asimpleframe

Saying No in The New Year

The dawn of the New Year marks a time to look ahead and dream about the future. Often involved are making resolutions and setting goals. I once encountered some advice on this topic that has stayed with me through the years. Initially, I didn’t fully grasp it, but its meaning has deepened over time. The advice? It is more important to think about what you’ll stop doing rather than what you’ll start.

Ultimately, setting goals is an attempt to budget our most valuable resource: time. What we spend our time on, and thus our attention, determines how we live our lives. When we say yes to one thing, we also say no to hundreds of other things at the same time. And there is only room for so many yeses.

Resolutions and goals are often only about saying yes. What are the things we want to start doing in the New Year that we aren’t doing already? Missing from the equation are the things we will say no to in order to make room for the new yeses.

Consider Dieter Rams’ famous dictum: less but better. Saying no to the unessential frees us to focus our time and attention on what is most important. Thus, we do what is most important better, because there is less to distract us from it.

This concept lies at the heart of A Simple Frame – a name inspired by Jim Collins’ excellent article Best New Year’s Resolution? A ‘Stop Doing’ List:

Looking back, I now see Rochelle Myers as one of the few people I’ve known to lead a great life, while doing truly great work. This stemmed largely from her remarkable simplicity. A simple home. A simple schedule. A simple frame for her work.

Collins’ article is the best articulation of the idea of saying no in the New Year. Do yourself a favor – read it.

Ask yourself these questions: What does simplicity look like in your life? What is unessential that can be cut away? What is the best use of your time and attention?

This New Year, what will you stop doing in order to reach your goals?

Cost and Value

Writer Pro was released this week. It’s the follow-up to one of my favorite apps – the excellent iA Writer. Aside from interesting new features like syntax control, there was one aspect of Writer Pro’s release that caused me to pause and think: the price.

Writer Pro costs $20. That’s $20 for the Mac version and another $20 for the iOS version. In a world of 99¢ apps, the pricing of Writer Pro is somewhat unique. It is decidedly not an impulse buy.

Why $20? Oliver Reichenstein, founder of Information Architects, explains:

We want people to think before they buy Writer Pro. Writer Pro is not for everybody. It is a professional writing suite for professional writers. Don’t buy it if you’re just interested in testing cool stuff.

The more I think about this pricing strategy, the more I like it. By setting the bar a little higher, Writer Pro’s price helps ensure that people who purchase are thoughtful and serious about the app.

This leads to an important realization: paying for something costly changes your perception of it. The more costly something is, the more you appreciate it. The more you invest in it before disposing of it. The more you care for it over time. For example…

Music

When streaming music (low cost), I am quick to move on if an album doesn’t immediately interest me. If I purchase an album outright (high cost), I am much more likely to give it repeated listens before giving up on it. This can be rewarding, as often the best albums are the ones that grow on you over time.

News

The Information, a technology news site, makes its articles available to subscribers only, at a cost of $39 a month. Aside from this business model’s impact on journalism, it completely changes the relationship of the reader to the reporter. The reader is likely to be highly engaged – reading thoughtfully and providing feedback – in addition to having higher expectations for the quality of reporting.

Furniture

Vitsoe makes “long-living furniture, always striving to be better rather than newer.” As a result, Vitsoe’s furniture never goes on sale and is relatively costly (at least in the short term). The cost, however, is what allows Vitsoe to fulfill its mission. It enables the high level of quality required for it’s furniture to last. It also ensures that customers have thoughtfully considered their purchase and will be invested in using it for a lifetime.

All of the above characteristics are true of app purchases. In the case of Writer Pro, the costly price will result in a group of thoughtful, engaged people that expect a lot out of the product and are invested in using it and seeing it improve over time. This is good for all involved. The makers of Writer Pro can focus on satisfying a thoughtful, engaged user base. The users of Writer Pro can enjoy a well-crafted tool, knowing that its development will be sustainable.

I haven’t purchased Writer Pro yet. I’m still thoughtfully considering it. If and when I do, however, it certainly won’t be on impulse.

Limiting Digital Clutter

I read an article on Medium this week that helped me do something I really needed to do: reduce digital clutter. The article, entitled The Noise of Stuff and written by Mikael Cho, explains “How clutter affects you and what you can do about it.” Much is described about the psychology of clutter, but the first point of application packed the biggest punch: Apply constraints.

Imposing constraints on oneself can be very beneficial, especially creatively. In Cho’s words:

One of the principles of good design is constraints. You can apply this same theory to create a system for mastering consumption.

One of the worst things that can happen to a creative project is to be given no constraints. It may sound like a dream to have no deadline, budget, or creative restrictions. However, such freedom is almost always paralyzing. Without constraints, there’s nothing to push against or work around to stimulate creativity. Without a deadline, there’s no motivation for completion.

The same is true of clutter and consumption. Given the constraint of a small living space, it’s harder to accumulate a lot of clutter because there’s simply no room to store the unessential. Unlike the physical world, however, there are often no practical limits when it comes to digital spaces. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s great to not have to worry about deleting emails for the sake of having a place to store new ones. The downside comes with the boundless current of digital information.

With the unending flow of great information (articles, videos, tweets, etc), I struggle to balance the time I spend consuming information with my desire to spend time creating. For example, I find myself spending much time reading when, arguably, my time would be better spent actually writing.

Though not a novel idea, Cho’s advice to apply constraints proved quite timely to me personally. It highlighted a growing problem in my digital life. Namely, my personal streams of digital information had become cluttered. Early this year, I intentionally paired down my information diet, but its lean size has slowly grown and become more and more bloated the more time has passed.

The best example is my saved-for-later list in Pocket. It contained over 200 items – a number which was beginning to feel overwhelming. The clutter had reached a tipping point, and negative associations were building in my head about my list. Cho’s advice provided the clarity and inspiration I needed to take action.

Although I had thought in fuzzy terms about limiting items in Pocket, I had never assigned a specific number. Specifity is very important and shouldn’t be underestimated. By setting a real number to each stream of information, the abstract desire to reduce clutter and consumption becomes a concrete reality.

In my case, I decided to set my Pocket limit to 50 – a reduction of over 75%. I combed through my list and deleted or archived the majority of items. This achieved two positive results. One, it ensured that the contents of my Pocket list are truly relevant and interesting. They are the items with the most value, thereby maximizing the time I spend consuming. As a second benefit, I am once more excited and engaged to open Pocket. The negative feeling of clutter has evaporated.

One other line stuck with me from Cho’s article, and it’s helpful to remember when discussing self-imposed limits:

Everyone’s tolerance for clutter is different.

This is so true. I tend to keep a lot of tchotchkes around my workspace. To some, it would appear very cluttered. To me, however, it makes my space feel creative and calm. The same is true of digital clutter. My limit of 50 might feel cluttered to someone else. Conversely, 200 items – which felt very cluttered to me – might be totally okay for a different person.

In addition to Pocket, I also placed specific limits on the number of people I follow on Twitter (50) and the number of rss feeds I follow (30). I hope to reduce these limits incrementally over time. Again, the specificity is most helpful. It’s not possible to continually add without asking the question of what must be taken away. In effect, specific limits ask, “Is this information really worth your time?”

Using an Old iPhone

“An iPhone 3GS? Seriously?” – so said an incredulous coworker when I pulled out my phone. As a fellow designer, it was unfathomable to him that I would be using such an archaic piece of technology. To be clear, “archaic” in this instance refers to a phone that is four years old.

Four years is forever in technology years, but as photographer Steve Huff recently commented regarding camera technology:

Just because a new camera bettered an older model does not mean the older model is no good. It is still as great as it always was and is still capable of amazing results.

The iPhone 3GS is an amazing device – at least it was when it was new. Yet, conventional wisdom says to upgrade your phone every two years when your contract renews. Conventional wisdom also says to judge other people and ourselves by the things (ie phones) we possess.

The purpose of this article is not to explain why I own an iPhone 3GS – as if the mere fact of a digital designer owning an old iPhone necessitates a defense. Instead, it is to challenge a bit of the aforementioned conventional wisdom. It’s not hard to find reasons to buy the latest iPhone. It is quite rare, however, to come across the advantages of owning an old one. So, in the spirit of challenging assumptions and perceptions, here are seven advantages to owning an old iPhone…

1. A Refined OS

Forget flat vs skeuomorphism for a moment. Think about iteration and refinement. The visual style of iOS 6 is the result of six major releases worth of visual refinement. Love it or hate it, it’s polished. I love the philosophy and direction behind iOS 7, but it’s first incarnation is definitely not without its flaws or critics. It will be improved and refined over time. For now, however, an old iPhone is the best way to enjoy a higher level of OS polish.

2. Low Cost

Buying any new technology is costly. For example, my dad paid $30,000 for his first business computer in the eighties, and it could do very little. The cost of a new iPhone (plus Apple Care) plus the protracted cost of a 2-year contract adds up. Relatively, old iPhones cost very little (mine was free) and can be used with a low-cost, contract-free carrier.

3. Few Updates

Though iOS 7 updates apps in the background, there’s less reason to care about updates at all with an old iPhone (running iOS 6). Most updates are targeted for iOS 7 compatibility and some new apps won’t even run on iOS 6. While this can definitely be a disadvantage, one benefit is the lack of change. An old iPhone gradually eases into a more static system that doesn’t require updates.

4. Maximum Use

Our culture is in the habit of replacing things long before they reach the end of their useful life. It’s easier to buy a new pair of jeans than it is to patch them. Put bluntly, we are wasteful. An iPhone may still be useful, but we’ll toss it or trade it in if there’s a newer one available. Using an old iPhone encourages getting the maximum use and life out of a product, which can even be fun if you like taking things apart.

5. Less Use

This advantage may seem counter-intuitive. Old technology is slower than new technology. In general, this is a negative characteristic, but slowness can be a virtue. For example, I don’t want to spend every waking hour glued to my iPhone. I want to be connected to my family and the world around me. Using an old iPhone helps me achieve this. It’s slowness puts more friction between me and unnecessary interactions, helping prevent overuse.

6. Less Precious

Buying a brand new car causes worry about every potential scratch and dent that might mar its perfect surface. Those same worries are far less prevalent with a used car. The same is also true of an iPhone. An old iPhone carries less risk and worry of loss or damage than a new one.

7. Perspective

Why do I feel slightly hesitant to write this article? Am I afraid of what other designers will think of me if they find out I use such an old phone? Though I wish I could say I didn’t think these things, owning an old phone makes you come to terms with these kind of questions. It’s a good reminder that a new iPhone is just a thing, not an identity – a luxury, not a need.

Do I want a new iPhone? Yes. Do I need a new iPhone? No. There’s nothing inherently bad or wrong about desiring a new piece of technology. But it can become bad if we place too much weight and value on our desires for new possessions. Jesus taught “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Likewise, one’s life does not consist in the phone one possesses. The time will come to buy a new phone, but I’m perfectly okay – and even better off in some ways – until that time comes.

The Power of New

New. Few concepts are more powerful, especially in today’s world of digital technology. The stream of new devices, new apps, and new gadgets is as relentless as it is endless. What is new today will be old tomorrow, and tomorrow keeps coming faster and faster. There is no time to rest if you want to keep up with what is new. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it.

New Changes Perception

A new version, a new model, a new product. The things we own don’t change, but we see them differently in light of what is new. What was once fast, small, and impressive is now slow, cumbersome, and so-so. In the words of Apple’s Phil Schiller:

Isn’t it amazing how something new makes the previous thing instantly look old?

In an instant, your iDevice has lost its luster. It still works as well and looks as good as it always has, but why would you want to keep using it? It’s no longer new.

New Demands Attention

New, new, new. Few adjectives command our attention with more authority. The subject rarely matters. The immediacy demands our time. Aptly named, news is the archetypal example. Seldom is “the news” truly noteworthy or even interesting apart from its timeliness. But we watch, listen, and click because it is new.

Much time is given to what is new. Time is spent learning about new gadgets rather than using the ones we already own. It’s easier to spend our time consuming social media news feeds rather than creating meaningful work. Intentionally allocating time is difficult and disciplined work. It requires the willpower to look away from what is new in order to focus on what is important.

New Cultivates Discontentment

What is new deprives us from enjoying what we already have. Using an old gadget, our thoughts are filled with how much better, faster, and more enjoyable it would be if only we were using a newer one. Gnawing dissatisfaction grows within. What we already have may be what is best, but the prospect of greener pastures prohibits us from realizing it.

The promise of what is new is not a passive message. Advertising tells us how much better life would be if we only had what is new. In the US, we pay lip service to being thankful for what we have, but we’re certainly not content. It’s hard to be happy with what we have when something newer can be had.

Reflections on Newness

Newness is not an end in itself. It is equally faulty to universally embrace or reject based on newness alone. A healthy perspective begins with reflection and ends with balance. Newness has the power to negatively influence our perception, time, and contentment. At the same time, newness gives us hope for improvement and a future better than today.

Perhaps what is new captivates us so powerfully because, deep down, we long to be satisfied by something better than what exists today. A new world, a new life, a new hope. What is new ushers in progress, innovation, and improvement and promises the redemption of what is old, failing, and fading away.

Sketchbook Notes, Volume 2

The act of putting pen to paper helps plant information in my brain unlike anything else. Just like my previous notebook, the notes below are a window into my reading and thought patterns – highlighting ideas that resonated strongly with me from the past three to four months. Hopefully they resonate with you as well.

80/20 & Parkinson’s Law

These two related principles are outlined by Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Work Week. The 80/20 principle states that 20% of your efforts/inputs result in 80% of the desired results. By focusing on the 20% of tasks that yield the majority of results, you can be more effective while doing less work.

Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” By limiting the time you have to complete a task, you are forced to focus on what is most important (instead of procrastinating – see below).

Avoiding the Important

The work that is most important is usually the work that is most difficult. Particularly if too much time has been allotted, we invent unimportant work to keep ourselves busy in order to avoid the hard work. Tim Ferriss recommends periodically asking yourself this question to keep your focus in check.

Poverty of Attention

I don’t remember where I first encountered this quote from Herbert Simon. Our culture suffers acutely from poverty of attention, and the valuation of digital products provides concrete evidence of this fact. As shown again just this week, attention is valued far more highly than profitability.

Success

What is success? In Offscreen No. 4, Dave Greiner of Campaign Monitor defined it as noted above: the right balance of time with loved ones and meaningful work. In an industry that too often values work to the detriment of all else, it’s inspiring to see such balance championed by the leader of a profitable, well-designed product.

The Best Conversations

Sharing a meal with someone positively affects the way we communicate. Also from Dave Greiner’s Offscreen interview, this comment speaks to Campaign Monitor’s culture of providing lunch for their entire team each day. It’s a brilliant way to foster camaraderie and collaboration in a workspace where each person has their own office.

Talent + Vision

Timoni West, also interviewed in Offscreen, offered this question as a metric to evaluate potential job satisfaction for a designer. In short, align yourself to work on products that reflect your skills and principles.

Notice Beauty

This quote comes from storyteller Jay O’Callahan as recorded by Scott Belsky in Making Ideas Happen. In short, it’s a reminder to look for what’s right in a piece of work instead of what’s wrong. For the complete story, read Focusing on Beauty.

Quit Waiting

Yet another bit of inspiration from Offscreen, this positive command comes from an interview with Brad Smith. In his words: “Today is truly all we have. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.” This encouragement to taking initiative speaks for itself.

Arbitrary Deadlines

As I write, the time approaches ten o’clock on the evening on November 14. I must complete and publish this article by midnight in order to meet my deadline. What happens if I don’t? Absolutely nothing. The deadline is self-imposed. It’s also completely arbitrary.

The fact of the matter is that I wouldn’t be writing at all if it wasn’t for the arbitrary deadline. I started with the goal to write about design and constructed constraints that would force me to do so. As the Writing page reads:

Thoughts on design, published on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th.

It’s the 14th, so I’ve got a deadline to meet.

Thus far, the great consequence has been that I have, indeed, written. I’ve written more than I ever have in my non-student, adult life – twenty-two articles to date. I’ve accomplished my goal, thanks to arbitrary deadlines.

There are downsides, however. A busy schedule, coupled with procrastination, has lead to stressful, last-minute writing sessions, all in an effort to meet the arbitrary deadline. This affects not only myself but my family – who sees less of me as a result. In particular, my wife has felt the burden of doing the things I’ve left undone because I’m writing.

The worst situation came while attempting to meet last week’s deadline – November 7. I underestimated the work of writing notes from Ampersand NYC, which necessitated four articles. Instead of meeting my deadline, I broke it. Publishing four articles in the same week also broke my one-per-week schedule.

For all my efforts, this technically wasn’t the first time a deadline was missed. Confession: I’ve taken small liberties with dates in order to maintain the facade of my weekly publishing schedule. Did anyone notice? No – no one is waiting for this article to be published. Does that remove the uneasy feeling that I’ve been dishonest? No it doesn’t.

Writing on the internet is a strange thing. Starting out, your reader is both no one and everyone at the same time. The fact that your words are “published” and accessible to anyone to read is motivating. Simply knowing that your words could be read promotes a higher standard of quality.

After all, motivation is the end goal. Arbitrary deadlines are a motivational tool, but at what point do they cease being helpful and become overly burdensome? When does positive stress (that forces action) become negative? If a deadline is compromised one time, it becomes easier to compromise a second. If there’s no positive pressure to meet a deadline, it’s no longer useful as a motivational tool.

Limitations and deadlines are necessary. To not have limitation is the illusion of freedom and the tyranny of infinite choice. To not have a deadline is to never finish. What must be remembered is that we are human beings and not rigid machines. We need deadlines, but we also need a degree of flexibility. Arbitrary deadlines are to help us, not control us.