The Accidental Minimalist

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Two days ago I lost my phone. Given my previous phone zombie ways I was surprised it took me four hours to realise it might be missing and a further 14 hours to establish it definitely was missing. I really wasn’t bothered by it’s absence. The most frustrating thing was I couldn’t phone my wife to tell her I got the three messages about it not being at Nursery or to let her know when I would be home.

I have a new one now, delivered to my door this morning. What I am missing, or should I say haven’t got, are my contacts. It is a strange feeling to have minimised my contacts and so much easier to have done it accidentally. I have to think about who I need and want to have in my contacts list rather than who to remove. The subtle shift of what I want to keep (rather than what I want to get rid of) is serving me well in other areas and I guess will also serve me well in filling the currently empty space of mobile phone contacts.

Obviously it is a bit of a bind that in order to let people know I haven’t got there number, I have had to use alternative strategies (I’m very glad I haven’t deleted my Facebook account), but I’m hoping it will be an autumn clean and a fresh start. The silver lining is however that when I’m out of contract in a month, I can switch to a sim only contract with a brand new phone. Always look for the positives and all that!

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Reflections and Discoveries: The sadness of ‘No’

R&D Sadness of No

Reflections

My daughter’s favourite word at the moment is no, or more accurately vigorously shaking her head from side to side and saying “Doe”. Sometimes I think her head shaking is simply that she enjoys the sensation, however I also think we could all learn a lot from the liberal manner with which toddlers use this word.

It can be frustrating when someone says no to us (particularly when the person is knee high to a grasshopper and you are apparently entering serious negotiations over whether it is the end of bath time). But I’m not sure it is because we can empathise with the other person that so many of us struggle to say the word.

The idea we can’t do everything is not novel, yet many of us cling to our fantasy future self who is often Superman; Superwoman; Super-parent; Super-spouse; Super-friend; Super-everything. Saying no can be a uncomfortable as it acknowledges our limits, our fallibility and our agency in letting people down.

This week I’ve said no twice. Well actually I’ve said it numerous times to ‘small’ things but twice to ‘big’ things. Francine Jay notes “My goal is no longer to get more done, but rather to have less to do” and it was in this spirit I said no.

I’ve been a member of a Lesbian Reading Group for 7 years and have coordinated it since 2011. I met the woman I am lucky enough to call my wife within the hallowed halls of the library (when we still met there) and it inspired, in part, the literary theme of our wedding. Over the years I have gathered many fond memories of discussions (usually heated) and the group offered a haven to meet like minded women that was not the ‘scene’. But life moves on and I have other priorities in my life right now. I am unable to give the book group what it needs in terms of energy or commitment AND I feel immense sadness about saying no, even though I know it is ok to.

The second no was to an exciting work opportunity. That no was even harder.
I haven’t worked out what my mission is. I have an idea of my general direction, wanting to diversify my skills and keep my options open, but definitely not a clear mission. Joshua Becker suggests “Staying on mission is about learning to say ‘no’ to the urgent requests, the popular requests, and the countless opportunities in front of you to make an extra dollar.” My work opportunity didn’t fit into any of these categories. It was something I am passionate about, love doing and in a part of the organisation I don’t currently work with but would like to. And I said No.
It was hard as it is the first time I’ve been conscious of saying no when my fantasy future self is being activated. For years I had a fridge magnet (before it was decluttered) that said “Stress is when your tummy says no and your mouth says yes”. I was a yes-person. Of course. No problem. Yes, yes, yes.
And I really did want to say yes. It took me thee days to accept I do not have capacity to do the piece of work as it required an ongoing commitment, a different type of thinking and would decrease the quality of, and time for, all my other work. I feel very sad about it, and I’m holding on to the buzz of having been recommended by two different people, and being able to say no in a way that did not end future possibilities of collaboration. But still it was no.
The ‘power’ of no can hide it’s sadness, but if we don’t let others down we ultimately let ourselves down. Is there anything you need to say no to? What gets in the way?

Discoveries

Zen Habits is one of my favourite blogs as it incorporates mindfulness and simplicity. While Leo Babauta doesn’t set out “How to…” guides, his reflections and personal action plan in his most recent post, I’m Returning to Single-Tasking, really struck a chord.

I’m particularly guilty of getting distracted while at work, especially when I’m on a computer. I often have a ridiculously long do to list, or perhaps more accurately ‘don’t forget to do’ list and rather than focusing on one task I end up switching between tasks or getting distracted part way through. Today I used some of his strategies, and took it one step further by writing down my task of focus as a physical reminder. The difference was immense.

I was focusing on Appreciative Inquiry. I’ve never used this technique before so needed to understand how to develop the questions initially and then begin the process of answering them. Usually opening my internet browser triggers opening a number of irrelevant tabs, each calling me to pay attention to them. Today I only had tabs open related to the task at hand and I even caught myself a couple of times becoming distracted, opening another and said “No” – literally out loud. The result – I understood the task more easily, developed more powerful questions and answered the questions more fully than if I had been multi-tasking, or more accurately switching my attention rapidly between several tasks. Plus it took less time than I had allocated so I had more time for everything else!

Reflections & Discoveries: Digital downtime

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Reflections

This week has not seen much decluttering action. The readjustment to work after two weeks of blissful holiday has been a hard one, particularly the increased presence of technology in my life as a result.

I didn’t abstain from technology use completely while on holiday. We watched a couple of films, signed up for Netflix (now that we have amazing broadband) and regularly used our phone internet to find directions and opening hours of a variety of venues. However I used it a lot less on a day to day basis.

Coming back to reality has given me pause for reflection. That, and I went to the Leeds Minimalists meetup on Saturday. The topic under discussion…Digital decluttering. They were a great bunch of people with a variety of life and technological experiences. It was a wonderful feeling not having to engage in values foreplay before getting down to the nitty gritty.

Personally, I am firmly in the camp of technology should solve a problem rather than create more problems. I dislike technology for the sake of technology. While I imagine, in a similar way to Penicillin being an accidental discovery, technology for technology’s sake has unexpected benefits, but I take Penicillin when needed. I don’t have it as part of my regular diet. So while my post-holiday food diet is adjusting back to home-cooked meals, I’m not sure I want my digital consumption to be what it was pre-holiday.

I’m feeling in the need of some digital downtime. A digital diet if you will. I’ve written previously about my phone zombie ways and have managed to maintain two out of three of my commitments. I no longer use my phone while walking or feeding my daughter. Bedtime is still not consistent so some more work is needed.

Many websites and blogs suggest digitising to remove physical clutter (photos, DVDs and CDs etc.). I fear that ultimately it delays decisions and avoids harsh realities and truths. I think it is necessary to remove the physical clutter before digitising, not by digitising.

Given the state of my external hard drive I would say I’m a digital hoarder. Granted I’m gathering all my historical computer files as I slowly ‘declutter’ each decrepit machine – Marie Kondo digital style – however the fact remains that there is A LOT of digital clutter. So it is an unhappy relationship: needing to minimise my digital clutter while also needing some digital down time. My synthesis is carving out some protected space and time that is technology free.

Some spaces are sacred. In places of worship, swimming pools, and theatres, cultural expectations or physical environment deter the use of phones in particular. But what if those same expectations or restrictions are not present. We must create our own sacred space and fastidiously guard it’s borders. My walk to work is definitely a sacred space. So too is Screen-free evening every Saturday with my wife. Then I get stuck. How to carve out some more screen free time? The exception obviously being the baby monitor!

How about you? How do you get your digital down time? Where are your sacred spaces?



Discoveries

Christy King at The Simple White Rabbit is constructing a Minimalism A-Z. I love how accessible the posts have been and while they can be read as stand alone articles, they are also a beautiful series that explore different facets of the Minimalist prism. So far she has covered Authenticity, Borrowing (and lending), Capsule wardrobe, Debt reduction, Electronic Storage, Freedom and Gratitude. This week she wrote H is for Habits. She outlines the process required to break bad habits by replacing them with good habits. I’ve always found it easier to replace something rather than just give it up. Linking, or staking, a new habit on to an old habit e.g. taking the time a kettle boils as an opportunity to do some mindful breathing or a yoga pose. Her other suggestion is building microhabits. Starting, as the name suggests, really small. I’m going to try out naming the things I have done that move me towards minimalism on a daily basis (even when these are not identifying what to get rid of). What habits do you want to change or adopt?

The Behavioural Chain Analysis of a phone zombie

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I’ve worked for nearly a decade helping women change unhelpful behaviours and either discover, or recover, the life they want to lead. One of the technique I use is called a behavioural chain analysis: you analyse an unhelpful (or self-defeating) behaviour, looking at what made you vulnerable, what prompted the behaviour, what are the links in the chain and what are the consequences. You then move on to looking at what you could do differently, what skilful solutions can you identify, prevention strategies and how you might repair any consequences, correct the harm caused and then over-correct it (make things just a little bit better than they were before).

This weeks post is a follow-up on my phone zombie tendencies and I’ve decided to complete a Behavioural Chain Analysis, partly to see what it uncovers…


What is the problem behaviour I am analysing?

I have been mindlessly and habitually using my phone internet and would like to eradicate this behaviour. It is getting in the way of how I want to live. I do not want to completely stop using my mobile internet, I simply want to be mindful about when, where and why I’m using it. Particular problematic times when I consider it to be unhelpful, mindless and habitual are:

  1. While walking to work.
  2. While waiting for someone/something.
  3. While feeding my daughter.
  4. Before I go to sleep.

Describe the prompting event that started the whole chain of behaviour.

It has been a gradual, slippery slope of phone internet use which has become habitual. However this week I have noticed that there are two particular triggers that increase my likelihood of using it mindlessly.

The first trigger is urgency. I hadn’t previously considered the link between urge and urgency but there is certainly a sense of “I need to do this now”. Making a note of what I wanted to use the internet for helped me identify what was important enough to wait until my allocated time in the evening, what was actually urgent (looking up an address) and what was neither urgent nor important (these ultimately remained on my urges list). I only kept the list for three days as after this point my urges were non-existent. It goes to show that while the first step to behavioural change is becoming aware of how much you use a behaviour, the second is riding the wave of urges.

The second trigger is overwhelming emotions. This only happened once during the week. Emotions are an important part of life, yet at times we are all guilty of using unhelpful strategies to avoid or escape from them when they feel “too much” (for example food, alcohol, cigarettes, other substances or psychological strategies). The occasion this happened, I was both aware of what I was doing AND wilfully continuing to do the behaviour. I was using my mobile internet both mindlessly and in bed. I was using it as a way to shut off from both my thoughts and feelings. This trigger is likely to be at play in my use (and probably other people’s use) of mobile phones while waiting. Who likes to be the odd one out, not on a phone?

Describe in general what things made me vulnerable (both in myself and in the environment).

I have a phone with internet capabilities which I have used for several years (environmental vulnerability). I have a, albeit misguided, sense of being able to fit things into less time, i.e. multi-tasking rather than engaging one-mindfully (personal vulnerability). I can value doing more than being (personal vulnerability). There is a cultural drive towards being ‘connected’, particularly via social media (environmental vulnerability). The transition to a new home internet provider did not go smoothly (environmental vulnerability).

Describe the links in the chain of events (these may be actions, body sensations, thoughts, events, or emotions & may include both helpful and unhelpful behaviours)

Although this is a general behavioural analysis rather than one focusing on a specific instance, there are certain common links I am aware formed part of many instances of the behaviour.

  • “I’ll just” (check/look up/find out/buy) thinking.
  • “I can’t deal with this ” (overwhelming feelings).
  • Sense of urgency.
  • Dealing with de-owning (particularly on Ebay and local parenting group).

What are the consequences of this behaviour?

Short term consequences

  • Wasted time (resulting in more stress as I have lots of things still to do).
  • Tired as I don’t go to sleep as early.
  • Fewer quality connections with actual people in my life.
  • I miss the world around me.
  • Less thinking space.
  • Fewer restorative experiences.
  • Superficial virtual relationships.

Long term consequences

  • Damage to relationships through neglect.
  • Exhaustion (physical and mental).
  • Ill-considered decisions.
  • Not living the life I want.

Describe in detail different, more skilful solutions to the problem.

Identifying a list at the start of what I could do instead was helpful, particularly as I had identified things I could do in both specific circumstances (e.g. read my book in bed as I can’t navigate away from it) and in general (e.g. using mindfulness). I didn’t do any yoga but my informal mindfulness practice has increased exponentially, particularly on my way to work. By being mindful of my walk to work, I have been mindful of:

  • The wake of a duck paddling across the river.
  • The army of purple thistles lining the path.
  • lots of bees buzzing around a plant with yellow flowers.
  • 2 types of thistle.
  • The hill at the end of my walk to work.
  • The warmth of the sun on my skin.
  • Plants scratching past my leg.
  • My daughter signing bird for the first time.
  • A dandelion seed blowing past my cheek.
  • Canine doo-doo.
  • Altocumulus and cirrus clouds
  • A discussion between my wife and daughter at bath time about Signor ‘Green Boy’ (a duck!) jumping out of the bath which one party found hilarious.

It is definitely easier to give up a behaviour when you have an idea of what to replace it with. I have also cleared more things of my to do list, including replacing the fridge which has been driving me bonkers for over three months and booking a dental appointment. I have even managed a couple of formal mindfulness practices which I feel very proud of.

Other skills that I could/need to use are:

  • Radical acceptance – I have had to rely on my phone internet to manage my de-owning efforts
  • Forgiving myself – it takes time to change behaviour and I’d like to aim for progress rather than perfection
  • Dialectical thinking – I can both be frustrated by my mindless use of the internet & want to change this AND have discovered this weeks blog I enjoyed while mindlessly using the internet.

Describe a prevention strategies (to reduce your vulnerability).

Mindfulness is a key prevention strategy to help me manage my vulnerabilities. The more I use mindfulness (both informal and formal), the more value I place on being a human being rather than a human doing. My interpretation of minimalism is just this; keep in your life the things that allow you to simply be.

I am used, in many ways, to living a life that is “different”, and resisting the desire to know everything, all the time, as it happens is another example of this. Trusting my intuitive knowledge of what is right for me (it doesn’t have to be right for anyone else) helps me to simply be. Therefore my mobile internet can be used to add value to my life rather than distract from what is important. For example, today it enabled me to arrange a play date that both I and my daughter thoroughly enjoyed!

Describe how you are going to repair, correct and over-correct the harm.

The repairs to relationships, particularly with my wife and daughter, have already begun. When I am with them I am mindfully present, enjoying their company and appreciating the subtle changes that occur daily. Completing this behavioural analysis has been part of the correction of the unhelpful behaviour as it contains reflections on the behavioural changes I have already made (i.e. the new skilful behaviour I am now using).

To over-correct the harm and make things a little better than before I have shared this behavioural analysis in the hope that others will become more mindful of when, where and why they use their phones. I’m also going to extend (or is it shrink?) my boundaries. For a month I’ll not use my phone at all on my walk to work, while feeding my daughter or before sleep.

Reflections on this behavioural analysis.

Given I ask my clients to think about thier unhelpful behaviours in this way, I really should not be surprised that this structured approach can be beneficial to identify what leads us into using a behaviour that interferes with minimalism and the life we want. Many of us have used the mindless pursuit of possessions as an attempt to assuage or completely avoid our feelings, impress others, or pursue a life that does not leave us fulfilled. I feel strongly that the removal of physical clutter achieves nothing if we do not understand our reasons and drives for the original accumulation. If we remove the excess we are left with ourselves and, if unable to tolerate what we find, the cycle begins again.

Mindfulness can lead to acceptance: it is as it is. It’s not good. It’s not bad. It just is. We are as we are.


Items de-cluttered this week – This week has been (unsurprisingly perhaps) all about removing the digital/electronic clutter.

  • I’ve removed all items from my email inbox (again!) and several email folders have been deleted without even looking in them.
  • I’ve removed all files from one computer so I can dispose of the computer. I realise I’ve merely postponed the hard drive declutter but I’m using Marie Kondo’s technique of getting everything in the same place first. Only two computers to go!
  • I’ve unsubscribed from a variety of email newsletters and have set up more rules for my emails coming in.
  • I’m trying to adopt a new approach to only checking my emails at certain times (work in progress!)
  • I’ve tackled the cables box (I’m sure everyone has one!) and removed 2 cable tidies for phone line (we don’t use a landline), a phone line extension (we don’t use a landline), two bases and one portable phone (did I say we don’t use a landline?), Adsl filters x3, 2 Wifi routers,  Adaptor plugs x3 and a 5m TV coax cable and female adaptor (I have no idea what this is!). What I kept were (in addition to the extension leads we currently use – a 3m coiled extension, a 10m coiled extension and 2 other adaptors. I know we use all of these (although not permanently).

A blog I’ve enjoyed – As I’ve been limiting my use of the internet this week (particularly in bed) I’ve not read as many blog posts and become more selective about the ones I have. Hilary Barnett’s article Tidying up, over at  No Sidebar was a useful reminder that minimalism is about what you are keeping rather than what you are removing. While I will continue to include a snippet at the end of each of my blogs about what I have de-cluttered each week (I prefer actual examples over vague hypotheticals) I will also bear in mind the balance of what I choose to keep in my life.

Photo: Chain/Pimthida/CC BY-NC-ND

Are you a phone zombie? I am.

Phone zombie

Last Thursday evening I went to the pub. Historically this would not have been significant, however last week it was the first pub adventure since munchkin arrived skinside AND, more importantly, I had given my phone a bath two hours earlier.

It was the start of what prove to be an eye opening 48 hours during which I realised I have turned into a phone zombie. It is not so much my phone that is the issue, rather my use of the internet on my phone is the issue. Granted earlier in the week we had failed to effect a smooth transition between internet providers and are therefore without any home internet for at least a fortnight but I had not appreciated how mindless and habitual my phone internet use had become. I apparently use it while walking my beautiful commute to work, while waiting (for just about anything) and before I go to sleep.

My wife and I actively avoid the use of technology around our daughter. We don’t watch TV or use the computer. We have very few electronic toys that provide instant gratification at the push of a button. I respect that other parents choose to use and encourage their children to use technology. Our choice is not a criticism or judgement of theirs, it is merely a mindful choice we have made. So my mindless, Zombie-like use of my phone sits uncomfortably with this.

I’ve therefore decided to set myself some boundaries to explore what’s going on. I’m hoping that in identifying boundaries it will help me to pause and bring the eye of mindfulness to the situation. What can the harm be?

So this week:

  1. I can use my mobile internet in the morning to check the weather forecast.
  2. I can use my mobile internet for 30 minutes in the evening based on my priorities. (Any time I have the urge to use it, I’ll jot a note of the what/why of the situation. At the end of each day I’ll look through my list and identify which are my priorities.)
  3. I cannot use my mobile internet in bed or while feeding my daughter.

In order to help me to remember what I would prefer to be doing instead of mindlessly browsing the internet I’ve identified the following:

  • Talking to my wife/playing with my daughter
  • 10 minutes of Mindful breathing
  • 10 minutes of yoga
  • Reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (for my book group)
  • Ticking things off my to do list.

I’ll let you know how I get on next week.

Items de-cluttered this week – Silicone bakeware, birthday cake candles, bun cases (from the Royal wedding), crumpet rings, handmade paper, 2 t-shirts, 3 plastic storage boxes, a bag of out of date food, assorted stickers, and stationery.

A blog I’ve enjoyed – This week I’ve really enjoyed Chris Wray’s post The long short summary to leading a minimalist life over at Two Less Things. Chris is one of the few people in the UK writing on minimalism and his post this month summaries different aspects of minimalism (it’s not all about the physical possessions). It considers our priorities, building a not-do list, decluttering, digital declutter, consume less online, consume less TV, be in the moment (aka mindfulness) and then invest the gains you have made. I’m sure that given the post above it is understandable why his post speaks to my condition (as the Quakers would say).

Photo Zombie Response Team/Jamie McCaffrey/CC BY