May 4, 2011

Simplifying Your Life?

If my conversations, in person and online, are any indication, I'm not the only one who wants to live a simpler life. It's easy to understand why. Our days seem increasingly complicated, our choices more difficult. Every decision seems to have more moving parts, each piece more intricate than the last, even as technology is supposed to be making things less complicated and more intuitive.

As we look for a path that feels right for us, it's sometimes hard to remember which came first, our desire for simplicity or the marketing machine that, depending on how you look at it, either feeds it or created it.

I remember asking this question the first time that I picked up a copy of the magazine Real Simple. Over the years, Real Simple has become a wildly popular "lifestyle" publication. Its tag line is "life made easier," and its articles aim to help readers streamline their lives -- that is, make them simpler. Advice ranges from the most efficient way to iron a shirt to how to organize our closets, to how to buy the perfect pair of black pants.

As helpful as some of the advice can be, it doesn't take long to realize that much of it is linked directly to consumerism. Paradoxically, Real Simple's advice for "simplifying" regularly depends on buying something.  If you want to spend less time ironing those shirts, or want to skip ironing altogether, you'll appreciate the half-dozen little-or-no-iron shirts in the article's sidebar; organizing your closet is so much easier if you have the right equipment: note the racks and dividers featured for the reader's convenience; buying the perfect pair of black pants requires that you -- uh -- buy a pair of black pants.

I'm not singling out Real Simple because I think it's a bad magazine, or because it's alone in its mission (it's not). In fact, I'm a subscriber, and I do find some of its articles useful. But I never forget (really, they don't let me) that it subsists on advertising, and that those advertisers buy space in the magazine because they believe that Real Simple's readers are the kind of people who will buy their products.

All of which is a long way 'round to the question: what does living one's life more simply mean, anyway?

For me, living with less -- as in with fewer things -- is what first comes to mind.  But this doesn't seem to jibe with the business world's interpretation.  Simplicity is now  a "lifestyle concept," with its own brand and demographic, and a corresponding list of products (color-coded clothes hangers) and experiences (exotic yoga retreats). It's a world in which, if you believe the hype messages, living with less requires buying more.

Of course, there's more to simplifying our lives than cutting back on the number of physical objects that surround us. We can clear out mental clutter by, say, limiting our use of technology (checking our email only at certain times of the day, or disconnecting altogether periodically); cultivate spirituality by starting a meditation practice; or prioritize something we care deeply about but have neglected, whether writing or weaving or volunteering. (Naturally, there's an app for those. But that's another story.)

Here's the thing, though. However we choose to uncomplicate our lives, what's important is that our choices and our process reflect or own values and our own needs, not those of advertisers, "experts," or the media. It's worth consuming a healthy pinch of salt with the advice of anyone whose main purpose is to capitalize on a trend. As a bumper sticker I saw last week opined: "Critical Thinking: The Other National Deficit."

Are you trying to simplify your life? How are you going about it? What's helping?

Image by, at Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons License.

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