CPA makes us less successful.

This ties in with some of my earlier posts. By getting in control of the flow of information coming into me, I can calm down the CPA and be able to spend more time in the present moment. I can get more done and give more quality time to my most important activities. I previously noted that an email unsubscribed isn’t just one email, it’s one less opportunity to become distracted and one less thing taking my attention away from what is important. Sure I get a lot of rich, valuable information via some of these inputs, but they can become even richer and more valuable if there is less distraction amongst them.

If it already has a name then you are not alone, and if it has a cause then you can beat it. Via this process I feel I am doing just that.

The Slight Edge

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I thought that today I would share one of the key influencers of this project. The book The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson changed the way I look at the world. It is billed at the self-help book that you need to read before you read other self-help books, and the reason is because it outlines a philosophy that you need to make other ideas work.

In short, the premise is that by compounding the effect of simple disciplines, performed every day, you can achieve great success. Instead, most people compound the effect of simple errors in judgement each day, and that is why they fail. The simple discipline is easy to do, but the error in judgment is just a tiny bit easier – hence the path of least resistance is the route to failure. Jeff uses the word “compound” because the effect is just like compound interest – the sure-fire way to double your results in one year is to improve them by 0.3% every day. The diagram below shows the associated success curve and failure curve.

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One of the many powerful examples Jeff uses is healthy eating. For your lunch each day you can choose to eat a cheeseburger, or you could choose a salad. It’s not hard to choose the salad, but the cheeseburger is just that bit more tempting and hence the easier choice. Today, the impact of that choice is barely noticeable. You won’t put on or lose any weight, you won’t be any healthier or unhealthier as a result of choosing one or the other. But…if you make that same choice every day for a month you will notice a significant difference. After a year, the effects may not be reversible. Success and failure in your health can be dictated by a small daily choice.

You’ll probably agree that none of this is earth-shattering in concept, but it is true that unfortunately common sense isn’t common practice. What is great about The Slight Edge is that it puts the point across in a variety of ways that help to embed the philosophy in your mind.

I saw the effects of this myself recently. I got bored of making my sandwiches for lunch each evening for the following day, and got into the habit of buying food each day instead (London prices!). Making sandwiches isn’t difficult, it takes a couple of minutes, but not making them is slightly easier. For a few weeks it was great, no sandwich making and a variety of exotic foodstuffs for lunch. After about two months however, I realised that this habit was rapidly bringing my finances to it’s knees. The compound effect of that extra expenditure became a spiralling problem. Thanks to The Slight Edge‘s philosophy I am now happily munching sandwiches again!

So what has all that got to do with this blog then? Well for a start, my take on The Slight Edge is that this explains why it takes 30 days to form a new habit. In the early days it’s all pain and no gain, but once the compounding effect kicks in, and clear results are visible, those daily disciplines become a LOT easier and subconsciously you don’t want to go back to the old habit. By committing to a Daily Act of Simlification I hope to kickstart this effect.

This compounding effect explains why I am so adamant about sticking to one Daily Act of Simplification each day. I want to see if one positive action each day can be compounded in the same way as described above. Do new good simplifying habits (and complexity avoiding habits) form after a period? Do small improvements compound into big, noticeable, lasting results? My working hypothesis is that it does, hence the one-a-day rule.

Thanks Jeff for the inspiration – I will share some of my other influences soon!