zen habits : breathe

The Simplicity Cycle: Returning to Paring Down to Find Your True Needs

By Leo Babauta

Simplifying your life isn’t a single project that you can finish and be done with — it’s actually a cycle.

At least, that’s what I’ve found in my decade plus of simple living … I’ve downsized numerous times, in all areas of my life, and I keep finding myself coming back to the process of simplifying.

The Simplicity Cycle goes something like this (it’s a little different each time):

  1. Inspiration phase: You find something that sparks an interest, and you start exploring it (reading about a new topic, diving into learning a new subject, exploring a new activity or hobby, creating a new project or venture, etc.). This is the inspiration phase.
  2. Addition phase: This leads you to more complexity, as you explore, buy things, read more and more, find new inspirations and ideas. This is the addition phase.
  3. Contemplation phase: At some point, you might pause to consider the bigger picture of what you’re doing. Is this the best way? Is this really important? If it is, what’s the most essential part of it? Can you pare down? Many people skip this phase (and the next) and just keep doing the first two phases.
  4. Paring Down phase: If you decided that you want to pare down, this is where you start to let go of things. You figure out what’s essential to what you have been doing and learning, and if you don’t scrap the entire thing completely (which can happen), you might just keep a few key things. For example, if you start learning about chess, you might buy a set (or two) and a bunch of books and apps and go on a bunch of websites. But in the paring down phase, you might decide that chess isn’t important enough to keep in your life, or if it is, you only need one chess set, two really key books, and one website or app. The rest you let go of. Again, many people skip this step.

If you’re into simplifying and figuring out what’s essential, you’ll do the last two steps. If you’re like most people, you’ll just keep doing one and two, which leads to a growing amount of clutter and complexity.

What I’ve Learned from the Cycle

As you might guess, I find the last two phases really important. But I also think the first two are important, because they’re about continual learning, curiosity, growth, exploration, creativity and more. I haven’t been able to stop myself from doing the first two phases, at least a few times each year. So I continue to repeat this Simplicity Cycle, several times a year.

The first two phases are where you get excited about something, where you get motivated and you’re moved to find out as much as you can. This is an essential human drive, and I would never want to suppress it.

But here’s what I’ve learned:

In this whole process, I find the real learning is about true needs. It’s hard to understand true needs until you’ve gone through this process a few times. Let’s take a look.

Finding Your True Needs

Going through this cycle helps you see that you can let go of things you don’t really need. They might actually be giving you a burden you don’t want, and letting go is liberating. You free yourself of it, and you’re even happier — you didn’t need it in the first place!

Going through the cycle a second time, and then a third, is just more learning about figuring out what you don’t need. And learning to let go of what you don’t really need.

If you go through the cycle a bunch of times, with consciousness, you can start to figure out the kinds of things you crave for and that excite you that aren’t really true needs. They seem cool, they’re shiny, but they don’t really satisfy anything deep within you.

I’ll give you a few examples of things that didn’t satisfy a real need for me:

None of those areas met my true needs — they were all extraneous, even though I thought they were important at the time.

In the end, going through the process helped me to realize what I really needed. And to let go of the things I thought were needs.

Some things I now think are true needs:

  1. Food, water, clothing, heat, shelter, and basic safety, of course.
  2. Love and connection.
  3. Learning, exploration.
  4. Play, inspiration & creative outlets.
  5. Getting outdoors, being active, being present with nature.
  6. Stillness & peace.

There might be more. Beyond the basic needs of the items at the top of the list, the others are about love and nourishment in some way.

And when I remember these needs, I can remember that these needs can be met in a variety of ways. Not only in the way I’m fantasizing about. I can meet my needs by simply going outside and going for a walk. Talking with a loved one or an interesting stranger. Reading something online. Meditating and finding stillness.

Simple things, that cost nothing. Simple things, that nourish me, and require no additions to what I already have. Simple things, that allow me to let go of the rest.

Simple things, that are available all around us in beautiful abundance.

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