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Henry David Thoreau: “Simplify, Simplify”

We can have anything we want in life, but we can’t have everything.

Busy, busy, busy. Boy, can we be busy! We can be so active from the second our alarm goes off in the morning to the second we put our head down at night. By that time, we’re exhausted.

We do so many different things and yet often we still don’t feel as if we accomplished everything we set out to do that day. What’s this all about? Where does busyness come from?

Although I don’t think we can give credit to him for figuring it all out, Henry David Thoreau did make some great discoveries when he spent two years in the 19th century living by a lake called Walden Pond. The book he wrote, entitled Walden, describes the beauty of nature and how much of a wonderful time he had. In that book, Thoreau says, “Simplify, simplify.” I think we often go through life exhausted because we take on too many things, bring too much complexity to our days, and don’t have time to enjoy life. We are in need of simplifying our lives.

I learned this when I was in college, and it changed my life. One summer, I worked hard and saved $2,000 dollars from my job, enough to go to Europe the next summer, where I rode a bike for three months and immersed myself in European culture. I had grown up in the Midwest, where people worked hard and sometimes never took vacations. But in Europe, people often didn’t work for long periods. Instead, they would take time off for a long lunch and dinner, and they didn’t work crazy schedules. I discovered that, although they might not have as much wealth or as many material possessions as people in America, they had more time to spend with family, enjoy their connections, be in nature, and travel. Suddenly, I saw I had an option other than what everyone was supposed to do. The norm in America said I should join the workforce, apply myself very hard for many years, and then, someday, have retirement when I could finally have time to enjoy myself. My newly realized option said I could get a job where I worked hard and, at the same time, enjoyed the journey of life. I would have to live on less if I did it that way, but I could enjoy life a lot more.

Seeing this option in the way Europeans lived changed my life, and I am thankful for the experience because I have practiced keeping my life simple since then. I have time to exercise, be with my friends, be in nature, travel, and so on. Of course, there are sacrifices because I work for myself. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid, so I am not making money while on vacation. However, I am enjoying myself in those times, and I would rather enjoy life than work all the time.

What I am doing is the opposite of what most Americans do. They that someday they’ll be happy, be able to direct their life, and enjoy life. Their “someday” is after they reach a certain point in their life plans, usually retirement.

However, it is better to enjoy life now because we don’t know what the future holds. Life is impermanent and full of unpredictability. If you enjoy life along the way, you are definitely going to be happier than if you are waiting for a specific time to begin enjoying it. Let’s see how we can learn to do this from Henry David Thoreau’s “simplify, simplify” motto.

If our lives are full of activities—work or volunteering or other activities important to us—then time goes by very quickly, and we are going to miss out on a lot. We can start today to move our lives into something simpler while still doing what we must. Here are four steps to take to get us there:

1. Becoming aware of how we spend our time.

2. Identify what we can spend less time doing.

3. Say no to some requests.

4. Reduce some expenses.

First, we need to become self-aware. What are we doing? How busy are we throughout the day? We need to look at our lives and see all the activities we are doing—at work, for our families, for friends, with organizations, as well as on the computer and in front of the TV. How we are complicating our lives can be subtle. We can fill our lives with anything. It’s so easy to get home, log onto the computer to look something up, and then three hours have gone by. So we need to look closely at how we are spending all our time.

Second, we see what we could do less of. What often holds us back from eliminating some of our busyness is that we start making a certain amount of money, increase our spending to that level, and then feel we have to continue working at a certain pace to pay our bills and maintain our lifestyles. We might also be trying to keep up with the Joneses—and that level is higher than ever. Years ago in high school, for the prom, prizes were awarded, and one was a limousine that would take one couple to the event. My best friends won, and they were thrilled with it. Here in California where I live now, everyone who goes to the prom gets a limousine. It’s expensive, but often people do it because everyone else is doing it and they want to keep up with everyone.

A lot of this pressure comes from the media. They tell us, “You need this really nice car,” “You need to go to the prom in a limousine,” “You need to have this big house, even if there are just two of you.” Unfortunately, their messages teach us to keep financially trapped because we’re trying to keep up with the Joneses. Some of the people I have worked with have tried to keep up with Joneses who owned multiple homes by buying more homes. We may think that’s silly, but wherever we live, we all tend to keep up with other people who are nearby. And when we do that, we may keep up with them, but we’re not having time to enjoy life. Instead, we’re sacrificing our lives just to keep up with other people, so in a sense we’re letting other people control our happiness. We sure don’t want other people controlling our happiness. We would rather be the ones making the choices to decide how happy we’re going to be.

Luckily, we can do this in a simple way. We need to realize that we can only do so many things in one day. We all know this, so we need to decide what is important. Is it going for a walk by the park? Is it spending time with family and friends? Is it taking care of our body physically by working out or taking a yoga class? If the answer is yes, then we need to make time for it, which means we need to be less busy in other areas.

The message we need to tell ourselves, replacing the ones from the media, is slow down and enjoy life more. What can we do less of that will let us enjoy life more? Maybe, we are an active member in church or kids’ programs, but these busy things don’t give us time for us to enjoy life. I’m not trying to encourage us to be selfish—it is wonderful to give to others. But we matter too! We need to have time to give to ourselves so that sometimes we can take a break for the day and spend time with nature. We can go on a short vacation, which is good for the soul. But if we’re doing things for others all the time, then we’re missing out on those opportunities to take time for ourselves. It’s really about striking a balance—giving time to family, to work, to others, and to ourselves. When we do that, life goes a lot better, but we have to simplify and let things go.

Third, we need to say no to some requests. This takes practice because, typically, when someone asks us a favor, we say yes. When we say yes to everything, there’s no time to do things that are good for us, that contribute to our happiness, and we suffer. It’s not that we have to say no to everything, but we have to decide what’s important, say yes to those, and say no to the others. I had a professor when I was in graduate school that gave wise advice. He said it’s good to help organizations but pick two and get actively involved in only these. When we limit ourselves, then we have time, and we can actually give more of ourselves without feeling as if small pieces of our effort are going to too many things haphazardly.

When our lives are too full, the balance is lost, and our self-care starts to suffer. It’s hard to be happy if we are not making time for our self-care on a daily basis. Many moms end up with depression when they are raising their kids because they’re so busy all the time doing things for everyone else that they have no time for themselves. They can still be great moms by making sure they are happy, by finding a balance between taking care of others and taking care of themselves. Likewise, I see a people finishing college who get their first jobs and put loads of effort into doing well. This often means putting in long hours at work. Unfortunately, this also means not having time to work out and to take care of themselves. Yet they get promoted and move up in their careers. There is a price tag on choices, and sometimes it’s a high one.

This leads to the fourth step, reducing our expenses. If we don’t want to pay the price for focusing on our career, we may have to accept a lower income. And that means adjusting our spending. Can we? If we have a lot of expenses, then we’re going to have to go to work. We may not be able to take all our sick leave because we have to work and we need that little extra income because money is so tight. We may not be able to switch jobs if that’s the right choice for us because we are living paycheck to paycheck. But if we begin to move in the opposite direction where we’re not spending too much, then we start to have options. We can work in the direction of simplification.

This can be difficult if we hold onto those messages from the media always to reach for the newest, fanciest, best. For instance, I knew a couple where the husband wanted to get a new car to replace his old one. They were struggling financially, and I encouraged them to keep their car, but he was insistent on getting a new one. They sold the car to their neighbors, and 10 years later, that car was still running well. If he had kept his car, he would have had fewer payments and thus more time for himself.

We may not get as far in our careers or on the pay scale or in other aspects of life when we simplify our lives. But we have better, more satisfying lives filled with quality instead of quantity. Not everyone will agree with this. Others may say it’s more important doing many things and impressing people. But if you’re reading this, it’s probably because you have a different value. You want to be happy now, not someday. And, being happy now means making time for it. If our lives are simpler, if they aren’t so full of different activities that we’re giving to other people or work or whatever it may be, then we’ll have time to smell the roses, and it’s good when we do that. When we take time to enjoy simple pleasures, then we can have a happy, beautiful life.

There’s another saying I like: We can have anything we want in life, but we can’t have everything. So, if we want to do awesomely in our career and maybe become CEO of a company, it probably will be at the expense of other things. Most CEOs of Fortune 500 companies work hard, but their success comes with a price. When people come to the end of their life, they never say, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” Too many do say, “I wish I had spent more time with my family and friends.” But if we take time now for ourselves to enjoy the journey of life, then when we’re on our deathbed, we can say, “Wow, I had a great life.”

To simplify our lives, first, we notice where our time is going. Next, we adjust it so it works best for us. Then, we say no to requests for our time; we don’t have to take on so many activities. And last, we reduce our spending so we don’t feel we have to give time to work that can prevent our enjoying life now.

We’re probably not going to do what Henry David Thoreau did and live at a lake to make our lives simple. But we could move in that direction. We could get a smaller home. We could keep our cars a little bit longer. We might not go for that job promotion this year. We could take a vacation. We could say no to some of the volunteer requests we get. Maybe we won’t sign our kids up for so many classes and simplify their life as well as ours. We can be very busy, but we also need time just to relax—to do nothing, take naps, meditate, walk around the block, and so on. Spending time in nature is great for our souls. That’s one of the important messages in Walden—how beneficial the power of nature can be.

We do well when we simplify our lives and have time to be happy. Happiness is within our reach. So let’s work towards making our lives simpler and making time to fill our cups with what gives us happiness.

Once you move in the direction of simplifying your life, you’ll find you spend time on the core things that put a smile on your face, and your life will start to become amazing with less, not more. And you’ll find less is actually more because your priorities are the things that are best for you.