Avoiding the Stationery Trap: Insights from a Recovering Stationery Addict and an 18th Century Philosopher

Posted on Posted in Creativity, Motivation, Organisation strategies, Writing

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18th century philosopher Denis Diderot pondering his stationery consumption
18th century philosopher Denis Diderot pondering his stationery consumption

In recent years, the humble notepad, pencil case and pen have transformed. Stationery has experienced an extreme makeover.

I recently worked with a teenager girl who used a bright pink pen with a big diamond on top to take notes. This pen even had its very own feather bower.

Another student had a pencil case covered with a picture of a big fat pug dog. Pencil cases with multiple zips and pockets seem to be all the rage too.

Don’t get me wrong. I like stationery. You absolutely need tools to capture your ideas and get your work done.

But it’s the designer, overpriced and over-the-top stationery that I’ve started to question.

For instance, take a basic notepad from kikki.K priced at a whopping $24.95. That’s right, $24.95!

Think of it like this: in terms of your time and energy, a fancy notepad (priced at $25) is anywhere between 1 – 3 hours of your life, slaving away at your job. You have to stop and ask yourself, ‘Is this notepad really worth it?’

For less than $2, you could buy a simple exercise book and decorate that with pictures and ideas that really resonate with you. I have done this with old comic strips, reused giftwrap and vintage magazines (see below).

My cheap homemade notebooks
My cheap homemade notebooks

All you need is access to some pictures, scissors, glue and a bit of contact to protect your creation (saving you over $20).

And it’s not just about the money.

An obsession with fancy stationery can also deplete your willpower and waste your time. It can even thwart the creative process. As author Fiona Scott Norman states,

“The more expensive, precious and important a notepad is, the less likely anything of note is going to ferment or foment between its pages. The stories of great creative minds writing their groundbreaking, best-selling works always run along the lines of: “I wrote it on table napkins in between my waitressing shifts” or “he bangs out all his novels on a poxy old typewriter”. They never go: “It all started when I bought a notepad made of horse hair and recycled 1950s children books at a design market”…these notebooks are not made to be used. Far too intimidating”

She goes onto say:

“The gorgeous journal, frankly, is the creative equivalent of the cross trainer ordered at midnight from the home shopping channel. It will end up in the spare room taunting you for your lack of discipline”.

As a recovering stationery addict, I can tell you that stationery can provide inspiration and motivation to study for about a day.

Then the inspiration wears off.

If you’re like me, I guarantee that you’ll get used to your pug dog pencil case. It won’t seem so cute on the second day (those bulging eyes will eventually start to bug you). And before you know it, you’ll be back to the stationery shop for your next hit.

You see, I learnt the hard way…

In my early days of mind mapping, I purchased an exquisite set of 50 coloured pens. I thought “These pens will provide me with unlimited inspiration to mind map!”

Well, I was wrong.

I was happier and more productive when I just had a set of 6 basic colours.

Why would this be?

It all comes down to willpower depletion. And the paradox of choice.

We all have a set amount of willpower and it gets depleted every time we have to make a decision.

I was draining my willpower reserves by agonizing over which colour I would use next on my mind map! The light shade blue or the slightly lighter shade blue? Or how about that pretty bright green?

I gave those pens away and returned to my basic colours.

The amount of time and energy you spend trying to find the perfect inspiring notebook or set of pens is time and energy taken away from you focusing on more important work such as preparing your mind for your upcoming subjects, exercising to sharpen your thinking and reflecting on your goals for the week.

Here’s all you really need…

My advice to you is this: Avoid the fancy stationery shops. Keep things simple.

Productivity and organization expert David Allen (author of the bestselling book ‘How to Get Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity’) says:

“..good tools don’t necessarily have to be expensive. Often, on the low-tech side, the more “executive” something looks, the more dysfunctional it really is”

He suggests the basic stationery you need is as follows:

1. Paper-holding trays
2. A stack of plain paper
3. A pen/pencil
4. Post-it notes
5. Paper clips
6. Binder clips
7. A stapler and staples
8. Stickt tape
9. Rubber bands
10. Files
11. A calendar/diary
12. Rubbish bin/recycling bin

Extras I recommend are a set of basic coloured pens and art diaries (for visual note taking), a couple of highlighters and a storage pouch for important documents so they don’t get damaged when you’re out and about.

Here’s what fancy stationery can tell you about a person…

If your fellow students or work colleagues are buying up big on fancy stationery, it’s probably a sign that they are struggling.

Whenever I used to have a ‘stationery shop binge’ it was always because I felt stuck and/or uninspired. The words weren’t flowing for an essay and/or I felt mentally overwhelmed by a subject.

But stationery will never give you a genuine boost in confidence. Stationery won’t make you smarter. It won’t help you overcome serious writer’s block.

The only way you get unstuck is by doing the hard yards and nutting out your ideas by writing out your thoughts or mind mapping out your ideas. Any paper and pen will do the job. As Fiona Scott Norman says, even a napkin will do!

Finally, an important lesson from Denis Diderot

You might be thinking, “But what about decorating your study space? Surely, a nice study space will lead to elevated levels of creativity and productivity?”

The stationery superstore ‘Officeworks’ now has whole sections dedicated to colour coordinating your study space. You can colour coordinate your notepads, desk lamp, penholder, paper-holding trays, paper clips and files!

IKEA also presents you with examples of funky study spaces, displaying all the furniture and accessories to buy to maximize your study power.

But just know if you choose to go down this path, you may regret it. Denis Diderot certainly did.

In his essay, ‘Regrets on parting with my old dressing gown’, 18th century philosopher Denis Diderot describes the effect receiving a new scarlet dressing gown had on his life. Upon receiving the new beautiful gown, Denis decided to throw out his old gown. As he was walking around his apartment in his new gown, he noticed everything else looked old and drab in comparison.

Bookcases = Drab.
Table = Drab.
Chair = Drab.

So what did Denis do?

He threw out his old furniture and replaced it with brand new stuff.

The problem was, Denis didn’t feel comfortable in his new gown and with all his new furniture! The new chair wasn’t as comfy as his old one. He longed for his old gown and furniture. He realised the error of his ways, with every new purchase driving him to buy even more. His consumption was out of control.

The Diderot Effect is the term given to describes people’s desire for their items to match one another. But since every new purchase creates imbalance, one is forever consuming new items to achieve a state of balance. As Schor states:

The purchase of a new home is the impetus for replacing old furniture; a new jacket makes little sense without the right skirt to match; an upgrade in china can’t really be enjoyed without a corresponding upgrade in glassware. This need for unity and conformity in our lifestyle choices is part of what keeps the consumer escalator moving ever upward. And ‘escalator’ is the operative metaphor: when the acquisition of each item on a wish list adds another item, and more, to our ‘must-have’ list, the pressure to upgrade our stock of stuff is relentlessly unidirectional, always ascending.

Having an understanding of the Diderot effect may help you to think twice before redecorating your study space or purchasing a new study chair.

Look, I understand that everyone wants to work in a nice space. In terms of productivity, having a neat orderly workspace make a huge difference. But spending 30 minutes cleaning it up (e.g. removing clutter) and adding a pot plant and simple picture to your wall is all you really need to do to jazz things up.

The vast majority of items in my study space are second-hand. My big L-shape desk came from gumtree ($50). My whiteboard from a skip bin. A bright colourful painting from a garage sale ($10). My files from a ‘Free – Please take’ box at university. Nothing matches but I don’t care. I’m comfortable in my study space like Denis Diderot was before he received his new dressing gown.

To sum up

So before you start spending up big for the new year, ask yourself “Is this new item a good use of my precious time and energy?” and “Is a new notepad the answer to my problems?”

Chances are the answer is “Probably not”.

Remember, it’s your ideas and work ethic that matters most. And you can’t buy those things at a stationery shop or IKEA.

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