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The Learning Curve

5 rules to build your version of the simple life

Because there's not enough Walden pond to go around.
A woman rests next to her houseplants.
(Credit: Valeria Ushakova / Pexels)
Key Takeaways
  • Many proclaim the virtues of a simple life, yet their definitions of simple can be wildly different.
  • The simple life isn’t about following a single prescription but removing the extraneous to focus on your lifestyle of choice.
  • Ken Segall, the author of Think Simple, offers some strategies that don’t require you to buy a tiny home (unless you’re into that).

They say, “The good life is a simple life,” but depending on who’s quoting the aphorism, they may have one of several different lifestyles in mind.

Do they mean subsisting with only a backpack and map to guide you? Or do they want you to stop, smell the roses, and be content to let the world race by? Is the recommendation a Luddite’s view of technology or a Spartan approach to home decor? Advice to trade your urban high rise for a bucolic acre to farm? Eschew material possessions in the pursuit of knowledge, experiences, or enlightenment? 

Trying to live by every prescription would be madness, and individually, each ignores the many people for whom these values, customs, or traditions aren’t compatible with their desires and ambitions.

However, there is a framework that can help us build our version of the simple life. So, what qualities can we adopt to help make our lives, well, simple?

Steven Jobs introduces the iPhone 4 at the 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference.
Steven Jobs brought simplicity to the complex problem of making home computing accessible to anyone. (Credit: Matthew Yohe / Wikimedia Commons)

Commit to iterating

There are several contenders for the title of the patron saint of simplicity: St. Clare and St. Francis of Assissi being the odds-on-favorites. A wild card entry, however, might be the late Steve Jobs.

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The through-line of Jobs’s career was to bring simplicity to home computing. He did it with the Macintosh, which replaced the byzantine command-line interface with the user-friendly desktop. More than a decade later, he did it again with his back-to-back-to-back triumphs of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

But Jobs didn’t wake up in the middle of the night, run to his garage, and bang out a perfectly functioning iPod by morning. It took a lot of people and many prototypes to design an interface that was functional and simple.

“When you’re trying to create something simple, there is great value to this whole idea of having an iterative process and getting to improve things constantly till you get to where you’re going,” Ken Segall, author of Think Simple, said in an interview.

To find your simple life, be willing to experiment and try new things. Be careful though. As Segall warns, when we iterate, we tend to pile ideas, features, and gadgets on top of each other, hoping the next addition will be the thing that brings it all together. The actual result is clutter.

Remember it’s just as important to discard what doesn’t work as to keep what does.

Do fewer things better

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz introduced the idea that loads of choices don’t lead to satisfaction. They create anxiety in the decision and ultimately lead to dissatisfaction with our choice. It’s the reason you think you want a large selection of ice cream but then leave the Baskin Robbins thinking, “Darn, I should’ve gone with the fudge-ripple swirl.”

Similarly, when we try to fulfill 31 different pursuits in our lives, we become tired, anxious, and dissatisfied. We stress at the sight of our overflowing calendars, and we grow discontent because the less important pursuits zap time and energy from the more meaningful ones.

By dedicating yourself to less, you do those things better. What activities and pursuits you decide to cut should be the result of a long, honest self-examination of the things that are important and meaningful to you.

A mother and daughter prepare avocado toast in the kitchen.
Flow state is finding yourself completely absorbed in an experience. (Credit: August de Richelieu / Pexels)

Plan around flow

When life is chaotic, your attention is spread too thin. But when life is simple, you focus and bring attention in line with your intention. This helps you enter a flow state.

“When an experience is simple, when a product is simple, […] or just a website experience is simple, you are in that state of flow,” Segall said. “You’re calm; you’re peaceful.”

When simplifying any area of your life, consider which elements put you in tune with the task or pursuit and which distract you. Then iterate by keeping what works and stripping away the extraneous.

For example, your office workspace can better spur performance and productivity if you keep it tidy, ensure everything has a place, and remove redundancies. Do you need a pen holder stuffed with pens or one sporting a handful of high-quality instruments?

Note that utility isn’t the same as utilitarian. Pictures of your family, a desk plant, or a few decorations can help induce flow and create a greater sense of connection with your work. Just ensure everything builds that sense of flow and ease.

Don’t ignore complexities

We live in a complex world, and ignoring those complexities for the sake of simplicity does you no favors. Instead, create simple systems that help you navigate those complexities more efficiently.

This is essentially what made the iPod such a hit. The programming housed in the device was no less complex than any found in other MP3 players of the time. But Jobs required that any function be performed with no more than three clicks. That ease of navigation made it the preferable choice for consumers.

“That is one of the great things about simplicity,” Segall said. “You deliver something so obvious and easy that it strikes you as being absolutely right. Why didn’t anybody ever do this before?”

Consider one of life’s never-ending complexities: taxes and bureaucratic paperwork. Both are inescapable, and left to their own devices, they will add complications to your life. But we can simplify our approach to them by not procrastinating, opting out of unnecessary programs, building habits around necessary paperwork, and seeking assistance from professionals when it becomes too much. 

“Life is complicated, and it’s because life is complicated that simplicity stands out,” Segall said.

A man boats on Walden Pond in the fall.
Walden Pond is the epitome of the simple life in American culture. (Credit: Terryballard / Wikimedia Commons

Accept imperfections

No life is as idyllic as Thoreau’s musings of Walden pond. Not even Thoreau’s. Mistakes will happen. Imperfection is part of the deal. But the simple life doesn’t ask us to correct for either. Instead, it embraces them, and if we’re lucky, even allows us to appreciate them.

“What about your personal life? How simple is that? And the answer is not at all really and I’m working on it,” Segall said.

He added: “I think simplicity is something that works in business, and it should work in your personal life as well. There’s something very satisfying about having this kind of space in your life — the order, the lack of clutter, the firm direction.”

Learn more on Big Think+

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