The First Rule of Simplifying: Identify the Essential (or, How to avoid the Void)

“Our lives are frittered away by detail … simplify, simplify” – Henry David Thoreau

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.

We talk a lot about simplifying your life on Zen Habits, from simplifying your possessions and clutter to simplifying the stuff you need to do. But recently I had a comment from a reader who said that the problem is that he doesn’t know what to do with himself after cutting out television and other time-wasters from his life.

The simple answer: Do what you love.

His comment, while understandable, illustrates a common misunderstanding of simplification, and it’s a good point that I thought is worth discussing. The misunderstanding: that simplifying is basically just cutting stuff out, leaving an emptiness or void. People think that it leaves you with a boring life, and nothing fun. They couldn’t be more wrong.

The real goal of simplifying, and the First Rule, is to first identify what is essential, what you love, what is important to you — and then cut out all the rest that distracts you and keeps you from doing what’s important.

We have so much stuff in our lives, from possessions to things we need to do to information coming in to visual and emotional clutter, that we are overloaded. The result? We end up doing a lot of things that aren’t really important to us, because we have so much other stuff to do that has crept into our lives and that we leave in our lives, unexamined.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Well, Socrates must have been an excellent simplifier — as evidenced by the fact that he just wore a robe and sandals. In any case, in order to simplify our lives, we must first examine our lives. What is important, and do all the things in our lives give us value? These are the questions to ask, and if you find the answers, simplifying is extremely easy.

Let’s look at how finding what is essential, what we love, and what is important to us, can help us simplify, and what it leaves in our lives:

  1. The first question: What is most important to me? What do I love to do? The answer is different to every person. For me, it’s simple: I love my wife and kids, I love writing, I love reading, and I love helping others. For others, it may be hiking or mountain biking or creating music or anything, really. Answer this question first.
  2. The second question: what are the things going on in my life, the things I do every day and every week and month, and how are they related to what is important to me? If you are going out drinking with the guys, and it’s not really important to you, and it’s stopping you from doing what is important, that’s a candidate for simplifying. Examine all your commitments, and ask yourself if they are really important to you, if they give you great value for your time, and if they are related to what is truly important.
  3. Possessions: The same questions can be asked of all the stuff you own — do you really love them? Are they truly essential? Another question you can ask, to clarify your thinking: If my house burned down, which few things would I want to replace? Get rid of all the rest. They leave clutter and stress and keep you from enjoying the stuff you really love.
  4. Everything else: This same concept can be applied to anything else in your life — your work, the information you read every day, the television programs you watch, the people in your life. Know what’s essential, what you love, what’s important … and get rid of the rest.
  5. What you’re left with: If you get rid of the extraneous stuff, the stuff that’s not related to what’s important to you, what do you have left? Just the important stuff. Just the stuff you really love to do. When you get rid of the other stuff, when you cut, let’s say, television and hours of Internet surfing and beer drinking from your life, don’t just cut it out — remember what’s important and what you love to do, and do that instead. For me, that means spending time with my family instead of working, that means writing or reading instead of watching TV, that means helping others instead of going to the mall (something I want to do more of).

Simplifying isn’t meant to leave your life empty — it’s meant to leave space in your life for what you really want to do. Know what those things are before you start simplifying.

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