Archive for the 'Self-improvement' Category

The Right Productivity Tool

Oct 20 2017 Published by under Minimalism

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the reason someone’s not as productive as they want to be is not because they haven’t found the right stuff to organize their life.

It’s because they keep getting more stuff to organize their life.

Because here’s the problem: any productivity tool will have flaws. So if you’re looking for the “right” productivity tool, whatever tool you choose, its flaws will push you towards looking for a different tool. It never ends.

If, instead, you had less stuff — and by that I mean fewer projects and fewer responsibilities, as well as fewer possessions — you wouldn’t need the perfect productivity system. You’d have the space and time to get stuff done. You could use a piece of paper or a text file or a Google Drive document to keep track of your to-do lists.

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Project Debt

Oct 10 2017 Published by under Self-improvement

'Bologna, Via Marco Emilio Lepido - SS9' by Pom Angers on Flickr

‘Bologna, Via Marco Emilio Lepido — SS9’ by Pom Angers on Flickr

Last night, I slept deeply and dreamed copiously. When my alarm went off, I slowly surfaced into the real world in one of those strange grey modes of thought where my mind was unfettered by reality but still aware of it. One belief crystalized:

I have too many projects.

This happens to us all; to me it happens frequently. Most of the time, I sigh, acknowledge it, and try to whack my way through the weeds of my projects.

But this time I saw the way through clearly: It’s exactly like getting out of debt.

The best way I’ve found to get out of debt is to first stop spending money (look at how you spend money and reign that in; no more new video games or DVDs or what-have-you until things are back in control), second build a list of all your debts, and third pay off your debts starting with the smallest one. By starting small, you feel accomplishment.

Same thing here: Don’t start any new projects, and start with the easiest project on the list. For me, that’s an overdue haircut. Time to get started.

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Minimalism vs. Frugality

Oct 03 2017 Published by under Minimalism,Self-improvement

Most of us need to control our spending.

Many people at some point realize that their finances are, well, not where they should be. Many of them respond with a focus on frugality, and look for cheaper cell phone plans, coupons, combined internet and cable plans, and streaming services.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with reining in your spending, and psychologically you may need to start with simple changes like this, it focuses on reducing your spending. It’s a bit like putting a bandage on a chest wound; while an important first step, it won’t solve the underlying problem.

Minimalism, in contrast, undercuts the need for frugality. A minimalist doesn’t need a cheaper cable service, because he eliminates cable (which you only need for one show which you can legally stream anyway). He doesn’t have to buy the cheapest possible laptop to replace his spare “travel” laptop, because he only has one laptop, which he take with him everywhere. Which means he doesn’t have to manage all the software subscriptions on that spare laptop, or figure out how to synchronize his files, by the way.

Now, there’s absolutely a tension between minimalism and frugality. Every so often, a minimalist will end up buying something that she might otherwise have kept in the back of a closet.

However, I believe that the cost of those moments are far outweighed by the ongoing costs of buying and maintaining a collection of possessions. Realistically, we’re not going to only buy things that we end up using later. Some of it will sit in a drawer until we die. And while we all run the probabilities in our heads, let’s face it: we’re all notoriously bad at predicting how much use we’ll get out of our stuff in the future. Otherwise, our garages and attics wouldn’t be full of stuff we don’t use.

So, minimalism says: cut out that spending at its root. Don’t buy things in the first place.

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The Power of the Scanner

Sep 26 2017 Published by under Minimalism,Self-improvement

'stack' by hobvias sudoneighm on Flickr

‘stack’ by hobvias sudoneighm on Flickr

We still receive a lot of paper. People hand us receipts and flyers. We get bills and statements in the mail.

I don’t keep all of these, of course, but all my life, I dutifully kept mortgage statements, credit card statements, any unusual financial notices, etc. I’ve gone paperless with as many bills as I can, but some places are still old-school. I told myself I’d sort through them all. I honestly thought I would.

And sure, enough, once in my life I went through and tossed a bunch of old credit card statements. The rest of the time, they piled up in my two filing cabinets.

As I began to pursue minimalism, I realized I didn’t need physical copies of almost any of these documents. I could just scan them in.

At first I thought I’d just need to spend a couple of days with a scanner and digitize everything, so I only needed to find or borrow a scanner briefly. But after a few days of planning, I thought about the future. What would I do with the next piece of paper that arrived in the mail?

So I looked around and invested in a USD $75 “mobile” scanner, meaning instead of a flat scanner bed it feeds documents through rollers. These used to be finicky and low-quality, but it turns out they’ve gotten a lot more reliable in recent years. They’re also compact, so I don’t have to haul out a flat bed scanner every time I want to scan something.

Oh man, this has worked beautifully. I can pull out the scanner, plug it in, fire up the software, and scan a 2-page document in about 60 seconds. At which point, I never have to handle that piece of paper again.

Now, you might say, what’s the difference between putting a physical piece of paper in a filing cabinet instead of dragging a digital file into a folder? Well, that paper takes up physical space. After enough time, I’ll fill up that filing cabinet, or I’ll have to spend a lot of time purging.

In contrast, a 2-page scanned document on my hard drive takes up 30 KB; I can just leave it there forever. And if I ever have to make a serious purge, that’s actually faster with digital files (I can drag and drop 50 files a lot faster digitally than physically).

But that’s not all. I’ve moved three times in my life, and I’ll likely move again. That’s just the odds in our increasingly mobile world, where it’s downright easy to get a better job in another state (or even another country), compared to just fifty years ago. When I have to move, I’ll have to bring all that paper with me, or attempt a purge just when I have less time to do it.

Now, I’m not anti-paper. I believe it takes less time to stick papers in a filing cabinet that uses alphabetically-labeled folders than to scan them, and paper is great for certain kinds of work.

But I now also believe that the saved time of storing paper comes with hidden costs, in stuff that needs to be physically managed in a way that digital files don’t. Even if paper is filed away, the container in which it’s filed is taking up space and needs to be cleaned and maintained (and pulled out to get at that pen that fell behind it).

In any event, this scanner has been a powerful investment. As of my writing this, I’ve processed (that is, reviewed and either scanned-and-shredded or trashed) about 3/4 of the papers in my house: a three-drawer filing cabinet and a banker’s box, all now empty. I intend to get to the point where I only keep a banker’s box worth of critical paperwork (like the deed to my truck), and every page that comes in gets either scanned or recycled on the day I receive it. It only takes a few minutes; slightly more time than it took me before to file it. And I won’t have to haul it around ever again.

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Pursuing Minimalism

Sep 19 2017 Published by under Minimalism,Self-improvement

'White out' by Matt Wiebe on Flickr

‘White out’ by Matt Wiebe on Flickr

August 3, 2017: the day my copy of Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye, Things arrived on my doorstep.

Sasaki’s earned a reputation as one of Japan’s leading bloggers about minimalism, documenting his 5-year journey towards reducing his possessions. My curiosity got the better of me, and since Japanese self-help writers tend to be less aggressive than their Western counterparts, I figured I’d see what he had to write on the subject.

I devoured the book in 2 days.

The advice seems blindingly obvious: The more you own, the more you have to manage (that is, store, repair, keep clean, etc.). And just having an item in your view subconsciously triggers your mind. You can’t glance your eyes past a stack of unread books without some part of your brain noting it and filing it as something else on the to-do list. Your possessions drain your mind, besides their drain on your bank account.

Somehow, Sasaki got to me. I grokked his perspective, and it felt right.

Importantly, importance matters and remains personal.  I’m keeping my iRobot vacuum because I vastly prefer it to manually vacuuming myself (and it’s now my only vacuum). Sasaki doesn’t need a car, because he lives in the middle of Tokyo, where every conceivable shop is within a 15-minute walk or train ride.

In any event, I’ve spent the past month and a half paring down my board game collection (selling those that I’ve never gotten to the table), selling unused furniture, throwing away duplicate cables (how many spare HDMI cables do I really expect to use in the near future?), and doing the one most time-consuming thing: I bought a small desktop scanner and have been scanning all the paperwork I have in filing cabinets and banker’s boxes.

Why do I write all this? Because on Sunday, after scanning (or tossing) over half of my papers (credit card receipts, mortgage notices, RPG design notes, etc.), I stood up, stretched, and felt a strange emotion.

I felt free.

I know that’s a strange, loaded word to use. I’ve tried to think of a better one, but it truly felt—and still feels—like freedom. There’s less stuff rattling around in my head. I can actually formulate a plan for the evening, remember it all, and stick to it, because there’s nothing else to interfere with it.

It’s been revelatory.

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I Pledge for 2014

Jan 01 2014 Published by under Self-improvement

By the middle of the year…

  • Everything I eat will be raw or homemade (unless I’m at a restaurant).
    • I will eat at least 3 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
    • At least once a week, I will drink a little wine and eat some fish.
  • Every day, I will exercise for at least 20 minutes, write for at least 30 minutes, and meditate for at least 10 minutes.
  • At least once a week, I will draw.
  • At least once a week, I will practice a musical instrument.
  • I will transform my back garden into primarily a vegetable garden. I will harvest, eat, and preserve those vegetables.

By the end of the year…

  • I will adopt a pet.
  • I will read twice as many books as movies I watch.
  • I will study three books, reading them deeply for insights. This may be the second or third time I read them.

Here’s how I will do this:

  • Every Friday, when I get groceries, I will buy some fish and a lot of salad. I will make a fish-and-wine meal that weekend.
  • Every weekend, I will make a large meal that can be used as leftovers for the rest of the week.
  • I will default to a salad for dinner every night. I will keep a pantry of things to put on that salad (fruits, nuts, tuna, etc.).
  • Every evening, after dinner, before I do anything else, I will exercise (jogging the neighborhood on nice days, doing Tai Chi otherwise), then meditate, then write.
  • I will set aside one evening of the week for musical practice. (Not that I’ll spend the entire evening on it.)
  • I will set aside one evening of the week for drawing practice.
  • I will set aside two weekends in early spring to transform my garden. I will invite friends and family over on one of those days to help, and feed them.
  • I will keep a pile of books next to my bed. I will go to bed early enough every night that I can spend some time reading before going to sleep.

And I will not beat myself up if I don’t always manage this.

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Happiness, Happiness, and Happiness

Aug 19 2013 Published by under Self-improvement

'snow-globe' by Jenny Downing on Flickr

‘snow-globe’ by Jenny Downing on Flickr

As I learn to improve myself, I’ve been learning to unpack the idea of happiness. We use happiness in at least three ways: the emotion, the attitude, and the state.

When we’re in the state of happiness, we feel happy all the time. This is the dream world we’ll live in after we’ve won the lottery: a big home, a fast car or two, and lots of pleasurable activity. In this world, we fulfill every need. This is bliss.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this state exists for more than an hour. I don’t think anyone on this planet lives in a perpetual state of happiness, because everyone has to deal with rude people, the grimy sides of culture, and their own insecurities.

Moreover, humans recalibrate their baselines for contentment. Once you have food, you want flavorful food. And you want healthy food, because you want to live as long as possible, and you can afford it. Then you want food that’s healthy, flavorful, and an exact match to your current mood. Repeat for every other aspect of our lives.

The emotion of happiness often surprises us. We enter this state when we sit at a nice restaurant at the end of a fine meal, or as we walk around an amusement park on a thrill high. It’s that warm, expansive feeling we get when we realize we’re comfortable and content. C.S. Lewis chronicles this in his autobiography, and labels it joy. Buddhism encourages this feeling through prayer and exercises in mindfulness.

This emotion fades. While we can increase its frequency, it cannot turn into a state. It’s a burst of pleasure, like a mouthful of cheesecake, but we can’t eat cheesecake all day. Other emotions crowd in.

Then there’s the attitude of happiness. I had a co-worker who was always awake and attentive, with a ready smile to her face. She was quick to joke and ready to get down to work. I call this cheerfulness.

Cheerful people are occasionally stressed and sometimes sad. However, they separate their emotions from their attitude.

This relates to the topic of recovery. When someone wrongs you, how quickly do you return to normal? That return should not be instantaneous; feelings help us deal with the many facets of a situation. Neither should that return take so long that it robs us of other opportunities.

A cheerful person, upon feeling sadness or anger, learns to move away from those emotions towards happiness. A cheerful person seeks contentment and even joy throughout the day.

Which leads us down the road to the question: How do we build an attitude of happiness? One method I’ve been using lately is a daily reading of Just For Today, which was written by Sybil Partridge about a hundred years ago. I’ve placed this at the beginning of my daily journal, so I see it as I start every day:

  • Just for today I will be happy. This assumes what Abraham Lincoln said is true: “Most folks are about as happy as they make their mind up to be.” Happiness comes from within; it is not a matter of externals.
  • Just for today I will try to adjust myself to what is; not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my family, my business, and my luck as they come and fit myself to them.
  • Just for today I will take care of my body. I will exercise it, care for it, nourish it, not abuse or neglect it, so that it will be a perfect machine for my bidding.
  • Just for today I will try to strengthen my mind. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought, and concentration.
  • Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways: I will do someone a good turn and not get found out. I will do at least two chores I don’t want to do, as William James suggests, just for exercise.
  • Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, speak diplomatically, act courteously, be liberal with praise, criticize not at all, nor find fault with anything, and not try to regulate or improve anyone.
  • Just for today I will try to live through this day only, not tackle my whole life problem at once. I can do things for twelve hours that would appall me if I had to keep them up for a lifetime.
  • Just for today I will have a program. I will write down what I expect to do every hour. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. It will eliminate two pests: hurrying and indecision.
  • Just for today I will have a quiet half hour by myself and relax. In this half hour sometimes I will think of God, so as to get a little more perspective into my life.
  • Just for today I will be unafraid. Particularly, I will be unafraid to be happy; to enjoy what is beautiful; to love; and to believe that those I love, love me.

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The Middle of my Media Fast

Jul 03 2013 Published by under Self-improvement

'Running dog' by ali_gata1970 on Flickr

‘Running dog’ by ali_gata1970 on Flickr

I’m halfway through my yearly Media Fast, a week where I consume no mass media. That means no movies, no TV, no DVDs, no books, no newspapers, no magazines, no blogs, and no music.

As happens most years, I struggle most on the first day, the middle day, and the last day. I come home from work and, after making dinner and taking care of a few duties, I dive into some form of entertainment. Might be a DVD, or a podcast, or a a YouTube video.

Instead, I come home and I have a good 5 empty hours, which I can spend cooking, baking, gardening, writing, or just relaxing with a mug of tea.

When I get into the groove of my fast, I’m amazingly productive without hurrying. It feels great.

As happens most years, I’m now promising myself that I will continue in this spirit after my fast ends. Maybe I’ll give myself half an hour of entertainment for every hour of productivity.

Most years, I don’t keep it up.

Still. I wonder how much entertainment is a treadmill. Like so many things, it’s not bad in-and-of itself, but I wonder if we haven’t surrendered our time to it.

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Make Something Every Week: Ray Harryhausen Tribute Video

May 13 2013 Published by under Make Something Every Week,Self-improvement

I resolved at the beginning of this month to try something new for the next 3 months:

  • I will read twice as many books as movies I watch.
  • I will spend at most 30 free minutes on the computer each weekday evening. This time includes email, social networks, YouTube, and general surfing, but not time spent writing or otherwise making things.
  • I will spend at most 90 free minutes on the computer each weekend day.
  • I will make something every week, and I will publish something every month.

I might not complete the weekly thing by the end of the week, but I should have at least a solid draft. The thing may be a dice game, a short story, a gardening video, or anything else that takes creative effort.

Last week, with the death of stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen, I read tributes in which people promised to re-watch a Ray Harryhausen movie. I was struck that Harryhausen (and his estate) probably profited nothing from this. I doubt he received any royalties from the movies he worked on. So I thought: what would Ray want us to do?

I think he’d want us to make some stop motion ourselves.

So I grabbed a Gundam model kit and made this:

[iframe_loader width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen]

I learned a few things:

  1. With a basic understanding of lighting and camera position, you can create something very quickly. My camcorder has a photo mode, so I used that to record each frame of the animation. Once I set everything up, the actual animation took maybe 10 minutes.
  2. Tape down your model.
  3. Gundam model kits are perfect for stop motion. They have a wide range of limb motion and stay where you put them.

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Better Off?

Sep 22 2012 Published by under Self-improvement

Yesterday, I finished reading Better Off by Eric Brende. It left me breathless and thoughtful, pacing the length of my hotel room.

It’s a book about living without electricity, and the destructive cycles of modern technological dependence. These books worry me in many ways. Usually, I just dislike their mindless tone, as though anything the author can’t personally comprehend is automatically suspect.

Fortunately, Brende is honest about his prejudices and thoughtful about technology. He chronicles the eighteen months he spent in a mostly Amish community, sprinkled with philosophical asides about machinery and the nature of work. He appreciates work without desiring it. Work’s not an end in itself, but it has value beyond its result.

One of Brende’s central beliefs: the more complex the machine, the more likely its full costs outweigh its value. Big tractors enable farmers to plant more acres, but their surplus is quickly consumed by the tractor’s initial and ongoing costs for fuel, repair, and insurance. Owning a computer requires the time to learn and update software besides the financial cost.

I know plenty of reasons to dismiss such arguments. I’ve also spent enough hours struggling with software to regret that lost time.

I’ve also been thinking about the life I want to lead, and the hours I want to spend. If I have a spare hour or two, do I really want to spend it scanning Google+ or watching something on NetFlix? Or would I rather be sipping a glass of sherry and reading a good book? Or ambling around town taking photos?

There are so many awesome low-tech activities I could be enjoying. Why not spend most of my time on those?

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