Simple isn't always simple

Simplicity can be a tricky concept. When someone says "I want to live a simpler life," they generally mean one of two things:

  1. I want to have fewer decisions to make each day, fewer responsibilities, fewer commitments, and more free time. Maybe I also want to have less physical stuff. I want to spend less time and brainspace on nitpicky, time-consuming details. I want to worry less.
  2. I want the ways I spend my time to be unambiguously meaningful and useful. I don't want to be involved with, or reliant on, a chain of complex systems that I don't understand, and that contain (or may obscure) ethical violations and environmental unsustainability.

The first definition is all about individual simplicity--simplicity from the point of view of an individual person. The second is more like global simplicity--simplicity in a more big-picture sense. A problem with discussions of simplicity is that these definitions are often at odds. Achieving more individual simplicity often means less global simplicity, and vice versa.

Individual simplicity vs. global simplicity

Say you want some strawberries. You can go to the grocery store and buy some, or you can grow them yourself. Which is simpler? It depends on your definition of simple.

If you're into individual simplicity, going to the grocery store is much simpler. You're motivated to avoid what you might see as unnecessary complications of being a gardener. Opting out of gardening may allow you to live an easier life in a number of ways. You don't need to to keep track of a gardening schedule and to-do list. You don't need to worry about the pitfalls that may decimate your crop, such as bugs and bad weather. You don't need to have gardening supplies, storage space, or access to a yard.

If you're into global simplicity, though, you might think about the supply chain that goes into getting those strawberries to you in the grocery store. By buying strawberries at the store, you are opting into a system that involves quite a bit of natural resources spent, probably inefficiently and unsustainably, on large-scale farming and transportation. You may be supporting the mistreatment of vulnerable workers. By growing strawberries yourself, you create the maximum efficiency. Those berries don't need to go very far to get to you. You know exactly how they were grown, and you can grow approximately the right amount for your needs. You are feeding yourself in a way that does not unduly tax the earth's resources. You're pulling your own weight, and you know that your sustenance and pleasure is not bought at the expense of others'.

Here are some areas where each definition of simple may suggest a different way to live your life:

  • Buying produce/meat/eggs vs. gardening/farming (as in strawberry example)
  • Buying prepared food vs. cooking from scratch
  • Hiring professional plumbers, builders, electricians, etc. vs. DIY
  • Renting vs. owning
  • Buying vs. making (almost anything)
  • Replacing vs. mending
  • Sending a child to school vs. homeschooling

It's easy to come up with a lot of these examples. There are a ton of scenarios where the goals are opposed.

What kind of simple is more important to you?

My personal problem is that when I say "I want to live a simpler life," I usually want to achieve both goals. Yet, as we saw in the example above, they are often contradictory.

As I said in my post on Minimalism and Interdependence, I don't necessarily think it's anti-minimalist or anti-simple to rely on complex systems. In a lot of ways, I believe that's what society is all about. Not everyone needs to grow strawberries. Maybe Joe down the street grows strawberries, and Kate blows glass, and Steve is great at canning, and between the three of them, they can trade their time and equipment and resources and come up with enough strawberry jam for three families. It's not necessary for each family to do each set of steps individually.

But I am sensitive to the reality that when you scale up that model to a global supply chain, you end up with a lot of inefficiency and resource waste. Complexity also makes it easy to hide serious ethical problems that would horrify consumers if they had to witness them firsthand. It's so easy for me to go into a store and buy cheap sneakers without thinking about the possibility that they were made by child labor or in sweatshop conditions.

I have to believe there is a sweet spot somewhere between "everyone does everything themselves" and "an upperclass of idle rich do nothing at the expense of oppressed laborers."

Optimizations which achieve both goals

The two types of simplicity are not always in opposition.

In one of my first posts, Super Simple Zero Waste Tactics for Lazy People (Like Me), I reviewed the "zero waste" optimizations that I've managed to continue even after somewhat losing interest in, or at least energy for, zero waste-ifying my life. Why did these tactics stick, while others didn't?

Zero waste in general is a movement designed to achieve global simplicity--using less resources, wasting less. The tactics that stuck for me were therefore ones that also achieved individual simplicity. It is actually easier for me personally, in terms of my own time and effort, to mix up a quick batch of laundry soap than to buy laundry soap.

I'm always on the lookout for changes to my habits or lifestyle which can help me become simpler in both senses of the word. I'm typically unsatisfied with changes which cause me to increase one type of simplicity at the expense of another. (In cases where the goals are opposed, you may reasonably fall at a different point along the spectrum. There's nothing special about the way I already live my life except that I already do it that way, so I consider it normal.)

Here are some more life choices or tactics that may be big wins in both senses of simplicity.

  • Buying less stuff: "less" is obviously relative depending on where you started. Many people are afraid to downsize because they think their lives will be harder--less individually simple--if they own less stuff, but often the reverse is true since having less stuff means less time moving, storing, organizing, cleaning, losing, finding, and generally thinking about stuff. That said, while it may simplify your day-to-day, getting rid of stuff you already own is probably a wash when it comes to your consumption of the earth's resources. Where it becomes a big win globally is when you can get to a place where you are actually buying less than you used to, or otherwise would.
  • Living in a smaller space: Again, smaller is relative, but generally this is a move in a more simple direction for most people. Smaller homes are less costly, resource-wise and money-wise, to power, heat, and cool. The resource thing is important in a global sense, and the money thing is important to individual simplicity, because it means you have to work less and expend less life-energy. It's also easier from an individual point of view to clean and maintain a smaller space (although I can certainly see there being a point of diminishing returns if you're always bumping into your family members or you have to put up your Murphy bed each day.)
  • Buying durable stuff ("buy it for life"): While we often buy cheap, semi-disposable items due to budget constraints in the moment, to follow trends, etc., it's individually simpler to buy stuff that's durable and simply works without fault for many years. You ultimately spend less time shopping, replacing, and worrying. It's also globally simpler because you waste less resources.
  • Buying secondhand stuff: Buying secondhand, rather than new, is simpler in the global sense--get use out of something that already exists instead of creating demand for more items to be produced! And it's often just as easy in the individual sense. I guess shopping at Goodwill can be more time-consuming than shopping in a department store where there are a reliable set of items and many copies of each item arranged by size, etc., but I'd argue that new shopping's usually pretty hit or miss, anyway.
  • Getting into productive hobbies: Global simplicity activities like gardening and DIY may not be worth the time to you if you find them to be annoying chores, or you hate them, or you're uninterested in spending enough time on them to develop the necessary skills and knowledge. But if you have free time that you're going to spend on leisure activities anyway, and you're looking for a new hobby, it can be a double win if you find you enjoy one of these activities. Presumably, the goal of individual simplicity is to free up more time and brainspace for things that you enjoy, so if you enjoy globally simple activities, bonus.
  • Not having a car: This one is controversial, for sure! Some people think that my lack of a car makes my life unbearably complicated, and that it's way easier to get in a car and go somewhere than it is to figure out bus schedules or be limited by the subway map. Personally, I think that is balanced by the freedom and time I gain by not being responsible for auto maintenance, gas fill-ups, digging my car out of snowbanks, and making the money to cover all the associated car costs. In a global sense, public transit is more environmentally efficient than everyone owning their own car, although I suppose you could argue that my choice to not own a car limits me to living in a city, which prevents me from taking advantage of all sorts of other global-simplicity homesteading activities.
  • Getting back to nature: Contemplating nature can be calming and centering. The more time I spend in a natural setting, the more perspective I have on the rest of my life, and the more willing and energetic I am to tackle projects that make my life simpler in both senses of the word.

Most of this list deals with big, sweeping life changes, but I'm just as interested in teensy, tiny optimizations, too. For example, I consider sweeping a win in both senses, because it's globally simpler to make and power a broom than a vacuum, and I find it personally easier and quicker to get the broom down from the peg and do a little sweeping than it is to haul out the vacuum, untangle the cord, change bags, etc. (I do think I still need a vacuum for carpets and occasional deep cleans, but adding a sweeping routine to my life has reduced my vacuum use.) I'm always collecting these, so let me know your big and little simplicity double-wins!


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