what a tool
In the past few years, I’ve become increasingly enamored with the voluntary simplicity movement, which builds on the idea that paring away from our lives – be it reducing possessions or reducing commitments – lets us more fully enjoy those that are left.
In some ways, this flies against my genetic code. My parents are such pack-rats that they converted their two-car garage into storage space, then overflowed into a rented storage facility as well. (My father often jokes that, if he and my mother were suddenly plowed down in traffic, my brother and I would need to take the next year off from work just to sift through the piles they’ve accumulated.)
But, contrary to upbringing as it may be, I’ve slowly developed the habit of ruthless de-stuff-ing. A few times a year, I try to view everything I own with a dispassionate eye. A pair of jeans I haven’t worn for over a year? To Goodwill they go. A book on my shelf I realize I’m increasingly unlikely to re-read? Trotted down to the local library’s donation bin.
Still, in moving into my new apartment last month, a process that involved carefully looking at literally everything I own as I boxed and unboxed it, I started to appreciate that the things I own are more than just things; they’re behaviors waiting to happen.
Psychologists call this ‘affordance’: what an object suggests for us to do with it. A well designed door, for example, lets us know to pull rather than push it even before we read the ‘pull’ sign. As I unpacked item after boxed item, I started to realize that nearly all of them, by conscious design or otherwise, seemed to afford a specific set of behaviors. And while I’d previously accumulated and sloughed off ‘stuff’ with an eye mainly towards frequency of use, more recently, I’ve started to look at things in terms of type of use. If, at least to some degree, my behaviors are shaped by what my surroundings ‘afford’, can I change my behavior just by changing my surroundings?
In other words, does the right tool not just help get the job done, but spur on the job itself? I’ve found it certainly does, as in the case of the garbage can under my desk: for the past few years, I’ve had a small one that looked great, but filled up remarkably quickly. And, as it began to overflow, I found myself subtly slowing down my discarding of unneeded work papers. Inane as it may sound, I found that switching to a much larger desk garbage helped me suddenly clear off my often overflowing desk. The problem hadn’t been that I didn’t want to trash papers, but that my little garbage can didn’t ‘want’ me to throw any more away.
Or consider the Look skillet my father (a fellow kitchen gadgeteer) recently sent me as a gift. While I had long meant to integrate scrambled eggs into my breakfast rotation (great, paleo-friendly source of protein that they are), I had somehow never stuck with the idea. The Look, however, with its flawless non-stick coating and slow, even cooking, just begs to be scrambled upon whenever I see it. I’ve taken to leaving it out on the stove, and suddenly scrambled eggs are a regular morning choice.
Thinking about affordance in cooking tools reminds me that this incredibly basic advice – how you behave is based, to some degree, on what you do or don’t have around – is something I’ve long pointed out in the world of nutrition. My first tip for friends looking to eat more healthfully? Go through your cabinets and throw away all the junk. Don’t buy any more. You’ll naturally end up eating better when you only indulge those cravings that can motivate you to put your pants back on to head to the supermarket.
The new thought, for me, was how broadly this principle applies to everything else. In nearly every facet of my life, given a behavior I want to encourage, or a bad habit I want to break, perhaps by very carefully acquiring or discarding the right tools, the relevant ‘stuff’, I can give myself a boost well past will-power alone.
And, increasingly, I’m starting to think it works. Last week, I was having trouble falling asleep with the stress and excitement of starting Long Tail. Each time I found myself staring at the ceiling, I’d pick up some bedtime reading, and end up keeping myself up even later. Despite self-chastising, I didn’t cut it out until I reasoned through affordance to a simple yet powerful solution: I took the bulb out of my bedside lamp.