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So you want to simplify your life.
You’ve even considered becoming a minimalist, whatever that means.
But what does it actual entail, where do you start and how?
Here’s the truth about living a simple, minimalist life: You don’t need to live like a monk to do it, and it’s not about getting rid of everything you own. Paring down to just the things you can fit in a backpack may work for some people, but it may not work for you.
Heck, I don’t think I’d be able to go about my days without my library of books, 15 pairs of shoes (don’t judge) and collection of essential oils.
They nourish my soul and confidence, and make me feel good.
Which brings me to the next point I’m about to make: If something brings value into your life, why force yourself to get rid of it just because having close to nothing has become the popular thing to do?
For me, living a simple life is about slowing down and making things as uncomplicated as possible.
And ‘un-complicating’ things doesn’t have to apply only to your stuff — it works amazingly well for your health, finances, work and relationships.
I began planting the seeds of simple living long before it became a ‘thing’, and it all started when I got my hands on Elaine St. James’s book, Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways To Slow Down And Enjoy The Things That Really Matter.
Here are 10 of my favourite—and very practical—lessons from her book on giving up the things that don’t make you happy, and how I’ve been using them to simplify my own life:
1. OWN THINGS WITH INTENTION
If you’re looking for a starting point in your simple living journey, I’d say this would be it, and for good reason: If the things you own are out of control (in numbers), you don’t own them.
They own you.
What’s been working for me is to follow Marie Kondo’s method of laying everything out in the open (all my clothes on the floor, for example), sorting through every item, and keeping only the ones that I want to use.
Anything that hasn’t been used for over a year (and that I no longer want) goes into the donation bin.
The sense of freedom that comes with doing this exercise at least once a year is exhilarating, and I love how it also helps clear out my mental clutter, since I no longer have to feel bad, guilty or stressed about hoarding a ton of stuff I never use.
Even better, it gives me more mental space to appreciate the things that I do choose to keep.
2. CUT YOUR LAUNDRY TIME IN HALF
I have a washing machine, but mostly I find that it takes up more time to use it than not.
The actual washing takes a good 40 minutes or so, followed by another 10 minutes to spin my wash dry (I live in hot, humid Malaysia where a dryer’s rarely necessary).
You could argue that all I have to do is wait, which is fair. But being impatient in nature, waiting tends to take up mental space in my head, so I’d rather pick the busier, but quicker option.
Once a week, I soak my clothes in detergent for about 10 minutes, then hand wash them and let mother nature do the drying for me.
To simplify my laundering process further, I :
- Tend to stick to light or dark colours for the entire week to make sure I have just one load to deal with.
- Try to wear something to the max whenever possible (this is usually a week for denim and cardigans) before I throw them into the wash.
- Wash my sheets once a month. I never get into bed in my street clothes. Ever. And I can’t go to sleep without taking a shower first.
- Wash my towels once week. The thought laundering them every day is sheer madness (and so unnecessary) to me. Just making sure that my bathroom has plenty of ventilation is sufficient for keeping them dry….and aren’t you already clean after a shower?!?
3. DOWNSIZE YOUR GARDEN
My family practically had a fruit orchard in our garden at one point.
The fruits were nice to have when they were in season, which was about once a year or so. But spending a good 30 minutes sweeping the leaves every single day? Not so much.
So we did what any sane home owner who doesn’t have much time to tend to their garden would do: We got rid of most of it.
With the exception of a couple of grassy sections (where we planted grass that doesn’t need constant mowing—don’t ask, I didn’t plant the stuff. You might be able to explore your options here.), a banana tree here and a couple of palm trees there, most of our garden is now concrete.
Yes, we still have to water the greens (a sprinkler system might be in our future to help us cut back on garden maintenance time even further) and clean up the leaves from other people’s trees that land in our garden, but I’d say we’ve cut our gardening load down by a good 80%.
4. DRIVE A SIMPLE CAR
I’ve been driving the same little car for the past 18 years.
For the longest time, I felt embarrassed by it, especially when I found myself spending time with people drove more expensive cars than me and who actually questioned my choice of wheels.
That is, until I realised that many of them were up to their eyeballs in debt, or worse, broke because their egos and self-worth were so tied up in their cars.
I know that I’ll have to replace my trusty little Betsy (I loved reading Archie comic books as a kid) in the near future, but until then, I’ll continue to enjoy how she’s able to take me wherever I need to go with minimal fuss.
Who knows? I might even simplify further by choosing to not own a car at all.
Here’s something else to consider: If you’re ever tempted to spend a hefty chunk of your income or life savings on a car just to make other people feel better about spending time with you, you’ve probably got deeper issues to worry about.
5. BUILD A SIMPLE WARDROBE
I have a confession to make: I used to be a compulsive clothes shopper.
If something caught my eye, I usually bought it, regardless of whether I needed it, or if it went with anything else that I owned. When I was bored, I shopped. If I were anywhere near a mall, I’d have a shopping bag in hand in no time.
Let’s just say willpower and practical style-planning didn’t play a starring role in my clothes-buying decisions.
I realised how much money I’d wasted on stuff I hardly used only a couple of years later, when my wardrobe was bursting at the seams and I needed to do something about it, ASAP.
I’ve since whittled it down to less than half of what I used to own, and now buy new clothing no more than twice a year from just a handful of stores that fulfil my need for simplicity and timelessness: Everlane, Muji and Uniqlo.
And when I do, I follow these two rules:
1. The item I have my eye on has to pair well with the rest of my wardrobe, and…
2. Something old has to go, which forces me to consider every purchase carefully.
6. RETHINK YOUR GIFT-GIVING
I’m not the best gift-giver for a couple of reasons: I’m terrified of giving someone a gift that makes them go “meh” or worse, think “why on earth is she giving me this…thing?”, and I hate spending a lot of time wandering around malls with no plan (which is what happens when I have no idea what to get someone).
This is why I’ve simplified my ‘gift-giving’ to two default options when special occasions crop up:
1. Turning up with homemade treats or a bottle of wine, and taking them out for dinner if they’re a foodie.
2. Sending flowers if meeting up isn’t on the cards.
However, I tend to gift-give when my recipient least expects one, but only when I know exactly what they want and if it’s within my means to get it for them.
Another reason to hold back if you’re not sure the gift you have in mind will hit the spot: Almost 60% of Americans receive a gift they don’t want over Christmas, and I’m willing to bet that this unwanted gift-receiving isn’t just restricted to the holidays.
7. LIVE ON HALF OF WHAT YOU EARN
This is a habit I began nurturing as soon as I got my first job.
As a rookie journalist, my salary was on the lowest end of the scale, and I knew that if I wanted to build a comfortable financial nest egg for myself, I’d have to save at least half of it over a long period of time.
Now 18 years later, I’m glad that I started doing that right out of the gate.
If you’re not able to live on half of what you make right now, start saving the bare minimum, even if it’s just $50 a month. Then, gradually work your way up as you learn to be more efficient with your money.
You don’t have to be cheap or feel deprived to live a simple life.
It can simply mean defining what matters most to you and breaking free from the culture of mindless spending that we’ve been taught to perceive as ‘normal’ so you can get in the driver’s seat of your finances.
8. LEAVE YOUR SHOES AT THE FRONT DOOR
Having lived in Malaysia for most of my life, I’m used to taking off my shoes before I enter my own or anyone else’s home.
It’s generally a sign of respect for my host when I’m entering some else’s living space, but mostly, we Malaysians take our shoes off for practical reasons — it keeps the dirt on our shoes out of our homes. In fact, many even go as far as to wear indoor slippers to keep their grimy feet off their super-clean floors.
Think about it: Why would you wear the shoes that have taken to you to the streets, wet markets (which are common in Asia and absolutely filthy) and public toilets into your home?
If I did, I’d probably be disinfecting my floors like a maniac throughout the day (also not a good thing because, hello scary drug-resistant bacteria).
This habit may be second nature to many Asian cultures, but if it’s new to you, making this tiny tweak will help cut the time you spend cleaning your floors significantly.
9. KEEP YOUR PLANTS OUTDOORS
I once had the bright idea of turning my bedroom balcony into a mini herb paradise, and so I did.
At least for awhile.
The length of this tiny space ended up being lined with pot after pot of soothing rosemary, basil, lemon balm, mint, thyme and just about every herb you could think of.
My plant love was strong…until the chore of watering them became my every-day reality.
The love gave way to annoyance every time I had to move them into the garden so they could be watered by a neighbour’s helper whenever I was away for work, which was a lot.
Let’s just say that the thrill of having my own ‘almost-indoor’ herb garden gradually wore off and eventually, they all withered away from neglect.
The moral of this pathetic tale of poor plant parenting? Avoid decorating your indoor living space with plants (particularly high-maintenance ones) if you don’t have the time to look after them.
If you can’t live without being surrounded by greens, plant them outdoors where they’ll be more likely to thrive, thanks to Mother Nature.
10. TRUST YOUR INTUITION
Have you ever ignored that little voice in your head telling you that a situation or person didn’t feel right, and then soon after (or much later), found yourself regretting not listening to it?
Throughout it all — getting involved with the wrong person, taking the wrong job, holding on to a toxic friendship — that little voice persisted, but I chose to ignore it.
I chose to listen to logic (which isn’t always helpful) and excuses (never helpful) instead.
But when the pain became unbearable, I knew I was headed in the wrong direction and needed to recalibrate.
You don’t have to wait until you’re buried deep in despair to let your intuition guide you.
Often, all it takes is learning to be still so you can hear that little voice inside that lets you know whether a decision feels right…or wrong.
As you can see, simplifying your life doesn’t have to be just about throwing out all your stuff.
Yes, living clutter-free helps, but it’s often the small tweaks in your everyday routine that allow you to slow down, smell the roses and appreciate the important things in life.
What’s one thing you’ve done lately to simplify yours?
RESOURCES YOU MIGHT FIND HELPFUL
Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways To Slow Down And Enjoy The Things That Really Matter by Elaine St. James I got my hands on this treasure over 15 years ago, way before simple living and minimalism became popular, and it was the first resource that introduced me to practical, everyday steps I could take to ‘un-complicate’ my life. I didn’t have enough life experience then to ‘get’ everything that St. James presents in this book, but when I revisit the pages of Simplify Your Life now, they make perfect sense. If you’re just starting out in your simple living journey and are exploring your possibilities, I highly recommend giving this a read first.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way To Banish Clutter Forever by Marie Kondo Being able to pay attention to the little things in your life starts with decluttering — not the easiest thing to do if your living (or even work) space is disorganised and drowning in stuff. This is my bible as far as tidying up my space and keeping it that way goes.
Muji Lavender Essential Oil + Muji Portable Aroma Diffuser When my mind is running at what feels like a million thoughts a minute, I rub a couple of drops of Lavender Essential Oil between my hands and on my pulse points before taking a deep breath, or crank up my Muji Aroma Diffuser as a cue to wind down. Both work like a charm. I’m also a fan of NOW Lavender Essential Oil, which I combine with a couple of drops of Rosemary and Peppermint in my diffuser to create a heavenly bedtime scent.
Everlane I lived with a haphazard, unintentionally-put-together wardrobe for the longest time, so once Operation KonMari on my wardrobe was complete, I set out to put together a timeless, classic collection of clothes that I didn’t have to spend a lot of time coordinating. This meant focusing on clean, simple lines and neutrals like whites, blacks, beiges and soft pastels. Everlane has been my go-to source for basic tees, silk tops, petite-sized dresses and work shirts for a couple of years now, and I keep going back for its beautiful cuts, consistent sizing and earth-friendly ethos.
Muji Nobody makes cotton and linen tops quite as beautifully and affordably as Muji does, which is why it’s on my shortlist of every day style staples.
Uniqlo My #1 source for wrinkle-free shirts, feather-light travel jackets, cashmere sweaters and comfy pyjamas. Very affordable too.
The Good Morning Guide If your mornings are typically rushed, chaotic and stressful, I made this guide to help you start your day calm, sane and strong.
Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill This classic is so much more than what its title implies — it’s also a guide to taking control of the biggest driver behind everything you do and the reality you create for yourself: Your mind.
The Filofax Personal Organiser I’ve been using my trusty, old Filofax to organise my life for the past 18 years and don’t see myself being tempted to replace it with a digital one any time soon — there’s something really comforting about putting my to-dos and ideas down on paper. When I’m not at home, my hardcover Moleskin pocket journal goes everywhere I do (well, almost).
START SIMPLIFYING YOUR LIFE.
Having trouble leaving behind the clutter, excess and drama that’s making you feel suffocated? Start shedding the stuff that’s holding you down along with everything that’s not contributing to your health, wealth and happiness with my FREE Simple Living Guide. Get your copy of this guide-and-workbook-in-one here.