Simplicity is one of the most effective tools for cultivating connection—and a more joyful, present way of life. Henry David Thoreau often observed that when our lives are simple, we are better able to savor them…in both small and large ways. We are more focused, more patient, more perceptive, and more resilient. We can intuit the needs of others, understand our own motivations, achieve new heights of creativity, and maintain our equilibrium.
Simplicity has amazing power. But it is truly a practice, rather than a one-time fix. Without constant efforts to simplify, pare back, and streamline them, our lives grow more complex each day.
Like computers, our brains only have a finite amount of processing power. And when we pay attention to something, our brains literally are paying—giving away a chunk of their limited mental energy.
As Daniel Levitin points out in his excellent book, The Organized Mind, our brains churn through as much mental energy answering “mindless” Facebook quizzes as they do preparing for an important work presentation. It’s up to us to focus our minds on the things that matter, before we waste all our energy on the other stuff.
Unfortunately, our brain processors evolved to their modern capabilities when we were still hunter-gatherers. In those days, we could expect to meet fewer than 1000 other people in our whole life, and own maybe a half dozen things. Obviously, that’s a tiny fraction of what the average American faces now, with the same hunter-gatherer hardware.
Most of us can only be half present in what we’re doing, because we’re juggling an ever-exploding inbox, shifting and short-notice work deadlines, and children that have schedules as busy as our own. So we forget where we put our keys, our sunglasses, that book we were reading just the other day. We miss whole conversations and stories going on around us as we try to respond to texts, emails, and social media posts. We miss deadlines and appointments and forget to return phone calls.
There is no mental energy available for authentic connection in this kind of life.
Yet many highly successful people with complicated lives do manage to remain mindful and present and connected…by eliminating their responsibility for all those mundane decisions and details. They often eat the same thing for breakfast or lunch, have someone else manage their email and calendar, and outsource the minutiae of daily living, so they can preserve their mindful focus and attention for big, important issues and dive deeply into them. By simplifying their lives, they’re able to be fully present in their thoughts, meetings, decisions and activities, and achieve superior results from that attention.
They’re able to connect.
Luckily, you don’t have to be a corporate executive to make life easier on your poor hunter-gatherer brain. There are steps that everyone can take to simplify their existence and create space for connection. Here are a few to get you started:
- Get rid of things you don’t use. Purging to essentials is enormously liberating, because it eliminates the need to make a choice. You’re never going to read all the magazines or e-newsletters you subscribe to. Pick a small handful you truly enjoy and ditch the rest.
- Keep your choices simple. If you only have one type of jam open in the fridge, you already know which one you’re going to have. If you get rid of those clothes you’ve worn once in five years, it’s easier to find the clothes you do want to put on.
- Develop rituals that let you avoid making decisions. If you always do something a certain way, you don’t need to think about how you do it. For example: make Tuesday taco night, or start every morning with a set of pushups.
- Consolidate services as much as possible. The fewer web portals and invoices you have to deal with, the simpler your life becomes.
- Use one calendar system for all your appointments. Put everything in it… including down time for yourself. Set reminders for your appointments and travel time, instead of trying to rely on memory to plan ahead properly. We need to rely on “external brains” to make it through the day.
- Cut back on commitments. Ask yourself how many of the groups, teams, organizations, and social events you’re involved with are truly priorities for you. Let go of the things that aren’t serving you so that you can devote yourself (and your precious attention) to the things that do truly matter.