Business of Well-being

Reduce Your Stress With Simplicity

There's nothing simple about the typical American life. We work too hard, treat time like an enemy, amass too much stuff, and sit around too much watching TV while eating too much bad food. No wonder we're a society of obesity and diabetes, heart attacks and strokes, sleep deprivation and exhaustion, road rage and depression.

Wow, that's really depressing! This description certainly isn't true about everybody. Perhaps, though, it's a little true about most of us. So what's a stressed-out American to do? Consider slowing down, if not getting off, the treadmill of your life by simplifying in a way that would make living easier for you.

Spend more time doing things you like is gaining in popularity as a response to our economic times. You may have simplified out of necessity versus choice. Choosing to simplify, however, is a conscious decision to reduce your stress.

Even though it goes against our contemporary American brain to be satisfied with greater simplicity and less stuff, it came very naturally to our grandparents. Maybe it's time to return to our practical past by challenging stereotypical American assumptions like:

  • Baby boomers' belief that human worth is tied to how much you work
  • Some parents equating being a good parent with giving your children everything they want

In other words, simplifying will be different for everyone. What would make your life easier? Leo Babauta writing for Zenhabits suggests that simplifying means getting rid of much of what you do to spend more time with those you love and doing the things you enjoy.

It means, "getting rid of the clutter so you are left with only that which gives you value." Babauta suggests many ideas. The following is adapted from the Zenhabits websiteFirst, write out a clear description of what your simpler life looks like.

  • Identify your well-considered priorities or simplifying won't work for you. Make a list of the four to five most important things to you, what you most value, and what you most want to do in your life.
  • Identify which commitments - from family, hobbies, work and volunteering - truly give you value and you deeply enjoy. Which are in the top four to five most important things you listed? Drop those that aren't.
  • Log your time investments from upon awakening until you go to bed. Do they support your top priorities? Eliminate those that don't. Then redesign how you spend your waking hours.
  • Simplify your work and home tasks. Instead of plowing your way through your to-do lists, identify what's most important and do those first. Eliminate the rest, delegate them or pay someone to do them.
  • Set appropriate limits! If you don't know how, take an assertiveness class. If you set no limits you teach others that you'll always say "yes" to their requests. And guess what: they'll keep asking!
  • Take control over your emails, cell phone, IM, Twitter, etc. They'll take over your life if you're not careful. Set limits like checking emails once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Or admit that these electronic connections are a top priority and more important than whatever else you're falling behind on.
  • Finally some companies are setting limits on employees staying electronically connected after work hours. It's about time!
  • Get rid of stuff. It feels good. Use the idea of one of my past workshop participants: once a year she hangs all of her clothes backward. When she wears something she hangs it back up frontwards. At the end of the year anything that remains hanging backward gets donated. I love this simple idea!

Happiness and satisfaction are never from what you own. They come from your relationships, being satisfied with what you have, being what you want to be and living your values. Recommit to your simplicity annually to avoid slipping back onto the American hyper-treadmill once the economy recovers. The author of Simplify Your Life, Elaine St. James, addresses eight different areas to consider. Among her ideas:

  • Household: de-clutter, speed-clean, get rid of your lawn
  • Lifestyle: move to a smaller house, turn off the TV, simplify your wardrobe
  • Finances: get out of debt, rethink your buying habits, teach your kids fiscal responsibility
  • Your job: work near where you live, do what you really want to do
  • Health: simplify your eating habits, have a fruit- or juice-fast one day a week, meditate
  • Your personal life: clean up your relationships, be yourself, trust your intuition
  • Simplicity for women: kick off your high heels, downsize your purse
  • Hard-core simplicity: rent rather than own, get rid of your car, stop making the bed (only a woman would understand why this would be hard-core)

Simplify your life by buying less stuff and managing your finances

One important area for the stereotypical American who accumulates too much stuff is to simplify your buying habits and take charge of your finances. When I returned from the Peace Corps (Colombia 1971 - 1973) I took a job in Boston.  Not knowing a soul there, I looked through roommate ads and ended up renting an apartment with three teachers.

In this tiny, dollhouse-like place, where space was a valuable commodity, I was assigned one shelf in the hall closet for my toiletries. My handful of items looked laughingly lonely on that bare shelf. My roommates' shelves were crammed with mountains of endless supplies - for what, I couldn't imagine. Because I only took up a tiny corner of my shelf I gave them the rest.

Thirty-nine years later I fill up shelves better than before, but I'm still nowhere near as adroit at it as most are. Most Americans buy stuff they soon forget they even own. The clutter of it also adds to your stress (not to mention the drain on the environment). My very wise husband is fond of saying, "You don't own your possessions; they own you."

Ponder this simple truth. If you complain about working 60 hours a week to earn enough to pay your mortgage, consciously admit that you've chosen a certain caliber of home. Instead, you could choose to live more modestly and be less pressured financially. You might even gain time to do the things you say you miss. To pursue financial simplicity:

  • Go through every drawer and closet in your home and office and toss out everything you haven't used in one year. Put away into a box those things you simply cannot part with and date it a year from now. If you don't look for anything in that box over the next year donate it.
  • Make a purchasing rule a dear friend and Olympic shopper made: she allowed herself to only buy things for which she had the cash. She noticed that those things she passed up for lack of cash were things she didn't even want later on.  She became very aware of how much impulse buying she did of stuff that really didn't matter.
  • When shopping take along no credit cards or checks but only the cash you've decided you can afford to spend.
  • Follow Debtors Anonymous advice.
  • Create a real budget. Break down your expenses into your general categories of spending; mortgage/rent, food, entertainment, monthly bills, kids' items, clothing, etc. Decide what you can spend on monthly based on your income and divide it among your categories. Document what you actually spend every month. If the income is less than the expenses then obviously you must cut the expenses. To help you do this,
  • Divide your budget items into two columns: what you need and want. You need a pair of shoes; you may want fifteen pairs. You need a car but want a Jaguar.  Start slashing from those you want to make sure there's enough for what you need.
  • Reduce your entire budget by 10 - 15 percent. Next year cut more.
  • Decrease your spending on outside entertainment-one of the surest ways to blow your budget.
  • Work with a financial counselor to pay off your debt, no matter how slowly.
  • Downsize your home and invest the difference.

Simplifying how you manage your money is a profitable step to reducing financial stress.

Get going on your plan to simplify

So, where can you start? Develop an awareness and appreciation for the best things in life, which are very simple and free: love, motivating work, enjoying nature. Yet most of us are chained to making a certain income to support a cluttered lifestyle, the opposite of simplicity.

At the other extreme are some younger people who promote a lifestyle where you only possess 100 things. If you have three pair of jeans that counts for three! That's too stark for me, but the sentiment is appreciated.

Define simplicity with your family:

  • Have a conversation with your family about what's most important to you. What would make your lives easier? Are you cooking different menus to satisfy everyone? Are you experiencing multiple physical symptoms of stress? Do you value health over making a lot of money? Once you've decided what would help make your lives easier, then

Listen to your inner wisdom and act on its authentic advice

  • Create quiet time in nature or through meditation several times a week to
  • Ask and answer your questions about how to simplify. It's nearly impossible to see what's best when you're on your treadmill at high speed. Journaling and quiet contemplation allow you to see answers you couldn't otherwise.
  • Make even a small change that increases simplicity in your life. Then make another change that makes your life easier. Once you start the process it can build up a life of its own. Making simpler choices becomes easier.
  • Begin your morning routine more slowly. Get up a few minutes earlier, brush your teeth more slowly, eat slowly, and drive more slowly.
  • Daily connect with nature with a conscious walk; not just a mechanical one, but one where you focus on the birds, the squirrels and the emerging morning light. At minimum before getting into your car deep breathe the fresh air and appreciate our gorgeous, emerging fall weather.
  • Surround yourself with beauty. I don't mean buy stuff that becomes clutter, but rather make your surroundings more attractive with flowers, photos, meaningful mementos, candles and fresh air.
  • Seek and enjoy silence daily, the opposite of the cacophony of daily noises: the alarming alarm that shocks you awake, the offensive hair dryer, the endless drone of depressing TV news, the ubiquitous office clamor. All day we're surrounded by so much noise that it becomes part of the backdrop of life - until it totally stops -- leaving the sweet sound of silence.

Don't underestimate the stress of this incessant noise. To hear your inner voice above it you must regularly stop the noise and create silence for yourself through deep relaxation, sitting in silence with no TV or music, sitting comfortably in nature listening to its peaceful and natural sounds.

With practice, you'll slow down allowing your intuition to surface. Keep a journal nearby to record your thoughts. You don't need to act on any ideas, but at least get them onto paper and into your conscious mind. To encourage your intuition to surface ask and answer questions:

  • What energizes/drains me the most? Why?
  • What part of my life is/isn't working? Why?
  • What could I do to make life easier?

Be patient.  It may take awhile for your answers to surface.Americans have bought tons of stuff and discovered it doesn't make us happier. In fact, the more stuff you have the more you want. Simplifying your life clears out the clutter so the clarity of what you really need shines through.

About The Author

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M.S.


In 1976, after returning from 2 and a half years in the Peace Corps in Colombia, South America, Jackie earned her Master's degree in Community Counseling/Psychology from her home state of Minnesota. She then worked for several years as a Program Director at a mental health center. In 1982, she founded InterAction Associates, her speaking and coaching firm.  

For over 25 years, Jackie has designed and presented keynotes and workshops on stress management, diversity, workplace harassment, motivation, and communication skills.  Her mission is to inspire you to live a conscious life of personal responsibility in your relations with yourself and others, which she weaves into every presentation to help you "wake up" to your responsibility in making your desired changes.

Literally hundreds-of-thousands of people throughout North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and points in between have benefitted from her programs.  Jackie is also a Stress & Wellness Coach helping people achieve more success with less stress.

In 2010, she published the book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple. Ferguson also has a weekly, published, emailed column, Stress for Success, published in a Gannett Newspaper, at  You can now follow Jackie on Twitter (

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