Modern life is seductively complex, at it’s core this complexity comes from too many things and too many choices. Both things and choices seem to obey an inverted U curve, in that life without either is horrible, in moderate quantities they are great but at some point more of either starts to make life worse. It’s difficult to notice that it’s getting worse though because each time we get something new we have the thrill of searching, finding and buying – worse comes later.
It’s only once we have all those things that we start to realise that actually all those things need to be stored, cleaned, maintained, tidied, searched through, we worry about loosing them, breaking them, replacing them. When new updated versions of them are announced we start to be tempted to get new ones, we spend time researching the options, we struggle to resist. When we finally get new things we don’t want to throw/give away the old ones
Let’s look at some examples from my own life, but I’m sure you can find plenty in your own:
- Every time a new phone is announced I used to start researching it, should I upgrade to an iPhone 5, should I switch to Android, should I have two phones, should I have an Android Tablet and an iPhone for ‘work research’. Now I’ve decided that I like the iPhone 4S that I have, I will upgrade only when it breaks and I will buy another iPhone. All that mental gymnastics has stopped.
- Then consider my kitchen cupboard full of cups and mugs, it’s bursting at the seams, because people keep buying us cute mugs for presents, we keep breaking glasses and buying new sets but not throwing out old ones that are still intact – you get the picture. This cupboard is a nightmare, everyday we struggle to find space to put all 40 mismatched cups away, to find the favourite one we want, to find 6 matching ones for the evening meal. Maybe it would be better to just have 12 good quality ones that are all the same.
- Still on the kitchen theme we have a pan cupboard, it’s a ground level corner unit and it’s crammed with every pan and tin we have ever bought. Every time I needed a baking tray I used to rummage about, pans falling out everywhere. Finding space to put the pans away was like some kind of mind bending puzzle game, only it wasn’t fun! Finally I emptied the whole cupboard, covering the kitchen floor and threw away 2/3 of them. Now we can find what we are looking for and putting away is easy as every thing has it’s place, why did it take so many years!
- A few years ago we had about 12 computers in the house, a laptop for each of us, an extra 2 for me, 3 home theatre PCs, a home server. Each time I’d decided to buy another it seemed I was adding to our quality of life. In reality though the burden of ‘caring’ for all those computers weighed me down. They were all different, they all needed to be backed up, kept free of malware, updated, fixed and Debbie and the kids all needed IT support, something had to be done. Now they are almost all Thinkpads X220’s, they all run Windows 8, they are all self updating and malware protected, they all backup transparently with Crashplan. I still yearn for further simplicity, but it’s progress.
- Last year I decided to rationalise my wardrobe. I emptied everything onto the bed and I was stunned at what I owned, discovering so many new clothes that I would never wear, so many old ones that should have been in the recycle. Of course I could never find anything in this wardrobe when I wanted it, because it was always at the back and at the bottom of a pile. I decided three things.
- A third of the clothes needed to to go to a new home or be recycled
- I didn’t need to buy anything new for a long time
- There were a few clothes that I really liked and wanted to wear every day. I wanted to wear:
- Black, stretch, Craghopper walking trousers that were smart enough for work and play
- Marino wool hiking socks that were incredibly comfortable and blister resistant. I’d worn these every day for many years and have 6 new pairs in reserve
- Simple cotton T shirts that I buy for £2 a pop at Sports Direct, they are indestructible, don’t need ironing and the more they are washed the more comfortable they get. Alternatively on an office day I wear a button down cotton shirt from M&S, I have 4 of these in use and 3 in reserve.
At the end of the year I decided to go further though and stop buying anything except replacements for things that break that I use most days and very importantly experiences.
With that background here’s my guide to simplifying (the links are to articles I’ve written that provide more details):
- Stop buying anything except experiences and essentials for at least a month, use the money you save to buy experiences. This will get you in the right frame of mind. Read my article on this.
- After this buying fast try to only buy new things to replace things you love and use regularly.
- Consider a new family rule, for every new thing anyone in the family buys two things need to go to a new home (charity shops are your friend)
- When you look at your house start to appreciate the benefits of tidiness, ease of cleaning, ease of finding, rather than appreciating lots of stuff as being desirable. See the value of a few high quality things rather than many things.
- Create a list of your most frustrating storage locations and radically clear them out (one per weekend) in order of frustration. Keep only things that you use regularly or can’t borrow or find an alternative for
- Find an old suitcase and use it to keep treasures, i.e. things you love but don’t use often enough to keep. Family photo’s, souvenirs, presents from loved ones etc. When it’s full go through it and clear some space for new stuff (treasures fade in value over time). No one needs more than a suitcase full of treasure.
- Simplify your wardrobe, your shoes etc. Consider wearing a radically reduced set of clothes like the ‘great’ Steve Jobs did (exactly the same type of jeans and turtle neck top every day). It will save you space, money, time and makes it so easy to decide what to wear each day. 90% of the time now I wear the same basic clothes, just adjusting for the weather, and special occasions.
- Simplify your working practices and maximise your productivity so that you are in a state of flow during the day
- Calm your mind and start to meditate or relax this will help you live more mindfully and reduce the need to acquire new things for happiness
- Invest your time, energy and money in improving the areas of your life where you spend the most time, stop spending in all other areas. People often make the mistake of investing in the wrong things, like a flash watch, jewellery, an amazing one week holiday. There’s nothing wrong with this, but don’t make that investment until you’ve done the time audit first. Make a list of how you spend your time in order (sleeping, using a computer, driving, preparing food) and then brainstorm how you could improve the quality of that time, eliminate frustrations, make it more enjoyable, relaxing. For example:
- If you spend a lot of time in a boring commute figure out how to make that commute more enjoyable (I recommend listening to podcasts and audio books)
- If you spend your time working on a computer make sure you have a great keyboard, screen and plenty of memory. If you are like me and work from home and your company won’t buy you a 27” IPS screen, just buy one yourself, your worth it.
- If you spend a lot of time on conference calls, get a great Bluetooth headset so you can walk around, do some stretches
- If you work in a noisy office all day long get some high quality noise cancelling headphones
- If you write a lot don’t use the horrible free pens that your company provides, buy yourself a space pen and never look back
- All the studies into happiness show that you should invest in experiences not things (see the exception above though). Use this as the guiding principle when budgeting
- In general try and reduce the number of choices you need to make each day. Every choice you make uses up a little bit of willpower that you probably need in other more important areas of your life. For example:
- Put your clothes out last thing at night, so you don’t need to decide when you wake up
- Make up salads for the next 3 days lunch and pop them in airtight lunch boxes in the fridge
- List the things that are important to you and try and build them into your morning, lunch time and evening routines, that might include meditation, stretching, family hugs, family meals, family TV time, bedtime stories etc.
- If all of these tips seem to overwhelming, take a look at my guide to making changes in your life which shows you how to easily make a start and gradually build up over time.
There’s nothing simpler than the joy of watching the sunrise on a new day. Anna and I watched this one together on my birthday last year. We were snug in the car at Granny’s Bay just a few minutes walk away from home.