Quiet Habits

In a noisy world, it's important to find a little quiet

If you spend any time reading through blogs, books, or Instagram posts about minimalism, you'll almost certainly see some quote about how “experiences are better than things”. Typically this is accompanied by something like “experiences create lasting memories and things just wear out and break” or “it's better to spend money on travel and experiences than on more clutter”. And I think this is true, for the most part. But during our last few trips, I've seen a disturbing trend with people seeking these experiences. They've reduced them to nothing more than a couple of social media pictures and another item checked off the list. They've commodified them.

I don't pretend to be some great outdoorsman or great adventurer. I like the comforts of air conditioning and a soft bed as much as anyone. But I do love being out in the natural world, especially in our National Parks. I love the fresh air, the amazing sights and sounds and smells of unspoiled earth. I enjoy watching clouds and shadows move across the landscape, or seeing water work its way slowly through tough rock. And yes, I love photographing these beautiful landscapes as much as any other iPhone-toting tourist. But I try as much as possible to live in the moment, to feel every ounce of life pouring out of a point in space, to notice the trees and the flowers and the birds and the rocks along the way. I'm not always successful, but I do try.

I have observed many, however, who simply visit a place because it was highly rated on Google or had a popular hashtag on Instagram. They come, take their picture, and leave, without so much as a second thought about the majesty of the place and moment. One such moment that I reflect on often was on the hike to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah. This is perhaps the most iconic of all the arches in the Western United States and one that is almost always busy when we visit the park. While we were hiking to the arch, we encountered several groups of tourists who were not at all prepared for the hike, which is neither short nor easy. One woman had on high heels and looked was better prepared to go to a fancy restaurant than hike in the middle of the desert. Another was wearing sandals and had nothing besides a camera and a smartphone (the hike is about 3 miles, so carrying water with you is strongly advised).

Another experience I reflect on often is a recent trip to New York City, where we were able to visit the 9/11 memorial area, which to me felt like hallowed ground. While we did take a few pictures, we tried not to talk loudly or disrupt the experience for others. There were many people taking selfies in front of the memorial or vlogging loudly in the crowd of tourists. They got their video or picture and left as quickly as they had come, on to check the next popular site off their list.

I think a focus on experiences is wonderful! I'll take a trip to the zoo with my daughter any day over buying her another junky toy or going on a hike over going to a shopping mall. But is there really a benefit to focusing more on experiences if you're treating them like things? Another patch on your vest? Another pic for your followers? Are you just doing something for the likes?

I don't have some grand solution to the problem of commodifying experiences, but I do think that we should examine our “why”. Why do you want to go and do this thing or that? Why do you want to visit Delicate Arch or the 9/11 Memorial? Is it because that's what everyone else does? Or for the sweet Instagram followers? Or to make your neighbors/friends/coworkers jealous? Or is it to marvel at the beauty of the natural world, get some fresh air, learn about geology, pay respects to the lost souls, and honor a great nation? I think the more we question our “why” behind our actions, the more we'll have authentic experiences that will stick with us beyond some likes on social media and that will fill our lives with more than fleeting pleasure at our follower count.

In the world of minimalism blogs there is a lot of talk about decluttering your life and getting rid of your stuff. And while I fully support banishing excess clutter, I also think there is so much talk about getting rid of our physical items that we tend to see physical items as the villains keeping us from happiness and a simple life. This is simply not true. Nobody can thrive in a tiny one-room space with bare walls and only a few basic items necessary to live.

The fact is that not only do we need physical items to survive (cooking/eating utensils, clothing, hygiene products, and on and on) but we also require physical items to thrive in life. Things can make bring us joy. Things help us achieve our goals and dream. Things help us thrive.

We have a giant bean bag and a giant teddy bear in our playroom. They take up a lot of space and some might see them as unnecessary clutter. But our daughter loves playing with them. And I love falling onto the bean bag and relaxing after a long week or grabbing my daughter as she jumps onto the bean bag over and over. Both of these things take up a lot of space, but they're also tons of fun and we love having them around!

I could tell the same story about my laptop, the stack of notebooks and pens, my bicycle, and countless other items. They vastly improve my life in some way and I can hardly imagine life without them (yes, it would be possible, but it might not be my best life).

While you're on a minimalism journey, don't see physical things as the enemy. Physical things should improve, enable, or bring joy or beauty into your life (like an awesome pen, a beautiful painting, or a functional laptop). While physical things shouldn't be the focus of all your time and energy and I'm not advocating keeping every knick-knack and newspaper, we should see the beauty and functionality in our everyday items and enjoy our stuff.

I haven't written anything personal for quite some time. I've probably got a list of excuses a mile long, but you probably don't care about why I haven't been writing, you want to read what I have to say. And what I have to say is this: I feel compelled to start writing regularly again. In fact, I want to make this a daily habit, which is something I haven't done for a long time.

The need to write has been bottled up inside me and has finally escaped as the weather gets cooler where I live and the days are getting shorter. The desire to write has been there. My butt has been in the seat in front of a screen. But distractions, fear, and discouragement always win the day. I get distracted by the TV and apps and games. I'm afraid that nobody is reading, am I typing into a void? Is anybody out there? And I get discouraged because I feel like I have nothing new or interesting to write about.

While some of my fears and discouragements might be grounded in truth, mostly they're stories made up by my anxious brain, darn thing is always trying to take the easy way out and avoid pain whenever possible.

But from today until some day in the future, I want to write and publish a blog post every day. Some might be drafts I've been sitting on for months or years. Some might be stream of consciousness that were written and published before bed. Others may be longer posts that I've split up into shorter sections.

This idea hit me in three parts. First, a few days ago I came home from work, exhausted and ready for a relaxing evening. As I sat down in front of the TV, a little voice in my mind nudged me and said, “Hey, you haven't written anything for a while.” Pretty simple stuff, but as I let that thought sink in and marinate for a bit, I realized that writing is a big part of my life and identity that I have been ignoring for a while. Second, I rediscovered a journal in which I wrote a crappy poem every day for about six months straight. Most of the poems are really bad, but some of them are half decent and a few are actually really good. It was a few days later that I realized I've been putting off blogging because I feel like nobody is reading anyway and many of my ideas are bad. And then, as I was listening to a podcast, I heard this quote from Neil Gaiman:

[P]ublishing a collection of short fiction these days is akin to dropping rose petals into the Grand Canyon and waiting to hear the boom.

I feel the same way about blogging. I think most of the time publishing a blog post is even worse. It's like adding a single drop of water to the ocean and expecting a hurricane.

This quote (and the preceding pondering) helped me realize that my blog isn't a business, it'll probably never have millions of readers or be worth millions of dollars, it's not meant to go viral, I don't plan on turning it into a New York Time's best seller. But it is fun. It's relaxing. It's therapeutic. It's enlightening. It's helped me learn about myself and the world and grow as an individual. And I like to believe that at least one thing I've written has resonated with at least one other person somewhere. And that makes it worth it, in my opinion.

So for the foreseeable future, I'm issuing myself a challenge: Write and publish a blog post every day. This will be an ongoing challenge with no definite end. I want to see how many days I can go and how many blog posts I can publish. Yes, some of them will not be my best work. But some of them will (hopefully) be pretty great. This scares me and I know it's going to be hard. But I've felt in a rut of easiness and I think this is just the thing to get me back on the path.

If you'd like to join me with whatever art form (drawing, writing, music, photography, dance, etc. etc.), you can email a link to wherever you post to nathan “at” quiethabits.net and I'll try to add links to your awesome stuff at the bottom of each post. Let's not be afraid to create and share. Let's go out and make awesome things, share them, and support each other.

For the past 2 months, I've been trying to use my smartphone as a tool again, rather than a toy. Here's how it went.

Photo by Gian Cescon on Unsplash

Overall, I felt the experience was a positive one. I learned a lot about my smartphone usage, the times when I'm more susceptible to the pull to unlock and check my phone, and how to fight my own urges to check everything. I'm calling the experiment a complete success, because I feel I cut down a little bit on my overall smartphone usage (some days were not great, admittedly) and learned a lot along the way.

But first, why did I decide to do this?

Mostly, I noticed myself almost subconsciously drawn to unlock my phone and do something, anything to curb even a few seconds of perceived boredom. I noticed it was affecting my mood, my relationships, my work, my hobbies, and my attention span. While I didn't track anything scientifically enough to say that this experiment definitely improved my mood or attention span, I did notice that I felt more present in certain moments, I feel like I slept better, and I think my attention span is somewhat improved. The experiment was to see if anything would change, and I'm happy to report that although the changes are small and still ongoing, there were (and still are) positive changes in my life.

I'd like to note that this was not a challenge to go without a smartphone or try to never use it. I used my phone often for communication, for tools such as maps and the calculator, and for some entertainment like videos, music, and podcasts, as well as for work. This experiment was all about getting rid of the apps that I only turn to when I feel completely bored or have nothing else to do. I think we each have those apps that make us unlock our phones and then fall into a daze as we mindlessly scroll, watch, or play. I got rid of most of those apps during this experiment to see what would happen.

So, the experiment went well. I learned a lot about myself. I'm definitely going to apply some of the lessons I've learned and continue some of the habits I've built or broken. But I also learned some interesting things that I think can broadly apply to anyone looking to be more mindful of their smartphone use.

1. Delete the Apps

This was the most powerful tool for me. During the first week or two, I noticed myself unlocking my phone and then staring at my home screen for a minute, and then putting my phone back into my pocket. When I started this challenge, I deleted all the apps that I knew would be problematic for me. For me, there were a few games that I played when I felt bored, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and a few other apps that I only checked out of boredom. I deleted them all, except for a few that I hid in a folder far away from my home screen, to make them more difficult to reach. It was tough to delete the apps, but I didn't miss them after a few days. But when I unlocked my phone because I was bored, I wanted to open one of these apps. That was my trigger and routine. By deleting the apps, I broke the routine and eventually removed that habit. Now, I'm in the process of removing the boredom trigger, choosing instead to fill that boredom with other things like reading, playing with my daughter, or going for a walk. It's going well.

If you find yourself constantly unlocking your phone and checking apps, try deleting those apps for a day, a week, or a month and see what happens. See what else you can fill your time with.

2. No Phone Zone

We recently built a new deck in our backyard to replace some old steps that were falling apart. It's a nice, relaxing space that I love and cherish. It's quiet most nights and is the perfect place to watch birds come and go and enjoy some shade in the evening. A couple days after we had finished building the deck, we ate on it for the first time. I decided to declare it a no phone zone for myself (and for my wife, for that evening at least). With the exception of one or two nights and the occasional picture, this rule has gone quite well for me. I'm trying not to treat it as a tough restriction, but rather as a personal guideline to give myself some time apart from my phone and more aware of the world around me. I highly recommend setting aside some space in your life or home for a no phone zone. Having a physical space where you decide to leave your phone behind not only builds a strong habit but gives you mental and physical freedom from the constant stream of notifications and information.

3. Disable Notifications

This is something I've been doing long before I tried this experiment, but was still very helpful for these past 2 months. As soon as I get a new phone, I immediately turn off most notifications. When I download an app, my default is almost always to disable notifications (or never turn them on in the first place). I don't get social media notifications on my phone at all. I am very selective about how and when I allow my phone to interrupt my day. I've found that notifications are like fermenting fruit to a fly. They entice us to check it out, see what's going on, and pull us in with the allure of an unread message, new follower, or newly uploaded video. Once we're drawn in, like a fly to fruit, we gorge ourselves on information, consuming and consuming, losing track of time until some other need finally pulls us away. We allow our phones to control our attention and command our time. Every vibration or ding from our phone means our train of thought is lost as we switch tasks to glance at our phone. Even a quick reply to a text message or dismissing a Twitter notification can wreak havoc on our focus, taking several minutes to get back to our previous task. And with hundreds of notifications on average coming in every day, we're potentially talking about hours lost every week to the void of notifications.

To put things into perspective, in the time it took me to write that last paragraph, I received 5 notifications on my phone and several more on my laptop. One of them distracted me and caused me to switch tasks, which added about five minutes onto the time it took to write this. I recommend disabling as many notifications as you can on your devices. Be in control of your time and attention, instead of letting your screens dictate your focus.

And that's about it. I learned that I should put away my phone more often. I learned that I should spend a little less time worrying about what's on my social feeds and a little more time playing with my daughter and talking with my wife. A little less time looking at pictures that other people took and a little more time appreciating the beauty all around me. Let me know if you try this experiment or have done something similar in the past. Send me a message @quiethabits or nathan “at” quiethabits.net.

Mr. Magorium: 37 seconds. Molly Mahoney: Great. Well done. Now we wait. Mr. Magorium: No. We breathe. We pulse. We regenerate. Our hearts beat. Our minds create. Our souls ingest. 37 seconds, well used, is a lifetime.

Do a quick search for “productivity” on Google. You will likely find hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of articles, books, methods, apps, programs, and entire websites devoted to the topic. There is no shortage of advice about getting more done. From GTD to the Bullet Journal to the thousands of To Do list apps in app stores, there are countless systems designed to help you do more in 24 hours.

I’ve tried my fair share of productivity hacks, systems, plans, and more. What I’ve discovered is that most of these systems don’t stick and maintaining many of these systems is harder than the tasks that you actually need to get done. Among the endless advice about how to get more done, I’ve found something that helps me focus on what’s truly important. The secret that helps me to be more productive is to take time to do nothing. Before you dismiss this as something silly or stupid, let me explain further.

A few years ago, I spent a weekend camping with my wife’s extended family in Idaho near the Snake River. I love spending time outdoors, whether I’m running, biking, camping, hiking or something else. Nature is great! We relaxed by the river, skipped rocks, talked with family, and just enjoyed the great outdoors together. The first morning we were up there I went fishing with some of my brother’s-in-law.

I actually didn’t do any fishing because I didn’t have a fishing license and I didn’t bring any gear. I still wanted to go out and spend some time on the river, so I borrowed some waders from my wife’s brother and went out with them anyway. While they fished, I enjoyed wading around in the river, skipping rocks and generally doing nothing.

There were a thousand things that I could have done if I had stayed home instead of going camping. I needed to finish some homework, write a paper for school, finish blog posts, clean the apartment, there were dishes in the sink, bills to pay, things to fix and much more. My todo list was pages long and the nagging feeling that I needed to get something done was always there. Yet here I was standing in a river in Idaho doing absolutely nothing!

The time passed quickly and quietly. The sun warmed me as it rose higher in the sky. The water was cool but not cold as it rushed past my legs. Bugs were sparse and there was plenty of river to explore. I spent my time watching birds, feeling the strength of the river’s current and breathing in the cool, fresh air.

According to productivity common sense, I was “wasting time”.

Although many would have seen this as a waste of my time, this experience at the river left me rejuvenated and full of a calm peace. When we got home from the trip I felt refreshed and ready to face work and school with a renewed sense of commitment and vigor. This little getaway to nature eased my mind, fed my soul and refreshed my body. It was a much needed break from all the going and doing.

Doing nothing, in its many forms, is often seen as a bad thing in our busy world. Even when we’re relaxing on a weekend or a day off, we still somehow find something to do. We check email, clean the house, browse the internet, watch TV, work on little projects, do laundry, and on and on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do these things. We need clean clothes, a clean house, and it’s fine to watch some TV and check your social feeds from time to time. But I believe that like every animal and machine, we need to power down, take a break, and do nothing every once in awhile. I’m not talking about sleep or naps, though a healthy amount of sleep does wonders! I’m talking about simply doing nothing. Sounds easy, right?

Unfortunately, it’s harder than it seems. When I was out on the river I could have been discussing fishing, worrying about bugs or snakes, feeling bad that I didn’t have a fishing license, or thinking about things to do at home. Instead I chose to just walk around with no agenda, no direction, and no objectives. I waded around, wandered on the shore, watched guppies swim around and enjoyed the moment. Technically I was doing something, but it was all spontaneous. As Mr. Magorium suggested in the quote above, sometimes we need to appreciate these moments of doing “nothing”: “We breathe. We pulse. We regenerate. Our hearts beat. Our minds create. Our souls ingest. 37 seconds, well used, is a lifetime.”

That day out on the river I learned first-hand what Mr. Magorium meant by a well used 37 seconds. I learned to breathe, pulse, regenerate. I discovered what it means to really stop my busy life and let my heart beat, my mind create and my soul ingest. This was a beautiful experience for me. I learned to love this moment, to be in the here and now. This is not an easy thing to do and I have yet to master the skill of living and being in the moment. But while the river rushed around my legs I admired the beauty of it all and just let myself be. I was part of the scenery. I wasn’t doing. I was just being. And that moment of just being was a precious gift to my mind, body and soul.

When I returned to “real life”, I felt refreshed, lighter, and more alive. It was as though I had absorbed the life around me. I hope to create more of these “37 second” moments where I don’t have to focus on doing or worrying about anything. I can sit still, breathe in the life around me and use my precious time to rejuvenate and lighten myself.

I challenge you to try something similar. Take some time and do nothing. Just let yourself be, with no cares, no tasks and no worry. Give time for your body to rest, your mind to create and your soul to heal.

Half of the year has come and gone already and I feel like I have no idea where the time went! I wrote about my struggles with keeping up with two quarterly habits and my frustration with feeling like I was forcing myself to meet quotas and arbitrary goals. I'm still exploring and thinking about my changing philosophy about these experiments, but in a nutshell I'd rather try something out with no expectations and see what happens instead of setting myself up with goals and quotas and ideals only to fall short and feel like a constant failure. I'm not saying that all goal-setting or quotas are a bad thing, but in the context of my Year of Change experiment, they felt stifling and the wrong direction.

I want these experiments to simply be experiments. No expectations, no predefined goals or quotas or anything like that. I also want these to revolve around something that I personally feel like I need to work on in my life. I want to take a problem that I notice in my life (such as using my phone way too much) and try an experiment that I believe will help solve that problem in some way (for example, making my phone less likely to be used so often). Then I want to test it out and record the results and then come to a conclusion. Kind of like a science fair project for my life.

So, on with the experiments! First, I've decided not to list out all my experiments for the rest of the year. As I learned in the first half of 2019, it's better to give as much focus to one thing as possible in order to accomplish and learn more and avoid burnout. The experiments will be decided upon and announced when the previous one is coming to an end. A lot can change in a couple of months and I don't want to feel tied down or obligated to an experiment that may not be important or relevant in a couple of months.

For June and July, I'm going to experiment with using my smartphone as a tool instead of a portal for entertainment, shopping, and social media. I've swayed back and forth on the spectrum of phone usage. Sometimes I barely use it for more than contacting friends and family and looking up directions while other times I feel like my eyes are glued to the slab of glass and metal in my hand, searching the tiny glowing pixels for some meaning or some way to stave off the boredom for a few minutes. Currently, I've felt especially drawn to the glow of my smartphone with games, videos, and the endless scroll of social media.

Don't take this as a manifesto against smartphones or using a smartphone. This is not an anti-smartphone article or experiment. In fact, this might be an argument for using my smartphone better and really utilizing its (and my own) full potential.

I theorize that by removing the draw to unlock my phone 100+ times per day, I'll regain some of my attention span and find more time for writing and creative thinking. That's my hypothesis. I guess we'll see what happens after 2 months of using my smartphone only as a tool.

For this experiment, I'm going to see what happens if I delete or hide all the apps that pull me in and convince me to unlock my phone. This includes games, social media apps, news feeds, feed readers, video apps, and any other similar apps that I check mostly out of boredom.

I'm going to treat my smartphone as a tool instead of a toy (as put so eloquently by David Cain, who inspired this experiment with his own smartphone experiment). This means that my phone will still include apps such as a calendar, text messaging, phone calls, calculator, email, Slack (for work), a web browser, maps, and other apps that are simply utilities or that I don't open purely because of boredom. One example is my podcast app, since it provides entertainment and educational value at specific times and I only open it with the intention to listen to a podcast, not to mindlessly scroll through a feed or play a game.

I have no ideals, expectations, or quotas (other than the length of time I'll be trying this experiment). I don't have any goals in mind or things I want to learn. I'm sure I'll learn something and I aim to write about my experience after the experiment has come to an end. Beside those things, this is a simple life experiment. I'll wrap up the experiment at the end of July and write about my experiences sometime in early August. I'll also choose and announced my next experiment at that time, so stay tuned!


In other news, the Quiet Habits Podcast is slowly becoming a reality! I've recorded and edited most of the first episode. After it's ready to be published, it'll take a week or two to finalize, upload, and submit to all the podcast places. I'll write a new post here with links for your listening pleasure! I'm excited to share Quiet Habits on more platforms!


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If I learned anything from the first 5 months of 2019, it's to give more focus and energy to fewer things. I've cut back on quite a few activities and projects and put a lot of ideas on the back burner. My wife and I are also in the process of decluttering our house so we have fewer things to pull our attention away from what's important.

One major thing I'm simplifying is my 2019 Year of Change. This year I decided to resurrect the Year of Change challenge that I've done for a few years. I changed the format a bit to focus on just two habits each quarter. That proved to be too tedious to track and I found myself bouncing between the two habits and never becoming consistent with either one. To be frankly honest, I've barely made any progress. I've felt distracted and without purpose. So I'm shaking things up.

Instead of treating the Year of Change as a way to build new habits with rigid goals, I want to experiment and track results. So instead of saying “I want to be able to do 100 push-ups by the end of the year”, I'm going to say “What happens if I do push-ups every day for 2 months?” I want to treat these changes as experiments instead of goals or habits. And I want to track my progress instead of charting a course. In other words, I don't want to feel like I have to meet a quota. Instead, I want to track what I accomplish and the effect it has on my life.

Another change I'm making is shifting from focusing on two habits for 3 months to focusing intensely on one experiment for 2 months. For those 2 months I want to track progress and keep a log in a way that makes sense for the experiment (reps, time, distance, etc.). So I have some time to plan the logistics and prepare, I'm going to begin this adjustment on June 1 and see how it goes for the remainder of 2019. For those of you keeping track, that's now only 3 experiments for the rest of the year (I'll probably take December off for a month of reflection and preparation and family time).

While there will be fewer experiments overall, I'm finding that having one thing to completely focus on is better than bouncing between many things. I want to fully commit to one experiment rather than testing 2 or more things.

Another departure is that I'm not setting these up as permanent life changes. If something really sticks with me and I find it has a valuable, positive impact on my life, then I'll stick with it. If the experiment fails or I don't see lasting value, I'll either rethink my efforts or just part ways with the habit. Either way, I hope I'll learn a lot during each experiment.

For those who are curious, I've adapted this idea from these two blog posts from David Cain:

Experiments: Raptitude

Where Personal Breakthrough Really Come From: Raptitude

Currently, my tentative experiments for the rest of year are:

  1. Train to ride a long local bike trail
  2. Make Meditation a daily ritual
  3. Read a physical book before bed

These are subject to change, but this is my plan so far. More updates to come on May 31st.

Also, I've decided to create and release an audio version of this blog (I'll narrate each blog post and publish them as a podcast). I'm still in the planning stages, but I hope to have more updates on that project on May 31st as well.


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Note: this post was originally written in February 2017, but was unpublished when I moved to a new blog host.

I have a real problem with writing in the passive voice. A quick look through any draft of anything I write shows an inclination towards this type of writing. There are probably plenty of passive sentences in this blog post. The passive is something that plagues and haunts writers of all genres and experience levels. Just like writing in the passive voice makes writing less interesting and not as powerful, living a passive life leads to boring days, a lack of fulfillment and unhappiness. I would know, because I often let my life become passive.

A Passive Life

But what exactly is a passive life? I think this shows itself differently depending on the person, but for me a passive life is monotony. It's doing the same things every day without very much, if any, change to daily routine. I snooze the alarm, drag my feet to get ready, take the same route to work with my brain on autopilot, sit in my cubicle for 8 hours, head home, make the same things for dinner and usually end up on the couch in front of the TV until I go to bed so I can repeat the same thing the next day.

Sure, there's some variety. I write blog posts, I experiment with habit change. I wear different clothes and eat different foods. But days are passive where I don't try something new, learn something new or take small steps toward a significant life change. Those are the days where I come home feeling unfulfilled and depressed. I go to bed not wanting to get up and hit the repeat button.

In a nutshell, a passive life is one that lacks power, growth and fulfillment. Now before you leave any angry comments, I'm not saying that routines are bad. I enjoy my 9–5 most days. I like the clothes I wear regularly and I enjoy the food that my wife and I eat on a regular basis. Routines can be great for building habits and creating momentum for change in our lives. But bad routines can also keep us trapped in an unfulfilling, passive life that cycles around every day.

Leading a passive life means letting life happen without trying to change and improve anything. We just let things happen to us while leaving our brains on autopilot for most of the day. Instead of trying to do something hard, we take the easy route through life, letting the hours, days, weeks, months and years blur together into a life wasted away doing the easy, passive thing. We cling to remotes, scroll incessantly through social media, avoid personal growth, and let circumstances and other people dictate what happens to us.

So how do we combat the cyclical trap of passive routines? I've found 6 ways to live an active lifestyle rather than a passive one. There's no right way to take back control of your life, but I (and many others) have found a few ways to break out of a passive life.

Learn Something New Every Day

Since I finished my degree a few months ago, this has been a challenge for me. I imagine it's a challenge for many of you who end up doing the same things every day in the same place while surrounded by the same people. It's hard to learn something new when not much changes on a daily basis. Learning and progression often become passive.

But just because you're doing the same thing day in and day out and you're not in school doesn't mean you can't learn new things. Here are a few ways I've found that help me keep learning:

  • Deals on classes through sites like Udemy or Coursera
  • Free, short courses through Highbrow
  • Local classes offered through local library/county systems
  • Community classes offered at local colleges
  • Book clubs

Break Free From Monotony and Routine

Once again, I'd like to say that routine is not bad. In fact, I love some of my daily routines. Other routines, namely the ones where I zone out and stop paying attention, turn me into a passive zombie who can't distinguish different days.

I think we should pay attention to the routines that help us live better and work more effectively. We should keep and strengthen those routines. They're an important part of our lives. Then we should strip away the routines that make us passive. Scroll through Facebook while you're eating breakfast? Change it up. Take the same route home from work every day? Try changing it up every once in a while to take in some new scenery.

The point is to not get so caught up in the easy, automatic routines that we basically turn into robots. Don't let your life run on autopilot. Take control of your routines and only follow the ones that make a difference.

List What You Can't Control and Control What You Can

This is a powerful activity that I've talked about in past posts. Listing what you can and can't control can be eye-opening and life-changing. Here's the basics to get you started with this simple yet impactful exercise:

  • Go through your day and do your best to list everything that happens. Use as much detail as possible. If it rains, if your bus is late, who talks to you at work, what emails you get. Write down everything.
  • Do this for a few days.
  • After one or more days, take the list and separate the items into things that you have direct control over (for example, which shirt you wear, your mood on the drive to work) and things that you have no control over (for example, the weather, other drivers, etc.).
  • Use this list to determine what you can control and then take control over those things. Don't let them just happen on autopilot. Make sure you are actively making those choices because they matter to you, not because they're easy or it's the way you've always done things.

Create More Than You Consume

Creativity is the opposite of passivity. If you're not creating, you're being passive and/or consuming. Create something as often as possible. It can be something as simple as creating and playing a game with your kids or as complex as composing music. Here are a few more ideas: writing in your journal, drawing with chalk, crafting a blog post, designing a website, painting, sketching, playing music, etc.

Do Nothing Sometimes

Sometimes the right choice for the moment is to do nothing. This seems like the most passive thing you can do, but I beg to differ. I think we are so surrounded by distractions, to-do lists, busyness and noise that we almost never take time to just do absolutely nothing. No phones, no TV, no lists, no games, no noise, no music. Nothing. Just you and your body and your mind. If you do this intentionally, it can be one of the most mentally active things you do all day. It is soothing, freeing and meditative. Try it. Make time to sit and do nothing.

Replace Passivity With Intentional Living

Intentional living has become something of a buzzword these days. But it is still a worthwhile ideal. As we learn new things, break free from monotony, focus on what we can control, create more and do nothing sometimes, we'll become more intentional with our lives and what we do every day. Make choices and act with real intent. Don't just let stuff fall into your life and control your thoughts and actions.

Intentional living takes practice and work. It's not easy. We must learn to change things, to control our actions and wake up for life. Don't live in a passive fog anymore. Open your eyes and live life to its fullest.

What are some things in life you find yourself doing on autopilot? What are ways you combat falling into a passive life?


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Note: this post contains a few affiliate links. All the links are to wonderful books that you should read. And despite this entire post being about clutter, I still recommend owning them because not only will you learn a lot, but you'll be supporting great authors (and a small percentage helps this blog stay online).

Another resurgence of minimalism, simple living, and decluttering is making the rounds of social media, news sites, and blogs. Whether you're following Marie Kondo's Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, playing the #MinsGame, or reading The Minimalist Home by Joshua Becker, eventually you're going to end up with a life with fewer possessions, an emptier home, and a bunch of free space and time in your life. And that empty space is a beautiful thing, if it is preserved. Unfortunately, I've often found myself with fewer possessions and burdens and treated it like an empty plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet or an empty shopping cart at the store on Black Friday. I imagine many of you have found yourself in the same boat. If you keep reading, you'll find many of the mistakes I've made while decluttering over the years and some of the best advice I've read and used to help keep the clutter out for good.

You found a reason to declutter or simplify or KonMari your house. It was a great reason. You found a method or a blog or a video or a documentary or a book that helped kickstart your journey. It outlined how to let go of physical clutter in your life. Some things were easy to get rid of, some were difficult. Some days it was easy to haul those boxes out of your house, while other days you sat in the hallway reminiscing over old high school memorabilia. Whatever your journey, it led you to a final moment where your house and your life were free of clutter and excess. Maybe you finally got rid of that storage unit or you cleared out your basement office. It's such a wonderful feeling to have that clutter gone. You feel free again!

But, as I noted earlier, we so often lose our way on this simplicity journey and end up in a buy-declutter-buy-declutter cycle. When the “honeymoon stage” of simple living and decluttering wears off, we tend to buy back into our old ways. It might start with a good deal on Amazon or a sale at the clothing outlet stores. Next thing you know, your closets are full, your kitchen cupboards are lined with unused gadgets, your basement is full of boxes and bins filled with things you haven't touched in months. You're back where you started. How did this happen? You go back to your inspiration. You read the books and the blogs again. You rewatch the documentaries and videos. You try to figure out what went wrong and where you faltered.

You begin to wonder what's wrong with you or what's wrong with the system you followed. How could you let this happen again? Maybe you wallow in self-pity or get upset at yourself or the blogger or author or minimalist who led you down this path. Maybe you find a renewed determination to really do it this time and stick to it. Whatever your reaction, you either accept your failure and give up or you determine to give it another try.

Let me find a bit of fault in some of these decluttering programs, books, and documentaries (although I think many of them are wonderful and you should definitely follow their advice). They provide encouragement, evidence, testimonials, and guidelines to help you declutter your stuff and/or your life. They offer a crash-course in getting rid of your junk. And often they leave you there, at the end of your decluttering journey, to fend for yourself in maintaining your newfound clutter-free life.

Think about it this way: imagine you are hired as a support technician for a large software company. Your job is to answer customer questions about the software, help them troubleshoot problems, and generally provide assistance to software users. You arrive at the office on your first day and are immediately placed in a conference room with a trainer. She proceeds to train you on all aspects of the software and walk you through a bunch of example questions or problems you might encounter. After a few weeks of training, your manager hands you a laptop and a phone and sends you home. He tells you to answer any questions you receive via email or phone. He also tells you to avoid bothering your coworkers or supervisors with any questions. Good luck!

Don't get me wrong, I don't want to put down or discredit any of these programs, books, blogs, or whatever (after all, I'm a regular contributor to all this talk about simple living!). I think they're fantastic! But so many people miss out on opportunities to continue to live simply or the initial joy and benefits wear off over time. While we're reading the book or following the program or watching the documentary, we feel so inspired and so hopeful! Unfortunately, when that excitement and inspiration fade over time, we fall back into our old ways.

I hope the rest of this post will provide some help and encouragement and ideas to keep you going when the initial benefits begin to fade (or help keep them from fading at all).

So, how do you stick with the simple life year after year? How do you keep the clutter out instead of letting it creep back in and starting the whole cycle over again?

If you have the answer, please let me know!

Every situation and human being is unique, so unfortunately I don't have a magic pill that will solve all the issues that you face while keeping the clutter out or maintaining a simple life.

However, after several false starts and restarts on my own decluttering journey, I've definitely learned a few things about how to keep going after the “honeymoon phase” wears off. I've made about a million mistakes along the way, so learn from my mistakes and the wisdom of others who have also walked this path! I'm also not an expert or a guru, so I've provided plenty of links to other articles written by people who are smarter and have more experience than I do with keeping the clutter out for good.

Have a Why

This is possibly the most important paragraph of this entire post. Having a good 'Why' behind your 'What' and 'How' while decluttering is vital for success. If you don't know or fully understand why you're getting rid of your excess stuff, you will almost definitely fail and end up with a house full of clutter in the near future. I can't tell you what your purpose is or why you need to declutter. But I do know that having a reason beyond the simple “I'm tired of all this junk!” is powerful. Know why. Try to envision what your life will be like with less clutter. Who are you at your core? How is the clutter covering you up? Who do you want to become? What is important in your life? Questions like these can help you find your why. Courtney Carver lists having a why as her number one tip in her Decluttering 101 post.

Overcome the Just in Case Mentality

Courtney Carver of Be More With Less also has some wisdom to share about the “just in case” mentality and how it keeps our homes and our lives cluttered. She says it so eloquently, I'll refer you over there instead of trying to hash out my own version.

Enjoy Missing Out

I'm sure by now you've probably heard of FOMO (fear of missing out) and JOMO (joy of missing out). A lot of clutter comes from this fear of missing out, which is related to envy, fear, and insecurity. We think more stuff will fill the gaps in our life, make us feel better, or make us look better. The truth is, people who have a ton of stuff still have the same insecurities, fears, and feelings as everyone else. Stuff is often a distraction from dealing with our problems and realizing our full potential. Enjoy missing out on the swag, the latest trends and fads, the newest iPhone, or that Amazon item that you think you can't live without. If you look for joy in things that aren't sold in a store and don't come with 2-day shipping, you'll discover that there really is a joy in missing out on the clutter because with clutter, you're missing out on a lot of joy. Courtney Carver also has a bit of wisdom to share about FOMO and JOMO.

Curb the Need to Shop

You shop because you're bored. Or for therapy. Or for fun. Or maybe you actually need to buy something! Whatever the reason, shopping, both in a brick and mortar store and online, has become one of America's favorite pastimes. According to the US Department of Labor, adults who engaged in the purchase of goods and services spent, on average, over 1.5 hours per day doing so. However, I doubt that includes the type of shopping that many people would consider leisure time. The pull to shop is everywhere. Advertisements bombard us on highways, televisions, apps, news feeds, and websites. Social apps like Instagram and Pinterest now include links in posts that provide instant access to buy items featured in posts. Shopping malls and websites draw us in with the allure of a deal. These tactics may be one of the biggest reasons why we let the clutter creep back in (I know I've given in to Amazon's daily deal more than once).

Here are some great reads about how to curb your need to shop and how to stop buying future clutter:

Confessions of a (Reformed) Shopaholic: No Sidebar

Breaking Free From Consumerist Chains: Zen Habits

But I Love Shopping: Be More With Less

Use the 1 in/1 out rule

This is a simple, yet powerful rule to live by. If one thing comes into your house/life, one thing must leave. Typically, this rule should be applied to things that need replacing. Your favorite pair of jeans has finally worn out? Dispose of them responsibly and buy a new pair. Don't keep the old pair hanging about in your closet. There are times when this rule may not apply or be useful, such as when you welcome a new child or pet into your life, or if you begin a new hobby or profession that requires you to obtain new stuff. But for most gadgets and doodads, this rule should be applied rigorously.

I failed to apply this rule for some time with headphones and earbuds. I spent a good year looking for a new pair of good headphones or earbuds. Instead of waiting for the ones that best fit my needs or replacing broken earbuds, I acquired several (6) pairs of various earbuds and headphones. I only have one set of ears and can only listen to one thing at a time! I've since cut back drastically and now have a specific purpose for each set I've kept (I have different headphones for editing audio, use at work, and for wireless listening). Use the 1 in/1 out rule to make sure you're not just adding and adding to the contents of your home. If you want to go for bonus points, try using the 1 in/2 out rule to really cut the clutter.

Everything Has a Home

You've probably heard this advice from Benjamin Franklin before, “A place for everything, everything in its place.” Having a home for each item can help reduce clutter. Almost every item in your home deserves a permanent (or at least semi-permanent) place to stay. Here are a few things I've learned over the years about this advice:

  • Have an inbox for incoming items (mail, packages, paperwork, gifts, etc.) that you clear out at least once a week. This provides a temporary home until a permanent home is found.
  • Keep a filing cabinet or other easy-to-sort location for important paperwork that you need to keep for extended periods of time. Create a system that lets you easily and quickly sort, deal with, and file away any new papers.
  • Leave empty space. If you fill up every nook and cranny with stuff, it might all have a home, but you're laying the foundations for future clutter. If you leave blank space between items or groups of items, you make your space calmer and make your things easier to find and care for.
  • Avoid the organization traps. Bins, boxes, drawers, shelves, units. There is a massive industry to help you organize and stow away all your stuff. But remember, the things you put your stuff in also count as extra stuff. And what's the point of having all that stuff stored away, sitting unused? I think most of us need some drawers, bins, and shelves for some of our things (like keeping cleaning supplies out of reach of the kids), but if you find yourself buying more and more bins and shelf-organizers for your stuff, it's probably a good sign that you need to go through and declutter that stuff again.

Put It Away Right Away

This tip goes hand in hand with the last tip. If everything has a place, put it there immediately after you've finished using it. When you change into your pajamas, put your clothes in the laundry basket. When the dishwasher finishes running and the dishes are dry, put them away. Put the oven mitts back where they belong after you take dinner out of the oven. Put the scissors back in your desk drawer. You get the idea. Clutter breeds more clutter. And flat, empty surfaces are the perfect breeding grounds for that clutter. If you put things away when you're done using them, you'll effectively sanitize these areas and keep the clutter from growing. Trouble spots in our home are the kitchen table and kitchen countertops. My wife, Sarah, and I have been working through this habit and it is a tough one to break! But it can be done and will help you keep the clutter out.

Break the Twitch

One of my favorite blogs is Break the Twitch by Anthony Ongaro. He began his journey when he realized he had a “twitch” to get on Amazon and make small purchases. After a while of making these $20-$30 purchases, he looked back through his order history and realized that he had spent thousands of dollars on mostly cheap junk and little gadgets that hadn't really improved his life or made him happy. He decided that he was going to break the twitch and start living an intentional life instead of blankly scrolling through whatever feed and making random purchases. I recommend doing the same. We have an impulse to buy things because they're on sale, they're a good deal, we want them, they look cool, or sometimes just because we're bored and we know we have $20 to spend. Break that twitch and stop bringing in the clutter. I promise that extra charger, phone case, earbuds, or pressure cooker won't bring you real, lasting happiness. I do know that they'll probably add complexity to your life when they break or don't get used and end up collecting dust in storage bins in your attic.

Shopping Ban

I'm going to let my friend Cait explain this one to you. She has done at least two year-long shopping bans where she only purchased essential items or pre-defined items (for example, she knew she would need a few new clothing items, so she listed them before her ban started). I can't recommend her book and blog enough.

One other thought to go along with the shopping ban. If the year-long shopping ban seems too radical for you right now, try this instead: When you feel the urge to buy something, wait for a month. Add it to your wish list or write it down somewhere. I use a price-tracking site to store some of the items on my list, but you can use whatever works best for you. Usually after a month, the “new and shiny” phase wears off and you either forget about the thing or you realize that you don't need it. If a month passes and you still feel compelled to buy this item, list out alternatives by answering these questions: Can you borrow one? How often will you use it? Do you have something similar? Will it make life easier or better in some way? If you make it through all of these questions and you still want to make the purchase, I think you can go ahead and buy it without feeling guilt. But remember the 1 in/1 out rule and make sure this new thing will have a home.

Practice Gratitude

And finally, tying this all back into “having a why”, we come to gratitude. Gratitude is one of the most powerful forces to keep clutter out. We should practice gratitude daily. Be grateful for everything we have. Be grateful for this beautiful Earth, for our sun and moon, for our bodies and our families and friends. Be grateful for our homes, for running water, for green grass, for trees, for access to almost limitless information and interaction with people around the world. Be grateful for things big and small. For your carpet and your toaster and a bowl and spoon and the grocery store.

Try this exercise: When you're not at home, make a list of all the material items that you own that you're grateful for and that you can think of. I know my list would get quite long. Then think of the reasons why you're grateful for that thing. Then, when you get home, go through the things you didn't list or didn't think of. Do you need to keep those things? Are you grateful for them? Why/why not? Then, make a list of non-material things you are grateful for (e.g., spouse, kids, pets, Earth, water, religion, knowledge, etc.). Compare the lists. If you had to lose all the things on one list, which would you choose? Which list is more important to you?

This powerful exercise in gratitude should show you what's important to you and where your priorities are (or where they should be). It also shows you that material things can be replaced and are temporary. They wear out or break or get lost. Finally, it helps you realize just how much you have already been blessed with. With a list so long, how could you possibly spend your evening scrolling through cheap gadgets on Amazon or browsing the local big box store? When the urge to buy something that is not an absolute necessity, refer back to this list. The impact of such a simple list may surprise you.

For more motivation in practicing gratitude, the amazing blogger Leo Babauta of Zen Habits has some great advice:

Gratitude to Cure the Impulse to Buy More Stuff: Zen Habits

The Transformative Power of the Gratitude Habit: Zen Habits


By no means is this list meant to overwhelm or scare you away from decluttering or becoming a minimalist. Please do not feel that you have to go out and apply all of the advice listed here or completely overhaul your life overnight. Simplifying your life is a process that often take years to implement and perfect (and even then, you'll still make changes and tweaks). It's not a race or a competition. When the going gets tough or you feel the clutter creeping back in, come back to this post and choose just one thing to help you out of the funk. Even one small and simple change will make a lasting impact in your life.

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A Few Blog Updates

First, like I've said a few times before, I'd like to do more writing here. Publish better content, and more frequent content. Those are my goals. I've kept this blog alive for over 5 years now, but I feel like it's limping along and some months it devolves into the rabbit hole of forgotten hobbies. Quiet Habits is not a business and never will be a business, but I also don't want it to turn into a personal journal or a site where I post random things about my life. I want to stick to the mission statement.

Second, speaking of the mission statement, I think it deserves a bit of clarity. When people come and read this blog, I want them to have a quick understanding of what the content is all about so they can make an informed decision about whether to stick around and subscribe or go find something else to read. I'll clarify and post in the coming weeks.

Third, I'd like to make an audio version of this blog. I have the resources and can find the time. I'd like to make my voice heard beyond the words on your screen and make what I write more accessible.

Fourth, I'm toying with the idea of asking for donations. As one of my dear readers, what are your thoughts on this? I'm not going to block access or put up ads or do any yucky online money-making junk if you don't donate. But this blog (and the coming audio version) takes some time and money to maintain. I never intended this to be a full-time gig (I have a day job that I absolutely love), but I want to make it sustainable for the future. Send me an email: nathan “at” quiethabits.net with your thoughts about the donation/Patreon/tips model. If I do ask for donations or tips, I'm going to invest a lot more time/energy into writing even more great content.

Mission Statement Update

I've been blogging for quite some time. Over 6 years. During that time I've had many false starts, restarts, and fresh starts. I've changed blog names, domain names, and niches. I've moved hosts and platforms and have gone through periods of flood and famine with publishing content. A lot has changed in the 6+ years since I started writing and publishing things on the Internet. A lot has changed with this blog and with me and my life. A few things have remained the same and I think I've once again refined the purpose of this blog, which requires a mission statement of sorts. Perhaps that's too strong, maybe a statement of purpose or just a list of things I'd still like to blog about.

  1. Keep it real. This blog has always been and always will be about real life. I might not share any intimate details about my life, but I don't think faking things or sugar-coating them helps anyone learn anything and doesn't benefit anyone. If I fail at something, I'm going to let you know and write about it. If I succeed, I'll celebrate. If I find something isn't working, I'll talk about how I want to make a change. Life is all about the ups and downs. I'm not perfect and I hope that comes through in my writing about my experiences.
  2. This is not a “how-to” or “guide” blog. I'm not going to give you 5 tips to get your life together, get organized, become a minimalist, find inner peace and happiness, and become enlightened. Mostly because I think most of those articles and lists are useless trash, but also because I'm still at the beginning of the path to most of those aspirations.
  3. A small shift. This blog began its life under a different name (smplife) and became Quiet Habits after a lot of thought. It started out as a blog about minimalism and simple living. It evolved over time to be about habits and lifestyle changes. Now, I think it's gone through another evolution. I may still write about minimalism and essentialism and habit change, but mostly this is “The story of an introvert learning to thrive in an extrovert's world by learning to live a quiet, happy life one habit at a time.” The “new” Quiet Habits is going to be more personal, more focused on my struggles and my wins as an anxious introvert, and the habits that bring me closer to living a happy life. I'll be focusing my writing heavily on introversion, anxiety, habits and habit change, essentialism/minimalism/whatever-isms, and my personal search for happiness and fulfillment. You may also notice a new tagline: “In a noisy world, it's important to find a little quiet.”

I think that's about it. For now. I used to feel bad about making these iterative changes, like I was failing or giving up on the way I used to write or what I used to focus on. Now, I realize that iterative change is a good thing and necessary for survival. But the more I change things and shift around my mission and content, the more I realize that the core values and reasons behind why I started this blog remain very much the same. Thanks for sticking with me through the years!


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