the simplify guy

Daily acts of simplification

#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.

Day 96 – Pet Paraphernalia

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The decluttering eye turned towards our pet rats on Day 96. I wondered why the paraphernalia that lives around their cage had escaped me for this long. Then I realised – the minute I go near the cage, the cute heads pop out of their hidey holes demanding attention! “Not this time, ratties, I have work to do!”

Their cage sits on a storage chest, so it was only a quick ten minutes to declutter the chest and move all of the rats’ bits and pieces inside, leaving the place looking significantly tidier and more organised.

Marginal Gains – The Secrets of Team GB Cycling and Other Expressions of Greatness

 From an article by Dan Byrne, shared via The Simplify Guy

Watching coverage of the 2012 Olympics, from the comfort of my living room, it was hard not to be completely blown away by the performance of the British cycling team.  Whether it be the ladies road race, the men’s time trial, or the many events in the velodrome, the British team were incredible.  As the commentators effused over the team’s performance, they hailed Performance Director Dave Brailsford as a kind of demi-god.  He was the man that took British cycling into the big league, and has continued to take them to even greater heights, year after year.  The commentators talked about his “Secret Squirrel Club” and “the aggregation of marginal gains” as being the lynchpins of his strategy.

Now, anyone who has been following my blog will be aware that I am a big believer in the concept of daily disciplines compounding over time to create great success.  Indeed, the fact that I decided to perform one single Daily Act of Simplification each and every day was for precisely this reason, and it has had profound results.  I have also described a book called The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson as being my favourite description of this wisdom in a published format.  This “aggregation of marginal gains” sounds kind of similar doesn’t it?  I decided to look into it further. 

In Brailsford’s own words:

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 “We’ve got this saying, ‘performance by the aggregation of marginal gains’. It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in everything you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards.

“If a mechanic sticks a tyre on, and someone comes along and says it could be done better, it’s not an insult – it’s because we are always striving for improvement, for those 1% gains, in absolutely every single thing we do.”

The fact that Dave Brailsford talks about a percentage figure, the “1% margin for improvement in everything you do”, means that I think this can be put even more powerfully.  “Aggregation” suggests adding up (1+1+1), but a percentage improvement of 1% each time is actually a compounding effect.

We understand the concept of compound interest.  If you put £100 in a bank account which pays 3% interest a year, at the end of year 1 you would have £103.  If you simply added another £3 each year, then after 100 years you would have £400.  However, compounding 3% each year means that after 100 years you have £1922.  Each year the 3% represents an increasingly larger number.  Some wealth creation gurus describe compound interest as “The 8th Wonder of The World” for this reason.

In The Slight Edge, Olson uses this concept to describe the difference between success and failure.  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 judgment 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.  Olson says that 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: 

 

See how the two curves look very similar for a while, then after a time they rapidly diverge.  One of the many powerful examples Olson 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, and 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.

Success guru Jim Rohn also supports this theory in his quote:

“Success is a few simple disciplines, practised every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day”

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.  That is why great performance is so rare.

So, how does this theory become practice?  Well firstly you need the relentless, unwavering desire to improve.  There are no days off, there is no “I’ll do it tomorrow”.  You must have the steely will to make the right choice NOW.  Another British Olympic legend, Daley Thompson, demonstrated this by training even on Christmas Day:

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“I used to train on Christmas Day because I knew my rival wasn’t.”

Returning to our compound interest example above, if you failed to add your 3% interest in year 10 but did so religiously on all of the other 99 years, then instead of having £1922 you would only have £1866.  If you translate that back into athletic performance, that is a very real difference, and a very expensive day off.  By training on Christmas Day and bagging his performance gain (3%, 1%, 0.003%, whatever it was), Daley Thompson got a jump on his rivals.

The second thing you need is a mechanism to find and implement those improvements.  For Daley Thompson it was getting out there, building the body and honing the skills.  For Dave Brailsford he has his “Secret Squirrel Club” – a team who scour the cutting edge of sports, science, military etc. and share their secrets to continuously find their next 1%.  The Japanese call the concept we are talking about here “kaizen”, and have built this into the philosophy of many of their companies.  The most famous example is Toyota who went from a company who couldn’t compete outside of their own shores to the world’s largest automaker in the space of 50 years.  Their “Toyota Production System” allowed employees to drive out continuous improvements by empowering them to stop the production line and implement kaizen in the live environment.  Their methodology is now copied by many businesses worldwide.  It seldom works as well though, because few can keep up the relentless daily disciplines for long.  You can copy the method, but without that first ingredient, it counts for nothing.  As Olson shows, the bad habit is the slightly easier choice.  It takes a lot of discipline to take the small steps every day, and a lot of faith to know that the success curve awaits you if you do.

It is this combination of will, faith, knowledge and resources that Dave Brailsford has leveraged to such great effect.  It is the philosophy and the methodology of champions.  When it all comes together it creates pure magic, a spectacle which the outside observer can only marvel at.  But like the conjurer’s craft, that spectacle is created by real people with ambition, drive, and the refusal to take the easy path.

I leave you with a transcript of the famous “Inches” speech by Al Pacino in the movie “Any Given Sunday”, about the fortunes of an American Football team, which I think is relevant.  Thanks for reading!

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“I don’t know what to say really.
Three minutes to the biggest battle of our professional lives all comes down to today.
Either we heal as a team or we are going to crumble.
Inch by inch, play by play till we’re finished.
We are in hell right now, gentlemen believe me and we can stay here and get the s**t kicked out of us or we can fight our way back into the light.
We can climb out of hell.
One inch, at a time.

Now I can’t do it for you.
I’m too old.
I look around and I see these young faces and I think
I mean
I made every wrong choice a middle age man could make.
I uh…. I p****d away all my money believe it or not.
I chased off anyone who has ever loved me.
And lately, I can’t even stand the face I see in the mirror.

You know when you get old in life things get taken from you.
That’s, that’s part of life.
But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff.
You find out that life is just a game of inches.
So is football.
Because in either game life or football the margin for error is so small.
I mean one half step too late or too early you don’t quite make it.
One half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it.
The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in every break of the game every minute, every second.

On this team, we fight for that inch
On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us to pieces for that inch.
We CLAW with our finger nails for that inch.
Cause we know when we add up all those inches that’s going to make the f*****g difference between WINNING and LOSING, between LIVING and DYING.

I’ll tell you this in any fight it is the guy who is willing to die who is going to win that inch.
And I know if I am going to have any life anymore it is because, I am still willing to fight, and die for that inch because that is what LIVING is.
The six inches in front of your face.

Now I can’t make you do it.
You gotta look at the guy next to you.
Look into his eyes.
Now I think you are going to see a guy who will go that inch with you.
You are going to see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows when it comes down to it, you are gonna do the same thing for him.

That’s a team, gentlemen and either we heal now, as a team, or we will die as individuals.
That’s football guys.
That’s all it is.
Now, what you gonna do?”

Day 95 – Sweet Upcycling

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Day 95’s Daily Act of Simplification was the product of synchronicity. On Day 92 I used the Subtraction Exercise to get my living room into good order. However, there was one item out of my eyeline that I missed – a large chocolate tin on the windowsill which contained only a handful of uneaten chocolates. It’s amazing the things you walk past everyday and don’t notice!

The other side of this equation was that my wife was baking some cupcakes for a party. There were more cakes than there were spaces in the party container. Great – some for us! However, we couldn’t find a container to keep the spares in. We used to have plenty, but they seem to have a teaspoon-like habit of disappearing!

Those two events, coupled by an article I read on the same day by my friend at Eco Thrifty Living on upcycling (a word I hadn’t heard before), meant that today the chocolate tin became a cake tin. I have been aware of that fact that a lot of stuff I have subtracted from my life has ended up in the bin, and wondered if I ought to be more eco-conscious about this, and this article contains some great ideas.

Living room tidier, cakes saved, delicious!

Day 94 – Ship Shape Shopping

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It recently struck me how often I get home from a trip to the supermarket and realise that I’d forgotten to take or use some discount vouchers that I had picked up on my previous visit. Money off coupons, or loyalty point bonuses are all worth having, but I didn’t have an effective way to keep hold of them in a way that would make it obvious and easy for me to use next time. Carrying them around in my wallet would undo all the good work of the first week of this project, and storing them in a draw or on a sideboard would mean cluttering up the place or rendering them out of sight and out of mind.

Today I have implemented what I believe to be quite an elegant solution to the problem. I’ve bought a “combi-board” which is half dry-wipe board and half pin board (£7.99 in Staples for those in the UK). Items for the shopping list can be written at the top, and coupons can be pinned to the bottom. On shopping day, I just need to take a picture of the list with my smart phone, and pick up and relevant coupons from the pin board.

An alternative would be a magnetic whiteboard, so you can use magnets to attach coupons to the board, but this is more expensive (c.£25)

The added bonus of this method is that there is also less chance of me forgetting what to buy. Quite pleased with this one!

Day 93 – Coffee that Travels

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Really simple one for Day 93 – I was putting the washing up away and noticed that I have TWO travel coffee cups. I’m not sure anyone needs to be drinking out of two cups at once so my least favourite of the two went in the bin!