On Simplicity

April 30, 2008

Lessons Learned from StuffWhitePeopleLike

Filed under: House & Home,Simple Living — Serendipity @ 10:16 am

The secret you may not know, is that deep down, all white people are desperately trying to make their life seem like an ad for a Sub Zero refrigerator, or an article in Gourmet/Bon Appetit magazine. To achieve either of these goals will set white people at ease.

So, I’m probably not the first person to stumble into Stuff White People Like. However, I just might be the first to have gleaned some seriously valuable insight from it–like the above quote.

Too many of us strive for perfection without realizing where our vision of perfection comes from.  If our lives are spent in search of something, we all need to spend significant time considering just that: where our ideals come from. Some possibilities:

  • Books you’ve read
  • Films and TV you’ve seen
  • The way you grew up
  • The way you didn’t grow up
  • The people you surround yourself with
  • Your education
  • Commercials and marketing

None of these on their own are good or bad, but it’s worth thinking about.  In thinking about my own ideals and lifestyle, I have to admit that part of my vision does come from those damn home improvement store ads, where everything is clean, it’s always sunny, and there are always fresh flowers somewhere in the picture.  Realizing this helps me simplify and let go of some of that lifestyle envy because it’s absolutely not real.  I’m letting advertisers tweak my goals.

There’s one more valuable thing I took from the above quote: “white people are desperately trying to make their life seem like an ad for a Sub Zero refrigerator.”  We can all simplify our goals by realizing that lots of what we see is people trying, often successfully, to make their lifestyles seem like something other than what it truly is.  When you’re feeling stressed or like you can’t keep up with everyone else, remember that the image you see is often a snapshot, an ad for what they’re trying to portray, just as much as a Sub-Zero brochure.  Then, do your best to let go of any envy or insecurities and just embrace the reality of your life.  Trust me, it’s way better than a refrigerator ad, imperfections and all.


April 25, 2008

The Revenge of the Lonely Pencil

Filed under: Starting Out — Serendipity @ 12:04 am

Okay, last post on this for awhile, I promise.  But I had to share this; this mini-series about the one-pencil philosophy totally jinxed me.  Yeah.  Not only did I lose my one pen that was out, the next two I grabbed didn’t work.  Freakin’ awesome, huh?  The good news is that the solution is simple: find another pen that works and hang on to it for dear life. 

Seriously, what I personally learned from this is to never be too smug about anything, because things will always go wrong. I also learned that one true test of a good system or idea is whether it still works when a piece of that system falls apart.  I’m happy to report that the world did not come to crashing end even though I didn’t have a dozen backup pens sitting directly on my desk. 

I went to my backup storage area (a set of plastic drawers directly behind my desk on a work table), grabbed cousin of daughter-in-law of son of Favorite But Now Lost Pen and was back in business.  The true beauty of simple systems is that they have simple solutions. Have a great Thursday!

April 23, 2008

The Two Faces of Book Lust

Filed under: House & Home,Simple Living — Serendipity @ 11:08 pm

Hi, I’m Sara, and I have BookLust. (Hi Sara…)  I adore books.  I love to collect books, surround myself with books, look at walls of books, visit bookstores and drool on books… You get the idea.  Lots of bibliophiles know what I’m talking about, as does anybody who collects something.

But… there’s another part of me that hates collecting books.  I hate the boxes of books taking up half the space in my not insignificant closets (yep, plural boxes in plural closets).  I hate dusting bookcases full of books.  I hate the guilt and overwhelm of seeing lots of books I haven’t read.  I hate that I have secret urges to impress anyone who visits my house with my awesome collection of intelligent, quirky, and highly attractive books.

I don’t have a solid answer for reconciling these two sides of myself, but lately small purges have been a big help.  While I still have a hard time letting go of books that are “important” (even if I didn’t particularly care for them) or just plain pretty, I’m losing the fanatic acquisitiveness.  For the most part, I look for quality and memorability instead of books that seem cute but forgettable.  And it feels good.  I like looking at my books (I only have bookcases in two rooms of the house) and feeling like it’s a cohesive collection, not just a selection designed to make me look cool.  If you’re a fellow clutter-hating bibliophile, here’s what’s been working for me:

  • Always keep books you love.  A Room with a View stays, as does My Love Affair with Jewelry and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.
  • Books that were “okay” should be loaned out or let go, no matter how nice they are.  Nice books that don’t get a visceral reaction are clutter in disguise.
  • Just a few at a time.  A full-force clutter raid just might launch an existential crisis in a BookLuster.  Tossing a book or two from the shelf to the “get rid of” pile when the mood strikes or the timing seems right works well enough.
  • Use the mantra, “You’re not losing a book.  You’re gaining a spot on your lifetime reading list.”

I’d love to know how other people manage to balance the collecting urge and the clutter busting urge.  Let me know if you’ve got any brilliant (or just above average) ideas.

The “On Simplicity” Pledge

Filed under: Blogging,Uncategorized — Serendipity @ 9:17 am

In the spirit of simplicity, I make the following pledge:

I will not post unless I have something of value to say. “Today I cut my toenails” is not valuable information for anyone, so I’ll refrain from updating just for the sake of updating.

I pledge that each post will be written with care, and not dashed off at the last minute just to have something for people to read.

Since the goal of many simplifiers is to take back their time, I pledge that I will not waste your time or energy with vacuous posts.

I pledge to not take this blog too seriously.  You will not find highfalutin’ posts, just friendly ideas and inspiration.

I pledge not to clutter up your RSS reader.  You’ll just have to find some other way to waste time at work.


April 21, 2008

The One Pencil Philosophy: Long-Term Results

Filed under: Productivity,Simple Living,Starting Out — Serendipity @ 5:24 am

Previously, I discussed the simple change in my life that led to big change: limiting my pencil cup to just one writing implement. I mentioned that this one life edit brought me numerous rewards. These big picture rewards are what I’d like to discuss today.

1. If you give yourself half a chance, you really can get by with less. Do I need twenty wine glasses? Or 35 pairs of socks? I really started to question my “But I need them as backups” excuse in many other areas of my home. The trick is weighing the benefit of having an endless supply of something with the cost of having to store and riffle through that collection to get to what you really need on a daily basis. As for me, I’m heavily leaning toward having less and just making do if I run out.

2. When you get rid of the crap, you make more room for quality. I loved working with something I truly liked each and every time I needed to write. I wondered what it would be like if my closet was organized in the same way, so I took out a lot of stuff that was just “okay” (for example, stuff that didn’t quite fit perfectly anymore, or that was getting worn out, or that had been purchased because it was such a bargain…) and shelved it for awhile. (I’ll touch on my method for “trying on” decluttering in a later post.) I ended up loving the fact that my closet was filled only with things I truly loved wearing, and I’ve rarely missed any item that I took out. (I think I’ve brought just two items back.) This point definitely translated well to many points in my life.

3. The time you waste looking for “stuff” cancels out the productivity benefits of having everything within reach. Being able to reach for a pen and always know it would be there ended up giving me some great insight into simplified productivity. I started filing more items away, and found that I didn’t spend much time looking for them or needing them. For my job, very little stuff needs to be truly within reach. And without some of these extra piles around, I’ve been feeling less bogged down. It’s another great benefit that has spread into multiple areas of my life, all starting with the simple pencil cup.

4. Have less, value more. Even though the pen I use isn’t fancy or even really cute, I’ve learned to really value it. I protect it, I keep it safe, I put it back where it belongs. And I like that. I like valuing something more, even if it’s just a basic utility item. Because of the scarcity of pens on my desk, something largely worthless became precious to me. And if simple scarcity can make things seem wonderfully valuable, think of how much value you can add to your possessions simply by trimming them down. Keep in mind that I’m not talking about monetary value, but your underlying appreciation of things. As research has been showing that appreciation and gratitude are key components of happiness, this is likely a good thing. The other bonus? Taking better care of what you have means that you replace items less often–this is fab for both your wallet and the environment.

April 19, 2008

Improve Your Morning Routine… by Adding Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Filed under: Simple Living — Serendipity @ 9:40 am

Picture your morning routine and imagine your feelings as you get ready to head off to work. Are you relaxed and at ease, or are you hustling and sweating? If you’re like most people, it’s the latter. I know sweaty and stressed certainly describes me in the morning—at least more than serene and satisfied. Do you sometimes wish you could start off your days on a sweeter note? Then try doing the opposite of what simplifiers usually do: muck up the routine and add more stuff to do. After all, sometimes the simplest things can be the most complicated. Oxymoronic, maybe, but it’s been working for me.

Let’s look at a morning routine for someone with minimal fussiness—in other words, someone who’s already trying to simplify:

7:00 a.m.: Wake up. Hit snooze.

7:08: Out of bed. Hit the bathroom, wash the hands and face, brush teeth, and check the weather outside. (Showered the night before).

7:15: To the closet to find something to wear.

7:25: Hair and makeup.

7:30: Scarf a bowl of cereal.

7:40: Put the dog out (apologetically, for not playing with him at all), along with food and water, collect anything to take to work (coat, gloves, special project items, etc.), find/pack a lunch.

7:50: Set the alarm, get out the door, throw the mail in the box, and drive off to work.

**This is my morning routine. It is not right for everyone. It is not even always right for me. It’s just an example–please accept any discrepancies between this and your own routine as invidividual quirks or preferences.

It looks pretty good in some ways; it’s pretty simple, with not a lot of fluff. There’s not even coffee involved! It has just one aim: get out the door prepared for the day ahead. That should be good, right? Well, in reality, not so much… The truth is, this schedule gives me maximum sleep but leaves little room for error. When the dog is fussy or I can’t figure out what to wear, or my mascara smudges, or I drop an egg in the tupperware drawer (it can happen, trust me), the whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket. Even on a good day (meaning I hit snooze just once), there isn’t a moment to spare, so I have to hustle every step of the way. By the time I get to the car, I already need some calming music to put myself in a tolerable state of mind. And that’s all before I step into my office! With this kind of schedule, it’s easy to arrive on the job frazzled and forgetful, if not late (and in possession of a newly acquired speeding ticket).

Let’s take a look at a different schedule. It’s got a lot more going on, it takes forever, and it requires some sacrifices to be made. Sounds like it will suck, right?

5:30 a.m.: Get up. Right now. Like, this minute. Start the coffee. Let the smell permeate the house.

5:35: Pajama meditation time. Focus on breathing. Enjoy the calm. Stretch a bit or add in yoga if you prefer.

6:05: Pour yourself a mug of coffee or tea to enjoy throughout the morning.

6:10: Play with dog, the kids, your spouse, or just dance and let loose.

6:30: Shower, because now you stink.

6:45: Get dressed. Take your time to enjoy the process, feel the texture of different clothes, and choose something you really feel good in. Try on about 10 pairs of shoes before going back to the first one and don’t feel guilty about it.

7:05: Groom yourself till you feel like a million bucks.

7:20: Enjoy some breakfast on the patio in the sun. Pour some delicious OJ into your favorite special occasion glass and sip slowly as you look out at your surroundings. (If you’ve got a pet, let them join you and then leave them in peace outside.) Or, curl up in your favorite chair–as long as it’s comfy.

7:40: Make a lunch and take a lap around the house for anything that needs to be brought to work or dropped in the mailbox.

7:50: Set the alarm and drive off to work.

What’s the net benefit? A morning that refreshes and renews your body and spirit, leaving you prepared and energized for the rest of your day. Time set aside to do things that often get pushed aside for less important matters. A built-in cushion, designed to keep your mornings stress-free. The net cost? A little more than an hour (the shower is simply switched from night to morning, so I haven’t counted that in the cost).

What makes this more elaborate morning routine more “simple” than the first one? In short, the peace it can bring. After all, the point of simplicity–for most, not all people–is the serenity and the enhanced lifestyle it can bring. While this revamped routine adds more items, the end result is a morning that matches the goals of a simple lifestyle. Instead of using the method of simplicity to bring order and peace to your life, you can, in essence, cut out the middleman and bring the order and peace right in.

Now this solution certainly won’t work for everyone. In fact, some people may look at the first schedule and decide that it’s a much better option for them. After all, the whole concept of lifestyle design (scheduling your time and priorities instead of letting life just carry you away) is nothing if not extremely personal. But, for those of us who find little comfort in the daily dash, a bit of complexity might just bring us some simple peace.

April 17, 2008

Quick & Dirty Closet Raid

Filed under: House & Home,Organization,Quick & Dirty — Serendipity @ 3:28 am

Embarrassing confession #1 (of many to come, I’m sure): I adore cleaning the closet. An orderly closet gives me an incredible feeling of peace and satisfaction. Others, not so much. So, for you “others” who would rather not rhapsodize about your color-coordinated capri pants, here are some short cuts to making your closet more appealing.

Only have as many items on hangers as will fit without being squished. Until you can do this, it’s always going to seem cramped, cluttered, and overstuffed, regardless of how well organized it is. In personal finance, there are two options to building wealth: earn more or spend less. It’s the same basic philosophy here regarding available space: install more or own less. This leaves three basic options: get rid of enough items so that what’s left fits nicely, remove some items from hangers to folded shelves, or install more hanger area. If you’ve got room to install an extra rod, it can be a beautiful thing. If you know that you’ll just find new and interesting things to pack this space, then it may not be a good long-term solution.

Group by clothing item. I have all tops on one side. The other side goes from dresses to skirts to pants to capris. When you need pants, you should only have to look in one place. When you want a top, you don’t need to comb through dresses and nightgowns. Plus, it also cuts down on visual clutter by keeping items of similar lengths together so that long pants or dresses don’t break up the clean line of a row of tops. (Sound crazy? Too bad–it works…) Organizing your closet by item should take less than 20 minutes, so it’s not too much of a commitment, and it’s easy to keep as you unload laundry–just take about two extra minutes to hang things in the right section.

Get stuff off the floor. This is one of those stupid tricks that really works. There’s no real reason why shoeboxes and things can’t just go on the floor–except that it totally ruins the illusion of organization. In my own closet, I’ve used those wire crates that can be put together in different formations (and that seem hell-bent on simultaneously breaking my nails and my will to live whenever I try to take apart and reassemble them…) and put everything from shoeboxes to pants to sweaters in them. I’ve also used cheap metal racking to store shoes bookcase style–that one actually wasn’t my favorite, but it was a decent solution. Also, be sure to take advantage of any space over the hanger rod–if you don’t have a shelf there, install one.

Use hangers of all one color. Again, nothing more than illusion, but it works. As soon as I realized there were 20 different colored hangers in my closet, I really noticed how much visual clutter it added to the closet. Now, I’m winnowing things down to only black and white, though if I could start over without feeling guilty over the waste, I’d go with just white. After all, the color of the clothes should be enough to keep a closet from seeming drab; hot pink and peacock blue hangers are just not necessary.

Keep stacks short and sweet. Even though you may have two or three feet from the top shelf to the ceiling, that’s no reason to stack to the rafters. About four to six items per stack is the sweet spot for me. Even though it may be “wasted” space, if your closet is big enough to accommodate some negative space, then by all means, waste away. If you need every square inch of space in your closet (times three!), then this tip is a good one to ignore for now.

April 16, 2008

The One Pencil Philosophy

Filed under: Productivity,Starting Out — Serendipity @ 2:25 am
Tags: , , ,

My personal trend toward simplicity can possibly be traced back to a small decision. What was the foundation-rocking change I decided to make? I would have just one pen and one pencil in my pencil cup at work.  Yeah, I know–big deal. Still, I highly recommend this easy move, as it embodies much of what is useful and enjoyable about simplicity.

Imagine a pencil cup (or tray, or what have you) that always has your favorite pen in it.  You know–the one that feels wonderful in your hand, lets you write smoothly, and is the most stylish.  No more crappy pens with embarrasing pharmeceutical ads on them. (I had a Viagra pen at one time.  Funny sometimes. Reeeeaaaally embarrassing at others.)  No more pens that have run out of ink.  No more fumbling around your desk for a pen for 30 seconds just to write a two-second note.  With the one pen/pencil system, you’ve always got the best at your fingertips. 

There are three main benefits of reducing your writing implements to just one or two, and that’s what I’m going to focus on here.

The first benefit is that you surround yourself with best and get rid of the junk.  A lot of people keep things in their lives for a very logical reason: because someday, they might need them.  This isn’t a bad philosophy, and is great in terms of recycling and consuming less.  However, what this method taught me was that it was only things of lasting, reliable value that were worth saving and giving space to. When I placed one trusty pen and one solid pencil in my cup and deep-sixed the rest to a supply drawer, I found that I rarely needed those other items.  They had been adding nothing to my desktop while subtracting cleanliness and ease.  I learned that one great pen is worth about 20 cheap freebies, and I learned to seek out only quality things.  This is one of the lessons that translated well into other areas of life. Wouldn’t you be a happier person if always had the best of everything at hand?  While that doesn’t always work, it’s pretty easy to implement it in this one area of your life.  Let yourself smile when you pick up that trusty pen that always writes and feels wonderful in your hand.  It won’t be an earth-shattering event, but why not enjoy one of life’s simple pleasures every single time you need to write?

The second benefit is that this system can train you to value things of quality.   When I only had one pen on my desk, I kept much better track of it.  I didn’t carry it to the cabinet and leave it on a shelf, where it would collect desk for a few weeks.  I knew that if I needed to write, I had to take good care of my pen.  In response, I always put it back in the right place.  Rarely did I have to scrounge under piles of paper for a pen; I knew exactly where mine was.  I was learning, in a baby step, to be more responsible with things I valued. 

The third major benefit of the one pencil philosophy is that you’ll spend less time searching and more time doing.  The few seconds spent choosing between the umpteen writing instruments in my cup weren’t a big, but little things to add up.  I was losing seconds each time.  If having everything within reach was supposed to make work easier and more productive, I was finding the exact opposite to be true: I was wasting time hunting down disposable pens for no good reason. More importantly, I was losing focus.  “Green pen or blue? That one only writes half the time, so I’ll pick the red one.  Wait–where’s the red one? Did I leave it in the conference room?  Okay, blue it is.” This speedy thought process wasn’t enough to make me lose a good train of thought. Still, it was enough to dim my focus.  I found it much easier to stay in a flow state when I was able to eliminate the small distraction of hunting down pens. 

All in all, I have to say this is an idea in which the benefits can really outweigh the possible consequences (which are pretty much nil). It’s a great way to “try on” the idea of simplifying without having to create an elaborate organizational system or commit to any big measures. Plus, it really puts the entire philosophy of simplifying in a nutshell.  Ready to give this tangible thought experiment a whirl? Here are my implementation tips.  Tomorrow, I’ll touch on some of the larger lessons that can gleaned from this idea.


1.  Designate one pencil cup/tray/area.

2.  Choose your single most favorite writing implement of each style you need. I have one pen, one pencil, and one highlighter.

3.  Don’t toss the other items.  Keep a few spares in a supply area such as a nearby closet or drawer.  Give away the others and throw away or recycle what can isn’t usable.

4.  Keep non-essentials in a nearby but out-of-the-way place.  If you know 18 colors of Sharpies are just a reach away, you’ll be less tempted to clutter your everyday workspace with these items.

A lot of people keep things in their lives for a very logical reason: because someday, they might need them.  This isn’t a bad philosophy, and is great in terms of recycling and consuming less.  However, what this method taught me was that it was only things of lasting, reliable value that were worth saving and giving space to. 

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