Defining simplicity

When I was starting my transformation process from a clutterbug into an unclutterer, I wanted a checklist to tell me what I needed to do to live simply. I wanted there to be a clear line that told me if I did X, Y, and Z then all of my stress and anxieties would instantly be relieved. I wanted there to be zero ambiguity and I wanted someone else to make the hard decisions for me.

I never found such a list, and I’m glad that I didn’t. How I define simplicity and how I put it into practice in my life is very different than how you see it and live it. We’re complex human beings, and, ironically, that makes our definitions of simplicity complex.

When I was seeking my definition of simplicity, I repeatedly turned to three quotes for inspiration. If you’re looking to define simplicity and what it means to you, maybe these quotes will spark your process:

“Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.” — Albert Einstein

“Simplicity is an inward reality that can be seen in an outward lifestyle. We must have both; to neglect either end of this tension is disastrous.” — Richard J. Foster

“I can explain it best by something which Mahatma Gandhi said to me. We were talking about simple living, and I said that it was easy for me to give up most things but that I had a greedy mind and wanted to keep my many books. He said, ‘Then don’t give them up. As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired.'” — Richard Gregg

These quotes aren’t dictionary definitions and they’re not precise, but they serve me well. How do you define simplicity? What guides you toward simple living?

21 Comments for “Defining simplicity”

  1. posted by Tabitha in CA on

    I crave simplicity in my life, but don’t see that as being a possible reality. Life is complicated, stressful, a balancing act. I strive for simplicity in the areas that I can control, in hopes that it helps just enough.

  2. posted by Dawn on

    I think of simplicity in a couple of different ways. Simplicity can be living in such a way that you can find anything you own quickly at any point in time without running in 10 different directions guessing where “it” is – whether it’s your your keys, your children’s birth certificates or the antique vase you inherited from your grandmother.

    I also think of simplicity as this – living in a physically and emotionally clutter-free environment that allows your mind and heart to be creative, uplifting and inspiring – not being weighed down with so much unnecessary stuff and baggage – so that you can enjoy the passions and pleasures of your life.

  3. posted by Amber on

    To me simplicity is summed up nicely with the Albert Einstein quote (though I’d never heard it before).

    Simple living is something that does take effort for me, it does not come naturally. But I find that when I make the effort to keep things simple and not let my life become flooded with stuff, responsibilities, obligations, time drains, and other needless clutter, well then I find that almost everything else becomes almost effortless.

    I don’t embrace simplicity for simplicity’s sake. I do it because it has improved my quality of life so much. It is hard work, this simple living thing, but it makes everything else so much easier.

  4. posted by Noelle on

    The day I sold my LP’s to a used record store (because we’d not had a turntable for several years so they could finally go), I found _Living the Simple Life_ by Elaine St. James while browsing a New Age bookstore waiting for the clerk to price my albums.

    I consider that book my first instruction guide on how to simplify because it gave me some practical tips for getting rid of huge amounts of stuff, and being okay with that. That book gave me the impetus to search out other books (this was before the Internet was pervasive, lol) that helped reinforce for me my desire for “simple as possible, but not any simpler.” Great quote, btw, thanks.

  5. posted by Brandon on

    “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.”
    –Thoreau

  6. posted by JuryDuty on

    When I look at things, I ask myself if what I’m looking at leads to my ultimate goals in life–or does it occupy my mind with unnecessary clutter.

    For instance, I had 400 DVDs and while I enjoyed them to a degree, I also found myself constantly rearranging them, etc, and only watching a fraction of them. They occupied my thoughts but didn’t lead me to any life goal. So I scrapped 90% of them, only kept the ones I actually watched multiple times, and decided I’d rent the rest if I wanted them. To this day, I haven’t made one rental.

    So simplicity to me comes down to whether it clutters my mind or not–in any way–whether its organization, financially, etc.

  7. posted by Jacinta on

    I won’t define simplicity but simple living, for me, is actually a process. I didn’t aim for simplicity, I just aimed for something less complex than it was at the time. Once I felt I’d achieved that, I lived it for a while, then I simplified it a bit more. Lived it a while, simplified again… and again, and again. I’m far from simplicity, yet I’m far further along towards it than I’d have imagined three years ago and happy with what I’ve given up, rather than seeing it as a sacrifice towards a simpler life.

    I guess I see it a bit like dieting. You can go on a rampage, doing something extreme, but you’ll yo-yo back again. But by basic, long lasting changes to your eating/buying patterns you’ll end up trimmer.

  8. posted by nicole 86 on

    The third one works well for me. As my husband decided a few months ago to repudiate me and asked me to leave the house we have been living for 30 years, I was guided to leave behind quite a lot of sentimental stuff and I had to part with my numerous books. I had to make a drastic choice and decided to keep only the few things I needed to begin a new life, they are not many. I took photos of a few items but I have not watched them yet. I just miss my trees !
    As weeks go by I declutter more and more items.Except for work books ( I will sold them as soon as I get retired) I just cling to 80 of them, I haven’t any DVD and just about 25 CDs.
    As for plates and cutlery I only keep and use the most beautiful ones. Simplicity has some thing to do with Beauty.
    There is one exception : luggage ! I crave for a series of expensive suitcases and I don’t feel guilty about it.

    Please forgive my English, I’m French.

  9. posted by tammy on

    in addition to living simply, there is the idea of contentment. serenity. sometimes we need to be content when things are not simple, until they can be simple again. a streamlined outer life isn’t simple if our minds are full of worry. and conversely, we can have a serene mind in the middle of chaos. not that i would choose it, but sometimes it chooses us for a season.

  10. posted by Khürt Williams on

    I think the quote attributed to Ghandhi in your article sums up my feelings on simplicity. Simplicity for me means living with ease. In the first months of our lives we did nothing but eat, sleep and poop. I realize everything else in my life is of my choosing. I brought it into being.

  11. posted by Loren on

    I love that last quote, I’ve been doing a good bit of uncluttering but felt guilty every time I looked at my collection of comic books and graphic novels that fills a couple shelves in my bed room and I hadn’t been able to part with any at ALL.
    But, all of these books do make me a happy. I DO look back through them and enjoy looking through them, and as of right now I don’t feel like they are taking up an unreasonable amount of space.
    I know that I am not going for a ‘minimalist’ home so I have no problem keeping around these items that give me joy.

  12. posted by Mletta on

    Tammy, you said it all. Perfectly.

    Simplicity is both an internal and external “job.” A lot of folks concentrate on one or the other, believing, sometimes correctly, that one will influence the other in a positive fashion.

    But life really is an inside job. Sometimes all the de-cluttering and streamlining on a material level is a huge distraction from doing the internal work. (You can spend a lot of time “simplifying” if you’re not careful!)

    Loved the quote from Ghandi. I feel liberated at last about my books.

    I’m a book person and seriously, I would not want to NOT have a life that did not include my collection. (And the only things I care about when I’m gone, are the books, which I want donated or given away to those who will value them.)

    I think, for me, the definition of “simplicity” focuses on organizing one’s life, environment and actions so that they serve our higher purposes. Free us up to live the lives we really want. Spend time with people we love. Do things we really want to do.

    Simplifying is a lot like taking good care of yourself physically. You do it so you have the energy you need/want to enjoy your life.

    No more. No less.

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  14. posted by Robin Mohr on

    This is my favorite definition of simplicity:

    “Outwardly, simplicity is shunning superfluities of dress, speech, behavior, and possessions, which tend to obscure our vision of reality. Inwardly, simplicity is spiritual detachment from the things of this world as part of the effort to fulfill the first commandment: to love God with all of the heart and mind and strength. The testimony of outward simplicity [among Quakers] began as a protest against the extravagance and snobbery which marked English society in the 1600’s. In whatever forms this protest is maintained today, it must still be seen as a testimony against involvement with things which tend to dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives of triviality and mediocrity. Simplicity does not mean drabness or narrowness but is essentially positive, being the capacity for selectivity in one who holds attention on the goal. Thus simplicity is an appreciation of all that is helpful toward living as children of the Living God.”
    North Carolina Yearly Meeting (conservative), of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

  15. posted by Daniel on

    For years, I mistook simplicity for asceticism. The former was focusing what I want, the latter was denying what I want. Once I made the distinction, I embraced simplicity.

    Being a hardcore yuppie, that’s meant driving the cool car, wearing the nice clothes, and owning nice things, and disregarding all the things that aren’t part of that lifestyle.

    It’s been liberating to tell myself it’s okay to be me. It’s my authentic self, whether others like it or not (and most don’t). Life’s too short to NOT pursue what you want.

  16. posted by Emily on

    Yes, simplicity is different for everyone! Love the various quotes–helps give me a different point of view. 😉

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  18. posted by KoreyAusTex on

    If you want simplicity you can have it, you just have to DESIRE it! I started years ago trying my best to clear attachments to “things” that weren’t useful tools (like my laptop, haha) because if it doesn’t serve a legitimate purpose, it serves as a accepted hindrance to your progress.

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  21. posted by Vanessa H. on

    I really like Richard Gregg’s quote of Gandhi. That is something I have struggled with for years. We have to remind ourselves that the goal is not to get rid of all our worldly possessions; the goal is to get rid of the things we don’t love and that don’t contribute to our happiness!

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