The Many Paths to Simplicity

“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

Post written by SysBots. Follow me on Twitter.

In the comments of a recent post on simplicity hacks, a few readers seemed to think I was prescribing a path to leading a simple life. That wasn’t my intent, and in fact, I think such a prescription is impossible.

There isn’t one way to simplicity — there are as many ways as there are people who seek a simple life.

What I was trying to do in that post was to provide a few tools for overcoming common obstacles along the way … tools you could use or disregard, depending on your personality and situation.

Today I’d like to explore what it means to lead a simple life, and how you can get there — or more accurately, the many paths to getting to the many destinations.

What is the Simple Life?

There is no single definition of simplicity. My vision of a simple life will be different than yours, or anyone else’s — and none of us is wrong.

I’ve read about someone living in a log cabin in Alaska, with no electricity or running water or television or Internet. They chop wood from the forest outside to burn for heat and cooking. They use water from a nearby stream for drinking and bathing. They walk or bike to town to go to the library or to use the Internet. That’s a pretty simple life by most definitions — but when I talk about leading a simple life, I don’t mean you need to live in a log cabin in the woods — I certainly don’t.

I’ve also seen photos of pretty expensive houses, decorated in a very minimalist fashion, spartan in their simplicity, but also decorated with expensive furniture. These houses are gorgeous, and their minimalist interiors are extremely attractive … but it takes a lot of money to get to that point. This is one kind of simplicity, but it’s not for everyone.

I’ve also read about people who live extremely frugally, rarely buying new items, making things last as long as possible, re-using plastic bags and bottles, growing food in a garden, buying things second-hand in thrift shops when necessary. This kind of frugality is one kind of simplicity, and to some extent I use many of these ideas myself. But it’s not the kind of simplicity for everyone.

So what’s my idea of a simple life? Again, this isn’t what you need to shoot for, and it’s not even what you need to agree with. We can each have our own vision. My idea is that I make room in my life for the essentials — the things I love to do and the people I love to be with. I remove the non-essentials as much as possible, and leave a life that isn’t overwhelmed with tasks and projects and errands, but has space … space for what I want to do, and space between things. So that I can live a peaceful life, move slowly, work happily, and spend time with the people I care most about.

This might mean that I live frugally (so that I can work less, or save for what’s important), or it might mean that I sometimes splurge, because life is too short not to enjoy things while you can. I find ways to enjoy myself without spending money, but at the same time I am not afraid to treat myself and my family now and then.

What’s your idea of a simple life? It’s almost certainly different than mine. And that’s good — we don’t want cookie-cutter approaches here. We want something that makes sense to each individual person, that fits their personalities and dreams and life situations.

Think about what your idea of a simple life is, so that you can find your path to get there.

The Many Paths to Simplicity

So with each person pursuing a different destination to a simpler life, how can we find the paths to those destinations? There isn’t one answer.

We must each find our own path, obviously, but we can still learn from others. I’ve learned from many people along the way, and in fact I still learn from all of you each day. I think I learn more from the comments of my posts than you learn from the posts themselves, but that’s what makes this conversation a wonderful thing.

My best overall advice is to think about where you want to go, and then figure out a path to get there. And then take the first step. Once you’ve done that, you can worry about the next step. You will probably take a different path than the one you first envisioned, and in fact you may get to a different destination than you first imagined. Just take it one step at a time, and see where you get.

That said, I’d like to offer some ideas that may help you find your path. These are not to be adopted wholesale, and in fact some of them contradict each other. That’s because they represent different paths — and again, there is no one right path. Take inspiration from them, try some out if you like, but don’t take this list as a prescription to anything.

  • Take it slowly. There is no need to rush to a simpler life. Take deep breaths, and take things one step at a time. Baby steps. Enjoy the process.
  • Do a major rehaul. Sometimes it can be revitalizing to do a rehaul of your entire life. Wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Now, that might mean moving to a new house and only bringing the possessions that mean the most to you. Or it might mean getting a new job that you love and setting your own schedule around the things you love doing. Or it might mean doing a major cleansing of your house, getting rid of most of your junk. It could mean just dropping all commitments except the things you love most.
  • Remember what’s important. Why are you trying to simplify? Is it to make room for the things you love? Then be sure to identify those things, and keep those things in mind during this process. Is it simply to reduce your stress and live a more peaceful life? Then remember that on your path to simplicity.
  • Adopt changes gradually. As one commenter pointed out, and as I have said in the past, if you adopt one small change at a time, you can make major changes over the long-term without the changes seeming very big at all. Make one small change, and soon that becomes the norm for you. Then make another, and that becomes the norm. Each step seems small, but they can add up to really big progress over months and years.
  • Try different types of simplicity. You don’t have to pick one way. You can try frugality, then minimalism, then cabin-in-the-woods simplicity, then chuck all your responsibilities and hang out on a beach all day. See what works for you.
  • Join a community. There are online communities and maybe even groups within your neighborhood that are going for a common goal. That might be frugality, or decluttering, or living with a minimal impact on the environment.
  • Take assessment. I’m a big fan of stepping back and taking a look at my life in general, reflecting on what I want my life to be like, on what kind of progress I’ve made, on what needs to be done. It’s good to do this at the beginning of your path to simplicity, and every now and then along the way.

What’s your path to simplicity? What have you learned along the way? Share in the comments!

“The simplest things are often the truest.” – Richard Bach


Read more about simple productivity, focus and getting great things done in my book, The Power of Less.

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