Tiny living

Tiny living—or the idea of tiny living—is still having a moment in the U.S.

Even where I live, far from the squeezed rental markets of the big coastal cities, we have a newly constructed building of microapartments. Curiously, the apartments are marketed to a demographic I didn’t even know existed: young, single professionals who are apparently able to store most of their possessions somewhere else, who are free of onerous student loans and are uninterested in cooking. Although priced and described as “luxurious,” in this case “smart living” means making do with a kitchenette.

Like many people interested in simplifying, I’m drawn to examples of truly luxurious small spaces like this New York City pied-à-terre, where cost, young children, and long-term storage were non-factors. Ordinary small living, like what we are doing as a family this summer, looks very different.

In a tiny home, “embarrassing, ordinary objects like the [laundry] hamper are empowered,” writes a tiny-apartment dweller from Boston (What No One Ever Tells You About Tiny Homes). There just isn’t enough space to help differentiate items that are intentionally displayed from items that are simply visible, or between public space and private space. I think this is why I feel compelled to make the bed, take out the trash, and carefully edit toothbrushes, shampoo bottles and other self-care items from the bathroom before anyone comes over. It helps me feel less exposed.

The disorder of normal living is also magnified many times over in a small living space. The stack of library books on the dining-cum-work table, the drying rack of wet swimsuits and towels in the living room, the full bag of recycling occupying the space between the dining table and the door, the multiple pairs of shoes piled directly in front of the door, plus a nine-year-old’s ongoing projects demanding multiple vertical and horizontal surfaces can very quickly feel like trying to squeeze a 16th person onto an elevator with a posted maximum capacity of 15. There’s very little tolerance for clutter in a small space.

“Even smells take up space,” notes the Boston writer. Forget cooking unless you can make peace with temporary odors. Accept that humidity from cooking or showering and even the smell of sleeping people can accumulate unpleasantly. In our small space, an oscillating tower fan is life-improving.

Our small living is short-term, and it comes with considerable financial and logistical benefits that make it more than worth occasional minor frustrations. But given the choice, there’s no question I’d prefer to live a bit larger.



Why own a circular saw when you can just borrow one?

Duh! But what if none of your neighbors, friends, coworkers or family members have a circular saw, or extension ladder, or cement mixing tray or whatever tools your project requires? Wouldn’t it be great if there were a place where you could check out tools like books at a library—maybe after first browsing for them online—for little or no cost? Thankfully, such a good and feasible idea has already been turned into reality in more than 40 towns and cities around the world. These places where you can borrow tools, and sometimes take classes, are called tool libraries.

In the Twin Cities there are at least three community tool libraries: in South Minneapolis, Northeast Minneapolis, and the Hamline-Midway neighborhood in St. Paul. But you can also find them across the U.S., and in Canada, northern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Fuzhou City, China. (Know of others? Please help update this map.)

Share Starter, a non-profit organization based in Seattle, Washington, published a set of guidelines to help groups interested in starting their own tool libraries. The guidelines cover critical topics such as understanding the local market, fundraising, staffing, and insurance and legal considerations.

If you’ve ever used a community tool library, how was the experience?

Look at social media use the way you would a full closet

I stopped using Facebook the day after the U.S. presidential election in early November. I just couldn’t stand to read anyone’s comments. (This while I obsessively read traditional news and analysis.)

Later, a friend told me how to deactivate my Facebook status, which effectively made me disappear from view while leaving open the possibility for me to return at any time. That same friend suggested I offer the nicely activist “fake news” as my reason for deactivating.

The more distance I have from social media, the more queasy I feel about it. There’s the conduit social media provides for the spread of fake news. The ease with which we further streamline our information sources to reinforce our existing beliefs (because of who we friend and follow, cookies and algorithms). The fact that we grant FacebookTwitter, and Instagram royalty-free, worldwide license to content we post unless it is already protected under intellectual property laws. Selfies. Cyberbullying. FOMO and other kinds of anxiety. Distraction from real life. Clutter.

If you are simplifying in order to live in closer alignment with your values, it’s good practice to look at your social media use the way you would closets full of stuff. Ask yourself: Am I using social media intentionally or out of habit? What benefits does it bring me, what are the trade-offs, and do I need to change anything? If I cut back on social media, how else do I want to use that time?

I’ve tagged this post “Five-minute simplifying” because disconnecting is that easy. For instructions on deactivating or temporarily disabling your accounts, just Google the service name and “deactivate.” Don’t forget to remove apps from your phone and bookmarks from your web browser.

March 24, 2017: Here’s a great article from the New York Times about logging off of social media.

Sweden may offer incentives for fixing, rather than throwing away

According to a September 19 article in The Guardian, Sweden’s ruling party will introduce legislation (up for a vote in December) that would offer tax breaks for repairing consumer items as a way to encourage Swedes to consume less.

“We believe that this could substantially lower the cost and so make it more rational economic behaviour to repair your goods [rather than replacing them with new],” says Per Bolund, Sweden’s minister for financial markets and consumer affairs and a proponent of the tax law changes.

Seems obvious, but we consumers also need access to goods that can be repaired and education about what can be repaired (a 1970s analog washing machine, yes, a 2010 washing machine with internal sensors, maybe not; a leather bag with a torn or broken handle, yes, a less expensive faux-leather bag, no).

Repost: How to Simplify Your Career — 6 Things You Don’t Need to Do

Caroline Beaton, in a post for Forbes, describes six useful ways to bring a simplifying mindset to paid work. She also lists some of the same tips I’ve given for better managing technology use (P.S. we have to actually do these things in order for them to work).

  • keep files and bookmarks in one place with short, easily searchable names
  • use an information-less browser homepage like Google‘s search page or Momentum
  • use just one Internet window and close tabs frequently
  • remove applications you don’t use every day from your desktop dock
  • empty your trash at the end of the day
  • relegate social media use and meetings to a certain time of day
  • unsubscribe from emails that aren’t obviously interesting or useful

Thanks to my friend L. for sharing Beaton’s post with me!


Small (and I mean small) ways to extend the life of your devices

Most smart phones, tablets and laptops are designed and marketed to last for about two years.

(Pause now and imagine billions of mobile phone, iPod and tablet users across the globe dumping their devices on a two-year cycle.)

There are, however, small things we can do to extend the life of the lithium-ion batteries inside our devices, which could extend the life of the devices themselves. (Check your device manufacturer’s specific recommendations. Here’s Apple’s info.)

  • Avoid extreme ambient temperatures, especially those above 95F/35C — don’t leave your device in a hot car, for example, and don’t use a case that allows heat to build up when the device is charging
  • Aim for moderate charging — regularly allow your battery to run down to 25%, but avoid allowing the battery to go to 0%; you don’t need to worry about over-charging
  • Lower your battery demand —keep WiFi on at all times (accessing WiFi uses less power than accessing cellular data), reduce display brightness, select low power mode or manually disable background applications, and disconnect peripherals and quit applications not in use
  • Avoid ultra-fast chargers
  • Update to the latest software

The “why” part of this post is at least two-fold.

One, most of us avoid thinking about what happens to our e-waste because we feel powerless. However, we can’t even begin to organize our power as consumers unless we become aware of the problems created by our e-waste. Scientific American magazine outlines the issues well in this blog post.

Two, the money we spend on devices goes somewhere. It goes to employees and middle class shareholders of companies like Samsung and Apple. It goes to tremendously wealthy shareholders. And it goes to support and grow the tech industry. Currently, two of those groups are well-organized and politically influential around their particular interests. We consumers can organize, too, to demand less exploitative and less environmentally damaging products and packaging. Greenpeace International and the International Campaign for Responsible Technology are two of many groups advocating for greener electronics.

Lastly, look for the least bad way to dispose of your e-waste. In the Twin Cities, TechDump is one option.


Simplifying is not a trend in home decor

I spent most of the last year living in another country and, as expat families around us packed up to move home at the end of their sabbatical year, I heard the same exclamation many times: “I can’t believe how much stuff we have!” And each time my comment was, “Well, you’ve been living here.”

We all have a baseline of stuff that helps us enjoy life. We also have a point beyond which stuff becomes a burden. And in my mind, the journey of simplifying includes figuring out where the tipping point lies for us as individuals and families, and making decisions so we get maximum benefit and minimum burden from stuff.

“Simplifying” (which also gets called “minimalism”) is interpreted in other ways, too, and it could be useful to compare what you’re doing against those other interpretations to make sure your actions are in alignment with the life you want to live. In this post I shared a link to New York Times columnist David Brooks’s thoughts on “the evolution of simplicity,” and here’s a piece by another author fed up with “the oppressive gospel of ‘minimalism’.”

No matter the interpretation, those of us with time and energy to think about simplifying and make different choices are very fortunate.