Category Archives: Lifestyle

Stop, automaton.

What are you doing right now?

Reading this post, of course. But are you really paying attention? Or are you skimming over the words, perhaps just sitting down after a long day. Maybe you are reading this while the sun is rising, dreading to go to work, but looking to kill a few minutes before rushing out the door.We rarely consider what we’re doing — what we are experiencing — right now. This has been my state of mind lately, and why I have failed to post anything of substance as of late. My mind has been cluttered with the things that I “need” to do, creating an impassible barrier of tasks and toils that weigh heavily on me. Inevitably, this means I end up doing nothing. Worse still, few of us know how to live productively while taking breaks and relaxing. I find that my two modes of being are chaotically busy, or fumblingly unproductive. The latter is much more frustrating, and has been plaguing me recently. How do we, or I, break free of it? I’m not sure. I loathe reading self-help books, as many of them come off as condescending and excessively anecdotal. Besides, influencing my cognition is only going to influence my behavior so much. All but the most helpless of us know what we are supposed to do, or what we ought to work on. This knowledge almost never translates into action, however. In fact, knowing all the things that we’re supposed to do usually leads to inaction. We have to look up a dieting plan, lift weights, read that research paper, look for a job, create a balance budget, clean the bathroom, cook a healthy meal, walk the dogs, feed the fish, change the oil… . We become paralyzed, or at least I do.

So now we get to the post where we reach the good part, right? The part where I go into detail about what motivation is, understanding yourself, and knowing how to get things done.

No. I’m afraid not.

You see, I am like you. I have no idea what the solution might be, and I have no idea where to start when it comes to motivating myself — let alone telling others how to motivate themselves. Perhaps it is a cop out,  but I’ve started embracing inaction. (And, when I say inaction, I don’t mean utter passivity, and I especially don’t mean laziness). When I sat down at my computer, I had planned to get quite a bit done… but we all know what happens. (That is, not much).

My attempts to be productive weren’t an utter failure, but they were underwhelming, to say the least. As I sat back in my chair, I quietly exhaled a sigh of frustration — of disappointment. “I should be doing so much more”, I thought. Then I noticed it. I had been running on automatic. Unappreciative of where I am, or what I’m currently experiencing. In short, I had been focusing and worrying so much about where I’m going or where I might end up, that I haven’t acknowledged what I have. I’d forgotten that tiny moment that we vaguely call the “present”.

Where am I then? What am I feeling, seeing, hearing? The dull buzz of a stand-up bass rattles through my speakers, courtesy of The Bad Plus. A slightly sour, sweet, and earthy aftertaste lingers in my mouth from the tea I’m drinking. Soft lighting reflects off of a Rothko print, the red changing into orange where the light hits it more harshly. My belly is full, thanks to a nice dinner I’ve made for myself. (I’m just past being perfectly satiated, but not entirely overstuffed). My dog lays contently on his bed, as he falls asleep with a ball propping his mouth open. They say dogs aren’t self-aware, yet he often exhibits greater self-reflection than I do. And, I have a home. My last few months have been rather vagrant and transitory. I’ve stayed in a few houses, but I hadn’t found a home. I suspect that contentedness in small, seemingly insignificant things is what makes a house a home, and I hope to recognize those seemingly insignificant things more often, rather than get caught up in the myth of productivity.

I would keep writing, but I’m not sure I have much left to say about the topic. Besides, I’m out of tea.

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Minimalism 101

It’s that time of year. The time where we become exhausted from running from store to store, buying more things we don’t need, or won’t use after we open them.

Explicitly, we all know that we live in a consumer culture, and we buy far too much stuff. Unfortunately, knowing this doesn’t stop us. Unless we are being conscientious about our money — and most of us aren’t — we don’t particularly pay attention to our buying behavior. We think of our spending habits as harmless, or, at best, view our spending in terms of money alone. But, what if our buying behavior affects more than just our bank accounts? What if it affects our health, and our happiness?

This question is only now being scientifically explored, thanks to those studying consumer behavior. There are, undoubtedly, a number of factors that contribute to our unnecessary consumption. Many may have to due with our very nature, or evolutionary hardwiring. After all, from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes quite a bit of sense to want to have a lot of stuff. Stockpiling, storing, and saving things is a way to ensure our future survival. We evolved in a dangerous and changing world, where a fruitless harvest or bad hunt foretold demise. This hardwiring works against us when we buy things. Instead of asking, “would this product make me happier”, we ask, “…could I ever use this”, assuming we ask anything at all. Much of the time we don’t even think about our purchases. We haphazardly navigate up and down tortuous aisles, grabbing all that is on sale, or is “too good to pass up”. Our hoarder-like nature only gets worse from living in a consumer culture.  I’ll spare you the hippie-esque, pseudo-intellectual tirade about logos, success metrics, social media, iPhone apps, business objectives, consumer appeal, consumer retention, viral marketing, emotional economizing, greenlining, greenwashing, paradigm shifts, branding… it would be too much. It is too much.

So, how do we escape it? We are, in a way, addicted to buying stuff. It isn’t enough for us to simply think, “I should buy less”, or “I should only buy what makes me happy”. We have to become diligent and active non-buyers, instead of lazy, passive consumers.

To begin, we can start by tallying up how much stuff we have, and how much of it we don’t need. If, in the midst of this process, you find yourself asking, “Why do I have so much stuff?”, then you are on the right track. Alternatively, we can look at what we own and ask, “Does this really affect my happiness?” In order to answer this question effectively, we have to understand what makes us happy, and why. For example, you might think a big wardrobe, with lots of clothes to choose from, would make you happier. But, there is evidence to suggest that this isn’t the case. Having lots of available options, whether it’s clothes, ice cream flavors, or retirement plans, actually “paralyzes [us] into indecision”, to quote consumer psychologist Barry Schwartz. Not only do we become indecisive, but when we finally do choose, we are often unhappy or dissatisfied with our choice. “The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything about the option that you chose”, says Schwartz.

Additionally, we have to recognize that our buying behavior is habitual, and routine. We have to work to break this routine — this addiction — of tireless consumption. There are many ways to start doing this, but a good way to begin is to get rid of what you don’t need. If you haven’t used, acknowledged, or appreciated a particular thing you own in six months or more, then get rid of it. If you are feeling ambitious, go with three months. Further, you can give yourself a minimalist challenge of owning 100 items or less, or whatever number you feel would put you on the appropriate minimal path.

Next, turn to your spending habits. Don’t purchase things on a whim. Don’t buy stuff to fulfill some sort of social function, (e.g., shopping with friends), or an emotional need, (e.g., you are bored and have nothing to do). If you feel like you should buy something, (apart from food), wait a few days and see if you still really want it. After that, wait a week, or a month. If you still feel as if you can’t live without it, consider purchasing it.

Some people are quite ahead of the rest of this in this respect, and they aren’t Zen Buddhists or austere Christian Orthodox monks. They are regular folks who are sick of having so much garbage, and who want to feel real attachment to the things they own. Our world, for better or worse, is one of mass production, cheap labor, and disposable incomes. This has caused us to lose touch with our possessions. Rarely do we look at our purchases as special, or meaningful. If, however, we decide to own less than 100 items, our possessions gain new meaning. We begin to think of what we own as truly ours, rather than some random thing we grabbed off a shelf somewhere. Minimalism is not about being anti-materialistic. On the contrary, its about finding renewed life and spirit in our possessions, and being proud of what we own.

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