June 23

Why the Quest To Simplify Our Lives Is Not So Simple

As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness. Henry David Thoreau.

I'll admit it. I used to be quite judgmental about other people’s habits, even when they didn’t concern me one bit. For instance, I inwardly rolled my eyes once at the sight of a stranger in the grocery checkout line, frantically scanning the current issue of US Weekly to catch up on the latest celebrity gossip. How does it matter to anyone (except, of course, the Kardashians) if one of the Kardashian sisters was pregnant?

But I’m wiser now and try to stay judgment-free, at least where complete strangers are concerned. I’m no longer surprised to read about people camped overnight at the mall for the latest iPhone, or when I hear of those who set their alarm to go off at midnight on Wednesdays so they can drop what they’re doing and instead watch the latest Ted Lasso episode as soon as it airs.

I don’t judge anymore, because I now understand this one fact about human nature: we all have our own kryptonite—stuff that tickles us, things we can’t get enough of, but ultimately gets us all weak-kneed and unable to function normally.

To a simpler life

My kryptonite is anything that has the words simplify or declutter in it. And I don’t use the word anything lightly here at all. I truly don’t discriminate. Point me to any content on any medium—books, shows, podcasts, blogs, news stories—that tout the joys of a simpler existence, and I’ll be there reading, listening, watching, taking it all in.

But first, why even bother to simplify?

The appeal of a simple life

Here is a fact. My brain wiring will simply not allow me to function in cluttered spaces. I’ve either trained my brain, or maybe my brain has trained me to organize stuff first before it can focus on a task that I want to, or even need to, do.

Which eventually means the more things I need to tidy and put away, the longer I spend away from being able to read a book, or watch a favorite show, or take a walk. And it all adds up. I feel like I spend way more time arranging and rearranging things than engaging in genuinely fulfilling activities.

All that said, there’s another side to this story. Clutter is not a problem for everyone.

I used to be adamant that everyone needs to have decluttered spaces to function. But thanks to anecdotal experiences and the wisdom that only comes with age (!) I’ve changed my tune on this subject.

I have seen people IRL, teens and adults, who seem to move ninja-like in settings I can only ascribe as post-earthquake stricken. They seem to effortlessly pick out the stuff they need from the various heaps on the floor, sleep like babies, and function like rockstars. Clutter? Pfft.

Sure, the mounds of stuff on their floors or the about-to-explode closets are aesthetically the opposite of pleasing to the eye, but if it doesn’t bother them and impede their lives, is decluttering really necessary? I grudgingly have to agree—maybe not.

Making a choice

For the rest of us with more rigid and clutter-sensitive personalities, though, we’re due for a reckoning. Since time is the scarcest resources of all, we really need to make this decision:

Continue to spend most of our free time cleaning out the fridge/garage/closets, attending events we don’t care for, working more years to help pay for the stuff we don’t need in the first place?


Simplify our lives by having less stuff to put away in the first place, and having fewer boxes in life to check off?

Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? It sure is. But this is where one of life’s universal truths keeps revealing itself: knowing is not doing. Having the “simplify your life” bumper sticker plastered to our cars is actually way different from actually simplifying our life. I am Exhibit A.

Despite my near academic mastery of the popular decluttering and life-simplification techniques, I’m yet to truly simplify my life. And it’s not for lack of trying. Here’s a glimpse into some of the decluttering adventures I’ve tried over the years.

The Kon-Mari method

I tried the Kon-Mari method—a decluttering method developed by Marie Kondo that involves cleaning by category and only holding on to items that spark joy. As recommended, I emptied closets into giant piles in my living room, and then realized that more often than not, most of them sparked joy (not helpful). The result was anti-climactic. I ended up with a neater, yes, but by no means, a simpler closet.

The Four-box method

Then I gave the Four-box method where you label items to keep, donate, sell, or trash a go. I soon discovered that it’s probably a great technique if you’re the only one in your household. Every hour I learned the lesson about how one person’s trash is another’s treasure, or to be more accurate, how a teenager’s treasure is more often than not, what a mother would typically consider trash. Bottom line: items I kept tossing in the “trash” box miraculously kept making its way to the “keep” box.

Reverse hanger technique

And don’t even get me started on the Reverse hanger technique where you are supposed to turn all your hangers in your closet backward and, as you wear and return items to the closet, to hang them back normally. Then, after, say, a year, you donate or sell items that are still on backward hangers, since, in theory, you never used them for a year.

No prizes for guessing why the reverse hanger method never would work in my household: barring me, no one else has ever given any thought to a hanger’s direction. On the contrary, the very fact that an item of clothing is on a hanger and not on the floor or still in the washed-but-yet-to-put-away basket, is apparently a medal-worthy accomplishment.

And a few more

I didn’t have roaring success using some of the other popular techniques, either.

One-in, one-out: where, for every item you bring into the house, you let go of something you already own. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t the only one entering or leaving the house. So, there.

Room-by-room approach: Self-explanatory, you tackle one room at a time. By the time I got to the last room of the house, the first room seemed ready for me to tackle again.

The minimalist game: where you exponentially start getting rid of items each day, one on day one, two on day two, etc. Let’s just say I was memory and math-challenged soon. Inevitably, life always got in the way and I’d forget where I was.

Anyway, I have now come to this conclusion.

The best decluttering method

There is an alphabet soup-full of techniques to declutter and simplify your life, but ultimately the best method is the one that works for you. And for me, it is a combination of most of the ones I listed earlier and some I haven’t gotten to. Well, except the reverse hanger one—that one is a non-starter. My brain won’t even allow me to hang a hanger backwards in the first place.

It’s probably the longer days of summer, or an approaching milestone birthday, but I’m back on my life-simplification journey with renewed optimism now. I’ll try to document challenges and wins along the way, but I’m equally interested in learning if you intend to undertake a similar journey. If so, I can’t wait to hear of your experiences.

To a simpler life!



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