Four Ways to Close the Open Loops that are Driving You Nuts

I don't like my attention to be spread across many different areas at once. I've found that when I can focus my attention on only one or two areas at a time, I tend to do much better work. When I first started this blog, I tried to maintain my personal blog and my teaching blog at the same pace as this one. I thought writing 8 articles a week for 3 different blogs was sustainable. I quickly realized that was insane and dropped my two less-important blogs to a more sporadic posting schedule. A similar example is when I have more than two books going at once, I seem to get through none of them. On top of that, not only do I seem to not finish anything, I can never remember where I am in each book and end up re-reading a lot of it. If there is one thing I have learned as I have delved more into the concept of simplicity it is that my attention is nearly the most important resource I have. The people who are very cognizant of how they spend this incredibly finite resource seem to be the ones who make the most impact.

Last week I was feeling very spread out and thin. I decided to take a look at the "open loops" I had going and was not surprised to find the culprit behind my lack of focus. I was reading four books at the same time, I had three rough drafts for posts waiting to be edited, a couple more in outline form, two partially read articles sitting on my desk and a small stack of unresolved mail. Each of these open loops was gnawing at my subconscious.Individually they were easy to ignore-- together they were driving me nuts.

I work best when I can take all of my attention and energy and focus it on one point of impact. Having multiple ongoing projects or nagging errands sitting around was slowly eroding my ability to focus.

  1. Identify open loops: An open loop is anything that is demanding some of your attention when it really should be spent elsewhere. For me, open loops can be partially read books or articles, small but annoying errands, and partially completed projects of many kinds.

  2. Pick the easiest to close: Figure out all the errands you need to run and do them all together (also known as batching). Decide what book you want to finish first and ignore the others until you do so. In fact, are those other books you're reading really that good? You don't get a ribbon for finishing a book you know-- if it's not worth your time, close it and forget it.

  3. Work your way from the bottom up: Pick the easiest ones to finish first because we're trying to build momentum for those larger loops that need your attention. Remember, the whole idea is to get rid of these little attention grabbers as quickly as possible. The larger the loop the more attention you're going to need.

  4. Get back to work on what really matters: This is the most important step-- do not skip it! Now that you've taken an hour, an afternoon, a day, whatever, to close these open loops it's time to focus on the work that really matters. Do not let the act of closing loops lull you into a sense of great accomplishment. You have much more important things to do.

If you are feeling spread out I recommend you follow these steps. Your focus is the key to accomplishing great things. You can't center it on those great things if you have open loops begging for attention.



How do You Stay Motivated Through Monotony?

Much has been written about staying positive when things seem to be going against you. We all have those times where it seems like everything we say is taken the wrong way, everything that can go wrong is going wrong, and when it seems like our best course of action would have been to turn off that alarm clock and sleep until the early afternoon. Pushing through the hard times is an admirable trait.However, how do you push through monotony?

Nobody writes about pushing through the hum-drum because it isn't nearly as glamorous as conquering the world as it tries to smash you beneath it's proverbial foot. Rags to riches stories are the stuff of Hollywood legend. Most of us aren't in literal or metaphorical rags, though. Most of us are doing a pretty good job at whatever it is that we do-- not really getting ahead but certainly not falling behind. How do you push through and do something amazing when nothing seems to be changing around you?

This post is more of an actual question than my usual articles. I never try to portray myself as having all the answers but I really don't have the answers in this case. This seems to be the main thing that I'm experiencing in my own life right now. I'm not down on my luck, seriously handicapped, or particularly unlucky. I am a 23 year old college graduate living at home, substitute teaching on a part-time basis, and trying to do a little writing.

I've always been a very high achiever. 5th in my high school class, graduated college with all A's and one B, won several scholarships and a department-wide honor for historical research and writing, the captain of nearly every hockey team I've ever played for etc. But I live at home. With my parents and four younger brothers. I share a room with an 8th grader.

I try to keep the bigger picture in mind and I think that's probably the main reason I started this blog. I know this is not my end-game. I will find a job eventually (or who knows, maybe this whole writing thing will work out?) and I will move out. I will continue my life.

But right now I'm doing the hum-drum.

How do I break out of this? How do I make the boring work for me?

Three Reasons We Like Reading Common Sense Advice

Let's face it, a lot of what I write about (and Everett and Leo and Tim and Steve and Jeffrey) is common sense. In fact, there is very little written out there in the genre of personal development and simplicity that is truly groundbreaking material. Of course, sometimes I read something that feels like it is completely new but upon further reflection I can almost always categorize it under I-feel-like-I-knew-this-but-it's-nice-to-be-reminded. I'm not saying this to bring down the other writers I mentioned (or even myself). In fact, I think they are doing great things by taking those pieces of common sense and repackaging it into something that seems much less common. My point is to ask why it is that the basis of this field seems to be common sense and yet people still love reading about it?

  1. It gives us a sense of control: Reading something that you already knew, at some level, gives me a sense of control. Think about it, if you read or learn something that is completely separate from your experience and beyond your level of comprehension, you are unlikely to feel very good about it. The basis of learning is being able to tie new information to information we have already learned. Much of the "lifehack" literature is a rehash of our own experiences. We've all felt what it's like to be in "the zone," even if only for a few minutes. Almost all of us can remember a time we threw out a bunch of old stuff and felt better about it afterward. Common sense is within each of us and therefore is familiar.

  2. It is usually very easy to implement: Please note that I did not say it is easy to implement well or consistently. However, almost every piece of lifehack advice can be very easily implemented at least once. Check your email only twice per day? Sure, any of us can do that for a day. Reading advice that makes you think, "Well that doesn't seem too hard-- I can do that," can be very empowering. You can spend thirty minutes reading blogs like Zen Habits or Lifehacker and have a full list of things that you can immediately start doing without too much effort.

  3. It can create a huge change in the quality of our lives: Not only is the information at least vaguely familiar and easy to implement, it can create a huge change in our lives. If this point was not true then I doubt I would be writing this blog right now. If people are successful in implementing some of what they read in the personal development genre then chances are they have experienced a positive change in their life. That experience can become intoxicating and people embark on a search to find that next piece of lifehack advice that will give them the same "high" as before.

All three of these reasons for enjoying lifehack advice are not bad in their own right. The real problem comes when I begin thinking that reading about changing my life is the same thing as actually doing it. As long as I'm able to accept that reading about personal development can be valuable research and not actual development in itself, I don't see the harm in enjoying it. I know that I truly appreciate those that take the time to read what I have to say here but if this website ever became such a distraction as to keep them from applying what they read I would tell them to delete my RSS feed immediately.

Common sense is common. Applying common sense is very rare.


Paradoxical Simplicity

It can be tempting to think that life is built around universal principles that are devoid of any fallacies or contradictions. Unfortunately, as we all know, life is full of paradoxes and I've recently come across one in my own quest for a simpler life.

One of the benefits of living with a more minimalist mindset is that the concept of "quality over quantity" suddenly becomes much more attainable. Instead of buying more of a mediocre object I can buy less of a better product. I've written about this before and it is nothing earth-shattering.

However, the paradox comes into play when you think about another core principle of living a simple and happy life, being content and grateful for what we already have. Much of the suffering and complications that arise in our lives seem to be centered around the attainment of more "stuff." The desire to have things that we cannot afford is the basis of many people's financial woes and psychological unrest. Breaking the cycle of consumerism and learning to be content with what we already have is a huge step in the direction of simplicity.

With that being said, does anyone see the contradiction between these two principles? On the one hand I'm arguing toward having better stuff and on the other arguing for being content with what I already have. What gives?

To resolve this conundrum I advocate the idea of "responsible upgrade" of physical items in your life. The first step would be to identify where in your life you would want to apply the quality over quantity principle versus being content with what you have. I would recommend that anything you use on a daily basis or more regularly should be purchased and maintained on the quality over quantity principle. For example, I wear a watch everyday. I could have purchased a very low quality watch that might break after a couple years or, I could have one watch that will last for a LONG time that might be initially more expensive.

On the other hand, anything that is not used a lot or maybe isn't that important to you can be centered around the idea of just being grateful for what you have. For me, clothing and fashion is not incredibly important. I have nice looking clothes, but they aren't designer labels or expensive because that is not something I care about. If, however, I decided that I wanted to upgrade my wardrobe the "responsible upgrade" would be to start setting money aside now so that when the time comes I can apply the quality over quantity principle and not be financially ruined.

Navigating the contradictions and paradoxes in our lives is a very tricky thing to do. Unfortunately we do not live in a world where everything is always clear cut or black and white. As you begin to live a simpler life keep in mind the principle of quality over quantity while also holding close the idea of being content with what you already have. If you can resolve these two ideas I guarantee that you will be living a simpler-- and happier-- life.



The Simplest Task Management System Ever

An entire industry has been built around the concept of personal management and productivity. The best known of these experts is probably David Allen and his Getting Things Done system. David's books and system have been very helpful in my own life and I always try to recommend his work to anyone who seems to be drowning in their own commitments and responsibilities. There are countless other gurus out there who do the same thing as David Allen-- helping people organize and manage their work and daily lives in the most effective way possible. These individuals are doing beneficial work and I applaud them, but, I think that sometimes the whole process is over-complicated.

At the very core, a personal management system is supposed to help you decide what to do and when to do it. In Getting Things Done the workflow is centered around project lists that each have discrete next action steps that keep them moving toward completion. Each next action has a context assigned to it that should help you decide what to work on based upon where you are located. For example, you can look at your @office list while you are at work and not be distracted by those things you can only do at home or at the grocery store. Additionally, there are weekly reviews and a whole GTD workflow that must be memorized and executed. While extremely effective if done correctly, it can also be very complicated. Some, such as Leo Babauta, have tried to simplify the entire process. Leo took the GTD system and created his own take on it called Zen to Done. I highly recommend this ebook as I think it does a great job taking the core principles out of GTD and stripping away all the ancillary fluff.

However, I think all task management systems can be broken down into one sentence. Are you ready?

Do what is weighing on you most, most of the time.

That's it. We all know at some level what is causing us the most psychological discomfort in terms of our work. Whatever that is nagging at the back of your mind when you are sitting in front of your computer or walk into your office is quite often the thing that you need to get done most urgently. For me, writing these articles is what is usually gnawing at my subconscious. It's the very core activity to keeping this blog going and when I have finished a writing session I feel a burden lifted off my shoulders. It's not because this is a particularly onerous task-- in fact, I quite like writing these articles. It's not even that these are the most urgent in terms of deadline. I'm scheduled several weeks in advance so my blog will not shutdown if I don't write this article today. It's just that I know this is what I'm supposed to be doing. This is what drives my blog forward and this is what drives my own intellectual curiosity and sense of accomplishment forward. The more I write the better I feel.

If you aren't sure what you need to do and are drowning in your work, take a second to be still. Close your eyes and decide what would feel the best to have completed. When you've decided what that project is, make the next thing you work on be something to make that your reality. You might not finish it, but even taking small steps toward it's completion can lift that mental weight a little bit. Chances are the reason an activity is causing you stress is because you know that it's important and that you have to get it done.

Just remember, at the end of the day after you've made all your to-do lists and project lists and mind maps and brainstorms and outlines and meetings and conference calls you still need to actually DO something.

Do what is weighing on you most, most of the time. It doesn't get much simpler than that.

The Hierarchy of Simplification

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist that developed a theory known as the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. This theory describes what people must have in order to live a fulfilling life. At the very lowest level of his hierarchy are the very basic physiological needs of food, water, shelter etc. Without first fulfilling these needs, a human cannot move forward toward a more complex existence. I wouldn't be writing this article if I was starving and Leonardo da Vinci wouldn't have painted the Mona Lisa if he was spending his time trying to find shelter.

As these basic needs are met people can start achieving bigger and better things. Each level of Maslow's hierarchy must be attained before the next level can be reached. At the very tip of his pyramid is the pinnacle of human existence or self-actualization. This level is characterized by creativity, problem solving, spontaneity etc. In Maslow's theory, this is what people are striving for and the more their prerequisite needs are met the more likely they are to achieve self-actualization.

Despite criticisms of Maslow's actual theory, I think the concept can be applied to the process of simplification. I recently made the connection between Maslow's theory and my own quest for a simpler life. At the very basic and broadest level of my simplicity hierarchy is the identification of values. I've written many times about how the whole point of simplifying must be something other than simplification for its own sake. For me, I am trying to live a simpler life so I can make decisions based on the values I think are important.

Once my values are articulated, the second level is physical decluttering of my space. Decluttering is a very basic activity that most people think of when they think about simplicity or minimalism. Of course, you could simplify without articulating your values first, but what's the point? If you don't know why you're doing it I doubt your living space will stay very decluttered for long. Physical decluttering serves as a very important base for further simplification, but it is not the ultimate goal.

The next level is mental decluttering and the cultivation of attention/focus. I argue that mental decluttering cannot happen until physical decluttering is completed. In my own experience, it is nearly impossible to clear my head and focus when surrounded by chaos. This level is all about learning to harness our minds to focus on one thing at a time.

The fourth level is where we take our newfound mental clarity and strengthened focus and apply it to our passionate work and leisure. For me, it is coaching and writing. Whatever your "great work" is, this is the level in which you make strides toward achieving it. Passionate leisure may seem like an oxymoron but I see it as the cultivation of productive hobbies. There is no reason our leisure time cannot be as productive and beneficial as our passionate work while also being an outlet for relaxation and stress reduction.

Lastly, at the very tip of the simplicity hierarchy is "living a life driven by personal values." When I first sat down and began planning this blog I wrote that I thought many people lived a life stuck on "autopilot." Instead of examining their own values and passions, people allow themselves to be directed from one frivolous pursuit to another by advertisement and others' values instead of their own. By identifying personal values, decluttering our physical space, decluttering our minds and cultivating our attention/focus, and then applying our attention/focus into passionate work and leisure we can live a fully actualized life. Instead of being stuck on autopilot we have our hands firmly on the controls of our own existence.


Stop Worrying About What You Can't Control

In twenty minutes of leisurely Googling I found 66 blogs on simplicity, minimalism, and personal development. This genre has taken off in the past couple years and with Zen Habits leading the way, is becoming very popular. I'm very new to blogging and entrepreneurship, but even I know that with so much competition it can be nearly impossible to differentiate myself. How is this website any different from the hundreds of other blogs that write about the same stuff? What makes me think that I can write anything that hasn't been written before on one of these other blogs?

The short answer to that question is that I'm not sure what I'm doing here is standing out in anyway. The general advice is to usually find a niche and become the authoritative voice for your little corner of a subject. What is my niche? Twenty-something college graduates that couldn't find a job and are living at home with his parents and four little brothers? Or, maybe more optimistically, twenty-something coaches and teachers with a passion for learning and teaching? Or maybe my niche is taking aspects of simplicity and minimalism and applying a more academic or philosophical bent? Or maybe it's focusing on the experiential and personal in my own quest for simplicity?

I don't know what my niche is right now, and honestly, I'm OK with that. This blog has been an incredibly personal reflection tool for me over the past few months. It has forced me to sit down and write a little bit almost every day. It has forced me to think about these aspects of life that I find interesting. It has helped me learn how to articulate what I'm thinking and, more importantly, why I'm thinking that way. Even if my blog is lost in obscurity among the hundreds of similar ones, the personal gain I have experienced has made this effort worthwhile.

Of course, I would love to somehow find my niche and experience the popularity explosion that the most well known blogs in this genre have experienced. However, that cannot be my ultimate goal. My purpose with this blog is first and foremost to poke, prod, and challenge myself. Secondly, I want to help other people examine their own lives and thoughts through my writing.

In the past I have worried too much about doing something that someone else had already done. Instead of starting a blog, I'd spend my time thinking about how my blog would be different or better than every other blog. Instead of being an invigorating thought, I would immediately get discouraged by the thought of all these well-established blogs overshadowing my own efforts. This time, the big difference was that I just started writing every day and putting my words out there. I stopped worrying about what other blogs were doing and focused on what I could actually control, my own output. Maybe at some point I'll reach a level of success where I can spend more time thinking about how to make my blog more popular, but right now my focus is solely on content. At the very least, this blog is a great personal tool even if I never have another set of eyes look upon it.

I hope that if you've found my writing interesting in the past you will continue to do so in the future. I would love for you to drop a comment on an article, send me an email, catch me on Twitter or Google+ and start a conversation with me. I want to talk and think about this stuff with you and I hope this blog is a valuable starting point for your own exploration of your life.

Values "Next Actions"

It's not enough to just have values, they must become the cornerstones of your decision making process. Anybody can say they have values, but that's not the point. In fact, you shouldn't even have to articulate them in order for the people you interact with most to be able to describe them; if you actually live your values on a day-to-day basis, it becomes obvious what they are.

I've written about my values in the past and I want to make sure that I don't fall into the trap of making a list that sounds good but isn't actually practiced. I think the best way to prevent this from happening is to actually make a list of value next-actions that will help you live a life that is aligned with your values. This is sort of taking a page out of Getting Things Done and the importance of having truly actionable "next actions" for every project. By making sure that your next action is something that can truly be accomplished even the largest of projects can keep moving forward.

For example, one of my stated values is "growth." Some of my next actions to further this value are, "Watch a TED talk," "Finish reading current book," and "Begin researching ebook project." Another one of my values is "family" so some possible actions I can take to further this is, "call cousin in Florida," "email my grandparents," and "go to brother's hockey game on Wednesday."

Values can be very amorphous things when you don't take the time to actually figure out what it looks like to live with them guiding your actions. I recommend sitting down and giving yourself 2-3 actions for each of your main values at the beginning of every week. You don't necessarily have to do it for every single value that adhere to. In fact, I think it's probably a better idea to focus on only one or two values a week in order to make the biggest impact.

The bottom line is that your values mean nothing if your actions don't align with them. Give yourself some next-actions ahead of time and the rest takes care of itself.



Five Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful People

I recently read Why Smart Executives Fail And What You Can Learn From Their Mistakes by Sydney Finkelstein. Much of the book was fairly specific to the business world, but there was one chapter titled, "The Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful People." Finkelstein analyzed many, many instances of failed businesses and the habits that their CEOs seemed to share. I'm going to adopt his list to my own needs here and give some of my own commentary. So, instead of focusing on unsuccessful CEOs, here are the five habits of spectacularly unsuccessful people in general.

  1. They see themselves as dominating their environments: People start getting into trouble when they think they have everything figured out. When things are going well it can be easy to forget that there is so much that we have no control over. Being ready for the unexpected is a distinctive feature of successful people. What is your backup plan?

  2. They identify so completely with their job that there is no clear boundary between personal interests and their job: In today's era this is becoming more and more prevalent. It can be easy to get sucked into your job so completely that it is difficult to see where it ends and you begin. It is vital for successful people to have a life and interests outside of their job, regardless of how much they love it. At the very least, having non-job related interests allow a person to become more well-rounded which, in turn, can pay dividends at work. How do you spend your weekends?

  3. They think they have all the answers: Much like number one, when people think they have all the answers trouble is usually just around the corner. Successful people know they don't have all the answers, but they usually do know how they can find the answer. Whether that means knowing how to research or who to ask, successful people embrace the fact that they don't know everything. Where can you go if you don't know the answer to something?

  4. They ruthlessly eliminate anybody who doesn't believe exactly as they do: Successful people surround themselves with people who think like them and with people who have contrary ideas to their own. It can be easy to surround yourself with people who will agree with everything you say, but that is not the catalyst for success. Having people close to you who aren't afraid to play devil's advocate or produce opposing ideas to your own will only serve to help you as an individual. Is there anybody in your close group of friends who challenges you?

  5. They are obsessed with their own image: Successful people do not worry about what others think. Being obsessed with a personal image results in effort and time being placed in a domain that you have no control over,namely, what other people think of you. Instead of worrying about that, successful people worry about only those issues with which they have control, such as their own effort and expertise. What is the number one thing you are worried about right now? Is it something you can even control?

What other habits do unsuccessful people tend to have? What can you do to counteract them?

There's No Speed Limit

I read an article back in December by Derek Sivers titled "There's no speed limit (The lessons that changed my life.)" In the article Derek describes the music lessons he received from musician Kimo Williams. Williams taught Derek two years Berkley School of Music coursework in theory and arranging in only a few lessons. Derek then went on to test out of 6 semesters of required classes and graduated in two and a half years.

I love reading inspirational stories but I think this one had an especially acute effect on me. Williams motto was that "there's no speed limit" in terms of what you can learn and how fast you can learn it. The only limit is your own expectations and your willingness to work hard. This got me thinking about all the different artificial limits that we are conditioned to accept as we grow up. Each year in school you are supposed to learn a certain amount of information that the higher-ups have deemed adequate for your grade. Each year you move up a grade and the level of what you learn raises a little bit more. Sure, some people go a little bit above that expected limit or some don't quite reach that benchmark but by and large, there is a limit to what you are expected to do.

I wonder how many of us still operate with a similar limitation once we leave the organized school system? I've always been a pretty bright guy but for some reason I've never really sat down and challenged myself to the extent that Derek did during his lessons with Kimo Wiliams. There shouldn't be anything holding me back. Between libraries and the amazing possibilities that the internet opens I have access to almost any information I could possibly want. The only thing that is preventing me from doing something with all that information is my own expectations for myself.

From now on I'm going to try to remember that there's no speed limit. I can learn as much as I want and as quickly as I can handle it. I don't have to wait to move up to the next "grade," buy the next volume, or wait for anybody else around me. My own development is going to be set by my own expectations which, from now on, are going to be very high. If I don't set my expectations for myself at an adequate level, there is nobody else that will. It's up to me.

How high are your expectations? Are you meeting them?

How to Leverage Low Energy Into High Returns

Despite my best intentions or repeated urgings, sometimes I just don't have the energy to work on my most passionate projects. The things I do that add value to my life are not necessarily the easiest of activities. Writing blog posts, editing and analyzing game film, planning practices, and researching teaching/coaching strategies takes a lot of effort and I can generally only do them well when I have a lot of energy. It would be naive of me to expect my energy levels to always be high. However, it would be equally naive of me to forego doing anything productive just because I'm not at 100% energy level.

First of all, I would like to preface this entire article by reminding everyone (including myself) that sometimes low energy is a sign of needing a break. I'm talking about more than a get-up-and-walk-around-for-ten-minutes break. If you are experiencing recurring low energy levels that you can't seem to shake, consider spending a significant amount of time (at least an entire day) recharging your mental and physical batteries. It may not feel like it at the time, but allowing yourself time to regroup and refocus can be much more productive in the long run than slogging through fatigue.

Assuming your low energy isn't a sign of needing a more serious break, it is possible to utilize it and remain productive. Regardless of my passion, I will always have certain administrative tasks to take care of. Responding to certain email, tracking my finances, paying bills and cleaning my living space are all activities that need to be done. Luckily, they don't require much, if any, brainpower or energy to undertake. I like to save these tasks and batch them together for times of low energy. I'm not about to waste my valuables state of high-energy on doing dishes or inputting receipts.

The other type of low-energy task that I like to occasionally undertake when I'm feeling tired is brainstorming. Sometimes, the more tired I am the crazier ideas I have for future blog posts and new projects. It really just consists of kicking back in a comfy chair with a warm drink and a notebook and letting the ideas flow. It's a very high reward task that needs to be taken care of but doesn't necessarily demand that I use my most valuable time to accomplish it.

If you are having trouble coming up with ideas of tasks you can save for those periods of low-energy, here's a quick list that I like to refer to from time to time:

  1. Work on whatever book I'm currently reading: I always try to keep a book that I'm working on with me at all times. If it isn't something too intellectually challenging it can be the perfect filler for any time I'm not feeling very energized (as long as I don't fall asleep!).

  2. Clean something: This is assuming that you aren't procrastinating on doing something important and actually don't have the energy to tackle anything else. I usually do my best work early in the morning or late at night, so I'll save any cleaning I need to do for the middle of the day.

  3. Watch some educational videos: There are so many great resources out there for watching educational video. It doesn't take a whole lot of energy to kick back and watch something and who knows, you might even get something out of it.

  4. Listen to some podcasts: I tend to let new episodes of my favorite podcasts build up without listening to them. If I'm feeling particularly listless one afternoon I like to block out a couple hours to catch up.

  5. Start proofreading: If I'm proofing something for the last time in preparation for publication, then this is definitely not a low-energy activity. However, the first couple times I read over something I've written I'm just trying to find glaring mistakes. It doesn't require me to be completely on top of my game and it is definitely something productive.

Make your own list of activities or tasks you can do when you are feeling low-energy and you will never have to feel guilty about not being productive again. Or, get this, take a nap and get back to what really matters!

The Essentials of Simplicity, Part 3

Once you have mastered the principle of using all you have and purging, the next aspect you can focus on is wanting less. If you can't train yourself to want less, all of the purging you did in part two is nigh useless. Unfortunately, I think this may also be the hardest of the principles I've talked about so far to learn and implement. Most Americans (and people from the Westernized world in general) have been socialized to never be satisfied with what they have. The focus is always on achieving more, attaining more, more, bigger, more, bigger ad nauseum. Obviously, the focus on progress is not always a negative idea. I'm fully in favor of all the progress mankind has achieved since the beginning of time. I like my computer, the Internet, my affordable clothes and the car I drive. However, at some point each individual needs to decide when they have achieved enough to live the life they desire. The lower that level is, the quicker you can start living a life focused on doing rather than having.

Breaking a lifetime of socialization is hard, so what can you do to take a step toward accepting what you have and wanting less?

  1. Get perspective: The recent earthquake in Haiti is a great time to realize how lucky the vast majority of us are. We all have so much "stuff" that we take for granted it takes massive natural disasters for us to snap out of our mindlessness. Take a look around the world and realize how many people are living with so much less than you.

  2. Make a list of everything you own: This is tied to the idea of getting perspective. Sit down for an hour or two and seriously try to write down everything you own. Even if you try to live a fairly minimalist existence I think you will be surprised with how much you already own. Take your list, read through it a couple times, and then watch some news footage from the earthquake in Haiti. Or spend 10 minutes looking up different aid organizations in Africa. What do you think the people who are living in the streets of Haiti's list might look like?

  3. Get more use out of what you already have: How many of us really know how to use every feature on our digital camera? Are you getting every last bit of use out of everything you own? Take 30 minutes and read through the various owner manuals that you have laying around for all your stuff. Learn how to do something new with something you already have.

  4. Remove temptations: Unsubscribe from promotional emails. Don't look at catalogs that come in the mail. Try to avoid television commercials. All of these advertisements are trying to get you to override your better judgement and get you to part with your hard earned money.

If you can take steps toward wanting less, your life will become simpler. You will spend less money, have less possessions cluttering your home, and you will appreciate what you do have even more.



The Essentials of Simplicity, Part 2: Purging

In part one of this series I talked about the principle of using all you have. To begin living a simpler life, it is necessary to use as little of something as possible at at time. I talked about the example of chapstick and pens, but this principle applies to anything that is used up over time. The necessary focus that it takes to accomplish this principle is also a useful exercise in mindfulness. Restricting yourself to one pen at a time or stocking your pantry only with food that will actually be eaten requires you to be more aware of yourself and your actions.

The second essential of simplicity is purging. Simplification requires the expulsion of everything that doesn't matter, materially, psychically, spiritually, etc. in favor of what does. Depending on the amount of stuff you own right now, this step could vary in difficulty and time to achieve. When I first started thinking about living a simpler life, I had a multitude of things to purge. I had to reduce my wardrobe from the ridiculous state it had become. I had to get rid of the absolute mess that had become my book collection. I tried to reduce the amount of stuff I owned from every aspect of my life. This can be a tough principle to adapt if you are particularly attached to your material belongings. I won't bother giving you a step-by-step process for reducing the clutter in your life (it has been done many times before). What I can tell you is what worked for me.


I would make three piles as I went through my stuff, a "Keep It For Sure" pile, a "Toss It" pile, and a "I'm Not Really Sure" pile. What you do with the first two piles is obvious; it's the third one that causes problems. I would take everything in the I'm Not Really Sure pile and put it in a box, and I'd put that box somewhere out of sight and out of mind. If I ended up needing something from that box in the next 6 months, I would go get it. Anything left in the box after 6 months was officially removed from my life. I think this tactic is helpful because you can take a sort of trial run with less stuff in your life without completely committing to getting rid of everything right off the bat.


I would be remiss if I ended the discussion on purging without talking the non-material component. Purging our physical possessions is important and often gives the most visible evidence of living a simpler life. However, purging our minds of distracting projects, doubts, worries, and fears is just as important. My experience with David Allen's "Getting Things Done" system was the starting point for purging my projects and getting my life under control. It doesn't matter if you use a system like GTD or something of your own devising, the principle is the same. You need to sit down and write down every single thing that is on your mind. A complete mind dump. Once you have everything out and on paper, you can start clarifying your commitments, tossing out irrelevant projects, and planning. The act of putting every worry and every project on paper is very refreshing; purging the stuff that doesn't matter from that list is even more so.


One final word of advice from my own experience: err on the side of over-purging. I have found that there is very little in life that I cannot replace if I find that I end up needing it. It is disturbingly easy to add more components to your life, but very hard to remove them. Start on the side of over-removal and you can slowly add back complexity if you so desire. Most people I have talked to about this aspect of living a simpler life all have the same experience in that they were initially doubtful of purging their hard-earned possessions and commitments. However, shortly after doing so they realized the amazing draining (yet almost unseen) power that a life of excess has.

I encourage you to take a hard look at your surroundings. Ask yourself if everything on your project list is as necessary as you think it is. What can be reduced? What can be purged?



The Essentials of Simplicity, Part 1: Using All You Have

Today marks the first of a three-part series I'm calling The Essentials of Simplicity. Over the next couple weeks I will publish the remaining parts. Each article will focus on an idea of simplicity that I think is vital to living a simpler life. If you have a handle on these five principles, simplifying your life will go much smoother and easier.

The first Essential of Simplicity is using all you have. Sounds pretty simple and probably trite, right? I agree, it is. Before you completely dismiss me as grasping at straws, take a second to go to your bathroom and look under the sink. Or in a drawer. Do you have any duplicates of the materials in there? Are they both opened and half used? What about in your office? How many pens are you currently using on a daily basis? How many notebooks are currently in some phase of completion?


I think the ability to use something all the way to completion is a key skill in simplifying life. I realized this principle a couple years ago when I was averaging a lost chapstick every week or so. I could never keep track of it for any longer than that and was consequently having to buy new ones constantly (chapstick is required in winter in Bowling Green!). I would always seem to find all my lost chapsticks at the same time so I would alternate between not having any to suddenly having four or five partially used ones. I finally realized that it was ridiculous that I couldn't keep track of something so trivial, so I decided I would not buy another chapstick until I completely used one up. Amazingly, I didn't lose my solitary chapstick. In fact, I had to become much more mindful of where I put it after I used it because I knew that if I didn't finish it completely, I was going to have to go without. Sometime in my sophomore year of college I completely finished my first chapstick. Think about it, have you ever kept track of one of these long enough to actually use it until there is nothing left in it? It's a surprisingly good feeling. An added bonus is that you will have to increase your mindfulness to keep track of one of anything. You can't just mindlessly throw that chapstick somewhere and expect to find it later. Your actions and thoughts have to become more deliberate.


Another area I decided to apply this principle was with my office supplies. I used to be very cavalier with losing pens and pencils because I seemed to always have a huge reserve of back up utensils. However, I realized that it was pretty lame that I couldn't keep track of a pen long enough to even think about having to replace it because it was empty. So, I decided to pack up all my pens and pencils, except for one of each, and put them somewhere inconvenient. I would now have to keep track of my one pencil and my one pen until I used them up all the way. If I lost one, I'd have to go break into my very inconveniently located reserves.

Think about all the consumables in your life that you have duplicates of. Do you really need to have more than one "in action" at any time? I would recommend starting with your bathroom and them moving into the kitchen (check out that pantry!) and your office. All three of these places seem to breed identical, partially used, duplicates.

I realize that this is an incredibly simple idea. However, if you've never tried implementing it you might be surprised at the difficulty of doing so. Use what you have, one at a time, until it's gone. And then use another one, one at a time, until it's gone. The added mindfulness and the reduction in waste will be a surprisingly liberating feeling.