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The Burden of Ownership

Take a look at your hobbies. Are they corporate tools (as in a useful device or implement, not a person who is a douchebag)?

They almost certainly are. I, for one, have had MANY hobbies that, in retrospect, seem to have involved little but buying, buying, and more buying.

Take, for example, my years of competitive Magic: The Gathering card playing. I loved the social aspect of the game, being able to attend conventions and tournaments, keep up with the storyline and the lore of the game, and I definitely loved the strategy involved (in both playing the game and building up my collection by trading the cards).

I moved on from Magic to what I, at the time, considered to be a much more evolved hobby: namely, Warhammer and Warhammer 40k (the difference? One takes place 40,000 years after the other. Duh). Warhammer is a tabletop fantasy war game (think Lord of the Rings, but more complex) in which you pit your army (a horde of self-assembled-and-painted plastic and pewter miniatures) against your opponent’s (an army of similar material composition, though likely with a different storyline, weaknesses, and strengths). The real wallet-buster was that all the pieces were shipped from the UK to the US, which resulted in peak pricing, despite the massive size of the armies.

In the end, though, the whole point behind both of these hobbies is to acquire more. Go buy some booster packs to get more cards. Not enough? Buy a box of them! Bored of this set? Don’t worry, there’s a new expansion coming out tomorrow! We should buy a box! And don’t forget to snag a blister pack of Ork Stormboyz while you’re at the comic shop!

Keep in mind, I’m not criticizing either of these hobbies. In fact, I probably owe a lot of my social skills, my penchant for strategizing, and a good deal of my acumen to having partaken in them. I do know, however, that at some point they became too much for me.

I started to have these really bad nightmares, the kind in which you are running through an unfamiliar environment (for me it was usually a derelict office building…read into that what you will) and being chased by an unidentified pursuer. You don’t know who they are, but you know you need to get away, and in my version of the dream I was trying to run while carrying ALL of my Warhammer miniatures and Magic cards along with me.

Now, I was really into these games, so I had thousands upon thousands of cards and boxes and boxes of miniatures piled high in my closet, so it was quite a task to drag all this stuff along with me while running from a dream demon. I was very careful not to hurt anything, too. These things were important to me! They demonstrated my dedication to the craft, in money and in spent time, so I wasn’t going to leave them for this…this ‘whatever’ that was chasing me.

After having these dreams several times a week for a few months, I began to sell and give away my Magic cards. The result? Fewer bad dreams. Then I reduced my Warhammer collection down to one army. Again, fewer bad dreams. By the time I left for college and had completely stricken the hobbies from my lifestyle, the dreams were gone.

The point to this story, and (presumably) the point of my dreams, is that your possessions can wear on you in ways you barely recognize consciously, but definitely feel the results of. Think of someone you know (or yourself, if this is you) who bought that big screen TV, only to find many aspects of their lives suffering because they are now spending all the time they had for other activities pounding back pizza and watching ‘American Idol.’ Think of the time, money and attention spent on accumulating and protecting tacky Precious Moments statuettes and Beanie Babies (yeah, remember those?).

In the United States especially, accumulating possessions is representative of wealth. A bigger house means more space to put things that you buy and forget, or worse, buy and obsess over.

I find that going through everything I own once per month and getting rid of the things I don’t use is incredibly soothing. I literally feel a physical tension release in my shoulders and back; a tightness I didn’t even realize was there until I got rid of some junk that was taking up space in my townhouse and in the back of my mind. I feel lighter.

Give it a shot and let me know how it goes by leaving a comment below.

Update: April 22, 2016

I still remember these dreams so viscerally — the feeling of being weighed down but having all this stuff I have to defend and take care of. That feeling is what drove my pursuit of simplicity, and continues to be a reminder — as a contrast — to how good I feel today, lacking those weights, those possession-based burdens.

At this point in my life, I was sorting through all my stuff and doing my best to get rid of it. There was a room in my townhouse that was the ‘garage sale room,’ where all the stuff I had to get rid of before leaving LA was being stored until it could be given away to friends, sold on Craigslist, or donated to Goodwill. I wrote this post from my home office which was right next to that room.

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19 Things You Can Replace with an iPhone

(originally written for the Green Loves Gold blog)

The iPhone is the Swiss Army Knife of smart phones, able to tackle a wide variety of tasks that are generally divvied out to many separate devices. Consider investing in an iPhone (or similar gadget), as consolidating these products into one small phone significantly reduces an individual’s carbon footprint and allows for a quick simplification of one’s life.

Camera

Though it won’t win any awards for its 1.3 megapixel processor, the iPhone’s camera actually takes nicely saturated and surprisingly high-quality photos for a mobile phone camera. The iPhone’s camera really shines, though, when used in conjunction with note-taking apps like Evernote, GPS-tracking apps like Earthscape, and the handy, built-in ability to snap a photo and immediately use it as your phone’s wallpaper, email it to a friend, or use it as a contact’s mugshot in your address book.

Clock/Watch

It’s said that timing is everything, which is why the pervasiveness of clocks and watches in the modern world is not surprising. The iPhone’s built-in Clock app fulfills all of an individual’s timing needs with an integrated World Clock, wide array of Alarm options, Stopwatch capabilities, and a general Timer function. One can become even more of a minimalistic time-guru with time-tracking apps like TSheets and time-management apps like iProcrastinate Mobile.

Calendar

The calendar is a beacon of productivity, neatly slicing up the hours and days and months into manageable chunks of productivity. Google Calendar, voted Lifehacker’s best calendar application, stands out among the thronging masses of digital date boxes, with its effortless integration with email, directions, Google searches and every other calendar application out there. It’s no surprise, then, that Google Calendar has an elegant and simple iPhone version that one can access via http://calendar.google.com.

Landline

No doubt about it, these are the days of the mobile phone. In the United States today, one can generally gauge the relative age of someone by whether or not they still have a landline (though more and more even Baby Boomers are catching on and ditching the wired lifestyle). The iPhone is, among other things, a superb phone, especially since the 3G upgrade (which fixed many technical issues the original model had with its antenna). When in used conjunction with the forthcoming Google Voice and VoIP services like Skype, the iPhone becomes even more versatile and cheap than the most impressive networked-office-phone setup.

Boombox/iPod

There are some who would say Apple shot themselves in the foot by making the iPhone the best available iPod in addition to everything else it does because they are cannibalizing their own iPod sales as a tradeoff. Regardless of the economic ramifications for Steve Jobs, however, the basic iPod functionality of of the iPhone is impressive, allowing a user to bring a sizable music library with them anywhere they go, with super-intuitive navigation to boot.

DVD Player

The iPhone’s screen is jam-packed with pixels (480 by 320 with a resolution of 163 pixels per inch, and though this isn’t the highest in the portable media device field, most analysts agree that the iPhone makes far better use of the pixels it has by achieving accurate color reproduction and high quality black levels in its screen). This in mind, the iPhone makes a great replacement for that portable DVD player you take with you on the plane or for that daily subway-jaunt to the office. Further, by connecting the iPhone to your TV with a Composite AV Cable, suddenly all of your movies, slideshows and music become available for the whole room to share. If you don’t have any movies downloaded or ripped to your phone, there’s a quick and easy link to YouTube right on the iPhone dock, waiting to help you make your lunch break a little less tedious.

Address Book/Rolodex

The iPhone’s Contacts section is second-to-none, allowing a user to input scads of information about their contacts, from phone numbers and address to URLs, notes and photos. Additionally, Contacts syncs up easily with OS X’s Address Book software, Yahoo! and Google’s address book, and Outlook/Entourage saved Contact lists. One step closer to a paper-free office.

Weather Radio

In addition to its built-in Weather app, the iPhone app store boasts an impressive 25 specialized weather programs so that no matter where you are, you’ve got the latest information on that massive storm that’s about to come inland (or which days are best for that beachside picnic).

Calculator

There aren’t many people who carry calculators around with them on a regular basis (though props to those of you with the stamina), but for those who are looking to remove one less piece of electronics from their lives, the iPhone’s Calculator app fulfills that need and more. When upright, you’ve got your basic K-high school calculator. Turn it on its side, however, and suddenly you’ve got a super-detailed scientific calculator, ready and willing to fling functions and crunch cosines without breaking a sweat. Highly-ranked Grafly is available for those who want to build complex, 3D graph of arbitrary equations; there’s even a handy(?) Spacetime Converter app for those that want to take the theory of mathematics in a different direction.

GPS

There was a time when finding directions meant looking at a map or asking a friendly soul at a small gas station exactly which turn to make. Those days are past. Cast the maps aside and throw away the GPS in your car (that you’re paying a monthly fee for) and instead start using the Maps app on the iPhone. This program has Google Maps built in, so you can easily search for a location, bring it up on the map and produce step-by-step directions to your ending destination. What’s more, if you don’t know where you are, finding your exact location is as easy as tapping a button, which will show your location on the map; another tap will show you how to get to anywhere else in the world. As an added bonus, Google Earth is integrated into the Maps app, so if you’re curious as to what the top of the building you just drove by looks like, you’re in luck.

Notebook/Sticky-notes

Though it contains a built-in Notepad app, the Evernote program for the iPhone has to be one of the singularly most useful things ever coded. You can jot down notes, record voice messages, shoot a photo and tag it for later and automatically sync it up with your (free) account online, making those notes available to you anywhere in the world, regardless of how you access the Internet. It works the opposite way too: download the Evernote program for your computer (also free) or add the Evernote button to your Firefox toolbar and anything you snag while surfing will be ready and waiting in your eager hands to be called upon at will. No more notes on paper, no more waste.

Banking

A popular paper-conservation tip: switch to paper-free banking and receive your bank notices via email, saving lots of trees in the process. A popular iPhone banking tip: if you are with Bank of America, download the free BofA Mobile Banking app. This piece of software allows you to do all your banking online, on your phone, anywhere, anytime. What could be more convenient? Well, maybe if more banks were doing the same!

Portable Flash Drive

Making use of apps like Air Sharing and iPhoneDrive, your iPhone becomes a larger-than-usual thumb drive, allowing you to carry around your work files, that script you’ve been working on in your free time, the secret documents from your OTHER work, and anything else you want to keep handy. Thumb drives aren’t very big, but having one built into your phone is one less thing to carry, further simplifying your lifestyle.

Tools

How many quarts in an ounce? Does a millimeter measure volume? Is that level? Where’s the lightswitch? Answer these questions and more with a combination of apps available for the iPhone, including Converter, Flashlight, RulerPhone and BubbleLevel. It’s like a toolkit in your phone (though I wouldn’t recommend trying to use it as a hammer).

Remote Control

The iPhone can be used as a universal remote control for almost any piece of modern electronic equipment. Open source projects like ngRC allow you to use your iPhone to control your Microsoft Windows XP or Vista Media Centers. The Intelliremote client for the iPhone also allows you to control Windows machines, though it works with a wider array of programs, like Winamp, iTunes and VLC. For the Mac purists out there, the standard Remote application released by Apple grants your iPhone control over iTunes on any computer on the same network. Great for parties. Freaky to the Amish.

XM Radio

Step aside XM, there’s a new (music) sheriff in town. Its name is iPhone, and it has dozens of music-listening options, ranging from Last.FM to Pandora and FlyCast, all which use different techniques to recommend music based on your particular taste. Oh and it’s free. It’s all free.

Kindle/E-book Reader

The iPhone has a smaller screen than e-book-specific hardware like the Kindle, but it also has some well-designed apps that make the reading experience just as enjoyable. The humble Stanza allows users to elegantly organize their e-book collection, and even to upload their own e-books in PDF form. Fictionwise, Inc’s eReader has less functionality, but a shorter learning curve as well, making it a good choice for your grandmother or near-sighted uncle to use on their iPhones.

Magazines

Cancel your magazine subscriptions! Save that paper for napkins, because with an iPhone in hand, you have access to the Zinio Mobile Newsstand, which proudly displays its top-selling titles in their entirety free for iPhone users. Texterity is also participating in the free periodical push, making over 50 consumer and business magazines available for iPhone users through their interface.

Newspapers

Reading the New York Times on an iPhone is a snap with the NYTimes app. Streaming the most up-to-date news is just a button-tap away. Check out the Australian News and Russian News apps as well, for a taste of what they’re reading overseas. Ever without apps, more and more local newspapers are optimizing their websites for iPhone viewing. Those who don’t are generally still legible, too, so the Backwoods Technology Hater Gazette might even be available for online consumption with the iPhone.

What gadgets do you use to replace a handful of other gadgets? Let me know below!

Update: April 22, 2016

Okay, so this is great. It looks like the iPhone that I owned at this time I wrote this post was the iPhone 3G, which, you’ll note, is a bit of a Newton compared to today’s models.

I want to make that clear, because it kind of puts the above post in perspective.

Can we talk about the 1.3 megapixel camera? Or the 480×320 resolution? And that it’s a lovely replacement for your portable DVD player! I’m pretty sure this must have been pre-App Store, as well, based on the number of links to independent develop sites for those apps.

But moving past the geek-worthy time capsule that this post turned out to be, I want to note that this marks a moment that I’ve returned to several times over the years in which I flurried between bigger-picture philosophical musings and highly practical how-to style posts. I ended up refocusing on the former eventually, and I tend to relegate the latter elsewhere, but you’ll see a lot of this, particularly early on, before I knew exactly what I wanted this blog to be.

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How to Effectively Collect Your Thoughts

I am a lister.

There’s no doubt about it. When something needs to be done, I will jot down notes with ferocity, slicing out the unnecessary fat like a ninja-turned-butcher, aligning the elements in a grid or thought-web or doodle-laden spiral with equal intensity. It’s how I get things done: visualizing them so I can knock them off, one by one, feeling a small burst of achievement each time I whip the pen across the paper, as if carving hash marks into a bed post.

But with all my listing, my organizing, my Inbox Zero and GTDing, I still find myself periodically feeling stressed and overwhelmed, as if I am forgetting something important.

I decided that what I really needed was a sure-fire method of clearing my mind and collecting my thoughts. Something that I seldom do is nothing. If you see me during the day, I likely have a reason for walking the direction I’m walking, and if I’m just sitting there, you can bet that I’ve got a phone in my hand and/or a keyboard at my fingertips.

Though productivity is generally seen as a positive trait (as well as somewhat of an occupational hazard when you enjoy what you do for a living, like I do), I’ve found that taking a small amount of time per day to do absolutely nothing helps me to focus, make connections that I would not otherwise have made, remember things that I would otherwise have forgotten, and generally de-stress when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

When I say do nothing, I literally mean ‘nothing.’ No TV in the background. No music to mentally sing along to. Do not doze, do not read, do not play Tetris (though this is something that I usually recommend for small breaks during the day), and do not eat a snack. Just sit comfortably and let your mind wander where it will.

The first week I started doing this, my girlfriend came home from work and I was just sitting on the bed, leaned up against the headboard, staring into space through glazed eyes. She was understandably shocked, being accustomed to my usual whirlwind of movement, but I was completely in the zone, and afterward was able to meet a project deadline that had completely slipped my mind and type out the details of an idea I had just come up with for a side-project I’m involved with.

Make sure to keep this time reasonable, or you won’t keep up with it. The first week I did it for 30 minutes per day, but since then I’ve done it for 20 minutes, as after that amount of time I start to get jittery and my physical environment starts to distract me. Figure out what you optimal time is and stick with it.

The big goal here is to realize that sometimes doing nothing is the most productive activity one can take part in, and that even though modern technology and organizational skills can take you far, sometimes just dropping the intensity and focus for 20 minutes can be a good investment of your time.

Update: April 22, 2016

Here we have the origin story for something I still do and recommend today: my 20 Minutes of Awesome. Just sitting and doing nothing for a period of time each day, which allows my brain to unspool.

Note that at this point I was still GTDing and listing and doing other lifehacker-sounding things. I guess I still Inbox Zero, but a lot of the tricks and gimmicks I used adhered to seem a little superfluous now. I’m not trying to optimize every moment, so I’m more able to just say, “If it’s in my inbox, I haven’t responded to it yet,” and let that be. I seldom make lists, I rarely Pomodoro.

That’s not to say these aren’t valuable things to know about, but I prefer less-branded techniques these days, and instead focus on core principles. I don’t buy things I don’t need. I don’t do work that doesn’t feel good, that doesn’t align with my philosophy. I don’t do business with assholes. I don’t allow clutter to develop, because it gets in the way of how I like to live. Simple things, unnamed, largely, but useful. And far easier to develop on-the-fly, since everything ties back to core principles, rather than NYT-Bestseller-named ‘time optimizers.’