We often wrongly mistake simplicity (or being simple) in others for being simplistic and having less (or no) sophistication. We judge others faster than we can think. Gladwell even wrote a book about it. We seem to think less of those who are “simple” for a variety of reasons. We take it to mean that the other person has a lesser understanding of things, and we use that to misinterpret almost everything about that person. In doing so, we forget that a “simple” person doesn’t mean that the person is simple. Their needs may be simple, but their mind is not.

Dee Hock said:

Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.

So what does it mean to lead a simple life? The answer lies not in having bigger, better, and more things; it’s about having (and doing) more with less. It’s about reducing your life to the essentials, and that means spending most of your time doing the important (and non-urgent). It means doing few things (but better) because we can’t do it all. We must figure out those few things for ourselves that will matter at the end when all is said and done. Almost everything else will fade into insignificance. The only things relevant in the end are the results you’ve gotten (and how it has helped others) and the relationships you’ve sustained over the years.

Lao Tzu said:

To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.

Living a simple life means adding to your life by taking things away from it — by hacking away at the nonessential. Our lives are like a piece of sculpture, and we’re the artists responsible for designing a sculpture by chiseling away until all that remains is the essence. We distill ourselves down to the core. That is who we are.

As John Maeda put it:

Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.

It means working and playing consistently so we can live our lives sustainably.

Simplicity is not the goal. That would be missing the point. It’s just a by-product of the way you lead your life, albeit an important one.

Here are a few of the benefits of leading a simple life:

When we simplify, we focus on the essential, and we disregard everything else. We focus on what matters most to us.

When you lead a simple life, you have everything in its place. Simplicity helps you create order in your life, so you have the space to be fiercely creative in your work.

Dalai Lama said:

If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness.

Leading a simple life removes the need for depending on external things. It means that you’re not relying on things as a means of escape. You don’t need things outside of you because you’re content with yourself and with all you have because you have everything you need and nothing you don’t. You’re content with yourself while you pursue all you want.

When you lead a simple life, you don’t think about routine things you do every day. You have routines and sensible defaults in place so you can make more space to think about things that actually require thinking, which prevents you from suffering decision fatigue.

It means keeping yourself at your physical best, which allows you to do everything else in your life well.

Leading a simple life is part of being a pro, which is about being proactive (not reactive).

As it’s often made out to be, simple is not always easy, and complex is not always difficult. Of course, simplifying our lives in not an easy (or straightforward) process, but an important one. It is non-linear, and involves a lot of complexity. It requires using a creative process to figure things out.

Steve Jobs said:

Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.

Simplicity is achieved through a complexity of thought and design. It’s a synthesis of knowledge with a lot of hard work and clear thinking behind it. A simple life hides the complexity behind it, so it looks easy to those who see it from the outside (but it rarely is easy or simple). Simplicity is about being happy with what you have while you pursue all that you want.

Only few things matter in the end. Everything else is just noise. Doing those things form our focus. Unless we design our lives proactively, someone else will do it for us.

Thoreau wrote:

I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day;…so simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real.

What areas of your life can you simplify? Think food, lifestyle, habits, things you do daily/weekly, things you don’t like to do (but “have to do”). When you simplify your life, you add to it by taking things away from it.

Dr. Koichi Kawana on simplicity:

Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means.

Here are some ways for us to simplify our lives in the face of growing complexity:

  • Start with the end in mind. Figure out what you want the end to look like. Then, simply work backward to do what’s required. It’s really that simple (and rare). When you do this, you’ll have said yes to a few things, which makes it easy for you to say no to almost everything else. Because very few things matter, everything else is just noise.

  • Take the complexity out of everyday tasks and make them simple again. Create routines. Find (and set) sensible defaults to stop thinking about mundane everyday things that don’t require thinking and use it to think about things that actually require thinking.

  • Simplify your diet. This is a big one. This partly helps you to be at your physical best, and that determines everything else you do.

  • Anything worth doing is worth doing well; otherwise, what is the point of doing it? That means doing one thing well. Do things only you can do while you eliminate/delegate the rest. Save time. You can always make another buck, but you cannot make more time.

  • Detach yourself from “things”; learn to value experiences over things.

  • Write in plain English instead of using fancy, obscure words.

  • Use appropriate tools for your work, then forget about them and focus on doing the work.

  • Live a principle-centered life by having (and living) values based on correct principles.

  • Use simple metrics to evaluate your own success (personal and work). For instance, it could be the amount of discretionary time you have away from work.

  • Stop doing things that are not helping you. I know this sounds so obvious, but we do things more often than we would like.

  • Let the process determine the outcome in everything you do.

  • Do work based on areas of focus. This ensures you have ample time for the different work areas.

Leading a simple life is not about adding things, but simply taking them away so all you’re left with is your core and essence of who you are. A simple life is about having everything you need and nothing you don’t. Simplify your life so you can focus on the essential, begin with the end in mind, and do few things but better.

Lead a simple life and chase your dreams. The rest will follow. When in doubt, less is always the answer.

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