Call it “voluntary simplicity”, call it “lifehacking”, call it “downshifting”, or call it what you will, bigger is no longer better. Now “less” is chic and trendy. If you can whittle the sum total of your possessions down to 100 or less, you could be the next Internet celebrity. But the simplicity movement, like most movements, has a shadow. Let’s take a look at what can go wrong when you hop on the simplicity bandwagon.
On the surface, simplicity is about getting rid of the stuff you don’t need anymore. And if you make this your focus, you’re very likely to spend a lot of time thinking about your excess stuff, how much of it is excess, what you should keep, what you should sell (and how), and what can go to charity. Perhaps you pass up rest and relaxation time to start going through the dross. But there’s so much of it that it’s overwhelming to you, so you go get help. At first you buy magazines and books about organizing and simplifying. Then you invest in containers to hold and sort everything. At some point you realize how your kitchen is full of single-task utensils, containers and appliances and so you go out and buy multi-purpose ones in the name of less clutter on the counter top. When the dust settles, perhaps your house looks neater and less over-stuffed, but now you’ve set a standard for yourself. You need to do extra work to keep the simplified household simple. Eventually this simplicity thing starts to feel like a part-time job. What’s just happened?
In the name of simplicity, it’s very possible (and even trendy) to give up lots of time (sorting, organizing, purging, and doing up-keep), lots of money (buying books and containers, paying personal organizers) and potentially upsetting yourself more than the original clutter did. Something is wrong with this picture. And what’s missing is a deeper purpose.
Simplicity, in my view, has far less to do with the contents of your closets than the state of your mind. If you approach your “stuff” with the right kind of attention, then you’ll have no problem side-stepping the simplicity traps I’ve outlined above.
At the center of it all, simplicity is about values. The highest-level question you could ask in this regard is: “what do I want to be in my life?” What I want in my life includes both material things (a house, a car, an HDTV, extra money at the end of the month) as well as experiences (a particular kind of work, a vacation, a romantic relationship, or time with friends). In this frame of mind, simplicity is an underhanded kind of greed where you clear away things you don’t want or don’t particularly care for to get more of what you most desire. Simplicity need not be about austerity unless austerity itself is a value to you. Your life could still be simple — and well-attuned to your values — even if you have lots of stuff.
Values can be tricky to pin down. What your parents, friends, and partners want you to be and do can easily masquerade as your own beliefs. Pop culture acts as a powerful tide dragging you to whatever fad is peaking at any given moment regardless of your true feelings. Some of the smartest people I know regularly take time out to get away from all the noise to listen quietly for what their own unique heart desires.
Even if you can cut through the static, you may think you know what will make you happy only to find yourself feeling “blah” when you make it to the end of the rainbow. Experience is the only sure way to know. I am now well into my third career, and each jump has both given me additional insight into what makes a career work for me. To discover your true values, there’s no substitute for making a change in your life, observing what happens, and adjusting again and again, and again. It could take years — it did for me — but I know of no shortcut.
Once values are established, you can begin making trade-offs in your life. But once again, there are traps waiting for you. The values marketplace is not well defined and many people are not adept at “haggling” for what they value most. Some people believe that making a lot of money necessarily means they will have to compromise their principles or give up so much of their time as to make wealth a losing deal, all things considered. I suppose this could be true for some, but there are so many available examples of people making a good living doing what they love that I wouldn’t be too willing to make this deal. On the other hand, if you told me you wanted to have a solid romantic relationship and work 80 hours a week, and you thought you could pull both off simultaneously, I’d be very skeptical, even though I suppose someone, somewhere, at some point in history, has pulled it off. Role models and personal experimentation are the ultimate tools for understanding what trades you can and can’t make on the way to your highest values.
You may have begun this article looking for tricks and tips for cleaning out your garage, but if you’ve stuck around this long, I hope you’ve discovered that simplicity, when considered deeply, is at least a profound ethical if not spiritual undertaking.
Only when you know what you need and value will you truly have your house in order.