Simplicity is becoming a 21st century buzzword, a pursuit that is being promoted
as a cure for everything from the housework blues and global warming to
spiritual and economic malaise.
But there is no mystery to or difficulty about the concept. Simplifying your
life is about gaining control of your life – creating more time, on the job and
at home, to do the things you want to do. It’s also about gaining control of
your finances and the
impact your life makes on the planet.
Surveys show that more and more people feel that they aren’t spending their
time on things they enjoy. One poll found that 65 percent of people spend their
leisure time doing things they’d prefer not to do. And many of these people are
asking what’s the point of leading a “full life” if you don't have the time and
energy to enjoy it, or if it’s degrading the environment or other people’s
quality of life?
Simple living is about streamlining your life so you have time for the people
and things you love. It means lightening your load, digging out from under your
piles of clutter, as well as the debt and over-committed time required to pay
for the stuff that makes up that clutter.
Everything you own costs you something, no matter how much or little you
originally paid for it. Aside from the cost of acquisition, there are costs
associated with a space to store your stuff, the energy to transport it, and
your attention to deal with it. By having only the items that you need, you'll
gain a significant cost savings by avoiding the money, space, and energy costs
By having only the items that you need, you'll gain a significant cost
savings by avoiding the money, space, and energy costs of clutter.
Everything you own costs you something, no matter how much or little
you originally paid for it. Aside from the cost of acquisition, there are costs
associated with a space to store your stuff, the energy to transport it, and
your attention to deal with it.
If the opportunity to rediscover the richness of daily life doesn’t make you
want to start cleaning out closets, consider the economy. Cutting back on
spending on material goods and learning how to live well on less can be a sort
of insurance policy in the face of an uncertain economy with the threat of job
loss or falling wages.
I learned to live with fewer belongings a decade or so ago when my husband
and I lived in another part of the world for a year-and-a-half. Virtually all of
our possessions went into storage (after we purged quite a bit in order not to
pay for storing things we didn’t need). After a few months away, I started to
forget exactly what we owned, let alone miss it. When we finally returned home,
we got rid of a lot more stuff, and left some of it in boxes for months after
moving into our new home.
But once you’re hooked on having lots of possessions, simplifying what you
have can seem overwhelming. Begin the process in one small part of your home,
such as a closet or a corner of the basement or attic. Examine each item you own
and ask yourself if you really need it.
Ask yourself these three questions about each item: Have I used this item
recently? Will this item help me attain my life goals? Do I need to own this
item or can I rent or borrow it? (Note that sentimental keepsakes you can’t bear
to part with such as family photo albums or antique heirlooms, or beautiful
pieces of art that bring joy to your life could fall under the second question,
since they can fulfill an important emotional function along life’s path; just
don’t fall into the trap of keeping everything under the rationalization of
nostalgia!) My rule of thumb is that if I haven’t used or looked at it in six
months, I don’t need or want it.
Other criteria to help you decide whether or not to pitch or save involves
how you use the item in question. Does it help you be more active, self-reliant,
creative and social? Or does it promote passivity, dependence and alienation?
Sort things into three piles: those you want to keep; those you want to give
away, sell or recycle; and those suited only for the garbage (and that shouldn’t
be very big, should it!). You might also want a pile labeled “not sure”. Wait a
few weeks and go through that pile again; you might feel less attached to these
items the second time around or you might decide some of them are too precious
to get rid of.
Pay special attention to things that are useful, but not in the quantity you
have accumulated. Examples from my home are five saucepans and four frying pans;
at least 100 pens; four radios (two of which don’t work); innumerable clocks and
watches; eight pairs of shoes; four winter coats...you get the idea.
living is not about austerity or frugality (although those traits can be
important to some people). It’s about thoughtfulness and awareness, about not
using more resources than you need to, about having the time to do what is
really important to you.
Once you have simplified your possessions, examine ways not to re-acquire
them. If you thought you needed a bigger house, an addition to your garage, more
shelves in the basement, or a remodeled kitchen with more cupboards, maybe
having less stuff will eliminate that need.
If you are serious about simpler living, you’ll likely have to change your
shopping style. Avoid compulsive buying at all costs. One technique is to write
down the name of an item that you think you simply must have, then wait for a
month. If you still want or need it at that time, go ahead and buy it. You may
find that you won’t be able to remember why you were so excited about the item
in the first place!
Keep in mind that simple living is not about austerity or frugality (although
those traits can be important to some people). It’s about thoughtfulness and
awareness, about not using more resources than you need to, about having the
time to do what is really important to you.
If you truly need to acquire something, consider buying used. If buying new,
look for quality and durability, as well as standard, simple technology. Avoid
the latest fads, and shun equipment that locks you into expensive or
hard-to-find replacement parts. Buy compatible items in terms of style and color
(my wardrobe is all one color for this reason).
For most families, a second car is an unnecessary luxury – one which guzzles
money, time and natural resources, in addition to contributing to global
warming. If you live in the city, consider getting by with no car at all. Use
public transit and pedal power. For much less than the cost of buying and
maintaining a car, you can rent a vehicle when you need one, and it will be
suited to the task at hand, into the bargain. Or join one of the many car
sharing co-ops that are being formed in urban areas.
The borrow or rent principle works for other things too. Do you have to own
every book you read, or could you borrow them from the library? Do you need a
fully stocked home workshop, or could you rent what you need? Or consider
sharing ownership of big items like a lawnmower or mulcher with neighbors;
that’s not only a great way to minimize possessions but an effective way of
When you’re so busy living your life, paying for and managing your
possessions, it becomes impossible to imagine anything different. But once you
take some time to get rid of possessions that you don’t use but that take up
space, you will probably start thinking about simplifying other aspects of your
life too – moving into a smaller home, simplifying your social life, your
volunteer schedule, your finances and eventually your career.
Our lives can be cluttered by possessions that are no longer meaningful. They
can also be cluttered by social activities that are attended simply to be polite
or out of duty, relationships that no longer work, or household and other duties
that have lost meaning or purpose in our lives. So why not begin to simplify
Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of
Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 35 years of experience.
She has also authored twelve books.