Paradoxical Simplicity

It can be tempting to think that life is built around universal principles that are devoid of any fallacies or contradictions. Unfortunately, as we all know, life is full of paradoxes and I've recently come across one in my own quest for a simpler life.

One of the benefits of living with a more minimalist mindset is that the concept of "quality over quantity" suddenly becomes much more attainable. Instead of buying more of a mediocre object I can buy less of a better product. I've written about this before and it is nothing earth-shattering.

However, the paradox comes into play when you think about another core principle of living a simple and happy life, being content and grateful for what we already have. Much of the suffering and complications that arise in our lives seem to be centered around the attainment of more "stuff." The desire to have things that we cannot afford is the basis of many people's financial woes and psychological unrest. Breaking the cycle of consumerism and learning to be content with what we already have is a huge step in the direction of simplicity.

With that being said, does anyone see the contradiction between these two principles? On the one hand I'm arguing toward having better stuff and on the other arguing for being content with what I already have. What gives?

To resolve this conundrum I advocate the idea of "responsible upgrade" of physical items in your life. The first step would be to identify where in your life you would want to apply the quality over quantity principle versus being content with what you have. I would recommend that anything you use on a daily basis or more regularly should be purchased and maintained on the quality over quantity principle. For example, I wear a watch everyday. I could have purchased a very low quality watch that might break after a couple years or, I could have one watch that will last for a LONG time that might be initially more expensive.

On the other hand, anything that is not used a lot or maybe isn't that important to you can be centered around the idea of just being grateful for what you have. For me, clothing and fashion is not incredibly important. I have nice looking clothes, but they aren't designer labels or expensive because that is not something I care about. If, however, I decided that I wanted to upgrade my wardrobe the "responsible upgrade" would be to start setting money aside now so that when the time comes I can apply the quality over quantity principle and not be financially ruined.

Navigating the contradictions and paradoxes in our lives is a very tricky thing to do. Unfortunately we do not live in a world where everything is always clear cut or black and white. As you begin to live a simpler life keep in mind the principle of quality over quantity while also holding close the idea of being content with what you already have. If you can resolve these two ideas I guarantee that you will be living a simpler-- and happier-- life.



The Hierarchy of Simplification

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist that developed a theory known as the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. This theory describes what people must have in order to live a fulfilling life. At the very lowest level of his hierarchy are the very basic physiological needs of food, water, shelter etc. Without first fulfilling these needs, a human cannot move forward toward a more complex existence. I wouldn't be writing this article if I was starving and Leonardo da Vinci wouldn't have painted the Mona Lisa if he was spending his time trying to find shelter.

As these basic needs are met people can start achieving bigger and better things. Each level of Maslow's hierarchy must be attained before the next level can be reached. At the very tip of his pyramid is the pinnacle of human existence or self-actualization. This level is characterized by creativity, problem solving, spontaneity etc. In Maslow's theory, this is what people are striving for and the more their prerequisite needs are met the more likely they are to achieve self-actualization.

Despite criticisms of Maslow's actual theory, I think the concept can be applied to the process of simplification. I recently made the connection between Maslow's theory and my own quest for a simpler life. At the very basic and broadest level of my simplicity hierarchy is the identification of values. I've written many times about how the whole point of simplifying must be something other than simplification for its own sake. For me, I am trying to live a simpler life so I can make decisions based on the values I think are important.

Once my values are articulated, the second level is physical decluttering of my space. Decluttering is a very basic activity that most people think of when they think about simplicity or minimalism. Of course, you could simplify without articulating your values first, but what's the point? If you don't know why you're doing it I doubt your living space will stay very decluttered for long. Physical decluttering serves as a very important base for further simplification, but it is not the ultimate goal.

The next level is mental decluttering and the cultivation of attention/focus. I argue that mental decluttering cannot happen until physical decluttering is completed. In my own experience, it is nearly impossible to clear my head and focus when surrounded by chaos. This level is all about learning to harness our minds to focus on one thing at a time.

The fourth level is where we take our newfound mental clarity and strengthened focus and apply it to our passionate work and leisure. For me, it is coaching and writing. Whatever your "great work" is, this is the level in which you make strides toward achieving it. Passionate leisure may seem like an oxymoron but I see it as the cultivation of productive hobbies. There is no reason our leisure time cannot be as productive and beneficial as our passionate work while also being an outlet for relaxation and stress reduction.

Lastly, at the very tip of the simplicity hierarchy is "living a life driven by personal values." When I first sat down and began planning this blog I wrote that I thought many people lived a life stuck on "autopilot." Instead of examining their own values and passions, people allow themselves to be directed from one frivolous pursuit to another by advertisement and others' values instead of their own. By identifying personal values, decluttering our physical space, decluttering our minds and cultivating our attention/focus, and then applying our attention/focus into passionate work and leisure we can live a fully actualized life. Instead of being stuck on autopilot we have our hands firmly on the controls of our own existence.


The Essentials of Simplicity, Part 3

Once you have mastered the principle of using all you have and purging, the next aspect you can focus on is wanting less. If you can't train yourself to want less, all of the purging you did in part two is nigh useless. Unfortunately, I think this may also be the hardest of the principles I've talked about so far to learn and implement. Most Americans (and people from the Westernized world in general) have been socialized to never be satisfied with what they have. The focus is always on achieving more, attaining more, more, bigger, more, bigger ad nauseum. Obviously, the focus on progress is not always a negative idea. I'm fully in favor of all the progress mankind has achieved since the beginning of time. I like my computer, the Internet, my affordable clothes and the car I drive. However, at some point each individual needs to decide when they have achieved enough to live the life they desire. The lower that level is, the quicker you can start living a life focused on doing rather than having.

Breaking a lifetime of socialization is hard, so what can you do to take a step toward accepting what you have and wanting less?

  1. Get perspective: The recent earthquake in Haiti is a great time to realize how lucky the vast majority of us are. We all have so much "stuff" that we take for granted it takes massive natural disasters for us to snap out of our mindlessness. Take a look around the world and realize how many people are living with so much less than you.
  2. Make a list of everything you own: This is tied to the idea of getting perspective. Sit down for an hour or two and seriously try to write down everything you own. Even if you try to live a fairly minimalist existence I think you will be surprised with how much you already own. Take your list, read through it a couple times, and then watch some news footage from the earthquake in Haiti. Or spend 10 minutes looking up different aid organizations in Africa. What do you think the people who are living in the streets of Haiti's list might look like?
  3. Get more use out of what you already have: How many of us really know how to use every feature on our digital camera? Are you getting every last bit of use out of everything you own? Take 30 minutes and read through the various owner manuals that you have laying around for all your stuff. Learn how to do something new with something you already have.
  4. Remove temptations: Unsubscribe from promotional emails. Don't look at catalogs that come in the mail. Try to avoid television commercials. All of these advertisements are trying to get you to override your better judgement and get you to part with your hard earned money.

If you can take steps toward wanting less, your life will become simpler. You will spend less money, have less possessions cluttering your home, and you will appreciate what you do have even more.



The Essentials of Simplicity, Part 2: Purging

In part one of this series I talked about the principle of using all you have. To begin living a simpler life, it is necessary to use as little of something as possible at at time. I talked about the example of chapstick and pens, but this principle applies to anything that is used up over time. The necessary focus that it takes to accomplish this principle is also a useful exercise in mindfulness. Restricting yourself to one pen at a time or stocking your pantry only with food that will actually be eaten requires you to be more aware of yourself and your actions.

The second essential of simplicity is purging. Simplification requires the expulsion of everything that doesn't matter, materially, psychically, spiritually, etc. in favor of what does. Depending on the amount of stuff you own right now, this step could vary in difficulty and time to achieve. When I first started thinking about living a simpler life, I had a multitude of things to purge. I had to reduce my wardrobe from the ridiculous state it had become. I had to get rid of the absolute mess that had become my book collection. I tried to reduce the amount of stuff I owned from every aspect of my life. This can be a tough principle to adapt if you are particularly attached to your material belongings. I won't bother giving you a step-by-step process for reducing the clutter in your life (it has been done many times before). What I can tell you is what worked for me.


I would make three piles as I went through my stuff, a "Keep It For Sure" pile, a "Toss It" pile, and a "I'm Not Really Sure" pile. What you do with the first two piles is obvious; it's the third one that causes problems. I would take everything in the I'm Not Really Sure pile and put it in a box, and I'd put that box somewhere out of sight and out of mind. If I ended up needing something from that box in the next 6 months, I would go get it. Anything left in the box after 6 months was officially removed from my life. I think this tactic is helpful because you can take a sort of trial run with less stuff in your life without completely committing to getting rid of everything right off the bat.


I would be remiss if I ended the discussion on purging without talking the non-material component. Purging our physical possessions is important and often gives the most visible evidence of living a simpler life. However, purging our minds of distracting projects, doubts, worries, and fears is just as important. My experience with David Allen's "Getting Things Done" system was the starting point for purging my projects and getting my life under control. It doesn't matter if you use a system like GTD or something of your own devising, the principle is the same. You need to sit down and write down every single thing that is on your mind. A complete mind dump. Once you have everything out and on paper, you can start clarifying your commitments, tossing out irrelevant projects, and planning. The act of putting every worry and every project on paper is very refreshing; purging the stuff that doesn't matter from that list is even more so.


One final word of advice from my own experience: err on the side of over-purging. I have found that there is very little in life that I cannot replace if I find that I end up needing it. It is disturbingly easy to add more components to your life, but very hard to remove them. Start on the side of over-removal and you can slowly add back complexity if you so desire. Most people I have talked to about this aspect of living a simpler life all have the same experience in that they were initially doubtful of purging their hard-earned possessions and commitments. However, shortly after doing so they realized the amazing draining (yet almost unseen) power that a life of excess has.

I encourage you to take a hard look at your surroundings. Ask yourself if everything on your project list is as necessary as you think it is. What can be reduced? What can be purged?



The Essentials of Simplicity, Part 1: Using All You Have

Today marks the first of a three-part series I'm calling The Essentials of Simplicity. Over the next couple weeks I will publish the remaining parts. Each article will focus on an idea of simplicity that I think is vital to living a simpler life. If you have a handle on these five principles, simplifying your life will go much smoother and easier.

The first Essential of Simplicity is using all you have. Sounds pretty simple and probably trite, right? I agree, it is. Before you completely dismiss me as grasping at straws, take a second to go to your bathroom and look under the sink. Or in a drawer. Do you have any duplicates of the materials in there? Are they both opened and half used? What about in your office? How many pens are you currently using on a daily basis? How many notebooks are currently in some phase of completion?


I think the ability to use something all the way to completion is a key skill in simplifying life. I realized this principle a couple years ago when I was averaging a lost chapstick every week or so. I could never keep track of it for any longer than that and was consequently having to buy new ones constantly (chapstick is required in winter in Bowling Green!). I would always seem to find all my lost chapsticks at the same time so I would alternate between not having any to suddenly having four or five partially used ones. I finally realized that it was ridiculous that I couldn't keep track of something so trivial, so I decided I would not buy another chapstick until I completely used one up. Amazingly, I didn't lose my solitary chapstick. In fact, I had to become much more mindful of where I put it after I used it because I knew that if I didn't finish it completely, I was going to have to go without. Sometime in my sophomore year of college I completely finished my first chapstick. Think about it, have you ever kept track of one of these long enough to actually use it until there is nothing left in it? It's a surprisingly good feeling. An added bonus is that you will have to increase your mindfulness to keep track of one of anything. You can't just mindlessly throw that chapstick somewhere and expect to find it later. Your actions and thoughts have to become more deliberate.


Another area I decided to apply this principle was with my office supplies. I used to be very cavalier with losing pens and pencils because I seemed to always have a huge reserve of back up utensils. However, I realized that it was pretty lame that I couldn't keep track of a pen long enough to even think about having to replace it because it was empty. So, I decided to pack up all my pens and pencils, except for one of each, and put them somewhere inconvenient. I would now have to keep track of my one pencil and my one pen until I used them up all the way. If I lost one, I'd have to go break into my very inconveniently located reserves.

Think about all the consumables in your life that you have duplicates of. Do you really need to have more than one "in action" at any time? I would recommend starting with your bathroom and them moving into the kitchen (check out that pantry!) and your office. All three of these places seem to breed identical, partially used, duplicates.

I realize that this is an incredibly simple idea. However, if you've never tried implementing it you might be surprised at the difficulty of doing so. Use what you have, one at a time, until it's gone. And then use another one, one at a time, until it's gone. The added mindfulness and the reduction in waste will be a surprisingly liberating feeling.



Quality Over Quantity is the Core of Simplicity

I think simplifying gets a bad rap because of the imagery that many people associate with it.  "Living a simple life?  That means having an empty house and no possessions, right?  Basically, you just sit around and think about your existence all day-- maybe do a little yoga?"

However, when I think of simplifying my life, I think of quality.  I think about eliminating all the random junk that seems to fill up my life and only keeping the stuff that I actually care about.  For me, a life of simplicity is a life of richness.  This principle, replacing quantity with quality, can be applied to almost every aspect of your life, not just your possessions.

For example, think about your relationships.  How many friends do you actually have?  Do you have a large group of people that you "sort of" know, but very few, if any, extremely close friends?  A large group of acquaintances can be beneficial at times, but I would argue that a small number of truly high quality friendships is best.  Keeping up with that large group of semi-friends can be very time and attention consuming.  It's much simpler to be an active and contributing part to just a few people's lives that you truly and deeply care about.

Another place that many people, myself included, could stand to apply the quality over quantity concept is in the information they receive throughout the day.  Timothy Ferriss and other "lifehack" authors have proposed the idea of low-information diets before.  The incredibly fast pace and ubiquity of information raining down on the average person is truly mind boggling.  How many feeds are in your RSS reader? How many other websites do you check on a daily (or hourly) basis? How many emails do you get in a day? Every aspect of our lives online could stand to be looked at in a critical light.  Every couple weeks I like to go through my feed reader and remove subscriptions to blogs that no longer add enough value to my life.  Without taking this step, I slowly keep adding more sites to follow, more information to keep up with, until I'm spending an hour or more everyday trying to get my unread feeds down to zero.

Lastly, the most obvious part of your life that the quality over quantity concept can be applied is with your physical possessions.  I am trying to take steps toward saving and buying higher quality versions of items that I use everyday.  For example, instead of buying a set of cheap knives for your kitchen consider buying one very high quality chef's knife.  Or, instead of buying a lot of cheap clothes that wear out very quickly, try saving for some higher quality and timeless clothes that will last longer.

If you are curious about simplifying your life I encourage you to try thinking of it as living a life of higher quality, instead of reduced quantity.  By eliminating your low quality possessions, relationships, and attention sinks, you are left with the true essentials of life.

There is no reason a life of simplicity should be a life of deprivation.