“Simplify your life” is not a directive to live a life of deprivation. You don’t have to turn into an ascetic and give up on all that you enjoy. It means you stop creating complexity out of simplicity. To keep it simple just means you let go of things that don’t matter to focus on the things that do. To you.
Yes, that isn’t easy to do. Especially since the “Buy More, Save More” marketing campaigns we see everywhere are run by really clever people. We are hypnotized by the messages, unable to break free from the clutches of the consumerist culture. As a result, we buy things we don’t need with money we may not have to impress people we don’t care about.
Where’s the fun in that?
The thing about things
Some of us like to be surrounded by knickknacks. We believe our statuettes, unusual candles, quirky trinkets, peculiar tchotchkes, or collections of toys or teddy bears are what define our personalities and make a space ours. And then there are others who consider such knickknacks a waste of space but would instead fill their shelves with shoes or electronic gadgets.
Whether you surround yourself with comic books or computers, the common thread is this: most of us simply have too much stuff. We are only unique in the kinds of stuff that we accumulate. It is true: one person’s trash is another’s treasure. In the process, though, we forget this basic tenet of life:
The best things in life are not really things.
We are living through a crisis of excess. All this clutter adds layers of complexity to our lives, causing us to lose the most precious resource of all — Time!
To quote Miles Davis,
Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.
There is no better argument for us to keep it simple than this: you’ll be trading stuff for time. That’s one heck of a deal.
Turn it off
As highlighted in last week’s post on how to declutter your life, the first step to simplifying your life is to turn off the purchase faucet. Granted, “stop buying more” is easy to say but hard to do. However, just like how weight loss requires you to expend more calories than you take in, decluttering a space requires, at a minimum, for you to dispose of more than you acquire.
Convinced? Now, let’s move right along to the practical (and a lot more fun) side of how to keep it simple by getting rid of clutter. But before we get into the specifics, here are some common myths about clutter that need to be debunked.
Einstein famously quipped,
If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?
Funny, yes. But not quite true.
Here are some common myths (rationalizations?) people use to justify their clutter.
Myth 1. If I can find it, it’s not clutter
Are you someone who looks at the above picture and shrugs like it’s no big deal?
Maybe you have superpowers that enable you to locate a lonely store receipt from a mountain of paper on a desk similar to the one above. It means you may be gifted in some way. But it doesn’t absolve the stuff on the desk from being classified as clutter.
Any untidy mass of stuff is clutter. By all definitions.
Myth 2: Clutter is always messy
You can have rows and rows of sorted, organized stuff, but if it takes up too much of your energy to buy and/or maintain and causes you more stress than joy, it can be rightfully categorized as clutter.
Clutter does not have to be messy.
Myth 3: Clutter does not bother me
Living amidst clutter impacts everyone, even if you believe you’re above the fray. The effects of clutter are not personality-dependent.
Clean, minimal, and clutter-free spaces have a Zen-like quality to them. Such environments can instantly lower your cortisol levels and evoke a feeling of calm. A calm mind, in turn, makes you more patient, enables you to live intentionally, and helps you make better decisions. Every single one of these goals is worth pursuing.
Myth 4: I don’t hoard “everything,” just this “one thing.”
Like I alluded to earlier, we are all different in terms of the types of stuff we surround ourselves with. Having just three pairs of shoes, but a closet full of kitchen gadgets, still means you are clutter-prone.
Admit it. (I just did.)
Myth 5: It’s not clutter. It’s backup
Again, see my earlier post here on how we’ve taken the concept of the heir and the spare to its extreme. Having multiples of any item, as backups, just in case something were to happen to the original isn’t a great strategy. It’s simply a way to rationalize poor shopping habits.
Since most of us succumb to the spell of clutter, we need some justifications to hold on to stuff. That’s really what these myths are.
Learning to declutter is an essential life skill with one primary objective—to simplify your life. Only when you can keep it simple, you leave the mundane behind to focus on higher things.
Keep it simple
By default, the phrase “keep it simple” is associated with eliminating material possessions. However, there are non-physical aspects to simplifying life, too, that are equally important.
So, when you start a decluttering journey, do consider all these areas:
This is the most obvious form of clutter. It’s typically what most decluttering articles, including this one, are focused on.
I read a statistic that said we created almost 2.5 quintillion (18 zeros) bytes of data every day in 2020 on an average. That data is growing exponentially. We may have to invent new words to describe the mathematical place values of such data soon.
If you’re having a hard time identifying with those numbers, just stop for a minute to ponder these questions:
How many pictures do you take (and store) on your phone? How often do you stop to clear out your photostream? When was the last time you reviewed or pruned your digital picture history?
Next, think about the hundreds of thousands of emails, messages, and texts that inundate your various inboxes. How many of those are genuinely of value to you? What happens to the ones that are no longer relevant? How about those forwarded gifs and memes?
A vast majority of us pay for cloud storage just because we don’t have the inclination or time to sort through the data on our devices to know what to keep and what to throw.
It’s tough, I agree. Digital data is like the mythical beast Hydra with many heads—you cut one head off, two more emerge in its place.
Overflowing to-do lists
Busyness without purpose is a sure sign of clutter. Having too much to do all the time is the mental equivalent of hoarding.
Overscheduling ourselves because we don’t know how to say no is a perfect recipe for a cluttered day.
Relationships are like plants. They need to be tended to appropriately for them to thrive and flower. And just like you would with weeds, you’ll need to declutter toxic relationships by rooting them out.
By now, it should be evident that we’re running into a volume problem here. We have a limited amount of time. Dealing with excess in all of the above areas is simply not possible.
This necessitates the need for a simpler life.
Good news—rules on how to keep it simple cannot get any simpler.
Bad news—simple-sounding stuff is often the hardest to do.
Two rules to keep it simple
Borrowing from Warren Buffet’s rules on investing, here are just two rules to simplify your life.
Rule 1: Reduce
Don’t buy things just because it’s on sale. Stop taking pictures of everything in sight. Don’t sign up for every activity you possibly can. And choose quality over quantity when it comes to relationships.
Rule 2: Don’t forget Rule 1.
There are thousands of books, articles, blog posts, videos, TV shows, etc., on how to go about the mechanics of decluttering. I won’t rehash those here. You need to find one that appeals to you. Whether you choose to clear one room at a time, or go Marie Kondo-style and declutter by category, is up to you.
That said, here are five conceptual, universally applicable principles on how to effectively declutter and keep it simple.
1. Stop acquiring
While it may sound like I’m beating a dead horse, I cannot overstate the importance of not buying more. If you just have one takeaway from this whole article, it is this: Don’t buy more than you need. Everything else will eventually take care of itself.
2. The toothpaste test
There are two kinds of people in the world.
Camp A: Those who reach for a new tube of toothpaste as soon as they see their current one isn’t flowing freely
Camp B: Those who have squeezed, beaten, twisted out of shape, and mangled toothpaste tubes lining their bathroom vanities.
Which camp do you belong to? Be honest. And admit that you look upon those in the opposite camp with some derision.
Here’s the truth (without judgment): There’s something positive to be said for those in Camp B. No, they are not all misers. They have the right intention.
For many reasons, it’s worth trying to use up what we have before reaching for a replacement. It results in less resource waste, and it can be more economical financially and time-wise (since you’re not constantly spending time getting a replacement.)
We often underestimate the residual value of items we own. Our consumerist culture simply does not encourage the use of items until their true end-of-life.
There is no reason to replace a perfectly well-functioning car because it has over 120K miles. Or replace a TV from 2 years ago, just because 8K is more advanced than 4K.
Takeaway: See if you can squeeze some more juice out of what you already have.
3. Exercise creativity
When you self-impose a buying moratorium, you may be surprised at how creative you can get with what you already have.
You have to agree that some of the best magazine-worthy dinner recipes are borne out of leftovers from the fridge and a few pantry staples.
Before the advent of our 24/7 1-Click shopping culture, we knew how to make do with what was available and were much more creative in troubleshooting when running to the store wasn’t the default option. When things failed, we did not rush to replace but chose to repair.
It’s not often I advocate going back in time. But on this one subject, it may not be such a bad idea to pretend we’re in 1985. Or earlier.
4. A place for everything
Ever been late to work or school because you couldn’t find your car keys or cellphone? You are not alone.
A survey shows that Americans spend an average of 2.5 days each year looking for lost items and a total of $2.7 Billion replacing missed possessions.
“A place for everything and everything in its place” is timeless advice.
Designating a place for every item in your home and returning items after use dutifully to their respective areas will save a lot of headaches (and tardiness) later on. It will also prevent you from buying a duplicate Costco-sized bag of almonds because now you have designated nut-storage space in your pantry. (Wonder how I know!)
5. The annual usage review
Typically, decluttering experts advise you to donate or toss things that haven’t been touched for over a year. If your heart aches at that suggestion, feel free to hold on to something for twice as long. But in two years, if you haven’t found a use for it, it’s time to admit it does not belong to you.
Yes, you may become extra sentimental about donating a jacket that had hung untouched in your closet for five years. But let go, you must. In the unlikely event you toss something, and Murphy’s law catches up with you, and you need it the next day, you then have a legit reason to scratch that shopping itch. Guiltfree.
The epitome of simple living, high thinking is, of course, Mahatma Gandhi. In his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi famously said: “I must reduce myself to zero.” Here was a man who left the world with hardly any possessions—a walking staff, spectacles, a pocket watch, a knife, fork, and spoon. Instead, he focused his time and energy on using the unconventional strategy of Ahimsa (non-violence) to free India from the British Empire—arguably one of the most powerful empires in modern history.
Would Gandhi have found the time for all his achievements had he spent his time chasing after the material excesses that seemed to surround him? Unlikely.
We cannot be like Gandhi. Also, simplifying your life does not require complete renunciation of material possessions and an embrace of asceticism. But, if we don’t make an effort to simplify our lives, we can get lost in worldly excesses and the clutter of life. Unraveling from that can be time-consuming and, for some, a lifelong process. If the chaos of life forever consumes us, how can we find the time for higher thinking?
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges, and come up with elegant solutions – Steve Jobs