The ZenGeek Podcast #002: "Mind Over Desk"

Our landmark second episode:

Andrew and Jeffrey discuss the surprisingly complex topic of minimalism, including its place in technology, lifestyle design, and your head. They also touch on Moleskine explosions, the relevance of staplers, and the beauty that is Squarespace 6.

We're on a Thursday release schedule from now on, so please enjoy our first two episodes until then!

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It Feels Like Trust

Randy Murray on his recent visit to the Apple Store:

And then I remembered the new Apple Store iPhone app. I pulled out my iPhone and downloaded the app right there on the spot, using the Apple Store’s wifi. I opened the app and it recognized that I was in an Apple Store. It let me scan the barcode on the product, confirm the purchase using my iTunes account, and showed me the receipt. I asked a passing Red Shirt if that was all I needed to do and he smiled and said, “Yep, you’re good.” So I put the adapter in my pocket and walked out of the store.

Haven’t had a chance to try this myself yet, but it sounds pretty awesome.

Simplifying GTD

David Allen on how to make GTD simpler to adopt:

It’s hard to get it any simpler than this:

  • Keep meaningful stuff out of your head
  • Make action and outcome decisions about the stuff sooner than later
  • Organize reminders of those items in easy to view places
  • Review it all and keep it current

Any one of those elements without the others won’t really produce that much value.

Via Patrick Rhone


Paul Graham on stuff:

Another way to resist acquiring stuff is to think of the overall cost of owning it. The purchase price is just the beginning. You’re going to have to think about that thing for years—perhaps for the rest of your life. Every thing you own takes energy away from you. Some give more than they take. Those are the only things worth having.

Lots of great passages in this one. Read the whole thing.

Via Shawn Blanc

Twitter Changes

John Gruber, responding to an article by Nick Bilton about the new Twitter UI:

Maybe today’s new Twitter UI is better for new Twitter users. But even if that’s true, it’s not because it hides @ and # symbols the way that the Mac did away with the code-driven command line. And frankly, I don’t buy that’s simpler at all. In the old Twitter, you saw only what you asked to be shown (by following people). Now, they’re showing you all sorts of things you never asked for and can’t control.

As I’ve alluded to before, the beauty of Twitter is its simplicity. There is no forced artificial friendship. You’re either following someone, or you’re not. The changes to and the official iPhone app are disheartening, to say the least.

I don’t use very often, but when I do, I have Chris Masterson’s Feather extension installed, which cleans up the UI quite nicely. Likewise, I don’t use the official Twitter for iPhone app because I prefer Twitterrific’s simplicity and unified timeline.

I realize that Twitter needs to monetize their service, but I hope they remain true to their values in the process. Unlike Facebook, which I only tolerate, and Google+, which is still pretty nerd-oriented, I genuinely enjoy Twitter. It’s by far my favorite social network, and I’d hate to see it go downhill.

"It's OK to curate your life."

Matt Gemmell, in a really wonderful essay on simplicity:

A major lesson I’ve learned (which I had to teach myself) is that it’s OK to cut out negative people from your life. Everyone has a right to their opinion, but people don’t have a free pass to be heard by you, particularly if their manner of expression is consistently unpleasant or unproductive.

Highly recommended.

"Rote Simplicity"

Frank Chimero:

I’m skeptical of rote simplicity. It’s good for the people making digital tools to simplify their job and make one tiny widget, but a swarm of tools that all do one tiny thing well is still a complex system for the user to manage.

Ben Brooks offered a few thoughts about this, too.

I love apps that do “one thing well”, but as Ben points out, it’d be a pain to have to open 45 apps to do 45 different tasks. But I also can’t imagine having 45 different tasks to do, let alone needing an app to complete each one.

Looking at my iPhone home screen, I feel I’ve pared my apps down to the essentials. While the iPhone is capable of performing thousands of different tasks, I choose to use mine only for those that are most important to me. In fact, I can say I mainly use my iPhone for reading, writing, and capturing, in addition to communication. I could use it for a ton of other things, but these are the most important. I think that’s why my iPhone only has two to three pages of apps.

For me, it comes down to simplifying my priorities rather than only using simple apps. Ten pages of “one thing well” apps is a complex setup. Rather, I say be judicious in determining what you actually need to be able to do, and then choose the apps that meet those needs most effectively.

The Russians Used a Pencil

Frank Chimero in his post, Elegance, Lightness, and Nothing:

There’s an old story that people like telling, untrue as it may be, about writing implements in space. The American space program discovered that normal ink pens didn’t work on missions (no gravity in orbit to pull down the ink), so they spent millions to research and develop a pen that could write upside down. The Russians, the story goes, brought a pack of pencils.

Love that story.

Why Simple Is Good

A quote from Jonathan Ive, found in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs:

Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products, we have to feel we can dominate them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you. Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and so complex. The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.

Primal Workouts

I posted earlier this week about Mark Sisson’s new book, The Primal Blueprint 21-Day Total Body Transformation, and reading it has reminded me of one of the many things I love about the Primal lifestyle: simple workouts.

The underlying theme behind the Primal Blueprint’s quick and efficient fitness regimen is that 80% of our body composition is the result of diet, not exercise. It might only take 15 minutes to eat a 1000 calorie cheeseburger from McDonald’s, but you’d have to run for well over an hour to burn most of that off. Thus, killing yourself in the gym to make up for a poor diet is not only inefficient, but exhausting and unsustainable. It’s much easier to eat healthy and exercise less. As Mark says in the book, exercise should be about the movement rather than the calories. It’s about staying young and active, not compensating for ice cream cones.

Primal Blueprint fitness consists of three elements: moving slowly, lifting heavy things, and sprinting once in a while. The majority of exercise takes the form of low intensity activities, like walking or hiking. Two days a week are dedicated to bodyweight exercises, including pushups, pullups, squats, overhead presses, and planks. Finally, once a week or so, you sprint with maximum effort.

The best part of these routines is that they’re quick and enjoyable. Lifting Heavy Things only lasts about 45 minutes, and that’s with a high amount of reps. Sprint workouts only last ten or fifteen minutes. If you’re active most of the time — i.e. not at a desk for eight hours a day — and have a proper diet, little else is necessary.

I’ve tried Insanity and P90X, and while they’re great for a swift kick in the ass, by the end of the program, you’re going to be exhausted and burnt out. Find me someone who completes P90X and then exercises the next day. It’s unsustainable longterm. Overtraining is what causes us to fall out of healthy routines, and being too tired to workout sucks.

That’s why I love the Primal Blueprint. It doesn’t demand an hour of my time six days a week, and it’s much more fun than working out in front of my TV at night. My mood is elevated afterward, and exercise doesn’t become a source of dread. Coupled with the Primal diet, it all just works.

No Cables in the Cloud

I usually go to great lengths to hide wires and cables. My MacBook Pro’s power cord is fed neatly through a hole in the back of my desk. The cables for my entertainment system are tightly bound with twist ties. When I worked at SCSU, I ordered a wireless mouse and keyboard to make the Dell I was using a little more tolerable.

Cables are ugly, and they can be a significant source of clutter if not managed properly.

One cable that I’ve been unable to do away with is the USB cable for my iPhone and iPad. Until now! With the release of iCloud, I hardly have any reason to connect my devices to my Mac ever again.

iCloud offers wi-fi sync, which allows me to sync my devices wirelessly. Even now, my iPhone is sitting here on my desk, and I can see it in iTunes.

iCloud backs up my devices while I’m sleeping. I don’t have to plug my iPhone or iPad into my Mac to back it up anymore. When I wake up and check the settings, my devices read “Last Backed Up: 4:42 AM”. Every time. It’s automatic and awesome. Backing up everything to iCloud also means that, should I have to wipe my device or get a new one, I can restore everything on the spot, without having to go home and plug into my computer.

When iTunes Match becomes available at the end of the month, I’ll be able to download any of the music in my collection wirelessly. That means I won’t have to carry my iPod around anymore. I can have access to my entire library wherever I am.

iOS 5 also provides wireless software updates, so I don’t have to connect to a computer to update my devices.

All this equates to a sense of freedom. While the cynic would argue that I’m bound to Apple’s ecosystem, I’m actually free to leave at anytime. I don’t resent living in Apple’s ecosystem because it’s the most frictionless option available. Everything works seamlessly as a unified system. This is an incredibly exciting time to be part of the Apple community, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how things develop over the next few years.

On Caffeine & Alcohol

The other day, a friend asked me how my fondness for simplicity and minimalism affects my stance on things like caffeine and alcohol. Good question.

I don’t partake in either. Obviously, the two substances aren’t synonymous, but my reasons for abstaining apply to both.

  1. Consumption. A central focus of minimalism is to break free from the bonds of our material-oriented, advertising-driven society. Minimalism is built on the concepts of less and enough. The goal is to stop consuming things you don’t need. This includes making unnecessary purchases and eating unhealthy foods just because a television commercial says you should. Consuming less frees you to do other things. Consuming less also helps you save money, and I would hate to make a habit of spending $4 at Starbucks every day or however many dollars at the liquor store every weekend. Water satiates all of my liquid-consuming needs, and it’s free.

  2. Dependence. I never want to be in a situation where I need caffeine or alcohol to function properly. I never want to be one of those people who is “useless until I’ve had my coffee”. I don’t want to have to have a drink to become the life of the party, if I was actually interested in being that person. Dependence is limiting. By not needing these things, I become a little more free, and my life is a little bit simpler.

  3. Health. This post isn’t meant to be a self-righteous indictment of people who enjoy caffeinated or alcoholic beverages. If it was, I’d have no friends. Clearly, there are appropriate ways to enjoy these things, i.e. in moderation. Several health-related websites I follow actually advocate caffeine for its purported health benefits, and you can find plenty of articles discussing the benefits of a glass of red wine with dinner. For my part, I certainly do enjoy a cup of tea once or twice a week. Alcohol, on the other hand, is poisonous to the human body, but I can understand how some people enjoy its effects, taste, or other properties. Being healthy in today’s society is challenging enough, though, and I’d rather avoid the added difficulty altogether.

  4. Personal. Coffee smells delicious, but most of that stuff is disgusting. I make no apologies for this position. As for alcohol, I’ve just never seen the point, for all the above reasons. I’m not a party-goer, so I don’t need the boost in social skills. I can’t speak for taste, but most of it doesn’t smell good. The concept of being drunk holds no appeal to me because I can’t possibly fathom how you would want to voluntarily give up control of the one thing you actually have control over, which is your mind. Plus, my dad’s been a recovering alcoholic for many, many years, and since I’m a lot like him, I feel its best to follow his example and avoid any alcoholism in my family’s history entirely.

I think that sums it up. Again, these are just my opinions, and I encourage you to do what works for you.

Coincidentally, Ev Bogue just posted about why he untethered from alcohol. It’s a good read.

Simplicity, Clutter, Compassion, & Love

Patrick Rhone on dealing with not-so-minimal loved ones:

All I’m saying here is that our goal of uncluttered simplicity is likely just as strange and wrong and foreign to those who are the opposite as they are to us. Compassion and acceptance are required on both sides.

Eliminate Unnecessary People

John Lilly:

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got, back when I was 23 and newly out of school, is this: look around and figure out who you want to be on your team. Figure out the people around you that you want to work with for the rest of your life. Figure out the people who are smart & awesome, who share your values, who get things done — and maybe most important, who you like to be with and who you want to help win. And treat them right, always. Look for ways to help, to work together, to learn. Because in 20 years you’ll all be in amazing places doing amazing things.

A central tenet of minimalism is eliminating unnecessary things. You can apply this principle to virtually anything, including relationships. It may sound cold, but there’s simply no reason to waste time and energy maintaining a relationship that contributes nothing of value to your day.

Of course, some relationships are unavoidable, so it’s also possible that you might need to minimize a relationship to only its essential aspects. My roommate freshman year, for example, was absolutely nothing like me and had little to offer besides copious amounts of alcohol and chicks, bro, chicks. I’m sure he had similar feelings about me. Requesting to switch rooms was probably an option, but rather than go through all that hassle, we opted to peacefully coexist instead. We didn’t have to hang out all the time just because the university decided to pair us up; we just had to sleep in the same room and not kill each other. When the year ended, we went our separate ways, save for the occasional, “Hey man, how’s it going?” in the cafeteria line.

Now obviously, human relationships are enormously complex, and I don’t mean to undermine them. But it’s important to remember that, even though this is the Age of Facebook, you don’t have to be friends with everybody. It’s alright to let someone go when your relationship has run its course. It’s not about being a cold-hearted jerk, it’s about accepting the fact that not everyone needs or even deserves a place on your team. There’s no need to feel guilty about it because you’re freeing yourself to focus on those who matter most.

Different personalities have different needs, and some may enjoy the challenge of keeping up 500 friendships. In that case, by all means do what makes you happy. For me, though, relationships are one of the foremost examples of quality beating quantity every time.

Via MG Siegler

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Letting Someone Else Decide

Patrick Rhone on delegating choice:

I have talked before about final choices and sensible defaults as a way I bring balance to my life by reducing the number of choices I have to make. I have recently identified one other method I increasingly use to simplify in this manner – delegating choices to someone or something else.

Very interesting, and useful for those who don’t like to make decisions.

The Simplicity of Self

I love this idea of Triangular Focus by Everett Bogue:

These three things are important to me:

  1. Writing (and publishing)
  2. Yoga
  3. Eating (well)


Whenever I’m presented with something outside these three, I have to ask myself: does this take me towards these goals, or away from them?

I talk about simplicity a lot on this website, but Everett’s point is one that’s often overlooked. I think of it as the simplicity of self.

Just as it’s impossible to read everything, to see everything, to do everything, it’s also impossible to be everything.

Everett has identified the three things most important to him, and as a result, he can pour himself completely into each of them.

When I was little, I wanted to be an archaeologist. Then, I wanted to be a karate instructor. Then, I wanted to be a famous bass player. Then, I wanted to be a student affairs professional. Now, I want to be a writer. It’s natural for these dreams to change over time, but eventually I have to figure out what’s going to define me for the rest of my life. What do I care about most?

I would still love to be a famous bass player, but I’ve started to accept that that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, of course. If I really set my mind to it and put the hours in, I could probably make it happen. So, perhaps more accurately, I’ve decided not to become a famous bass player. Luckily, that doesn’t mean I have to give up bass playing. In fact, I still play every day. Bass will always be a passion of mine, but it’s one that’s been relegated to a lifelong hobby, rather than a potential career path.

Being everything at once is like trying to be everywhere at once; it’s exhausting and, ultimately, impossible. Think of it as quality versus quantity. Do I want to be a decent bass player, and a passable writer, and a part-time karate instructor all in one? Or would I rather spend my time and energy focusing on being the best I can possibly be at one important thing?

The more identities you have, the less attention each receives. It’s like being involved in seven different clubs in school. Can you become, say, president of all seven clubs and still perform to the best of your ability at all times? I’m sure that sounds doable for some people, and I commend these individuals for their ambition and superhuman abilities.

But for me, I’d rather live a calmer and more focused life. Looking at Everett’s three things, I see they’re not much different than my own: writing, exercise, and diet. These are the things I care about.

If, at this time in my life, my day consisted of eating well, exercising, and writing about things I love on this website, I don’t think I’d be able to imagine a better existence.

Bending the Stiffest Arrow

J. Eddie Smith, IV:

To get up smiling when the universe hits me in the mouth. To make something out of nothing, even if that something exists in a reality known only to me. To defy the Second Law as many times as I can before it beats me for good.

To be an anomalous crook on the arrow of time.

I wish I wrote that.

It’s a mantra for myself and for this website: we have control over almost nothing except our minds and how they deal with the world.

Simplicity is one way to combat the complexity of the universe. The more moving parts something has, the more likely one of them is to break. I keep my workflow simple so I can get more things done in more places, rather than be debilitated by a missing tool or a foreign location. If something contributes more complexity than harmony to my life, it gets simplified or eliminated.

The more simplicity, the less friction. The less friction, the less struggle. The less struggle, the more inner peace.