Living the Simple Life

A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More


By Elaine St. James

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If you've thought about simplifying, but don't know where to begin, Living the Simple Life is the blueprint you need. And if you've already started to simplify, it will give you new insights and ideas for what to do next on your journey to a more balanced, peaceful life.

In these pages, you'll discover how simplifying your life will:
  • Give you more time to play and relax
  • Make you more productive at work
  • Unleash your creativity and open up new possibilities
  • Free up time for you to face the challenges you've been avoiding
Scale down. Enjoy More.


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page

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I first made the decision to start living a simpler life in the summer of 1990. Prior to that time I had spent roughly twelve years as a real estate investor. I worked ten-hour days buying, refurbishing, managing, and selling investment properties.

During the previous year I had organized a real estate seminar business, had written a book on real estate investing, and had just completed a national media tour to promote it.

My life was ruled by a black leather time management system that weighed five pounds and took up half my desk space. My day was driven by the classic prioritizing question, "What is the best use of my time right now?"

Sometime after college I began, as many of us did, to work at two speeds: faster and fastest. I moved at this pace from six in the morning until seven or eight o'clock at night for more years than I care to count.

It would probably be accurate to say that I had become a fairly typical urban professional on my own fast track.

Though my husband, Gibbs, who is older and wiser than I am, was never technically a yuppie, his life was complicated by the fact that he was married to one. And he, too, maintained a full career schedule as a magazine editor, while at the same time writing a series of adventure novels. He was also an active volunteer with various community organizations.

In addition to our time-consuming careers, we had all the other duties and responsibilities associated with maintaining our lives. Though my two stepsons—who had been with us on weekends for the previous eight years—were now out on their own, we still had four cats and a busy social life.

The gods must have been smiling on me in the summer of 1990. I stopped for five minutes in the middle of July that year, and in a quiet moment I looked at my time management system as though I were seeing it for the first time. As I went over the list of phone calls I had to make, the people I had to see, the places I had to go, and the things I had to do, all of a sudden a light bulb went on. I realized my life had become too complicated, and I made the decision then and there to start simplifying it.

I had finally reached a point where keeping up such a hectic pace no longer seemed worth it. It occurred to me that we had, through long hours and a lot of hard work, achieved a modicum of success. We had many of the trappings of the modern lifestyle, but we didn't have the time, and sometimes not even the energy, to enjoy them. And even worse, we had little time for each other, and practically no time for ourselves.

A large part of the dissatisfaction for me was that I had never particularly enjoyed my work. I had continued to do it because I hadn't a clue what else I might be able to do. At that moment it was unthinkable that I could change my career or cut back on my work schedule.

But I decided there were many other areas where we could begin to cut back. My first objective was to create some breathing space so we could start to figure out how we could do things differently.

And so we began the process of simplifying. In the first couple of months we eliminated a lot of the clutter that was taking up our time and energy, and we moved to a smaller home. Over the next couple of years we made significant changes in our household routines, our social lives, our entertainment patterns, our civic and volunteer schedules, our financial picture, our personal lives, and eventually even our work lives.

I then got the idea to write a book on the things we had done to scale back. That book, Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter, was published in May 1994. It outlines many of the steps Gibbs and I took to simplify.

In the process of simplifying the outer areas of our lives, we freed up close to thirty hours a week. This gave me the opportunity to begin the daunting prospect of thinking about making some career changes, and also the chance to address some of the emotional, psychological, and spiritual issues that had been bubbling beneath the surface of my fast-paced life, but that I'd seldom taken the time to explore.

I then decided to write a book that would discuss some of those issues. And so I wrote Inner Simplicity: 100 Ways to Regain Peace and Nourish Your Soul, which was published in May 1995.

When we first made the decision to simplify, we had no idea that we were in the beginning phase of a major national trend. We simply wanted to get out from under the complications that twelve fast-paced years had generated.

If you, too, are thinking about making some changes and simplifying, or have already started the process, you're not alone.

According to the Trends Research Institute of Rhinebeck, New York, a privately funded organization that forecasts and tracks changes in our culture, simplifying is one of the leading movements of the decade.

A 1995 nationwide survey of a cross section of Americans revealed that close to 30 percent of the respondents had voluntarily downshifted, and were working fewer hours for less pay so they could spend more time with their families.

Numerous other surveys have shown that anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of those questioned would be willing to accept a reduction in pay if they could work fewer hours.

This represents a major nationwide change in personal priorities. It says that many of us have had enough of the fast-paced, hard-working lifestyle that has become "the norm" over the last decade. It says millions of Americans want to live their lives differently.

The Trends Institute estimates that by the end of the decade, a total of 15 percent of the 77 million baby boomers will have made significant moves toward creating simpler lives, some voluntarily, others involuntarily.

When I wrote Simplify Your Life, I thought I was writing it for maturing yuppies, who, like Gibbs and me, had been seduced by both the work and the consumer culture in recent years, and who in the process of overdoing it, had begun to lose sight of the important things.

But based on the letters I receive from readers around the country, it would appear that the desire to simplify crosses most generational, economic, educational, and professional lines.

I hear from teenagers, single men and women, married couples, retirees, the affluent, the not so affluent, and people from every walk of life—teachers, nurses, computer specialists, actors, journalists, artists, psychotherapists, legislators, lawyers, corporate executives, police officers, students, and media personalities. They are among the millions of Americans who are reducing, voluntarily or otherwise, the hours they spend earning a salary, their housing requirements, and the money they spend on goods and services.

They, like Gibbs and me, are realizing that they've given up too much in the effort to have it all. The primary objective for most of them is to have more time for their own life dreams or for the people they love, and for doing the things they really want to do.

When you stop to think about it, it's not surprising that so many of us want to simplify. Never before in the history of mankind have so many people been able to have so much, go so many places, and do so many things. We've worn ourselves out trying to have it all.

And now we're ready to look at other options.

In Living the Simple Life, we'll explore what simple living means to different people and look at what complicates our lives, what we can eliminate, and ways we can play the game differently (Chapter One). I'll outline some ways to get started, especially for those who feel their lives are too complicated to even think about simplifying (Chapter Two), and for those who may not have stopped long enough recently to get in touch with what really matters to them (Chapter Three).

I'll point out some of the things Gibbs and I have learned over the past few years about having more time to call our own, and suggest how to deal with people who don't understand the desire to simplify (Chapter Four).

In my experience two major issues complicate our lives above all else. The first is our ongoing battle with consumerism and the stuff we've accumulated. As with any problem, awareness is the first step toward resolution. And so I'll share what we've learned about letting go of a lot of that stuff, and some of the ways we've dealt with the media-generated imperative to consume (Chapters Five and Six).

The second challenge is the tendency for many of us to say yes when we'd like to say no, a habit that affects all areas of our lives. In Chapter Seven, I'll discuss ways we've used to approach this.

One of the great dichotomies we face is that because our lives are so complicated we don't have time for ourselves and at the same time we often keep our lives complicated so we won't have to address some of our inner issues. I'll talk about this and some ways we can bring our outer and inner lives together in Chapter Eight.

Each passing year leaves us with personal, household, and lifestyle choices that can either simplify our lives or complicate them even further. In Chapters Nine and Ten, I'll share my experiences—as well as some readers' ideas—about these choices.

There is perhaps no one for whom the problems of consumerism and learning to say no are more important or more challenging than for parents. In Chapter Eleven, I'll combine my own observations with the wisdom of several readers and an expert or two to outline some ideas for simplifying with children.

Having no options complicates our lives. Having too many options complicates our lives as well. In Chapter Twelve, I'll discuss some ways I've learned to deal with the clothing options for women. In Chapter Thirteen, Gibbs discusses some things he's always known about clothing options for men.

I've also included a Reading List, a selection of books that explores some more of the organizational, financial, lifestyle, and work-related questions of living a simpler life.

An interviewer asked me recently if I was glad I made all these changes and had simplified my life. I said I was, absolutely.

Then she asked if I'd do it again. I said yes, absolutely. There's no way I'd ever want my life to be so complicated again.

Then she asked if I would have simplified if someone else had suggested it to me—before I came to the decision on my own. My initial reply was, probably not!

But as I thought about it some more, I realized that if someone had outlined easy changes I could make which would free up some time without derailing the rest of my schedule, I believe I would have paused long enough to consider them.

If someone had been able to show me that just by tweaking my daily routine I would have more time each week—not to work more but to play more and relax more—I like to think I'd have been open to that possibility.

If someone had pointed out that reducing the hours I spend in the office each day could actually make me more productive, I would have been open to experimenting with that.

If I could have seen that freeing up more time for leisure would help open me up to my creativity, which in turn would make it possible for me to move away from a career I'd never been happy in and into one that now is a constant source of joy… Well, I might have been skeptical, but because hope springs eternal, I'd have sought out that leisure time.

And if someone had convinced me that eventually I could use some of my newfound time to face the more difficult challenges I'd spent years avoiding—such as conquering my fears and learning to forgive—and that doing those things in turn would free me for unprecedented personal and inner growth, I like to think I'd have gone for it.

So that's what I'd like to do for you in Living the Simple Life. If you're just starting to consider the possibility of simplifying, I want to give you a glimpse of the tremendous freedom you'll experience when you start to eliminate some of the day-to-day complexities.

You'll see that simplifying is not necessarily about getting rid of everything we've worked so hard for. It's about making wise choices among the things we now have to choose from. It's about recognizing that trying to have it all has gotten in the way of enjoying the things which do add to our happiness and well-being. So it's about deciding what's important to us, and gracefully letting go of the things that aren't.

You'll see that simplifying is not necessarily about moving to Walden Pond and sending the laundry home to Mother. It's about simplifying our lives right where we are. It's about learning to reduce the laundering chore, along with all the other chores and frequently self-imposed obligations, so we can begin to make the contributions we all, in our heart of hearts, want to make to our family, to our community, to our environment, and to the world.

If you've already begun taking steps to simplify, Living the Simple Life will help you continue on your way, perhaps with some ideas you may not have thought of, and possibly with some different ways of thinking about the process.

If you've long been living the simple life, I hope you'll find here some reinforcement and even validation for the sometimes easy, sometimes difficult, but almost always rewarding choices you've made.

When you start slowing down, cutting back, creating time—real time for yourself—the important things become obvious. Once you simplify your life you begin, perhaps again, to do your best work. You can start, perhaps all over again, to live your best life, whatever that is for you.

Simplifying is not a panacea. It won't solve all the problems of our lives or of the world. But it's a good beginning.


The Simple Life

1. What Living the Simple Life Means for Me and Gibbs

When my husband, Gibbs, and I first made the decision to simplify our lives in the summer of 1990, we weren't sure what living the simple life would mean for us. In many respects we had a good life; we just didn't have the time or the energy to enjoy it.

We knew we didn't want to drop out. We weren't ready to move to the woods. We didn't want to give everything away. We're too young to retire, and were not in a financial position to do so, anyway. Our challenge was to create a simpler life right where we were, in a town we love, with people we care about.

For us, simplifying meant, among other things, getting rid of an accumulation of possessions that were no longer adding anything to our lives and were taking up a lot of space in our closets and storage spaces. It was about moving to a smaller, easier-to-maintain home.

It was about cutting back on the daily and weekly household routines—cooking, grocery shopping, housecleaning, yard maintenance, errand running—and using the time we'd freed up to watch the sunset, or to putter in the rose garden, or to spend time with family and friends.

It was about changing our buying patterns, not only to reduce our consumption of the earth's resources, but also to minimize the stuff we have to take care of, insure, and provide space for.

It was about learning to say no to many of the social and civic activities we'd often felt obligated to do, so we'd have time to enjoy the silence, or start one of our creative projects, or learn to do nothing for a change.

For Gibbs, who loves his work, it was about eliminating a stressful three- to four-hour daily commute so his workday wasn't so exhausting and so we had more time together. He also wanted to have more time for his writing and to pursue his community and volunteer interests.

For me, it was about going from exhausting ten- and twelve-hour workdays in a career that never fed my soul to a six- to eight-hour day of writing that thrills me to the core.

It was about gradually, over the course of a couple of years, changing our daily routine so that, rather than having to rush mindlessly to begin our respective work schedules, we now have four uninterrupted hours to read, to contemplate, to take walks along the beach together, to chat on the phone with a friend, and possibly to romp with the dogs before we start our workday.

We're still in the early stages of simplifying, so we don't yet know all the benefits that will come from continuing to live the simple life. But we see this as a good start and a big improvement over the hectic lives we'd been living for too many years.

2. Some Other Views of the Simple Life

Keep in mind that simplification is all relative. For example, Oprah Winfrey simplified her life by unloading, via a charity auction, several thousand of the exquisite outfits she has worn on her daily television show for the past ten years, and by figuring out that she can turn off the ringer on her home phone so she doesn't have to take calls if she chooses not to.

Barbra Streisand simplified her life by getting rid of five of her seven houses and her Tiffany lamp collection.

For David, a 42-year-old teacher who told his story at a presentation I gave in San Diego, simplifying means keeping his possessions down to eight boxes of personal items and one lamp to read by.

David uses his master's degree in education to tutor the children of affluent families. He decided twenty years ago to limit his work schedule to two hours a day, four days a week, which provides him all the income he needs to maintain his simple life. A good deal of the rest of his time is spent doing volunteer work with underpriviledged kids.

For Ellen, a 41-year-old single attorney who wrote to me from the Northwest, simplifying is about selling her home and unloading her private practice so she can take time off to figure out what she wants to do next (which definitely won't involve law and most assuredly won't involve maintaining a huge house).

Based on the letters I get from readers of Simplify Your Life and Inner Simplicity and the stories I hear from people I talk with around the country—as well as on reports circulating in the media—simplifying means taking one or two or a combination of steps to reduce the stress that has become a permanent fixture in our lives.

Sometimes it means exploring new career options, sometimes it means quitting our jobs altogether, but almost always it means cutting back on our heavy work schedules.

Sometimes it means moving to a smaller home or moving across country, and sometimes it means simply living differently in the space we have.

Sometimes it means getting rid of everything, but more often it means merely cutting back on the amount of stuff we've accumulated, and changing our spending habits because we're finally learning that too much is too much.

And sometimes simplifying means searching for balance between our need for a satisfying career, our desire to spend time with our families, and the need to nourish our inner selves.

For most of us, simplifying is any one or a combination of steps we can take to get back in control of our lives.

3. A "Corporate Yuppie" Approach to Simplifying

Dear Elaine,

I enjoyed Simplify Your Life and wanted to respond. We, too, have made a drastic lifestyle change for the better. We were yuppies at major corporations and enjoyed the material things and the fast-paced life in Dallas, Texas.

Then the kids came. They are now 2 years old and 7 months old, and they keep me busy. I have no time for fussiness or complications. People ask me how I do it, and I reply, "Simplicity and organization." We moved to a rural area up north and look forward to raising our kids with values and a wholesome environment.

The first thing I did when we decided to simplify was to quit my job. That step in itself eliminated day-care and transportation hassles. I'm trying to get another career going from my home. I've always been a minimalist, but I really kicked into high gear after the kids came along.

I do a lot of the things your book mentions. I feel so free from our past stresses. The thing that makes me happiest is that I'm only 31 years old and learned this early in the game.

The hardest thing is trying to explain our lifestyle to people my age because they think our downscaling was motivated by a negative, such as my quitting my job, or because we can't afford things. It's the opposite, but people don't get it. We don't want an answering machine or call waiting. It's not that we can't afford it. Like you, I was constantly on the phone on my last job, and am not fond of the phone.

I've stopped trying to explain to people. Now I let them wonder why I'm so happy and secure in myself these days.


Cynthia Ferguson

Byron Center, MI

4. A "Cabin in the Woods" Approach to Simple Living

Dear Elaine,

I live in Skagway, Alaska, ninety miles north of Juneau. Your book Simplify Your Life made it to my morning "wake up slowly time" (by reading a book and sipping warm apple cider) just this morning. It was a gift from relatives in Vail, Colorado. I had been feeling complicated and rushed lately, and decided to see what you had for me!

Soon, with a big smile, I realized that I had actually graduated from most of the one hundred simplifiers. Thank you for reminding me how most Americans live a crazy busy life compared to mine.

As I looked around my one-room cabin, taking in all 400 square feet of it, I laughed at myself for thinking my life was too complex. I live eight miles out of Skagway (population 720) in my cabin that has no electricity or running water other than the mountain creek that "runs" by my cabin that I've been drinking from for over five years. I have wood heat, a propane stove, and a neat and clean outhouse. I use the creek for refrigeration in summer, and a window box for a fridge in the winter. I can look out my window and see the harbor seals playing and hear the dolphins exhaling out of their blowholes.

For exercise, I chop all my own wood to burn and bike the eight miles to work most days of the week. In winter there are no open businesses in town to use me as their bookkeeper, so I have about five or six months off a year.

My quality of life is fantastic. Yesterday I saw both a bear and a coyote in my neighborhood. The eagle on the front of this card follows me to work in the mornings! I have clean air, clean water, and many loving friends who all live as simply as I do. I actually forget that most people don't live like me and my neighbors.

We aren't hippies or revolutionists. We simply simplified. You'd be amazed how much you can really pare down. I have hauled up a car battery that I run my radio/CD player on, but imagine how much space you'd have without all of your plug-in gadgets! Sometimes we rent movies and watch them at the public library. But the TV was the first thing I was delighted to part with.

Thank you for making your great ideas feasible for people who would not be able to make such a big step over to my lifestyle—but perhaps they'd be able to fire their personal trainer, or simplify their diet, or just smile at their neighbor.

Have a great day.

Carlie Gnatzig

Skagway, AK

5. What Does Simple Living Mean to You?

The levels of stress many of us have experienced in our fast-paced lifestyles have made us long for respite from the pressures of the modern world. The temptation is strong to think that respite would come from packing up and leaving it all behind.

But as Carlie Gnatzig points out, moving to a cabin in the woods is a big leap. Many people have left everything behind to move to the country, and then found that it's not necessarily simple or suitable.

Tempting as it might be to some, escaping to the woods is not the only way one can live a simple life. And it's probably not a realistic option for most of us.

And it's not necessary to make such sweeping changes in order to simplify, at least not to begin with. For many, even minor alterations to the lifestyle we're now living can bring significant relief.

So before you order up the proper attire from L. L. Bean, you may find it helpful, if you haven't done so already, to take some time to figure out what simple living really means to you.

What do you hope to achieve by making some changes that would simplify your life? What would have to happen for you to live more simply? And how will you know when you've gotten there? Can you make some easy changes right where you are? Or would you have to move across town, or possibly across country to get to simple?

It's possible your ideas about simplifying will change as you go along. Keep in mind that what may be simple for someone else may not be simple for you. You may end up with an entirely different understanding of simple living than the one you start out with.


  • "A pinch of Heloise and a dash of Buddha."—Publishers Weekly

On Sale
Apr 22, 2014
Page Count
320 pages
Hachette Books

Elaine St. James

About the Author

Elaine St. James, former real estate businesswoman, is the author of the national bestsellers Simplify Your Life, Inner Simplicity, and Simplify Your Work Life. She lives a quiet, simple life in Santa Barbara, California.

Learn more about this author