If you’ve been living in the U.K. (and apparently Australia?) for any amount of time, you’ll be familiar with Aleksandr Meerkat – the supposedly lovable (and yet inexplicably annoying) meerkat that advertises the website “comparethemarket.com” and ends all adverts with, “Simples!” (Grrrr….) No, I have not brought that up just to irritate you (or myself). It’s just that I tend to hear that word in that voice each time I think about my mantra that I set for myself almost 18 months ago. “Simplify.” Nothing more; nothing less. I wrote it on a (now-faded and grotty) post-it note and stuck it onto the fridge where I’d see it every day.
I had probably been spurred to action after reading Rachel Macy Stafford’s book, “Hands Free Mama: A Guide to Putting Down the Phone, Burning the To-Do List, and Letting Go of Perfection to Grasp What Really Matters!” In chapter 7, she focuses on the strategy of simplification. The advice here is to release yourself from an overcommitted life. So that’s what I was going to do: take control of how I spent my time and simplify (sound familiar?! It will do if you’ve read anything else I’ve written here before!).
Initially, when my post-it note was a vibrant pink, I was regularly reminded to ask myself essential questions about what actually needed to get done. If I did not do X, Y or Z, what would the consequences be? Could anything wait until another time? Did I want it to wait until later? Or by not doing something, would someone else be affected? As with most things I write about here, it wasn’t necessarily easy, but I found it wasn’t actually impossible either.
And then I read Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever.” I was inspired to get this book as, at some point after hearing about it from one of my friends, I was sat in the front room staring at all of our books. One row of books particularly struck me; it was the row of AAA TourBooks on the top shelf. If you’re from America, you may remember these. (AAA or 'Triple A' is The American Automobile Association, by the way; it’s the equivalent of the AA – or Automobile Association – in the UK. Not confusing at all.) Anyway, these TourBooks might be considered the original ‘Lonely Planet’ or ‘Rough Guide to …’ books that were available free from AAA if you were a member. I had many of these books: Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi; Indiana and Illinois; Oregon and Washington; California; Arizona and New Mexico; Idaho, Montana and Wyoming; Western Canada and Alaska. Just to name a few. The list went on. I must have collected these books over the years. Each time I was going somewhere new - for vacation, for a conference, for whatever - AAA was my first stop. A book and a map and I was ready to start planning. Little did I know I would keep these books, ship them across the Atlantic and almost 20 years later, be staring at them wondering if I really needed them. Of course, these were nestled in with all the other travel or walking books: Lonely Planet Britain; Lonely Planet Scandinavian and Baltic Europe; yes, even Lonely Planet USA; 102 Walks in the Alpine Lakes, South Cascades and Olympics, 100 Hikes in Washington: North Cascades National Park Region, Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park: A Complete Recreation Guide, and on and on and on. But did I need them? What did they bring me?
And, of course, there was the closet. My beloved closet, created several years back when the solid wood cabinet for clothes storage that came with the house (read, moved in with my husband) became sorely insufficient and I finally got fed up with clothes hung on hooks slung over all the doors in the house. My closet, once created, was full from the outset – well, bursting, really – and I still had my summer clothes stored under the bed (for a girl who’s grown up in Arizona, there’s really no need for summer clothes in Scotland – well, only on extremely rare occasions). I’m lucky if I wore half of the clothes in my lovely closet, and I noticed with some despair that I was considering getting out those over-the-door hooks again. Something had to be done.
Other contributing factors had to be the endless articles about minimalism on the internet that I’d come across via my lovely little Pinterest account. And, of course, Gretchen Rubin’s consistent suggestion that outer order contributes to inner calm had clearly lodged itself somewhere in my brain. So for someone on a journey towards self-compassion, the possibility of a clearer mind sounded nice. So ‘simplify’ it would be. Not just around time and my to-do list now, but within my environment as well.
Contrary to Marie Kondo’s advice, I started in the front room with the books. I made 3 piles: keep, give away and bin. While there was still some question in my mind about whether or not I could get rid of the AAA books, it was the coupons in those books that expired in 1998 that helped me decide. Besides having out-of-date savings opportunities (I do love a bargain!), these books likely had well out-of-date information that would be more easily found via the internet. And – bonus – I don’t have to dust the internet…. So, out they went. I moved on to my closet, and 2 days and 7 black bin bags later, I had achieved what I had always thought was impossible: all my clothes fit in closets and drawers meant for clothes storage. There was no longer any need for under-bed storage and I was no longer tempted to get out those ‘over-the-door’ hooks. In fact, those went in the give away pile. This was hard work - simplifying suddenly didn't feel so simple - but this was so worth it!
Regardless, I moved on to the kitchen. I got rid of some things that I never used; mostly tea towels or placemats but sometimes things that were broken like an old Bodum infusing teapot we had. But it felt like something had shifted. I was not getting rid of as much and I was not achieving the results I was hoping for. There was still quite a bit that lived on our worktops; they were still usable, the worktops. Plenty of room for prepping and cooking. But it was still the case that there wasn’t ‘enough’ room for those kitchen appliances I dreamed of owning: the all-singing all-dancing Stand Mixer (with a hook for dough!), a slow cooker, a microwave (though, to be fair, I’ve learned to live without that now after 15 years). And this seemed to derail me slightly.
While starting this simplifying project around my life writ large, when I got quite busy at work, I shifted my attention to my environment. It seems I was only able to simplify in one life area at a time. And, by this point, 8 months had passed since my post-it had gone up (apparently for me simplifying is slow work). I could see I had achieved an enormous amount of clearing in the house and it did feel better. Owning fewer items meant easier cleaning and less tidying. But my motivation was clearly flagging, and so, in an effort to be kind to myself, I decided to shift my attention yet again. My environment was ok - for now (I was clearly not ready to go through my music if I couldn’t clear out my kitchen sufficiently!). Noticing that as I had decluttered my house my diary was once again full-to-bursting, I used the start of the new academic year to shift my attention yet again. I committed to simplifying my diary - this time focusing on creating a manageable diary at work.
As I have said to many students over the years, start as you mean to go on. This was how I was going to do that academic year. I would take control of my time at work – only agreeing to those tasks I would be able to achieve during my part-time hours and being reasonable about what I scheduled into each day. And I did find this achievable – to a degree. I managed to stick to my 3-day work-week, though I found that those were 3 quite long days, stretching far beyond the 7 hours expected of me. Even with the long days, my time on my 2 days off was significantly freed up, and this allowed me to pursue other interests. And that, I found, was a good thing. It helped me focus more at work and gave me dedicated time to do something I wanted to do without feeling guilty about not working. (To be honest, this was probably the start of my journey towards balancing doing and being, but I certainly didn’t recognise it at the time.) By focusing on a very specific task of managing my diary for work, I had managed to achieve a better work-life balance for myself.
Was it ok that there’s still quite a bit of stuff in my house that I don’t need? For the time being, it was. Is it ok that I can only ‘do’ simplifying in one life area at a time? I think for now it has to be. The reality of my situation is that my clothes still all fit where they belong, my kitchen is just as it needs to be (still sans all those lovely appliances I dream of) and my bookshelves are once again starting to groan under the weight of the books being added to my collection (thankfully, however, these are not books with coupons in them – and certainly not books that have coupons in them that expired in 1998!). My resolve to simplify my work life has resulted in exciting (and at times terrifying) changes that I feel I’m managing extremely well given my perfectionistic tendencies. And I notice that – 18 months later (my how time flies!) – I’m feeling strongly again that I’d like to do another clearing out. So, I’m not sure this ‘minimalist’ lifestyle is for me. I’ve read about not needing all the possessions that we have (apparently, according to the Los Angeles times, the average American home now contains 300,000 items!); I’ve read about capsule wardrobes and projects that challenge you to wear ‘just’ 33 items of clothing – jewellery and all! – for 3 months. And I’ve seriously considered undertaking these challenges. But what I know about me for right now is that I’m just not ready for these things – simplifying a life doesn’t actually feel that simple to do.
And that’s ok. It must be another one of these process things that I’ll likely be working on regularly for years to come. Like balancing. I’m hopeful the longer I work on these things, the easier they will become for me. And perhaps one day, I can say that I lead a simple, balanced life filled with self-compassion. And maybe that meerkat's refrain of ‘Simples’ won't play consistently in my head and won't annoy me so much any more. Now wouldn’t that be something?!