In one way or another, our lives tend to be crowded by people, things, and expectations. Although most of those things are useful to us to some extent, there are also things that complicate our lives unnecessarily.
Yet, I have never heard anyone say that they want to have a needlessly complex life. If anything, we want to simplify our lives. But if you’ve ever tried to live the simple life, you’ve probably noticed that it’s surprisingly difficult, because all things that make life complicated also have a purpose. Fortunately, there are some simple things that you can do to live a simpler life.
In this article I’ll take a look at why simplifying your life can be difficult and some tips for simple living.
This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!
What is a simple life?
A simple life is one where there are no frills, just the essentials. In many ways, it’s an antithesis to the consumerist and maximalist mainstream lifestyle.
But that does not mean that you have to move to a cabin in the woods and throw your smartphone in the river. While some simple living proponents advocate for self-sufficiency and being a producer, not a consumer – for example, Tom Hodgkinson in his book How To Be Free – you can live a simple life without abandoning modern society altogether.
Living simply just means that you don’t need a 4-bedroom house for yourself or a new wardrobe each season. It means valuing what you already have over the things you want.
Why is living simply so difficult?
Before we get into it, I invite you to do a little exercise with me. Take stock of the apps on your phone, files on your hard drive, or clothes in your closet. Count the total number of items in the category you chose.
Now count the items that you actually use regularly.
Here’s my own example: I have 89 apps on my phone, including the pre-installed ones. I use 22 regularly. The other 67 could be deleted, because I either don’t need them at all, or because the browser can do what they do.
While a few extra apps on your phone or shirts in your closet don’t matter too much in the long run, extra commitments, people, expectations and thoughts do. Most of us tend to fill our lives up with all sorts of things, because an overcrowded life seems better than an empty one.
And what if I get rid of some of the apps and then discover that I need them after all? It’s this “what if” mentality that makes it hard to let go of the things that complicate our lives.
Fear of missing out
It’s not always about needs, either. Often, we are afraid to lose out on new trends. FOMO or the fear of missing out is often discussed in the context of social media, but the fear exists in real life too, and it can drive us to collect things we don’t really need.
I have definitely bought more than my fair share of things that I thought I needed just because everyone else seemed to have one. But FOMO is not exclusive to material things. I have also gone to countless events that I didn’t really enjoy because I thought I needed to be there.
While you don’t need to ditch society completely to live a simple life, you do need to take a look at your needs, wants and values, and how they fit into the larger societal trends.
The mainstream lifestyle is not designed to be simple, which is why swimming against the current is so difficult.
How to simplify your life
So that’s the bad news. But the good news is that while difficult, simple living is not impossible. In fact, there are a wealth of blogs and articles telling you otherwise.
In the words of Leo Babauta, the founder of Zen Habits, there are only two things you need to do simplify your life:
- Identify what’s important to you
- Eliminate everything else
It’s a cynical view, but in the end, it really does boil down to those two steps. But for the sake of actionability, let’s take a look at some tips on how to identify and eliminate the right things.
1. Identify the important parts of your life
In counseling, every intervention starts with taking stock of the current situation, the things that need to change, and the resources to help the change. Simplifying your life is an intervention in itself, so before making any changes, you need to know which changes to make and where.
To start, write down the areas of your life that need simplifying. Maybe all areas need simplifying, but maybe it’s just your online life that needs an edit.
It’s also important to make sure that you know what you actually can change. Maybe you want to simplify your work life, but that is probably not only up to you. There may even be things that you have no control over and that is okay!
You just need to accept them and work on changing the things you do control.
2. Distinguish between needs and wants
Do you really need the new iPhone, or do you just want it?
If the answer is the latter, then practice your resolve and don’t cave into your wants or social pressure.
Living simply means decluttering your life and eliminating the things you don’t need. But that does not mean you can’t buy a piece of cake at your favorite café when you want a little pick-me-up. There is a place for little delights in a simple life, too. But there is no place for purchases that are made out of FOMO or social pressure.
3. Cut back on media consumption
Speaking of FOMO – if you’re prone to anxiety and fear due to the constant flow of information, it’s time to purge your (social) media feeds.
The first step I recommend is to pick one or two media outlets to follow and lose all the others. If there is a story that interests you, you’re probably already reading up on it. But in general, a few news sites will be more than enough.
Secondly, go over your social media feeds and think about why you follow the accounts you do. Don’t be afraid to clean out your feed and don’t be afraid to delete your accounts if they’ve exhausted their purpose for you.
A lot of media content is just sponsored ads anyway, and there’s enough advertising on the streets already.
4. Be aware of products and promises
There are many different products that claim to simplify your life. But do you really need a wifi-connected juice maker when you already have a citrus press? There is no point in collecting 10 different single-purpose appliances when a good kitchen knife can fulfill eight of those.
Rather, if you have to buy, look for quality, sustainability and versatility. This principle applies to everything from appliances to clothes, because less really is more.
5. Practice mindfulness
Editing your media feeds and wardrobe will help you simplify your material life, and mindfulness will do the same for your mental life.
Mindfulness will help you deal with complicated emotions and urges and help you find the resolve that you need to resist the constant marketing we are bombarded with.
Our lives have gotten really complicated, and simplifying them can be a daunting task. From FOMO to social pressures, there are many reasons why we fill our lives up instead of trying to do more with less. But while it’s difficult, simplifying isn’t impossible. We just have to identify what’s important and eliminate everything else.
Did I miss anything? Do you want to share your own tips on living a simple life? Let me know in the comments below, as I’d love to hear them!
Maili TirelSchool psychologist
School psychologist, teacher and internet counselor from Estonia. Passionate about coffee, reading, dancing, and singing in the shower, much to the neighbors’ dismay. Counseling catchphrase: “It’s okay!“