at the time I thought I had it all, I realized I had no time to
spend on any of it. Thankfully, I picked up Elaine St. James’ first
Your Life, and found someone who had experienced this
feeling and set out to find a way through. Over six months, I de-stuffed,
and de-scheduled, and de-stuffed some more. This was no “back to
basics” message, encouraging me to grow my own food and shun a comfortable
car. Her message simply stated that we might want to slow down and
enjoy the things that really matter. All along my journey, Elaine’s
words provided me inspiration and insight into how she focused on
what mattered most. Five books, a syndicated column, and outright
guru status in the simplification-revolution later, I was delighted
to have a chance to talk with her about simplifying, writing books,
and generally finding a place in this world. Here are some excerpts
from our conversation.
What do people need to learn in order to change their lives
so that they can get to and do what really matters?
St. James: There
are a number of different approaches. I think that any one of them
could be a trigger for someone to get it, and then go on and follow
their own mode to the result. I also think that we are all at different
points along the path. There are many people who just picked up
one of the books and got it—like you. There are other people who
don’t necessarily get it as quickly, or who understand the overall
picture but can’t quite figure out how to get their own lives there.
I think one of the first things people need to learn is what it
feels like to begin to take the time.
how can we do that?
St. James: It’s
kind of a step-by-step process—especially in relation to work and
life. I devote the first chapter of Simplify
Your Work Life to cutting back on the amount of time
you work so you have more time for the other areas of your life.
That includes things like cutting back to a forty hour work week,
for some cutting back to a thirty hour week, for others getting
in the habit of leaving their briefcase at the office two or three
nights a week, not working weekends, or eliminating their commute
if possible. Take your vacation. How often do we brag about the
fact we haven’t had a vacation in three years? Or take a sabbatical.
There are numerous sabbatical programs, many of which are even paid
for and sponsored by employers. So, start with beginning to take
You can also cut
back on some of your social obligations. Cut back on some of the
material stuff in your life that you have to spend time taking care
of so that you can begin to feel what it feels like to have the
time for what really matters.
I was at the point
where I just knew I had to do this. A lot of people are at that
same place. Others may have the desire to do it, but they don’t
believe it’s possible. So, for some people this means taking a leap
of faith and saying, “Okay, I’m going to start cutting back here
and there and just see what it feels like.” Others need to reach
a point where they see that it actually can be done. When we’re
in the midst of these crazy lives it feels like we can’t slow down,
like we can’t stop. It feels like if we stop for even a minute we’re
going to lose out on everything. We won’t be able to keep up with
the information; won’t be able to keep up with the technology; won’t
be able to do what we have to do to keep going.
Bailyn from MIT recommends experiments, or trial periods of
time where little by little we see it actually can be done.
St. James: When
we begin to slow down we learn that the world won’t come to an end
if we stop. That was a revelation for me. I realized that, “Hey,
the world is still turning, I’m still living, and I can stop for
a bit and everything will still be OK.” We reach this point where
we think we’re holding it all together: our lives, our families,
our social community. But the fact is if we step back from it or
even out of it for a little while, the world is going to continue
on without us and everything will be fine.
like you have to let go of some ego, too.
St. James: Oh,
yeah, big ego letting go. When we’re in the center of it we feel
like we’re it. It takes some humility to be able to step back and
say, “My assistant could do that.” But it’s quite another challenge
to ask, “Does it even need to get done?” There are certain type
A personalities that fall into this, and it’s often the “Type A”
personalities that need to let go of the ego a little bit, too.
Then I think we need
to learn that we don’t have to know it all either. There
is so much emphasis today on information technology and we think
we have to know it all, we have to be on top of it. I finally figured
out that I could work 24-hours a day and I still wouldn’t get it
all done, and I still wouldn’t know it all. I realized that even
if you don’t know it all, you are still a valuable person,
and you can still contribute to the world. You can still accomplish
Einstein said, “Imagination
is more important than information.” I experienced this first hand
after I canceled my magazine and newspaper subscriptions. I’ve never
been much of a TV watcher, but I just kind of unplugged from everything.
I found out that I could take the time at the end of the day to
just sit and daydream, opening myself up to really thinking rather
than constantly reacting. We all fall into that habit. We react
to the things that are going on around us and feel there is a certain
response or a certain expectation that we have to live up to—usually
somebody else’s expectation. If we let go of that, we can really
get the feel of how important imagination is in our life. It’s not
that information is not important, but imagination is what we do
with that information. We have to learn to take the time to tap
into our own intuitive knowing.
you suggesting we get rid of all of our magazines? My office would
St. James: No,
just those you don’t have time to read. We often feel a lot of guilt
about all the magazines that are stacking up that we never have
time to read, and the guilt adds to the stress. But it is so simple:
cancel the magazines you don’t have time for. If you can’t find
the time for it, it’s not that important to you.
So often we depend
on outside sources when we really have a tremendous source of knowledge
and understanding within ourselves. The trouble is that we’re moving
too fast and we’re too exhausted most of the time to really tap
There are simple
things you can do to tap into that intuition. I write about some
of these in Simplify
Your Work Life. They are things like taking a break, getting
up and walking around the block when you’re tired, taking a nap,
or daydreaming. And of course, making sure you’re getting enough
sleep, eating right, and taking time for that balance in your life.
These kinds of things will contribute to your ability to hone that
One tool that I learned
to use if I’m dealing with a problem or a challenge is to write
it out in a journal before I go to bed at night, getting clear on
what the crux of the problem is. In writing it, I consciously direct
my subconscious mind to help me find the solution. Then I go to
bed and forget about it. Then first thing in the morning when I
wake up, while I’m still in that kind of semi-sleep state, I start
writing in my journal the first thing that comes to me. Sometimes
I give it a jump-start by saying, “So the solution to this problem
is...” And insights just start pouring out. You can use this for
lots of different kinds of situations in your work life, your family
life, and your relationships.
quite a contrast to searching the Internet for every possible solution
St. James: Yes,
the internet is a powerful tool, too, obviously. Sometimes we simply
need to strike a balance between acquiring the information that
is available to us through modern technology and the wisdom that
is available to us through our inner technology via our intuition.
Did you use intuition before, or are you able to now access it because
of the change you’ve made in your life?
St. James: I’m
definitely able to access my intuition much more readily since I
slowed down the pace of my life.
In a sense that’s
what happened when I had the epiphany to simplify my life. I had
a real estate investing business, also a seminar business, I had
written a book on real estate investing, I’d just returned from
the book tour, and I had all of these things going on. I came back
and was sitting at my desk, just overwhelmed, looking at this huge
time management system, and it was like a light went on—I’ve got
to simplify my life. I didn’t even know at that point what it meant.
But the feeling was strong enough that I spent four days at a retreat
house and forced myself to just sit there and think about what was
complicating my life, and come up with ideas about how to make it
simple. Part of that the motivation was desperation. I just knew
I didn’t want to go on living the way I’d been living. It was just
Now that I’ve simplified,
I see that I’ve survived by cutting back and doing less. I’ve prospered
by finding an entirely new career that I love, and I’ve been able
to develop a deep, rich, rewarding, and inner life in the midst
of a chaotic world. From time to time I’m still involved in that
chaos, but I have made sure that what I do is valuable and worth
it to me.
We spend so much
time spinning our wheels. It often feels like we’re getting something
done; we’re at the office, it’s late at night and we’ve got the
computer on, the fax on, the cell phones are ringing and all that,
but are we really accomplishing anything?
are so many things written suggesting busy people should become
minimalists—getting rid of everything, making all their own food,
trading in a comfortable car. But to me that would take even more
work and keep me from doing what matters. There’s nothing wrong
with it if that’s what matters most to you, but simplifying should
be the means, not the goal.
St. James: Exactly.
I talk about that in Living
the Simple Life because that question kept coming up. Simplifying
doesn’t mean you have to go live in the woods. That is not what
it’s about. What made this simplify-your-life concept work—certainly
what made the book successful—is that it was the first time somebody
put these ideas together under the context of “simplifying.” Not
so we could grow our own food necessarily, but so we would have
time for whatever is important to us. Many of us have reached the
point where we have great lives, we just don’t have the time to
We all want to simplify
for different reasons. Some people want to simplify so they have
time with their kids. That’s why I wrote Simplify
Your Life With Kids. We realize that our kids are growing up
and we never see them. We don’t know what’s really happening in
their lives. We feel guilty about it so we buy them stuff, but we’re
not spending time with them. Simplifying helps people create that
For single people
or for people whose kids are grown and gone, simplifying may have
a different focus. We see life passing by, and we haven’t done what
we wanted to do with our time and with our lives.
same can be said for work. We don’t often know the people we spend
so much time with each day. There needs to be a sense of recouping
that time, finding a place in our hearts to be able to share who
we are, and to have that inner knowing with other people.
St. James: I
think the challenge gets bigger as the technology separates us even
more. We’re plugged into technology all day; we don’t have the interaction
with people we used to have. I think our souls miss that. We are
social animals after all.
as a social animal, what has simplifying done for your life?
St. James: I
think it has given me a much richer, fuller life. I make sure I
take the time now to enjoy my friendships and my relationships.
I have a family of cousins that I grew up with back in the mid-west
that I hadn’t seen in years because my life was too hectic. I went
for years without taking vacations. Since I simplified, I had the
time to establish this wonderful reconnection with my family.
How did you create that time?
St. James: In
part by simplifying my relationships! Before, I spent a lot of time
with people I didn’t really want to spend time with. Often out of
habit, often out of obligation, often just because it was easier
than to do something to change it. Now I make sure that the people
in my life are people I really want to be with, the people that
really matter to me.
Sometimes we need
to keep blinders on so we don’t get distracted by the cultural and
media messages we’re so bombarded with to keep our lives complicated.
So there has to be a certain amount of discipline about saying “no”
to things that don’t matter to you.
matters changes over time, right?
St. James: Right.
When I simplified my life, I realized I was spending a lot of time
doing things that had mattered to me ten or fifteen years before.
I went for a long period of time not realizing that those things
didn’t matter anymore.
we have to revisit our priorities. And, we have to make choices
about those priorities. We can either choose to live a simple life
or we can choose to live a complicated life, and that’s made up
by lots of tiny choices. We can choose to keep this paper, or that
magazine, or the big house, or this friend, or we can choose not
to. We are in control and we have the ability to make these choices
St. James: That’s
exactly it. We are in control. We can create our lives exactly the
way we want them. Often there are outside demands, family pressures,
social pressures, community pressures and so simplifying often means
we have to be willing to buck those. We have to realize that nobody
else is going to give us a day off. Nobody is going to say, “You
can leave the office at six o’clock tonight.” Nobody is going to
give us the weekend off. We have to seize that time for ourselves.
shouldn’t seem so crazy that if you’re healthy you can take a well
St. James: Absolutely—the
point being that we each have to find a system that works for us.
you for helping us find a system that works for each of us.
St. James: It’s
just been wonderful talking with you. I appreciate your support,
and your thoughtful questions.
Elaine St. James is the author of the national bestseller
Your Life, which detailed how she scaled back her own life in
the early '90s. Hailed as the leader of the simplicity movement
by The New York Times, St. James has written five other best-selling
books on simplifying. Learn more about her at http://www.uexpress.com/simplifyyourlife/bio.cfm
Marcia Conner simplified her life in 1995, complicated
her life in 1996, simplified again in 1999, and believes she might
just be in this for the long haul now. Throughout, she’s never lost
sight of what matters: her family, her health, her writing, and
her learning. Write her at email@example.com.
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