On Quiet

We tend to measure life by our memories. The most joyful or devastating, exciting or stressful, interesting or hard fought for milestones, from one to the next, they stand out the most in our minds.

These are the things we go out of our way to do, to plan for, to work for, to pay for. Advertising encourages us to fit as many ‘experiences’ as we can cram into our lives. When the big moment arrives, we take photos on our smartphones, upload to social media, even journal or tell our friends and children about it.

We remember these events for years, but everything else in between is forgotten.

What did you do on an typical Tuesday afternoon? Or a quiet Thursday evening? Or a routine Sunday morning? It may seem unimportant, but what if the ordinary in-between moments are just as powerful as the extraordinary ones?

Who knew that a regular day sitting on the sofa with my grandmother, half watching TV while sharing some fruit would be the last time I saw her alive? Nothing lasts forever, not even the mundane. Everything will pass, whether you notice it or not.

Indeed, it is a practice to be as grateful for the journey as the destination. It’s not easy to give our limited attention to the unremarkable moments, but they probably make up about 90% of our daily lives. If we live a good life with multiple journeys to multiple destinations, what kind of fulfilment would we have if we only appreciated 10% of it?

So maybe in a month’s time I won’t remember this moment—sipping my coffee as I write this, the smell of it waking me up to the sound of the city going by outside my window on this sunny July morning—but I can enjoy it right now, thoroughly and gratefully, for everything it’s worth.

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On Productivity II

So you’ve chosen the ‘right things to do’, now how do you get them done?

The answer is simple—focus on one thing at a time.

It sounds easy, but just think of how many tabs you have open right now. Even while you’re reading this, there are probably a dozen other things distracting you.

Your mind and body have limited bandwidth. Most things that need to be done properly require our full attention but very rarely do we give what we’re doing our fullest effort.

Instead, we spread ourselves too thin. I can’t tell you how many yoga classes I’ve had where I was supposed to be breathing with my movements, but instead I was thinking about work. Or how often I’m talking to someone but internally deciding what to make for dinner. Or when I’ve sat down to read a book but 30 seconds later I remember a text I’ve supposed to have sent…

Focus takes practice. It’s not something that you can easily switch on or off. You have to be willing to work on it and declutter distractions from your life—turn off notifications, cancel Netflix, outsource tasks, say ‘no’ more more often, delete those apps, lock the door, stay up later or wake up earlier to get quiet time.

When we try to do too many things at once, we do none of them well. Sometimes we’ll get by and no one notices our attempts were half-assed. But anything worth doing, the things that really matter, by definition are worth it because they’re hard, and need concentration, and the willingness to pursue them relentlessly.

So let us focus, not to get more things done, but to do things better. Life is too short to be mediocre.

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On Productivity

Back when I was an aspiring career girl who thought the epitome of success was earning a Director’s title and a generous bonus package every year until I retired comfortably at 65, I used to be obsessed with productivity. How could I get more things done in less time? How could I fit more into my busy life?

After years of cramming more and more work and other commitments into each day until I barely had time to sleep, I became exhausted with the long hours and complete lack of free time I had to do the things I really enjoyed. I realised I had been going about it all wrong.

I used to think that doing more automatically meant living more, but that’s not true. Life shouldn’t be about fitting more of just anything into it. There will always be more things you can do to fill a thousand lifetimes. Instead, it should be about making time for the ‘right’ things and eliminating all the other stuff that doesn’t matter.

There is a difference between being efficient, versus being effective. One is about doing something that takes up limited resources (time, energy) with the least waste, and the other is about intentionally doing things that make an impact.

In other words, being efficient is about doing things right, while being effective is about doing the right things.

Productivity advice is too focused on the former instead of the latter. Doing things right is fairly easy. That’s what how-to books and productivity blogs are for. The harder thing is choosing the right things to do. We are swamped in work, meeting requests, invitations, the media, places to go, new things to try out, TV shows to watch… there isn’t enough time to do it all, even if you can do it all efficiently in the least time possible.

What counts as a ‘right’ thing? There’s no easy answer, but you’ll know deep down if what you’re spending your time on feels right. Is it important to you? Or important to someone you love? Are you enjoying it? Does it make you feel good? Are you making other people’s lives better? Is it short term or long term? Is it fun and challenging? Are you growing? Is it meaningful? What if you died tomorrow? Can you think of a better way to spend your time? Will you remember this day years from now?

If we pared down to the things that mattered the most then we would feel less FOMO, and wouldn’t need to be in such a hurry. There are some things that aren’t meant to be rushed. How unfortunate would it be if we didn’t have the time to take our time on things like making a delicious home-cooked meal, getting engrossed in a good book, or making memories with loved ones.

These moments are the stuff life is made of. Choose wisely, and enjoy every moment.

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Dear Grandma

My dear mama, you passed away earlier this month.

You had been ill for a long time, so it wasn’t unexpected. At least you were surrounded by family when it happened. Everyone dropped everything to go to your house that night. There were a lot of tears.

You lived a hard and busy life, immigrating from Vietnam to England forty years ago bringing your ten children with you. With such a big family, your house always had people coming in and out to visit, to talk about everything and nothing, to eat and drink tea until late into the night. Weddings, birthdays, and Chinese New Years have always been hectic and wonderful and full of food and laughter.

In the end though, old age took over. You got breast cancer, and eventually liver cancer and other ailments that made you so weak you needed help with everything. We all did our best to take care of you, getting you the best treatment we could, but in the end, we had to let you go.

Growing up, you didn’t have much. You married a man, my grandfather, who was from a village in the mountains near the border of China and Vietnam. You had to have ten children because you were so poor you didn’t know how many would survive until adulthood. Some actually didn’t survive—as close as we all are, there are members of our family that I would never know.

So it’s no wonder you valued money so much. Having it meant the survival of your family, which was everything to you. When you all came to England in the 1980’s to look for a better life, everyone worked hard at the few years they had at school to learn English so that they could find work. My own father, who was 14 at the time you moved here, only had a single year of education. Those first few years were all about learning to survive in a new world.

Eventually everyone found their feet. All ten children became adults, found jobs or started successful businesses and married and had children. Some even went on to have their own children and you and Grandad became great-grandparents. Ten years ago, Grandad passed away and although you were alone without him, you were never lonely with all of us being there for you.

We started with nothing but now our family has more money than we could have imagined as refugees from a mountain village. You started a dynasty, but we haven’t forgotten our roots. Although money is useful, it isn’t the most important thing. To this day every one of us would do anything to support each other.

You were a minimalist by circumstance, not by choice. You didn’t have much, but what you did have and all that mattered were things that money couldn’t buy—good health for as long as possible, a loving family, and living a full and happy life. You had everything you ever needed, and I’m glad for that.

May you rest in peace.

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On Maturity

It was my 27th birthday this month. Although I don’t feel that old yet, almost every day I’m reminded of memes I don’t understand, trends I haven’t heard of, or technology I didn’t know existed. I feel a big difference between myself and ‘kids these days’. In fact, I have a brother who is 11 years younger than me, but it often feels like he’s from a different generation.

Amongst all of this change in the world, I realise there has been a lot of change within myself too. I wasn’t always so comfortable with not being up-to-date on the latest fashions and gadgets. Like most teenagers, I overcompensated for my self-confidence issues by trying in my own way to be as cool as possible. For me that meant having cool stuff like the latest iPhone or laptop to show off with. People would gather around me and it would make me feel better about myself, but only for a while. Obviously buying stuff wasn’t a long term fix for my insecurities. Those times sowed the seeds for the minimalist lifestyle I developed soon after.

As a teenager I dreaded getting older, but a decade later I’m in a much, much better place. The biggest lesson I learned is to not give a f*ck. Who cares where I live, what job I do, or whether I have the latest iPhone? No one! Or at least, no one cares nearly as much as I thought.

Realising that and being okay with it has been huge. Once I let go of other people’s expectations of me, I was free to do whatever I want—it’s unlikely people care enough to judge me for it, and even if they did, who cares! Certainly not me.

Hence living minimally to avoid debt and save up enough to be able to quit my job in my mid-twenties to start my own business. Could I have done that if I was concerned about what people thought of me? Probably not. I would have felt too self conscious to say no to spending $100 on a night out, worrying about what outfit I was wearing, or which car I was driving, or staying in a luxury hotel so that I could instagram it, instead of saving up the start up capital I needed to be free of those kinds of traps.

Two years on, I only work a couple of hours a week but earn twice as much as I did in my soul-sucking job. I have the freedom to pursue anything I want to. I can sleep/read/travel whenever I want, and thanks to not being tied to a desk all day, my health is better than ever. On top of that, I can give more to people and causes I care about, because I have more to give.

It wasn’t easy getting here, but neither was it that hard to be honest. It was a series of small sacrifices and good decisions that paid off. I only wish I started started sooner. That is, if I could go back ten years and give advice to my 17 year old self, or indeed to my younger brother now, I would say, “Hey, you. Stop worrying so much about what other people think, they don’t know all the answers themselves. Breathe. If you do what you feel is the right thing, you’re going to find happiness. I promise.

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On Vanity

Why do we buy stuff? Not everything we buy is useful, so there must be other reasons why we work so hard to buy things.

Maybe it’s because we find a sense of happiness or satisfaction when we buy something new, but we all know that that feeling soon fades (even though we almost never remember this every time we buy something new).

Why we buy stuff has less to do with the object itself than with ourselves. When we buy expensive clothes, the newest gadgets or a flashy car, it’s because we believe it will give us recognition from the people around us—we’ll ‘show’ them how successful we are so that they’ll accept us, or even love us.

Humans crave recognition. To be part of a group, or at least not be in some else’s shadow. Most people are more influenced by what other people think of them than what they actually want ourselves.

Think about it—if everyone in the world disappeared tomorrow and you were the only one left (apart from the upset you would have from losing your friends and loved ones) what would you do now that you could have anything you desired?

You could just walk into someone’s mansion, even the most beautiful castle, and have it all to yourself. You could pick and choose anyone’s finest clothing and jewellery, even put on the crown if you wanted to! Drive a Ferrari, swim in bank notes, have hundreds of iPhones. But after a while, what would happen? With no one to impress, the chances are that you’ll find somewhere more convenient and easier to maintain than a huge house, you’ll wear clothes that are more comfortable, you’ll drive something more practical and you’ll get bored of the latest gadget.

Things you thought were worth a lot won’t matter as much any more. You’re the last person on earth, there’s nothing left but to find something worthwhile to do, something that makes you happy, not anyone else.

If no one was around to validate our existence, as society has defined by how much stuff we have, we would wouldn’t actually care about it. Hardly anyone would actually choose to have their life’s purpose revolve around buying things, but so many people do exactly that every day, without stopping to question it.

We don’t have to go as far as erasing every other person on Earth. If we just cared a little less about what other people think, we’d care a little more about what we want, and what really matters to us.

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On Sundays

Sunday is my favourite day of the week. I don’t schedule any plans if I can help it, and I don’t check my phone or emails.

After a long week, I can finally get around to the things I’ve been neglecting, and I can take the time to do it slowly and mindfully.

I tidy the apartment in peace and quiet, then in the afternoons, I love to sit down with a good book and a cup of tea while it’s raining outside.

In reality, the big exciting life changing moments are few and far between. Far from being boring, these moments of small, daily pleasures are what life is all about. 99% of life happens in the quieter, unmemorable moments, so why not make the most of it?

As Annie Dillard says,

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

There are times when we have so much to do in so little time that we charge head first into the tasks of the day, answering calls as they come and working with such intensity that the day passes before we even realise.

But in order to fuel these times of productivity, we need to take the time to recharge our batteries. Sometimes we need to dawdle and daydream, and get bored and get lost, and very importantly, get enough sleep.

Stepping back also gives us a chance to reflect on what we’re doing, and make sure it’s actually what we want to be doing. Too many people live their lives on autopilot, cruising through their days without questioning the purpose of it all. Weeks pass, then years, and soon the kids are grown up and we’re old and grey, wondering where all the time went.

We should take the time to reflect and recharge more often. Take a long look at ourselves and where we’re going. I suggest at least once a week, perhaps on a rainy Sunday afternoon like this one.

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On Generosity

Living a minimalist lifestyle is an act of generosity. By forgoing things that you don’t really need you:

  1. help yourself, because you aren’t working tirelessly to keep up on the treadmill of a materialistic life
  2. help others, by freeing up resources for those who need it more than you
  3. help the planet, by not unnecessarily adding to pollution

It’s a win-win-win for everyone. If you’re born lucky enough to have a better quality of life than most, you should pay it back by helping those who didn’t win the Ovarian Lottery.

It’s not just about money. There are a thousand ways to help people, and minimalism helps you find the right way—your own way—because you’re less distracted by the very things that stop you from being helpful to others, such as being self-centred because you care too much about what people think of you, or working long hours yet just scraping by because you need the money to pay for the credit card debts.

And if we give, we can also receive. There is so much we can learn by opening ourselves up to other people. Some of the happiest human beings are those who have the least. They teach us to appreciate the small things, and remind us to be grateful for that we’ve taken for granted. A very generous gift indeed.

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On Power

I’ve just finished reading The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. It’s an unapologetic volume on what power is, why those who have it do, and more importantly, why those who don’t have it don’t.

Some might think books like these are evil, but one could argue that they just describe real life. Maybe it’s a shame, but it’s the natural order of the universe—those who are the most powerless tend to be the most unhappy, and those who are bold are the most able to get their own way, whether that means hindering or helping others.

Power doesn’t necessarily mean domination. It doesn’t always mean getting your way at the expense of others. Just like money, the more of it you have, the more good, or evil, you can do in the world. It’s a tool, and it’s up to you how you use it.

Unlike money, most people don’t think about power much at all. We’re unaware of the role it plays in our lives. Starting with our parents and teachers, our beliefs, values, and mindsets we develop as children are dictated by people more powerful than us. These authority figures have the power to praise or to punish, so we follow their instructions and do what’s expected of us.

Eventually teachers are replaced by bosses, and parents are replaced by society’s expectations. Yet, as we become adults, even though the people who have power over us changes, the dynamics of power never do.

If we have little power, we allow other people to form our view of the world. We end up doing things we’re unhappy with, or not living to our potential because we don’t pause to question our assumptions that were forced upon us as children. Every move we make is influenced by what other people think or have told us.

But what if we took more control of our lives? What if we empowered ourselves with the ability to choose? What would we do if we weren’t afraid of what other people think? 

Choosing to have power over your own life isn’t as easy as letting other people tell you what to do. You have to make decisions and deal with the consequences for where those decisions lead, for better or for worse. As a great person once said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but a good life lead on your own terms makes it all worth it in the end.

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On Guidance

How do we guide people towards a life of minimalism?

As with most things in life, preaching about something only makes people more resistant to the idea.

Yet some people just can’t help themselves. They like to humblebrag about how well they’re doing, just to show off how much better their lives are than other people’s.

Unsurprisingly, this approach almost never works. If you genuinely care about improving other people’s lives, it’s much better to live a better life without bragging about it, and if you really are happier people will see it and want to emulate you themselves.

Minimalism is particularly difficult because people are very attached to their stuff, and simply telling people to get rid of their precious things, or criticising them for having too much is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

Instead, let minimalism improve your life, then go live it well. Have fun not working as many hours, not being in debt, and not being a slave to your stuff. When people see how much more time and energy you have, they’ll ask you what your secret is.

Then you can tell them, the answer is simple—it’s simplicity itself.

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