Updated on 07.13.10

Putting the Simple Back In

Trent Hamm

Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.
– Charles Mingus

One of the biggest challenges I have in my life is balancing the simple and the complex. I tend to oscillate back and forth between the two.

What usually happens is that I’ll have a period that’s simple for a while. I’ll have ample free time, even after spending a significant amount of time with my children. My finances are in good shape. Everything is good.

Because everything is flowing along so well, I get a desire to seek out new challenges. I’ll take on a few new things in my life – committee responsiblities, a work-related project, a new book, an increased social calendar, and so on.

And then things get more difficult.

I’ll start finding that I have less and less time to enjoy the things that most matter to me in life. I’ll be worn out in the evenings and have much less initiative to take care of things that need to be done. I’m less focused on my day to day choices and I become a lot more prone to spending extra money that I don’t need to spend. I feel more stress and less happiness.

My response is to start tossing stuff. I’ll schedule fewer social activities. I’ll not renew my commitment to a civic project that I’ve worked on for a while. I’ll put that partially finished manuscript somewhere else for a while (yes, I have two partially completed books that are just sitting there waiting to be finished). I’ll get back in control of my finances and revitalize my commitment to keeping organized.

Then, suddenly, I feel better again.

Here’s the amazing part: I would not do it any other way.

Why? My life improves when it is simple, but without adding complexity to it sometimes, I can’t discover new things in life and I can’t really keep in touch with what’s most important to me.

To me, a truly great simple life keeps you constantly in touch with what’s most important to you without drowning you in the things that are less important to you. The catch, of course, is that if you don’t expose yourself to new complexities sometimes, your life becomes a boring routine.

This “boring routine” is one of the things many people criticize and complain about when it comes to living simple or living cheap. They strip their lives of a lot of relatively unimportant things (a good move), but they don’t bother to continue to grow from there.

A simple life does not have to be a boring life.

A truly engaging and life-affirming simple life is one that constantly takes on new challenges and activities, but doesn’t object to tossing out some along the way, even things that have been with us for a long time but reflect a phase in our life that’s past.

A truly great simple life doesn’t try to “have it all,” but tries to have as much as we want of the things that really matter to us, above all else.

A simple life doesn’t waste time, money, energy, or resources on less important things when more important things are neglected and unused.

In the end, a simple life is one in which a person has spent a lot of time reflecting on what genuinely matters in that person’s life and what does not, and then doesn’t waste that life on the things that don’t matter.

And, with that, I’m going to go put on an old cowboy hat and a poncho and play “Jedi knights” with my son and daughter with lightsabers we made ourselves out of rolled-up newspaper. It might not be important and meaningful to anyone else in the world, but it’s important and meaningful to me (and probably to them, too). Why don’t you go do something that truly means something to you, too – and toss some of that less important stuff out on the curb while you’re at it?

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  1. Antonia says:

    And what’s important to you changes along the way, so the process of adding things to your life allows new shapes and patterns to emerge. I find that I go through periods where I want to travel a lot. Then I settle down for a few months. I love following the ebbs and flows instead of being locked into a rigid structure.

  2. Damilola says:

    This certainly applies to what I am going through right now. I have simplified my interactions and daily involvement to about 3 – 4 activities because things were getting too busy and complicated. Guess the lesson here is: When it’s simple, make it complicated and when it’s complicated, make it simple. In the end we’ll become flexible.
    Thanks Trent

  3. Sam says:

    As the writer behind The Simpler Life, I agree 100% with this article. It’s easy to let your life slide into complexity. Recognizing when that happens and taking steps against it, like you are, is so important. Thanks for the great article and “may the force be with you.” :)

  4. spay&neuter says:

    WOW-once again Trent you hit the nail on the head-this is exactly what i have trying to resolve for myself for weeks-thank you i found this very helpful-i do wonder how you find the time to keep up with the blogs you read?-i consider myself a speed reader, but navigating thru the interesting blogs you point out can be daunting!

  5. Docblogger says:

    What about simple and liquid life?
    I heard this presentation on ted.com about the new trend- people want to stay unencumbered by “things” ( I guess, houses with mortgages included) to be ready to move to better opportunities right away.

  6. Stephan F- says:

    “Simplify, then add lightness.” -Colin Chapman

    Sounds like you are doing pretty good. We make choices for better or worse and then choose some more.

  7. Shelly says:

    Wow! This is me exactly. I am crazy busy and then I get rid of everything, enjoy it for awhile and then become overcommitted again. I agree though, there is nothing like the feeling and motivation of starting a new project after a little rest.

  8. Kim says:

    I do the exact same thing although I never saw in such a positive way! Thanks for putting that spin on it. I always thought it was a bad quality to have the need to add new things all the time.

  9. Carrie says:

    All right, I have to share the most amazing, frugal and FUN light-sabers ever invented (not by me!):

    1.) Take a smooth (i.e., not flower-shaped) pool noodle in either red or blue, and cut it in half.
    2.) Tape the bottom of the handle with alternating rows of silver-black-silver duct tape. (one row each)

    Voila! Light sabers that will stand up to years of sword play, and which will not injure brothers. Also good for games of ‘hockey’ at VBS, played with a beach ball…

  10. Interesting perspective – I’ve never heard anyone talk about periodically ADDING complexity in those terms before.

    Looking back on my childhood, I can tell you those “light-saber” moments do matter to them as much or more than they do to you. Way to go for keeping the main thing the main thing!

  11. Trent, thanks for the thought provoking post. I too desire the simple life often, but when I do simplify I miss the fast paced and busy life style. I suppose deep down I like the energy it requires to survive. :) But I do think you can live simply and still be challenged with complexities. Just pick up a book that stretches your ability to think on a new level.

  12. Jessica says:

    That reminds me of when I was little and used to play light-sabers with my dad. We used to just cut the cardboard tube from an empty roll of paper towels in half, draw on them and pretend we had light sabers on the end. Of course half the fun was making the light-saber noise.

    Funny how I probably remember that clearer than toys I had!

    The noodles sound like a great idea, I’ll have to keep that in mind when my son gets older!

  13. I am the same way. I call it the “pendulum effect”. I swing one way, then slowly come back to the other side, enjoying the journey the entire way.

  14. Jules says:

    Simple for me usually comes down to making choices about what I want to do and just doing it. For instance, when I get home, I can either go for a run, make dinner, read a book, clean my room, take a phototrip, etc etc etc. I usually just pick one or two to do and then just do it.

  15. Quite an insightful post.

    Especially the part about–a simple life doesn’t have to be a boring one.

    Great stuff

  16. Julie says:

    My guess is that what you are describing is dynamic balance – a state of equilibrium that is always flowing and shifting combining both novelty and security. Great work!

    This is my goal too although I don’t acheive it very often.

  17. matt says:

    I wonder if perhaps you aren’t fully utilizing the capture in GTD. Simple may be more enjoyable for you because you can track it with your mind. Its entirely possible that as things get more complicated you are not doing as good of a job getting it all out of your mind and into compartmentalized project/next action structures. I certainly feel this way myself, and usually instead of paring down commitments I refocus and do a re-haul of my projects, someday maybe etc, and evaluate what has changed in personal priorities (perhaps move a few active projects to SM or drop them completely, or vice versa move SM to active projects), or what has gone missing that is causing the feelings (usually because I keep division between home and work in my system and there are several items which tend to crossover that dont get tracked properly).

  18. NMPatricia says:

    One of the best columns for a long time. I love the posts which tell me how to live, just not have numbers. Yes, I know this is a PF blog. But these posts are the ones that resonate with me. Thanks.

  19. lee says:

    Please could you tell me (I am from the UK- but an avid reader of this site dispite that )what is a pool noodle?

  20. Brittany says:

    Beautiful. Exactly on point. Now go slay that evil Sith lord son of yours.

  21. Sandy L says:

    I do the same…except I try to take summers off from “projects” both for me and my kids.

    Our summers are short, so I want to spend as much time outdoors as possible.

  22. Petmom says:

    Oh, Trent – thank you for this perspective! For so long I thought something was wrong me. I thought I was sort of bi-polar when it came to dealing with life! I secretly called myself “erratic” because things seemed to be smooth for awhile and then get totally chaotic when I found some new interests. My friends have always teased me about being afraid of “down time” but the truth is closer to what you have described. It’s the journey – not the destination. After all, there’s a time to drive along the highway on cruise control, enjoying the ride, and then there’s a time when you just have to off-road to see what’s out there!

    I love your blog – you have changed my life 100%over the last few years. Thank you!

  23. SweetJersey says:

    It’s articles like this that just make me feel good, calm and ready to take on what is next on my list. I appreciated this article this morning. Kinda just brings me back to basics and reminds me to truly focus on what is important to me! Thanks for continuing to keep me in check!

  24. Jenna says:

    What a great post, Trent! I love your blog and posts like this really resonate with me. I enjoy posts that make me think about how I am living, simplicity, etc.- reminds me to have gratitude for all the small things and pass on the stuff I don’t care enough about. Thank you!

  25. S says:

    Embracing the paradox. I love it.

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