Taking Simplifying to the Next Level

Some minimalism bloggers go beyond the superficial, and I so appreciate their writing. Some published authors really satisfy, such as Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez (Your Money or Your Life) and Duane Elgin (Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich). I’ve also found myself looking to religious texts for another level of simplifying.

But I’ve been simplifying, really, for most of my adult life. Now I’m wondering, what’s next? How do I level-up, go beyond “things” and dive deeper?

Side notes:

You can read about the Reverse 100 Thing Challenge, when I actually got rid of 1,000 things.

The scariest simplicity mission is what you’d grab if your house was burning down

It’s not just “things,” though. Read about my efforts to get out of debt and get down to zero waste.

After decluttering, organizing and simplifying, there are still a few levels further down. That’s when you get to the point that I call “distilling.” I’m nearly to that level, but I haven’t found many blogs that marry simplifying + practical matters + core values.

So, in the spirit of developing ideas out loud and sharing them, here are some of my own thoughts on what’s next.

Paring down even the essentials

For the most part, we all need clothes, eating utensils, and something to sleep on at night. But how much of each do we need?

I’ve taken a hard look at each of the things in my life and asked what number (and type and quality) I need from each. I’ve pared down my essentials to, well, the essentials, in the last few years.

For example: I have enough work clothes to last me two weeks without repetition (with separate summer and winter wardrobes).

Pare down the essentials and don’t overlook:

  • Clothes (including socks, underwear, work clothes, workout clothes, shoes, etc.)
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Office supplies (how many pens do you have around the house? And yet they’re never where you can find them, right?)
  • Linens (sheets, towels, washcloths, handtowels, etc.)
  • Remember to go beyond decluttering, which is about getting rid of excess, unused or low-quality items, and get to the level where you’re asking how many you really need, what type, and what quality.

Money

I’ve written about my path to get out of debt. Now I’m on a quest to develop a minimalist budget, which asks: how do I spend, save and invest the most efficiently, effectively and wisely?

Before even moving a dime, I had to examine my values so that my money could align with them. After I did that, the easiest thing was to automate bills, savings, investments and even my behavior.

For example, I invest, through automated checking account deductions, in a community loan fund that provides me with interest and tax benefits while funding community projects and low-income housing.

There are a myriad of ways that money comes into and leaves the system. One could simplify by:

  • using cash rather than cards (decline a paper receipt, avoid card fees for the business, and leave a much smaller digital footprint)
  • planning out discretionary spending (for organized/flexible types like me, this is actually fun in and of itself)
  • designating an account for large expenses (mattress, brakes, etc.)
  • building charitable giving into the budget – non-profits love monthly donors!
  • creating a budget that’s generous, simple and gives you peace of mind around your money

Or, you could swing the other direction and block out windows of time in which you don’t spend any money at all!

Create a Sabbath/Shabbat

Electronics, media and money: what would life be like without some of the things that underpin the most complicated parts of our lives?

Once a month, I take a weekend Sabbath/Shabbat. I unplug from electronics, refrain from spending money, and even try to limit myself from going out. During these weekends, I focus on sleep, exercise, cooking, eating well, reading, journaling and, to be honest, just enjoying my home during daylight hours.

Even if you feel like you couldn’t do this for a whole weekend, try simplifying in this way for:

  • a lunch hour
  • an evening
  • one day
  • a week’s vacation (it’ll be like the “old days!”)

Your first experience may be angst-ridden if you haven’t planned meaningful ways to spend the time. The experience, though, will grow on you, I think. I find these Sabbath/Shabbat weekends so delicious, I crave the next one as soon as one has ended.

Simple Food

When you think about how often we eat, how much money we spend on food, and how much time we spend thinking about it, how could it not be an area ripe for simplification?

Food is at a unique intersection of our time, money, emotions, physical body, relationships, and physical space. I once took the Food Stamp Challenge and discovered a few things about myself at this intersection. For example, my ability to buy food experiences (dinners out, drinks with friends, time at cafes) symbolized, to me, my independence. Therefore, simplifying this area of my life was more complicated than just budgeting or cutting back.

Food, with all these incoming roads, could be simplified (with a few doses of mindfulness) in these ways:

  • meal planning
  • cleansing, fasting or cutting out unnecessary foods (sugar, fast food, alcohol)
  • eating at a table (versus on the couch or over the sink)
  • eating more raw or minimally cooked foods, which will most likely increase your veggie intake
  • shopping the perimeter of the store (or avoiding the packaged “foods” wherever they are in the store layout)
  • shopping at a single store rather than racing around to chase the best “deals”

Limiting sweets has been a struggle my whole life, but I’ve observed a few things I think are worth expanding on here, especially within the context of simplifying at a deeper level:

  • Sweets are addicting, so the more you eat them, the more you want them. Conversely, the less you eat them, the less you want them. Simple.
  • I often enjoy the anticipation of a sweet much more than I do satisfying the craving. Have you ever craved a Twix bar only to bite into a stale one? Yeah, so I try to enjoy the cravings without actually satisfying them…and it works quite often!
  • When I limit sweets to special occasions, they make the occasion more special. But if I have sweets often or all the time, they don’t contribute at all to the occasion.

Because emotions are so often involved in the way we eat and interact with food, a direct approach may not be effective. Simplifying – and distilling – our life, environment, values and inner world may have effects on our diet when we’re not even thinking about it.

Simplify your brainspace

I’ve often heard that our outer world is an expression of our inner world (and don’t we all have a junk drawer in both?). So if you’ve decluttered and organized your physical spaces, might it be time to do the same for your brainspace?

This is the area in which I have the most work to do. I enjoy learning, so I consume a lot of information. I also work in marketing and digital media, so I’m very “plugged in” to social media, online news, videos, etc.

The Sabbath/Shabbat weekends really help, but here are some other ways to simplify brainspace:

  • Make healthy activities (exercise, meditation, drinking tea) a daily ritual
  • Mark weekly and monthly tasks in an online calendar so you get automated reminders
  • Don’t reach for the phone/social network/newspaper/TV the first free minute you have. Give your brain a rest.
  • If something keeps popping into your mind, write it down (block some time on your calendar, write it on a to do list, or e-mail yourself a reminder)
  • Give your time to people who leave you with good thoughts and feelings
  • Journal
  • Mediate
  • Breathe. Seriously, we should do this more often. Focus on deep breaths while waiting in line or for an appointment, in meetings, while eating…everywhere!

Again, this is the area I have the most room for growth, so don’t assume I do all of these things all of the time or even well. But, it seems to me that, having a clear head is the foundation of living a simple life, so I’m committed to diving deeper.

Relationships

Human beings are complex, and when we interact, things get even more complex. So when it comes to the people we allow in to, or keep in, our lives, let’s ask some of the tough questions.

It would be obvious to say it’s a good thing to let go of relationships that are negative, but it’s not that simple. For example, you may get out of a negative relationship, but still share custody of your kids with that person. Nor can we simply say we should “find” or “cultivate” more positive relationships.

Rather, here are some questions to ponder

  • What kind of relationship do I have with myself?
    • How do I work on it, improve it, deepen it, grow it?
    • How is my relationship with myself currently reflected in my other relationships?
  • What kind of relationships do I need, specifically, right now?
    • What kinds of friends do I need and want? Remember that we all need different kinds: the good listener, the fun friend, the straight shooter, the cheerleader, etc.
    • What kinds of workplace relationships do I need and want? Think about your current situation, your next step in the workplace, as well as your ideal.
    • What kinds of relationships do I want with my family? Family is family, but, as an adult, you get much more say in these dynamics than you did as a kid.
    • What kinds of professional relationships do I need? Do I have adequate medical care? Do I have a system of service providers I trust (mechanic, plumber, hair stylist/barber, etc.)?
  • How do I contribute to my current relationships, both positively and negatively?
  • Am I the person I need to be to attract and be in the types of relationships I want?

I could dive deeper into this whole relationship thing, but there’s neither the space nor do I feel too awfully qualified. You can see, though, that I’ve focused on the questions that you have the most control over. In my mind, a deeper version of “simplifying” relationships isn’t to just unfriend negative people. Rather, it’s about knowing yourself and what you offer, and knowing what you need and want. That way, when you venture out into the world, your ability to relate is, hopefully, clear, simple, distilled, maybe even easy.

Spirituality

I’ve been interested in the idea of living like a monk for a while. I like the idea of devotion to a purpose, clarity, routine, sacredness, simplicity and beauty, all of which I associate with the bones of a monastic life. But how does one live as simply as a monk while still living “in the world”?

Many of the practices outlined in the areas above have contributed to a clearer, simpler spirituality for me. Nonetheless, “spirituality,” “religion,” and “purpose” are intense concepts and we have, in no way, made them easy to navigate. (An aside: let’s not confuse easy with simple.) So here are some of the ways I’m distilling my spiritual life and practices:

  • Letting go of guilt, which both complicates and distracts. This is guilt about practicing or not practicing, sticking within a specific faith, or being “worse” on some days.
  • Finding practices that are life-giving and leave me with a desire to continue the practice.
  • Developing the capacity to just be still, whether that’s through meditation, sitting out a craving or even just staring into space (a great creativity cultivator, by the way!)
  • Not talking about it. Seriously, I find that, with anything, the less I talk, the simpler things get.

The Purpose

As you may have noticed, there isn’t a clear divide between each or any of the areas above. There’s a lot of repetition, overlap and reinforcement in each effort to simplify an area of life.

As I wrote and rewrote this post, I slowly realized that everything I’ve mentioned is built upon a purpose I feel in my life. Everything I want to be and all the things I want to do are built upon that purpose.

Conversely, when I’m looking at the crazy details of my life and feeling the need to simplify, it’s often because I’m out of touch with that purpose.

Overall, I’ve found that when many of us want to simplify, it’s a road toward peace we’re on. And peace, ultimately, is the alignment of our inner and outer worlds, of purpose and values with action and environment.

Some of us declutter and get rid of excess things. It may stop there and feel fine.

For others, we need to go a step deeper. Those might be the folks downsizing their living quarters or better aligning their work with their values or skills.

Still others go further. They go off-grid. Some become monks or nuns. Creatives might commit themselves wholly to their craft, gift or practice.

We can all make incremental moves forward on this path of simplifying. I’m certainly looking for the next step and, to some degree, having to build it as I go.

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