In the picture above you can see what a typical week’s worth of trash looks like at the Philllnance household. I imagine a lot of people will wonder how on earth a person, much less two people with a cat and a dog, can go an entire week without producing more than a few tiny bags of garbage. What it boils down to is that in pursuit of happiness, and therefore a simpler life, I have found that optimizing our living situation is integral to achieving piece of mind.
Let’s take a few minutes to explore this further. Many things of value in life can be achieved by instilling keystone habits. Charles Duhigg argues keystone habits are those habits that provide disproportionate value compared to their effort because they set in motion other habits that also provide value. For example, one of my previous posts about How I lost 10 Pounds Without Exercising I wrote about the multiple benefits of batch cooking meals at home with my fiance. When it comes to optimizing our house the same principles apply.
When we started optimizing in the Phillnance household we began by recycling. We really enjoyed feeling that we were making the world a better place to live in by eliminating the pollution that is required to remake the plastics and papers that end up at the landfill and come from destroying our natural resources that we could otherwise be appreciating in their majestic glory. Recycling led to a habit of composting because we thought why not expand our parameters just a bit. We like the idea of allowing our plant waste to decompose on our own property without putting more of a burden on our local environment. (In the picture is approximately three months of plant-based waste decomposing with very little intervention or smell. At six months the volume has hardly expanded beyond what is seen in this photo.)
I began to think about all the money I must be saving the local government, and the local tax payers, from reducing my burden on the garbage disposal system by choosing to recycle and compost instead of following my old routines. While it has been shown that some communities have indeed saved tens of thousands of dollars by instituting these practices at scale it is hard to say what my individual impact is. Still I found the EPA’s post about composting to be very informative. I may have been initially motivated by the financial implications, but I found real joy in my environmental impact even when there was no savings to be had.
Once my gears got going on optimizing, I was off to the races. First we took the opportunity to replace many of our light bulbs with energy-efficient LEDs. That made a significant impact, but cost a bit of money upfront. The next victim was our water heater. Apparently, someone came up with the brilliant idea that we need to keep water hot all day year round in astonishingly large quantities in the off-chance we want to sear our skin while trying to get clean. This needless use of energy produces an incredible amount of waste every day across just about every residence and commercial building in the “developed world” each day. With an eye towards preserving the natural beauty of our planet and saving a few dollars in the process, my fiance and I began to incrementally turn down our water heater level until we found a setting where we are both happy when we shower. Believe me, there is such a thing as a shower that is too cold.
I have heard of something called an on-demand water heater that is supposed to be much more efficient. Unfortunately, I haven’t done any research into it because we are still renting. I’m sure we will get one when we have a home of our own, but for now just keeping the temp at a reasonable level works well enough.
Finally, we started setting our HVAC to more reasonable temperatures throughout the day. Thankfully our home came with a thermostat that we can set to change automatically based on the time of day. It is nothing fancy but it gets the job done. We also have made a habit of turning off lights and unplugging electronics when they are not in use. For example, we have a lot of electronics, like our TV, that are plugged into power strips. We have made a habit of turning those power strips off when we are done watching Netflix or working on our computers.
All-in-all these adjustments have taken little effort to implement and are now a part of our routine or entirely automated. Obviously, using less energy is good for the environment which provides us with a sense of happiness and understanding that we are doing our part to be better stewards of the environment. We also get the benefit of saving a decent chunk of change in the process. Below is a chart that has tracked our energy use relative to a composite of our neighbors. Over the course of the last few months, by making these changes, we went from using 27% more energy than our normal neighbors to 50% less energy than our energy-efficient neighbors.
“If there’s an easier, more efficient way to do something, trust a lazy person to find it.” – Marty Rubin