Simple Is A Tool

Vivienne Westwood - buy less
Dame Vivienne Westwood sums it up succinctly. Original image source

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years both on the internet and off about “simplifying.” Some seem to have embraced the idea with an almost religious fervor, and appear to practice simplicity as a modern form of asceticism. Being an Epicurean in temperament if not practice myself, I’m wary of extreme self-denial for its own sake or as some sort of moral barometer, and am always seeking the middle ground.

Duchesse penned another thoughtful post last week exploring what it might mean to live a “simple” life, how it differs from minimalism, and some of the traps that keep us caught up in consumption mode. Her post helped some of my own random thoughts about simplicity to gel. I want to first back up a minute, and look at the bigger picture. To me, it seems that simplicity isn’t an end in itself, but rather a means to achieving greater balance and a higher quality of life. What that means to each of us may be very different. For example, time is my most precious commodity right now. While some might find painting the living room themselves or making their own granola to be ways of simplifying (and economizing), to me these would be stress-inducing time hogs. They wouldn’t feel like “simplifying” at all, but rather adding to a long list of To-Do’s already clamoring for my attention.

So one person’s “simple” may be another’s “are you &*#^ing  kidding me?!?” and visa versa. If you feel you should pare down your wardrobe, but even just thinking about trying to get by with some arbitrary number of pieces is making you break out in hives, or if variety is the spice of your life, then for you this may not be “simplifying,” at least not at this time. If you love and enjoy every second of your 30-minute makeup routine (and the results) then by all means don’t feel pressured into cutting back unless it’s otherwise a detriment to you life (making you late for work? tying up the only bathroom in the house?). When it’s truly “excess,” getting rid of it should generate relief. (We’ll bypass the subject of bona-fide hoarders; that’s beyond the scope of this discussion and something I’m not qualified to address.)

I’ve come to believe that the key to unlocking a better quality of life can be found in being mindful, being conscious of how we use our resources, spend out money, occupy our time. Life can clutter up all around us when we go unconscious, and this is true for activities and relationships as well as physical posessions. As another example, after I discovered the sweater hanging trick I shared last Monday, I went through and re-hung and re-organized all of my sweaters. And it became painfully obvious that I overbuy sweaters. I love my sweaters, I wear my sweaters, but I certainly don’t need more sweaters. I can now look at my nice orderly rack of knitwear, actually see what I have and be reminded that more won’t add to the quality of my wardrobe or my life.

Sweaters re-hung
Order is beautiful. Velvet hangers here.

Where I think we can all benefit is in becoming conscious of and reducing mindless consumption that may provide a temporary high but adds nothing to the quality of our lives. And save our resources (whether they be time, money or emotional energy) for the things, people and experiences that truly enrich our lives and replenish us. In coming weeks I’ll share some strategies and pitfalls I’ve encountered in my journey (and yes, it’s still in progress) to simplify my wardrobe.

How do you view simplicity? Is it a tool for you, or an end in itself? What are some things that simplify and add quality to your life?

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  1. For me, simple is a way to spend more time doing what I like and less time maintaining my belongings. Belongings, after the initial high, become a responsibility. My mother used to say that we should treat our belongings with respect. That is difficult in an era of mass-produced schlock that is intended to last a season. Having less just makes life easier.

    1. What a beautiful idea. As I have pared my wardrobe down, I’ve thought about how easy it will be to take better care of my clothes. In the past I’ve been known to not sew a button on because I have so many other options. It’s silly how I felt overwhelmed with the feeling of responsibility for my wardrobe of all things. I love the idea of treating my belongings with respect. Thank you.

  2. i think my journey the last three years has been one moving toward “simple.” As I learn more about me at age 60, and begin to know my signature style, I find it to be more and more simple each day. I looked at my pictures early in my blog compared to now and the number of accessories has gone way down. I think this is something we can learn and embrace…even later in life. Learning to balance our spending and our possessions is a huge part of learning to develop a style.

  3. Beginning in 2007, I began the process of paring down my possessions — through E-bay, garage sales, resale shops, and donations. While I’ve never had a lot of “stuff” I did begin to feel that I was spending a lot of time on maintenance (dusting things, washing things, ironing things). I took me 2 thoughtful years to complete this reduction process, but I feel so much better. I think my house looks better without so many things about, and I have been vigilant not to let “stuff” creep back in. I got rid of all the duds in my wardrobe, and my clothing is more cohesive and flattering. I don’t really “shop” any more — mostly I buy replacement clothing when things wear out. I don’t buy anything but food I know I will consume for my kitchen (no gadgets, no “aspirational” food items, etc.). It may not be as “fun” to limit one’s shopping to paper towels, light bulbs, bananas, and replacement undies, but I have freed up time for the things that I love.

    1. Amen! I found it painful to get rid of the duds, as Louise so aptly puts it, simply because I’d spent money on them. But I’m really enjoying the feeling of being able to reach into my closet and know that whatever I pull out will look good on me. And I do find myself more inclined to stick to certain styles, such as slim, V-neck tops, that play up my best features. Does that make me a fashion fuddy-duddy? Perhaps it makes me wise and disciplined enough to know what suits me, and to resist new styles that don’t.

  4. Such a great question. I too am a proponent of mindful living. Recently I was inspired by Project 333. It’s a little severe for me so I took the spirit of the project and pared my wardrobe down to 40 pieces, not including, underwear, pajamas, workout clothes, purse, or minimal jewelry. The clothes that didn’t make the cut made my room look like a department store which was shocking to me. I wished I had all of the money I mindlessly spent on those clothes I didn’t really care about, to spend on “beautiful exquisite” clothes I really wanted and would wear for a long time. The absence of the clutter has freed up space in my mind to just be…which is the most luxurious state to exist in. Since reducing my wardrobe I have expanded the “simple movement” to my diet. Quality not quantity is my motto…and did I say quality? I really mean it. I feel like the more I shed, the more I am peeling away the layers to the real me…not to mention giving myself permission to have what i really want.

  5. I loved this insightful post. Thank you so much! I really appreciate your perspective–on this and so much more. I love reading your blog!

    Last week I took a huge step in simplifying at work (giving up a huge committee chair-ship that was taking away precious time and and energy from my primary responsibility, teaching!) It was so hard for me to do but I already feel better. . . I agree with you that time is my most precious commodity, and I have been learning big lessons this year in how to make the choices that serve me in this regard.

    I have high hopes that I can continue this interesting path of making wiser time choices, and I wish that for you and all your readers!

  6. I’m finding that I’m trying to reduce everything that irritates me when I look at it. Just the thought of being bothered by how something looks, say a nick in the paint of the woodwork, and fix it rather than waist time thinking about it. I also learn how to cook in the last couple of years. Now I buy just what I need and don’t waste money on eating out. My home feels more like my home because good eating is at the center. We keep our home ordered and arrange things in a beautiful way so we feel motivated to keep it that way. I still have to much clothing, but I do like everything I buy. Just need to buy less of it. The next area to simplify. You are giving some good advice here!

    blue hue wonderland

  7. I nodded at a lot of this, and thank you. There is another consideration: simplicity is not just about ones’ self. By refusing bulk, we can free up time and money to do some good for others- whom we know or don’t.

  8. Wonderful, timely post, Une Femme. I can so relate to the painting and cooking analogies – one of the ways I keep my life simple is farming out many tasks to those better capable!

    We are trying to purchase more mindfully and I actually get anxious at the thought of adding anything to our home — unless it is replacing another object. My closet is shrinking slowly and deliberately, which does make outfit-blogging more of a challenge.

  9. Since my recent weight loss and resulting wardrobe purge I have only bought a few basics. I am wearing what I own much more frequently and don’t miss standing in front of the closet for 15 minutes trying to decide what to wear. In a round about way I suppose this is simplifying my life!
    It has changed the focus of my blog as I used to be a regular shopper….so it has had a dramatic effect.

  10. Thank you, Pseu, for continuing the conversation on simplicity. Your question whether it’s a tool or an end in itself is intriguing. I think it’s a constant state of reminding myself what I value, and assessing whether my choice will really satisfy me, not merely momentarily, but over time. As a singleton with teens, one in college, I find my money and time is more split not between wants, but competing musts, and so perhaps I have chosen a more simple life simply to alleviate the chaos. There is never enough (time/money) to do what I’d like, let alone what I want, and yet I find myself frittering away both more often than makes me comfortable. Reading how others balance it – and admitting their own frailties – helps me be a bit less judgmental about my failings.

  11. After cleaning out my mother’s home prior to her move into assisted living; I took a vow to simplify so that my children would never be put in the same position. Since then I’ve made a concious effort to be more mindful of what I buy and whether or not I need it. My wardrobe is what I need to pare down now, but since I’m losing weight I’m holding off until I reach my goal and can truly see what fits.

    1. Oh, do I agree with this. We finally had to hire someone to clean by in-laws house because they had kept every margarine tub or plastic bag that had ever entered the house. It made me come home and purge, which felt great. I don’t want a tiny wardrobe because I have too many roles to play, but I now have a useful wardrobe and clean closets. My kitchen may have been the biggest surprise — who knew I had five bread tins and a dozen oyster forks!

  12. Both you and Duchesse have helped me to clarify my thinking on the subject and I am grateful. In Duchesse’s post, I shared that I became obsessed with simplifying and then almost abject that I couldn’t bring myself to the ultimate goal of minimalism. The process was causing me undue stress and I had to stop. Identifying that simplicity and minimalism are different states was the key to defining my goal, to downsize intelligently and reject mindless consumerism. I will never be a minimalist ,although I admire those who achieve it.

    I have downsized my possessions and continue to do so. I’ve learned to look at things with a different eye. Sometimes possessions just become part of the scenery and we don’t really even care about them. Why live with what’s merely mediocre?

    My closet will continue to evolve, but, for now, I enjoy my multitude of clothing items and the fun of shopping my closet with a new appreciation for what I have.

  13. As I’ve gotten older–I’m 63– I’ve realized paring down, being mindful, and keeping things simple has made my life much organized and pleasant. I have a wardrobe of work clothes and play clothes which are mainly solid colors; I use scarves and jewelry to extend them. I eat simple foods, mostly in season, and watch the portions which has helped me lose 50 pounds.

    The most valuable thing this has given me is time.

  14. Thank you for the thought-provoking and interesting post! I’m really looking forward to your future posts on this. I think the most drastic change I made recently was last year when I quit my second job, a part-time tutoring position that had monopolized my weekends and most weeknights. I was sleep-deprived and stressed-out. Although I missed the extra money, I think my quality of life really improved after I quit – I got to spend lots more time with my husband and dog. What I found sort of funny was that with less disposable income, I cut back on a lot of time-consuming services, like getting gel nails. So, I “found” even more time to do fun things with my husband! 🙂

  15. I really like this post–and I liked Duchesse’s two on the topic as well. It seems to me that I have been reading on simplicity, downsizing, buying quality over quantity…for maybe 15 years. And each time I read something good (like this), I say “That’s it! I’m going to do it this time.” And then we go shopping again–for the ONE thing that will solve our problems.

  16. A good reminder (as I bought yet another cotton cardigan from the supermarket with my shopping tonight…). Moving countries, I had a dramatic slim-down of my wardrobe but now after a couple of years and a better salary, it’s getting bulked up again… gotta watch that…

  17. Thanks for a thoughtful journey into philosophy this morning. I read with interest the intention behind Epicureanism, and realised with relish, that this is largely my own philosophy to life, and that Horace, an Epicurean poet, was the author of my own life-motto: Carpe Diem: Seize the Day. I read with great satisfaction the true meaning of Epicureanism and also Carpe Diem, and was satisfied that I did indeed have the true meaning of both and was living as such. I adopted ‘Carpe Diem’ after my mother prematurely died at the age of only 56 years due to terminal illness. Understanding the brevity and fragility of life, the epicurean philosophy matches well with the way I live. So does the Buddhist practice of Mindfulness – as we only have the ‘now’ to live, breathe, love in and enjoy. And for this reason, I love clothes, and all the aesthetics that go along with a good life. I am truly blessed. Thank you, Friend.

    Carpe Diem!

  18. Agree with Lisa here. I don’t have a blog, but you’ve written what I’ve wanted to write in a comment section so many times about this subject – and in such a well thought out, and cohesive way, that I feel “released” from this subject. I too, thank you thank you!

  19. I agree completly; one persons idea of simplifying is not for all. That being said tho, i was inspired by the book “simplify your life” by helene st james a few years ago. Altho i have not embraced ALL of her suggestions, there are a few i still employ today.xoxo

  20. This makes so much sense to me, and it’s what the best financial planners suggest to their clients in thinking about managing personal finances. Because resources are limited in general and some are more limited than others, you need a strategic plan with specific goals to efficiently allocate your resources in a way that aligns with your values and doesn’t deplete your reserves beyond the point of sustainability. Knowing what your values are and forming goals based on those values is not easy work in itself and it must be done over and over again as you and external conditions change over time. It is a matter of always paying attention to what is going on and how you are responding. Mindful is a good word, but I would go even further and call it mindful engagement because the process involves setting priorities and making decisions.

    I read Duchesse’s post and sort of saw what she was getting at but wasn’t sure I had an opinion. Reading your post put it in better focus for me. Thank you!

  21. I think I tend toward simple, but mostly because I’m kind of cheap. And I don’t like a lot of clutter. I remember moving once with only six pieces of furniture and one thing that plugged in. And it was borrowed. i wonder how that would feel now.

  22. Thank you so much for this post! It articulates something I have been wrestling with for a long while: I am very susceptible to feeling I should downsize my wardrobe to some arbitrary smaller number, but then I either can’t do it, or I do manage it for awhile but it actually makes my life MORE complicated because I don’t have appropriate clothes for certain events or activities. I find lately that I have been wasting time and energy (my personal scarce resources) feeling guilty about not getting my wardrobe down to whatever number, and I think that this time and energy would be better spent on my family, friends, work or hobbies. Thanks for helping me to feel better about where I’m at!

    1. Well said, Murphy. I so agree and am releasing the angst of downsizing my closet to the universe. That said, I also promise to stay away from unnecessary sales, the lure of “buy one-get one halfprice” and purchasing something that I think is fine, but not fabulous.

  23. A thoughtful and well-written post and comments from others. Agree, being mindful and thoughtful about buying is one aspect of living a more simple life. For me, over-shopping can be a little like over-eating – another way to “fix” a feeling (maybe boredom, sadness, feeling stuck or frustrated, etc.). When I am tempted to do that, but one look in my closet tells me I don’t truly need another thing, I try to figure out what I really need. What is the hole I am trying to fix with shopping? So I might tap into creativity – like clipping photos of “looks” or rooms I like, lay out and photograph different outfits with shoes and accessories, re-arrange something in my home like a bookcase, my vanity. Not buying, but by changing things, giving a fresh look to an area. Being creative satisfies my spirit and I feel good about being a better steward of our resources.

  24. I am totally into the Simple Life. That said, I still need variety in my wardrobe because I derive an incredible pleasure from the simple act of Getting Dressed. Having ” a few well-made things that I wear to death” does not compute for my soul! For me, things get only get complicated when I cannot properly manage my stuff. If I feel myself getting to that tipping point, I pack up some suitcases with accessories and clothes I am not adoring at the moment, and they go into hiding. With these items out of rotation, getting dressed becomes simple again. When I need a switchout, I just go to those suitcases and swap out some items to keep it interesting.

    Now I know my style so well that I don’t give away much when I “clean” my closet.

    Thank you for this post, Pseu.

  25. Great post. My simple life right now is about less stuff, and more people and more fun experiences. I think A LOT before I buy anything wardrobe related, even underwear and socks. Do I really need it? Is it replacing something? Is this an impulse buy? And then I write it down on a list and think about it for a month. Thankfully I forget about most things by the end of that month! What I wear day to day is mostly a cardigan and jeans (I’m still a stay-at-home mom) and I liven it up with my beloved scarves and jewelry.

    The comments here have been an interesting read. Thank you for a lively discussion!

  26. Another of your very thought provoking posts my dear. Simplifying for it’s own sake… can be daunting and stress producing… no magazine stresses me out more than Simple… oh the pressure to have everything perfectly measured and accounted for.

    i agree with you… simplifying is something unique to each of us. I do believe so much of simplifying… has to do with intention. Being aware… of what it is we want. i have recently become aware… i am happier with less stuff… and more order… and more travel… This post really has me pondering what indeed… simplifying… is too me.

    Leaving… thinking… my favorite type of posts. Thank you my dear!

  27. I have simplified my wardrobe by only buying nude and black undergarments! I indulge my love of color in my nightgowns and jammies and accessories. It has truely made getting dressed each day simplier and made shopping for these items less dificult too!
    As I prepare later this week to help my mother move into a two bedroom apartment after many, many years in large homes, the benefit of fewer possessions is very clear. Only have in your home what you know to beautiful or useful!
    Great post!

  28. A great piece — I’ve been thinking about this since Duchesse wrote her two posts on the topic, but I haven’t felt I could take the time to respond properly. Nor can I here, but I appreciate having the topic extended and become more nuanced as a different perspective is added. For me, coming out of a particular background shaped by class, religion, family size, etc., simplicity has always held ethical/moral implications as much as aesthetic ones. It’s also always been contingent, shifting with circumstances as you suggest. . . .right now, juggling my way through a busy work week to a family-filled weekend, simplifying includes all the help I can get!
    I’d love to harness my thoughts on this into a post, but it’s unlikely that will happen anytime soon. Meanwhile, you and Duchesse have covered the terrain beautifully — thanks!

  29. Great topic! Mindless consumption is as stressful to watch as it is to participate in. In a effort to simplify my life, I have been editing my wardrobe, reading, shopping and socializing down to what gives me the most pleasure. The older I get the less tolerant, I become of excess stuff.

  30. I´m so late with my comment. Agreeing with V.W´s statement fully.
    I´m tired of stuff.
    All I bought for summer, were 3 light long-sleeved T´s, which can be worn throughout the year.

  31. I bought the Carol Tuttle type course and wondered if I had originally read about it on your website?? or perhaps another blog… just curious if you “Dress Your Truth” as I think you really come across as dressing in your very own personal style