Simplifying your life

Henry David Thoreau said:

As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.

Among the many things which I’m going to be trying is to simply try and reduce the amount of time I spend dealing with things that aren’t work. If you think about your current environment, you’ll probably find that there are a great number of tasks in your life which exist only because they support some aspect of your life out of which you gain very little.

For example, just recently I sat down and made a list of the demands on my time - ignoring the obvious entries of actually writing a book, article or other elements, these are the other elements that take up a good portion of my time, but don’t actually relate to doing any work.

  • Reading magazines and newspapers - often these will pile up to the point that I either have to spend a day going through them, or I simply throw them away because they are now so old or out of date that it is not worth reading their contents.
  • Filing - there’s not much I can do, immediately, to improve this, but the amount of filing is impacted by other things.
  • Accounts - again, there’s not a lot I can do here, although anything I can do to reduce the number of accounts or the complexity would help.
  • IT Management - as a self employed person I don’t have the benefit of a dedicated IT department to deal with issues like backups, faults, or installing new hardware and software.
  • Mailing lists - I’m on a lot of postal mailing lists, despite always ticking the ‘Don’t share my details’ box; this generates post, which in turn need to be filed or shredded.
  • Computer mailing lists - I’m on even more computer mailing lists, many. No, most of which I never get a chance to read, but which I still have to delete or file.

If we extend this to items outside of work that still have an influence we can include:

  • More magazines and comics - some of these I save, and that means I have to seal up and catalog them.
  • More accounts - additional savings accounts, credit cards and others, some of which require monthly or quarterly management.
  • Personal memberships - I belong to quite a few clubs and societies, some of which I get little benefit from.

By making the lists I was able to ask some serious questions about how these things affect my time:

  • If I never get to read the magazines, why do I buy them?
  • If, as in some cases, I’m only buying the comic to keep it as a potentially valuable item, am I wasting more money dealing with it now than it’s worth later?
  • If I simplified the way I operated the accounts (merged some, removed others that I don’t fully use) there would be less to process, and fewer items to file.
  • If I reduced the clubs and organizations I’m a member of to those that I get the most benefit from, I’d again simplify (a small) element of the accounts, save money, and reduce the time required to deal with the paperwork.
  • If I returned unsolicited mail, I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore.
  • If I simplified my IT infrastructure and the lowered the amount of work required to keep it going, I could save myself a few hours every week that could be better spent elsewhere.

So here’s my first action plan of changing the way I work:

  1. Simplify my accounts, close those I’m not using, merge some others (particularly investments).
  2. Arrange to pay the accounts that can be covered through direct debits or standing orders.
  3. Do the accounts, including data entry, as I get the information. This means the accounts file will never build up, and I’ll never have to think back to what a particular charge or other item relates come year end or tax time.
  4. Close subscriptions to magazines and clubs out of which I get little or no benefit.
  5. Return every small piece of mail that I didn’t either request or expect to reduce the amount of junk mail that I have to deal with.
  6. Unsubscribe from magazines and newspapers I don’t read.
  7. Unsubscribe from the computer mailing lists I don’t read.
  8. Get rid of my ‘filing’ pile - instead, I’ll now try and file items as soon as they come in. For those that need processing (for example data entry, payment etc.), I’ll do it that day (or ASAP if I’m out) and then file it immediately.
  9. Simplify my IT environment. I’m going to reduce the servers I have and try to reduce them to two, from six, and change both new machines to the same platform.

This approach will require some changes into long-held habits and practices (like creating a pile of filing or accounts to be done in one big batch), but I’m hoping it will prevent the piles building up, and that should, in turn, reduce the feeling of dread when I have to deal with them. It should also help me keep a clean desk and reduce the amount of time I spend either throwing away or otherwise filing material that never gets to the see the light of day.

The whole experience - listing what I do in a typical day or week - has been an incredible useful way of determining where my time goes and if nothing else I now have a better idea of what I spend my time on, rather than the belief that at the end of of the day I’ve achieved nothing.