stevemedcroft.com
3Jan/190

The Writer’s Essential Toolbox

Stephen King at his writing desk (sometime in the 80's)

I love looking at photographs of famous writer's desks. Seeing the way another creative person works is pruriently fascinating. I can't be the only one. Websites dedicated to sharing famous writer's workspaces exist. Hashtags exist (#writersdesk). Kurt Vonnegut's wife Jill Krementz produced a book of photographs of writer's working spaces (the Writers Desk).

These images are like porn for a writer. Is Stephen King's desk cluttered or organized? Did Hemmingway write in pencil or typewriter? Does Dean Koontz use notecards to plot stories? It is so interesting to look at these images and try to glean some hint, some epiphany that can help my own journey as a writer.

But for all I absorb this kind of imagery, obsession over how other people write is just another way we put off getting to work ourselves. The truth is that I have long settled into my own way of working. Looking for the silver bullet to getting writing done in photographs of other writer's workspaces is just another form of procrastination. I have what I need; a simple set of tools that are essential to me sitting down and getting my writing work done every day. Yes, I have a desk (three actually; one at each day-job engagement I have and one half of the big kitchen table at home). But the desk does not determine the flow of my work. I prefer to be mobile. I write wherever my butt and my brain happen to be when it's time to get the writing done. My workspace is virtual. My workspace is this set of tools:

Good, old-fashioned pen and paper: The most basic tool in my kit is a notepad and pen. To be a writer (to communicate in the medium of language), we don't need anything more than this. Paper and a pencil. A typewriter and a clean sheet of copy paper. A notepad and a pen. I keep my version of these tools close by at all times because even though I am digitally organized, as a writer, capturing ideas and thoughts at the moment they occur is critical to my writing process. So long as you have a pen and some paper close by, you have the most essential tools a writer needs to get started on any project. Mainly because I thrive under the stability of routine and known things, I am a bit particular on which notepad and pen I use; soft-sided, medium-sized, lined notepads from an Italian company called Legami (because I just fucking love them) and a LAMY Studio fountain pen with a medium nib and blue/black ink.

Any old computer: You can't post an article on the Internet using a pad and paper or submit a handwritten manuscript to a publisher or client, so a computer is essential to writing. I use the Microsoft Surface Pro because it's light, it has cellular service built in (which gives me Internet access anywhere whether there is WiFi available or not) and has a strong enough battery that I can work 5-6 hours without recharging. You don't need something fancy though. The great thing about being a writer (compared to say, a photographer or graphic designer) is that we need very little computing power. I've written on an iPad, at a library desktop computer, on whatever company machine was assigned to me in my day jobs, even my smartphone. Anything from the cheapest used laptop to the best credit will buy you will work.

A word processor: We lived in blessed times. There are so many options for word-processing software, that there is the perfect option for everyone out there. It almost doesn't matter which one you choose. For my work, I use one of four.

  • Microsoft Word - I use MS Word for my professional writing (copywriting, marketing pieces, and blog posts for business clients). It's the most widely-used word processor in business, so I can supply finished work in Word to any client without the problem of them being able to access it.
  • Scrivener - Have you heard of Scrivener? (What? You haven't? And you call yourself a writer?) Don't worry, I hadn't heard of it either, even after years of pursuing writing. Scrivener is a stand-alone word-processor and writing-organization system that is perfect for long projects (like novels or non-fiction books). Whereas Word is organized as a single document for each written work, Scrivener is organized as folders containing individual written files that make up longer work (like chapters in a book). As well as all the word-processing functions a writer needs, Scrivener provides tools to create outlines, synopsizes, and manage research material (among other things). It even provides the ability to output work in a variety of formats (so you can output formatted files for printing or publishing on all the available platforms). There's more but I can't do it justice in this small space. Check out Scrivener for yourself if you're serious about writing in long form.
  • WordPress - I built my personal website and my humanbeing.earth project both using the free web-publishing platform from WordPress.org. Its built-in editor is perfect for writing web posts. You can dynamically move blocks of text around to get the right flow, add images, videos, links, and every other element you need to make your work sing online. WordPress offers the ability to create and save drafts, to publish immediately, or schedule posts to go live at a specific future time. It manages versions. It's a powerful writing tool. I draft right into WordPress for content that is going to live on either website.
  • Google Docs - For personal journals or documents that I want to share, I use Google Docs instead of Word. It's free, works like a charm, allows you to create, edit, and share documents whether or not you have an Internet connection, or not. If you don't have access to any of the above and just need a word processor, I recommend Google Docs.
This is it - everything I need to do my writing.

Grammarly: When I started writing, just out of high school in the mid (ahem) 1980's, you spell checked and added diversity to your writing using a printed dictionary and thesaurus. Computer-based world processing, with spell check and grammar functions built in, saved us from that laborious task and made the printed reference all but obsolete. The spell check and grammar functions within Word (and other software tools) are robust and you don't need much more to put out clean copy, but I have recently adopted a tool called Grammarly and recommend it highly. Grammarly is a service you subscribe to that then plugs into your browser and word-processors like Microsoft Word which provides running guidance to help you perfect your written language skills. beyond basic spelling and grammar checking, Grammarly provides you with robust feedback on sentence structure and language-flow problems. You also get data on the kinds of mistakes you make repeatedly (words you use more often than needed, the fact that I miss that serial comma almost every time). Grammarly has been like getting critique-group or editorial feedback on my work as I write. While I don't follow every piece of advice the service gives up, but it informs my writing continuously and I feel my work is stronger after running it through Grammarly than before.

A camera: I know this is counter-intuitive, but every writer needs a basic camera. Why? I write short pieces for web publication on my own websites and to post on third-party publishing platforms like Medium and LinkedIn. Web articles need an image to draw the reader's attention. Sure, you can source images online (like the one at the top of this article), but to avoid rights and usage problems, you're better off using a picture you take yourself (like the one in the middle of this article). The good news is you probably already have the camera you need - your smartphone. Modern smartphone camera's take excellent pictures, plenty good enough for online publication. If you're writing for print, the images need to be of higher resolution. When I need something better, I have a fixed-lens Fuju X100T (the digital equivalent of the 35mm reporter's camera). I use GIMP and DarkTable, both free equivalents of Photoshop and Lightroom, for photo editing.

A process: The best tool I developed for my writing was a simple, repeatable process for getting my work done. I know this is outside of the realm of the what's-on-your-writing-desk nature of this article, but having a work process is just as essential to my writing as a laptop or the right software. We all struggle with getting our writing done. We procrastinate. We get busy with all the other aspects of life. It's hard to put your butt in your seat and fingers on the keyboard some days, but the only true way to progress as a writer is to write. You have to put down words, and put those words out into the world, to get better. I am old enough and wise enough to know where I am weak about writing. I am weak if I let myself get distracted before I work (when I check email, when I go to the office first, when I check in with the news). I am weak when I tell myself I'll write later, after I just do this one thing (or ten things) first. I am weak if I think I'll really, really focus on writing tomorrow. I am best and happiest when I write first thing in the morning, before I do anything else that day. I am strong when I use to the pomodoro method to focus. I am strong when I take a minute to start a writing session with a handwritten warm-up page in my notebook. I am strong when I already have a plan, a task list of writing that needs to be done. To take advantage of where I am strong, and to defend against where I am weak, I have developed an algorithm than I run every morning to get my writing done. I think of myself like a computer, a machine that just has to follow this programmed routine. All I have to do is show up to my writing space and follow the program. No thinking, no negotiation with myself, just show up and follow the instructions. The program works like magic. The writing gets done and I go off into the rest of the day with the sense of satisfaction that the most important thing i want to accomplish in life was done that day. So long as I execute this three-hour morning routine every day, I trust that time and intention will equal a great amount of progress in my writing.

Feedback: The last essential item in my minimalist writing toolbox is feedback. I identify myself as a writer, a human being who uses writing to communicate thoughts, concepts, knowledge, ideas, and stories to the world. I write just for myself occasionally, but my ambition is that my writing is to be read. It is meant to have an audience. Writing is, like Stephen King says, telepathic communication, transmissions of thought from one person to another. I put down thoughts from my mind. Someone reads them and inputs them into their mind. For writing to be effective, the original thought must transfer as comprehensivley as possible. The only way for a writer to know if their work is being received as intended is to hear back from the reader. What did they think of the message? Did they understand it? Did it lead them to wonder, to think, to be inspired? Or was it confusing or uninetresting? Feedback is the only way to develop as a writer.

That's it. Those are my writing essentials, my virtual version of a writer's desk. If I boiled my writing life down to the bare essentials, everything with a purpose and nothing unnecessary, these are the things I need to be a writer.

What about you? What's your desk? What tools are essential to your writing?

1Jan/190

Why Made In Italy matters

Or, Does Made in Italy matter?

I am a partner in a small business with an Italian cycling clothing manufacturer called Santini. My company acts as the U.S distributor, meaning I import product from the factory in Bergamo, Italy and sell and ship it to consumers and wholesale accounts in the United States.

Santini is a proud and successful family business. Started in 1967 and well established globally as a leader in clothing for cyclists, Santini is run today by the founder's daughters. Santini makes almost everything bearing its label in its own factory and has about 120 employees, many who have been with the business for years, even decades. Santini has built long-term partnerships with the world's top professional teams, several of the world's most prominent cycling events, and the Olympic organizing body for the sport of cycling. They are masters at what they do and every year put out world-class iterations of padded shorts, tight-fitting and colorful jerseys, and all the other specialty clothes people who ride and race bicycles wear.

Americans seem to love all things Italian. Italian brands carry a certain cache. They are respected and sought after, even if they are Italian in name and not necessarily origin (an Italian company who makes product somewhere else to save cost). Italian products have such a good desirability factor that even completely non-Italian companies operating out of cheap-to-produce regions like China and South America adopt Italian-sounding names. But why? Why is Italian cycling clothing held in so much regard? Is it actually better? Is there something to the idea that it is somehow better than clothing made in other places?

I've been working with Santini for seven years now. Early in our partnership, at a U.S. trade show, Monica Santini asked me if Made in Italy truly matters to the U.S. customer. There were a lot of Italian brands at the show and the audience seemed to really like and admire the products. What was the audience reacting to? The fact that these products were authentically made in Italy? Or something else about them that could come from anywhere?

Ask anyone if Made in America matters and the answers come freely; to support your own country because we have labor laws so you know the people were treated fairly, to keep your hard-earned dollars in the U.S., because you believe Americans are industrious and smart and skilled so therefore their products will be superior. But Made in Italy?
My friends and acquaintances admit a certain lust for Italian products, but most are not able to articulate a real, tangible reason why it matters if it was actually Made In Italy. Because it's cool or because it's beautiful are the top answers.

I appreciate, and benefit from, the lust for all things Italian. But it's not enough for someone to want our products just because they're cool (or because some magazine or piece of marketing tells you they're cool). I would rather people made a more conscious decision. You have options. If you're going to choose Italian-made, know why. Make a conscious choice.

A formula for excellence

In my opinion, there are five main reasons why Italian products are special. I know some of the insights below are generalizations (they don't apply to every Italian company and could easily apply to products from other places). But for this exercise, these are my observations of what makes Made in Itlay mean something from time spent with Italian companies.

History: Even though many first-world nations have moved on from a manufacturing economy, Italy is still very much a country that makes things. Maybe because Italy is also a family-driven culture, meaning there are a lot of businesses in operation that makes things and are the legacies that previous generations are handing down to their offspring. This is true for Santini. They are a prime example of an Italian multi-generation family manufacturing business. For fifty-one consecutive years, a Santini family member has led the business. They have guided the development and design of the products, established the partnerships, managed the global distribution, and overseen and improved the manufacturing process. The standards that were set by the founder, that allowed his products to stand out in the early market for cycling-specific clothing, have been baked into the business. It is this fifty-one-year history that sets the framework for the everyday operation that leads to the quality standard the products enjoy. There are thousands of similar family manufacturing businesses in Italy, which creates a product culture tied closely to family pride and obligation.

Experience: Italian labor law favors long-term and stable employment. When you hire into an Italian business, you are making a long-term decision, and the company is making a semi-permanent commitment to you. Employees become like family and rarely leave. The experience they bring and the experience they gain while employed stays within the company. Santini is being run by the adult daughter of the founder. She grew up, literally, in the factory (the family had an apartment on the factory grounds when she was in her early teens). The business benefits from everything she's ever learned. There are seamstresses working on the factory floor who've been with Santini for over thirty years. In fact, across the business, there are hundreds and hundreds of accumulated years of experience at work making the products the company sells. That collective, institutional experience leads to better and more innovative products.

Passion for the product: If you ask an American company how their business is going, chances are you'll hear about their financial results. They'll tell you if they grew, if they hit their goals, how much profit did they make. It is normal for us in the U.S. to define ourselves financially because our culture tells us that the sole purpose and motivation for any business endeavor is profit. In Italy, if you ask an owner how their business is doing, they are much more likely to show you the products they are making and ask what you think of them. Could you see the detail that went into making it? Could you see the technological innovations that make it superior? This has happened to me repeatedly in Italy. I know that most people who make things have pride in it, but the way Italians put pride of product above all other measures of success is unique, and I think leads to better products.

A beauty culture: Some of the most stunning luxury products come from Italy. In automobiles (Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati), Fashion (Prada, Gucci) and in pretty much every other product category there is, the most aspirational brands are Italian. Italians (again, I'm generalizing, but this is an observation) take national pride in the global status of their iconic brands and the sense of flair and style they represent. This pride in Italian style and status impacts Italy at every level. It is as if you are representing Italy when you sell your products outside the country, and that you have a responsibility to all Italians to hold yourself to the bar set by brands like those above. There is pride in product in other places in the world as well, but only in Italy do I see that pride of product expressed as the responsibility of Italian companies to put out products that fit the Italian sense of place in the world as leader of style and fashion.

Technological mastery: Because there are so many companies still actually making things in Italy, and many of them are proud, family (or closely held private) companies, the Italian home market is extremely competitive. Small footprint manufacturers like Santini are always looking to innovate as a way to stay ahead. Santini has invested in high-end machinery in the factory to make their processes fast and repeatable and they work with like-minded suppliers to source raw materials that put their products on the cutting edge. In a world that says you should make things as cheaply as possible to maximize profit, Santini, like many Italian companies, focuses on investments that raise the level of their products and ensure what they make is the pinnacle of what can be done in their space.

So there you have it. The real reasons Made in Italy matters. It matters because not many non-Italian cycling clothing companies have over fifty years of history and experience perfecting clothing for cycling enthusiasts and racers. Not many outside companies have direct access to the technical innovation available in the Italian textiles market. Not many non-Italian clothing manufacturers invest in the equipment, processes, and people it takes to create durable, highly-technical clothing in a dependable, repeatable way. And it matters because Italian national pride is tied very closely to their position as the maker of the world's most coveted and beautiful things.

What do you think?

31Dec/180

The HumanBeing.Earth project

For 2019, I am launching a new writing passion project called HumanBeing.Earth, the proper launch of an idea that has been perculating in my mind for several years now.

I have always felt that one aspect of writing I was good at was the interview. I wrote a lot of interviews in both narrative prose and Q&A style when I worked for Cyclingnews.com, and always felt that it was some of my best work. I also always felt like it was the most rewarding work - I got to help tell someone's story, someone who had accomplished something, someone who had inspiration and motivation to share, someone another person could relate to or look up to. My favorite interview was a Q&A with a world-class mountain-biker named Marla Streb, who had written a memoir about transitioning from a life of scientific research into professional athletics.

About three years ago, pondering my interview work one day, I had a spark of inspiration. The inspirational spark was that if aliens exist and they encountered earth, could a webste exist that gave them a positive view of human beings, one filled with stories of people overcoming obstacles, of reaching for goals, of pushing human knowledge forward.

I was sufficiently inspired that day to look up potential domain names for such a website and landed on an available domain of humanbeing.earth. It was so perfect. It seemed to say "Here we are! Human beings of Earth. There are seven billion of us, and we all have our own story."

I registered the domain that day. I could see exactly how the website should look - clean and with a focus on the subjects. Long articles, fully flushed out. With a clear message. A good, direct, black and white portrait image. Maybe a gallery of other photos that support the pitch of the piece.

But, I then talked myself out of the idea the next day. A year later, when the domain came up for renewal, I unchecked the auto-renew box to let the domain expire and didn't think about it again. Until...

What kind of writer are you?

In the past six months, I have been on an exploratory mission to try and work out what I want to do with writing. What kind of a writer am I? How can I use writing as my contribution to the world?

I published my first novel at the end of 2017 and spent much of the first half of 2018 picking away at my next one. But I was unsatisfied with the work. I joined a writer's group thinking I could workshop my way through the project, but I had fallen out of love with my current story. I was trying too hard to make myself a novelist. It wasn't coming naturally to me. I worried that I could spend a lifetime pursuing fiction and only make an average contribution to the world.

So I allowed myself to put that project aside and just write whatever came to mind. I wrote journal entries. I wrote blog posts. I took the copywriting assignments coming to me from one of the companies I work with seriously. And most of that work flowed quickly and was satisfying.

I learned that I could write easily, that measured up to my personal standard of professionalism, and that short pieces provided great satisfaction upon completion. I was onto something as a writer. I am better at shorter projects. I am better when I have several different ideas lined up and can create wherever the flow of writing takes me each day.

I wrote about my wife and I decluterring our house. I wrote copy for websites and catalogs. I wrote marketing emails and blog articles. Ideas for new pieces came easily. And as well as all the personal essays and paid copy work, I found myself continuously inspired to write about people. I met a guy at the bike shop who dropped a hundred pounds in one year riding his bike. I envisioned how I could adapt the podcasts I was listening to, which feature people talking about how the build their creative businesses from the Ground Up, etc. Everyday people all around me are doing amazing and interesting things!

And when I stumbled across information for a ghostwriting certification course, I got excited. It resonated. It clicked. I know what kind of writer I want to be. I want to write about people. I want to help them tell their stories.

And back came that same inspiration I had three years ago; feature articles that tell everyday people's stories, with a focus on what they have learned or accomplished that can be shared to help the rest of us.

Since my personal website is a hodgepodge of my personal interests and I didn't want to wipe it clean (again) and rebuild to serve this new set of content, I recalled the original domain name and website idea.

I logged in to my domain provider to see if I could re-register the humanbeing.earth domain and what the hell! It was already there? Already registered. To me! I took that as a sign and started planning out the next steps.

A mission-driven writing project

To kick this new project off right, I first need to clarify my mission statement, the summation of the brooding I have been doing for the past six months about what kind of writer am I? Here it is:

Personal Mission Statement: To use the gift of writing to help extraordinary as well as everyday people tell their stories to educate, motivate, inspire and elevate human consciousness.

That done, I think it's important to clarify the mission for the new project itself. So here's that:

The mission of HumanBeing.Earth: There are more than seven billion human beings alive today. I believe that every one of us has a story to share that can bring great and positive value to the world.

We so often focus our attention and energy on only the top, most public achievers in any area of human pursuit, but some of the most amazing people doing the most inspiring things operate with little or no attention.

The website HumanBeing.Earth is a place to help extraordinary as well as everyday people tell their stories, share their lessons, challenges, struggles, and successes, with the hope that the articles positively elevate human consciousness.

What's left now is to figure out who the first feature will be written about, then let the design and the promotional strategies flow from there.

What do you think? Comment below if you support me on this project. Or if you think I'm off-base somehow.

Filed under: About Writing No Comments
5Dec/180

The Physical and Emotional Challenge of Decluttering

Decluttering your life is not as simple as throwing away things. Not only do you need an efficient process to sort and classify the value of objects in your life, you also need to be prepared to deal with the mental and emotional challenges that will arise.

My wife and I are in the process of decluttering our lives. To start, we've gone room by room at our house, decluttering our closets, bathroom, bedroom, and living room. We've moved on to the kitchen. The only physical space we'll have left after that is the garage (where everything we've removed from the other rooms is piled up waiting to be picked over by our kids or donated to Goodwill).

I already feel lighter. Everything that remains is essential to us, useful, productive, and makes me happy to own. Gone are the random piles of things we didn't really know what to do with. Gone are the numerous decisions about what to wear (I pared my wardrobe down to multiple versions of my favorite jeans, tee shirts, underwear, shoes, with a few long shirts and a jacket). Gone is the head slap from tripping over things we bought but never used (with every possible movie and music album on streaming, why we held on to three copies of Old School on DVD makes no sense to me). And gone is the messy, cluttered evidence of the harder choices we neglected to make (we had 100 frames photos piled in a heap inside a coffee table purely because we were overwhelmed at removing the pictures from the frames and setting them up in proper, long-term photo storage).

We have a ways to go. Our home is not completely decluttered yet. Then we have our company office. Then things like cars and bikes. Then we plan to declutter our finances. And, finally, we'll attack the real reason why we're doing all this - to have the freedom to redefine our daily/working lives so we're living the best possible version of our lives.

So the process is worth the end goal, but is not easy. You don't just throw a bunch of stuff away and live happily ever after. It's a process. It requires work. By taking our time and processing through our home one decision at a time, we've learned that decluttering is both a physical and a mental process. Each part of the process needs to be approached differently. Here's what we learned about how to navigate decluttering your home.

The physical challenge - decluttering requires efficiency

Now that we have the experience of decluttering most of our home, we've refined the physical side of the job into a working system. It breaks down like this:

  1. Target - We first identify a category or area of possession that we want to declutter (Closet, Garage, Laundry room, TV cabinet, etc.). It may be that we're just attacking a single cupboard (the spice cupboard was a hot mess, as what our kitchen junk drawer)
  2. Remove - We then pull everything we own in that category or place out so we can see it all at one time. We brought one of those gray hard-plastic folding tables from Home Depot into the house to use as our sorting table. It makes things very easy and efficient.
  3. Analyze - We try to understand what led us to each of the choices in that pile. Which items bring us joy? What about them works for us? What about them gave us challenges? We get clear in my mind what the ideal thing(s) are in that category. Using the junk drawer as an example, we used it to house our spare keys to everything in one place. That's an essential function. As was keeping a pen and a pair of scissors close by. But the loose change, dead batteries, paperclips, and unregarded mail were all a psychic burden.
  4. Separate - We separate everything into three piles trash, give-away, and keep.
  5. Review - More accurately, it starts out as keep for sure, throw-away for sure, and consider for a minute. Items in the consider pile may shift to the keep or throw-away piles, but ultimately, we end the culling with usually 10% of what we started with in the keep pile.
  6. Return - We place the keep items back into the space in a clean, organized way (we buy storage and organizing containers and hangers only at this stage). The end result being that everything is essential, and everything has a place where it belongs.

The mental challenge - decluttering is about confronting attachment

The psychological burden of the process of decluttering your life is that you have to confront the attachment we have to the things in our lives.

In our sorting process, we have uncovered all kinds of useless objects that contribute to the clutter, but are difficult, at first, to let go of. You unpack a cluttered closet only to find a stack of birthday, anniversary, and Christmas cards. What do you do? These are the words of your loved ones, trapped in amber and preserved as archaeological evidence of their love for you? Do you just toss them in the trash?

This is the dilemma. You don't need these things, but you have strong attachment to them. Letting them go seems live a betrayal, a violation of the relationship between you and whatever you have attached as meaning to them. But, no object has any more meaning than you assign to it. Meaning, in and of itself, is a fabrication of your mind. While decluttering the house, we've learned to handle these confrontations with our attachment in a couple of ways.

First, we hold each item in our hand and ask: Do I need this? Does this bring value to my life? If the answer is yes, it stays. If the answer is no, it goes in the give-away pile. If you are clear and honest with yourself, the thing is an artifact of meaning you've attached to it. Asking yourself if the object holds the value, or what it represents holds the value, can you lead to redefine value. You may come to understand that what you actually valued about a thing is the underlying relationship or experience that you used to give the thing meaning in the first place. That discovery can put you on a path to a more fulfilled life, one with a shift in focus from the accumulation of things as a way to measure growth and happiness, to a life that values experiences and relationships. And when the things are all out of the way, your life becomes more open to new experiences and relationships, leaving you richer after all.

One last things on this. Going back to the cards as an example, there are a couple of final tricks to letting go of objects you have a complicated attachment to, an alternative to the just-throw-them-away approach. One trick is to have a temporary holding place in your garage, a bin where these objects can sit for a predetermined amount of time before they get donated or thrown away. We think we can't let go of that sweater our favorite aunt gave us nine years ago for Christmas, but if it sits unused in the holding bin for three months, you've learned that it is not essential to your happiness after all.

Another trick for handling objects you are struggling to let go of, is to just take a picture of them. Keep an album on your phone (and your cloud-based photo storage backup service) of these things. That way, you're free to let the physical object go, but have it saved permanently, with no clutter, to look at any time you want.

We're still on our journey to declutter our lives, but armed with a system for attacking clutter, and a mental process for dealing with the complex attachment issues related to our owning and collection of stuff, we feel great about the way our lives are evolving. What about you? Are you hemmed in by your physical possessions? Are you ready to let the stuff go? Have you found a system for dealing with a junk pile that works for you? How do you deal with the emotional hiccup that occurs when you hold something you value in your hands but know it needs to go in the throw-away pile? Comment below and let's share notes.

Filed under: Minimalism No Comments
1Dec/180

Decluttering your smartphone

I love technology. I always have. My first cell phone was a Motorolo 8000, the infamous 'brick' phone, large as a masonry block and just as heavy. My first personal computer the IBM AT 8800, replete with a green screen and floppy disks. I am old enough to see the evolution of most of the technology that we take for granted today, and some that used to seem futuristic; smartphones, personal computers, drones, robots, self-driving cars, etc.

Technology has improved our productivity and enhanced out lives. So many formerly analog tasks and media have been replaced by technology. But, along with all that productivity have come distractions. Apps designed to entertain us, to make us more productive, to encourage us to play and consume, gobble up an overwhelming amount of time. We are caught in a loop of self-perpetuating, addictive usage.

Like many of us, my biggest time-sucking technological device is the smartphone. Never more than an arms length away from me (even when sleeping), this powerful, candy-bar sized computer is a constant source of distraction and mindless consumption. I both love it and feel like I could not live life without it. We constantly check to see if there is a new email, text, or instant message for us to respond to. We fiddle with Facebook to get a dose of what-did-I-miss in a group of other people's lives. We scroll for fifteen minutes on Instagram at pretty images promoting other people's vision for their life. Twitter. Oh, God. Since Donald J. Trump became president, I would hover on Twitter in a constant state of anxiety expecting to read at any moment that society had collapsed. I log in to the websites of CNN and NPR and ABC News and NBC News and the New York Times and Fox News, not really sure what I'm hoping to read, but rattled nonetheless. Oh, I also YouTube and stream Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime on my phone. I'm stressed out just writing down the list of all the ways I use the smartphone mindlessly.

These uses of technology make us consumers, products of someone else's business, rather than a self-directed individuals using amazing new technology to empower our own lives. I hate myself for the addictive powerlessness I feel sometimes when I throw my precious life away on this device.

How can we get control our toxic use of technology? Should we get rid of our phones? Switch to a model with a limited display, one that only makes phone calls and maybe, if we're lucky, text messages? That's not really practical, right? Technology is not the problem. Our use of it is the problem. The manipulation of us as users by the manufacturer's and app developers is the problem. So we don't need to remove personal technology from our lives. We just need to minimize it.

Decluttering the smart phone

At its core, the smartphone is a computer that runs applications. Each application serves a specific function. Some are powerful computing tools, like email, which allow me to connect with people on my terms. Some are powerful personal tools; my banking app that allows me to oversee and manage my business and personal finances. Some are powerful information and entertainment tools; my Kindle reader that gives me access to all my reading material. Regaining control over the smartphone and turning it back into a tool for productivity is about curating apps and organizing the way you interact with device.

First, this means setting up the options on the phone to take away the things developers use to encourage overuse, like notifications, sounds, and available times. It then means sorting applications into three categories; keep, throw away, and consider.

The 'keep' applications are those that are essential to your everyday life, that lead to productivity, are valuable, and bring you joy. The calculator function is an example of this. I use it regularly and having access to a calculator on my phone means I don't have to possess a physical calculator. Same with the phone function itself. I wouldn't want to not be able to make and take phone calls. You want your keep applications readily accessible.

The throw-away applications are apps we never use and don't need. These could be apps installed by default with the device, apps we install to get access to a certain service, games we never play, or apps installed to support memberships and rewards points programs we can access another way. Get rid of of any app that you do not use (remember, if you get rid of anything in your life you later find essential, you can always bring it back).

Consider remaining applications carefully. They maybe important to you, but lead you to consumptive behavior. Email, Social-media apps, video apps, etc. The might properly belong in the remove pile, but we each have to make our own decisions on these. For me, getting rid of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as apps was a step (I've even gone so far to delete my Twitter account). Keep the apps you want access to, but use the phone's settings to minimize their intrusion into your daily life in several key ways.

Only keep essentials on the home screen of your smartphone.

Only keep essentials on the home screen of your smartphone.

First, you can remove all notifications. Much of my smartphone use was triggered by the applications reaching out to me. I was getting a digital tap on the shoulder in the form of a ping or a pop-up or an icon on my home screen. My response to the tap was always to pick up my phone. I'd always check. Human Beings are wired to need certainty. Open a question in our minds and we are programmed to need to know the answer. It's a primal, base-level survival response. App developers know this and use it to manipulate us to use their apps. Removing notifications gets you back in control of one way the technology uses us rather than the other way around.

I also set my phone to automatically go into Do-Not-Disturb mode for specific hours every day. At 5pm, until 9am the next morning, only a programmed list of people important to me can reach me by phone or text. This small change put a giant border around my use of technology that gives me control of how the tool is used.

Another trick to get control over smartphone use is to minimize your phone screens. We decide where app icons appear on our phone, and we are able to have multiple screens. Put the essential apps, the ones you want quick access to, that don't lead to overconsumption or abuse your time, on the home screen. Bury other apps behind the home screen to add a layer layer of friction between the impulse to use the app (check email open Instagram) and the actual use of the app. This friction, the need to scroll to a second or third screen or first open a folder to gain access to an app, gives you a moment to challenge the impulse. I want to manage how often I check email, so I buried email in my phone. To get to my email app, I literally have to open my phone, scroll to the right four times, open a folder, scroll to the second page of icons, then click the email icon. That's enough effort that I question whether or not I really want to do this every time.

With my smartphone notifications silenced, do-not-disturb limiting access to me to working hours, and a screen layout that gets me quick access to the apps that I find essential, and adds friction to get to the apps I abuse, I feel like I am at peace with this technology now. How about you? Do you recognize the pervasiveness of this technology in your life? Do you feel out of balance, like you're giving too much time and energy to your smartphone that you want to redirect to more positive uses? How are you decluttering or minimizing your smartphone use?

The step-by-step to a decluttered smartphone:

  1. Scroll through your phone. Look at everything you've installed there. Create a list with three columns; keep, consider, and throw-away.
  2. Keep - list the essential apps. What do you need and use on a daily basis. Calendar? Calculator? Kindle Reader app? Phone, Text? Music, Podcast? These apps will stay, but the device will be setup to make them passive and readily accessible.
  3. Consider - decide which apps you use, but are habit-forming or you overuse mindlessly. For me, that's email and browsing the web. Those apps will stay, but will be silenced and placed behind a layer or two of friction.
  4. Throw-away - remove everything else that you can.
  5. Setup your screens. Home screen for need. Second screen with a folder full of the none-essentials. Maybe one screen per app (to force scrolling to find the one you typically use by habit and add friction).
  6. Setup a Do Not Disturb time.
  7. Establish your favorites (who will be able to penetrate the DND time).
  8. Turn off all notifications. All. Notifications. Except maybe the badges so long as they are not on the home screen. No push notifications.
  9. Charge your phone somewhere other than beside your bed.
  10. Leave your phone in your car when you go to the store or to a movie or to visit someone.