Paring Down Your Life

Getting rid of clutter—from commitments to coffee tables—can be key to a good life

We should consider what we to keep in life and what would be better to let go. (Keenan Constance/ Unsplash)
We should consider what we to keep in life and what would be better to let go. (Keenan Constance/ Unsplash)
By Leo Babauta

Our lives are overfull.

There’s not a single one of us who is free of that trap, in my experience. We say yes to invitations and commitments; answer as many emails and messages as we can; join courses and groups; buy books and take on new hobbies; get involved in new relationships; and buy more stuff.

The result of this tendency to overfill is predictable:

  • We spend too much money, get into too much debt, and have too much clutter.
  • We are always busy and always feel like we’re behind on everything.
  • We don’t have time for what’s really important—relationships, meaningful work, solitude, silence, and taking care of ourselves.
  • We can’t really fulfill all of our commitments because we have too much going on.
  • We use full lives to distract ourselves from being fully present.

It’s understandable that we overfill our lives—we are usually acting on desires, and not giving full contemplation to what we want in our lives and what we don’t want.

So how do we change that? I’d like to propose paring down your life.

What It Means to Pare Down Your Life

Paring down means to cut back on what you have in your life:

  • Cut back on possessions. Get rid of the extraneous clutter that is just weighing you down, and find joy in owning little.
  • Pare down your commitments. Take a look at everything you’ve committed to doing, from being on committees, to coaching, to being a part of various projects.
  • Pare down your activity online. We spend a lot of time online, cultivating a “switching” and busy mentality as we flicker between tabs. Is this how we want to spend our lives? Can we focus on fewer online activities?
  • Pare down how much you do in a day. We pack our days with lots of things, but what would it be like to do less?
  • Pare down hobbies. Travel and other aspirational activities are fun, but can be overdone. We are filled with random desires but fulfilling these doesn’t often lead to a meaningful life. These activities can be great, but can be overdone. We should contemplate what matters most, and pare down to that.

At its core, paring down is about contemplating what you want to cultivate in your life, and what you’d like to remove.

How to Pare Down

So how do we go about this? Isn’t decluttering our lives just another thing to add to an overfull list?

Start with a nearly bare canvas.

Imagine for a moment that your life had only a few essentials:

  • A room with a mattress, a few changes of clothes, a sweater or jacket, a few books, a computer and a phone. A backpack for carrying things. Maybe a couch and computer desk if needed.
  • A bathroom with toilet paper and a shower with soap. Three or four toiletries.
  • Simple food of beans, rice, vegetables, fruit, nuts. A few dishes. Maybe a refrigerator, stove and dining table.
  • No workout equipment, just walking, hiking, bodyweight strength training. No hobby equipment. Maybe a bike if you need to commute.

These are the bare essentials for most people—there are a few other things you’d need, depending on your circumstances, but let’s not get caught up in details.

Now imagine that you could only choose a few things to do each day. For me, that might be:

  1. Meaningful work (mostly writing, with some admin tasks needed).
  2. Spending time with my family and other meaningful relationships.
  3. Reading.
  4. Meditating.
  5. Exercise.
  6. Eating simple foods.

I’d be very happy with just those things in my life! What would your six things be?

Is there anything else you’d like to cultivate? What other things would you add? Imagine a stripped-down, bare life, pared down to your essentials.

Now contemplate what could be removed to make room for just these. Leave space in your life for doing nothing. For contemplation. For being present. For silence and stillness. For the unexpected.

I realize that life won’t always be this simple and that we have to be willing to flow with things we can’t control. We can’t always pare down commitments that we need to fulfill. We can’t always have a job with meaningful work. Relationships can complicate things. I get it.

But sometimes, we’re just making excuses not to let go. Rationalizing the status quo. Holding on to our attachments.

Paring down asks you to let go of attachments, let go of rationalizing, let go of fixed beliefs. And see what’s possible once you do let go.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net

 

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