March 5

Simplify Your Life: Stop Confusing Busyness with Purpose

Having two or more of everything, “just in case”, does not signify great planning. It points to poor decision-making. Simplify your life. It’s easy to complicate things but genius is in keeping it simple and stupid.

Diamonds and other baubles

On Nov 1, 1972, the New York Times published an article that began with this question:

Will Sophia Loren finally get the 34.30‐carat emerald ring that her husband, Carlo Ponti, tried unsuccessfully to buy for her in 1968?

Now, you may be wondering what place a 34-carat emerald-ring (or any jewelry) has in a post titled "Simplify your life." Let me explain. 

In 1968, Carlo Ponti lost an auction bid for the said ring to Mrs. Enid Haupt. By the time 1972 rolled around, Mrs. Haupt had decided to put up her jewelry collection for sale.

In addition to the ring mentioned earlier, the auction included other items from Mrs. Haupt's collection—an enormous sapphire, a necklace with 52 emeralds and 522 diamonds, and a few other such trinkets. Yeah. The usual auction fares!

Why the sale? Mrs. Haupt had a desire to simplify her life—the jewelry didn't mean to her much anymore and was simply locked away in a vault. Her interests in life had changed. She wasn't keen on jewelry anymore but preferred to instead talk about horticulture.

Yes. Garden cultivation and management—that horticulture.

My point is this. The word simplify means different things to different people. But no matter where you're at, there's plenty of reasons and ways to simplify your life.

168 Hours

Do you know what Mrs. Haupt, you, me, and pretty much everyone else on Planet Earth have in common? One hundred sixty-eight hours a week as long as we are alive.

The number of hours in a day is by far the most equitable resource allocation available to humankind. And conversely, the most misused of all resources.

Time isn't the main thing. It's the only thing. - Miles Davis

We have state-of-the-art security systems guarding our homes, 256-bit advanced encryption standards to keep our bank accounts safe, but we put no thought to defending what is undoubtedly the scarcest and most valuable of all resources—Time.

How else can we explain spending entire weekends cleaning out the garage or watching endless online videos because YouTube's algorithm thinks you might like to watch another funny cat meme compilation?

In response to this question, most people, reflexively, point to the need for excellent time management strategies. The common assumption is that with great productivity skills or time management hacks, you'd be able to be more "efficient" in doing tasks you already do. Such as being able to clean out your garage in one day instead of two.

While that may help earn your Sundays back, efficient time management is a non-solution solution. It addresses the symptom rather than the problem.

I'm going to borrow an economic theory to illustrate my point.

Jevons Paradox

Jevons, an English economist, noted that coal-burning became much more efficient after the technological innovation of steam engines. But with increased efficiency, demand increased too. Coal soon became a popular, cost-effective resource even for industries traditionally reliant on other energy sources.

Long story short, Jevons argued that it's possible to make a resource efficient through technological innovation but that efficiency in itself becomes the cause for increased usage of that resource. This, in turn, leads to unintended consequences.

While it may seem like a giant leap in logic to go from coal-burning to garage-cleaning, the principle is the same.

By finding ways to clean your garage more efficiently, you may free up your Sundays. But without a fundamental change in perspective, you're likely to trade your free Sundays towards the acquisition and maintenance of new "toys."

Unless there is a significant mind shift in our attitudes to decrease complexity in our lives, we'll keep filling it with more clutter.

It is futile to try to optimize a process that is sub-optimal in the first place. 

You can get really efficient with coal-burning or cleaning out your garage, but at some point, you need to realize you should be spending your effort on other more sustainable (not coal burning) or more meaningful (not cleaning out the garage) activities.

Identify what's important

The answer to the above problem lies not in time management techniques but rather in identifying what matters to you. This brings us to the core of today's discussion.

You have to simplify your life, so you have less stuff to manage. (Stuff here includes physical, digital, mental, emotional—the whole gamut.)

What matters to you will change over time, but that's all the more reason to know where you're at today.

A great way to do this is through this simple exercise. Note: This is simple in concept but may take some reflection time. 

Your job is to create two lists.

List 1 – List the top ten activities you spent time on during the week (leave sleep out since that's a given and a third of our lives should be spent on rest).

List 2 – List the top 10 activities that you feel will truly make you happy and your life more meaningful. This is not a "what you ought to be doing" list but "what you'd rather be doing."

Be honest with both of these lists. No one needs to see them but you.

Reconcile your current and ideal state

Compare the two lists.

If I were a betting person, I'd wager that the two lists look starkly different. What you do and what you think will make you happy are often on two separate planes.

For instance, my list 1 looks like this

  • Worked at my job
  • Cooked
  • Did household chores
  • Read books
  • Worked out

My list 2 may look like this

  • Spend more time with family
  • Read books
  • Listen to music
  • Hike
  • Be nice to people

Yes, I get it.

Everything in list 1 (maybe except for reading books) is all things I need to do. I need to work my job; I need to cook so the family can have nutritious meals; I need to do laundry, dishes and sweep the floors; I need to workout for health.

This is all well and true. The question to ask yourself is, "How much?"

How many hours of work are you willing to put in at your job to afford the activities on list2?

How many hours of shopping for groceries, cooking utensils, and tools (and the associated maintenance of these tools and gadgets) are you willing to trade in to get the kind of nutritious meals you want for your family?

What kind of equipment or gym membership do you need to maintain your fitness?

The answers to these questions are where the rubber meets the road.

Beware of hedonic adaptation

We are off on a hedonic treadmill, where the word enough has disappeared from our radars. I've written extensively about defining your enough.

Without being aware of it, we're too busy fulfilling and optimizing our items on list 1 at the expense of those on list 2.

Today is your opportunity to reevaluate those lists.

Prune or reorganize items from list 1, so it more closely aligns with getting you to fulfill items on list 2 or at least helps you get to list 2.

That, in essence, is what simplify your life means.

If you like spending 8 hours a day in the backyard pulling weeds out on a Saturday, and that makes you happy, by all means, work hard to afford a one-acre or a hundred-acre yard and spend your weekends plucking out weeds.

But if you're going to buy a house with a ten-acre yard because your friend from high school has one, and then going to hire folks to tend to that yard because you hate yard-work and now have to work extra hard at a job you detest, to pay for the larger house and the gardener, it is time to simplify.

Simplify your life

How to simplify your life? The answer is actually comically simple (pun intended).

Declutter your life. Drop everything that does not add value to your life. 

Easier said than done? It isn't that hard to do if you can keep your eye on the ball.

There are two facets to the decluttering process.

Get rid of clutter

Please don't stop reading.

I know how you feel. You don't want one more person telling you how to clean out your closet. You've already binge-read Marie Kondo's books, and you find people on the TV show "Hoarders" incredulous.

You're not like them. (Except maybe in your shoe closet.)

Like I said before, we're talking about non-physical possessions here, too—endless task lists, fifteen different social media apps, an overbooked social calendar. All of these can and do take you away from your pursuit of happiness, aka your list 2.

So, there is always scope for decluttering, even if you're in denial.

That said, there is enough material already on how to declutter your possessions, life, thoughts, and emotions. Heck, even I can write volumes just on this topic.

So, I'll spare you. Instead, I want to touch upon something that's even more impactful than pruning what you already have.

Stop acquiring clutter

Prevention is better than cure. Always.

The best way to get rid of the decluttering cycle is to stop acquiring clutter in the first place.

You have to find ways to pause before you say yes to another mandolin slicer, one more commitment, a new Netflix show, or maybe even a membership to a DIY craft club.

During this pause, you get to evaluate whether this new object or commitment aligns with your List 2.

The pause gives you a tiny window of opportunity to course-correct. If you slip past this window, you're setting yourself for a lifetime of decluttering projects. So, guard this window with a lot of intensity.

How to Pause

Here are some ways to press that pause button:

24-hour rule

Avoid impulse decisions and delay instant gratification. It's okay to pass on the deal of the century knife-block on your TV show. Set a time limit—24 hours, two days, or a week—to let the deal stew. If you still care for it after that time, it's worth a second look and may not just be another shiny object.

Calculate the true cost

Figure out how to do some back-of-envelope true cost calculations. Think like an accountant.

Let's say you see a treadmill listed for $1200. Now add to it the costs of maintenance, warranty, replacement parts, storage (square footage), the time spent keep it clean. Think also about the emotional guilt of not using it as often as you plan to. Then, think of how soon this model will be obsolete. Add all of that up and come up with a number.

Now, compare that with the cost of getting out of your door for a walk or a run. Priceless.

Ask yourself and answer this question honestly: Is it still worth buying the treadmill on sale?

Avoid triggers

Ignorance is bliss.

Sometimes the best way to avoid clutter is to not know about its existence.

The best way to not indulge in behavior is to remove the trigger to that behavior.

Unsubscribe from sales emails. Don't stay up late at night, tired, fatigued, and watch ads selling a must-have service or product.

Say No

We're humans, not monks. We find ourselves saying things or agreeing to all sorts of commitments simply to gain group validation. For instance, saying outrageous things on social media helps stand out from the rule-following crowd and garners more likes.

The shortest and most powerful sentence in the English language is probably "No." 

If you find yourself working at cross purposes with your objectives, try to say No.

Nodding vigorously and putting your hand up to assist when you don't have the faintest clue of what you're helping with is a great way to clutter your life.  


Mrs.Haupt spent years collecting emeralds, rubies, and sapphires before she decided to trade those in to focus on creating and maintaining some of the country's most famous botanical gardens.

By no stretch of the imagination is it "simple" to establish and patronize some of the biggest known names in world horticulture, such as the New York botanical gardens or the Smithsonian gardens. But, by making room in her life and clearing away all the other clutter (even if that was in the form of some of the most precious jewelry on the planet) that didn't further her primary cause, Mrs. Haupt lived a very purposeful and meaningful life. She has been described as the most generous patron American horticulture has ever known.

Simplify your life does not necessarily mean the elimination of all possessions and aspirations from your life. It means to streamline your life, so you live in accordance with YOUR values. That takes thought and an awful lot of decluttering.

Don't confuse means and ends.

Beware the barrenness of a busy life - Socrates



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