If you’ve ever said, “I love the idea of simple living, but I just wouldn’t know where to start,” this post is for you. This is my ‘simple living how to’ guide – an outline of how to live a simple life in a nutshell. It is unlikely that you can make all these changes overnight, or even in a few weeks. Don’t fret about getting to the end. The goal is the journey itself.
Some things will take longer than others. And sometimes you will find you make huge leaps in one area, but lag behind in another. It all balances out in the long run. Keep going and eventually you will find your life changing beyond what you thought possible at the beginning.
Area 1 – Your Environment
Your environment is where you live. Your home base. It might be a room, a bedsit, or a six bedroom house. This is a great place to start and it’s the area I talk about most on this blog. For me, the most important part of learning how to live a simple life is learning to live with less and with buying things less often.
- Get help if things are really bad
- Remove all rubbish, recycling, broken things and borrowed things
- Begin keeping like with like
- Pass on things related to long-forgotten and given-up hobbies, crafts and projects
- Begin to read/watch (or just be brave and donate!) all unread/unwatched books/movies languishing on the shelves
- Start the process of finishing outstanding projects. I highly recommend focusing on starting and completing one thing at a time. Having a backlog of unfinished plans can derail your focus with surprising ease
- Consider the pros and cons of selling versus donating
- Deep-sort every room in turn, storing like with like and removing things you no longer want to keep
- Repeat the above deep-sort from the beginning when you have completed all the rooms. It is surprising how much easier it is to decide to let go of something on the second or third pass.
- Have a plan for when you get stuck
- Realise that keeping things simple is a habit
A minimal or simple home is different for everyone. How far you go is your own personal choice, but I can recommend, through personal experience, reducing your possessions and household todos and projects right down to near-zero, and then starting again with fresh eyes and deciding what you want your life to be about.
If ground zero is too much of a stretch, you can “bank” your current projects by storing them carefully out of sight until you are ready to dedicate focused time to them (or decide they aren’t something you want to spend time on after all).
One thing at a time makes for faster and more efficient progress.
Area 2 – Your Mental Space
The emotional side of living with less pops up very early on in the decluttering process. There is something about clearing out our things that raises deep feelings within us and it is almost impossible to separate the two processes. Learning how to live a simple life is as much about re-learning how to think, as it is about what to buy. You could aim for the following:
- Begin the process of self-acceptance
- Know that you are who you are for a reason and that you don’t have to change in order to be lovable, cool, or important. This will make it easier to know what you need to keep and what you don’t. For example, clothes-for-who-you-want-to-be are not as practical, comfortable or enjoyable as clothes-for-who-you-are.
- Learn to be happy being with yourself. As you own less, you will spend more time with yourself and less time dealing with stuff. This can derail you early on and lead you back into a shopping frenzy to replace everything you have removed. When you think you can’t bear it and you feel like you need something more in your life, just sit and ask yourself what you are running away from. You don’t want to be buried under layers of things. Let the sun shine on your real self and know that however wobbly and broken and lost you feel, your stuff will never be a substitute for standing up and learning to like yourself.
- Be aware of bad relationships and their effect on you. Don’t tolerate friends that always make you feel bad, and ensure you set boundaries for family members who bring you down or constantly criticise. You may not be able to avoid these people completely, but limiting your social time with them helps.
- Don’t give the past more time than it’s already had. If you spend an hour ruminating on a mistake you made, you’ve given that mistake even more time in your life. Accept and move on.
- Deal with shame head on. Own up to your mistakes and worst moments, forgive yourself, make amends if you need to, and then stop torturing yourself. Nobody is perfect. Don’t carry this kind of baggage around for years.
- Learn how to relax, and make time for relaxation. Especially if you are a parent or carer.
- Practice kindness. Allow others their mistakes and do not judge. You can never truly know what someone else is going through or has had to deal with. Compassion makes for a better world for everyone.
Area 3 – Your Time
Even after decluttering you might find that you are still running around, just as busy as before, but in a nicer environment (this happened to me). Understand that you are the only one in control of your relationship with time, and that we all have the exact same number of hours in the day. If you want to live a simple life you need to think about how you spend your time.
(Note: My link to YNAB is an affiliate link, which means if you purchase it I receive a small referral fee at no cost to you, thank you).
- Work out where your time goes. Be honest. A lot of this could be on a screen. See Area 4 – Your Digital Life. Perhaps you have lots of projects on the go. Think about what you want to spend your time doing. Are you hoarding things for a future point when you will have time to do them?
- When you find yourself doing something on a regular basis, evaluate if it is something you need to do, or whether it could be streamlined or dropped in favour of something more constructive (like relaxation, socialising, or creative work). As an example, I used to spend a large amount of time reconciling my accounts. I had one account for bills, one for general spending, a spare current account leftover from years earlier, two savings accounts, a business account and four credit cards. “Doing my finances” was a huge job that I would have to dedicate an entire morning to once every few weeks, just to keep up with what was going on. I did this for years. One day I realised I’d had enough of devoting so many hours to money management (and I also never seemed to have any money, which made it worse). I signed up for YNAB. They kept recommending using just one account. For eighteen months I resisted, thinking it would lead me to destitution (I think I actually felt that more accounts meant somehow I had more money), but when I finally took the plunge, what a difference it made. Now I have one account for me and one for work, plus a credit card that I use only when necessary. And guess what? I got out of debt and money management takes less time that it has ever taken before.
- You can make more money, but you can’t get your time back. If something straightforward like a gardener, or some extra hours of childcare will help free up time for more important things, find a way to fit that into your budget. I was brought up to believe if you wanted something done it was better to do it yourself, and it has taken a lot of effort on my part to let go of this (in fact, I’m currently thinking about doing my own kitchen refit, so old habits die hard). Maybe you might do a slightly better job of all the things on your todo list, but could you accept good-enough in exchange for a better balance of how you spend your time?
- Be wary of overcommitting. Don’t take on committee roles, volunteer roles, a full time job and charity work if you’re also a mother or two and you secretly want to write a book. Likewise don’t say yes to social events if you aren’t really bothered about going. Self acceptance is key here – you don’t have to prove your worth or follow the crowd. Do what you dream of doing, and what you enjoy, not what you think everyone will approve of.
- Work on one thing at a time. The power of focusing on one thing to completion beats running many projects in parallel.
Area 4 – Your Digital Life
Computers were originally designed to save us time. We now spend more time on them than we do on almost everything else except sleeping. Be aware of how screens impact your life.
- Back up your data. Ideally to a remote location. And ideally completely automate it. I use Crashplan and I have used the restore function on several crucial occasions and been immensely grateful that it was available. Photos, especially, are impossible to replace. Don’t think that a hard drive failure or corrupt data won’t happen to you.
- Have a digital filing system. Create separate folders for household, health, money, etc. and be diligent about storing documents in the right place. It will save you time in the long run.
- Hone your administration skills and learn how to manage your inbox. Cut out the noise and unsubscribe to what you don’t need.
- Limit TV. Honestly – there are so many other things you can do rather than watch TV. A couple of shows you love each week is beneficial relaxation. Watching it every night after work is wasting your life.
- Make social media work for you. This deserves a post all of its own. I have wavered from extremes of using it multiple times a day to not using it at all for months on end. I think social media has its place, can be fun, and is a method of keeping in touch with people you might not otherwise be able to socialise with in person. However, it is too easy to get sucked into scrolling through an almost infinite feed that will gradually make you feel worse and worse. There is something quite isolating about spending a long period of time on social media – especially when that time is spent consuming what other people have posted. Create don’t consume – if you want to use it, use it actively and then shut down and go and do something else.
- Make time to be away from all screens. When I put all the screens away, I get huge amounts done at home and enjoy more quality time with my kids. You don’t have to be connected 24/7. If you really want to learn how to live a simple life, there is no quicker way than spending time disconnected from the excesses of technology.
Area 5 – Your Health, and the Health of the planet
Simple living really comes into its own here. There is SO much you can do to make a difference. Don’t ever think that what you’re doing isn’t enough. The power of everyone making small changes is immense.
- Reduce your waste, or at least your plastic waste. This inevitably involves eating more real food. This is good for the planet and good for you. I love Jen at Sustainable-ish for practical, down to earth advice that real people with families can follow (no mason jars of one year’s worth of rubbish to be found anywhere)
- Shop second hand to save money and precious planetary resources
- Simplify your meals. Learn to cook the basics. Making your own sweet treats and bread is easier than you think. After two or three attempts a recipe becomes your own and you can rely on it whenever you need it.
- Grow your own food. For inspiration I love Vertical Veg. What Mark manages to grow in his tiny garden is truly inspirational and has made me rethink the potential of our very tiny outdoor space.
- Reduce the chemicals in your food and personal products. From shampoo to make-up, fruit and veg to household cleaning, there is a recipe or an alternative to the over-processed, heavily fragranced and over-chemicaled products on the shelf today.
Area 6 – Relationships
Strive for authenticity and compassion in your connections. Be yourself and be open. Allow others to be themselves and do not judge. We aren’t all compatible and it’s ok to not particularly like a person. Not everyone will like you either. But kindness is still the best way to deal with everyone.
- Spend time with people you love. It’s such a simple thing, but when they are gone you will wonder why you didn’t do it more.
- Keep in touch. A message or quick phone call lets someone know you are in their thoughts. We don’t all live close enough to build the communities that we should. The next best thing is contact. Short and sweet is much better than none at all because you’re waiting for the time to do it properly.
- Improve your listening. This is harder than you might expect. Really listening to someone creates better bonds.
- Improve your relationship with yourself. If you are happy and content, you will find it easier to be with other people.
How To Live A Simple Life
I’ve covered six main areas here. I write with a slant on living with less because that’s my personal preference. For you it might be that you want to live a more sustainable life in terms of the food you grow and cook. Or that you want to de-clutter your emotional space and have a simpler, healthier mental outlook. Your own idea of how to live a simple life may differ from mine, but that’s absolutely fine. We all have to find our own path.
Simple living comes in many forms, and you don’t have to do everything to be a part of the movement. Pick and choose the areas that appeal most. Make the changes you want to make. You might find that as time passes other things shift to align with your new way of living.
Most of all, have fun on the journey. Living a simple life is about slowing down, getting back to basics and enjoying yourself – exactly how you do that is for you to decide.
Wishing you love and laughter on your way.