Can’t Keep Up? 7 Small Steps for Simplifying Your Life

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A few weeks ago I wrote a post about personal development, but our most recent podcast episode about daily rituals reminded me that I left out a critical part.

That part? Simplicity. While the rest of the post was really about growing and becoming more, simplicity for me is about making room for this growth, by being happy with less.

You don’t need to be a minimalist to enjoy simplicity. All you need to do, really, is do it. Like everything else, start small and try to take daily action … then one day, you’ll look up and realize you’ve changed.

I’d love to call myself a minimalist. But if I’m honest, I can’t — one look at my office, with books, journals, NMA shirts, product samples, and to-do lists scattered about confirms this.

But even without going to the extreme, I’ve eliminated some gigantic distractions from my life over the past three or four years, and gained an appreciation for the simple over the complex. And it’s been transformative.

Not quite minimalist

Just a few of the things I purposely live without now: a smartphone, a microwave, cable TV, paper towels, a running watch, a coffee machine, and clothes in excess of 33 items per season. Oh yeah, and you might be aware that I don’t eat animal products, another minimalist choice, even though simplicity was never the aim of that one.

But I hang onto plenty of non-minimalist comforts. I can’t bring myself to give away my favorite books, for example, so I’ve got 100 or so on my shelf. (I even have a Kindle and a Nook, for the same reason.) I’m not the wine snob I used to be, but we still have glasses to correctly serve every conceivable type of wine in the galaxy. And with two young kids, our home is no stranger to clutter and our cupboards sometimes overflow with way more dishes than we probably need (gotta have the ones with Spiderman and Ninja Turtles though).

Clearly, I’m not perfect with this stuff. And you don’t have to be either to enjoy simplicity.

Here are seven easy, small steps you can take to live just a little more simply, starting right now. Start where you are, choose just one at a time at first, and see where it takes you. I bet you’ll be glad you did.

1. Food

This one’s easy — healthy food is simple food. A grain, a green, and a bean is one of my favorite formulas for a filling, healthy, easy-clean-up meal. It’s not quick, but active cooking time is minimal. The rest of the day, it’s smoothie, salad, fruit and nuts — none of which take more than a few minutes to prepare, and all of which will give you the energy you need to do those amazing things you want to do.

2. TV

If you want more time, stop watching TV. I’m not saying TV is evil or that you should never watch any, but if more time is what you’re seeking, then your TV hours are a gold mine. So many people ask me where I find time to do so much, and not watching TV is my number one answer (not doing social media, except for work, is number 2).

If you leave the TV on all the time, start small by just breaking free of the need for background noise while you’re doing something else. Put on music instead — even a podcast or talk radio if music is too big a leap. Even this is hard, I know, but it was my first step and I think it’s a good one. Eventually, you’ll come to appreciate the music or even the silence.

3. Running

I suspect that runners, as a group, appreciate simplicity more than others, because the sport itself is so basic. You need almost no equipment, no gym membership, no routines to remember. You just run.

But I also know that mentally, I’ve been in places where running feels complicated. For me, it gets wrapped up in goals and workouts and self-doubt, and even guilt when I’m not doing it.

My solution, when this happens: forget miles and run for time. (Yes, you’ll need a watch for this, though I suppose you could just estimate time and be fine.) Pick a duration that’s really easy, not at all overwhelming. Could be 20 minutes, could be 10, could be 5. Go run for that amount of a time, every day for a week. The next week, add 5 minutes to each run, or a smaller amount that feels easy to add.

You don’t need GPS, you don’t need music, you don’t need a route. Just run until the time is up (hell, walk when you feel like it). This is how I started the longest running streak of my life and laid the base for my 100-miler, but the method works even if streaking’s not your thing.

4. Work

First and foremost, turn off notifications on your computer and phone about new emails, new Twitter mentions, new Facebook posts. Close those applications when you’re doing something else. Indulge these addictions (come on, they are that, even if they’re necessary) when you want to do them, not when something dings at you.

If you write, use a distraction-free text editor like Ommwriter (that’s what I’m using to write this post, and every other one too). Or at the very least, put Word or WordPress or Google Docs or Evernote in full-screen mode, so that you don’t see anything else while you write.

Check out simple productivity systems, like the Pomodoro technique. I’ve never been able to stick to one of these for long, but I get inspired by them now and then, and they always help increase my awareness of the distinction between when I’m actually working and when I’m just fidgeting and shuffling things around.

As for to-do lists try having just one big thing to do each day. Do it, and your day is a success; fail to do it, and there’s no hiding from the fact. If one is too extreme, how about just three?

5. Your kitchen

Especially if you’re into food, as you presumably are if you read my blog, the kitchen seems to be the place where it’s easiest to accumulate stuff. Minimal as I try to be, I’ve still got a Blendtec, an electric griddle, a salad spinner, a juicer, a toaster, a food processor, a Kitchen Aid mixer, and even one of those dumb things that turns frozen fruit into ice cream (I need to ditch that one).

My best advice here is to get the stuff off of your countertops — it’s amazing how much better the kitchen feels when the counters are clear. I keep my juicer in the garage, since I don’t use it often, and we store the griddle and ice cream thing on top of the refrigerator where they’re mostly out of view. The Kitchen Aid and salad spinner are stored away on shelves, leaving only the stuff that we use at least once a week out in the open.

Side note: I ditched my electric coffeemaker in an overzealous fit of minimalism one day, and I’ve probably accumulated way more volume in hand-poured coffee paraphernalia, but can honestly say I’ll never go back! And hey, at least it all stays in a cupboard, not on the counter.

6. Clothes

I like my friend Courtney’s (famous!) Project 333 — every 3 months, you choose 33 items of clothes that you’ll keep out for the season. Everything else goes in a box, stored away — if you really needed it, you could get it. Underwear and workout clothes don’t count. Challenging, but fun, and it sure feels good to look at your closet and drawers once you’ve done this. I think of it as gateway minimalism.

7. Clutter in general

The best advice I’ve gotten about decluttering comes from Leo at Zen Habits, who suggests starting in just one room, with just one surface or drawer. Clear it totally off or out, then go through the items one at a time and put each where it actually belongs — and sometimes, that’s the trash can or the “donate” box. If it doesn’t have a home, decide on one for it. (This is our biggest challenge; usually when clutter accumulates it’s because we haven’t designated a place for whatever it is.)

Then, the next day, do it again somewhere else, spiraling outward from where you started so that eventually an entire room is decluttered.

Decluttering can be addictive and really fun, but it brings up a lot of guilt and other issues around getting rid of items, especially gifts or expensive things you no longer use, or things with sentimental value. I’m not going to be the bad guy who tells you to rip off the band-aid and just get rid of it (I struggle with that, for sure), but Leo provides some good answers to how to deal with these issues here.

As for kids’ stuff: I haven’t figured this one out. In fact, if you have, I’d love to hear your tips for minimizing kid clutter without stomping on their hearts and kidnapping their childhood. My wife goes through our kids’ stuff every few months and donates what they don’t use, but that’s about the extent of our decluttering the kids. Confining the mess to a single playroom, if you’ve got the space, really helps too.

2015 — Your Simple Year?

It’s a little early to be thinking about resolutions, but not that early — I always like to set goals during the whole month of December rather than waiting until the last day of the year to “resolve.” (It allows much more time for real, actual planning, builds anticipation, and makes me feel like I have a head start.)

But if by chance you are starting to think about next year, check out a new project that I’m excited to be a part of: it’s called A Simple Year: 12 Months of Guided Simplicity; it’s something that several minimalist and simplicity bloggers do together, and to which I was invited to contribute this year.

I’ll be heading up the Simple Fitness month, and the other eleven months of 2015 will each have a different topic as their focus (clutter, food, busyness, kitchen, work, etc.), led by a superstar simplicity blogger. And to be totally honest, I’m just excited that I get to go through the course, because like I said, I’ve got a ways to go as a budding minimalist!

I don’t want to give you a big pitch for it here — if you want details, get them all on the Simple Year site. The early bird deadline is on Friday night, so check it out before then if you’re interested!



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  1. Glenn Levasseur says:

    Thank you for the excellent article!

  2. Matt,

    Great stuff as always. I took on the personal challenge a few months ago to minimize the “clutter” and it has had a dramatic impact on my contentment as well as my productivity. I am actually writing a post about the things I drastically reduced or eliminated in my life.

    Keep up the good work!

    ps – if you ever want to collaborate, I’d love to have you guest post on my fitness blog, or even my personal growth blog,

  3. I think it’s also good to think of TV as a category. Broadcast TV isn’t much of a temptation for me but I can end up keeping subscriptions and even disks around for things I want to catch up on some time. I can also let social games run away with my time.

  4. Thanks for writing.
    This is something I’ve been thinking on for quite a while, but the processes seems overwhelming. Ironic. #7 takes care of that, though. One drawer at a time. Perfect.
    And you couldn’t be more right about the kitchen. We have to keep our juicer in the basement, but the Breville blender gets to hang out under the cupboard because it is used much more often. I share 620sq/ft with my husband, our 5-month old (So. Much. Baby. Stuff.), two dogs, and a housemate. Less stuff = more room. I’m excited to make that my 2015 plan, starting now.

  5. This is truly one of the most lucid and cogent expositions (sorry that I sound so formal) of the
    outlook and practice we should SINCERELY manifest in life to simply accomplish what we
    want to gain in life. It’s not just about running. How about life in general.

    Peace and Health, George.

  6. Max Greenberg says:

    Thanks for the great tips for simpler living Matt. Someone (happened to be a Stanford post-doc) told me he doesn’t multi-task, he parallel-tasks. Meaning, he completes each job well and moves on the the next and does the same, all while heading in the same direction (I may be re-phrasing but the jist is multi-tasking leads to a frazzeled existence where you end up not doing anything as well as you could if you focused on it.)

  7. You read like a minimalist to me! 🙂

    Living intentionally and having only those things that are of value TO YOU is the very essence of minimalism.

    As for the kids question, I get my son engaged and involved. He has been given a finite amount of space. When the space is full ‘stuff’ has to go. And we practice the ‘one in, one out’ rule. If either of us wants to bring something into the house, something (or things) must go out.

    Personally, I never toss his stuff for him. IMO doing this robs them of their own ability to learn responsibility, detachment, and simplicity.

    Reading your post and question today inspired me to write one of my own. I would be honored if you read it ~

  8. Since putting the tv in a closet over a year ago, family face & forum time has surged. I aspire to Nikki’s lean s.f. lifestyle!

  9. I JUST wrote a blog post about needing to simplify and get off my hamster wheel… Your post was very practical and helpful! We actually just decided at dinner to turn off the TV Sunday – Thursday, and I will use some other suggestions you just gave as well! Thanks!!! Check out my post if you get a chance!

  10. I know when I try to simplify my life from the distractions from my blog, I just leave my phone in another room or at home.

    Sometimes drastic measures need to be taken.

    I know Matt has mentioned before that to simplify his life he down graded his phone from being a smart phone I believe.

    Sometimes just getting rid of the distraction works! It is a matter of figuring out priorities, which is hard to do sometimes for sure!

  11. We have twelve children, and when they were young, they were each allowed to have five things (one box of Legos, one doll, etc). It kept the messiness to a minimum, and they spent a lot of time playing outside. Extra things that still had value were boxed up in the attic, and every few months, they could trade out some of their toys for something in the attic. The children never felt deprived and actually said they preferred it over clutter.


  1. […] This is the time of year that requires slowing down and simplifying your life, or you might just end up 50 shades of crazy by the new year. The No Meat Athlete has some great advice on how to do just that. Can’t Keep Up? 7 Small Steps to Simplify Your Life […]

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