A lot of people say they want a simple life, but it’s hard to know what exactly that means…or how to achieve it. Here’s a deep dive into what simple living really means, and how you can do it.
What does simple living mean?
Well, let’s avoid the cliche of giving the dictionary definition. Instead, let’s take a look at what people often think of when they hear this phrase:
- minimalism: having fewer things, and only what is needed
- old fashioned living: rejecting modernity and living like it’s the past
- frugal living: living below your means and saving as much money as possible
- self-sufficiency: creating everything you need and buying as little as possible
And all of these are close, but none of them are quite right. Because the opposite of simple is not modern, expensive, or dependent. The opposite of simple is: complicated.
But as you’ll see, that doesn’t mean that it is easy.
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The pursuit of a simple life is about rejecting what is unnecessarily complicated. It’s about
- pursuing people over things
- living with less
- enjoying the small things in life
- no longer chasing more, more more
- being happy with what you have
Going deeper into simple living
What do we mean here? Rejecting what is unnecessarily complicated? Does that mean making life as easy as possible?
No, because easy things often complicate life in their own way, because they are expensive and trap you in a certain lifestyle. If you decide to stop cooking and go out to eat for every meal, because it’s easy, you will likely find yourself in poor health and in credit card debt. Complicated? Yes indeed.
Let’s think about some things in life that are complicated and would likely be rejected by someone looking for simplicity:
- a high-stress job with a long commute
- an expansive home renovation that requires a loan you can barely afford
- a new designer wardrobe that’s dry-clean only
- a sports car that requires expensive maintenance
These would all be a barrier to simple living. They are supposed to be luxuries and even make life easier, but they are very complicated.
What about these, instead?
- a job that pays less but is within walking distance to your house and has a nice boss
- a home that’s a little too small but is easily affordable
- clothing that’s comfortable and can be washed at home
- a used but reliable station wagon that’s good enough
See the difference? The issue is not just that some of these things are expensive and some are not. It’s that the first set requires a price beyond money: of time and stress that complicates your life. When you are making decisions, try to think about which one is complicated and which one brings you peace. That’s the essence of simple living.
So how do I live a life like this?
Well, it’s…simple. But not easy. Here are six things to consider as you work towards a life of simplicity.
1. Want less
We’ve all heard the song lyrics “it’s not getting what you want; it’s wanting what you’ve got.” And so it is. Everyone knows that getting what you want makes you happy for only a brief time, and then you are on to wanting the next thing. We see this with children and toys, adults and money, politicians and power, and in so many other ways. So… how do you overcome this learn to be happy with what you have?
You have to find a way to want less.
Now recoding our desires is no easy thing, but it’s a huge part of simple living. So how can we actually accomplish this?
You can start by limiting your exposure to TV, social media, and other things that are designed to make you want more things. If you have certain friends who cause you to feel like you are not satisfactory, you may need to limit your time with them as well.
And as you’ll see, staying busy has a way of curing this too.
2. Work hard for something other than money
Making your life easier is not the point. We often think of people in the past living a simple life compared to the modern world. But life was certainly, if anything, harder. Simple does not mean easy.
To cure yourself from wanting more, more, more, you have to work hard. Think of walking around town all day, and how good it feels to sit on a concrete step. You have reset your desires and expectations through all that hard word, so that the littlest thing makes you happy.
If you sit around all day, even a nice soft chair won’t make you happy. You need to watch some TV. If you watch TV all day, that stops making you happy, you need a snack. If you snack all day, guess what? That loses its power too. So you maybe you buy some treats online. And so on.
Related: Tips to help you stop shopping so much
If you wake up early and go weed your garden for an hour and then paint a fence, a nice shower and hot cup of coffee sure feels great.
Find something, anything, that is hard work. Stop worrying about always trying to save time and money, and get to work. And watch how your level of satisfaction with what you have changes. This is how you find a way to not get what you want, but want what you have.
3. Quit anything that leaves you feeling overwhelmed
So… hard work is a valuable part of simple living. Does that mean you should embark on a new and complicated project, like getting a law degree, even though you hate reading? No. There is a difference between working hard and being overwhelmed.
If you have many young children, the idea of simply grocery shopping might be more than you can handle. There is nothing wrong with paying a little more for grocery delivery in times like this. Even though it costs more, it is still makes your life more simple.
Picking your kids up from school and rushing to go home to get changed and wolf down dinner and dash out the door again for activities? Doing this multiple times per week and you’re starting to dread every afternoon?
Guess what? You can stop.
Traveling to see your in laws every other weekend and you feel so tired after the long drive you just don’t have the energy to do much for days afterwards?
You don’t have to do that either!
There are so many things in life that we think we have to do, when the reality is, 99% of what we spend our time on is optional. Simple living asks to you to get rid of all those things you hate and spend time on what matteers.
That could be anything from a job with a long commute, to getting a dog, to throwing a fancy Christmas party.
If it is your job that leaves you overwhelmed, this is obviously a much bigger decision. But for many people, it is possible to live on one income, if you are willing to make sacrifices.
Living simply often means saying no to something that you just don’t want to do.
If the idea of it makes you feel sick, just say no. Life is too short.
4. Stop living a life that others expect from you
So very often, we add things to our life because we feel like others think we should, or because other people are doing it and therefore we think we should.
Peer pressure for adults
This can take the form of “keeping up with the Joneses”. For example your next door neighbor just put in a basement move theater, maybe you should have one too. Your sister bought a new SUV when she had her second baby.
Before you buy that new thing, think about why you are doing it. Is it to impress others? Because your friends have one and you feel like you should have one too? If you are content with where you are in your life, don’t let other people take that away from you.
Besides, you’ll probably find that no one is paying too much attention to what you own or don’t own, and the pressure that you thought was coming from other people is actually coming from yourself. You might think that other people really care what you do, but they don’t care as much as you.
Yes, it can definitely be hard to feel like “the poor sister” or to be the only one of your friends not going on vacation. But it’s harder to have a lifestyle you can’t afford because you are so busy keeping up with the Joneses. (Who are probably putting up a front themselves!)
Instead of being embarrassed by being different from your neighbors, see it as a badge of honor. You live your life differently, because you want to, because you don’t live for things.
What is there to be prouder of?
Expectations from others
Or this can also have more to do with living up to others’ expectations. So your sister is a lawyer and so is your dad. Everyone expected you to go to law school, but you didn’t, and now you have to prove to them that your marketing career can be just as lucrative. And that’s why you can’t quit, open a flower shop, and slow your life down a little.
Once you realize that everyone gets to live their own life, you will find that decisions like this are easier.
Besides, you’ll probably find that no one is paying too much attention to what you own or don’t own, and the pressure that you thought was coming from other people is actually coming from yourself. You might think that other people really care what you do, but they don’t care as much as you. Go be that goofy aunt who was super smart but gave it all up to be a writer in a small town. No one else will judge you. You need to stop judging yourself.
But just because everybody else is doing it doesn’t mean you have to. If you stop trying to match your lifestyle to people you know, you’ll find that everything becomes simpler
Before you sign up to do something new, ask yourself: you would still do it if no one else found out about it. How many times have you done something that you don’t really care about, just to impress others?
You can simplify your life by making your living space simpler. This doesn’t have to mean minimalism, but it can.
It seems like many people think of decluttering as the most important part of simplicity. It’s definitely the most obvious and most visible thing.
Decluttering is very personal because no one can tell you what you really need. For some people a more minimal style will look stark and cold.
But almost all of us are hanging on to things that we no longer need or want. Everything from dishes to credit cards to email subscriptions to books can be pared down. Don’t think of this as getting rid of things, but as making room for the things you really love and use.
When you need a few quick decluttering wins, start with things that you see every day such as:
- Your bathroom counter
- Around the kitchen sink
- Your car
- Your junk drawer
But don’t stop there! If you commit to decluttering for ten minutes a day, you’ll find that you can make amazing progress over the course of a few months.
Make a list of the living spaces in your house. Make sure every space has a function, and that every item in that space helps it fulfill that function. If you store items where they are used, it’s easy to see the function of a space and figure out what really belongs there.
Go through your kitchen, your wardrobe, your kitchen, and all the other things of life. Commit to spending just moments a day decluttering and you’ll be amazed at the progress you make in just a few months. If you do it properly, you’ll only have to do it once.
Tips to keep you motivated
Less stuff is a great start, but you also want your spaces to be happy and functional.
Then work on getting rid of anything that doesn’t belong, or seems ugly to you, or you wish you had never bought in the first place. As Joshua Becker says “Maybe the life you’ve always wanted is buried under everything you own.”
Don’t undo all that hard work by re-filling your spaces with stuff. Every time you buy something, you are saying to yourself “I don’t have enough stuff.” Is that true?
Your home should be a place where you find peace and you live your life, not a graveyard of purchases you regret.
Minimalism can touch every part of your life, not just your stuff. Take a look at the social media accounts you follow, the multiple credit cards you have, and more. You can find peace by getting rid of the excess everywhere in your life.
Decluttering is a big, big topic. Some of the best tools to help you get a jumpstart are Marie Kondo’s book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Peter Walsh’s Let it Go.
6. Start creating space (and time) for what matters
Up until now, we have been talking mostly about getting rid of things: stress, clutter, overwhelm, and peer pressure. And now we have to think about what we want to keep, or add back in. What are the things that matter?
Only you can decide what you’ve been clearing away all these things to make room for.
More time with your family? Space to start a new hobby? Traveling to a place you’ve always wanted to go? Or just a life that you no longer dread living?
Some people find it helpful to write a list of their priorities. And then compare that list to how you are spending your time. Is your number one priority supposedly your family and friends but you spend very little time with them because of how much you work? Then maybe something needs to change. Try time blocking your day to make sure you are spending your time well.
(Of course we all have responsibilities and a career is a part of life. Financial independence is not a reality for most for us. But don’t work your life away just to have money for things you don’t even need.)
These are very personal decisions, but if you start devaluing material possessions, it will take you a long way.
Consider the meaning of time spent. And unlike money, you can’t earn any more.
How can I make my life more simple, starting now?
- Set a daily time limit for TV and social media
- Only go grocery shopping once a week
- Eliminate things from your wardrobe you no longer wear
- Limit your use of credit cards if you have a hard time with self control
- Spend more time at home
- Cook simple meals and go out to eat less
- Eliminate toxic people from your life
- Begin with the end in mind: before you start something new, decide whether it helps you meet your goals
- Before you buy something, think about it for three days
- Before you fall asleep, think of one thing you are grateful for, every single day
- Cut back on kids activities
- Stop multi-tasking so much
- Search for better, not more
- Call someone you haven’t seen for a while
- Entertain friends at home instead of going out
- Take care of what you already own so it lasts longer
- Stop doing what everyone else is doing
- Listen to podcasts on minimalism such as Joshua Becker or Allie Cassazza
- Start to see little moments, like a quiet sunrise, as a great blessing
Is it better to live a simple life?
That’s a fair question. A lot of this sounds hard, so you want to know if it’s worth it. Isn’t it better to just make life easier? And when you look at people who always have more, it seems like their life is pretty good. It’s easy to see the social media posts of other people’s vacations and new stuff and get jealous. But you don’t know the stress in their life and the real cost of all the things they have.
This question is something only you can answer. You get to pick what you want your life to be. Try some of the tips and ideas listed here and see where it takes you.
A simple life might mean watching less TV to start baking your own bread. Or it could mean quitting baking bread because it drives you crazy and you finally have time to watch a little TV. It’s up to you. It’s your time, your life, and your definition of happiness.
Maybe you’ll enjoy less stress, better health, and more quality time with people you love. Maybe you’ll find contentment with where you are right now. Or maybe you’ll find that you are someone who enjoys the pursuit of more, more, more. If it makes you happy in the end, there is truly nothing wrong with that.
For more simple living reading
- This simple living quick start guide gives you ten actionable tips to do right away.
- Simple living and saving money the old fashioned way.
- How to enjoy time spent at home when you cut back on going out so much