Simplify your…. paper mountain

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Last weekend, there were several ‘door droppers’ in our area, each with a fistful of leaflets or pamphlets for distribution.

To our bemusement, one of these included a Labour party flyer, which was 2 days late for local elections that had already taken place the previous Thursday. Whoops!

In one of the ‘drops’, I received a ‘Look Local’ magazine (advertorial and advertisements for local services), a leaflet from a local tree surgeon (who must be making lots of money to afford to do such a lot of direct marketing) and a flyer from Domino’s Pizza…

Junk mail

Some people avoid junk mail coming through the letterbox by placing a notice on their property. I haven’t done that, but I immediately place all incoming paper in the recycling bin.

However, how do you stop more junk mail coming through the post?

The Mailing preference service (MPS) is a good place to start. Did you know that if you’re still receiving unsolicited mail for a previous occupant of your home, you can also register his/her name with the MPS? Although the MPS website looks outdated (with a 2015 date on its site), I checked in with them and they are still operating.

Royal Mail’s opt-out scheme also stops all unaddressed mail being delivered by the postman.

So far, so good.

Genuine correspondence

What about incoming paper that you have to keep or want to retain? Well, you can recycle the envelopes as soon as they arrive (no need to remove the cellophane window).

Then, for me, I have a single place where incoming mail is collected. At the moment, this is a small drawer in my study, but I have used a wicker basket (currently full to the brim with our daughter’s revision papers!). The temptation is to leave things sitting on the island in our kitchen, but I do my best to whisk things away, leaving that surface clear.

For bank statements, bills and other correspondence that I may decide to keep for a number of months, I do have a filing system. It’s a series of A-Z box files that span the top shelf of a single wardrobe. I keep on top of its contents using my 3 S’s of paperwork.

Greetings cards

Recycle or make gift tags out of them. Create new cards by re-using a cut-out portion of an original card.

Newspapers and Magazines

I don’t know anyone who still buys a daily newspaper; so much of our news is consumed in ways other than print media.

For magazines, online services such as Texture offer a one-stop shop, with the opportunity to share the subscription across as many as 5 devices, plus a number of features (including a search function) that you simply don’t get by having a physical magazine. Newspapers, of course, offer similar subscription schemes.

Notwithstanding the amount of advertising contained in magazines, when it comes to it, if you want some lightweight reading matter, there’s nothing quite like having an actual magazine to browse through. After all, you can’t take the iPad in the bath with you (well, you could, but understand the risks!)

Years ago, I used to have a subscription to Real Simple, a magazine that wasn’t available in the UK. I had picked up a copy at an airport whilst flying from the US back to the UK and really enjoyed it. The UK equivalent is The Simple Things magazine. Now, I don’t buy any publication regularly but it is a treat to receive a magazine as a very occasional gift.

The sharing economy in action

My late grandmother regularly received magazines from her next door neighbour. The latest issue would be left on the wall adjoining their gardens, kept secure under a small brick to keep it from blowing about.

At Warwick Parkway station, I noticed recently another lovely way of sharing reading material. A book share box at the ticket office exists where you can leave a book you’ve read and pick up another – for free. At work, we have a basket in the kitchen for the same purpose.

What else comes through your door?

Pieces of paper, envelopes, flyers, letters, leaflets, booklets and other forms of paper aren’t the only things that come through our door.

Bags

Consider the bags that are posted through your door for charity collections (these typically come in plastic packets – arrgghh!). Where we live, they come from local charities such as the Air Ambulance Service. I say use them! Go to your ‘goods out’ drawer, fill the bag and remember to put it outside on collection day. Note to self!

Carrier bags from online supermarket shopping deliveries can be returned (and you might get money back for them). We do hand back these carrier bags when we have excess, but we also use them to line the small kitchen bin whose contents go to landfill.

Gift bags, luxury paper shopping bags or simple brown paper bags should always be re-used. I keep mine folded flat in a large gift-bag whose sturdy structure is great for keeping all the smaller bags in good order. That’s a trick I learned from Marie Kondo: the best way to store a bag is inside another!

Too many ‘bags for life’? Again, use them or pass them on.

If you ever order clothes online, these will inevitably come in a lightweight plastic bag. These are more difficult to re-use but I have done so whenever I’ve gone through a phase of eBay-ing unwanted items. Do you have any useful ways to re-use such bags?

And simply don’t buy food bags such as sandwich or freezer bags.

Maintain the habit

By implementing some of these ideas, you’ll certainly help keep the clutter – and the associated stress – down. Maintaining the habit of putting things away certainly helps when you need to retrieve something in the future and setting aside time to do your ‘family admin’ supports this goal.

How do you keep on top of your paper mountain and keep the clutter at bay? Reply to this post, below, or join our lovely Community!

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Simplify your…. inbox

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‘Technostress’ is not a new term, but I only came across it recently when used by a colleague who is doing a study on it for her master’s thesis.

It’s easy to infer the meaning of the term but not so easy to know how to respond when, we are required – especially in our work – to interact constantly with new technologies. It’s likely that all of us experience technostress at some point in our working lives; I’d suggest that email has a role to play in this.

Email as tool not torment

Email can be a mixed blessing. Since 1 November 2016, I have received over 2500 work-related emails and managed many more in my personal account.

When I wrote about Minimalism and the workplace, I offered the following tip on managing email:

If you’re using MS Outlook, on managing email, sort by ‘subject’ so that all threads relating to a particular email clump together. You can quickly see the ‘reply all’ threads and just keep the ones that matter.

This is a great way to deal with the bulk of incoming mail. You’re then left with the things that are truly ‘work’ as opposed to things that might just be ‘noise’.

By doing this, you’re filtering to what’s essential, which makes things simpler to start with. Email then becomes a useful and efficient communication tool rather than a stressor.

To sort or not to sort? That is the question

Once I’m down to the essentials, I organise incoming emails using the ‘Categories’ feature in Outlook . It’s much easier to pick out messages of a particular type if you have colour-coded them.

Categories

I am also a committed user of folders. In Outlook, I find it’s a lot easier to retrieve a message if I’m able to narrow down what I’m looking for by topic. Gmail, which I also use, seems able to retrieve anything you search for; I find Outlook less helpful in this regard.

Both categorising and using folders take time, but I find both of these really useful.

One could argue that it’s simpler just to leave emails unsorted but if your email volumes are anything like mine, you need a system that is consistent, memorable and straightforward. That’s where we go back to the meaning of the word ‘simplification’ from my last post: the process of making something simpler or easier to do or understand. I’d argue that the approaches described above do make the management of one’s inbox much easier.

Inbox zero?

I don’t aim for ‘inbox zero’ but, most days, I leave my work with (on average) around 20-30 emails remaining in my inbox. These are my ‘work in progress’.

I review incoming email first thing in the morning, then return to it as the ‘sand’ in my day, only when the ‘rocks’ (the important things) have been dealt with.

The typing pool

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If your work setting is office-based, you may sometimes wonder if you’ve gone back in time and joined a typing pool, as everyone spends significant amounts of time intensely working away at the keyboard.

Vary this routine by picking up the phone to communicate with someone else or go and have a face-to-face conversation. It’s good for you. You can have a stretch, move your body and engage with people in a way that you can’t when you are typing at your desk.

Remember, just because you can (email) doesn’t mean you have to. In her book, Thrive, Arianna Huffington describes organisations that instigate ‘no email’ days. Could you suggest this?

Annual leave as borrowed time

I have often thought of annual leave as ‘borrowed time’ because you have to work twice as fast when you return to catch up because the emails keep on coming whilst you’re away.

What about the idea of writing the following message in your automatic reply when you are on vacation? Dare you? How would that be received within your organisation or by those with whom you work?

Thank you for your message. I will be on annual leave from X to Y dates and will have no access to email during this time. If your email remains important to you after Y date, please do resend it.

A word on apps

Apps designed to support productivity can help move work out of your inbox and into a project management tool.

There are lots of apps from which to choose and more being developed all the time. According to Statista, there were 2.8 million apps available via Google Play in March 2017 and a further 2.2 million in the Apple app store. So, how do we discern what’s useful?

I have about a dozen apps that I use regularly but I am judicious in my choices (and have previously written my essentialist approach to the social media apps I use).

A small number of websites with related apps really do help me manage work tasks and maintain my sanity. This means I can file related emails away, as I can manage tasks through the tools I use.

Some are more sophisticated than others, but I’ve settled on Producteev as my tool of choice. Although aimed at teams, it’s also ideal for individuals. I can list any number of tasks (each with sub-tasks) and am able to categorise these and set date reminders. Once scheduled, the technology does the work of remembering so I don’t have to. I also love Evernote and use Dropbox for long-term document storage.

Carve out time

If you use email in your workplace, it’s a fallacy to suggest that it isn’t ‘real work’ and that, somehow, your actual work lies outside your inbox. However, if you have sufficient autonomy over how you manage your day, carve out space for ‘time out’ to provide a counter-balance to email if you can. When you do return to it, you’ll be more likely to resume your work with a little more energy.

So, how do you manage your inbox? Have you developed any top tips that you’d like to share? Please do comment below!

Next time

In the next post, we’ll move away from discussing virtual paper to talking about real paper, as we look at simplifying our approach to the management of ‘goods in‘ of the paper variety.

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Simplify your….?

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Now that the beautiful month of May is upon us (May the Fourth be with you!), I’m going to start a short series on simplification.

Since minimalism and simple living go hand-in-hand, I’ll explore some aspects of our day-to-day life that could all benefit from a bit of simplification.

simplification
ˌsɪmplɪfɪˈkeɪʃ(ə)n/
noun
the process of making something simpler or easier to do or understand
What do you wish was simpler in your day-to-day life? Is there something that you wish was easier to do, simpler to understand or more straightforward?

TechnoStress

This compound word is new to me, but I’ll bet you don’t need me to explain it!
Let’s explore strategies for simplifying in the area of technology. How can we make tools such as email work for us, not the other way around?

The battle at the front door

Writer and friend, Rae Ritchie, suggested we consider ways to deal with all that stuff that still comes into the house: magazines, paper, post and random carrier bags. It’s what Rae calls ‘the battle at the front door’. We’ll dive into the seemingly never-ending war on ‘goods-in’ clutter.

Household chores

Whether or not you work outside the home, you’ll recognise the benefits of having straightforward systems in place for laundry, meal-planning or cleaning.

We’ll take a look at ways to minimise the impact of – and time devoted to – these necessary tasks.

What do you wish could be achieved more simply? Do comment below or get in touch!

Let’s simplify!

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Tiny House living UK-style

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If you’ve been interested in minimalism and simple living for a while, no doubt you’ll have come across the phenomenon of tiny house living where homes are typically less than 400 square feet or 37 m2.

The tiny house movement is most popular in the United States, but is gaining traction in other countries (including the UK) as these affordable homes offer an alternative to traditional bricks and mortar.

Tammy Strobel’s blog (as well as her book, You Can Buy Happiness and it’s Cheap), gives an insight into what life in a tiny home is really like. Likewise, Instagrammers such as tinyhouseblog give us an insight into the innovative and beautiful designs available.

We’ve been living in little houses for years

Here in the UK, we’ve been living in small homes for centuries. Throughout history, our particular type of micro-homes have come in many different forms.

Consider the humble cottage with its low ceilings and compact rooms or the terraced house that saw an increase in the industrial revolution to provide much-needed housing for workers. Mind you, let’s not get romantic about this. Overcrowding and poor living standards meant that many such dwellings were demolished in the post war period, giving way to high-rise tower blocks. These offered a different type of small home in the form of apartments or flats.

Near to us, there are some quirky examples of tiny house living within an hour’s drive. The rock houses at Kinver Edge offered residents a very unusual form of tiny house living. Built into the sandstone, these ‘cave houses’ were inhabited until the 1960’s but are now maintained by the National Trust.

Likewise, Birmingham’s back-to-back houses were truly small, sometimes with only one room upstairs and one downstairs. Each dwelling shared 3 of its 4 walls with another building, so would have no ‘back yard’. Imagine hanging your washing on a line that crossed the street!

These days, many of us still choose to live in a variety of tiny homes including park homes (static caravans), apartments (flats), cottages and terraced houses.

Friendly canal folk

A recent email exchange between me and community member, Susan, prompted me to reflect on another type of ‘tiny houses’: living on a narrowboat.

Susan explained that you have to maintain a minimalist approach when your home afloat is only 45′ (just under 14 m) long.

She and her husband do this in two key ways: they use the ‘one in, one out’ rule and have a twice-yearly purge of their cupboards to remove anything they no longer need.

These two rules could be a useful guide for any of us, no matter the size of our home.

Lilly’s story

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Lilly

I first learned about living afloat when we re-homed our first dog, Lilly. Lilly’s owners had moved to a bespoke-built narrowboat on the River Severn. Oak-lined, light and airy, this dwelling was really beautiful!

Lovely Lilly, a gorgeous golden-retriever, suffered from epilepsy and didn’t enjoy life on board. So, she came to live with us until her poor health took her to Rainbow Bridge.

Affordable housing

Last autumn, an article in the Financial Times stated that 26% of today’s 33,000 boats throughout England and Wales’ waterways are used as primary residences.

In the capital, over 10,000 people now live on boats. The 100 miles of canals that run throughout London (including some highly desirable locations) are lined with vessels, from narrow boats to converted lifeboats. When a second-hand narrow boat costs the equivalent in pounds to a tiny house in the US, you can see their attraction.

Stairway to Heaven

Our walk this morning took us to Hatton Locks, a series of 21 locks known locally as the Stairway to Heaven. As well as observing the morning traffic going up and down the series of locks, we also spotted some tiny dwellings alongside the canal. I suspect these are summer houses, but I’d like to think you could actually live there.

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Tiny house at Hatton Locks

Do you aspire to live in a tiny house? Perhaps you already do? Have you ever lived on a boat or are considering the idea yourself? I’d love to know!

My perfect tiny house

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Tiny beach hut at Lyme Regis, Dorset

My perfect tiny house would probably be a beach hut. During my childhood summers, my family would hire a chalet with a sea-view frontage and a rear veranda where you could sit to catch the evening sun, overlooking the resort’s bowling green and garden cafe. It wasn’t permissible to sleep in the chalet but it was our home-from-home during the day and I have many happy memories of our time there.

Whatever you’re doing this Bank Holiday weekend, I hope you have a good one (especially if it’s on the water, in the water or overlooking the water). Life doesn’t get much better than that.

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Lost and found

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I thought I was losing it yesterday when I couldn’t find my keys (my entire set, for house and car, which are kept all on one key fob).

Has anyone seen my keys?

It was the first day back after the Easter holidays, so we were keen to be on time for school and work. Just prior to our normal departure time of 07:20, I looked in the zip compartment of my large tote bag and my keys weren’t there.

I remembered that I’d used a different bag over the weekend. Maybe they were in there?

Nope!

Pockets?

Nope!

Anywhere else? NOPE!!

My husband, Andrew, dug out the spare set of car keys, so we left the house not knowing if my own set was in there or not.

Hunt the keys

On returning home, the family game of Hunt the Keys began. We looked in all the obvious places, then began to look in the less-obvious ones.

Andrew asked me to think. Think about what I was doing the last time I remember having them. My mind was a blur. Remember that post about being present? I couldn’t even recall if I’d used the keys the previous day.

Think!!!

Are they in the bin?

As it happens, Monday is refuse collection day in our corner of Kenilworth. It was ‘grey bin day’ (the fortnightly collection for rubbish that goes to landfill). So, Andrew had pulled the bin back into the garden before its contents could be irrevocably lost.

After turning the entire house upside down, with reluctance, I donned my yellow rubber gloves and started going through two weeks of rubbish. This is a horrid job and I won’t go into details but it caused me to notice the bulky items in the bin that could not be recycled.

New-found insights

What do we really chuck into landfill?

As I searched through our household waste for the missing keys, I began to notice more closely what we threw away (rather than recycled).

In addition to cellophane wrapping (about which I wrote here), the three most noticeable categories of rubbish were:

  • Tetra Pak cartons (from juice, almond milk etc.), which we cannot recycle in our fortnightly collection
  • Polystyrene containers (fruit packaging)
  • Disposable feminine hygiene products and cotton wool pads (from the two ladies in the house: me and Amy)

Seeing two weeks worth of trash in a single location made me really take stock.

If we, a little family of three plus Cockapoo produce this much in just two weeks, imagine the vast quantities across our town, throughout the county and across the entire nation!

Yeah, we need a change, yeah…. Do it today*

I have to make some changes.

We are already recycling a greater volume of items than we throw away each fortnight but I know I can still do more.

Decision time

I’m going to redouble my efforts to make my own nut milk. It’s more expensive than the Tetra Pak option, but I’d like to see our personal contribution to land fill go down.

I will consider if juice in a recyclable carton is better than Tetra Paks. I’d welcome any views on this. Do you juice your own or avoid juice altogether?

I’m going to redouble my efforts to buy more fruit and veg loose.

Finally, I’ve ordered a Mooncup and will revert to my muslin cloths for cleansing my face, rather than using wasteful cotton wool.

What about those keys?

After all that searching, I went and sat next to Andrew who was working away in the study. And then it hit me. I knew exactly where my keys were.

I had placed them carefully in the glovebox of our family car the previous morning when we went for a dog walk. We had discussed it at the time and we both knew I’d done it. However, we had both completely erased the fact from our short term memory.

I didn’t even need to rush outside and retrieve the keys. I knew they were there.

Lessons learned

At least the experience had taught me some valuable lessons and might just nudge me further towards some more eco-friendly purchases.

In the meantime, maybe I need to buy just one small thing.

Does anyone know where I can get one of those ‘find my iPhone’ devices for car keys?

*Lyrics from Heather Small – Proud

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On being present

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Since listening to Brooke McAlary’s interview with Justin Coulson on The Slow Home podcast a few weeks ago, I have been thinking a great deal about what it means to be present. That is, really paying attention in the present moment, being fully available to listen and to take in what’s happening right now.

What does it really mean to live ‘in the moment’ or ‘be present’? And what difference could it make to our lives?

The modern world

I work on a vibrant University campus whose surroundings include stunning sculptures, trees currently laden with blossom, borders packed with colourful spring flowers and walkways overlaid with wisteria that I can observe right outside my window.

Yet, when I head across campus for my journey home, what do I see? You guessed it. I see people with their heads down, scrolling on their smartphones (often while walking) . So, while they may be physically present, these folks are mentally somewhere else. I’m sure this will chime with you, too, wherever you live and work.

At home

Parents of pre-teens and teens will recognise the lure of tablet, smart phone or any other digital device. Even tots who aren’t yet speaking will reach over if they spot an iPhone in your back pocket.

The issue here? Apps, games and social media (in particular) become the thief of conversation. We’ve all done it. It’s so easy to be together physically but not to be present with one another.

When alone

Even though I gave up my smart phone almost a year ago, the radio (and, increasingly, podcasts) do form the backdrop to my life at home. For others, music or TV may be ever-present in the background. It’s so easy – and automatic – to get home, put the radio on and go about your business. But what if we switched off, just for a while? What difference would it make?

Some time ago, I wrote about the benefits of switching off and I do believe this is true. Without some quiet time, we fail to give ourselves thinking time or a chance to reflect or let our butterfly brain do a bit of problem-solving.

With others

We owe it to our kids (and ourselves) to switch off/put down/power off when we have the chance to be together. Our children needs to know that we are truly interested in them (no matter how old they are). Our whole-hearted attention gives them a sense of security and helps in their development, as we encourage them to articulate their thoughts and feelings. If they can’t express themselves to us, then who else can they turn to?

With our ‘significant other’, it’s our job to ask questions, to take the time to listen, to really look them in the eye and let them know we’re 110% present. It’s easy to be busy all the time (and I’m the one always folding the washing, whilst drinking tea, whilst catching up…).

Even, I am reminded by my lovely husband, we need to give a bit of attention to the dog! We will both benefit, if we do.

At work (and I wrote here about minimalism and the workplace), it’s easy to be distracted with the ping of the next email, a tap at the door, the phone ringing or myriad conflicting priorities. So, I’m working on staying focussed, remembering to ask, “What’s essential right now?” so that I can make what Greg McKeown* calls the “highest possible contribution”.

What difference does it make?

Mo Gawdat, discussing his book, Solve for Happy, reminds us that we only have the present. Right now. This moment. So, it’s our job to kick regrets from the past (or worry about the future) into the long grass. We only have the present, so we might as well take notice.

So, join me. Let’s be present.

Being present is a the best gift we can give to ourselves and to others. I’m working on this right here and now.

From *Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

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Razzle dazzle in London town

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After a day of decluttering on Good Friday for my mother-in-law, my daughter and I had a treat in store for Easter Saturday: We had tickets for the West End production of 42nd Street, which opened at The Theatre Royal last month.

If you love musical theatre, then I urge you to go if you can. The show is a glorious spectacle; it’s beautifully staged with an innovative set, beautiful costumes and the most talented set of performers I’ve ever seen.

London has changed

If you have visited London recently, you may have noticed a phenomenon that didn’t exist last time I was there. It felt like practically every other store was selling make-up, skin-care or perfume. In Covent Garden alone, within a few steps, you stumble across brands including MAC, Nars, Urban Decay, Clinique, Chanel, Bobbi Brown, The Body Shop and (good old) Boots. And these are just the ones I can recall off the top of my head.

What is going on?

I know that make-up is big business these days, but these brands seem to be taking over the world. By coincidence, I am reading Arianna Huffington’s book, On Becoming Fearless in Love, Work and Life. One of the first issues Huffington addresses is how we feel about how we look.

Comparisonitis

Just as Juliet Schor* talks about keeping up with the Joneses, so Huffington warns about the ‘treadmill of comparisons’ and the reality that our fears of inadequacy derive from the ‘multibillion-dollar cosmetics and fashion industries whose profits are directly tied to our levels of security’.

Huffington suggests that if we are going to compare ourselves to others, we might consider comparisons with those let fortunate than ourselves. In so doing, she suggests, we might ‘tap into reserves of empathy and gratitude instead of endless self-judgements.’

That’s all very well, but it’s not a message a 15-year-old girl is going to take on board easily. Intellectually, she’ll understand it. In reality, she will still spend time on our train journey down to London doing her make-up.

The melting-pot metropolis

What is good about going to London is that it’s a real melting pot. Here, we see every style, colour, nationality, size, shape and culture. In our capital city (to coin a phrase from another classic musical), anything goes. That’s a wonderful eye-opener for the teenager from provincial England. In a place like that, you can truly be your authentic self.

Back in woody Warwickshire, I observe a great deal of conformity in how our teens dress and how they look. For girls, long straight hair is the norm. Skinny, ripped jeans and trainers form the basis of the casual uniform. Drawn-on brows and contouring is de rigeur.

As a mother, I hope that I’ll be able to instill in my daughter the message that Huffington sets out in this early chapter:

‘..the sooner we realise that our happiness and the meaning of our life are not by-products of how we look, the sooner we can move to fearlessness.’

I do hope that the talented and beautiful chorus girls of the 42nd Street chorus might also know this, too.

*From The Overspent American: Why We Buy What We Don’t Need.

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