What Does It Mean to Simplify?
There is growing talk these days of living simply. This, I think, is a healthy reaction to our Western cultures of excess, affluence, and too much. Our excess is evident not just in our mountains of stuff, but also in our overbooked schedules, cluttered psyches, overwhelming options, and many other surprising parts of our lives.
Of course, like any reaction to any part of life in any era, we can let the pendulum swing in the opposite direction. We can even allow living simply to become its own sort of idol. Still, in the grand scheme of things, it seems the message most of us need to hear and apply is to pare down, to get rid of excess, and to focus on doing more with less. It’s also important to remember that simplification is a tool to aid us, not a law by which to crush others. It’s going to look different for everyone, and different for each individual during different seasons of life.
Simplifying does not mean living a life of choosing the easiest path. And it’s more than just keeping your sock drawer tidy. It’s eliminating the unnecessary, getting rid of distractions, and saying “no” to too much, too many, and too fast. It’s minimizing and maintaining. And of course, there’s the good ‘ole dictionary definition of simple.
While reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project earlier this year, I was somewhat surprised at one big way Gretchen set about working towards her goal of having more energy. One might correctly assume that getting more sleep and exercising would be part of this endeavor, but it may be surprising to learn that another of the big ways of improving her life in this area also involved cleaning out her closets (as well as other decluttering, organization, and simplification).
This affects us in many ways, but I think most people can attest to the energy they feel when they sit down to a clean workspace versus the drain it can feel like when sitting down to a desk covered in mountains of paper, piles, and paperclips.
Once you get started, particularly in a task like decluttering, you may be surprised by energy you feel as you set goals to continue. For instance, this month I’ve set a goal to get rid of at least one excess item a day. I’m afraid I’ve become a bit of an overachiever, and I’ve also been surprised at how excited I get when I’ve cleaned out a drawer and gotten rid of half of it’s former occupants. And then I want to do more.
The hardest part is just getting started. Once you do (and have a plan), the energy just might become the biggest motivator.
Related to energy is clarity. In fact, they’re really part of the same overarching concept. Getting rid of excess frees us to dwell on what is important. We have space to think, room to breathe, and can focus on making more of less.
Clarity allows us to devote more mental and physical energy to the things that really are important. I once read that in interior design, some professionals recommend leaving at least one wall space per room empty so that the eyes have a place to rest. Ever get a 2,000-word e-mail that was all one paragraph? Empty spaces allow us time to take it in.
We can often appreciate beauty more fully when we’re not overwhelmed by it. We can appreciate and invest in the important parts of our day when we have time to exercise careful thought and planning, rather than just haphazardly going from activity to activity.
Paradoxically, eliminating the multitude of choices actually allows us to make better choices, and usually helps us be more content with the choices we make.
Freedom from living simply can come in a lot of forms. It frees us to be able to have time — time for people and time for relationships.
It frees us to be flexible. In an over-scheduled life, an unexpected delay of spilling coffee on a shirt and having to change can feel like a personal nuclear meltdown; the schedule for the entire day is off, and the rest of the day is spent in a frenzied, harried race to catch up. And usually, if such a day includes any interactions with others, someone is hurt or overlooked.
Freedom from consumerism. As we pare down, the temptation to buy more or to add to the schedule fades into hesitation. While I’m decluttering my closets, drawers, and storage bins, the dreadful thought of bringing one more unnecessary item into the house makes me think long and hard about whether it is really necessary.
Inspiration Toward Simplicity
Since our excess is not merely evident in our material possessions, simplification is not something we only apply to “our stuff.” Still, it usually helps to begin there, because it is the most externally obvious place to start. Often just starting here will help develop a “keystone habit” of sorts as we work to simplify other areas of our lives.
If you’re inspired to simplify, consider taking action. Here are three suggestions for getting started.
1. Get rid of something extra. Today, find 3 things that are extra in your house. Throw them away, donate them, or sell them.
Go to your closet, and get rid of an outfit you haven’t worn in months. Get rid of a broken toy, or just that extra noisy one. Get rid of the pile of catalogs, or just one of them.
(Consider joining in on Johanna’s challenge of getting rid of one extra item per day for an entire month. March is almost over, but if doing this for a whole month seems overwhelming consider just joining in for the rest of this month. Or make your own challenge for April.)
2. Declutter. Clear off a surface: a countertop, a dresser, or a sink. Take things to where they belong and get rid of what doesn’t. Enjoy the beauty of an empty space.
3. Plan to simplify. Set aside 15 minutes without distraction (no e-mail, phone, etc…) and write out just 2 areas of life you’d like to simplify. Then write down one action step that will help you move toward that goal.
Some of My Inspiration toward Simplicity
Clearly, I’m still in the beginning stages of the clarity part and decluttering my mind. I’ve read a lot about simple living over the past several years and, in particular, months, and I’m afraid the “excess input” is still creating mental clutter in my head. Because as I was searching my friend Johanna’s blog, My Home Tableau, for her post challenging readers to do the get-rid-of-one-item-per-day challenge, I realized she’s already written some helpful insights on “Why Simplify?” Part 1 and Part 2. I recommend her blog for inspiration toward simplicity in the home.