National Simplicity day: Reset and Reboot
On Sunday, July 12th, National Simplicity Day honors the memory of Henry David Thoreau. Born on this day in 1817, Thoreau was a philosophist centered around the idea of individualism and naturalism. One of the books he’s best known for, Walden, centers on the advocacy of living simply while being surrounded by nature. The book captures his time living in a remote cabin in Concord Massachusetts and focuses on the ideals and benefits of self-sufficiency.
Of course, not everyone can live in a remote cabin or take two years for self-examination but there is a lot we can learn from his writing. Thoreau’s central tenet of simple living can contribute a lot towards keeping our brain happy and healthy.
The idea of Simple Living
Like most things in life, there are different definitions of what constitutes simple. Thoreau’s idea of simple living goes beyond those differences. It constitutes living with intention and being in tune with one’s own requirements.
Living with intention is a phrase that’s become popular lately but the idea hasn’t changed much from when Thoreau embraced it in his writing. It’s the practice of being present and aware of our choices. Instead of buying a ton of clothing, it’s looking at each new piece and really deciding if it’s something we want and/or need. It’s making plans with focus, deciding if we truly want to see that movie or have that drink. When we make every decision in tune with what we want, we don’t waste time, effort, or mind space with things that are not important to our growth or vital to our purpose in life.
Everything we associate with has its own space in our lives, regardless if it’s physical space or mental. That doesn’t mean living with intention is embracing a minimalist lifestyle, though minimalism can be a result. Rather, it’s understanding that if we are surrounded by too many things vying for our attention, it becomes difficult for our brain to focus. And it doesn’t have to be physical clutter. Too many social obligations can be just as distracting as too many apps on our phone and our brain will eventually become tired. This can lead to increasing our stress, impacting both our physical and mental health.
Living with intention takes time, as it’s a constant state of mind and awareness. However, we can still apply Thoreau’s principles and advice as a starting point. And there’s no better day than National Simplicity Day.
Declutter a space
We know that when a space we’re in is cluttered, it becomes increasingly difficult for our attention to focus. That’s because our brain is primarily a deletion device, constantly filtering unnecessary stimuli from our awareness so we are better able to focus our attention on what matters. But the harder it has to work to do that, the faster our energy is depleted and the more likely we are to become distracted.
Decluttering can help. There are several strategies to decluttering our space, but generally, it’s a process where we want to start small. By focusing on one space at a time, we can give our full attention to these items and are more likely to not feel overwhelmed.
Before we begin, it’s also a good idea to envision what we want that space to look like. How many items do we see keeping? What are the parameters to decide what to keep and what to get rid of? And what does getting rid of items look like? Will we donate? Throw away? While it may seem like a lot to process, having these questions answered will actually make it easier when surrounded by a mountain of belongings. It’s also tackling the project with intention and that in turn will help us focus.
As we go through our things, it may be necessary to have a bin or an area where we put items we’re unsure of in. Put a time frame, and if you don’t open that bin looking for something, commit to donating or throwing away the contents. Once we have one area completed, schedule the next area. Even when we’ve decluttered all the spaces we planned, be sure to schedule regular declutter sessions so the chore doesn’t build up and become overwhelming again.
Organize daily items
Decluttering is one part of the equation. Organization is the other. Having a clear system in place helps our brain know where things are located and saves energy when we no longer have to constantly try to remember where our keys are or where we put our favorite pair of socks. It may not seem like a lot of stress, but when we spend time every morning searching for items to start our day, even these small levels of stress can accumulate over time. Being organized helps save our energy and keep our stress low.
As with decluttering, we want to begin our organizational journey small and focused. Even starting with our phone can be immensely satisfying and help motivate us to continue organizing more and more areas of our life.
We want to focus first on the things we use the most. Files we reference frequently, clothing we wear the most, and things we use in our day to day lives. By organizing these areas, we will notice time and brain energy freed up in small increments every day. And as we have more time and energy, we can begin organizing other areas to be streamlined as well.
Grocery shopping can become easier if we have designated spaces for food and a place where everyone in the household can add to the shopping list. We can even take the time to reorganize the list according to the aisle so we are unlikely to miss an item or have to backtrack in the store. Meal planning once per week frees up time every day and helps keep a schedule everyone in the house can follow.
Organizing simplifies life by eliminating the number of choices and decisions we have to make every day. And that opens up time and energy to focus on the things that truly matter to us.
Take a break
Most of us lead very fast-paced lives today, juggling work and familial responsibilities. However, when we follow the same routine day in, day out, our brain begins to automate these behaviors and tasks. After a certain point, these behaviors turn to habit and we do them without actively thinking about them. While this process happens to free our brain to focus on other tasks, it can also lead to engaging in behaviors or routines that are no longer efficient. At worst, we can feel detached from our daily routines in a way that leads to burnout.
We can break routines and habits by making a deliberate choice to step away from them. It may not be possible to change routines entirely, especially if plans were already made in advance or activities for kids are involved. But even small changes can disrupt the habit formula in our brain enough to allow us to step back and reevaluate them.
One of the biggest ways we can take a break is by unplugging from digital devices. We can turn off social media, turn off email notifications, and ask friends and family to call instead of messaging or texting. Even staying away from television and movies, instead choosing to read a book can refresh our brain. Take a drive, have a picnic, explore nature, go to a museum.
When we disrupt the habit-loop, we give our brain the opportunity to stretch and exercise in new ways. We allow ourselves to step back and decide if our habits and routines are still serving us, or if we can improve or alter them in some way. Ultimately, taking a break allows us to intentionally make decisions on where our focus and attention goes, bringing us into the moment instead of stuck in the fog of routine.
Evaluate our goals
A key component to living with intention is regular check-ins with ourselves. These check-ins allow us to determine where we’re at with our goals, both short and long-term. Do these goals still uphold our values? Are they still relevant? Do our current actions align with these goals?
The answers to these questions can help us decide how to make micro-adjustments in our daily lives. They may also require us to make major changes to either our behaviors or lifestyle choices in order to continue to stay on track. Or, they may require us to alter our goals to more closely align with our values.
It’s normal for our goals and values to change or adjust as we grow. In fact, if we aren’t adjusting our goals regularly, we will find our growth becomes stagnant. To continue moving forward with improvement is a key component to intentional living.
Thoreau’s vision of a simple life calls for existing in tune with our core nature, yet modern living is full of distractions. One way to help cut through the noise of these distractions is to meditate.
Meditation techniques are geared to help us clear our minds and harness our thoughts. They help with grounding, stopping thought spirals, calming the mind, and can train people to filter out helpful and harmful thoughts. All of which makes meditation a great tool to help simplify life.
Meditation is also a great way to help stay grounded and focused on the present. We aren’t pulled into the future or stay stuck in the past. These sessions, even if they only last a few minutes, help the brain reset. We are then able to tackle stressful problems from a different angle by giving the brain distance from constantly thinking about them.
There are numerous apps and programs to help with guided meditation, which are fantastic resources for beginning meditation. Scheduling time to meditate throughout the week can bring a noticeable difference in lowering our stress levels and rejuvenating the brain. If possible, build to one session per day. No matter when we meditate, or how often, engaging in this mindful practice will help bring balance and intention into our lives.
Spend time in nature
Spending time in nature is probably the greatest takeaway of Thoreau’s work. He believed that the more modern society becomes, the more disconnected from nature we become. As a result, we become increasingly unhappy.
Thoreau used his time in nature to find his way back to life’s simple pleasures. Instead of looking for outside distractions, such as the theatre, he found being in nature brought back joy in the mundane.
Modern science tends to favor Thoreau. Multiple studies have shown that spending as little time as 15 minutes in a natural setting every day can improve core brain functions like memory, concentration, focus, retention, and mood. Taking a walk through the neighborhood park, going for a hike, spending a day at the lake with the family are all opportunities to reconnect with nature. But even short breaks in nature, eating lunch in the backyard, for example, can help reset the brain and reconnect us to the more natural world.
Living simply can feel impossible in our modern world. We’re connected to each other more than ever, and while that can bring many benefits to our mental health and well-being, it can also feel overwhelming at times. National Simplicity Day reminds us that we can still live with intention, ensuring that the technology, activities, and routines that fill our lives are balanced and meaningful.