Category Archives: Everyday experiments

Minimalist March: Almost epic fail

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You might have guessed from the fact that I’m reporting in May on my March “everyday challenge” that something went a bit wrong. Here is what happened:

The plan:

I keep accumulating stuff, but I hate tidying and house cleaning. So when I came across the Becoming Minimalist website earlier this year, what it said made a lot of sense. I’d also been listening with envy as some friends embarked on “100 things” challenges (giving or selling their belongings until they only had 100), and kept thinking how much nicer life would be if only I didn’t have so much clutter.

I had somewhat of an epiphany, the same kind Liz Gilbert has in her bathroom when she prays for an answer to her life dilemmas and a calm voice in her head tells her to “Go back to bed”. Well, the voice in my head said “Tidy your room”.

So I started doing just that around February, giving a few unused things away (how good that felt!) and when March came I though I’d keep the momentum going with a three-pronged approach:

  1. Give stuff away: Unworn clothes, unloved gifts, uncomfortable shoes, uninspiring books, and all sorts that fill 75% of my cupboards
  2. Use what I’ve already bought: apart from the bedroom there’s also clutter in the kitchen (8 jams, 4 soy sauces, uncounted near-empty pasta bags); in the bathroom (cosmetics abandoned after I bought shinier ones); on every shelf where books gather dust while I buy more
  3. Buy only what I need: Only buy stuff that I haven’t already got (see above), and that I either really need, or will makes me really, really happy

What actually happened:

Folks, I’m sorry to say but life took over (at least some kind of life). I had a humongous project at work which meant head-down on the computer all day and many evenings, thus guaranteeing more untidy mess, unsorted cupboards and dust gathering on my belongings.

But the actual worst was the constant buying of take-away cappuccinos, crisps, biscuits and whatever junk snacks would see me through the day : the ultimate unnecessary purchase, which not only empties your wallet and but actually makes you feel sick.

Of course I didn’t get round to donating anything, not even sorting piles of stuff to donate.

On the upside, I didn’t have time to buy anything much other than comfort foods, and the odd Kindle book (which is also cheating, but at least they don’t take much space).

What I’ve learnt:

I DID realise exactly how much stuff I own that I don’t need: that I bought for the wrong reasons, or was given and kept for the wrong reasons; including items no-one remembers buying but just somehow got itself into the house.

As I considered what to part with and what to keep “later when I have time”, I became increasingly uncomfortable with not only how much space, but ultimately time, money, and worry all these redundant things accumulated to.

It also became increasingly clear while accumulating stuff doesn’t make me happy, some things in particular do. Some of my belongings actually make me smile or feel comforted and using them feel indulgent and luxurious every single time – a stylish handbag, a pretty cup, a lovely hand-cream. T

So while I will be happy to have fewer things, I will also be more mindful in the future of buying only the sort of things that tickle me with happiness every time I look at them.

I was also interested to notice that the reasons I keep clutter in my house reflect, in some sort of annoying metaphor, those that account for the “emotional clutter” in my life:

  • Analysis Paralysis (do I keep this? do I not?)
  • Imaginary obligations (towards keeping gifts, or expensive purchases)
  • Fear (of letting go, of not having enough)
  • Procrastination (I’ll take that pile to the charity shop… tomorrow)

So, in fact, getting rid of house clutter may open a whole new life for me. In fact maybe a failed monthly challenge will be a first step towards my new “less is more” life…

Top tip for those who might give it a go:

De-cluttering is ultimately about honesty with yourself and learning to distinguish what you really need from what you’re holding on to for the wrong reasons.

As you clear the physical mess in your house you get to reflect on your choices and values, what you want to leave behind, and what more of in the future.

A chance to go off auto-pilot, and take responsibility for own your choices.

Cheering on the success of others

P1060554 low resTwo weeks ago I went to the London Marathon.

When I say “went” – it runs past the end of our street and I’d forgotten about it like every year, until I was reminded by helicopters hovering over the house while I was having breakfast. So I finished my muesli in haste and went out with bed-hair and no make-up to see what was going on.

Outside was a glorious sunny Sunday, and streams of visitors in team t-shirts poured down from the train station onto Deptford High Street, all fresh and chirpy, ready to cheer on their friends and family with all sorts of banners and balloons. I felt seriously under-dressed.

Walking along the road with the merry crowd, excitement was building up in the air, the type of joyous anticipation you find in stadiums and concerts, or at carnivals or fireworks.

As I joined a group of onlookers to watch hundreds marathonians run past at what seemed to me the speed of light (and I’m not even talking about the pros, who were probably half-way to Central London by the time I left the house) I had a nice surprise.

Among the mixed crowd of sports enthusiasts, families, and locals like me who just stood staring, slightly incredulous, I spotted a group of older children leaning on the barriers waving arms, clapping and shouting encouragement: “C’mon guys! … you can do it!”…you’re doing great!!”. Many adults were also having a fantastic time, some watching in wonder with a big grin; others shouting and whistling almost as loud as the kids.

The beauty of it was that none of those people were cheering on anyone they knew – God knows if they even got to see the people they painted banners for, since over 30,000 people were running. Rather they were encouraging the entire sweaty colourful lycra flow and rejoicing for every single person in the race, from the pros that came first, to the fit amateurs that came later, down to the breathless and out-of-shape that came last.

A cynic would say that it’s a bit pathetic to run a marathon if you aren’t fit and seem in danger of collapsing less than 3 miles into it. But of course anyone who has run a marathon, or accomplished any sort of noteworthy achievement, will remember that they all started from zero, sometimes looking a bit pathetic themselves.

So what the non-cynics were cheering on wasn’t the performance as much as the effort, the collective endeavour – with respect and admiration for the great, and perhaps respect and compassion for the not-so-great (who in truth deserve our admiration too, for having the sheer balls of running in the first place; I wouldn’t!).

I felt overwhelmed by a warm fuzzy feeling, and comforted by the happy fact that given half a chance, we humans will wholeheartedly rejoice for the success of others… even though we often feel compelled to jealousy or sneering, or putting them down if it makes us look better.

So as I looked at the cheering kids thinking that they will be the colleagues, bosses, partners, parents and citizens of tomorrow, I hoped they’ll remember how good it feels to cheer on the success of others.

Not least because by putting our petty grievances to the side and encouraging the success of those around us, we are really cheering on ourselves – both as individuals and a species. By encouraging our fellow human beings to be all that they can be, we push the limits of what is possible for us to do (to infinity, and beyond!). We also give ourselves a chance to become a positive and supportive person.

And since positive supportive people are everyone’s favourite people, we’re all the more likely to get all the encouragement back.

See, how we’re all linked to each other- you, me, and everybody else?

I eventually left the crowd and went to buy a coffee with a spring in my step, all warmed up by the April sun and the knowledge that what goes around comes around.

And it’s all for the best.  

My Dad and the pear tree

Libourne 041_2005 cropLet me tell you a cute story:

When my parents bought what became our family home over 30 years ago, my Dad planted a pear tree in front of the house. Neither he nor my Mum being great gardeners, many plants have withered in their care since – but not the pear tree, which still grows strong outside their living room.

Every season over the years, the tree bore a great many fruit which for some reason were always juiceless, hard and bitter. Still my Dad cherished it and, out of some sense of pride, or perhaps loyalty towards the tree, we kept tasting the pears every year in the hope that they might finally turn out nice.

Last summer a neighbour came for dinner, and as we were enjoying dessert, the conversation turned towards the mysteriously bitter pears. The neighbour, who happens to be a farmer, had a good laugh and said no wonder the pears never tasted very good: they’re not an edible variety. In the old days, they would have been fed to the pigs, hence their common name of “pig pears”.

My father was a little offended, never having heard such a thing; but the simplest explanation often being the likeliest, we had to admit this sounded about right – for the past 30 years we had been placing impossible hopes on those pears to be something they weren’t.

Oh well.

Last Christmas I was staying with my parents again, and my Dad talked to me at length about his nearing retirement. Many of his friends have retired already, and much as he looks forward to slowing down (“you don’t have the same energy for work at 60 as you had at 30”), he sounded a little apprehensive about the passing of time.

“By the way”, he said as we were driving through the garden, “I almost took down the pear tree.”

“The one with the pig pears?”

“Yes, that. It’s never produced an edible pear, and it doesn’t look great anyway, so I thought we might use the space for something new.”

“So the other day”, he said, “I took a shovel and started digging the roots out. But then I thought about it – what has that tree ever done to me? I watered it for 30 years and now I take it down because it’s not productive enough?”

“It made no sense” he said, “so I planted it back in.”

And so I bet the tree will still be there in a few years time, when my parents sell the house to move to a smaller home for their retirement.

 

February: No Imaginary Conversations

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I tend to live in my head a lot (you don’t say!) so in February I picked a challenge that I felt would make a big difference in terms of stress and general wellbeing/sanity: limiting imaginary conversations.

If that sounds crazy, let me clarify that I don’t hear voices or anything – I just daydream lots.

In fact, I go by entire hours paying only remote attention to what is going on around me, because I’m too busy fantasizing about things that have happened, may happen, or I wish would happen, and as I’m not a visual-type person, I get a lot of internal dialogue.

While some are pleasantly entertaining, others are downright toxic.

Remembering a good moment or planning future holidays probably doesn’t do much harm, but unproductive conversations typically include:

  • decision making: arguing my case endlessly about a real life decision
  • doubt: going over past or future situations wondering if I could have done it better
  • venting anger: usually things I would never dare say in real life to whoever annoys me
  • justification: if I feel guilty about something that happened; entirely pointless and usually unnecessary
  • worst case scenarios: need I explain? I bet you get them too

The Buddhist tradition calls our endless train of thought the “monkey mind” – it goes from one thing  to the next without concentrating on anything, being at best distracting, at worst unproductive and frustrating. I tend to think of it as a washing machine, because whatever the idea, it never comes just once – it just goes round and round, over and over again.

The plan:

The rules for February were simple: if I caught myself having an imaginary conversation of any sort, I was to snap out of it immediately and focus on the present moment.
This was never going to be an easy one…

What actually happened:

I mentioned this challenge to my colleague William, who is also bit of a dreamer, and I loved his candid response:

“Why would you ever want to do that? it’d be 90% of my life gone!”

Indeed.

While refocusing on the present wasn’t actually hard in itself (in fact, it was surprisingly easy) I found that the present wasn’t necessarily always as appealing as it sounds. There is nothing glamorous about being stuck in a public transport, or in line at the post, or in a dreary conversation.

What I’ve learnt:

I’ve learnt several things

  1. It is tremendously helpful to be able to stop toxic worrying, panic attacks and guilt trips when you spot them. Not only does it dissolve the nasty thought literally into thin air, but also it helps you realise HOW MUCH unnecessary anger/ guilt/ worry you have in a day – and how much time you could save by avoiding them altogether.
  2. On the other hand, I would agree with my colleague that daydreaming actually DOES improve your life. As any dreamer knows, thinking about something is pretty much tricking your brain into feeling you’re actually there – so between packed public transport and Benedict Cumberbatch…
  3. Lastly, this is something I keep finding over and over again:We all have, as we say in French, “the flaws of our virtues” – what makes us great most of the time is also what makes us not so great in other respects (the way self confident people might sometimes be too proud, or caring people too overbearing). And so I strongly suspect that the time I spend in my head, while allowing for needless worry/ doubt, is also where I get all my creative ideas; in fact, some of my happiest moments when I actually ENJOY life to the full are moment spent thinking and daydreaming. Eventually, like it or not, I might have to accept that I need to spend a lot time up there, even if it makes me a little neurotic. 

    Perhaps it’s just about training my monkey to behave.

Top tip for those who might give it a go:

Go for it – you may not be able to stop over thinking, but you’re guaranteed to learn a lot about yourself. Good luck & let me know how you get on!