Welcome back to our series on the spiritual disciplines, which explores exercises that can be used to train the soul. The purposes and practices of these disciplines are approached in such a way that they can be adapted across belief systems.
Just about everyone seems harried and unsatisfied these days: busy, exhausted, anxious, agitated, and overwhelmed.
In the midst of this discontent, one thing perennially holds out hope as the seeming master key to better things.
Like solitude, the very word seems to have a bit of magic in it.
“If I just simplified my life . . .” we say to ourselves again and again, as we imagine the possibilities that swing away from this hinge.
Simplicity presents itself as an all-powerful cleaver that can cut through a strangling tangle of Gordian knots. We want to shout it out: “KISS!” It sounds so very nice, we want, like Thoreau, to say it twice: Simplify, simplify.
Yet while we spend a lot of time dreaming about simplicity, we spend less time digging into what it actually means. We pursue the most accessible, outward, popularly-presented ways to attain the simple life, and are disappointed to find that our days still feel complicated, fragmented, burdensome.
Once you push past simplicity as a buzz word, as a snippet of a quote, as a fist-pumping maxim, you begin to find that it really isn’t so simple after all.
The truth is, attaining the simple life resists simple solutions. It is, however, every bit the master key it seems. We will thus first look at why the most common ways of seeking simplicity don’t ultimately penetrate to its core, and what constitutes the true heart of the simple life. We’ll then discuss how seeking simplicity can not only be a practical lifestyle choice, but a spiritual discipline that trains the soul to fulfill its mission.
The Two Common Paths to Simplicity
If asked to define simplicity, most people are apt to say that it has something to do with owning and doing less.
The most commonly presented and pursued pathways to the simple life thus tend to be 1) desiring and buying fewer material goods (and purging excess possessions already purchased), and 2) paring down one’s schedule.
Do these routes to simplicity ultimately take us to its heart? Let us examine each in turn.
The simple life is arguably most strongly associated with desiring and owning fewer possessions and material goods. Simplicity, from this perspective, is primarily an antidote to excessive greed and consumerism — the hunger for stuff.
At the opening of The Freedom of Simplicity, Richard Foster makes clear the cultural zeitgeist his book aims to push back against:
“Contemporary culture is plagued by a passion to possess. The unreasoned boast abounds that the good life is found in accumulation, that ‘more is better.’ Indeed, we often accept this notion without question, with the result that the lust for affluence in contemporary society has become psychotic.”
Published in 1981, Foster’s book was part of a long line of jeremiads issued in that decade and into the 1990s that lamented the “greed is good” ethos of the period. Other books, like 1999’s No Logo, criticized the creeping consumerism and excessive branding that saw young adults walking around with corporate logos plastered on their t-shirts.
That the main obstacle to the simple life is the burdensome accumulation of stuff, and that simplicity is primarily found through shirking shopping and decluttering one’s home, has in more recent times launched a thousand zealously followed books and blogs. With its rules for living more purely and rites of cleansing, the “minimalism” movement has almost become a kind of secular religion; he who loses his stuff, shall find his life.
Yet while modern media on simplicity has been ringing the same bell as Foster did 36 years ago, his, and their, description of a consumerism-mad society no longer rings as true.
Anecdotally, I don’t know any Millennials who care very much for “stuff,” nor for the traditional markers of status. And research bears this out. While young adults are laden with student loans, the percentage of those under 35 with credit card debt is at its lowest level in 30 years. Only a third of Millennials even have credit cards — half the number of older generations. In contrast to brand-loyal Baby Boomers, most Millennials are just as happy with generic products, and they are less interested in luxury goods of all kinds. Overall, Millennials are saving more money than other generations, and 90% feel they have a sufficient income for their needs. These and other signs point to the prognosis that, rather than continuing the trend of hyper acquisitiveness, Millennials may actually become the next “Greatest Generation” of personal finance.
In fact, minimalism has arguably become so popular not because it addresses a contemporary problem, but because its ethos aligned with a new zeitgeist already emergent in the culture.
Has Generation Y turned away from consumerism because of a change of heart, a reaction against the shop-til-you-drop mentality of their parents, a turning of the generational cycle? Or is it a philosophy born of necessity: having come of age during the Great Recession, they can’t spend as much money, simply because they don’t have as much money to spend? Probably a little of both. Either way, it seems to be the new reality, at least for now.
If the heart of simplicity was owning less stuff, then one would expect that as the desire for and accumulation of material goods has gone down, people’s feeling of living the simple life would have gone up. But in fact, it seems the very opposite has happened; the number of young adults who feel anxious and overwhelmed has actually significantly increased over the last few decades. Overall, there does not seem to be an uptick in people who feel their life is contentedly simple.
Of course, it may be the case that an increase in other anxiety-producing factors has canceled out the centering effect of increasing material minimalism. Or perhaps while the amount of possessions people accumulate has gone down, most still own far too much and continue to be negatively impacted by their stuff.
Simple experience and observation, however, add evidence that practicing minimalism, though it can support a commitment to the simple life, doesn’t take you all the way into its essence.
I’ve known men who fill their basements with yard sale-procured knickknacks that, though interesting, fall far short of the standard set by famous decluttering guru Marie Kondo for keeping something in your home — that it sparks joy — and whose garages are cluttered with all kinds of junk simply because they don’t care to sort through it all. And yet, they seem to live lives that exude a far profounder simplicity than some folks who inhabit a bare apartment and own only one hundred things.
Think, for example, of our Greatest Generation grandparents: many, because they grew up during the Depression, became unapologetic hoarders, and yet they seemingly embodied a simplicity more grounded than our own.
In my own life, I’ve found that decluttering certainly feels deeply satisfying in the moment — it does indeed seem to scratch a primeval, almost “religious,” itch for ritualistic purging. But the act seems to have little effect in the long run. My life feels just about as satisfying, and simple, whether my junk drawer is empty or full. Decluttering perhaps alleviates a bit of psychic pressure, but ultimately doesn’t prove significantly transformative.
Again, this isn’t to say that material minimalism isn’t an important support to the simple life; accumulating less stuff means you have fewer things to care for and manage, and less chance of going into debt, and thus free yourself from potential complications and burdens.
But it is ultimately only an appendage of simplicity; to find the core of the simple life, we must dig still deeper.
If it isn’t too much literal stuff that’s the most salient obstacle standing in the way of experiencing the simple life, then maybe it’s having too much stuff on one’s metaphorical plate. Too many competing interests. A schedule that’s too stressful and crowded.
Certainly, many people, probably most, claim to be perennially, insanely busy.
Yet here again the data don’t bear out the common narrative. Studies actually show that on average, people’s free time has been going up, not down. Since the 1960s, work hours have decreased by almost eight hours a week, while leisure time has gone up by almost seven hours.
Civic engagement has declined over the last 50 years, so people are already less involved in their communities. Young adults are hosting and attending social events 40% less often than they did a decade ago, and not surprisingly, the number of close friends people have has declined as well; so people are already spending less time hanging out with each other.
Yet in the same way that people are buying less, without feeling like their lives have gotten any simpler, people are working less and doing less, without experiencing a sense of greater simplicity. In fact, as our activities have gone down, our stress has seemingly gone up! To wit: 40% of Americans say they’re overworked, half feel there are too many tasks to complete each week, two-thirds feel they don’t have enough time for themselves or their spouses, and three-fourths say they don’t get to spend as much time with their kids as they’d like.
This data certainly cast doubt on the idea that just doing less will bring about the simple life. So does observation.
Think again of our grandparents’ generation . . . my own grandfather was more engaged and busy than I — this forester and father of five was involved in the Rotary Club, the Lion’s Club, the Society of American Foresters, the Boy Scouts, and more. He did so very much in his life, and yet embodied a sense of steady simplicity greater than my own.
While the injunction to “do less” does tell us something about simplicity, it alone seems to lack the power to bring the simple life about. There is clearly yet another layer missing, if we wish to understand simplicity in full.
What Is the True Heart of Simplicity?
“There’s no point in simplifying your life if you are steering toward an end point that doesn’t matter to begin with.” —Bill Hybels, Simplify
Paring down one’s possessions and schedule are go-to ways to seek simplicity because they are outward, accessible, concrete actions that produce fairly immediate results. Their weakness, when practiced as their own ends, however, is that they lack a set of overarching criteria for how they should be carried out, as well as intrinsic motivation for following them through.
Practicing outward moves towards simplification, without this set of criteria, is like placing spokes in a wheel, without connecting them to a hub.
Simplicity needs a heart, and its center must be this: having a clear purpose.
Without a clear purpose, you lack a rubric for deciding how to spend your time (and resources).
Should you work those extra hours? Should you say yes to this or that obligation? Will a certain purchase take you closer or further from your goals?
If you arrive at the end of each day feeling fragmented and restless — like you didn’t accomplish what you hoped, didn’t spend your time the way you’d have liked — and yet don’t know exactly how and what you would change, you’re not living the simple life.
Without a clear purpose, your progress towards long-term goals is too easily hijacked by short-term distractions and pleasures.
If you have important things to do, but haphazardly cycle between engaging the work at hand, looking at your phone, forgetting what you were thinking about, and struggling to get back on track, you are not living the simple life.
Without purpose at the center of simplicity, your life is divided and distracted — you aimlessly drift through your days in a series of unnecessary zigs and zags.
With a clear a purpose installed as the heart of simplicity, you live a life that is unified and focused; everything flows out of this center, and you move steadily and directly towards your goals.
To reach these goals, you must invariably do some things less. But there are also always things that you must do more. True simplicity is doing less of what matters least, and more of what matters most. You don’t just empty your life of the bad, you fill it with the good. Having a purpose allows you to discern whether a particular area of life should be constricted or expanded; purpose produces priorities.
Indeed, you arrive at the core of simplicity when you understand that it doesn’t necessarily require doing less, but rather prioritizing the things you want to do, and lending these tasks/roles the power, influence, time, and attention appropriate to their position in the order you set.
Purpose-driven simplicity enables you to choose the essential over the secondary; the important over the urgent; the best over the good. It guides you in doing the right things, at the right time (and for the right amount of time).
Here’s an example of how this works.
I would say my purpose is this: To be a dedicated disciple of Christ, be the very best husband and father I can be, create content on the Art of Manliness that improves men’s lives, and stay physically strong throughout my life. That’s my purpose in life, and it also describes my priorities, which I order in the same way:
- Be a disciple of Christ
- Be the best husband and father
- Create content on the Art of Manliness that improves men’s lives
- Stay physically strong throughout my life
By knowing my priorities, and their order of importance, I know which roles and tasks in my life deserve the most time and attention, and which deserve less. I have clear criteria in making decisions about how to spend my days. For example, if, after my set work hours, I find myself trying to cram in some more work, but my kid wants to play a game with me, I will literally say to myself, “Which activity is more aligned with my purpose?” Because being a good dad is a higher priority than work, I’m able to put down my phone, and turn my attention to my child.
Having a purpose gives my life a unifying principle, around which all my tasks and decisions center; each has its place and function and works towards a singular goal. That’s inner integration. That’s simplicity.
Once you’ve got your purpose and priorities set, then things like buying less, practicing minimalism, and trimming your schedule come into play and can serve as important supports in helping you achieve your goals. If a cluttered house detracts from your mood at home, so that you’re less contented when interacting with your family, clean it up. If buying something would contribute to your debt, and your debt would keep you from starting the business you dream of launching, don’t buy it. If any obligation doesn’t align with your purpose, and your time could be better spent on something that does, cut it out of your life.
But you need to know your purpose first in order to direct these actions, and sustain your motivation for doing them. Otherwise, you’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s interesting to note that while people feel busier these days (and have been dropping concrete activities in order to “simplify”), the amount of hours folks are watching television keeps on going up; if you decide to do less, but don’t have a reason why, you won’t end up doing less in general, but simply default to doing more of a mindless activity. You must know your why. And you must never confuse the spokes of simplicity with the hub.
When you live simply, you know what you’re about, you know what’s most important to you, and you spend your time and resources in ways that are proportional to those priorities. The simple life is the focused life, and focus comes only through purpose.
What Is the Purpose of the Spiritual Discipline of Simplicity?
“We do not mean . . . that simplicity betrays itself in no visible signs, has not its own habits, its distinguishing tastes and ways; but this outward show, which may now and then be counterfeited, must not be confounded with its essence and its deep and wholly inward source. Simplicity is a state of mind. It dwells in the main intention of our lives. A man is simple when his chief care is the wish to be what he ought to be . . . And this is neither so easy nor so impossible as one might think. At bottom, it consists in putting our acts and aspirations in accordance with the law of our being, and consequently with the Eternal Intention which willed that we should be at all.” —Charles Wagner, The Simple Life (1901)
“If you want to have a spiritual life you must unify your life. A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.” —Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
So now we know what simplicity is, but in what way does its pursuit constitute a spiritual discipline? After all, plenty of “secular” blogs talk about the practical value of minimalism, and business books argue for the importance of priorities and even purpose in achieving financial success.
While simplicity isn’t necessarily spiritual, it can be. Under what circumstances? To put it most, well, simply, pursuing simplicity is spiritual when your purpose is spiritual. When your purpose is a higher one, when it’s something beyond making X amount of dollars or visiting X number of countries, when it’s bigger than self, seeks to serve others, and has a moral component, then pursuing it constitutes a spiritual discipline. As Thomas Merton put it, “To unify your life, unify your desires. To spiritualize your life, spiritualize your desires.”
Naturally, the purpose of the spiritual discipline of simplicity is to achieve one’s spiritual purpose. It is predicated on the idea that you have a unique personal ministry to offer, an individual mission to fulfill — that there are things for you to do, that only you can do.
You have a sacred obligation to become who you are. And you can only fulfill this calling by becoming a wise steward of your precious, divinely-gifted time and resources.
How Do You Practice the Spiritual Discipline of Simplicity?
“When one passes in review the individual causes that disturb and complicate our social life, by whatever names they are designated, and their list would be long, they all lead back to one general cause, which is this: the confusion of the secondary with the essential. Material comfort, education, liberty, the whole of civilization—these things constitute the frame of the picture; but the frame no more makes the picture than the frock the monk or the uniform the soldier. Here the picture is man, and man with his most intimate possessions—namely, his conscience, his character, and his will. And while we have been elaborating and garnishing the frame, we have forgotten, neglected, disfigured the picture. Thus are we loaded with external good, and miserable in spiritual life; we have in abundance that which, if must be, we can go without, and are infinitely poor in the one thing needful. And when the depth of our being is stirred, with its need of loving, aspiring, fulfilling its destiny, it feels the anguish of one buried alive—is smothered under the mass of secondary things that weigh it down and deprive it of light and air.
We must search out, set free, restore to honor the true life, assign things to their proper places, and remember that the center of human progress is moral growth.” —Charles Wagner
The specific ways to practice the spiritual discipline of simplicity center on training the soul to keep its priorities in an order that will work towards the fulfillment of one’s ultimate purpose.
When your purpose is a spiritual one, it in fact becomes more apt to refer to your habits as “loves” rather than “priorities.” If you remember from our introduction to the spiritual disciplines, Saint Augustine argued that virtue is essentially “rightly ordered love,” and that sin, conversely, is disordered love. When we say we love God and our family most of all, but we continually choose to surf social media instead of pray, and work late instead of coming home for dinner, we’ve gotten our loves out of order.
The practices around the spiritual discipline of simplicity are designed to put your loves in their proper places, so that you give each the right amount of power, attention, and time.
In this way, you can marshal the forces of your life towards your purpose. As Charles Wagner puts it in The Simple Life:
“The necessary hierarchy of powers is organized within: the essential commands, the secondary obeys, and order is born of simplicity.
We may compare this organization of the interior life to that of an army. An army is strong by its discipline, and its discipline consists in respect of the inferior for the superior, and the concentration of all its energies toward a single end: discipline once relaxed, the army suffers. It will not do to let the corporal command the general. Examine carefully your life and the lives of others. Whenever something halts or jars, and complications and disorder follow, it is because the corporal has issued orders to the general.”
The task is to become the master of your passions instead of their slave; to throw off the tyranny of the trivial and become king of the meaningful. Putting your purpose in charge of your appetites is, of course, not an easy task: they ever pull us towards choosing short-term temptations over long-term goals, lower pleasures over higher ideals.
The following practices will help keep your priorities/loves rightly aligned as you seek after the simple life. Though they require submitting yourself to discipline, like all forms of discipline, the training both structures your life and liberates it. Lost is the freedom from being able drift any which way; gained is the freedom to spend your energies on that which matters most, instead of frittering them away on that which matters least.
Freedom from, or freedom to: which will you choose?
Know Your Purpose
“My schedule is far less about what I want to get done and far more about who I want to become.” —Bill Hybel
“I despair of ever describing simplicity in any worthy fashion. All the strength of the world and all its beauty, all true joy, everything that consoles, that feeds hope, or throws a ray of light along our dark paths, everything that makes us see across our poor lives a splendid goal and a boundless future, comes to us from people of simplicity, those who have made another object of their desires than the passing satisfaction of selfishness and vanity, and have understood that the art of living is to know how to give one’s life.” —Charles Wagner
Of course, this is the very heart of it all; that which must be in place for everything else to fall into line. Don’t keep re-adjusting the spokes of a hub-less wheel: as we’ve hopefully made abundantly clear, without knowing your purpose, you can’t know your priorities, and if you don’t know your priorities, your life is destined to be scattered, confused, complicated, ineffective, and wholly un-simple.
How to figure out your life’s purpose lies outside the scope of this article; in fact, it arguably lies outside the scope of any article. It’s not something you can learn by following a series of steps and tips. Rather, purpose is a matter of matching your particular gifts and desires to a particular set of problems. It’s distilled out of years of trial and error, and paying attention to your experience. It is found through study, prayer, experimentation, self-examination, and observation. Run that cycle enough times, and you’ll discover what you’re about and what you’re here to do.
While everyone’s personal mission will vary, there is one spiritual purpose common to us all: to make the most of what we’ve got and use our limited time on earth to become our best selves. Wagner describes this task well:
“The human ideal is to transform life into something more excellent than itself. We may compare existence to raw material. What it is, matters less than what is made of it, as the value of a work of art lies in the flowering of the workman’s skill. We bring into the world with us different gifts: one has received gold, another granite, a third marble, most of us wood or clay. Our task is to fashion these substances. Everyone knows that the most precious material may be spoiled, and he knows, too, that out of the least costly an immortal work may be shaped. . . True life is the realization of the higher virtues,—justice, love, truth, liberty, moral power,—in our daily activities, whatever they may be. And this life is possible in social conditions the most diverse, and with natural gifts the most unequal. It is not fortune or personal advantage, but our turning them to account, that constitutes the value of life. Fame adds no more than does length of days: quality is the thing.
Need we say that one does not rise to this point of view without a struggle? The spirit of simplicity is not an inherited gift, but the result of a laborious conquest.”
Remind Yourself of Your Purpose
“Without courage we can never attain to true simplicity. Cowardice keeps us ‘double minded.'” —Thomas Merton
It’s not enough to simply know your purpose. Humans are slothful and forgetful creatures; without effort, your purpose will continually slide from the front of your mind to the back. You have to continually remind yourself of it.
Consider writing your purpose down and placing in on your bathroom mirror and your desk at work. Repeat it to yourself every morning and night.
The more you keep your purpose at the forefront of your mind, the easier it will be to keep your priorities straight and choose the best over the good. When faced with a decision about how to spend your time (or your money), ask yourself: “Which of these choices most aligns with my purpose?”
Practice Minimalism With Your Possessions
Despite all the above caveats, the practice of minimalism can be a valuable support to living the simple life. Excess clutter can be a little distracting, and sap some of the valuable mental bandwidth you could be putting towards more important things. Further, the more you desire material things, the more you’ve got to work to earn the money to buy them, and the more you have to work, the less time you’ll have to spend on other priorities in your life. Start running on that treadmill, and your loves will soon be grossly out of order.
As Wagner argues, buying and owning fewer possessions also teaches you to attach less of your identity to your things, which prepares you to weather life’s ups and downs, and even be of more service to your neighbor:
“Whether it be a question of food, dress, or dwelling, simplicity of taste is also a source of independence and safety. The more simply you live, the more secure is your future; you are less at the mercy of surprises and reverses.
An illness or a period of idleness does not suffice to dispossess you: a change of position, even considerable, does not put you to confusion. Having simple needs, you find it less painful to accustom yourself to the hazards of fortune. You remain a man, though you lose your office or your income, because the foundation on which your life rests is not your table, your cellar, your horses, your goods and chattels, or your money. In adversity you will not act like a nursling deprived of its bottle and rattle. Stronger, better armed for the struggle, presenting, like those with shaven heads, less advantage to the hands of your enemy, you will also be of more profit to your neighbor. For you will not rouse his jealousy, his base desires or his censure, by your luxury, your prodigality, or the spectacle of a sycophant’s life; and, less absorbed in your own comfort, you will find the means of working for that of others.”
The number of possessions you need and desire will vary according to your circumstances — whether you’re a bachelor or family man. Don’t force yourself to only own an arbitrary number of things. As long as your home and workspace feel clean, “tight,” and organized to you, that’s what matters.
Purge your place of most everything you haven’t used in a year, and don’t feel you’ll ever use again. If you really aren’t sure whether something should be kept or chucked, hey, go ahead and ask yourself: Does it spark joy?
“the important thing is that at the center of shifting circumstance man should remain man, live his life, make toward his goal. And whatever be his road, to make toward his goal, the traveler must not lose himself in crossways, nor hamper his movements with useless burdens. Let him heed well his direction and forces, and keep good faith; and that he may the better devote himself to the essential—which is to progress—at whatever sacrifice, let him simplify his baggage.” —Charles Wagner
Simplicity gives the freedom to concentrate on what matters most; debt destroys it. It’s hard to put family first when you need to put in overtime to pay the bills. It’s hard to donate money to charitable causes when most of your paycheck is already spoken for.
It’s hard to help others when you’re standing in a hole.
Debt is an albatross that can force you to order your priorities in ways that don’t match your purpose. Get rid of it as soon as you can.
Declutter Your Digital Life
While material possessions get the lion’s share of attention as hindrances to simplicity, once you understand that its heart is a singular focus on your purpose, you realize it’s not physical clutter that’s the biggest obstacle to the simple life these days, but the digital variety.
Nothing sabotages our desire to concentrate on what matters quite like our smartphones. We want to be present with our kids but we’re checking email. We want to study in solitude, but we can’t break away from our cycle of scrolling.
We say we love our family and faith most of all, but spend more time looking into a glowing screen than into our spouse’s eyes; more time consulting the oracle of Google than the scriptures.
Our digital devices constantly tempt us to get the order of our loves out of whack. The result is day after distracted day of feeling scattered and restless. Our lives feel like fragmented pieces, rather than a simple, unified whole. And though we feel guilty and restless in wasting time on the insignificant and trivial, we just keep on doing it.
We must thus not only purge and organize our physical spaces, but our digital ones too. Follow this guide to “declutter” your phone and make it less of a priority-upending distraction.
Schedule Your Time (Putting in Your Big Rocks Before Your Small Ones)
To stay focused on what’s most meaningful, rather than being at the mercy of the merely urgent, you’ve got to schedule out your days and weeks. And in doing so, you’ve got to set inviolable times for your big rocks — your most important tasks — first. If you place the highest priority on your big rocks, you’ll still have time to complete small tasks and chores. But if you always go after the small rocks — trying to put out fires and tackle whatever happens to land on your to-do list — you’ll never get to your most purpose-aligned work.
Turn Your Priorities Into Habits
Having to decide over and over again to put a priority into practice is exhausting and ineffective. Sometimes you’ll have the willpower to do it, and sometimes you’ll be tempted to do something else instead. This checkered success rate makes for a life that’s divided and complicated instead of unified and simple.
Few things simplify one’s life like forming good habits and making them part of a regular routine. Rather than having to expend the effort in constantly choosing and re-choosing your priorities, they practically unfold on auto-pilot. Rather than having to flagellate yourself to get out of bed each morning to exercise, you just do. Rather than hemming and hawing about going to Mass on Saturday night, you just do.
Habits turn your priorities from things you have to grit your teeth to execute into things you just do.
Work When You Work; Play When You Play
Within your purpose, you’ll have several priorities and you’ll spend each day, and your whole life, toggling between them.
Yet while you have many roles in life, at any given moment, you should try to fully inhabit the task at hand. Try to do just ONE thing at a time, and be fully present in that frame.
We typically divide up our attention instead: we work for a few minutes, check our phone for a few, get back to work, and then turn back to the phone. And the converse is equally true: we interrupt our leisure time to check email and dabble in some work. Our work is interlaced with “play” and our play is interlaced with work, so that everything we experience is fragmented rather than whole.
Such checkered experiences produce checkered results. When we play when we work, our work suffers because our concentration is divided, and we don’t even enjoy our “play,” because we feel guilty knowing we should be working. When we work when we play, we can never fully let go.
To simplify your life, work when you work, and play when you play. Be multi-faceted as a man, but single-minded in your moments.
Remember, the simple life is the focused life.
Learn to Say No
“by dint of action, and exacting from himself strict account of his deeds, man arrives at a better knowledge of life. Its law appears to him, and the law is this: Work out your mission. He who applies himself to aught else than the realization of this end, loses in living the raison d’être of life.” —Charles Wagner
“The one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil is dissipation.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
A popular mantra of modern life is to “Go big!” But the mantra of the simple life is the very opposite: Go small.
When you live the simple life, you’re not necessarily going to do less in general, but you’re going to do less of everything that’s tangential to your purpose, so you can do more of what matters most. Rather than trying to do everything, you concentrate on just a small handful of purpose-driven priorities. You have a highly distilled sense of what you care about and what you’re going to spend your time, money, and energy on.
In order to keep that kind of narrow focus, you have to be ruthless in saying no to anything and everything that’s not aligned with it. Sometimes your answer is not a forever No, but a “No for now.” The ask or opportunity is something that may one day be one of your most important things, but it’s not currently the right season for it.
As someone once told the famous author and real estate executive Gary Keller, “one ‘yes’ must be defended over time by 1,000 ‘nos.’” You’ll not only have to say no to people who ask you to do things, but no to the urge to check your phone when you’re working, and no to tiredness and laziness and lust. Not just no to the obviously bad, but no thank you to the good, to concentrate on the best.
Saying no to one thing means saying yes to another. You add to your life by subtracting. Via negativa is the way of the simple life.
There’s one more practice that serves as a tremendous aid in living the spiritual discipline of simplicity; one that’s in fact a discipline of its own, and deserves its own article: fasting. To its priority-protecting power is where we will turn next time.
Read the Other Articles in the Series
Study & Self-Examination
Solitude & Silence