A Guide to Simplifying Life

Feeling overwhelmed, whether by clutter or too many commitments, is detrimental to our well-being. Try this collection of ideas to create a home and life with time and space to breathe, relax and enjoy.

family relaxing together

By prioritizing the things you truly care about, you can free up more time for goals, passions and relaxation.

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As ironic as it may seem, simplifying our lives can sometimes feel overwhelming. Perhaps you have a basement or garage so jam-packed with stuff, you can’t muster up the energy to go through it. Or maybe you are rushing so much between work appointments, family obligations, kids’ activities and more that you don’t have time to even think about simplifying. Maybe you’re not rushed every day, but you find you’re spending time on things that aren’t your true passion and need to consider a life adjustment.

No matter your individual situation, by stopping to evaluate how we spend our time, we can pull back on activities that don’t give us much in the way of a return, and free up more time to spend on the things we love. We have only one life; we owe it to ourselves to pursue our passions.

The 10 tips to follow are from the blog Zen Habits by Leo Babauta. Babauta—a writer, runner and father of six—created the blog (named one of the top 50 websites in the world by TIME magazine) to try to find simplicity in the chaos of daily life. Over the past decade, he has transformed his life to become healthier and calmer and pursue what he loves. He shares information to help readers do the same. Visit Zen Habitats to read much more.

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10 Simplifying Tips from Leo Babauta

These are what I consider the 10 most important steps we can take to live a simpler life. Choose one and do it today. Tomorrow, choose another. If you do these 10 things, you’ll have made great strides with little effort.

1. Make a short list. Take out a sheet of paper and fold it into a small square, or use an index card. Now make a short list of the four or five most important things in your life. What’s most important to you? What do you value most? What four to five things do you most want to do in your life? Simplifying starts with these priorities, as you are trying to make room in your life so you have more time for these things.

2. Drop one commitment. Think about all the things in your life you’re committed to doing, and try to find one that takes up time but doesn’t give you much value. Perhaps you’re on a team, or coaching something, or on a board or committee, or whatever—something you do each day or week or month that you don’t really want to do. Now take action today to drop that commitment. Call someone or send an email telling the appropriate person or people that you just don’t have the time. You will feel relief. I’d recommend eventually dropping all commitments that don’t contribute to your short list (from item No. 1), but for today, just drop one commitment.

3. Purge a drawer. Or a shelf, or a countertop. Not an entire room or even an entire closet. Just one small area. You can use that small area as your base, then expand from there. Here’s how to purge: 1) Empty everything from the drawer or shelf into a pile. 2) From this pile, pick out only the most important things, the stuff you use and love. 3) Get rid of the rest. Right now. Recycle it, or put it in your car to give away or donate. 4) Put the stuff you love and use back, in a neat and orderly manner.

4. Set limits. Read “Haiku Productivity” for more. Basically, you set limits for things you do regularly and try to stick with those limits. Today, all you have to do is set limits for a few things in your life. Tomorrow, try to stick with them.

5. Simplify your to-do list. Take a look at your to-do list. If it’s more than 10 items long, you can probably simplify it. Try to find at least a few items that can be eliminated, delegated, automated, outsourced or ignored. This is a good weekly habit.

6. Free up time. Simplifying your life in general is a way to free up time to do the stuff you want to do. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find time to even think about how to simplify your life. If that’s the case, free up at least 30 minutes a day for thinking about simplifying. Or alternatively, free up a weekend and think about it then. How can you free up 30 minutes a day? Just a few ideas: wake earlier, watch less TV, take a walk for lunch, disconnect from the Internet, do email only once today, shut off your phones, do one less thing each day.

7. Clear your desk. I can personally attest to the amazing feeling a clean desk can give you. It’s such a simple thing to do, and yet it does so much for us. Here are the basic steps: 1) Clear everything off your desk and put it in a pile. 2) Process the pile from top to bottom, one item at a time. Do not defer decisions on any item—deal with them immediately and quickly. 3) For each item: file it immediately; route it to someone else; trash it; or note it on your to-do list and put it in an “action” folder. If it’s a gadget or office supply, find a place for it in your desk drawers or get rid of it. 4) Repeat until your pile is empty and your desk is clear. Be sure to get rid of any knick-knacks. Your desk should have your computer, your inbox, perhaps a notepad and maybe a family photo. 5) From now on, put everything in your inbox, and at least once a day, process it in the same way as above.

8. Clear out your email inbox. This has the same psychological effect as a clear desk. Is your email inbox always full of read and unread messages? That’s because you’re delaying decisions on your emails. If you have 50, let’s say, or fewer emails in your inbox, you can process them all today. If you have hundreds, you should put them in a temporary folder and get to them one chunk at a time (such as 20 per day). Here’s how you process your inbox to empty—including emails already in your inbox, and all future incoming emails: 1) Process them top to bottom, one at a time, deciding and disposing of each one immediately. 2) Your choices are to delete, archive, respond immediately (then archive or delete), forward (then archive or delete), or mark it with a star (or something similar) and note it on your to-do list to respond to later (then archive). 3) Process each email like that until the inbox is empty. 4) Each time you check your email, process to empty. Ahh, an empty inbox!

9. Move slower. We rush through the day, from task to task, appointment to appointment, until we collapse on the couch, exhausted, at the end of the day. Instead, simplify your life by doing fewer tasks and doing them more slowly. Eat slower, drive slower, walk slower, shower slower, work slower. Be more deliberate. Be present. This isn’t something you’re going to master right away, but you can start practicing today.

10. Single-task. Instead of multitasking, do one thing at a time. Remove all distractions, resist any urge to check email or do some other habitual task like that while you’re doing the task at hand. Stick to that one task, until you’re done. It’ll make a huge difference in both your stress level and your productivity.


Less Is the New More

For lasting change, establish these habits for accumulating less, so clutter never has a chance to gather in your home:

• Vow that you’ll always remove at least one or two outdated clothing items from the closet if you bring a new piece home.

• Just say “no” to freebies such as magnets, mugs, tote bags and other promotional items.

• Gently deflect unwanted cast-offs from friends and family; be especially vigilant around neighbors who are moving.

• Stuck with sentimental items you really don’t want? Photograph family memorabilia and create a photo book with a service like Shutterfly or Snapfish, so you can preserve and share the memories—and set the items free.

• Instead of exchanging presents with friends and family, give the gift of experiences for birthdays and holidays.