Category Archives: Simplifing

The return of a classic

Before the smartphone came along there were phones like the Nokia 3310.

Since 2000 Nokia has sold 126 million of the original version. Today sometimes smartphone owners pine for a simpler, cheaper, and less intrusive cell phone.

Later this year, Nokia is bringing back an updated version of the 3310, keeping the name the same.

It’ll be fairly basic by modern phone standards. But for around $50 you’ll get a smaller, thinner, and lighter Nokia 3310 with a bigger screen, and a better camera.

The battery life is 31 days on standby and 22 hours of talk time. So what, if you forget to charge it.



Improving the simple

Improving on something that’s already simple and widely used is impressive because most people take the things in their lives for granted.

What about the lowly keyring? Every time you want to add or remove a key from a substantial keyring you risk damaging a fingernail and futzing with the split in the ring always seems to take more time than it should.

It looks like the Tang Ring keyring has improved the keyring. One disadvantage of living in Mexico is not being able to get certain things that are available in the US. It’s not a big deal but next time I’m in the US I’ll get some of these to try out.

Complicating the simple

Photo_Dec_13_4_59_03_AM_1_1024x1024What do lip balm, wallets, and a bar of soap share in common? These days, they each show up sometimes as poorly designed forms of products that are already simple and work well. It’s complicating the simple.

Lip balm in the capped, twist-up, round tube applicator (like Chap Stick) is easy and quick to use. The twist-off top, toothpaste tube that needs squeezing (think Carmex in a tube) is both harder and slower to use. What’s really a step backwards are the lip balms in tins and plastic eggy shapes require using your finger as an applicator. What’s up with that?

Then there’re credit card holder style wallets. You need to tri-fold bills to cram ’em in with the cards that are already crammed in there. Is that really an advance over a thin bi-fold wallet? The bi-fold wallet is quick and easy to use and you can easily see all your dough.

And finally, bar soap in the shower. Why replace a simple invention with a more expensive and less efficient plastic bottle of liquid soap. Using liquid shower soap even winds up wasting water since you need extra time and steps to wash each area of your body.

I guess these steps backwards stem from our desire for something different and from advertising that creates a need where no need existed before. But actually simplicity is the highest form of sophistication.

Everyday system for managing habits

Big coffee potThis is the sixth of seven posts about simple everyday systems for managing your time, health, and eating developed by Reinhard Engels. Fifteen or so years ago, Reinhard was an overweight computer programmer who ate poorly, sometimes drank too much, and avoided exercising.

For most things simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and according to Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

So Reinhard created habits that were easy to do and could be sustained forever. He didn’t like complicated exercise routines – he wouldn’t like doing them and would likely stop if he made it to a goal.

About ten years ago, I stumbled across Reinhard’s idea for exercising for 14 minutes a day using a sledgehammer to mimic shoveling and other common movements.

Starting there, I checked out his other systems. They were easy to implement and claimed longterm results for himself.

I didn’t really go whole hog on his system because I was already doing, and enjoying, other stuff like lifting weights, but I have used his sledgehammer idea, more as a fun way to rehab from injury.

Anyway, what follows are my shortened versions, from his website and podcast explanations, of his “everyday systems.” I did it for myself to have the ideas in one spot, and for you too, if you’re interested.

Managing habits is actually kind of a big issue.

Think about the difference between home improvement and self improvement. When you do a home improvement project, it’s a one time thing. Put in granite counter tops, it’s done, and move onto the next project.

Improving yourself isn’t like that. When you hit your goal in terms of diet or fitness or whatever, you can’t just back off. You have to maintain this behavior. It’s almost like having to re-install that new granite counter top every day. And most of us have more than one self improvement issue to work in at the same time. It’s like having to reinstall the counter tops, refix the roof, and retile the bathroom every day. If you express your self improvement goals in terms of goals and rely solely on conscious effort to achieve them, that’s really what you’re doing.

It’s pretty tough, but if you look at self improvement in terms of habit, it gets much easier. A habit is a behavior or set of behaviors that’s at least partically automatic and unconscious. Because of the big unconscious element, the maintenance is minimal.

They’re are all over the place. Your psyche is teeming with these dangerous but potentially useful forces. Habits are kind of like wild animals. Very powerful, but dumb. You can’t face them head on, they’ll tear you to shreds. But with some carrot and stick, you can tame them, and get them to work for you.

Conscious attention is a very limited commodity. You can do sophisticated stuff with it, but because it’s so limited, you want to reserve it for the when it’s really necessary. Save your conscious attention by hitching up habit to pull along desired behaviors, like a horse pulling a cart. You need conscious attention for the hitching up, but don’t have your conscious attention pull that cart. That’s what dumb strong unconscious habit is for.

So the question is, how do you take a conscious self improvement goal, like losing 50 pounds in six months, and turn it into an unconscious habit?

First, express the goal differently. The way you frame a goals is important. Think in terms of actions and behaviors rather than results. Framing your problem in terms of what you have to do to solve it instead of what you hope will happen as a result of your actions.

This is important for a number of reasons. We tend to be really, really bad at achieving “results” goals. They’re usually pretty arbitrary, not realistic assessments of what we can actually accomplish. And you can’t turn a result like “lose 50 pounds” into habit. Right? It’s an end state.

What do you do? It tells you where you want to be, but not how to get there. A habit is an unconscious behavior. A behavior is way of describing a repeated action. And an action is something you do. A results goal isn’t an action, and you can’t make it into a habit.

So instead, think about the actions that you hope will get you those results. For example, “no snacking on weekdays” or “exercise 14 minutes every weekday morning” are behaviors. Long term, results come from behaviors. You’re focusing on the part of reality that you can actually change. Results goals are essentially just wishful thinking.

Here’s the great thing, behaviors continue to be useful after you’ve hit your desired results.

You don’t have to change anything once you get there. In fact, I’d toss the results goal out entirely. A results goal is a distraction. It doesn’t tell you how to get anywhere. It depresses you if you don’t. And it doesn’t tell you what to do next when and if you do get there.

Another great thing about thinking in terms of behaviors is that you can’t fail, unless you decide to. With a habit, you’ll get there eventually if it’s a realistic goal.

You don’t have direct control over the scale or over a nautilus machine. But you do have direct control over your actions, so if you don’t do what you set out to, there’s no surprise because it’s your decision.

The power to fail is the power to succeed. They inherently go together. The alternative is powerlessness. A rock can’t fail. A rock can’t do anything.

The work partner

trumpEver thought about how your career might be a life partner?

Last week I tried calling someone who’s in between jobs. I talked to his wife instead because he was “at the office.” “Why,” I asked, “if he’d sold his company?” She said he liked going in. He’d been working the same job for about twenty years

If changing careers has parallels to dealing with death or divorce, then seeking out what’s familiar and normal for you is what you’ll do. It’s different than hopping from job to job, which is closer to serial monogamy and the end of a job isn’t too impactful. A long-term career is more like a partner, providing meaning and structure.

There’s also the de facto religion of the US of industriousness to consider, busyness is the strenuous demonstration that you’re practicing industriousness. “Not really working? Well, I’ll just pop into the office anyway.” That pattern runs deep, like a tiger’s stripes. If you could shave down a tiger, you’d find a tiger’s skin is striped too, not just the fur.

Maybe this guy had crossed his finish line without noticing. But when he goes to the office he was feeling that “People like us do things like that” even though running on permanent overdrive is unnecessary. Life is not a contest to see who can accomplish the most.

Conforming to the social ideal that to be worthy you must be busy is hard to see, like fish that aren’t aware they’re surrounded by water. Doing something that really interests you, it’ll result in a much more enjoyable life than just doing something to be busy. But it’s hard figuring out what it feels like to be you, right now, not your story.

Last year, most people’s favorite Pope, Francis, was asked about his secret to happiness. His answer was,”slow down. Take time off. Live and let live. Don’t proselytize. Work for peace. Work at a job that offers basic human dignity. Don’t hold on to negative feelings. Move calmly through life. Enjoy art, books and playfulness.”

Two NYT Articles

“Simpler is better” could be the category for two recent NYT articles.

One article concerns a Greek island and its long-lived inhabitants. The article,”The Island Where People Forget to Die,” looks at the interconnecting factors promoting long, happy lives where island men hit 90 years old 4 times the rate American men do.

On the island, Ikaria, everything’s hitched together forming a human ecosystem of culture, belonging, and purpose. This seems to create default good choices for the islanders. You grow a garden and eat from it because that’s what your neighbors do too. You’re rarely alone because of the frequent socializing around either coffee, local herb tea, or wine from your neighbors’ vines. You don’t use a clock nor do the other islanders so everyone wakes naturally; and often stay up late. The community and its members are self-sufficient.

The community and individual behaviors are intertwined and all the islanders are on the same program. There’s very little fear, consumption, or hurry.  Life on Ikaria is the opposite of what we often find elsewhere, where more and more people are failing to interact with the value system they’re living within which probably leads to lots of longevity and health problems.

The other article, “A Simple Fix For Farming,” is about a scientific experiment that shows shifting to longer crop rotations and re-introducing animals into those rotations gave better yields while greatly reducing fertilizer and pesticide needs. And the experiment, by the USDA and Iowa State University, showed the recommended shifts doesn’t reduce the farmers’ profit.

This isn’t a polarizing finding about organic farming practices versus orthodox, large-scale farming. The recommendations are an alternative to industrial style farming because longer crop rotations and re-introducing animals into the mix allows farmers to fine tune their chemical use rather than just using expensive chemicals on a strict schedule.

There’re no costs assigned to environmental effects, so less fertilizers and pesticides will be a just a plus there. But farmers can save costs assigned to purchases from chemical companies and put those saving toward the bottom line.

Both of these articles are worth the read.


Keeping It Simple

Warren Buffett and Charles Munger are masters of keeping it simple while becoming two of the most successful business investors decade after decade.

By using their clear, simple business acquisition standards, they’re not only successful but  they’ve also minimized their stress levels in what’s normally a high stress environment.

They keep it simple, but it must not be easy, because other people in their business don’t do it the way Buffett and Munger do.

Here’re are some of their ideas and insights I gathered from, “Seeking Wisdom” by Peter Bevelin:

Munger says, “We have a passion for keeping things simple. ” and “If something is too hard, we move on to something else.” And  from Buffet, “We haven’t succeeded because we have some great complicated system or magic formulas we apply or anything of that sort. What we have is simplicity itself.”

Buffet thinks they have a few advantages, “Perhaps the greatest being that we don’t have a strategic plan. So we feel no need to proceed in an ordained direction but can instead simply decide what makes sense for our owners.” Munger adds, “You look ahead as far as you can, but that’s not very far.”


Encourage people to tell you bad news immediately.

Reward individual performance, not effort or duration. Reward after not before their performance.

Buffett and Munger never look at projections; but they care very much about, and look deeply at, track records.

People overestimate the control they have over events and underestimate chance.

They don’t invest in anything they don’t understand themselves.

They avoid situations where they need to get people to change.

Integrity, intelligence, experience, and dedication are what human enterprises need to run well.

People pay too little attention to failures.

Try to be roughly right rather than precisely wrong.

Don’t try to make back a loss the same way you lost it.

Never risk something you have and need for something you don’t need.

Unlikely things happen if enough time passes.

The big thing to do is avoid being wrong.

People think that if they just hire somebody with the appropriate labels, they can do something very difficult and complex. That is one of the most dangerous ideas a human being can have.

You don’t have to hire out your thinking if you keep it simple.

If I go on, it may not sound simple anymore. I hope I’m not oversimplifying what Buffet and Munger do, but the more I find out about what they do, the simpler it seems, but it’s not easy.


Unloved Bikes

When in NYC, you’ll soon notice all the abandoned bikes or more commonly, what’s left of them chained with oversized chains to immoveable objects.

The oversized chains and locks work. But when some of a bike’s parts aren’t locked they seem to get picked off. That often starts the abandonment process.

These stripped and rusting bicycle leftovers are probably just an accepted part of big city life these days. But I’m sure many of the home or business owners on the other side of the sidewalk from these eyesores would pay to be rid of them.

So here’s a business idea for a friend who’s living in NYC. He’s young, active, personable, and likes to use his bike to get around town. After arriving in the city, his bike was stolen because he was using an old style U-lock that the big city bike thieves knew how to open using only a Bic pen (you can see how on youtube).

Maybe call the business or something like that. Then get stickers with that name and apply them to the wrecks and tell the person living nearby, if you could find them, about the service.

Charge $49 to remove the first abandoned bike. And $29 for each additional one they have nearby.

The abandoned bike would have to be removed, preventing people from paying you to liberate someone’s bike that they want.

After cutting the lock, the still serviceable chains or cables could be sold to bike shops to resell, ditto for any “vintage” but still useable parts. The rest could trashed or sold as scrap.

The business could be run online and billed via paypal or something similar. Equipment needs would be minimal, a small cutting torch and a heat-resistant blanket (to protect the immovable object). Everything could be easily transported by bike to the job site.

Of course, you’d also need a lock and chain – so no one steals your bike while you’re working.

Time to Update email?

Doesn’t email often seem like someone else’s agenda for your time? What’s the fix for emails you may not want to get? I think maybe some sort of disincentive, probably money, could work.

Of course “snail mail” also can be someone else’s demand on your time. But, the person sending you an actual letter has the disincentive of having to pay for stationary, an envelope, and postage.

Maybe email senders should have to pay something for sending you an email. It might create a business opportunity too.

Your email service provider could implement a system. They’d get a percentage from charging unsolicited emailers, but you’d get most of the fee. Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo could start charging, say, 50 cents to senders for emails sent to your inbox, you’d get 45 cents and they’d pocket 5 cents for their trouble.

Don’t worry, there’d be a friends and family “no charge” list. But emailers who aren’t on that list would be charged to send any unsolicited emails to your inbox. If you got an email from an unrecognized sender that you actually were glad to get, you could waive the fee.

Having to pay would even save the senders money and time too because they wouldn’t be wasting their time composing and sending out frivolous emails.

I think something like this might work, and everyone would come out ahead.



In general, I’m curious about how people prefer to organize and do things.  How people use their computers is a small black hole. While there’s a certain framework imposed by your computer’s software, how you arrange your computer experience is up to you.

Everyone who uses a computer a lot must have their own system of getting around on their computer and retrieving information. Since surfing with your computer is a solitary pursuit, people usually aren’t aware of how others organize their experience. Some people probably don’t care so there’re items all over the place, like a messy room but they know where everything is. And other people streamline their layouts.  I’m not sure how you do it, but this is how I do it and it seems to work well for me.

I’m prefer a simple and easy system. On my desktop, for example, I only have two icons, one for my hard drive and one for photos.  I don’t use rss feeds or other notifications when there’s fresh content; instead I prefer checking in on sites I like, confident (based on experience with each site) that there’ll be new content available.

Every few weeks I’ll delete any sites I don’t want to follow, sort of like scraping the barnacles from the hull. I try to keep the number of sites in the first four categories at a manageable 15 or so. If I don’t cull underused sites from my categories, my computer experience  gets to the point of feeling that you need to keep up with all of the sites you have bookmarked. Under “Bookmarks,” I use groupings of sites based on how often I check in on those sites.

There are lots of different titled folders, From BANKING to WEATHER, under the bookmarks heading but they’re not often needed or visited. I find myself mostly visiting the first four bookmark titles on my computer. Here’re the titles and description along with a few examples of sites:

FREQUENT – these are sites I visit at least once a day: my email,, NYT, a surf report, Seth Godin, ….

OCCASIONAL – for sites that I check once a week usually: Dan Savage’s podcast, Leo                            Babauta’s, Colossal, Doug McGuff, …

IN THE WINGS – Basically a waiting room for sites I run across and think I might like. This category is added to and subtracted from constantly.

REFERENCE – A general category containing sites I might look at once or twice a month: the Selby, TED talks, Capoeira sites, …

That’s it in a nutshell. Streamlining and editing what’s on my computer is what I’ve found makes my computer more enjoyable to use.