We come into this world owning little more than our tiny, naked selves and having few pressing responsibilities other than eating, sleeping and breathing. But from then on, life starts to get complicated. Very complicated.
We want stuff, we buy stuff. The stuff we get needs to be taken care of. The pile of stuff grows larger, requiring a bigger house to keep it in. And with more room, more stuff appears – as if it had reproduced like dividing amoebae. Meanwhile, we also accumulate things to do – responsibilities, commitments. We constantly add to our list of things to do without necessarily ever subtracting from it, so the list seems to grow and grow. Eventually, we scarcely seem to have time to, well, eat, sleep and breathe.
Stop. Time for a whole new approach. As Henry Thoreau put it, you need to simplify, simplify, simplify. Concentrate on the essentials, do the most with the least amount of effort, save yourself some time, disentangle yourself from pointless complexity. Here are some nifty tips that can give you a head start in uncomplicating some of the small and big things in life.
» Living principles
Don’t lie... manage the truth. Everyone’s grandmothers have told them that the most important reason for telling the truth is that you don’t have to keep track of what you said. But even the best of friends couldn’t stand a single afternoon of pure truth-telling before problems would arise.
So how do you keep life simple? Somewhere in between the unvarnished truth and a bold-faced lie, there’s a very rich playing field with a lot of room to edit what you say to people. First, manage the information you need to give out. You may not have to lie, but you also may not have to tell the whole truth.
Second, manage the message. You can say anything in more than one way. Before blurting out what may be a hurtful truth, consider whether there might not be a better, softer way of saying it.
And finally, consider the consequences of any white lie or “whole truth” in advance. Which will cause the least amount of damage in the short and long run?
Just say no to unnecessary commitments. So easy to spell, so hard to say, this two-letter word can save you from a world of unwelcome complications and intrusions if you know when to say it to other people. First, consider the consequences of saying yes and saying no. Consider the other person’s feelings, your schedule and anything else of importance. Stir it all up in a big pot and then ask yourself: “Will I respect myself more if I say yes or if I say no?”
You’ll be surprised to find the conclusion will be a resounding “no” more often than you might previously have suspected. Now all you have to do is say it.
Then follow up with a short explanation, such as, “I don’t have the time right now.” Give too many details concerning your schedule and the other person might point out that you really could fit it in. Then you start getting defensive and the whole thing gets nasty. Keep it short. Keep it simple.
Pencil in worry time. Life is complicated enough without your being pursued by nagging worries that never seem to give you a moment’s peace. Free yourself of them by arranging a 30-minute period each day dedicated to exploring those worries in detail.
Two things will happen. First, by focusing on worries and thinking of solutions for 30 minutes a day, your anxiety will start to taper off as you either work out how to resolve the problem or realise it’s not worth worrying about. Second, lumping all your worries into one 30-minute package frees up the rest of your day. Just tell yourself, “I’m busy now. I’ll worry during my worry period.”
» Prioritizing and scheduling
Do first things first. People often mistake activity for productivity. But a person can be very busy and still not get anything important done, simply by spending too much time on frivolous tasks. Every Sunday, make a list for the week of things that either need doing or that you’d simply like to do. Choose the five most important items on the list and schedule time for them before anything else. Then arrange the less important tasks around those five. Finally, add the things you’d like to do if any time remains. Even if you don’t follow through on everything, the five most important items will probably be taken care of.
Never do one thing when you can do two. Don’t you find it really frustrating and complicating to run out to the hardware shop for some tacks only to get home and realize that you need to run out again to place an order for a birthday cake at the pastry shop next door to the hardware store? Keep a magnetic note-pad on your refrigerator and maintain an ongoing list of errands. Before leaving the house on an errand, check your list to see if there isn’t some way to combine a second errand (or even a third) with the first.
Don’t organize; just rough-sort. Somewhere in between no filing system at all and one that’s so meticulous it takes an hour a day to maintain, there’s a simple way to never lose a single piece of paper: the three-box system. Keep one box to toss bills into; another for things coming up during the month which you need to follow up on – a wedding invitation, an exhibition you want to visit, a circular from your housing Society about a general body meeting; and a third box either for miscellaneous stuff, or for something of particular interest to you (say, a hobby box for an assortment of items related to your hobby). Once a month, go through your boxes. Pay bills, go to the exhibition, throw out what you don’t need. The beauty of this simple system is that it takes almost no energy to toss something into a box... and you’ll always know where to look for it.
Hire help. While a live-in maid, a cook and a full-time nanny might be a bit more pricey than most of us can afford, there’s no reason why you can’t hire some occasional help when it’s less expensive than doing it yourself. The rule of thumb is this: Figure out what your time is worth by calculating how much you would earn by, say, taking in an extra tuition batch in the time you’d save by getting the week’s load of clothes ironed at the laundry instead of doing it yourself on a daily basis. If you find – as you likely will – that your extra earnings from the tuitions would clearly outstrip your expenditure on the laundry bills, the choice is clear.
» House smarts
Get the right tools. If you’ve ever driven a crooked nail into a wall using the heel of your shoe, you’ve probably realized that the simplest way to simplify a task is to have the right tools. Not only does the job go quicker, but there’s less of a chance that you’ll foul it up and spend twice as much time fixing your mistake.
There are certain tools no home should be without. They include: a standard-size hammer; a set of screw-drivers; an adjustable wrench; pliers; a cordless power drill; a hand saw; a wood rasp; a rip-metal tape measure; a roll of electrical tape. And, of course, a toolbox. It keeps everything in place and allows you to tote the tools to the spot where you’ll be using them.
Have a place for everything... and everything in its place. Yes, it’s one of the oldest axioms in the book – so old that nobody seems to pay it any attention. To see just how much simpler life could be when it’s orderly, compare the amount of time it takes to consistently hang your car keys on a nail beside the front door with the amount of time, anger and swearing it takes to try and find them under a sofa cushion or on a bedside table or who knows where.
Don’t buy what you don’t need. We all have a little bit of the pack rat in us... an urge to buy / get things, drag them home and pile them up. Cut down on the clutter by asking yourself a few simple questions the next time you’re trawling the mall and find yourself gazing glassy-eyed at yet another thing you “simply can’t do without”.
» Do you have a real use for the item or just a vague fantasy? Do you really need another backpack – or is it just that the Tommy Hilfiger Explorer in the display window looks so nifty?
» Have you felt some need in the past for this item? You always find people who’ve gone on a foreign trip picking up fancy gadgets from abroad like a Eurolux Cordless Crepe Maker even though they never have, and never will end up making a crepe in their lives. Yet another guaranteed dust collector.
» Are you depressed? People often use shopping as an emotional pick-me-up. But where pity purchases are involved, it’s the act of buying that provides the relief, not the object being bought. So, typically, people end up taking home something they neither need nor would really want had they been in a better mood.
» Do you expect this purchase to transform your life or simply to improve it? Many sedentary people buy expensive exercise equipment fully expecting it to turn them into the “Buff ‘n’ Beautiful”. But if they’ve never till date managed to motivate themselves to even take a 15-minute daily walk, there’s not much reason to believe they will suddenly go full throttle at some fancy equipment now. Many are the exercycles currently being used as clothes hangers. A sensible purchase is one that will build on past interests you’ve already exhibited, not one that you expect to work a miraculous transformation.
» Can you walk away from it? The best test to see if you really want to buy something is to go home without it. If you still want it tomorrow and have the motivation to return to the store, you know it’s not merely a whim.
Buy fewer toys but better ones. Rather than littering the house with a mountain of Robots, Transformers, Power Rangers and Barbie ensembles, consider buying a smaller, select group of toys that provide numerous possibilities and inspire your child’s imagination – for instance, train sets that can be re-arranged in different ways, construction sets, art supplies or even role-playing kits such as a doctor’s bag or a house-keeping set. Just a few of these toys can go a long way.
Hitch a ride on the online shopping cart. Online shopping can be simple, convenient, time-saving, and money-saving as well, what with the deluge of discounts and cash-back offers. And the number of e-retailers as well as product categories continue to expand. Getting on the road in this consumer journey can seriously help to make your life less of a slog.
Keep a tight focus on quality, not quantity. The denizens of Europe are not afraid to wear the same shirt or skirt – washed and ironed, of course – several times in the same week, and neither should you be. Make it a quality-fabric, well-tailored shirt or skirt, and you’ll not only get the benefit of a more manageable wardrobe, it’ll be a longer-lasting one as well.
Never buy something without giving up something else. To battle the exploding-closet syndrome, give an old piece of clothing to charity every time you buy a new piece. Or donate all the clothes you didn’t wear the previous year. If you can’t bear to part with anything, ask yourself why you need new clothes when everything currently in your clothes cupboard is a keeper.
Get rid of old medications. Many people hold on to old medications (especially prescription drugs), but that’s unwise: old medications can become not only ineffective but also unsafe. They clutter up your medicine cabinet, can be confusing and are utterly useless. Getting rid of them avoids the temptation of using them inappropriately in the future.
Take one instead of three. The days of taking multiple and easily-forgotten doses of a medication three times a day are slowly fading away as longer-lasting or timed-release versions increasingly take their place. Ask your doctor if there isn’t a timed-release version of any medication (s)he prescribes for you.
Technology should simplify our lives, not complicate them. But more and more people are being overwhelmed by the digital experience today. Here are a couple of basic things you can do to stay in control:
Cut down on technolust. It seems that every new appliance, laptop, mobile phone and home theatre system comes flaunting a dozen different features, apps, frills. It’s easy to walk into a store wanting something simple and to walk away with a product so full of unnecessary and confusing options that you’re scared to touch it. Keep it simple by jotting down what you really need the product to do, and use that as a talisman against snake-oil peddling salespeople. Importantly, consider factors such as user-friendliness and technical support availability rather than making a decision based only on the product’s price. It will avoid heartache – and mighty headaches – down the road.
Purge the e-junk. After regular use, devices like computers and smartphones can begin to feel sluggish. Freeing up some storage space can make a dramatic difference in your tech experience.
Start by purging apps you never use anymore. Then do something about those photos you never look at: back up all your photos to the cloud using services like Google Photo, and then delete them from your device so that you can start with a fresh photo roll.
Today, malware (comprising all malicious software – not just intruders like viruses and worms, but also nuisance programmes like Adware that bombard you with pop-up windows, hijack your Home Page and send your personal data to advertisers) is a big cause of many computer problems, including a slow computer. A good anti-virus programme is an excellent first line of defence, but it’s often a good idea to install additional anti-malware software to boost your protection from a more diverse range of threats. Free or trial versions are available.
DIY – with the help of a mouse. Use the facility of online transactions – for paying your utility bills, for instance. You avoid the bother of filling up cheques, standing in queues, and the possibility of late payments.
Also, today, you don’t need a broker to buy or sell shares or to transact in mutual funds; the online transaction facility makes it simple and keeps you in control over your finances.
And, of course, the online facility means you can carry out these financial transactions
24 x 7 x 365 days of the year.
Rationalise your investments. If you have four demat accounts, and investments in around 40 different mutual fund schemes and / or stocks, you have far too much complication on board. Your portfolio of investments becomes too fragmented, too difficult to monitor, and that can leave you with insufficient time to weed out losers and nurture winners – seriously impacting the earnings potential of your investments.
You don’t really need to invest in three sector funds of the same variant – say, pharma funds – from three different fund houses. Yet, many investors hold on rigidly to their investments instead of rationalising and pruning so as to clean up their portfolio and keep it simple and manageable. By getting out of sub-optimal investments, you can use that money in investments that are more growth-oriented.
Stop chasing the money. You work hard to afford a bigger house and more possessions, which in turn require more money to maintain, forcing you to work even harder. Forget it. More money and the possessions that come with it do not buy you more happiness: we have enough research establishing this fact of life. And what this research seems to show is that a family with a comfortable level of monthly income can be just as happy as one that is awash in affluence – a good argument for disqualifying yourself from the rat race.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)