When faced with overwhelm, our first temptation may be to turn toward an outward manifestation of simple living: decluttering our homes and schedules. And while these things are good, they don’t offer the same freedom we find in true simplicity. When we proceed from a values-based approach, we can make life simpler by building a habit of intentional living. Here are some tips for simplifying your life instead of living out of your overwhelm.
I stood in the craft store and considered the rustic sign. Live Simply. It was so pretty and I could immediately picture where I would hang it in our hallway. In my imagination, the sign would greet me in the early hours of the morning, with my hot coffee in hand, reminding me to live out my commitment to simplicity.
Clearing my head of my reverie, I wondered. What does it actually mean to live simply?
WHEN OVERWHELM BECOMES NORMAL
Simplicity conjures up images of an almost monastic life with few possessions and few commitments. In our culture today, anyone spouting the benefits of living with less seems radical.
Our lives are oriented towards building, achieving, accumulating, and climbing. We look at the lives of those around us and strive for more and better. It seeps into our homes as we fill them with more and more clothes, toys, gadgets, and organizational systems to hold them all.
It seeps into our parenting and our schedules because we want what’s best for our kids, which seems to mean we need to work hard and save up so they can get into college. And of course they’ll need to get into said college so we’d better enroll our kids in all the extra-curriculars we can and be sure they have the best tutors to make the grades, too.
This brings us straight into a state of overwhelm. But we don’t give this much thought because it’s normal. It’s the pervasive mentality around us. We have to step away from our entire lives and take a vacation to feel like we can catch our breath. Often, when we start to suspect that our complicated lives are choking us, we turn to outward solutions. For example, we declutter our homes and we declutter our schedules.
I know, because I have done this! I take a look around my life and decide there is too much stuff and too many responsibilities crowding out my joy and peace of mind.
Then I get so overwhelmed that I want to sweep all the junk away and take white-out to all the boxes in my planner. I stand in the middle of my living room and declare, “I’ve had enough!” Next thing I know I get out the trash bags. I declutter the toys, the bookshelves, the closets, the kitchen cabinets. And I cancel all unnecessary commitments and say no to more plans.
For a while, it works. I can breathe again. My house is clutter-free, and my schedule is lighter so my mind feels less crowded, less overwhelmed, and more at peace.
Inevitably though, the clutter creeps back in.
It usually starts with my own closet. Now that there’s so much extra room in there, it’s harmless if I add a few pieces I’ve had my eye on! Then it spreads to the toys and the bookshelves and cabinets too. Almost imperceptibly, I start saying yes to more commitments, the white space in my calendar duping me into thinking I have plenty of time for everything.
And then I’m right back where I started, standing in the aisles of a craft store and wondering if adding this Live Simply sign to my crowded walls is the answer to everything.
The problem is that simplicity for its own sake can never last or truly satisfy.
In his book “Celebration of Discipline,” Richard Foster says, “The Christian discipline of simplicity is inward reality that results in an outward life-style.” We have made a cult of the outward lifestyle without addressing the inward realities that led to our overly complicated lives in the first place.
I can purge my closet all I want. But unless I deal with my discontented soul that longs for more, prettier, trendier, better, the clutter will keep returning.
I didn’t grow up with horses. But my in-laws have some on the family farm. They are beautiful creatures, but also anxious, swinging their heads from side to side at every movement and distraction in their peripheral vision. It’s why they sometimes wear blinders when they’re pulling something or need to walk straight ahead.
Horse blinders help them focus on what’s ahead by preventing distractions. Without them, the horses swerve side to side as they walk, peering at everything around them.
I need blinders for my soul. Because to live simply, I must have a clear purpose. This sense of purpose will guide my choices about my schedule and my purchases. I don’t want to be distracted by shiny objects that promise to make me happy, or the lives of others who seem to have everything I want.
LIVING OUT OUR VALUES
At its heart, simplicity is the alignment between our values and our actual lives. It is filtering our decisions and possessions through the lens of our purpose and our priorities.
Just like the old hymn says, “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free,” there is freedom found within simplicity. That freedom comes when we realize we can choose to live in alignment with our values and purpose. How that looks on the outside will differ with every family.
I have a friend whose family says no to birthday invitations on the weekend. They value down time together and want to leave room for spontaneous family adventures without social obligations getting in the way.
Another friend of mine whose boys are active in our town’s Little League values the sense of community she finds on the baseball fields, and is active volunteering on the sidelines. Both friends honor God with their choices. And both friends pursue simplicity as they filter weekend decisions through the lens of their values.
There is freedom from comparison here, freedom from the heavy burden of ‘should’, freedom to pursue their purpose and passions.
What Do you Value?
The key to simplicity is determining what we value, because our values drive our priorities, and our priorities guide our decision-making. As parents, we make decisions about how we spend our money and how we spend our time. So knowing what we value will help our families live simply. This may result in less: in decluttering, purging, reorganizing, downsizing. It may also result in adding more: adventures, experiences, service, generosity, community.
In our busy lives, we often don’t take the time we need to reflect upon what’s important to us—what we value as a family. We become entrenched in whatever stage we’re in; surviving the sleep-deprived infant years, the toddler tantrum years, the driving them everywhere years, the challenging and beautiful teenage years.
Yet, it is important to take the time to consider: What do you want your family culture to look like down the road?
How do you want your kids to interact with each other, with you, and with the world around them?
Your answers will evolve as your children grow older. But painting this mental picture can help you focus on the values that are right for your family now. Even in the trenches, you can simplify your life instead of living out of overwhelm.
Do you yearn for more simplicity in your life? How might identifying your unique set of family values help you better prioritize your schedule and stuff going forward?
We invite you to check out the four-page printable Sarah created to help you identify your top 5 core values and create a manifesto. You can sign up for it here.
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