More Time, More Money, More Meaning: Living Simply to Simply Live
By Maile Sundquist
I read a Facebook post the other day by a friend who was reflecting on an article in the New York Times which tells the story of a few Stanford students who, although accomplished, buckled under the pressures of campus life and took their own lives. It then proceeded to state that campus suicides throughout the U.S. are on the rise. My friend spoke about how mentally unhealthy Silicon Valley is, and how he, although at an extremely successful point in his life, still struggles with the sense of feeling like a failure. He then suggested that we take a sledgehammer to the whole facade and “get real,” as our lives and our children’s lives could depend on it. With this sentiment I wholeheartedly agreed. It broke my heart to read about these beautiful, talented kids with so much potential snuffing their lives out over something that has no value in the spectrum of things – and surely no value compared to the valuable life they once had. They bought into the lie of perfection which people are killing themselves literally and figuratively to reach.
I could relate to my friend as well. As a self-employed artist, musician, writer, and perfectionist, I’m my own worst boss, and a horrible employee to boot! I get hung up on the fact I’m not producing at the level I should, I hold myself to unattainable standards and get down on myself if I don’t reach them, or I just get overwhelmed by all the things I want to accomplish but know I can’t before I die. If only I could borrow a few extra lives from a cat. No doubt the length of my to-do list on the day I die will earn it acclaim in the Guinness Book of World Records. But to what end? Who am I doing it all for, and why?
Many people, even if they are not ruled by it, still feel the pressures of society and its definition of success. Some of these pressures are born out of our fundamental need for love, acceptance, and purpose, but others come from society or culture such as corporate and government attempts to keep us in a perpetual state of discontent through advertising to spur economic growth. I recognize that without a healthy economy the U.S. couldn’t offer us the opportunities, provisions, or leisure time it does. Nonetheless, this race for continued self-improvement, better grades in school, higher numbers at work, this bigger-better-newer-nicer mentality, has eaten away at more than just our pocketbooks.
Of course obtaining success in life is awesome! Thankfully we live in a country where people can make their own choices about how they will make and spend their time and money. The problem comes when we lose sight of ourselves and the big picture of what is truly important in life. Seeking out superficial aspects of success such as good looks money and popularity leaves the spiritual, mental, and emotional parts of us longing for substance.
In 2005 I suffered major work and car injuries within a few months of each other, setting the course for the chronic pain, weight gain, stress, and anxiety that I struggle with to this day. Coupled with my growing discontent regarding my slow rate of artistic-goal completion, these injuries and my physical limitations due to them drew me into a depression. During that time I questioned life, my character and purpose. I had to pray and remind myself of what was most important to me in life to regain perspective and keep from giving up. One of the more unproductive things I did to cope with the way I felt was to use retail therapy. Although it was against my value system, I had been sucked into believing that a tangible item could make me feel better about myself, make life easier, or remind me of a better time in my past. As anyone who has shopped to make life more bearable knows, the positive feelings are fleeting and they leave you with less money and more junk and stress, especially if you are going into debt while doing it. I’m not saying that shopping is bad, but when it started to control me, and in turn kept me from accomplishing what I wanted to in life, I knew it needed to be addressed.
In early 2014 my health was extremely poor and my stress was out of control. I had reached a breaking point. I was convicted spiritually about the life I was leading, or not leading, as the case may be. I concluded that one area of my life that was having the most negative affect on my spiritual, mental, and physical health was stress. I began to research stress reduction techniques and grew interested in meditation. This got me considering Christian monks who live their lives devoted to God and service, with minimal possessions. I wanted a more serene and simple existence free of distractions. Through my beliefs as a follower of Jesus Christ, I strive to live up to his calling, which is to set my mind on things that have eternal meaning; life, people, love, and matters of the heart, mind, and spirit, de-emphasizing the physical world and its belongings and concepts of success. The phrase “store up your treasure in heaven” rattled around in my head and convicted my heart. I knew I needed to do and be the best that I could with what God had given me up to that point and not focus on what I didn’t have anymore so that I could start to heal and move forward. I needed to live each day with humility, thankfulness, and love for myself and those around me. And I needed to live simply.
In December 2014 my aunt bought me a book entitled Do Less, which helped me to refine my efforts and gave a name to what I was pursuing: minimalism. I had never heard the term before, but I recognized many of the book’s suggestions as things my husband had always done to help us keep our home tidy – like allotting ourselves a given amount of space for a certain kind of item – say, one bookshelf for books – and requiring that, if we exceed that limit with a new book, we have to get rid of one we have. We may have been reaping some of the benefits of minimalism since we were organized, but what I was missing was a sense of peace and purpose over my possessions. I was not living intentionally or mindfully and was allowing my anxiety to dictate my actions, which caused me to shop for things I didn’t need. What made it worse was that, because I needed to get rid of something old to make room for something new, a “purge and splurge” cycle started that ended up being a waste of time and money and causing tension between my husband and me. This habit, combined with my search for methods of de-stressing and my sense of wanting more out of my life, money, and time, was the driving force behind why I embraced minimalism, simple living, or living light.
I think we can all agree that the majority of us are in search of more time, more money, and more meaning in our lives. Who would have thought that one big path to meeting these desires would be less stuff?! For some, the term “minimalist” brings about visions of stinky “green”-obsessed vegan nomads carrying all their possessions on their backs and obsessing over the fact that they can’t own more than 100 items. This is not the face of minimalism. To me, the goals of minimalism are to free us from the bonds of consumerism and the discontent that comes with it, to help us recognize that we don’t need a lot to live or be happy, and to free up our mind, time, and resources for what’s most important so that we can lead happier, more fulfilling lives with less stress. The positive impact on the environment is a plus of course. Living simply is a lifestyle and takes re-training our mind and habits away from the overindulgent society we have grown up in.
I started my simple living journey by praying and considering what is most important to me right now and what will be important to me in the future. I made sure I didn’t rush myself and focused on stripping away any denial or social pressure and was honest with myself about the things that really matter to me. I concluded that they were as follows: God, my family, my health, helping others in need, spending quality time with those I love, enjoying nature, and making meaningful traction with my dreams and artistic ambitions. Once I had my priorities, I made sure that they remained in the forefront of my mind daily, by creating a photo collage of images and words that I keep on my smart phone and on my wall. It encourages me, no matter what struggles or circumstances come along, to ensure that my actions, the money and time I spend, the faith I practice, and the people I surround myself with are in line with those values. I found it helpful to involve my husband in this new lifestyle, for encouragement and accountability. He was a bit resistant at first, so I made sure to give him space and time while positively encouraging him in the lifestyle rather than forcing him to embrace it, and he’s been warming up to it.
Next, I removed all physical possessions (with my husband’s approval of course) that did not support my new vision for myself and my life. That included my fashion sense, hobbies, business, spiritual and philosophical convictions, and home aesthetic. I went through every room, drawer, closet, and shelf, touching every item I owned and asking myself if I had used it in the last year, if it brought aesthetic beauty and joy to my life, or if it was practical and useful in aiding me in the life I am focused on leading. For the items that didn’t fit into the prior criteria and were not enriching my life, I threw out the garbage, sold what I could, and gave away the rest. A motto I like is “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”. The one area that I have allowed myself to keep “just-in-case” items is in our 72-hour emergency survival bags. Other than that, I buy things as I need them (except for Costco toilet paper of course) and don’t buy duplicates of things unless I know they’ll be used up in a week. Technology makes this process a bit easier by offering the ability to replace CDs, movies, and books with digital versions that don’t take up tangible space, and the ability to scan documents rather than have a file cabinet. I am always refining my digital organizational system and keeping “digital clutter” at bay, as it can be just as overwhelming as physical clutter.
One thing I was mindful of while purging was the endowment effect. That is the phenomenon in which, once someone owns something, it means more to them than it would if they didn’t own it, which then makes it harder for them to let go of, even if they don’t really like the item or wouldn’t buy it again. I had to be honest with myself and step back from my attachment to the item and look at it objectively. When deciding on sentimental items, I reminded myself that the item itself does not hold the memory that I love, but that it’s in my heart forever. If an item is truly special I might frame or display it in some way, otherwise I will write about the memory and item and/or take a photo of it to remember it by. I found viewing YouTube videos on minimalism and decluttering super helpful in this process. Lastly, I made sure I paced myself and didn’t set unrealistic goals, and chose a level of minimalism that was right for me and my family in which to thrive. We have gotten rid of so much that we are planning on moving into smaller quarters!
I then made a promise to my husband and myself that I would only buy an item when it needs to be replaced, when it adds measurable value to my life or actively aids me in reaching my goals and maintaining my vision for myself and my life. Definitely easier said then done! I started by unsubscribing from retail emails and mailings. I have begun to do other things with friends such as hike, play a sport or craft instead of shop, and stay away from retail stores as much as possible to prevent browsing and impulse buying. I try to work on a hobby or watch a movie when I feel the urge to splurge. Distraction is a helpful tool when trying to break a habit. Also, keeping a short list of a few big purchases and our dream vacation we are saving for helps to remind me of the cost of buying something now. I try to think of the things I buy taking money from the big thing I want. It also helps to remind myself that a penny saved is a penny earned. Even if I saved $50 off of a $100 item, I still have $50 less in my bank account. I have begun to choose quality over quantity!
Lastly, to prevent “clutter creep,” I remind myself of all the soul searching and hard work it took to get myself to this point on my simple living journey and of all the benefits I have gained thus far by embracing intentional living such as:
1. Mental Clarity and Energy: I concluded that even if something is out of sight, it doesn’t mean it’s out of mind. All the things we possess – their use, state, storage place, and where we obtained them – take up mental space that could be used for more important information. Also, every time people make a choice it uses mental energy which can deplete focus and the ability to make good decisions. Minimizing the choices I had to make throughout the day gave me more mental, emotional, and physical energy.
2. Empowerment: By embracing this lifestyle where the main objective is to help me focus my life and energy on what I most value, I found a renewed sense of resolve to fight against consumerism and society’s concept of “success.” I was motivated to focus on my health and my personal and professional goals, and to prioritize and set healthy boundaries in every area of my life, including diet and relationships. It made me realize the extent to which stuff was controlling me, as well as areas of my life where I had lost control, and made me recognize that I have the power to improve my life.
3. Contentment: I have experienced less stress due to fewer distractions, less stuff that can pile up or get lost, and less things to manage, clean, and maintain. It has reduced my sense of discontent through rebooting my focus and objectives onto the things that are important in life as well as reminding me to be thankful for what I do have and not focus on what I don’t have. It has contributed to a sense of peace and hope for a bright, more productive future.
4. More Money and Time: I realized how much of my life, mental energy, and money were spent working for, searching for, buying, displaying, storing, moving, and maintaining stuff I can’t take with me when I die. Just thinking of all the memories I could have made, the art I could have created or the people I could have blessed with the time and money I wasted on the above process over the last 20 years was mind-blowing. It made me more mindful of opportunity costs and helped me to consume less and produce more. I have more money to spend on the things that matter to me, such as experiences, gifts for others, donations to charities, items of higher quality that will last longer, and equipment and tools that will help me reach my goals. I have more time to spend with my loved ones, to learn new skills, to pick up old hobbies, to work on bettering myself, to do community outreach, and to be more productive in ways that are meaningful to me such as starting to blog about real topics.
It takes time to learn how to navigate life, others, and ourselves on this messy, mysterious, and beautiful journey called life. My ultimate hope and prayer for myself and you is that we will have grateful hearts, not lose sight of the important things, and have peace, hope, healing, and success in life. Not “worldly,” temporary, shallow success, but success that is lasting and meaningful, that makes us happier, more productive, mentally, physically, and spiritually healthy, balanced people who are able to love ourselves and those around us. We mustn’t forget that we alone have the choice to opt in or out of anything that comes our way, and that it’s never too late to change our course, our habits, our beliefs, and ourselves for the better.