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Path to Simplicity

Photo by Hannes Caspar
The simplest things are often the truest. ~Richard Bach

Several years ago I went through an unwanted divorce. I felt I was losing so much that was important to me – my marriage, the daily presence of my children, my friends in that former couples-oriented world.

I moved from the large 1700’s farm house I had been restoring for the past 15 years into a very small apartment. More than half the possessions I had accumulated during my life wouldn’t fit, and had to go.

And part of my identity went with them. The part that had been a “husband” was suddenly gone.

Was I a mess? Was I ever! And so – as my life fell apart around me – I went into counseling, and was blessed to find a counselor who saw to my soul both early in the process and with great patience.

Lots of good came from that counseling, but one of the most valuable (and unexpected) rewards was a rediscovery of simplicity from a healthier and more effective perspective than I’d previously had.

If you’ve read anything about simplicity, you may have been led to believe it’s a panacea for everything in life. What good can’t come from simplifying life? Do it well and you are promised better relationships, less stress, increased productivity, personal empowerment, and excessive joy in every facet of your life!

And guess what? All of those claims are pretty much true. The benefits of simplifying are enormous and well documented…and now can be personally attested to by me.

It is not, however, as EASY as its proponents sometimes make it seem.

It is not just about getting rid of stuff.

Unfortunately, in the search for simplicity, our initial inclination is to focus on what we will have to give up. And as soon as we start thinking about giving anything up, we become resistant. The whole process becomes something to white-knuckle our way through instead of something to move towards joyfully and hopefully and powerfully.

The wise counselor I was lucky enough to find after my divorce taught me a very different view of simplicity.

Here are some of the key lessons I learned:

  • Simplicity is more about focusing on keeping what’s important than on what we are giving up. Once we clarify our life goals and identify what’s important in reaching them, everything else becomes little more than distracting clutter that’s actually quite easy to let go.
  • Simplicity is best achieved in small steps. Leap in and resolve to change everything in 30 days, and you’re doomed – no matter what the articles in the newsstand magazines say. If you try to change too much at once, you won’t get a sense of what’s working and what isn’t. That’s because….
  • Simplicity takes time. As with any growth process, we have to listen to our feelings and live with each change for a time to know if we are on the right track. We need to monitor the changes and see which ones work and which ones don’t before we go too far in the wrong direction.
  • Simplicity takes commitment. In my experience, it can take a year or more for an individual to forge lasting simplicity. I would advise companies that want to simplify to commit to at least two years. Forget the 30-day wonder cures. Commit to the process for the long run, or don’t waste your time at all.
  • Simplicity takes maintenance. Once you have significantly simplified things, and you are getting the results you want (and you absolutely will), you have to work at keeping things simple. This doesn’t mean you can never make changes, but it does require a regular revisiting of priorities.

Simplicity is an investment that we can all make confidently, with predictable results and little risk. It can turn our lives around. We can have more peace, less stress, and increased effectiveness in our personal life.

Professionally, we can develop companies and business relationships that have a more positive impact on both employees and customers. It all begins with understanding what simplicity is, and how it works.

Today my life is simpler and richer than ever – and touches people in ways I never imagined.

Now I live in Vermont, in a small 1800’s house that is easy to care for. I have fewer possessions, but all the things I have bring joy or beauty or meaning (or all three) to my life. There is no pointless clutter in it.

My relationships have changed, too. I have fewer acquaintances but deeper friendships. I’m involved in fewer activities, but those I am involved in are meaningful to me and build meaningful relationships. My work is simpler – not easier – but more focused, and far more rewarding.

Do I mourn what I’ve lost or given up? No. Not anymore. Instead, I have learned that reducing the quantity of things we have and do almost always results in an increase in the quality of what we keep or substitute.

I would not have asked to go through the pain and struggle I went through to learn that lesson, but, in the end, the lesson was well worth it.

Less really is more.

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About the author

Tom Atkins is a poet, writer, photographer, marketer, mentor and broadcast engineer who lives and works out of West Pawlet, Vermont.

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12 thoughts on Path to Simplicity

  1. Thanks for sharing, I’m currently in the process of downsizing from a large home to a smaller (MUCH SMALLER) home, and from three vehicles (yikes, yes I know) to one- a prius.

    2013 is going to rock simplicity this year :)

  2. I prefer to keep it simple; it suits me.

    I’m not a fan of accumulating material possessions because one has to clean and store said possessions. I’d rather spend my time doing something else.

    I am amazed by the amount of possessions people have; from knick-knacks to cars; from collectibles to (fill in the blank). My advice would be to choose possessions that mean the most to you and donate or toss out the rest. Clear your home, closets, barn, storage shed, and garage, and clear your life.

  3. Amandah- I agree. Our new philosophy is “love it or need it?” if it’s not a yes to one of those- it’s gone!

  4. Ani

    Simplicity is the key ingredience for inner peace and happiness. Once we are able to take off the outer layers of excess we get to the core, which is the most important :)

  5. Tom it seems that we have been on a very similar journey, sharing as well that it wasn’t an option we chose. Yet one that has probably allowed us to get in touch with our true passions that may have remained buried if these changes hadn’t been forced upon us. My mind quickly realised that i wasn’t practicing what i was preaching at the end of my marriage and losing my children from under my roof, i was feeling sorry for myself and thinking back to what i had. The minute i went back to looking forward, focusing on the things i wanted, once again my life jump started, and focusing on now just the things i truly want has made such a huge difference.

  6. Tom,

    This is one of the most relevant posts Ive read in a while. Thank you.

    I too am going through a lot of the things you went through – an unwanted divorce, loss of daily contact with my daughter, loss of lifestyle, etc. Its tough, but I have really worked on acceptance and focusing on the positives as much as possible. Not simplicity, though. And I think I will start taking this opportunity to simplify my life.

    One thing you mention that really resonates with me is how important finding meaning in life is. I think many (most?) of us go through our lives just following a routine, and never really think about meaning, or purpose, beyond paying the bills at the end of the month, or buying that next flatscreen, or whatever.

    One of the really good things that has come out of my experiences is that I have really searched for that meaning, and Ive found that finding it is impossible until we deeply reflect on and identify what our core values are. This path has been a real life changer for me.

    Anyway, thanks again for the post. Im glad you wrote it, and glad I found it.


  7. cj

    This is one of the better posts I’ve seen on the topic. And science supports many of the bullet points. Our brains cannot take too many options on a constant basis. It is simply exhausting, like when we are living at or visiting someone’s home. Nothing is familiar. So cutting down on clutter of all kinds reduces the options and stimuli that continually exhaust us. Thanks for a marvy post!

  8. Simplicity was a dream when our kids were younger and the business was news. Slowly all have been getting old and things have become simpler. We purge. We give. It is empowering.

  9. Tom, thank you for sharing your story with us. I like how you emphasize thatsimplifyingt is not just about giving up. I have read that we humans would rather not get something than have to give up something, so I think that it is important to focus on what you’re receiving – deeper connections, more time on what is important, greater focus – rather than what you’re giving up.

    I have had more happiness in the last five years of my life than any others, and it is not a coincidence that my husband and I have been embracing a simple life of growth, love and fun.

  10. Erica M.

    I as well have been on a mental journey to figuring the best way to organize my life, not necessarily in a material way, but certainly in an emotional way. I think my main hurdle is trying to co-habitat with my partner (of 4 years), and I think at times it is difficult to reach my goal of simplicity, as my partner and I are extreme opposites when it comes to this life element and goal of mine. Anywho, wonderful post!

  11. Tom, thank you for sharing your story. one of the things I think we can have a tendency to do when we’re unhappy or searching for something ‘more’ is to accumulate stuff that we think will fill the void. Simplicity removes this but can take some getting used to – we realize the stuff wasn’t filling the void and that the only real way to understand it and feel whole is to explore, accept and be OK with it.

  12. Great story! I feel you really simplified (and exemplified) the idea of simplicity here.

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