The danger of bookstores

Piles of books in a bookstore

Having a lot of unstructured time on my hands, I read quite a few books. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read books at this rate since I was in primary school. It’s such a pleasure to lose myself in a book on the bus or train to the point where I almost miss my stop. But as I read more books, an old problem has gotten worse: bookstores are now a dangerous place—for my wallet.

When I walk into a bookstore that has a selection I like, it’s as if I check my financial discipline at the door. It’s unusual for me to leave a good bookstore without buying at least one book. That’s been the case for a long time, but when I was busy with work or study I could tell myself not to buy (as many) books. I didn’t have time to read them anyway. Now that I have plenty of time to read books, my inner bibliophile has free reign.

Part of the problem is that I really like paper books. I like how light they are, I like that I can toss them around, and I like that I can drink coffee while reading a paperback without worrying about spilling any on the book—a paperback doesn’t have electronics that can break. It also looks good to have a collection of paper books on display in the living room.

Although I prefer paper books, I don’t dislike ebooks. Reading on an ereader can be convenient, particularly—I imagine—if you have a newer model with a big screen, a high pixel density, and backlighting, which I don’t. My ereader is fine, though. I doubt I’d prefer to read ebooks even if I had one of the latest devices, although I can’t say that for sure.

When I read, I use my visual memory. Sometimes I remember a certain passage that I want to re-read and I can usually recall which quadrant of the pages it was on. You don’t get that experience with ebooks and it’s one of the comforts that makes me prefer paper books. I suppose on an ereader I could bookmark such a passage, but how do you do that when you don’t know in advance which passage you’ll want to re-read?

I like hardcover books best of all. I tend to think they’re too expensive, but I’ll buy one occasionally. Fortunately, most library books are hardcovers, so when a book I want to read is available at my library, I win twice: it’s free and comfortable to hold while reading. To protect my wallet, the best thing I can do is to visit my local library and stay away from bookstores.

But the added value of good bookstores is their selection of books. The library may have many good books, but I’m more likely to hit upon an interesting book while browsing a bookstore. So while they remain a dangerous place for my wallet, I just can’t stay away from bookstores.

Why I love breakfast

Bowl of breakfast food

It happened a few years ago—I don’t recall exactly when. I started preparing oatmeal each morning, the non-instant kind. I had never spent much time on breakfast and usually ate bread with chocolate flakes or a bowl of yogurt. Then I discovered the wonders of a warm bowl of oatmeal and, later, a hot cup of coffee. Perhaps I was trying to balance my fast-paced job with a slow-paced breakfast. An act of defiance, of deliberately taking it slow.

Breakfast is one of my favorite parts of each day. When I take the time to prepare and eat a proper breakfast, I’m building a healthy mental attitude towards the rest of the day. When I prepare and eat my favorite breakfast, I spend time working on me before I get to anything else. And I do it without rushing.

It’s partly biological. By the time I have breakfast, which is usually between 7 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., the last meal I’ll have had will have been the night before, so perhaps 12 hours ago. That’s a long time not to eat anything.

The coffee is just as important to me as the oatmeal. I make my coffee using a Chemex, although I have a French press too. My favorite part is grinding the coffee beans by hand. It takes a surprising amount of force to turn my grinder’s handle and that might be precisely why it’s so rewarding to feel the coffee beans crack.

Curiously, taking the time for breakfast also helps me to go sleep on time. There were times when most nights I stayed up too late to get eight hours of sleep. Often it was to read in bed, which was a distraction from the reality that I wasn’t looking forward to the things I’d have to do the next day. Now that I have what you might call a breakfast ritual, in the evenings I look forward to the very first thing I’ll do the next morning. When you tremendously enjoy the first thing you do each day, it’s not so hard to get yourself to go to sleep.


No news is good news

Burning house and car

Take a look at today’s front page of your favorite newspaper, in print or on the web. Odds are that the top stories are bad news. Maybe they are about a mass shooting, about dysfunction in your country’s political system, or about how difficult it is for folks to find jobs these days. You’d think everything in the world is terrible and getting worse.

So when I say that “no news is good news”, I don’t mean that a lack of news is good news, as the traditional interpretation of the phrase goes. No, I mean that there is hardly any good news on the front pages of newspapers. Not usually on the front pages of news magazines either, although news magazines seem a bit less negative.

Journalists and news editors will cover whatever news people want to read, so I don’t think it makes sense to blame them. In fact, I don’t think it’s necessary to blame anyone. I’m even tempted to say that it’s not a problem that so much bad news exists. Not a problem for you or me, anyway, because a simple solution exists: don’t read bad news!

Except it is a problem. The omnipresence of bad news might make you think that the world is a much worse place than it actually is. When you spend less time reading big news stories and when you think about your daily life, you’ll likely find that the terrible things going on all over the world don’t affect you much. So to get a more accurate perspective on the state of the world, consider reading less news or different news.

Fortunately, plenty of other news sources exist. I tend to read to more specific news, such as articles about my favorite American Football team, the Eagles. I also follow blogs on topics such as local infrastructure development, personal finance, public transit, and bicycling culture. It’s news, but not the bad kind of news you’ll find in so many other places.

Mr. Money Mustache and Tim Ferriss have called the approach of reading less news a low-information diet. Mr. Money Mustache takes a hard line, suggesting that you don’t follow the news at all, with maybe an exception or two. For instance, he reads The Economist, with the intention to read well-researched stories once a week or so and not following live blogs of the latest bombing or political crisis.

I’m slowly moving away from closely following general (and thus often bad) news myself. A few months ago I canceled my newspaper subscription because I find myself being interested almost exclusively in the non-news parts of the paper. One of my favorite parts is a weekly feature that examines the structure of a particular family’s daily life. What time does each of the family members get up and go to bed? Does the family have breakfast together? What do the family members do after work in the evenings? But this feature is only a small part of the newspaper and I consider it a waste to subscribe to the entire paper, only to read a few parts of it. I’m looking for a magazine with stories like these, although I have plenty to read already. Maybe I’ll browse some magazines in my local library.

In the end, I’m not here to tell you to read less bad news. But I do want to stress that the world is a much happier place than newspapers make it seem. If you want to get a more realistic view of events that affect you, consider cutting down on the front-page news.

Can you do one thing at a time?

Cartoon man juggling many items

Here’s something to ask yourself: can you do one thing at a time? For instance, can you ride a bus and only ride the bus? I mean doing so without simultaneously checking your Facebook, listening to music, having a phone conversation, or reading a news article. Can you simply ride the bus?

I find it incredibly difficult to button one of my dress shirts, for instance, without trying to do something else simultaneously. It happens far too often that I button half the buttons on my shirt, then walk over to the living room to address something that popped into my mind while buttoning. I might water the plants or clear out the dishwasher. Then when I realize that I’m walking around with a half-buttoned shirt, I feel ridiculous!

In one of his wonderful talks, Alan Watts said something to the effect of “Zen is sweeping the floor when you’re sweeping the floor”. I don’t claim any personal knowledge of what Zen is, but I understand this idea—sometimes a task requires hardly any effort at all when you give it your full attention. Conversely, the simplest things, such as buttoning your shirt or tying your shoelaces, can be maddeningly difficult when you’re just trying to get them over with.

Things reach a new level of difficulty once you realize that thinking is a form of doing too. Can you do something without thinking about another thing at the same time? For instance, can you shower without mulling over important decisions you’ll need to make and without making mental lists of all you want to accomplish that day?

It’s trendy to observe that the world is moving quickly and to suggest that you can find more peace or calm if you slow down. So you might imagine that life will be better in some way when you do one thing at a time, which is really a form of slowing down. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. For instance, your job might ask you to keep an eye on several processes at once and being able to do so might be a big part of the value you add to your employer. In that case, it’s useful be able to do several things at once.

But I do think it’s important to have the skill of doing only one thing at a time so that you can do it when you want to. Maybe that’s when you want to enjoy a beautiful moment rather than worrying about something unrelated. Or maybe that’s when you want to calm yourself down before an event that makes you nervous, such as speaking in front of a group. Either way, if you’re not used to doing one thing at a time, you can make those moments more difficult than they need to be. So try doing one thing at a time. If you can’t do it, it might be worth considering how you can add this skill to your toolbox.

A plug for LibreOffice

In the coming weeks I hope to start volunteering for a small organization as treasurer, a position that involves some data analysis and display. In my previous day job, I became adept at analyzing and displaying data using various software packages, but particularly good at doing so in Microsoft Excel. I don’t own a copy of Excel for my personal computer, so I thought about purchasing one for this volunteer work. But I recently came across an open source software suite called LibreOffice that I’ll use instead. It’s terrific, it’s free, and it does most of what Microsoft Office does, so let me tell you about it.

LibreOffice is a suite of office programs, just like the Microsoft Office suite, and includes a word processor (like Word), a spreadsheet program (like Excel), a program to create presentations (like PowerPoint), and several other programs. The suite is open source, allowing anyone to contribute to it. Many people do contribute to LibreOffice and that results in frequent updates to the entire suite, improving features, adding new features, and fixing bugs.

By default, LibreOffice uses open document formats, which are designed to standardize the data format for office documents, much like PDF has done for documents that don’t need to be edited. Right now, most people exchange documents using Microsoft’s formats, such as .doc, .docx, and .xlsx. While most people use software that can open these formats, files stored in these formats don’t display in the same way in all programs. For instance, Apple’s Pages does not display Word files (.docx) in the exact same way that Microsoft Office does. If you’ve encountered this problem before, you know it can be frustrating to deal with and take up needless time. The open document format aims to address this problem, so it’s a great cause that I love to support. The open document formats aren’t widespread yet, but fortunately LibreOffice supports all the other document formats I can think of as well.

For this volunteering project I’ll be using LibreOffice’s spreadsheet program Calc. Its interface isn’t as polished as Excel’s—that’s something for the LibreOffice team to work on. It’s generally easy to find your way around, though. It will probably take me a while to become just as efficient in Calc as I am in Excel, because Calc has different keyboard shortcuts and because its menus are organized differently. Fortunately, for this project I have the time to learn to use Calc.

Then again, I would have had to spend some time re-learning Excel too. You see, at my previous job I had a PC, but I use a MacBook at home. Microsoft Office does exist for OS X, but I’ve always found it more difficult to use and less stable than Microsoft Office for Windows. LibreOffice doesn’t have that problem because it’s the same on Windows, OS X, and Linux.

There are other free office suites out there, of course. Maybe your Mac came with iWork installed, or maybe you like using Google Docs and its siblings. But if you like using a traditional office suite and you like your software free, open source, and available cross-platform, give LibreOffice a shot!

What are you not getting around to?

Do many of your days end with you wishing you had gotten around to more things? It happens to me too often. Sometimes the things I didn’t get to will be small, such as cleaning the kitchen counter or reading a chapter of a book. Other days it will be activities that I claim to care more about, such as stretching, drafting a blog post, or meditating. But if I care so much about doing those things, how come I’m not getting to them?

As I wrote recently, you can organize your days to prioritize what’s most important to you. But you can’t prioritize everything, so unless there are only a few things you want to do on a given day—not a bad thing to aim for, really!—you might not get around to some of the other things. If that bothers you, first ask yourself whether your expectations are realistic. Is it simply matter of wanting to get around to fewer things to avoid being disappointed when you don’t get around to everything?

I asked myself that question and decided that this line of thinking rubs me the wrong way. Lowering expectations seems like a partial answer. Some things that can make you happy are easy to accomplish with little time or effort, such as enjoying a sunset. Other things that can make you happy, though, do require time and effort. I don’t want low expectations to prevent me from putting in the time or effort that some long-term goals require.

For instance, if I set a goal to write two brilliant blog posts every day, I’m likely to disappoint myself. My creative muse just doesn’t strike that often and even when she does, the odds of writing a post that’s brilliant are slim. Then again, if I truly wanted to write two brilliant blog posts every day, I should at least allot some time to trying. I might not succeed, but how will I ever find out whether I’ll succeed if I don’t sit down in front of my computer twice a day and start typing?

Put differently, there is a fine line between setting your expectations too high on the one hand and not getting your priorities straight on the other. If you’re always postponing what you claim to want to do, take a moment to consider whether you really want to do those things. What’s the number one thing you wish you got around to more often? Go ahead, think about it now—I’ll wait here.

Do you actually want to do this number one thing you don’t seem to get around to? Maybe you don’t really want to do it, but think that you should do it. Or, worse, maybe you think you should want to do it, but you know deep down that you don’t want to. In that case, you’re lying to yourself! For instance, if you’ve been putting off scheduling lunch with a particular person for a few months now, odds are you don’t really want to have lunch with them.

To stop wishing you had gotten around to this thing, you only need to do one of two things. If you don’t want to do it, figure out how you can get away with not doing it! There’s always a way. If you do want to do it, change something about your life so you can do this thing consistently. It really is that simple. Try it on the number one thing you’re not getting around to and then on the number two things. If you keep going, eventually you’ll spend more of your time doing things you want to do and less time on things you don’t.