A few years ago, I decided to become more OCD in the pursuit of happiness. What follows is my origin story, and a few lessons pulled from the seemingly disparate worlds of interior design, psychology, nutrition, cooking, and manufacturing.
In high school, I was the epitome of disorganisation. I cared how my living spaces looked but I was so absorbed by other hobbies and preoccupations that cleaning my room or organising my workspace seemed superfluous in comparison.
By the end of high school, I had discovered that I was working at suboptimal levels. I felt like I wasn't productive enough, was easily distracted, and had, in general, a tough time doing meaningful, creative, and fulfilling work.
I have since developed a system for organising digital and physical space that promotes consistent periods of happiness and productivity. Here is a detailed laundry list of the concepts behind how I structured User Experience (UX) design principles into my life.
The gastrointestinal (GI) system is the interface between food and body. It’s composed of a whole host of neurotransmitters, hormones, chemical messengers, enzymes, and bacteria. Heck, it comprises 70 percent of the body’s entire immune system.
There are a lot of things that can go wrong with the GI system. Enzyme deficiencies, microbial imbalances, inflammation, and intestinal permeability are just a few. These problems have been linked to acne, arthritis, mood disorders, allergies, and neurodegenerative disease.
One strategy for dealing with these issues is an elimination diet. Eliminate a large number of food groups for 3-4 weeks (ie gluten, dairy, soy, corn, eggs, nightshade vegetables) and then reintroduce them to detect food intolerances and allergens.
In an age of relative abundance, we can afford to eliminate more things from our physical and digital lives. When cleaning one’s room, use Marie Kondo’s rule of thumb:
"Does [this item] spark joy?"
If it doesn’t toss it or give it away to someone who would gain greater value from it.
Addition isn’t always the answer to life’s problems. Consider subtraction and Derek Sivers’ philosophical framework for making decisions:
"If it isn’t a hell yeah, then it’s a no."
First Order Retrievability
Adam Savage, cohost of the hit show Mythbusters, has a deep love for tools. He also loves organizing them, so much so that he coined a new organising principle: first order retrievability.
First order retrievability is a design choice where items in your workspace are arranged in such a way that no item has to be moved to get to another. It allows you to work fast. The time spent using tools when you need them is maximised while the time spent looking for them is minimised.
Example: Having duplicate items in different locations - putting a pair of scissors in the study room and the bathroom, for instance - to save time and mental effort on deliberate tasks.
Mise en place
The literal translation of mise en place is “putting in place” and it comes from the world of cooking. It’s a French phrase that means gathering and arranging essential ingredients in one place.
One minute of preparation is worth 10 minutes of actual work. Rather, perfect preparation yields perfect results. At its core, mise en place is all about making the greatest use of space and time. It encourages us to step away from being reactive to focus on the important things. Life is too short to focus on anything else.
Example: Asking yourself before you start your day, "How do I make today great?", and then gathering the necessary items before your day starts.
Tom Sachs is a contemporary artist who popularized knolling.
Knolling, an organization method where related objects are aligned at 90 degree angles or in parallel, follows the same principle of first order retrievability but adds a functional aesthetic.
Example: Instead of jumbled wires, arranging wires with pegs and braces to form right angles.
Just-in-time is a manufacturing methodology that originated in Japan and migrated to the West in the 1980s. Its main feature focuses on eliminating waste from bulky processes. Think lean manufacturing. No fat. This contrast a just-in-case framework where extra information is accumulated for a wide variety of scenarios, both essential and nonessential.
Example: When learning something new, say programming, use specialized resources such as Stack Overflow instead of a general textbook.
A nudge is any design choice where people’s behaviour can be altered in a predictable way, without forbidding anything or changing the choice.
If all people were rational (like Spock) all the time, we would always make choices that serve our best interest. We have another automatic, irrational part of our brain, however, that oftentimes short circuits better judgement: eating healthy food in lieu of tasty junk food, controlling ourselves when we lose money in poker or buying when the markets are down.
Whether we know it or not, we are influenced by choice architecture. If we understand the psychological constraints governing our decisions we’ll have greater control of our lives.
Example: When trying to lose weight or get fit, put a picture of yourself in a commonly seen location to remind yourself of your current state and motivate progress.
Managing physical space
Science shows that physical clutter negatively affects the brain and decreases productivity. Managing physical space can seem daunting at first, but here are some steps that greatly helped:
- Eliminate all items (pack them in boxes).
- Take items that are needed out of boxes.
- Group like items together as needed to make what would be complex information more simple
- Label items so that almost everything can be seen from any position in a room.
- Use mandatory visual cues to remind you of desired habits and keep important things top of mind. (e.g. A journal on the floor. A quote or a Seinfeld calendar on your door]
- ABK. Always Be Knolling
- Sell or donate items that are unused by the end of the week
- Make your bed. It’s a small win.
Managing digital space
Digital clutter weighs us down just as much as physical clutter. Emails, notifications, and apps compete for our attention and make it harder to focus and process information. Here’s how you can fight back:
- Ways to achieve Inbox Zero: Email Game, Inbox Pause, Autoresponders for expectation setting.
- Disable your FB news feed.
- Declutter your desktop. Get rid of all icons and use Spotlight or apps like Albert to quickly find files and programs.
- Declutter your phone. Group apps into folders in your home screen and use something like Spotlight or Siri to launch applications.
- Turn off notifications during work hours. Notifications and email are other people’s agenda for your time.
- Turn your phone on airplane mode during work hours. Batch checking social feeds and messages during one or two set periods during the day.
How did it all work out?
From interior design principles to kitchen magic, I meticulously and unwaveringly followed the aforementioned design choices. So much so, in fact, that it has become a habit.
Fortunately, as many of these ideas became second nature, I saw major improvements in my life since my high school days, including:
- More productivity
- Less wasted time
- Higher levels of creativity
- Lower levels of multitasking and distractedness
- Reduced superfluous, trivial actions, and
- Heightened levels of deliberate, meaningful work
Throughout the years, however, one thing hasn't changed: my nagging OCD for the pursuit of happiness.
In writing this article, I realized that interdisciplinary thinking for bringing UX principles into lifestyle design involves a lot of details. Details from seemingly disparate fields. Details that beg to be connected.
While my OCD doesn't help with the detail-centric focus of lifestyle UX, I do think that it was instrumental in helping to create it.
As the renowned designer Charles Eames puts it:
The details don't make up the design. They are the design.