Keep It Simple

One way to “get a life” is to simplify the one you have. Simplicity guru Elaine St. James offers principles and techniques to make your life less complicated and more rewarding – at work and at home. Now, what’s so complicated about that?


Why do so many smart businesspeople work too hard, live too fast – and then feel strangely ambivalent about their success? Writer, speaker, and simplicity guru Elaine St. James, 54, thinks she knows the answer. The problem isn’t that overstretched, overstressed people don’t want to scale back their commitments. It’s that they lack the courage of their convictions – or simply need a few techniques to get started. “It takes time to make time,” St. James argues. “You can’t figure out how to create time for the things you enjoy if you don’t take time to rethink what you’re doing now. Maintaining a complicated life is a great way to avoid changing it.”


St. James herself is a case in point. Back in 1990, she was a high-powered real-estate investor with properties in southern California and Connecticut. She also ran a thriving seminar business and was the author of a popular book on real-estate investing. She was a huge success. But her life felt hugely out of control. She wasn’t really satisfied in the real-estate business – even though she worked at it 10 to 12 hours a day. Her sprawling country home, which required countless hours of upkeep, felt like a burden rather than a blessing. Her husband, who loved his job, spent four hours a day commuting to it – so they could live in that burdensome home.

Why did she tolerate such misplaced priorities? Because she was so busy living her life that “it was impossible to imagine anything different.” Slowly, though, things began to change. St. James vowed to work one hour less per day. She and her husband got rid of material possessions – books, equipment, furniture – that cluttered their home but added little to their lives. They moved across the country, into a house that was easier to maintain and just minutes from her husband’s office. Over time, these small steps added up to a big change. “We’ve each created an extra 30 hours per week,” she says. “It’s hard to put a price tag on that much time.”

For St. James, simplicity wasn’t just a way to live. It became a way of life – and a way to make a living. She left real estate to build a career around her new passion. Hyperion published her first book on the topic four years ago. Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter is now in its 26th printing. She has written three sequels: Inner Simplicity: 100 Ways to Regain Peace and Nourish Your Soul (Hyperion, 1995), Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More (Hyperion, 1996), and Simplifying Your Life with Kids: 100 Ways to Make Family Life Easier and More Fun (Andrews & McMeel, 1997). Together the books have sold more than 1.4 million copies. And St. James has emerged as a spiritual leader of the simplicity movement – a grassroots phenomenon that has spawned countless Web sites and newsletters, and whose values are winning over countless businesspeople who are rethinking life in the fast lane.

In an interview with Fast Company, St. James offered a set of principles and techniques to help simplify your life.

1. It’s about time.

Simplifying your life is really about gaining control of your life – creating more time, on the job and at home, to do the things you want to do. All the surveys I’ve seen reach the same conclusion: More and more people feel that they aren’t spending their time on things they enjoy. A Time/CNN poll found that 65% of people spend their leisure time doing things they’d prefer not to do. That’s staggering! What’s the point of leading a “full life” if you don’t have the time and energy to enjoy it?


But here’s the problem: It takes time to make time. You can’t figure out how to create time for the things you enjoy if you don’t take time to rethink what you’re doing now. Maintaining a complicated life is a great way to avoid changing it. We all feel that we can’t cut back on anything. But as long as our work is so vital that we can’t slow down, we don’t have to look at our own lives: a marriage that isn’t working, a career that isn’t satisfying, children we’re out of touch with, friendships we’ve outgrown. There’s nothing more “dangerous” than having a little time on your hands.

So the first step toward simplifying your life is to make a small investment of time. Free up one hour a day for 30 days, and use that time to reflect on a simple question: What is it that’s most complicating my life? Am I working too hard? Am I working at a job I don’t like? Are my kids draining all my energy? Then start thinking about how and what you can cut back.

It’s not as unrealistic as it sounds. Just for one month, leave work an hour early – who’s going to notice? And if you can’t find time at work, find it at home. Just for one month, stop reading the newspaper. Free up 60 minutes a day for 30 days, ask yourself the right questions, and you’ll be amazed by what you discover.

2. Less is more.

This is such an obvious principle – and so many people refuse to recognize it. I plead guilty myself. Back in 1990, I decided that I had to reduce the clutter in my life, that I had to simplify my household obligations. My first instinct was to get more help. We had a housecleaner who worried about maintaining the place, a gardener who worried about the grounds, a bookkeeper who worried about our finances. I wanted to hire a cook, so I wouldn’t have to worry about meals. My husband thought I was crazy: “You already spend so much time managing the housecleaner, the gardener, and the bookkeeper. Now you want to manage a cook?”

He was right. I didn’t need more help. I needed fewer problems. That’s when we began the process of simplifying. We got rid of possessions that we didn’t use but that took up space. We moved into a smaller home. We made changes in our social lives, our volunteer schedules, our finances, and eventually our careers. The less we took on, the more time we created.


The same principle applies at work. Once I decided to simplify my life, one of the first things I did was to cut back my workday by 10%. I scheduled my 10-hour day to end an hour earlier. What happened? My overall production didn’t go down – and I had created 5 extra hours a week. Gradually I cut back another hour a day. Again, I suffered virtually no loss of production – but had a tremendous increase in satisfaction. I changed how I worked, not how much work I got done. I didn’t return every phone call the moment I got the message. I didn’t attend every meeting to which I was invited. I doubled the amount of time that I estimated projects would take and worked according to new, more realistic schedules.

It was a vivid example of the less-is-more principle. I was working fewer hours, but I was bringing more of myself to the work. My husband and I estimate that we’ve each created an extra 30 hours per week. It’s hard to put a price tag on that much time.

3. Just say no.

The playwright Jules Renard wrote, “The truly free man is he who can decline a dinner invitation without giving an excuse.” By that definition, few of us are free. That’s a problem. You can’t lead a simple life if you can’t say no.

No one can maintain more than three priorities. If you have a job you care about, that’s a priority. If you have a family, that’s a priority. Which leaves one more. Maybe it’s staying in shape, maybe it’s volunteering at your church – but that’s it. Most people understand this intuitively. But they keep overcommitting themselves and overcomplicating their lives.

It goes back to Renard: In our high-achievement culture, people feel they need a reason to say no to a new assignment, an all-day meeting, a dinner invitation. Which is why you have to help yourself say no. At work, sit down with your schedule at the beginning of every month and block out time for “me.” Treat this time as if it’s just as important as any other item. Then, when someone invites you to a meeting that you don’t want to attend, you can say, “I’m sorry, I’m booked.” Outside the office, learn to be more honest. If someone asks you to join a volunteer group, be blunt: “I’m not taking on any new commitments for the next six months.”


It’s hard at first. But the more you say no, the easier it gets. And the more you say no, the less people will ask you in the first place. People don’t ask me for anything now. So my advice is simple: Figure out what your priorities are, and say no to everything else.

4. Possessions are nine-tenths of the problem.

Thirty years ago, most homes probably had one radio and one television. Today more and more homes have a radio and TV in every room, a telephone in every room, fax machines – the list goes on. But precisely because we want to have all this “stuff,” we work longer to pay for it. Which leaves us less time to enjoy what we worked so hard to buy. And stuff doesn’t just cost money. It also takes up time – for all that installing, fixing, maintaining, listening, and watching. And what does everyone say they really want? More time! The irony is so profound.

That’s why I urge people to go through the house once a year and get rid of everything they haven’t used in the previous 12 months. I’m not talking about beautiful antiques or keepsakes with sentimental value. I’m talking about the stuff we buy that doesn’t add to the fullness of our lives.

Better yet, don’t acquire stuff in the first place. One technique that we use is the 30-day list. When we discover some product that we just must have, we put it on a list and wait. Then, at the end of 30 days, we ask a question: Do we still need it? More often than not, we can’t remember why we were so excited in the first place. Now, there’s a difference between simplicity and austerity. I don’t want to lead an austere life. But too much is just that – too much.

5. What really matters is . . . what really matters.

There are lots of reasons why people aren’t doing what they want to do. For one thing, many of us don’t know what that is. When I was still in real estate, I met with a career counselor. The counselor said, “Why don’t you take a year off and figure out what you really want to do?” The suggestion was mind-boggling. My schedule wouldn’t let me take a day off – let alone a year! But that suggestion, as crazy as it sounded at first, forced me to ask basic questions about my professional life. In fact, I did spend a year away from my job. And if I hadn’t taken that time, I would have been in real estate forever.


If you’ve spent years not knowing what you want to do – in your career, in your family life, with your civic obligations – it can seem like an impossible challenge to figure it out. For many people, it’s easier to keep doing what they know they don’t want to do, or what they don’t mind doing. Simplifying your life frees up time for you to figure out what really matters.

Michael Warshaw is a Fast Company senior editor.