Monday, July 20, 2009

How Do You Simplify Your Life?

21.jpg nature image by _Sheena__2009

What does it mean to simplify? 

I wondered this as I woke up from a nap on the couch this afternoon.  Not for the first time, it felt daunting to look around my home and behold the dust and clutter.  It’s not actually a pigsty—but neither is it the same kind of clean living space I grew up with. 

Not for the first time I had a fleeting notion that if I only had a different house—the right house—my life would be more simple.  Here’s what this house would have (for starters): 

  • some of those custom designed closets
  • laundry equipment on the same floor as the bedrooms
  • a trash compacter
  • an over-the-stove ventilator
  • no carpet in the kitchen
  • many, many other modern conveniences lacking in a house built in 1929 

Next I thought about what it would take to get this simpler, more efficient house.  First, I’d need more income.  That would require a different job.  The new job would probably require some new skills.  I’d need to shop for an interview outfit, then write a new resume. 

The new job would likely require moving to a new city, because chances of finding a better job in this city are next to nil.

Then I’d have to sell the current house—not to mention convincing my family of the wisdom of all this.  I’d have to get out every item of crap in the house and do something with it.  Handle at least once, if only to throw it in a box.  Ideally, I’d sort it, giving some away, taking other stuff to the recycling center. 

If I didn’t want to do this myself, I’d need to hire someone.

Will my life be simplified by getting a more efficient house?  No.  Today, simplest house is the one I’m already in. 

AspenForestWasatchMountainsUtah.jpg Nature image by KimCandy2

I find myself in a quandary.  We’re living between value systems—the old one being my mother’s, in which most married women kept their houses clean.  It probably sucked, but at least everyone was doing it.  Truly, the only people I know with clean houses have other women come in and clean them.  Not one of my friends keeps her—or his—house like our mothers did. 

The new value system is that which puts work, relationships and family time above housekeeping.  This has to be good.  Yet the piles in my house reach a critical mess eventually and I find myself not wanting to go home.  Our environments do make a difference.  Dusting does matter. 

How to balance all this out?  If it were really as “simple” as getting some new organizers, or devising “staging areas” around the house, or “delegating housework,” or setting up a “family organization center,” don’t you think I would have done that already? 

By “you,” I’m addressing people who write those articles in women’s magazines with titles like “Put an End to Clutter Once and For All;” usually freelance writers—of whom I used to be one, so I’m not just pointing my finger at random others—who are coached to “write what you know” and “tell an old story in a fresh, new way,” and “sell to your audience;” and who are themselves probably stressed-out women whose lives seem unmanageable for one reason or another and whose editors advise that it’s easier to write about changing your kitchen drawers than about on getting a grip on your entire effing life, and besides, no one would buy the latter one anyway.

To borrow from the philosophy of Twelve Step programs, I submit that uncontrollable external situations, very often, are inner messes made visible.  Things become unmanageable because we try to control forces over which we really don’t have any power.  

(Note to self:  insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.) 

3591865784_1dc20cc752_b.jpg Nature image by KimCandy2

I’ve done some reading on home organization, time management, voluntary simplicity, and stuff like that.  It’s all been helpful.  I now use an empty ice cube tray to hold my earrings, and store kitchen utensils near the space where they are used.  These are victories!  They feel good!

But how far can this approach take us?  As I surveyed my living room today, horizontally, I wondered:   will I ever go through my entire house and devise little systems for simplifying everything, having a place for everything and then keeping everything in its place?  Like the paper clips and obsolete computer software?  The elastic hair thingies and the recycled ziploc bags?     

Well, yes or no? 

If my answer’s no, then what?  Am I going to throw out all this stuff in the interest of paring down to non-essentials?  It sounds really, really, good.  I can live without twisty-ties, and clipped out magazine recipes.  But what does a simplified person do when she really needs a paper-attaching implement and has thrown out her paper clips and maybe staples, too?  At what point does paring down because a royal pain in the ass, counterproductive and complicated? 

nature-1.jpg big nature image by ilovemooks

There has to be a better way to simplify than focusing on external stuff.  Maybe if we could get back to basics with our inner lives, we’d find ways to simplify our environments.  Or the messes wouldn’t bother us so much. 

When all is said and done, it’s simpler—not easier—to do the internal work first.  After all, the two are not separate.  In dreams the house is a symbol of the self.  Is a cluttered house the sign of a cluttered self?  Absolutely, in my case.  

Some days, the best way to simplify is to start with the only things we can control, that are ours.  The body.  The mind.  The breath. 

The breath is the foundation of meditation.  It is a continual life force that connects us to the rivers of life and nature and the earth; to that which is bigger than we are.  We can learn to control thoughts and actions—but nothing else.  I believe that doing this opens the mind to solutions about the rest of the stuff.  The key is remembering what we can control and what we can’t.   

nature-438907.jpg purple posies image by wakebabe414

What do you think?  What does it mean to you to simplify? 


Zuzana said...

First of all, I love all the images you posted. Particularly the one of birch trees.;)

You thoughts are very profound. I too struggle with the feeling of loss of control at times, and the panic that arises from not having control over parts of my life. I have come to the conclusion that I will most likely never find that balance, as I am simply not made that way. I will have to accept that I have this flaw and acknowledge it is there, instead of trying to change who I am.

As what "to simplify" means to me; I guess I would say trying to see the reality for what it is, not for what I perceive it to be. As most of the time, things are much less complicated than they appear.;)

Great and very well formulate post as always.

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

This post is simply elegant and inspiring in every way.

I, too, have learned to start with my cluttered thinking. Within my power to control - but not so easy to control. I try to keep my life simple by not being a consumer and I request that family and friends not give me any gifts that need to be dusted or that will require little expenditure of life energy. I try to handle things only once - not laying something down to be put in its place later.
I find it much easier to feel relaxed if there is simplicity and order in my surroundings. Just as a cluttered mind can produce cluttered living - I find the reverse is true, too. If my environment is cluttered, my thinking is less calm and becomes cluttered too.

A lot of it is about prioritizing our values. If your value in the moment is connecting with a loved one - who cares about the breakfast dishes on the counter or the dust on the coffee table.

I just love, love, love this post.
Thank you!!

vicki archer said...

I could not agree more - start breathing and the rest will follow. My life, like everyone else's is far from simple, but sometimes I make myself stop and re-focus. I think we pack too much into our days and we girls are trying to be superwomen. Simplifying life sometimes comes down to one word - no. Oh how hard it is to say that two letter dampner, but how powerful the feeling afterwards. xv

Lola G. said...

For me, the most worthwhile act of simplifying is to practice lovingkindness toward myself and accept that I am not a bad person if there is dust and/or clutter in my house. This practice is a challenging one for me, having grown up with relatives that kept everything in an immaculate state -- with seemingly little effort. It's definitely a process, not a quick solution. I work at looking at the small picture, because the bigger picture is often overwhelming. If I leave my bedroom in the morning with something in my hands that can be returned to where it "should" be, I know that I'm at least doing something toward clearing that space and making it more appealing for when I return. If I wipe a sink, even if I'm not wiping the counters at the same time, I realize that it's all part of the process and has value. I know that when I can acknowledge that I'm working to create the environment I really want (not the one the magazine says I should, or the relative), it goes a long way in setting aside any feelings of being dragged down by the menial nature of some of the tasks.

I also try to think about it less, because the time spent ruminating on it creates a mental clutter that becomes worse than any outer clutter, and has the potential to do more harm.

My screen-saver image is the one you've posted above your question. When it comes up on the screen, I try not to click away immediately, instead taking a moment to really see it, breathe it in, and appreciate it. It's a visual cue to slow down and take in my surroundings, which, when done regularly, usually prompts me to make small improvements in those surroundings.

I love what you wrote about having another house. Sometimes it's so easy to fall into the mind game of "if only" my house had this, didn't have that, it would be enough to make the difference in bringing this all together in the way that would allow me to be the best possible version of me. That mindset, as we all come to realize, only prevents us from getting it "right" in this moment, this house, this mood, doing what we can with what we've got, and getting on with it.

Ah, simplicity -- one of the most complex words.

angela recada said...

You have put into words so beautifully what I have been struggling with for 20 years. My corporate life came to a screeching halt when my company was "merged" with another, much bigger one, while I was out on maternity leave. A very generous severance package made it possible for me to stay home with my newborn. Soon I had another child. Daycare, transportation and clothing costs would have eaten up anything I made at a part-time job. So I freelanced.

I, too, was once once of those glib people who wrote, among, other things, magazine articles telling people how to do things better.

We started living more simply because we eventually had 1/2 the income we had when I had my career. I cook lots of meals from scratch, use few prepared foods, we don't and have never had cable or satellite TV, we rent movies most of the time rather than buy them or see them at the theater. I haven't bought myself any really fabulous clothes in a long, long, time.

We have had what we needed, and more. Our two kids are now both university students, we were able to take them on some nice vacations, and they both have admirable goals for their future. My love of books (discounted or second-hand, most of them) ensured that they felt like they grew up in a library.

But I have struggled every day between the feminist ideals I grew up embracing, and the old-world way my mother ran her household. The only reason you can eat off my floor is because there is probably a cheerio lying on it somewhere, not because it is spotless. My cleaning skills and priorities are so different from my mother's. Her profession was housewife - mine is not.

These days our house is even more cluttered because I now have carved out a precious space to do some art in the dining room. My art supplies are now in plain sight, rather than hidden. I've always wanted to explore my creativity, and now I will. I dust and clean when necessary, but it's probably not often enough. There are too many other things to do.

No matter what I do, though, I feel guilty that I'm not doing something else.

Sorry this is so long! I could, obviously, go on and on about this topic . . .

Innerspace Yoga said...

great post! my first step to simplification is to ditch the job you hate!

La Belette Rouge said...

Starting with the breath is the best place for me to get to the basics. Then I get to prioritizing. What would bring me peace? What would be bring my joy? What would bring me calm? Breathing between the question and the answer is also really important for me.

Darla said...

Thouoght provoking post. Comments show we have some of the same ways of coping. Don't buy more stuff, leave the dishes in the sink and visit friends, learn to say no (to tv, to being on another committee, to enrolling you kids in yet another activity).

There is a lot written these days about Living In the Now.

I'm working on it.


Ingrid Mida said...

This was a thoughtful post. I need to have order in order to enjoy my home. I probably spend more time that I should in keeping it tidy but I've learned to enjoy that time. I put on beautiful music and use that time to think - to meditate in a way - about what else is going on in my life. I enjoy the beauty of an elegant room. It makes me feel peaceful to have everything in its place. That being said, I have a very messy studio!!! LOL!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Funny, but I can't really relax unless my house is clean! If I've Hoovered, dusted and scrubbed.... that makes for the best nap ever!

And I rather like well-arranged clutter.... as long as my mind isn't cluttered, I"m okay!

Awesome Sara said...

i'm going to apologize now... i didnt read this post i just wanted to come by and say thanks for your comment on my breakup. so i seriously have to wait till im 40 for this pain crap to end?? i'm like 24 now thats a bit aways. i want it to stop hurting now! shit. i need a drink.

Patsy said...

First, exhaust yourself physically. You'll be tired but you'll feel good about it. It will mellow you out by changing your body chemistry.

You won't want to complicate things. Simplicity will come naturally. :-) :-)

Shoot me now. :-)


Imogen Lamport, AICI CIP said...

Great post. I once heard this saying
"If you flog a dead horse, all you get is a sore arm"

I find that by spending some time decluttering an aspect of my house, my thinking actually becomes clearer. When I'm not maniacally searching through the piles of crap to find something, then my life is easier to handle.

Sure, I'm never going to live in one of those ultra clean houses - the only people I know with those don't work outside the home, and have way more time than me to keep their houses tidy, but once a week I try and tackle some aspect, so far in the past little while I've cleaned out the kids clothes, the linen closet and the plastic container cupboard in the kitchen.

Less stuff can help, but no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater as they say!

Tiffany said...

Great post. I'm one of those people who needs a tidy house to relax, but since I had kids I've learnt to be a little more chilled about it. I have to admit to having a cleaner (it's cheaper than a divorce) who comes in once a week to do the big jobs. And every weekend I tackle one cupboard or drawer - so my house is never perfect, but it's never awful! As for simplicity within, I have been meditating for about a year, and find it incredibly clarifying. It helps me stop doing the 'what if', and live in moment - even if that moment is clearing out a drawer!!

Maria Killam said...

You had me at the photos! Wow they are stunning. Stuff. . . it's best to have a large house it's so much easier to keep organized. Otherwise it's so much work keeping it all clean looking!

Great post!

sallymandy said...

Look at these wonderful comments, everyone! This post generated more traffic to TBK than any other, even the ones with doggies and flowers. 137 to be exact. I learned a lot from you who commented, and I appreciate what you said. Thanks! ♥♥♥

Stephanie N. said...

I know I'm late in commenting, and this is going to sound totally superficial, but... dishwasher. Moving to an apartment with a dishwasher was one of the best life-improving simplifiers so far for me.

Gwen said...

It must be the season...I too am working on simplifying, prioritizing, what-ever-you-want to call it. I'm a David Allen fan, but being organized is work. Sometimes the effort can become daunting, and I want to hide under the covers. I'm now reading "Take Back Your Life!: Using Microsoft Outlook to Get Organized and Stay Organized" by Sally McGhee. And yes, I'm having another overwhelmed moment. I've just learned to let that be part of the process instead of fighting it. Because, at least for me, these systems do clear my mind and do help me focus on what I believe is important. I find Allen's system simpler, and McGhee's Outlook system helpful. I do need to keep a work and home calendar, and with my Palm, I don't forget things as much.
McGhee is right though, there is always too much to do with the available time. Meditation helps, but so does managing the coulda/woulda/shoulda's in my life.
As to 'stuff', I think we have too much. Or, maybe more accurately, *I* have too much stuff. I make it a habit to give to Goodwill as many pieces of clothing as I buy. I motivate myself by recalling that getting rid of stuff makes room for better things. It helps me focus. And, while I think culturally we base our expectations on TV, pictures in magazines, or hazy memories of the past, a perfectly clean house isn't reality for anyone I know. I jump ahead to the end of my life and visualize recounting what I have done over the course of my life; the dust bunnies don't figure in to the story.

Mardel said...

Beautiful post and thoughtful, often wise comments. I've been working on this simplifying thing for a while but occasionally I get all caught up the world of stuff and "should" and "must" and get in a tizzy again. I think it must come from within. I used to be much simpler in my head and heart, life was much simpler then too. Perhaps something to strive for.

Saz said...

MMMMMMmmmmmm.... just what l need today, tomorrow and....I shall cogitate and ponder..thank you

Lori ann said...

so interesting reading all the comments and of course your post sallymandy!

i've just had this very subject come up recently now that i'm home on disability and looking around at all our stuff! there is so much freedom in giving away and streamlining your spaces, i have to be in a frame of mind to do it though, otherwise it's all special! haha! we try to live by the rule if it hasnt been used in x amount of years or if you don't really LOVE it, on it goes...

Jennifer Campaniolo said...

Great post, SallyMandy. I'm struck by some of the same thoughts about my apartment. I put work, family, and friends before cleaning the house, but how long can I do that before the place is so wretched it makes me depressed? That's already happening, as we haven't been home for several weekends in a row.

Weeding through your stuff means throwing things away, and then you have the guilt of contributing to the landfills. I want to give stuff away, but my local thrift shop has become very fussy about what they'll accept. I can recycle papers, but that will take a long time and not really put a dent in the clutter.

I also buy magazines with articles about de-cluttering--they clutter my house! I never follow their advice. My husband is a packrat and we live in 900 Sq Feet!

Maybe buy less stuff? I don't know. But thanks for sharing your experience.


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