On Simplicity

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.

Implementation:

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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