Excellence through Simplicity

I have developed a deep and abiding desire for simplicity. However, this desire does not always interfere with my desire to acquire “stuff” in my pursuit of simplicity. My Motto for the past two years has been "make it simple." I started with "keep it simple" but quickly realized that my life was not yet simple, so how could I say “keep it simple”, when I needed to first "make it simple". Now I realize that once life becomes simple (I have not yet surrendered to the idea that it can never be simple), the task changes into preventing the natural sequence to complexity.

I look back into the past. Into the nineteenth century, and say, “that was a far simpler time.” Therefore, I am puzzled when I read that Henry David Thoreau, a nineteenth century man, struggled with the desire to simplify his life as well. It was because Thoreau struggled with the complexity of life that he “went to the woods”. He did this “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”


Fiore Unschedule

A blank 24 hour, 7 day template on a single classic page. Used as an anti-procrastination tool in Dr. Niel Fiore's The Now Habit.

Created using the Widget Kit in NeoOffice Draw (the Mac OpenOffice port) on my Macbook.

Note: My day rarely begins before 4am, but will occasionally end there, so I set this template up to reflect that. You can play with the Ooo files to get a more conventional midnight to midnight (or whatever you want) span.

All rights to those who hold them. I was just monkeying around. :)

(This was my first time using the Widget Kit, open source software, or a drawing program, so please bear with me. I'm still not sure about the quality of the PDFs.)

Usage advice: 

See Fiore's The Now Habit for detailed usage. Highly recommended. I've also been to DIY Planner member flexiblefine's yahoo group on the topic, and recommend that as well.

The basics: 1) block out all hard landscape commitments, 2) schedule and block out "guilt-free play" and exercise (stick to it!), 3) track projects or activities you're procrastinating on by a) not scheduling work on that project to the hard landscape, b) "limiting" yourself to "no more" than 20 hours a week on that project, and c) tracking work done on the project in the open spaces of your Unschedule, recording only when you've done a minimum of 30 minutes uninterrupted work. Use the boxes at the bottom of the page to tally the total number of hours you've recorded for the project(s) you're focusing on.

Paper size: 
Classic (5.5 x 8.5)
Creative Commons
Applications required: 
PDF reader for .pdf, OpenOffice/NeoOffice for .odg

Faced with endless work...

...Our protagonist bravely defies the odds, and procrastinates.

I've always found it odd how, when spare time blows past like dried leaves out of reach, and deadlines loom on the horizon like a coming storm, I somehow try to glean mere minutes of productivity by spending copious hours in an endless search for doing things more efficiently.

When I was in my late teens, my mother used to lament about the state of my bedroom. True, I had about three rooms packed tightly into the one, and true, I had everything from Vonnegut novels to functional medieval weapons to New Wave cassette collections teetering at every angle, ready to deliver a lethal blow (or was it a smite?) if one did not carefully walk amidst the detritus of 80's adolescent angst. But there was one thing that made her life more bearable: twice a year, the room would be sparkling clean. Specifically, during those weeks with major exams.

Life-Lessons from Monsieur LeGrand

French cookingMentors can come in the most unlikely forms.

I used to believe I could cook. From the age of four, when I was finally able to look over the top of the stove and made the firm decision to teach myself how to make lasagna, I've spent countless hours in kitchens, learning how to make meals of almost every ethnic variety. My culinary activities had been a source of creative output, artistic expression, and --well-- just plain sustenance. But then I met someone who would turn my assumptions upside-down and give them a firm shake. "You don't know how to cook," he stated flatly. It turned out he was right.

At first, I didn't know what to think of this scrawny French civil servant. A mere wisp of a greying middle-aged man, his surname of "LeGrand" seemed rather ironic, and I couldn't understand why this soft-spoken pencil-pusher in my adult English immersion class could consider himself a chef, beyond the stereotypical French habit of snobbishly overestimating one's own culinary skills. Still, I egged him on a bit (it was my job to make them all speak English, after all), and found out from another class member that he was indeed a master-class Parisian chef. He regularly travelled north to Paris to win competitions, and refused to work in a restaurant because he felt it would sully his art. (I know artists who would never work as illustrators for the same reason.)

We struck a deal: during weekends, and some weeknights, I would teach him English, and he would teach me French cooking. I was not prepared for what this demanded.

Stature, the Great Inequaliser?

Some six or seven years ago, while attending an Internet World conference, I experienced an odd lesson, one that --while seemingly innocuous at first-- is now at the core of how I deal with people.

It was at a small pub around the corner from the conference centre where I went to find some orange juice and some air-conditioning. The room was packed, and I was called over to a table by a VP of Marketing for a large tech company, whom I had met the night before. There were four of us seated: the VP, a very tall man like myself, and with a friendly smile and cheerful disposition; a shortish human resources director, whose sharp wit and sarcastic attitude made his presence both enjoyable and insufferable; and a Catholic priest, a webmaster for a number of progressive parishes down south, and whose eyes fixed upon you for just long enough to instill the fear he might be reading your mind.

After fifteen minutes, we still hadn't managed to flag down the single disheveled waitress, who buzzed among the tables, tripped among the out-strewn legs, and clacked beer glasses together among her fingers, four at a time, for rushing back to the crowded bar.

We Can Be Heroes, Just for One Day

Errol Flynn as Robin HoodThere's a section of my planner that I reserve for idea generation. There's the usual fodder --mindmaps, random word lists, flow charts, and so forth-- but lately there seems to be one sheet I turn to more than others: I call it my "Heroes List."

The premise is a simple one. First, get a sheet of regular note paper and create a list of those people who interest you in a positive way, whether real or fictional. Now, I don't mean just those people who are flawless supermen or superwomen, but those people who are known for their creativity, their problem solving skills, or even for the force of their personalities. And the list can include villains as well, if they have redeeming qualities.

On Multi-Tasking and Self-Improvement

I woke up early this morning to find the ground covered with snow, and little hint of the oncoming dawn. A quick shower, a bagel, and a short dog walk later, and I was hurrying out the door and on my way to work. The -10C wind whippoorwilled the dry flakes against my checks. I bundled my scarf tighter around my neck and pulled my aging fedora down a trifle lower, hunching my shoulders together in an effort to keep warm. I paused near the bus stop, fingered the bus pass in my pocket, and then walked onwards down the main strip. It's a day for self-improvement.

My life lately has been little except waking up, working a long day, taking care of my sons, doing a little bit of work around the house (we're still in the process of setting up after the big move), and then collapsing into bed for a few hours' sleep before waking up again. Rinse and repeat. There seemed to be little time for relaxation, yet alone for something as potentially time-consuming as personal or professional development. A glance at my bookshelves reveals some 30 or 40 books I want to read in the near future, and my someday/maybe lists have been displaced by next action lists so long that I've had to break them apart by priority as well as context. There just isn't enough hours in the day to do anything besides those tasks related to basic obligations. Or is there?

In the Flow...

life balance
I always find the human spirit's power of regeneration quite amazing. However I barely have time to examine the content of my briefcase, let alone analysis my journal. 'GTD', on the other hand, is great for turning normal human beings into highly effective productivity machines – or in my case a listing machine. ;) - and yet I find it lacking in depth. I find myself consistently seeking a roadmap to organisational happiness. Therefore the purpose of this article is to find a harmonious balance between productivity and humanist values, via paper and pen.

Note: this article will assume one already has a productivity methodology in place. If not please refer to the further read section below for suggestions.

The Edge of the Unknown

Several years ago, I encountered a middle-aged French poet who was a regular speaker on France's cultural talk-show circuit. Now, it so happened that she was delivering some poetry lectures near the school where I taught, and was a friend of a friend, so we eventually made contact over some expresso and dark chocolate in a crowded café to chat about writing.

In the course of our discussion, I learned that she --like myself-- had suffered from migraines. However, she was proud to note that she no longer had them. Always curious as to how others avoid them (they are often caused by certain types of foods, or environmental conditions), I asked her how she overcame that curse. Her response was clear and straight-faced: "I was cured by a psychic." She then got up, walked behind me, firmly gripped my head, and started moaning aloud.

You see, despite the fact that her poetry was quite well-received by the literati, it was her new calling as a psychic that lured her out of bed at noon and dominated her dinner conversations among the black turtleneck crowd. At that moment, with dozens of coffee-sipping Francophones staring curiously at us, she decided to psychically "extract" my pain. Hence the moaning. Apparently, it hurt.