Minimalist in DC

The Quest for Less "Stuff" & More Time

Category: Book Review (page 1 of 2)

The Power of Habit

Have you ever tried to change a bad habit? If you were able to do it, how? I just listened to a book that discusses the science of habits and how to change them. It could be one of the best books I’ve read this year.

What Is A Habit?

The book was Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life & Business. Habits are fascinating and they run our lives. Until reading this book, I never knew why I felt compelled to wake up every morning and go workout, or why I can’t seem to avoid eating a snack once I put my kids down for a nap. In The Power of Habit, Duhigg explains that habits are made up of three components: the cue, the routine, and the reward.

The Habit Loop

If you change the cue or routine, you can change a bad habit into a good habit (or vice versa). The book is filled with fascinating stories of why Alcoholics Anonymous works or how Pepsodent marketing created America’s toothbrushing habit. However, I like practical tips and tricks and it’s got some of those too.

The Essential Components of Habit Change

If you want to change a habit, you need to change the cue or the routine and/or take away the reward, which means you have to be fully aware of what acts as the cue, routine, and reward for each of your habits. You also need belief. That usually means finding a support group that can reinforce your new habits.

Habit Change Flow Chart

That seems easy enough, right? It’s really not that simple. What I discovered after listening to the book is that Duhigg has gone one step farther in fleshing out the path to habit-change. He’s got a habit change flow chart!

How to Change a Habit

This is brilliant and if you want more context for each of these steps, you can read more about them on I can’t say I’ve worked my way through the flow chart yet, but this makes a lot of sense and I can’t wait to try it.

Changing My Routine

So, why do I think this might work? Before I read this book, I successfully changed a bad habit unknowingly using Duhigg’s key principles. I used to put the kids down for bed, then grab something sweet to eat. The cue was putting the kids to bed, the routine was eating sugar, and the reward was that it tasted great and I got to relax without my kids begging me to share. I wasn’t even hungry. So, I decided to find something else to do once the kids went to bed. Now I pour myself a cup of decaf green tea every night. I look forward to it, it’s calming, and it doesn’t have the calories.

Without even trying, I took a page out of The Power of Habit and supplanted my old routine with a new one. That gives me some personal hope that this really works. I’m excited to see what else I can change!

Have you ever changed a bad habit? How did you do it?

Eat That Frog!: A Book Review

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.” – Mark Twain

This Mark Twain quote is the premise behind a wonderful productivity book with a funny name: Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time by Brian Tracy. In his book (which I finished in one sitting on a flight to San Francisco last December), Tracy highlights 21 productivity habits, that I have found myself coming back to again and again. Here, I’ll share a couple of the most useful nuggets, guaranteed to save you more time than you’ll spend reading the book (or this blog post)!

Concentrate Single-Mindedly On Your Most Important Task

The centerpiece skill that is developed throughout the book is your ability to concentrate single-mindedly on your most important task, follow-through, and get it done. Tracy insists that this is the key to success and happiness. If you can form a habit of doing this for everything in your life, you will accomplish wildly more than you imagined possible.

I believe it. On the days when I block off two hours at the beginning of the day and concentrate on my most important task until I finish, I feel really, REALLY good the rest of the day.

Eat That Frog! Encourages you to do this for everything in your life. But what if the task at hand is too big to finish in one sitting?

Tip #1: Seven Steps to Achieving Your Goals

Any goal can be achieved by following these seven steps and making sure you work on something that moves you toward your goal EVERY SINGLE DAY.

  1. Decide what you want to do.
  2. Write it down.
  3. Set a deadline (and sub-deadlines).
  4. Make a list of everything you can think of to achieve your goal.
  5. Organize the list into a plan.
  6. Take action on your plan immediately.
  7. Do something every single day that moves you toward your goal.

This is basic project management, boiled down to the essentials and accessible to anyone. It takes a little bit of up-front planning, but the beginning is the best time to pour your heart and soul into your new goal.

Tip #6: Plan Your Day with the ABCDE Method

I’ve written about planning out your day by adding timing to your to do list, but I’ve found that the ABCDE method of planning your day is even more powerful. Here’s how it works:

First, lay out your to do list for the day. Then, assign each item a letter: A, B, C, D, or E according to this key:

  • A = Very important task that only I can do (subdivide if necessary to prioritize tasks into A-1, A-2, etc)
  • B = Should do this task, but only minor consequences if I don’t
  • C = Nice to do this task, but no consequences
  • D = Delegate everything you don’t have to do
  • E = Eliminate any tasks that no one has to do

When I started to notice my notebook was numbered A-1, A-2…A-7 with no other letters, I switched the order in which I assigned labels. Now I search the list first for D’s. Delegating is a tough skill that takes practice, so I need to pay extra attention to it. After that I work my way backwards from E to A. That helps me avoid thinking of everything as the most important task.

This works amazingly well and helps me cope with not finishing parts of my to do list. If, at the end of the day I’ve only gotten A-1 done, so be it. At least I did the most important thing that I could that day.

Tip #20: What Would You Do If You Were Going on Vacation?

Sometimes, we are our worst enemies and it helps to have some tricks up our sleeves to overcome procrastination.

One question that Tracy suggests asking yourself when you’re not sure where to start is, “If I were leaving on a sudden week-long vacation tomorrow, what would I get done today?”

It’s so simple, but it tricks your brain into looking at your to do list in a different, healthy way!

There are 18 more, wonderful time management and productivity tips in Eat That Frog!. Reading the book may be one of the best time investments you make this year.

What is your favorite productivity habit?

Power Hour (Quick Tip)

I’m reading Gretchen Rubin’s new book, Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, in which Rubin dissects the art of forming habits to give you a toolbox for forming good habits and breaking bad habits. She splits the population into four types of people (Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels) and describes how to approach habit-forming with each one. It’s a fascinating read! Along the way, Rubin talks about a lot of specific habits and one of those caught my attention. She calls it Power Hour.

Power Hour

Each week, set aside one hour for those annoying tasks you know you need to just get done, but never have time for. This is Power Hour.

Make a list of the tasks you want to get done and focus on them, starting with the first one until the hour is up.

Power Hour Tasks

Rubin suggests you fill your list with one-time tasks; those things that aren’t recurring that you need to get done (like scheduling appointments and figuring out how to use a new tool). They shouldn’t be things with tight deadlines because those will get done naturally over the course of the week. Use this hour for things that you never seem to get to.

That advice got me thinking about something I, personally, never have time for: cleaning. I hate cleaning. I hate it so much that I never make time for it. I can’t justify spending a lot of time cleaning, because, with two kids in the house, all of my work is undone in milliseconds. I can’t justify paying someone else to clean for exactly the same reason. So, I tend to let things get really dirty. Cleaning isn’t officially a non-recurring task, but I thought Power Hour was the perfect solution to motivate me to actually clean.

Power Hour in Practice

Last weekend, I officially repurposed Power Hour for cleaning. I made a backlog (bathrooms, tubs, random stuff lying in the living room, floors, windows) and got as much done as I could in an hour. In my first hour, I cleaned both bathrooms (including the tub) and picked up the living room. It was a good start.

This weekend, I tried it again. I skipped the tub (it’s still clean!) and was able to clean both bathrooms, all floors, and pick-up the living room. Things look really good! I turn on some music, I focus on my backlog of cleaning tasks and stuff gets done.

Why Power Hour Rocks

At the end of one hour, I’ve gotten a lot done and I really, truly feel done. Time-boxing allows me to set aside the time for a specific task and forgive myself for what didn’t get done. If I hold Power Hour every week, I can pick-up the unfinished tasks the following week.

What tasks would you work on during Power Hour?

The Blue Zone (Lessons for Living Longer): A Book Review

You may be missing out on ten good years.” –Dan Buettner The Blue Zone

I am immediately skeptical of claims like this, unless they come from scientists who are studying how humans have lived and evolved for thousands of years. This is one of those books that wraps up age-old and forgotten knowledge about health and wellness into one fascinating and actionable read.

The Blue Zones

The Blue Zones (Graphic Credit: unknown)

Dan Buettner has a pretty interesting job. He’s spent years visiting remote areas of the world; areas that seem to have a disproportionate number of centenarians, to figure out what makes these people live so long. He’s researched and written a cover article for National Geographic on longevity and elaborates on that article in his book called, The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.

What I love about this book is that Buettner’s team employs a wide range of scientists from gerontologists to psychologists to take a focused look at what has helped some extraordinary people live a long, long time. Then, they boil their findings down to nine key areas, with several suggestions for how to turn your life and home into your own, personal “Blue Zone”, the term used to denote small pockets of the world where a large percentage of the population lives a very long time. We’re not talking about people wasting away bedridden in a nursing home, these are people who are mobile, happy, and living at home well into their hundreds.

Spoiler alert: Americans are doing so very many things wrong. (No surprise there!)

Where Are the Blue Zones?

The four Blue Zones that Buettner dives into are Sardinia (the mountainous Barbagia region), Okinawa, Japan, a 7th Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California, and the Nicoya region in Costa Rica. In these four places, centenarians have spent their lives working hard, eating fresh, local, whole foods, resting with friends, and devoting their lives to their families and God. In fact, one key finding of this study is that if you’d like to live a long time, you’ve got to have a purpose (ikigai, plan de vida, or simply reason to get up in the morning).

The people living beyond 100 are, almost as a rule, extraordinarily likeable people who spend their days with their friends and families. They’ve seen everything and seem to let the worries of the world roll off their shoulders. They are, in short, one in a million – or are they? In one village in Sardinia 91 in 17,865 people live to 100 compared to 17.3 in 100,000 in the United States. Clearly these people are doing something right and we can too.

Steps to Create Your Own Blue Zone

 I can’t possibly share all of the interesting anecdotes or fascinating cultural stories that I found to be so delightful about this book, but I can share the conclusions. Just why are these people living so long? Buettner and his team boil the answer down to nine reasons.

  1. Move Naturally

Blue Zoners spent their entire lives doing a lot of physical labor, which gave them daily, moderate exercise. The Sardinians walked 5 or 6 miles a day as they tended herds of sheep. Most centenarians in all four zones gardened. All got the equivalent of 30-60 minutes per day of aerobic, balancing, and strength-training exercise. Exercise and movement is key to a long and useful life.

  1. Eat only until you’re 80% full

In Okinawa the elders mutter a phrase before every meal: “Hara hachi bu”, which reminds them to stop eating when they’re 80% full, reducing the amount of calories they intake. Over time could mean the difference between maintaining a healthy weight and gaining weight. Blue Zoners really concentrate on their food. They sit down, they eat it with family, and they eat on smaller dishes (which reduces the amount you eat too).

  1. Avoid meat and processed foods

Science tends to agree with the centenarians, the foods we should be eating are vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruit and nuts. Most of the Blue Zoners eat at least two vegetables with every meal. They eat nuts and fresh produce from their gardens. Hardly anyone that’s lived to 100 eats any processed foods: no McDonald’s, no sodas, nothing. At most, they eat meat once a week, but many are vegetarians.

  1. Drink red wine

Finally, something that seems easy. Drinking 1-2 small servings of alcoholic beverages a day brings in plenty of antioxidants, which is likely a key factor in longevity. Holding a happy hour with 1-2 drinks, nuts, and good company offers many of the benefits essential to a long life.

  1. Have a purpose

Scientists and families have seen it again and again. Once someone loses his or her life purpose (a family member they care for, a job — whatever gets them up in the morning) death quickly follows. For many centenarians, their family is their purpose and they still take an active role in providing for them, even if that means buying and making the same Costa Rican soup every Sunday. That purpose keeps us going.

  1. Downshift

All of the people studied had a way of letting the worries of the world roll off their shoulders. They were rarely stressed out. The book recommends we limit electronic equipment exposure (so many ads and news blurbs only makes us more stressed out), arrive early, and meditate. I can personally vouch for meditation. I’ve starting doing it just two minutes a day (which is really hard at first) and it really does center you and bring you back into the “now”. Leo Babuta from Zen Habits has great instructions to help you get started with meditation.

  1. Spiritual Community

Most of the centenarians have unshakable faith, though they all practice different religions. Faith helps us remove stress in that we know someone is watching over us, keeping us safe. Most religions also give us a ready-made community and weekly time to meditate or just sit still.

This is a tough one for me because, though I was raised a Lutheran, shortly after college I went through a period of 3-4 years in which I did a lot of soul searching and religious research. I no longer believe in a higher power, but people like me can still find solace in other ways. I respect and revere nature (as well as adore spending time outside, particularly hiking). I’ve also found the Unitarian Universalist community to be most welcoming as their doctrine invites you to think hard about what you really believe, then believe it, and they will support you. There are a lot of great atheists that are Unitarian Universalists, reaping some of the benefits of organized religion for a longer life.

  1. Family First

The purpose driving many of our centenarians was providing for their families. Most live with or near their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and spend a lot of time with their families. Even if you live only with your immediate family, there are a lot of things you can do to put the focus back on family. Eat together, live in a smaller home so you physically must spend more time together, establish rituals, create a family “shrine” with photos and memorabilia, and simply spend more time together.

  1. Find others with Blue Zone values

Look through your inner circle. Who embodies these values more than others? Spend more time with the people who you love and who reinforce your good behaviors. Be likeable (none of the centenarians are grumpy people). Spend at least 30 minutes a day with your Blue Zone inner circle.


For each of the steps above, the Blue Zone gives more advice for how to achieve each goal. They suggest trying 1-3 new goals at a time for a period of 5-12 weeks (the time it takes to form a new habit). I’m currently reducing the amount of meat I eat everyday, starting with meat-free work lunches. I’ve found it is incredibly easy to find and take vegetarian options to the office AND I don’t have to inconvenience any of my family members who aren’t ready to become vegetarians yet.

This was a fantastic book, especially if you’re looking for concrete ways to gain more, healthy time on Earth. And who isn’t?

Clutterfree with Kids: A Book Review

“Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts from it.” – Joshua Becker (Clutterfree with Kids: Change Your Thinking. Discover New Habits. Free Your Life.)

Joshua Becker is one of my favorite online minimalist writers. His blog, has a nice mix of inspirational posts and practical advice. However, the thing that really got me interested in his writing is that he has kids that weren’t much older than mine when his family started their minimalist journey a few years ago.

Our oldest daughter, who is four, says that she loves each and every one of her roughly 50 stuffed animals and can’t part with a single one. She may be one of our biggest obstacles to de-owning all spaces simply because she’s still learning the difference between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ and, unlike her younger sister, she notices when her toys move around. I don’t want to sneak around removing our kids’ stuff without their buy-in, so I was excited to read Joshua Becker’s book Clutterfree with Kids:  Change Your Thinking. Discover New Habits. Free Your Life.

 Clutterfree with Kids Review

Part I: The Case for Minimalism

If you read the Amazon reviews, you’ll notice that a lot of them say something like, “Not what I was expecting, but just what I needed.” I believe this is because most advice on clutter is simply about how to organize your clutter. Becker spends roughly the first half of the book making the case for why you should remove your clutter by “de-owning” it.

“There is more joy to be found in owning less than can ever be found in organizing more.” – Joshua Becker (Clutterfree with Kids)

Only when you’ve whittled your possessions down to what you really need and love will decluttering and maintaining a decluttered life become sustainable. He gives good advice like “start with the easiest possible place in your home” and put the items you can’t quite part with in a box with a date. If you’re already convinced that de-owning is for you or you’ve already realized that having fewer toys is actually good for your children, you can probably skip Part I.

Part II: Practical Advice Galore

Part II is where the book really takes off as it goes through all kinds of situations you’ll experience when trying to de-own with kids. There is a chapter on toys, clothes, art, sentimental items, collections, screens, photos, gifts, packing, schedules, and preparing for babies. This part is filled with practical ideas and is easy to skim when you have specific problems for which you need advice. We’ve adopted Becker’s advice to develop a confined space for toys and get rid of toys that exceed this space. I also got some great ideas for purging and curating my daughters’ artwork and I actually take and save fewer photos now (yes, that’s right, digital clutter can be just as stressful). This section alone makes the $5 price for the book completely worth it.

Part III: Free Your Life

The final part zooms out and covers a couple more general topics such as how to remain clutterfree, being clutterfree with a reluctant partner, and how to stop comparing your life to others and start living it! These sections are inspirational, but not as practical as Part II. You will still glean some excellent ideas from this section. For example, I wish someone had told me long ago to live off of one salary and save the second.

Overall, I’d give this book four out of five stars, simply because for an existing minimalist, Part I is not as beneficial as Parts II & III. It’s well-worth your money and your time, especially if, like me, you need to convince your family that minimalism is also for them.

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