Do you ever feel like you’re living a simple living life but life doesn’t feel simple?
Are you overwhelmed with house and family and garden and projects? Isn’t it supposed to feel better when you stop running around and keeping up with the Joneses?
Maybe you’ve cut down your obligations and your spending and started living more simply—but you don’t feel that sense of ease and comfort yet.
Everyone has an idea of a simple living life. A cozy little house, a garden, bees buzzing in the flowers. The smell of bread baking, a tidy kitchen, people and pets running in and out of a happy home. That sort of thing.
What if instead you’re canning tomatoes as fast as you can, the house is a mess, you’re embarrassed to have anyone over, and the chickens are pecking at the patio door? This is not my beautiful life.
Some people, real people that I know, live a simple living life effortlessly. The house is always organized and clean, the garden is weeded, the house is full of friends and they volunteer in the community. They make it look easy.
Others, like me, find it hard to balance growing and making things with the time needed to maintain order and to just relax.
For people who always want to do too much, who love every shiny simple living skill (Make your own soap! Weave a denim throw rug!), it’s easy to recreate overwhelm, even in the middle of a supposedly simple living life.
Before simple living, it was too much. With simple living, it can still be too much—unless you intentionally balance the four essential keys.
The four essential keys to a simple living life
I categorize simple living into four key areas. People tend to gravitate towards one or two of the areas and to struggle with the others. But all four are necessary to really feel like you’re living a simple living life.
Most people who live a simple living life create abundance and become more self-sufficient by making and growing things. That may include gardening and preserving, cooking at home, making crafts or art, sometimes writing or building things. Sometimes this includes creating community or being active in local initiatives.
People are drawn to the idea of a clean-enough, tidy, organized home. Simple living lifestylers jettison unneeded possessions and obligations in favor of a life where everything is in its place and where everything is useful or beautiful or both.
No lifestyle is sustainable if it doesn’t include rest, fun and beauty. This might include things like arranging flowers from the garden or sitting with a cup of tea watching the birds or going for a walk. It might just be you and your journal or it might be social, with friends and family.
There is no waste in nature. Simple living lifestyles usually produce less waste, and are more cost, energy and water efficient. People buy less and develop sustainable efficient systems to meet their needs. Anything you do towards zero waste comes under wise use.
How do you keep these four essentials in balance? If you focus on creating without order or ease you may burn out amidst squalor. Order and efficiency without creation is sterile. The mix and balance may change by the day and season, but some presence of all the essentials are needed.
How to manage it all without being overwhelmed? It’s easier with the help of perspective, boundaries, flexible habits and personal energy management
Perspective: Enjoying your good-enough space
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” John Milton, Paradise Lost
The first trick is to maintain perspective. It’s a learned skill to be peaceful in the middle of all the things, and to enjoy the abundance that’s all around, even when it’s not “perfect”.
First, recognize how you feel about your home and your simple living life shifts depending on where you place your focus. There are innumerable things that can or should be done, even in the simplest household. That truth needn’t steal your peace away.
“A neglected front garden led up to the door. Bindweed twined up last year’s thistles. A shredded plastic bag fluttered in the breeze. A broken Christmas garland hung from a nail on the porch.”
Now imagine this:
“The garden was full of life. Purple iris buds were ready to unfurl. Goldfinches perched on last year’s thistles, picking seeds. Red rhubarb and bright green French sorrel stood ready for the first spring harvest. Bees buzzed in the yellow dandelions and a baby cottontail nibbled leaves unconcernedly.”
These are both descriptions of my real front garden bed this spring. There really is a tiny broken garland now covered with hops vines and a baby rabbit that eats dandelions, and some bindweed and some rhubarb. Whether I love the front garden or not depends on what I choose to notice.
Practice catching yourself when you see only the deficiencies. Yes, there are things that need work. We’ll get to that. But it’s lovely just as it is.
“Bread Labor” boundaries and time blocking
“Our aim was to get a year’s livelihood in return for half a year of bread-labor. We were quite flexible in arranging the details.” Helen and Scott Nearing in Mother Earth News
Helen and Scott Nearing, famous New England simple living practitioners, practiced time blocking though they didn’t call it that.
The Nearings’ goal was to gain a year’s livelihood from half a year of labor, with equal time spent in leisure. Every day, the Nearings decided what to do with a four hour block of “bread labor” necessary for livelihood. They might spend their bread labor in the garden, in their woodlot, making maple sugar, working in the shop or on other livelihood pursuits. Then, they had time for music, rest, community activities or whatever other leisure they wanted, what they called “soul labor”.
Every day, try to spend some time in “work” and some time in “play”. What feels like work and play may differ day by day. The first day I preserve tomatoes feels like play, but the fourth day is definitely work. You get to decide which is which.
Consider blocking your work time into creating time like cooking or planting in the garden and order time like cleaning or weeding. I like to follow up a work session with something fun, like putting flowers into a space that just got cleaned, or picking lavender to make a simple syrup.
Put relaxation in your routine. It helps me relax if I put “take a nap” on my to-do list. When it’s time to relax, that’s what’s on my to do list and everything else can wait.
We have regular times for relaxing. At our house, every night the people and the cats go outside for “chicken time”. That’s when everyone goes outside to have a drink in the garden while the chickens bustle about. Some days relaxation time is writing or illustrating after dinner. Or doing nothing.
Decide what’s “enough”
Make natural stopping points by deciding what constitutes “enough”.
Simple living encompasses all areas of life. In even the smallest household there are an infinite number of things to do. You can go crazy trying to grow and use and make and conserve everything.
Got oranges? Make marmalade. Got plastic bags? Crochet a tote. Got weeds? Make some weed tea fertilizer. It’s just not possible to use or do everything.
There’s a principle in permaculture. “The yield of a system is limited only by the information and imagination of the designer.” That’s a good thing. But since you can easily create so much abundance that it’s unmanageable you have to set your own limits.
This is the balance I struggle with the most. I feel compelled to save and use things. But I can’t make and save and use everything. That way be dragons and hoarding.
Put “enough” creating in the schedule and keep the rest for other essentials. For me that means I need to choose if I’ll pick lavender or inoculate a mushroom log or do something else during my creative time blocks. I can’t do everything. The other blocks are for order and relaxation so I don’t go crazy trying to keep and do everything.
Say “yes” to say “no”. The easiest way to abide by the limits you’ve set is to put something in place as another commitment. It’s time to stop work when it’s chicken time, especially if the family and cats are telling you it’s time. Or time for exercise class or a happy hour with friends. Build in commitments that help you make time for yourself.
Flexible habits make it easy
Habits are Chaos’ kryptonite. What was once hard becomes easy. Use lead-in habits, weekly rhythms and seasonal switch ups to make it easy and keep it doable through the year.
Lead in habits are easy trigger points to start a work session. My kitchen cleaning routine always starts at the same point and takes me around the room. The hardest part is getting started, so if you make the start automatic you’ve won.
The rhythms of the week vary. I don’t have four hours a day to spend in a woodlot during the work week like the Nearings did. During the week it’s enough to keep the garden harvested, the kitchen and house more or less tidy and the laundry done. The weekend is the time for projects and deeper home work.
For all things there is a season
“…and in May they planted potatoes, turnips and cabbages, while apple blossoms bloomed and fell, while bees woke up, starting to make new honey.” The Ox-Cart Man, by Donald Hall, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
Every time of year has its priorities and its rhythms. Habits and priorities shift with the seasons.
In May, we’re busy planting and building new garden beds and raising chicks and working on outdoor projects. House cleaning and organizing lags. Winter house projects grind to a halt until the lull before the main harvest.
In January, we work in the house. We might do some garden planning or grow some microgreens but the main focus is on house priorities.
If you accept that there’s a natural give and take between new projects and order, inside and outside, expansion and contraction, the whole project becomes much more enjoyable. On all fronts, progress over perfection.
Manage your personal energy
“If the first thing you do in the morning is eat a live frog, you can go through the rest of the day knowing the worst is behind you.” Mark Twain
Everyone has things they like to do and things they don’t like to do. Everyone resists getting started on big no-fun jobs. Or, maybe it’s a chore that always has to be done and you’re just so OVER it.
Smart people advise us mortals to do the hard or important things first. Eat the frog, focus on your priority for the day and so on. The problem is when you have multiple important hard things to do. They can’t all be first.
I like to manage my energy by putting the hard part of jobs first, figuring out the first step to get started. Often the start of a job, when you’re learning what to do or having to gather tools is the hardest part.
For me, the morning is the time when I can think best and have the most physical energy. That’s the time when I gather tools and set up my workspace, plan how to do something, get started just to get some momentum. Or, that’s the time I get started on tedious repetitive tasks that just need to be done but aren’t fun. Your high energy time might be a different part of the day that works better for you.
Manage your environment to maximize your energy. Music helps. Audio books help. You might get more energy from doing a job with someone else or it might be easier to be on your own with your music. Don’t be shy about making the environment you need to be productive.
After there’s some momentum, it’s easier to carry a job into the afternoon if need be or to switch to tasks that feel easier.
A change is as good as a rest
Some people like to start a hard job and power through until it’s done. Just writing that makes me want to take a nap.
What works best for me is to spend a block of time on one kind of task, then switch to another. Over time the big jobs get done. For most tasks half an hour here or an hour there works fine.
Rotating tasks helps when there are competing priorities. The garden peas need harvesting. We need to get ready for people coming over. There’s a work deadline.
Schedule time blocks to move from one competing priority to the other to keep the momentum going. Tasks that are harder get done first, and tasks that are easier end up feeling like breaks. Keep rotating the priorities until you get to a place that feels right.
Switching keeps your energy up and prevents hyper-focusing. The momentum makes it easy to keep going on all fronts at once.
Mix active tasks with sedentary tasks or physical tasks with mental tasks. So a session of harder gardening or cleaning might be followed by sitting and shelling peas with an audio book. Or just taking a break.
Putting it all together
So how does this all look in practice? Well, this varies by day and week but here’s an example of what this looks like at our house on a summer Saturday.
Example Simple Living Routine
The list below reflects the needs of a summer Saturday. The garden needs to be harvested and the produce processed. It’s a hot day. I have a writing deadline that I’m way behind on, the house can’t descend into squalor, the bills need to be paid, I need to take care of myself in the midst of all of it. I can’t afford to just hyper-focus on one thing and still have a good day.
|Harvest peas||Clean kitchen|
|Process/preserve veg||Pay bills|
|Chicken time||Review budget|
How to put it all together so it gets done with optimal time and energy?
|Clean up kitchen||My lead in habit that says it's time to start work|
|Harvest garden||Harvesting is physical and is best done in the cool of the morning|
|Write||Back inside out of the heat. Writing is mentally tiring and I want to get it done|
|Laundry||Quick laundry start. Come back to this between tasks.|
|Process produce||Process the delicate produce first. Tedious, but not hard. Start up an audio book or some music and go to town.|
|Fridge/Manage food||Also time sensitive and I'm already in the kitchen. I enjoy using up the bits and bobs.|
|Process produce||Back to a process time block for less sensitive produce|
|Walk||Moving into the easier part of the day. Time to get some exercise.|
|Chicken Time||Family time ritual in the garden in the evening cool. We might shell some peas or talk with neighbors or call the kids.|
|Review budget||Easy to do while watching a show after dinner. Prep for paying bills.|
|Pay bills||Easy administrative task.|
|Bed time||Self-explanatory 🙂|
Your routine will look different than mine. You have different things that feel easy or hard, different commitments and constraints. But if you manage your time, your energy and your competing priorities you’ll end up with a productive, happy day.
A happy life is made up of happy moments
Your house won’t magically be perfect. But if you follow this framework and include all the four essentials you’ll enjoy your active days and have more of those magical simple living moments.
The overwhelm and the feeling of never doing enough will fade and you’ll be able to see the progress you’ve made and the beauty you’re creating. It’s a practice.
There will be crunch times. Sometimes there will be gallons of produce to preserve or some other priority to meet while order suffers. But if you can keep at least some balance going between the four essentials you’ll be able to stay on an even keel, be happy with your days, and take care of yourself while you take care of everything else.
You’ll be able to live in a more peaceful environment. You’ll know that you’re living more sustainably, and be proud of all that you’re creating in your life. That’s worth a little practice. Let me know how it goes.