What if everything you ever wanted isn’t what you actually want?

white oak

I have gone back to a practice I followed a few years ago. I was trying to simplify and unclutter my life. Well, my life might be an overstatement. I thought that by uncluttering my home, I might also be simplifying my life.

I decided that by the end of the week, each week, I needed to get rid of enough stuff to fill a large garbage can. The stuff wasn’t garbage. It was stuff that I had been saving deliberately. Things I thought had value.

I was also giving away books and movies and bikes and sports equipment and things that have value to someone else. “Clean out like we are moving,” said my wife, “because at some point we will be.”

Now, it’s another summer coming in a few weeks, and this past week I read online about Joshua Fields Millburn who similarly asked “What if everything you ever wanted isn’t what you actually want?”

pin oak

Joshua had more of a crisis than I did and it was a time when he started questioning every aspect of his life. Some people would turn to religion or drugs. He turned to minimalism.

He got rid of material possessions (not all throwaways – he sold a lot and was able to pay off some debt) and left his well-paid career.

Millburn and his best friend, Ryan Nicodemus, call themselves “The Minimalists.” They have become evangelists for living with less. They have a book, Everything That Remains: A Memoir, that they self-published written by Millburn with footnotes by Nicodemus. They have a website, www.TheMinimalists.com.

Josh’s idea was to remove just one material possession from his life each day for a month. He ended up getting rid of more than 30 items in that first month.

He says that the uncluttering left him with some difficult questions:

  • When did I give so much meaning to material possessions?
  • What is truly important in life?
  • Why am I discontented?
  • Who is the person I want to become?
  • How will I define my own success?

Again, I don’t feel my life is in crisis, but I do feel it is too busy, complicated, and filled with stuff.  “Stuff” is such a mushy word to use, but it does cover things that almost are not things. I pained and redecorated my home office. We packed 12 boxes of stuff and put them in the basement to work. When we were done redecorating, I looked at those 12 boxes and knew I couldn’t move them all back. I have been sorting, sifting, and trying to get rid of stuff. How many pens and pencils and cups to hold them do I really need?  Do I need these books nearby on a shelf? Do I need them at all?  Notebooks full of ideas for writing and sketches for paintings seem like creative stuff that I shouldn’t throw away, but they are also reminders of how much I plan to do and don’t do.

I like the office being cleaner and simpler and less cluttered. Does it help me understand what is truly important in life and who is the person I want to become? Not so far. But that may be a lot to ask of minimalism.

The Fall To-Do List

I’m guilty of making too many lists of things I need to do. This weekend I got an email with suggested fall things to do. Along with the usual autumn list (fall foliage leaf peeping, apple and pumpkin picking, apple cider and donuts, Halloween-ish things), there were some others that I already do this time of year but probably are not on everyone’s lists. That’s if you have any lists. You don’t have lists? I envy you a bit.

For so many years of my life, September meant back to school, either as a student or teacher that I can’t help but think about that even though I’m no longer in classrooms. I still have school dreams. I still like watching movies about some schools – Dead Poets Society, The Emperor’s Cub, and Good Will Hunting, for example. Or maybe a fall football film, such as Rudy or Remember the Titans. There are films that just have a kind of autumn aesthetic, like “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “When Harry Met Sally.” I’ve lost some of my interest in Halloween and scary movies but that makes some lists.

I spend a lot of time outside in September and October and always hope to continue working in the garden in November if frosts and winter don’t arrive. People like to decorate their homes with fall chrysanthemums, dianthus, black-eyed Susans, and pansies, but I prefer the optimism of planting in fall for next spring. As I dig up cannas and gladiolus I am also planting tulips, daffodils, peonies, and Shasta daisies.

My mental fall list also has things that might not be any “official lists.” ( I wrote a short poem this morning about that.) One such item is something that often appears on this site – nighttime celestial events. On a cool night, I will pour a warming drink, start up the fire pit, and sit outside looking for the Draconids and Orionids meteor showers in October and the South Taurids, North Taurids, and Leonids meteor showers in November. It is often cloudy and sometimes even on a clear night I won’t see any “falling stars” because of light pollution. But sitting there is a bit like fishing for me. You don’t have to catch a fish or a meteor for the time to be enjoyable.

Finally, my favorite spontaneous autumn thing is taking a drive to nowhere special but somewhere rural. Yesterday, we drove north and ended up near Warwick, New York after driving through many farms and fields and where I walked years ago on the Appalachian Trail. We ended up at a brewery for a beer and lunch. It is early for foliage but lots of people were out apple and pumpkin picking, taking kids on a little hay ride, and going through corn mazes. I love an unplanned stop to see a view, take a photo, and buy some cider and donuts. The air was cool and clean with a hint of someone’s fire or some ribs smoking.

It does feel like autumn. The equinox untitlted the Earth. How are you feeling?

The Limit of Memory Is Seven

I wrote on another blog about how memory affects the user experience (UX) of design, but a slice of that information for this post is about Miller’s Law. This “law” came about from a 1956 paper in psychology with a great title – “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” (though the subtitle is less fun: “Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”) by George A. Miller who was in the Princeton University Department of Psychology.

7What is the law? The short explanation is that we can keep ~7 bits of information in our mind short term.

You might say “Only 7?”  But 7 is not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a thing.

Miller showed through experiments showed that the number of perceptual “chunks” an average human can hold in working memory (which is a component of short-term memory) is 7 plus or minus 2.

An example of this chunking would be if I asked you to remember this string of letters:  l, r, p, l, e, d, a, a, e .  If I asked you 10 minutes later, could you remember those 9 chunks?  Most people can’t recall them all in order.

Of course, if I rearrange them into a perceptual gestalt chunk – paradelle – you could easily remember them.

If I give you a 20-word list of random words, you are very likely to remember later 5–9 of the words. That has been shown in hundreds of experiments.  7 + or – 2.

Something else observed in relation to Miller’s Law is the primacy, and recency effect. In that 20-word list, you are most likely to remember the words at the beginning of the list and the end. This tendency to recall the first and last items in a series best and the middle items worst is also known as the serial position effect. I actually learned that idea in a writing course. They will remember the beginning and the end of your piece better than the middle. A strong start and finish with the weaker content dead center.

You can take Miller’s Law into your day. How many items can you juggle at once? Don’t exceed 9 bits. Organize things into chunks.

Our days are filled with an increasing amount of information. When it is not organized, it becomes much harder to complete tasks. I made up a new To Do list form that has 5 items. I know that in the past I have had too many things on the list. If I have more than 5, I’m going to either put them on the next list or try to chunk them. For example, “post office dropoff” and “pick up prescription” are one chunk, one trip out of the house.  for the purposes of survival (navigation/gaining income).

Millers Law tells us that we have a finite amount of information we can process. Information overload distracts us and negatively affects performance.

* NOTE *   Things are getting worse. New research seems to indicate that we only get to hold 4 things in short-term memory.

Pandemic Productivity

daily activities board
Empty Daily Activities Board by Greg Montani

Just a quick note about my pandemic productivity – or lack thereof.

I’m feeling a little guilty lately because in these pandemic times when we are semi-trapped at home, I have more “free time” than ever before – and I am being less productive.

I love to read. I have time to read. I’m not reading. I do read every day, but it’s articles online mostly. I have “read” a few audiobooks while working in the garden. I started a few books and ended up skimming or giving up on them.

I had a long talk with a friend about the pros and cons of to-do lists. I’m still making the lists, but I’m not checking off many items. Those lists can be a reminder of things not done. Sort of depressing.

One of my sons says his team has been more productive than ever working from home. As a member of the unretirement workforce (yes, that’s a real thing), I do get “work” done, but I definitely don’t feel very productive or more productive.

DIY sales are way up. My wife has been on a sewing and quilting binge of production. People are doing projects around their homes. I fixed a broken sensor in our oven, but the sheetrock job I started in the basement is still waiting for me since March. Cooking and baking supplies, books and TV shows are booming. You all are adding to my guilt.

How are you feeling about your productivity during this pandemic times? Am I the outlier in all this?


The Lost Season

blank page

I didn’t post last weekend, so I thought I’d do a quick “lost weekend” post this morning. I was pretty sure I had written one before and a search shows that I have done several. One was in a June and another in a July, so maybe it’s a summer thing.

The term alludes to the film directed by Billy Wilder from 1945. Unlike the Ray Milland character, I did not go on an alcoholic bender for the weekend. I can’t even use the excuse that I was very busy with other things. I just didn’t have anything inspiring me during the week that I wanted to share.

That brings me to a bigger feeling that I have which came to me this week as I did some catching up on my physical journal with pen and paper: spring 2020 was lost season.

For that, I can point to the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking back and ignoring that, the only event I seemed to write about was the birth of my first grandchild in April. And yes, that should be the big event. It was strange occurring in the center of the pandemic here in the Northeast. There was a question about whether or not my son could even be present at the birth. Happily, he was there and the hospital locked hem down and got them out in 24 hours and all is well.

But in these sheltering-in five months I have had more “free time” at home then ever – and yet I have been less productive. I have written less. I ambitiously set up all my paints and easel and took out sketches I wanted to paint. They are still piled on a table in the basement. I started measuring out wallboard for some basement redo. It’s still there. My To-Do list of big projects is longer than ever and nothing has been crossed off. I’m behind in my journaling and I don’t know that I can even recall what happened in the past weeks to write about it.

Is it just me or has this strange time had this effect on a lot of other people? I’m not depressed. I’m not ill. I haven’t lost my way literally or in the “finding yourself” way.  I’m not even very displeased with myself about not getting things done.

It’s not that I haven’t done anything at all. I do write, though less than “normal.” I have completed things that had deadlines – web work for pay, online consulting, teaching commitments – and things I enjoy doing that are time-sensitive such as getting vegetables into the garden.

It’s the calendar midsummer in Paradelle. I still have time to finish things before another season passes by. I plan to write some posts here this weekend, but there’s no a lot of pressure to do so other than my little blog calendar where I keep track of what is being posted where. Maybe I’ll be like Don in that old film and have a few drinks.

Lost Weekend

Brain Dump

Crowded mind – image by John Hain from Pixabay

I gave the National Day of Unplugging from screens a try these past 24 hours. I was fairly successful. My phone and laptop charged. I made my Fitbit happy with my steps for the day. I took a walk with my wife to a coffeehouse and we talked about some of the good things we have planned in the spring. I cheated a bit in that I used a phone, but it was our old landline which has no screen. But those two calls were pretty important. I had also queued up some social media posts for the time offline, so I still appeared to be online to most people. I checked my email and messages once at noon today just in case there was something critical. That’s not so much FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) as it is the reality of how we communicate now. I have a family member who is having serious medical issues, so I really can’t be completely unplugged. When the sun went down, my laptop went on and I went back to this post which I had drafted a few weeks ago and revised it for this weekend.

One thing I did away from screens was read some on paper, and one book I picked up again from the shelf is somewhat connected to the unplugging. It was David Allen‘s book that posited, amongst other ideas, that multitasking is a myth. The book is Getting Things Done with the inviting subtitle of “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.” Wouldn’t that be nice?

There are several things I took from the book. One is that my poor old brain is not meant to hold all of the things I put into it or all the things I want to do (or feel I have to do). Believing that I can hold on to all this information and finish all those things will mean disappointment.

That doesn’t let you off the hook for being productive though. There are people who are pretty good at using tools to help. That can range from a notepad and lists and journals to apps on your phone. Though I feel a bit guilty when someone asks me what my wife’s phone number is and I have to look at my phone, I am relieved that the phone remembers all the numbers I need. I shouldn’t feel that guilty because it’s just an electronic address book like we had next to our old rotary phone when I was a kid back in the last century.

But the idea I remember best from the book is about doing a “brain dump.”

Even if you are someone who lives in the digital world, you still need to sometimes write stuff down using simple analog tools.

To do this brain dump you don’t need a special pad (though they do sell them and that might help some people) to get started. A pen and a notebook are fine.

I’ve seen research that seems to indicate that when we write something down by hand it somehow sticks in our memory better.

You’re going to create 3 lists to get started. I’ve seen them labeled in different ways but in the book they are 1) Must (things you’ve committed to doing)  2) Wants (things you would like to do but haven’t committed to yet) and 3) Perhaps (things you may want to do in the future).

Do the three lists in that order and focus on one type of thing at a time until there are no more items for that list to dump from your brain.

Next, you evaluate each list trying to eliminate items that don’t belong. You can move between lists here. The objective is to get the least amount of things on your Must list, because you really want to get to doing the things on the Want list.

Since the ultimate goal here is to complete the things on the lists, you might ask – as I did when I had first read the book – Isn’t this just another To-Do list? Where’s the brain dump?

It is getting all of your thoughts down on paper so that they are “dumped” from your brain to give you some freed up memory space. It’s more of a rapid freewriting exercise than a slow, methodical, overthought process.

Organizing these things on paper can help clarify, prioritize and lead to taking action.  You may be tempted to get out your phone or laptop to make the lists neat and clean but it is really recommended to do the pen and paper method.

You can later use colored pens, pencils, or highlighters to color-code your thoughts and that can help you see connections and patterns in what you dumped.

This post is just a primer on the technique. Besides the book, there are a good number of online articles on approaches to the brain dump and there are variations on the lists and their labels.

Of course, the only way this works and makes you less stressed and productive is that you actually start on the Must list. If that list has 55 items, I don’t think this technique will work.

Your motivation to clear that Must list is your desire to get to the Want list and completing items there allows you to make those Perhaps items to become Wants.

Full disclosure. My Must list has gotten smaller since I first did this exercise almost two years ago. I wrote about it here but took my own approach to it. The lists have been many times revised and have never been empty. That’s partly because I moved some Wants up to Musts as slots opened. I limited my Must list to a maximum of 10 things which meant some evaluation of “must” meaning “required” and by whom these things are required.

I don’t have any work/job/career items on my lists. I suppose I could do a separate set of lists for that but I never have done it.

You might have had some lesson in a psychology course about wants and needs which is what this reminded me of when I first read about the lists. A need is something that is essential to your survival. Some are emotional needs. Some are about goals and dreams. Wants, on the other hand, are things that we would like to have, but that are not essential to our survival.

As much as I want to have my poetry manuscript published, I know I don’t need to have it published.  I know I must find long-term care for my aging and ill sister, and until I do, I will feel stressed and never get to things like that manuscript.

You may say that a vacation is a must to your survival, but honestly, two weeks in the Maldives isn’t a must.

Do I cheat on the lists sometimes and focus on a want while ignoring some must items? Absolutely. I need some of those items to keep moving forward and maintain my sanity. Spending more and better time with my wife and family is an emotional need.

Still, I recognize that the Must list is essential. And if I ever do clear all the items on it then, quite happily, the manuscript, the vacation and other things I want to do will become must-do items. That’s a very pleasant thought.


How to Untangle Your Mind with a Brain Dump