Busyness

My Manager called me into his office.

He motioned for me to take a seat opposite him and gave a big sigh as if what he had to say was going to be disappointing for both of us.

“Jon, I don’t think you’re giving this company what we’re paying you to give.”

Me, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

Him, with a strained look on his face, nose screwed up, eyes squinting. “Welllllll … when you’re at work, I can tell your mind is not on the job. Simple tasks seem to take you longer to complete. You forget small but important steps in processes. I think you’re stretching yourself a bit too thin.”

Bam. It was out. . . . And he was right.PocketWatch

I had been working as Assistant Manager in his store and, while I loved my job, my mind was preoccupied with a lot of other interests.

I taught piano part time after work.

I volunteered at a local community radio station and was, at that time, their Senior On-air Coordinator.

I was in a position of leadership in my Church and this involved preparing services, lessons and equipment every weekend.

Oh, and did I mention I was involved in Network Marketing?

Yes, I was stretched.

But I was proud, in a way, that I was so busy. It was a badge of honour I wore—a status symbol. I enjoyed saying “Yes” to all who demanded a piece of my time because this, in my way of thinking, validated how important I was and how necessary I was to so many people and organisations.

“Jon, I think you need to cut back on something. I want to know that, when you’re here in the store, this is the only thing on your mind. Our customers need to know that they will always get 100% value when you serve them. I want to know the salary I pay is giving my business a fair return.”

I caved. I quit teaching piano.

But . . . I increased my church work load.

From my present perspective, I can see that I was addicted to being valued by others. I thought that I could maximise this feeling of being needed by spreading myself across as many positions of responsibility as I could fit into my week.

And, although I never said “No” to anyone or anything, I could easily say “No” to my own ease of mind, my own need for rest and my own health and wellbeing.

As an added bonus, I found joy in complaining to anyone who would listen about how busy I was, how I never got a break, and how tired it all made me feel. It made me seem so . . . well, so . . . superior.

I must have been such a joy to be around!

My biggest problem was this:  I was trying so desperately to prove myself valuable and attempting to impress far too many people.

Pia Edberg, in her excellent book The Cozy Life: Rediscover the Joy of Simple Things through the Danish Concept of Hygge warns about this type of enslaving behaviour when she writes:

“You will never be free until you have no need to impress anyone.”

The key word here, I believe, is need.

I needed to be involved.

I needed to extend myself.

I needed to prove myself.

I needed to be busy.

In truth, I didn’t and I shouldn’t have found myself in such a predicament.

Lucky for me, Network Marketing came with its own Book-of-the-month club and over those years while I was doing everything for everyone, I learned so much not just about my business, but about my busy-ness. Things like:

1. Being busy robs you of the joy of doing one thing well. When your time and energy is divided amongst so many places, none of those is given the attention it needs to help you become the best you can be. Your time is not only stretched, its value is diluted so nobody gets a 100% commitment.

2. Being busy robs you of being fully present to those you love. I was never home. Fortunately, at that time, I was still single. Fortunately, my wife-to-be still married me even though I wasn’t giving her the quality time I should. Fortunately, my parents and siblings saw this as a “stage” I was going through and played along.

3. There is no award for “Busiest Man in the World.” Nor is there one for “Busiest Mum,” “Busiest Friend,” or “Busiest Worker.” Nobody wants to think they are second or third on your list of priorities, be it a family member, colleague or employer. Instead, they are looking for someone who is focused entirely on them—someone who, when in the role, is 100% committed to being the best dad, teacher, board member, volunteer or employee they can be.

There is no way I could have continued down this path. The juggling of my calendar space, head space and energy, had to stop. Someone wisely said, “Nobody is indispensable,” Sometimes the best thing to do is go step down and give someone else an opportunity.

So what did I do?

1. I learned how to say ”No,” even to some things I loved doing or found great pleasure in doing. Harvey McKay, businessman and author of Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive, famously said, “No one ever went broke by saying ‘No’ too often.” Reading books by folks like McKay gave me the vision and confidence that helped me to be able to say ”Yes” to those things that were truly important and those tasks I found immensely rewarding.

2. I adjusted my sense of importance. I gradually began to see myself as not needing the accolades and titles to prove my worth. My value was inherent in me from the first day I breathed on this planet. Having this re imagined sense of self gave me courage to quit the busy-ness treadmill. The world did not stop turning,. The kids found other piano teachers (and some were just as awesome as me). The radio station didn’t close its doors. (The church did fold, but that’s a story for another day.)

3. I got a new job. Although it took some re-education, over several years and a few intermediate lower-paying jobs, I finally found myself in a position in an organisation I can believe in, working reasonable hours, doing something I’m not only good at, but that brings me great satisfaction as well.

There have been moments when I slip back into the vanity of an overflowing calendar, and I have trudged enough down this road to know that going this way only can bring pain, to me and to those close to me. I have discovered that there is a very real joy and satisfaction in being able to say “No” to the unimportant so I can say a very loud “Yes” to all that is dear to me.

Explore Further

8 Ways to Slow Down and De-stress Your Busy Life (Entrepreneur)

The Cult of Busy (Johns Hopkins Health Review)

Enjoying Life in the Slow Lane (Becoming Minimalist)

Busyness: The Sign of an Unhappy Person (QZ)

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Gadgets

I am a gadget geek.

I genuinely look forward to the new iPhone being released, the latest edition of TechLife magazine, a newer and more compact lens for my DSLR camera, or the latest advancement in earbud technology.

I appreciate sleek design, the minimalist styling of any Apple product and the powerhouse of boards, chips and processors ‘under the hood’ of a laptop, phone or SmartTV.

But, the fact is, most gadgets and technology-rich products come with a sense of novelty and are challenging and fun to use for a while. . . . Then they lose their lustre, are not all that the reviewers promised, or don’t make me as happy as I thought they would.

Since jumping into minimalism, I have had a major cleanout and rethink of the gadgets I use and the gear I buy. Here are a few tips that I’ve come up with based on my own rationalisation experience.

Clean out those drawers of cables, spare parts and adaptors. When we first started going through our home and decluttering, this is one of the first problem areas I attacked. I found drawers and boxes full of copper-cored ‘spaghetti’ of various lengths and types that rarely saw the light of day. Most of it fell into the ‘just in case’ category. It took a while but I matched up all adaptors with their relevant tech products and realised I had 3 or 4 of some when I only needed one. I also found a handful of transformers from old gadgets which I had disposed of years ago—out the door. I had 5 HDMI cables and only really used one. I had a box of old VGA, RCA, ¼” and headphone adaptors of various configurations—out they went. I had covers and cases galore which I used for a few weeks and fell out of love with just as quickly. Gone. I realised after I had finished, that I used the greater part of my Saturday on this one area—it clearly had been a problem.

Sell or give away unused or outdated Gear. I had an old iPad (victim of an upgrade) which we thought we could use as a media server attached to our TV. We didn’t use it. Chances are, we would never use it—just maintaining it would take time we didn’t really need, or want, to spend. I sold it. We had several old mobile phones so we erased their data and dropped them in a Mobile Muster bin at a local phone shop. We had an old laminator, a CD collection that was never utilised, numerous USB devices and hard drives. These too were sold. Reclaiming cupboard space never felt so good.

Refuse to buy into the ‘Newest is best’ mindset. Now that the clutter is gone, it’s still a temptation to trade-up, buy new, or give in to the advertising that bombards me every day with the latest and best gadgetry. But ‘new’ isn’t always ‘best.’ My son just traded his old mobile phone for (wait for it!) an iPhone 5s. He did his research and juxtaposed that against his needs as a gardener and chose a tough, well-made phone with just the amount of technology he needed to make his life easier. He gets that rationality from his mum. Unlike him, I am far too easily drawn into new technology and I know this will continue to be a problem for me, so I unsubscribed from Gadget Geek, TechLife, and a raft of other magazines and email lists whose sole purpose was to create a need in my life where there was none. I try to avoid ad-driven websites when I do my work. I stay away from big brand retailers and, when I venture in to the Apple Store, I hum under my breath the theme from The Minimalists podcast:

Every little thing you think that you need . . .
I bet that you’d be fine without it.

When faced with a decision now to buy or upgrade, I do three things:

I ask, “Will this bring me genuine joy?” Being aware of how the feeling of happiness when purchasing a new product passes quicker with every new product I buy, I know better than to mistake that consumer excitedness with lasting joy. The truth is gadgets never bring joy. What you choose to do with them has the potential to bring joy. We need to see these products as tools, not an end in themselves.

I ask, “Will this add value to my life?” Having given away most of my library, my Kindle for iPad bring immense value into my life. My photo collection, scanned from my family’s photo albums can be viewed on my TV, my iPad, or my phone. The value is beyond measure. With my camera, I record beauty which brings me incredible joy. The list isn’t long, but every piece of technology I now own has a purpose and a measurable value attached to its use.

I wait. I usually give such decisions a good week, sometimes more, to settle in my mind. During that time, I read reviews of this and similar products, looking particularly for evidence of value added to the reviewer’s life. I research to see if this is the best use of my money or if there is something that is of better quality—something that does the job I need it to do in a better or more efficient way.

I am currently looking to upgrade my Blitz-n-Go smoothie maker since it is nearing its last ‘blitz.’ I’m now up to this stage, but I have put the decision on hold because I have determined that the best value item isn’t cheap and I need some time to save for what will be the best use of my cash. I’m not willing to splash out for another cheap item that will, like its predecessor, last less than a year.

I continue to look out for confirmation bias in my mind—where my mind find ways to justify why I should have this new item—and rationally think through occurrences of this. A ‘Pro’ and ‘Con’ list often helps as well. If at the end of the predetermined time, I still see this purchase as a good idea, and I have the funds to do so, I go ahead and commit.

Once I buy it, I remove from my life the old version of it or the unit it is replacing by either throwing it in the garbage, selling it, or donating it to someone who can use it.

In the end, I am left with a handful of really useful gadgets that continue to bring joy or add value to my life. I’ll share in a later post those items I have, use and, in some cases, wouldn’t be without.

Explore Further

Best Travel Gadgets from the Man who Owns 70 Things (Forbes Magazine)

Our 21-day Journey into Minimalism (The Minimalists)

How to Recycle Your Electronics and Gadgets (CNET)

Bargains

“We might need it someday.”

“It’s too good a deal to pass up.”

“At that price, I’d better get two.”

How many times have we caught ourselves saying these or similar things? I must admit that I have made such declarations many times, usually at the bargain shop or in the throes of end-of-season sales.

If that’s not enough, we receive reams of unsolicited sales paraphernalia in our letterbox or in the mail, urging us to “Buy now,” and telling us “This offer is for a limited time.” Bring on the mind-insulting rug, furniture or car ads to TV that tell us that these are “never-to-be-repeated prices,” and we can’t believe how quickly the money has flown from our wallet or bank account.

File 1-06-2016, 1 19 40 PMAnd this is how we use our free time. Shopping is the new religion. Malls are the new places of worship. Sales are the worship services. Bargains are the gods. We are fanatics, addicted to the feeling of completeness a full shopping bag seems to bring. As Michelle Castillo writes, “There’s nothing as addicting as a cheap buy.”

Correct that to a “perceived cheap buy,” because, as we are all aware, very few places ever sell everything at Recommended Retail Price (RRP). That’s simply a stated figure that retailers use to show how great a discount they will offer to secure your custom. And we fall for it, spending billions  in shopping centres and mega-malls every year. Then there are online retailers, local and international. Then there are the increasing number of social shopping sites such as Groupon, Zazz, Catch of the Day and Daily Deal and it’s all the easier to be tempted to exchange your hard-earned dollars for things to clutter your home and life.

Someone once told me, “A bargain is only a bargain if you need it.”

But how often do we buy something we think we “need” when, in fact, it’s not necessary and adds no value whatever to our life?

Like the bike I’ve ridden once.

Like the new tool I had to have and used it for the first time in the three years since its purchase.

Like that dozen Krispy Kreme® donuts (I really needed those? All of them?)

It’s time we learn how to say “No” when confronted with the purpose-written advertisements and dazzling billboards. We must learn to question our purchases and to abstain from the “just in case” mentality.

If it doesn’t add real value to your life, regardless of how cheap it is, it’s not a bargain—it’s an unnecessary expense.

Explore Further

Social Buying Motivated by Psychology, Not a Great Deal (Time.com)

Shop ‘til You Drop: Battling Compulsive Shopping (Australian Psychological Society)

Anti-consumerism is the New Democracy (abc.net.au)

Assembly Required (Is shopping the new religion?) (The Guardian)

Clutter

“If you have clutter in your real life, your tangible life, then it really adds to the emotional clutter in your mind.” Giuliana Rancic

Early in our marriage, my wife and I dropped by to see my mum’s cousin. Her daughter was a reporter with the local paper and it seems like our visit was something that didn’t happen too often in their part of the country.

When we entered the house, I was first overcome with a smell that was something between the staleness of old, mouldy newspaper and the stench of one who hasn’t used soap for a while.

Both were probably true.

The second thing that hit us as we made our way through the kitchen was the sheer amount of clutter: picture every bench, cupboard and table piled high with dirty/clean dishes, magazines, appliances and leftover snacks. As we moved into the ‘living area’ we mused how that one could exist in this room, but certainly not live: piles of newspapers and magazines, boxes filled with who-knows-what, clothing and blankets thrown around haphazardly, and a narrow aisle through it all to get to the furniture . . . which we had to clear off before we dared to be seated . . . if we didn’t mind the dust.

Before we were able to escape outside for the obligatory photo, we both made mental notes of this disconcerting state of intense clutter, hoarding and filth, and silently pledged our home would never, ever become like this.

Thank God, our house has always been clean. We have never had to struggle to find a pathway anywhere on our home. We were pretty good at this ‘uncluttered’ life.

So we thought.

When I first came upon The Minimalists, I thought we had our stuff under control. We didn’t have boxes of unused clothing in the spare room, our bookshelves were filled with books we loved, and our wardrobes contained clothing that we wore somewhat regularly …at least that was what we thought.

Until we decided to test how much of a hoard we had and hired a skip bin. We logged on to Skip Bins Online and, the next day, a huge Jim’s Skip Bins truck dropped off an empty container in the driveway. Over the following week, we went through our shed, our spare room, our wardrobes and drawers, our cupboards and our yard and hardly found anything to throw out filled the bin to bursting with all sorts of rubbish and useless stuff … plus 12 huge garbage bags full of clothing, bric-a-brac, Manchester and kitchen gear to drop by the Salvos, plus several boxes of books to pass on to friends who read!

In the process I relieved myself of thousands of old photos (scanned them), yearbooks (took photos of memorable pages), music books (haven’t sung those songs for decades!) and ‘just in case’ clutter (you know what this is—the two kitchen drawers full of buttons, ribbons, shoe strings, nuts, screws, that old hinge from the previous kitchen door which you might need one day, golf pencils, promotional pens, various ointments and bottles of who-knows-what …)

We were gob-smacked at how much stuff—rubbish and donate-able goods—we could find in our average 3-bedroom home. Surprisingly, it didn’t stop there. For the next 3 or 4 weeks, our kerbside wheelie bin was chokka with the remnants of the clear out. And, just when I thought we had left only the essentials, I did another run-through the house and gathered enough gear together for a car boot sale (which happened last week and  I made over $200) as well as several more bags for a friend who is starting up a charity shop.

Did we need to declutter? Definitely ‘Yes.’ As Francine Jay (Miss Minimalist) is known for saying, “Your home is a living space, not a storage space”–and this enormous pile of stuff was simply making our house a beautiful storage locker. There were things in that skip bin that (first) long ago ceased to have any meaning to us or (second) no longer added value to our life. Getting rid of it was the best decision we’ve made.

Is this the end of it all? No. Living with a minimalist mentality means we are always evaluating what we own using the twin questions of meaning and adding value.

As The Minimalists say,  it’s not about the what? but the why? Decluttering is not the end result, just the first step.

You don’t become instantly happy and content by just getting rid of your stuff—at least not in the long run. Decluttering doesn’t work like that. If you simply embrace the what without the why, then you’ll get nowhere (slowly and painfully, by the way, repeatedly making the same mistakes). It is possible to get rid of everything you own and still be utterly miserable, to come home to your empty house and sulk after removing all your pacifiers. I believe we are seeing the value of less more each day and we have come to a point where clutter will not enter our home again. (Blogpost: Decluttering Doesn’t Work. Read it here.)

Strangely enough, one of our favourite programs to watch together on TV is Hoarders. It takes us back to my second cousin’s house and an unfortunately unforgettable day.

Perhaps we know we always need a reminder.

Explore Further

5 Tips for Decluttering (short video)

10 Creative Ways to Declutter Your Home

18 Five-Minute Decluttering Tips to Start Conquering Your Mess

Minimalism

I’ve been attracted, lately, to the concept-movement of Minimalism. This began about 9 months ago when I came across, quite accidentally, the website theminimalists.com curated by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus. I was drawn in by their story and their journey together from the dog-eat-dog corporate world to a simple, minimalist life. I immediately bought their book Everything That Remains and devoured their story. What attracted me to the lifestyle they presented was the freedom of owning less and the contentment that came from needing less.

Now it’s not all about living in a house where the Living Room consists of a rug, a lamp and a chair and your refrigerator’s contents would fit in a handbag. It’s about being intentional in your possession of things: only owning what you need and what brings you joy (and these can be the same things).

I have been studying this phenomenon for several months now through books, podcasts, blogs, and videos. My curiosity has taken me into the Tiny House movement which sprang up in opposition to the bigger-is-better mentality that pervades the real estate industry. I have been bemused by the journeys of Colin Wright who asks readers of his blog where he should travel next, and then makes his home there for three months before, once again, moving on to another democratically-decided destination. I really enjoy reading the Zen Habits blog which is not just about minimalism, but about simplifying life in every aspect.  Joshua Becker is another who has written and spoken extensively about minimalism, through the lens of his family’s ‘conversion’ to this life and his most recent book The More of Less is on my current reading list.

I’d have to say that choosing to live as a minimalist forces a person to be incredibly intentional regarding possessions and the use of money.

In his post 10 Reasons to Escape Excessive Consumerism, Becker lists several reasons I find compelling:

Less time spent caring for possessions. “The never-ending need to care for the things we own is draining our time and energy. Whether we are maintaining property, fixing vehicles, replacing goods, or cleaning things made of plastic, metal, or glass, our life is being emotionally and physically drained by the care of things that we don’t need—and in most cases, don’t enjoy either. We are far better off owning less.”

Less need to keep up with evolving trends. “A culture built on consumption must produce an ever-changing target to keep its participants spending money. And our culture has nearly perfected that practice. As a result, nearly every year, a new line of fashion is released as the newest trend. And the only way to keep up is to purchase the latest fashions and trends when they are released… or remove yourself from the pursuit altogether.”

More contentment. As Fields-Millburn and Nicodemus often say, releasing one’s grip on possessions is like dumping a heavy load of anxiety, clutter and wasted energy. We enjoy what we have more when we actually have less.

More generosity. “Rejecting excessive consumerism always frees up energy, time, and finances. Those resources can then be brought back into alignment with our deepest heart values.”

Greater ability to see through empty claims. “Fulfilment is not on sale at your local department store—neither is happiness. It never has been. And never will be. We all know this to be true. We all know that more things won’t make us happier. It’s just that we’ve bought into the subtle message of millions upon millions of advertisements that have told us otherwise. Intentionally stepping back for an extended period of time helps us get a broader view of their empty claims.”

As Joshua Becker concludes, “Escaping excessive consumption is not an easy battle. If it were, it would be done more often… myself included. But it is a battle worth fighting because it robs us of life far more than we realise.”

I’m not a minimalist in the sense that I haven’t arrived at a place where I could say my life is now lived in its simplest, most pure form. Yet I am becoming more intentional about this area of my life each day and am happy to say, in small ways, I have proven true the vast majority of what are preached to be the benefits of Minimalism (and, in this space, I hope you’ll see how this develops over the next few weeks and months.) What I have enjoyed so far makes me want less. Sounds wrong, doesn’t it? But it is true.