Browsing the archives for the environment tag.
Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

Still Not Getting to That Goal? Four Essential Factors



I started this blog about four and a half years ago and started doing energetic research into willpower and habit change two years before that. My belief when I started was that it would be possible to learn how to change nearly any habit, to summon far greater willpower, because it was clear that around the world, there are people who make these changes every day. So, is it true? Does learning about habits and willpower give you willpower and mastery of your habits? The answer is no … and yes.

The further I got into this subject, the more I kept wondering when I would break through. I lost weight, got much more fit, earned a black belt, finished writing books, eliminated some bad habits, improved my relationships, and otherwise made a lot of improvements in my life … but I would still sometimes waste time I needed for more important things, show up late now and then, make bad decisions, or otherwise demonstrate to myself that whatever willpower was, I hadn’t mastered it.

So I sat down the other day and pondered everything I’ve learned since 2007 or so. If learning all about habits and willpower doesn’t give you mastery over them, what does? As near as I can figure it, it comes down to four things that stand between us and change. I think when I describe them, you’ll see why learning alone doesn’t cover it (other than the facts that habit change takes time and that just knowing about something won’t automatically change our behavior).

1. Tools and Knowledge
Here’s an area where what I’ve learned and written about here has been powerful. Mental and emotional tools can cut through a lot of habit difficulties and get us on the right path. For example, we can learn to generate confidence and enthusiasm in place of depression and hopelessness with idea repair; we can clear our minds and let go of things that bother us through meditation; and understanding mental schemas can let us get to some of the root causes of our worst behaviors.

2. Thinking
How we think, what we tell ourselves, and where we put our focus make a huge difference in how we feel and what our lives are like. We can often change our thinking using tools like the ones I mentioned, but whether it occurs naturally or has help through mental tools, our thinking itself is crucial in determining our actions and decisions.

3. Lifestyle
Nutrition, sleep, exercise, friends, social contacts, activity, surroundings, physical tools, responsibilities, family, and many more external factors can influence our internal state. Here too, I’ve learned about many useful improvements through researching and writing about the psychology of habits on this blog, whether it’s a quiet walk in green space, having just the right tool, or keeping company with people who help us become better.

4. Commitment
Here’s the tough one: we have to care. Knowing how to do something or having a theoretical goal generally doesn’t carry us very far unless we’re strongly and consistently motivated by our own emotions.

I’m not just using “commitment” as a substitute for “willpower” here, creating a circular argument. What I’m talking about isn’t making the right decisions or doing the right things, but rather consistently caring about our decisions and what the right ones are.

Commitment can come from many different places, so fortunately we can influence it. It can come from our own emotional difficulties: for instance, a person who craves attention might use that to drive excellence in music, or a person who hates conflict may learn how to be a consummate peacemaker. It can come from thinking and understanding, when we get to know ourselves better and make important connections. (It’s one thing for me to know that doughnuts aren’t good for me, but it helps me more to realize how foods like that contribute to atherosclerosis, drain my energy, and give me a headache). It can be inspired by a role model or a clear picture of the future, be shocked into us through a tragedy, be nurtured by helpful surroundings, or rest on support from friends and family. Commitment is an emotional state in which we yearn toward a goal or state of being. Without it, it doesn’t matter how we can act, because commitment directs how we do act.

Which matters … why?
The point of bringing up these four aspects of willpower or habit change is to create a simple way to look at our goals and see what’s missing.

For example, why did I lose 60 pounds or so and then stop about 15 pounds heavier than my ideal weight? After all, I have the mental tools to lose weight and know how to direct my thinking, and my lifestyle is compatible with fitness and weight loss. What happened, I believe, is that my commitment dried up. Having reached this point, I’m fairly happy (though not ecstatic) with how fit I am, and my health is very good. Losing more weight would make me look better, which would be a fine thing both in terms of my self-image and my romantic relationship, but there’s nothing about it that would affect my life expectancy or my ability to be in my relationship in the first place, whereas my old weight years ago really could affect those kinds of things. To lose more weight, I’d have to find reasons to really, really care. This might involve hanging around with extremely fit people, finding more reasons to lose the extra pounds, or working on increasing my enjoyment of fitness.

In the same way, any of the four things above can be missing in a person’s quest to change. For example, a person might passionately want to quit smoking, might live in an environment that discourages smoking, and might be beautifully focused on the problem, but if that person doesn’t have a good working approach–that is, doesn’t have the right tools–then quitting may fail time and time again.

So I invite you to do in your life what I’m doing in mine these days: if you have an important goal that you’re having trouble reaching, look at it in terms of these four factors. Do you have all the tools and knowledge you need to succeed? Are you thinking thoughts that move you toward your goal? Is your environment helping or hurting you (or both)? Are you deeply and emotionally commited, and does that commitment stay strong even when trouble comes?

So, will I ever master willpower and habits? Somehow I suspect not, but it continues to be worth trying, and I continue to push hard. Maybe in another six and a half years. Who knows? It could happen. Check back with me then.

Photo by foxypar4

1 Comment

How Do You Fix Greed? Part II: American Society Is Built for Greed

Society and culture

Recently I posted about the emotional roots of greed–that is, some reasons we sometimes act or think greedily. Today I want to pick up where I left off and talk about how we’ve gotten ourselves in trouble with greed as a society and what we’d need to do to if we want to root it out.

It would be great if greed were a simple problem, but it appears that it has at least five different parts.

  1. We already talked about where greed comes from individually, the emotional component in Part I of this series.
  2. We have a culture where greed is not only OK, but encouraged.
  3. The effects of how we use money are hidden.
  4. Most of the organizations that handle money in our society are set up to maximize profit.
  5. Laws and regulations about taxation, corporations, and commerce in some cases make greed the law.

Our Greedy Culture
Rich people in our culture tend to be admired, and poor people tend to be looked down on. We tend to think of wealth and success as being closely related, and the role models we see in the media are usually people with a lot of money. This isn’t unique to Americans or particularly shocking, but it is harmful. If we can gradually focus more on people’s accomplishments, integrity, regard for other people, happiness, and personal fulfillment instead of their cars, houses, financial resources, and lifestyle, we’ll move toward justice and compassion as a society and away from celebrity worship and the quest to Have More Stuff.

But it’s hard to change who we envy. If offered the choice between becoming as a balanced and compassionate as the Dalai Lama or as rich as Bill Gates, which would you choose? I’d have a really difficult time with that challenge, I have to admit. When I think of having huge financial resources, I imagine how many of the things in my life that currently take a lot of effort would be much easier, how much good I could do, what great things I could get for my family, and so on. I don’t necessarily think about the complications that come with money or the disparity between the wealth I’d have and the poverty a lot of people live through day after day. I also have a lot of trouble weighing the benefits of being as happy and at peace as the Dalai Lama appears to be against the seemingly more obvious benefits of having tons of cash. Even those of us who work hard at staying out of the consumerist mindset can get hung up on this problem–but that’s exactly the kind of conscious change that will help us transform our culture’s attitudes toward greed.

Hidden impacts of our money decisions
We rarely see the help or harm that comes from our investing or spending. It’s very hard to know exactly who gets our money or what they do with it when we buy something or make an investment. It’s possible be an ardent anti-tobacco activist and to unknowingly have a retirement account that invests heavily in the tobacco industry, for instance. We may buy a product and not know how much of the money we spent goes to people who worked to get us the thing in the first place, how much to investors, and how much to parasites (like corrupt government officials in the country where the thing was made or speculators). It’s even harder to get a clear idea of our money’s impact on things like the environment or the availability of good jobs.

Even when we do know something about the impact of our money–for instance, buying a cheap electronic item made in China at a local Walmart, which is likely to be supporting underpaid labor both in the factory where the item is made and at the Walmart where it’s sort–we often don’t act on it, probably in part because we can’t be sure we’re right. Maybe those Chinese workers are really getting paid a living wage. Or even if they aren’t, maybe the money they are getting paid is better than what would happen to them if that job moved to a country where people get paid fairly for their work.

By not knowing the real effects our financial choices have in the rest of the world, we’re cut off from making better choices. Ideally, whenever I wanted to buy or sell or rent or borrow or lend or invest, I could get a little scorecard that showed me how much good or ill my choice was making all the way down the line to people, places, and organizations. In practice, that’s probably next to impossible (though in a few decades we might have enough information available electronically that something like that would be possible). However, we can educate ourselves about where the things we buy come from, where our investments go, and all the rest. We might not know the exact details of every purchase we make, but any insight empowers us to make decisions with our money that otherwise would be made for us by somebody else.

Designed for profit
Usually, companies are set up by investors or entrepreneurs who are trying to make a bunch of money. While they might have other priorities, money usually comes first. The penniless immigrant chef who starts with a sandwich cart that grows over time to a restaurant and then a chain of restaurants is probably cooking at least in part out of a love of cooking, a desire to do work that’s valued, and all the rest, but  … well, I was about to say “the bottom line is still profit,” but that’s what “the bottom line” means. The need for profit has come to be central even in how we talk about what’s important. We can even things like “The bottom line is that a lot of people don’t have adequate healthcare coverage” without realizing we’re being ironic.

What’s the alternative? Different kinds of organizations: fewer entrepreneurial start-ups and money-worshipping corporations and more non-profits and cooperatives. I’ll grant you, this doesn’t solve everything itself. For example, the health insurance I had up until a year or two ago was run by a not-for-profit, and yet it was terrible. Still, organizations like my local food co-op and the credit union where I bank show that these kinds of organizations can be reliable and successful without anyone trying to turn them into little money factories.

Greed is the law
Like a lot of things that have become part of our culture, greed has naturally made its way into our laws as well. Probably the biggest example of this kind of legislation is that for-profit corporations are legally required in many situations to maximize short-term shareholder profits, and corporations are also treated as individuals with legal rights of their own, just like a person.

Laws won’t change much until the culture does, but laws that make profit sacred get in the way of cultural change away from greed. There are only two ways I know of to get out of a bind like this: one of them is to make improvements wherever possible and gradually drag the legal system along with the priorities of the people it governs. The other is for there to be a huge catastrophe that ruins everything we’ve built so that we have to go back and start over.

I favor the first approach.

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about ways we can take greed out of businesses.

Photo by Michael Aston


Toward a More Motivating Working Space (Sylvia Spruck Wrigley)

Self-motivation examples

My writer friend Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (I know, I have a lot of writer friends. It’s kind of cool for me, actually) who maintains the cool handwritten blog Can’t Backspace was recently reading my free eBook (or 99 cent eBook, if you buy it for the Kindle) The Writing Engine and let me know about one of her experiences with it:

I started reading The Writing Engine and got to “Your writing environment” and stopped. The bullet list really made me stop and look around.

So I wrote my thoughts on each point and then went through reorganising. I now have a big bag of rubbish, a clear cabinet in the TV room, an empty file drawer where my camera and peripherals now live instead of on my desk and a clean desk! I have a little mushroom corner with poppets and a bookshelf place of honour for James T. Kirk and a stack of notebooks and a bunch of new pens.

It’s all little things but I feel really good about it!

In case you’re interested, here’s the bulleted section she mentions. It’s followed by specific points to consider.

What could you do to the space where you work that would

  • make you happier or remind you of things that make you happy?
  • make it easier to concentrate?
  • put things more easily to hand or more conveniently out of the way?
  • attract you to your work?
  • remind you of why you do the work you do? or
  • put you in a good mood or a frame of mind to focus?


I was curious to see the details, so asked for a photo, which she obligingly supplied:

She added:

For the full effect, you need to know that the bookshelf was full of books that I rarely refer to and I had to clear the right side of my desk in order to write in a notebook there (in truth, I often got up and moved to the dining room table). I should have taken a before photograph but I didn’t realise how much junk I had!

I filed all my stationary/envelopes in the filing cabinet instead of in the desk drawers and I’ve taken the “desk stuff” that I generally need and put it in the drawers for fast access. I moved almost all of the books into the main bookshelf (which is not very far away) and then just spread around happy things that make me smile.

No Comments

The Tipping Point of a Habit

Self-motivation examples

A couple of posts ago I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, which digs into the ways phenomena go from puttering along to succeeding wildly, whether we’re talking about a book becoming a bestseller, a disease becoming an epidemic, or a big drop in violent crime. While Gladwell is specifically talking about social phenomena–how ideas and behaviors spread among people–it’s interesting to think about the possibility that tipping points may well apply to our own psychology, specifically in terms of a behavior transforming into a much more robust and consistent habit.

A quick disclaimer: the theory I’m putting out here is based on analogy, not research. It’s just an idea. If you believe Gladwell’s well-considered argument that making small changes like getting graffiti off subway cars and cracking down on people who demand money for squeegeeing car windows in traffic actually led to an enormous decrease in violent crime in New York City over a period of time, that doesn’t prove that making small changes in our own experience or thinking can tip a behavior into a habit.

Tipping points=easier habit formation?
And yet … much of the other material I’ve gathered for this site over the last few years does seem to support that idea. And if we really can think of habits as having tipping points, then that transforms our focus in terms of developing new habits. Instead of having to find huge resources to get ourselves to repeat a behavior over and over with great effort for months (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“), we might mainly need to find the tweaks we would need to make repeating that behavior a lot easier.

Don’t get me wrong: creating a good habit (or breaking a bad one) is going to require time, effort, and attention no matter how you slice it. It’s just a matter of how easy and enjoyable that time, effort, and attention is. If habits have tipping points, then there may be a much easier way to create them than we’ve been used to thinking.

How my exercise habit tipped
I won’t go into this too deeply all in today’s post, but the basic idea is that relatively small changes we can make to circumstances might make a big difference in how our habits develop–if they’re the right small changes. I’ll give one example of my own, of when regular exercise became a kind of devotion for me instead of a chore. What made the difference wasn’t better scheduling, improving my attitude, or renewing my commitment: it was taking my workouts out of my own hands.

I started studying Taekwondo about four years ago (see my articles “Finding Exercise You Love: The Taekwondo Example” and “Black belt“). I had been used to getting myself out running regularly, which meant I always had to choose to run, find time to do it, choose how far I would go, and so on. Taekwondo was different: the times were set, and I had to show up for them or miss out. The length of the workout and the specific activities were also set. This one change–selecting a different exercise, which completely changed the context of my exercising–hugely simplified my problem of getting enough exercise, and my desire to get better at Taekwondo kept me coming back to class. Over time, all of this associated exercise powerfully for me with enjoyment, feeling good, and confidence. When I think of exercising now, these are the main things that come to mind, the mood boost and the pride I can take in what I’m doing. And even when I’m going running now or doing something other than Taekwondo, that kind of association draws me forward into exercise instead of repelling me, whereas thinking about the physical strain or being fat or the bad weather might be much more discouraging to someone who’s trying to exercise.

What was your tipping point?
I hope to write more on this topic in future. In the mean time, I’d be glad to hear from you: was there a tipping point for you in a key habit you’ve developed in your life? If so, what was it?

Photo by Captainspears23

No Comments

Why Long-Term Happiness Levels Tend to Stay the Same

States of mind

In yesterday’s article (“The Best 40 Percent of Happiness”) I talked about the factors that the current research suggests go into determining how happy we are. About 50% seems to be genetic, 40% from attitude, and only 10% from our life situation.

But this flies in the face of what seems like common sense. After all, the things that cause the most worry and excitement in our lives–jobs, money, romance, new experiences, health, etc.–really do change. We might have a job we hate one year and a job we love the next; we fall in love or get married or split up; we get illnesses or lose weight. Why wouldn’t these make major, long-term changes in our level of happiness? In fact, there are several reasons they generally don’t:

Hedonic Adaptation: “I could get used to this”
Hedonic adaptation is the process we go through of getting used to pleasurable things so that they no longer provide as much bliss as when we first encountered them. The first bite of a really delicious meal or the first week of an incredible romance, tends to provide a lot of stimuli we really like, triggering pleasurable mental and physiological reactions. However, our brains are designed to get used to these stimuli so that the reactions gradually lessen. This seems cruel, but on the bright side it’s also true of stimuli we don’t like, which is why we gradually get used to bad smells, for instance.

So eating caviar every single day eventually will begin to feel about the same as eating oatmeal every single day.

So anything we do that’s pleasurable has a short-term effect unless it’s alternated with other different, pleasurable things. For instance, if you love France and move there, then over time France will likely feel less and less like something special and more and more like the same old neighborhood. But if you move to a new country you like every year (due presumably to being an international jewel thief or space shuttle salesperson or something), then you’ll continue to be engaged by the new places, sights, and sounds–though you might get exhausted after a while and start thinking about the attractions of a good old boring home, too.

There’s more to it than just the one thing
Another reason situations tend not to affect our long-term happiness in the ways we expect is that we tend to focus on just the single most obvious result of a big change. For instance, if you think about winning the lottery, probably the thing that keeps your attention is having a ton of money or being able to quitting your job. You probably won’t be thinking about having to spend more time with your annoying sister-in-law, about people asking you for handouts day after day, or about how bored you might get if you don’t have a structured thing to do, like a job. That’s not to say that the pleasure wouldn’t balance out the inconveniences, at least in the short term, but it does mean that any good thing that happens to us is unlikely to be 100% blissful.

And these factors work the same way on troubles: people with physical disabilities get used to them; people who suffer losses become accustomed to making do with whatever’s left over; and things that are very painful at first tend to become less painful in time.

Cultivating long-term happiness
Whatever the reasons, the research seems clear that attitude means a lot more than situation–even if cultivating a better attitude makes our situation worse. That’s not to say that we should give up and not do anything about our troubles, although it’s possible that’s a route to happiness for some people. Most of us will want to work on our situation and on our attitude.

The important thing to know about cultivating an attitude that creates happiness is that just as we tend to get used to new stimuli, we also tend to get used to anything that inspires us temporarily–so that just trying to have a new attitude is unlikely to produce long-term change because after a while we’ll stop being inspired to do it and go back to our old ways. What will produce long-term change is cultivating habits that change attitude. As these habits become part of our daily behavior, they make a durable and lasting impact on how we see and react to the world, digging out the happiness that’s available from the situations we’re already in.

Photo by keeping it real

No Comments

18 Ways to Get a Good Night’s Sleep


Author and fellow Codex member Elaine Isaak posed this question:

So as I was tossing and turning last  night, it occured to me that the one area where I’m not sure I *can* effectively apply my willpower is in getting a good night’s sleep.  I can’t WILL myself to sleep the way I might will myself to get up on time to start writing or to go to the gym.  I wondered if you have come across any research that tackles this, or have any tools to suggest?

I have to agree with Elaine on not being able to will ourselves to sleep by sheer determination, but fortunately I do know of a number of ways to get to sleep and to sleep better, based on research. Understanding that serious problems with insomnia are worth seeing a doctor about and that these recommendations are not professional medical or psychological advice … here they are:

Long-Term Habits

1. Plan your schedule so that you can get to sleep at a decent hour and still be able to wake up if you want to. If there are things you need to do before going to bed, do them earlier in the evening to make sure they don’t push your bedtime back.

2. Figure out how much sleep you actually need by keeping track of how much sleep you’re getting each day and whether that turned out to be enough. This may change over time, or under different circumstances (such as in stressful periods or with more or less exercise).

3. Get on a steady schedule with your sleeping hours. Staying up late on weekends or going to bed at different times every night, for instance, can sometims interfere with your body’s attempts to establish a natural sleep schedule.

4. You may need to make your bed an environment you associate mainly with sleeping (and, if appropriate, sex). Take activities like reading, using a laptop computer, or watching TV out of bed if your bed doesn’t feel like a place that naturally relaxes you.

5. On mornings when you don’t have to get up right away, if any, don’t sleep in for long periods, as this may tend to muck with your ability to sleep that night. More sleep isn’t always better.

6. Take steps to make sure you have the physical comfort you need, to the best of your ability: a firm, comfortable mattress; good ventilation; a comfortable temperature; etc. For me, one of the most relaxing features of my bedroom in summer is a fan pointed at the bed. You may also find it more comfortable to use a non-illuminated bedroom clock, although this is admittedly inconvenient if you are up in the middle of the night and want to know what time it is.

Daily Habits

7. Watch out for caffeine and consider cutting it out for a little while if you’re having sleep problems. Remember that in addition to regular coffee, most sodas, black/green/white tea, and chocolate contain caffeine, and that even decaf coffee and decaf tea contain some caffeine–just a reduced amount. Other stimulants to be careful of include ginseng and nicotine.

8. Exercise during the day! Be active! Regular exercise contributes to very good sleep.

9. Watch out for alcohol: while it can help you fall asleep more quickly, it also can cause sleep problems. According to, “it prevents deeper stages of sleep and often causes you to awaken in the middle of the night.”

10. Don’t eat or drink a lot late in the evening. Either can cause physical discomfort that keeps you up at night or that can interrupt an otherwise sound sleep.

Before bed

11. Stretch, either doing yoga or basic stretching techniques. Stretching will release tension and improve blood flow.

12. Before bed, steer clear of things that might stir you up, like watching television, reading a suspenseful novel, or taking on stressful tasks. Relaxing activities will help settle you down so that you can sleep more easily. These can even include things like picking up and cleaning around the house to set things in order, or gathering things you’ll need the next day. The relative mindlessness of these tasks, the mild physical activity, and the way this prevents you from having to worry about getting things done in the morning are all conducive to good sleep.

13. Consider meditation, for instance body scan meditation, in which you focus your attention on each part of your body in turn and allow it to relax. Meditation can help still mental chatter and create a serene state of mind.

14. Ask a romantic partner, family member, or friend to give you a massage in the evening. This is an excellent means to rope someone into giving you a free massage, so don’t miss out.

In the moment

15. If you find yourself kept up by specific worries or general anxiety, try idea repair, journaling, or talking things out with someone who cares about how you’re doing.

16. Soft earplugs are great if you’re having trouble with noise. There’s a picture of the kind I like in this post.

17. If you’re obsessing about making yourself sleep, you may want to get out of bed, go sit on the couch, and read a book or listen to music or watch a movie that you’ve already seen, turned down low. These kinds of activities can engage your attention in a more relaxed way that may allow you to fall asleep more easily. Just make sure to have a comfortable couch.

18. In bed, listen to low music or a relaxation CD. Like the tactics mentioned in the previous item, this can help relax you when your mind is overstimulated.

Photo by babblingdweeb

No Comments

Tools for Feeling Better, Part III

Handling negative emotions

Following up on Part I and Part II, here is a third and (for now) final set of tools for improving mood.

One small victory: Any accomplishment or success, however minor, creates an opportunity to feel happier. Even simple achievements like doing a few dishes or solving one computer problem refocus attention on constructive things, provide a distraction from annoyances or disappointments, and offer fodder for positive self-talk.

Change of scene: Our emotions often respond directly to things, places, or people we’re used to associating with better moods. It’s difficult to stay in a funk when we’re with people we genuinely like or or in a beautiful and different setting–while even if the surroundings we’re used to at the moment are very nice, a process called “hedonic adaptation” (discussed more in “But It Started Off So Well! What Happened?“) makes places we’ve been exposed to recently much less impactful than they originally were.

You could also stay where you are and change something about it: read “Letting Your Environment Help You.”

Music: Music can have a speedy and powerful effect on mood, even when we don’t feel like listening. For a detailed treatment of the subject, you could read “How and Why Music Changes Mood.”

Visualization: The interesting thing about imagining things to make ourselves feel better is that in many ways, our brains don’t distinguish between something we’re imagining and something that’s actually happening, which is why a good movie can have such a strong emotional effect. Visualizing ourselves in a calm, pleasant place or dwelling on a past or expected event that’s particularly joyful gives a brain the chance to start reacting to that visualization and to shift into the appropriate mood.

Photo by Meanest Indian

No Comments

Clearing your mind by cashing in

States of mind

Our states of mind are often influenced–sometimes heavily–by the space immediately around us: our offices, workplaces, homes, cars, yards, towns, and so on. I talk about this a bit in my article How Tools and Environment Make Work into Play, Part II: Letting Your Environment Help You, and it certainly bears out in my own life: the massive peace lily in my office below the photograph my brother made when he was shooting in the subways of New York City; the additional focus I have now that there aren’t random papers scattered around my writing area any more; even the smile that comes to my face when I walk into my kitchen and everything is cleaned up and in its place. The effects will vary, but for most of us, physical clutter means distraction and annoyance.

Yet it’s often hard to get motivated to clear things out of our lives, especially if they seem to have some value–the old turntable that’s never used but that cost hundreds of dollars in its day, the suits in the closet that no longer fit, the old computer that still works but that has been shut down ever since the new one was set up …

Fortunately, there’s an easy and motivating solution to these problems: sell stuff, or give it away to someone who needs it. We live in a golden age of ways to get rid of stuff, which is lucky, since we also live in a golden age of being buried in our own junk. Here are some of the places I’ve been using lately to lighten up my life a little, after observing the more minimalist home of a friend I admire:

  • eBay: A great option if you can ship it affordably and it’s worth more than a few dollars. Not only does eBay provide good ways to sell your stuff, but you can also find out how much similar stuff has sold for lately and choose a sane price. Remember, the price is a matter of what someone else will pay for it now, not a matter of how much money you had to put into the thing. I’d suggest searching “completed” listings for real comparison prices, since current listings are just asking prices and current bids.
  • Craigslist: Free and local, good if you have something a lot of people want or that’s too bulky to ship.
  • Consignment clothing stores: Ideal for clothing that’s really worth something but that you won’t wear again. Selling things by consignment is more work than giving them away, though, so factor that in. There are also consignment stores in some areas for things like bikes, sporting goods, and household goods.
  • Freecycle: Great for things you’d love to give away when you don’t have anyone to give them to. Offer the stuff, get a taker, leave it outside the door, and it magically disappears to brighten someone else’s life.
  • Goodwill: This organization and ones like it (the Salvation Army, clothes donation bins in grocery store parking lots, etc.) are the perfect destination for things from your closet or dresser that you will never wear again, but that someone else would.
  • Recycle stores: Here in northwestern Vermont we have a wonderful, non-profit organization called ReSource that takes donations of everything from furniture to toys to appliances to building materials and makes it all available at low prices in their store. They also provide jobs and job training. Your area may have something similar. If not, I’ll try not to gloat about living in this part of Vermont (but sometimes it’s difficult).
  • Used bookstores: If you have material you’re not going to read again, go through your bookshelves and storage areas and box up some books to bring to a local used book store. You can also donate used books to library book sales and recycle stores.
  • Amazon and SecondSpin:  Second Spin buys used music and movies, and Amazon offers a marketplace for those things plus many other types of items. Second Spin will pay you up front, but often lower amounts, whereas Amazon is another consignment opportunity.
  • Garage sales: For anything of fairly general interest. Find a beautiful weekend day to spend outside chatting with your neighbors as you lighten your load of things you don’tneed. Also can be a good way to teach your kids about money. Anything that’s left, bring to recycle stores, Goodwill, etc. Try to store nothing that you have set out to sell: once you’ve decided it should go, it should go unless it’s going to be worth a lot more to you down the road.

Remember that there are virtues in getting rid of things other than the money. Garage sales, for instance, tend not to bring in a whole lot of cash, but they do pay off in getting things out of your way.

Photo by

1 Comment

Why bother organizing papers?

Strategies and goals

In my recent article The Eight Things You Can Do With a Piece of Paper, I talk about some principles for taking the stress and difficulty out of organizing the piles of paper that can sometimes grow unwanted around our homes and workspaces. But that article didn’t really address the question of why someone would want to put the time and effort into organizing papers in the first place. For instance, if a person has been used to living in the midst of stacks of paper for years, why shouldn’t that person just continue doing so?

Well, certainly not everyone needs to organize papers, and even people who can benefit from it might do better to avoid it if by doing so they can get some more pressing things done. For instance, if it’s between organizing papers and working on broken ideas to address a serious problem with anxiety, I say let the papers pile up.

Still, here are some benefits of organizing papers for those of us not in that kind of position:

  • It helps you capture tasks, responsibilities, ideas, and resources that otherwise might be hidden or forgotten
  • You will probably find you can get rid of a lot of papers you don’t need, freeing up space and simplifying your environment
  • Organized papers look better and are more motivating for most people than piles, drawers, or boxes of papers
  • Things you didn’t know you had or forgot about can often surface during the organization process, not uncommonly including money
  • The wonderful feeling of “THERE that thing is!”
  • When you actually need some of the material you’ve organized, it will be easy to find it
  • You can make much better use of information you have on paper when it’s collected by subject and easy to find
  • Even a small amount of organizing work can help create a sense of satisfaction, order, and empowerment

Keep in mind that just organizing papers once in a major effort isn’t success: success is building a habit of keeping papers organized as they come in so that they are immediately available when they’re needed. Conveniently, this habit can be built up by regularly–ideally, every day–grabbing a few papers and taking care of them. You don’t have to make a massive initial effort to get things organized; it can just become a regular part of your day.

Photo by jasra

No Comments

Examples of Motivating Workspaces


In this article, I talk about working environment and how we can gain advantages in self-motivation by making the place we’re doing the work more inviting and effective.

A recent post on Life Hacker demonstrates the point with 25 examples of highly inviting workspaces (at least, inviting to their owners, which is all that matters). The examples are generally for computer-centric work: there are no kitchens or woodshops in the mix. Still, it’s worth seeing even if the technoparadise approach (which is very well represented among the 25) doesn’t appeal to see how other people have attacked the problem and to take in examples like the utterly minimalist dorm room study space and the office on the side of a cliff. Here’s the full post:

No Comments
« Older Posts

%d bloggers like this: