Posted by: Liz Massey | February 24, 2010

Clutter-busting by … Practicing Voluntary Simplicity

Photo courtesy SXC.

The fact that I originally started to draft a post about simplicity that was five times longer than this one is probably emblematic of the struggle most folks in our culture have with the concept. I, for one, feel a tension between my desire to live simply and the creative boost I get from the cross-pollination of multiple sources of stimulation, be they projects, tasks or just a pile of library books.

So, rather than bog you down with a lot of theory, I thought I’d try to reduce this post to the bare essentials about voluntary simplicity, and provide a few links if you’d like to learn more about applying the concept to your creative life.

What voluntary simplicity is
There is no universally agreed upon definition of voluntary simplicity, and the concept has been around for many decades. Babylon Dictionary gives this definition:

Simple living (or voluntary simplicity) is a lifestyle in which individuals consciously choose to minimize the ‘more-is-better’ pursuit of wealth and consumption.

I actually found an even more apt definition on the weight-loss online support site I use, SparkPeople. Dean Anderson, a behavioral psychology expert, says,

“Voluntary simplicity may conjure up images of people quitting their jobs, moving back to the land, growing their own food, making their own clothes, and doing without most of the products of modern technology…

“These days, voluntary simplicity is less about doing without certain things, and more about having just enough. It’s about living a full life by intentionally designing your life so that you don’t have to sacrifice anything important or waste your time, energy or material resources on things you don’t really need or cherish. It’s also about integrating basic ethical concerns such as fair distribution of labor and resources and the well-being of the natural world into your personal choices.”

People attracted to voluntary simplicity seem to choose it for one or more of four primary reasons:

  • Environmental: Reducing one’s carbon footprint, etc.
  • Economic: The desire to have less debt, or have more money going toward things one considers truly meaningful.
  • Spiritual: Simplicity can encourage modesty, generosity, contentment with life as it is, etc.
  • Time/Life Management: Many folks are overwhelmed by today’s always-on, 24/7, hyper-connected consumer culture and want off the merry-go-round.

How simplicity impacts creativity
Living more simply can boost one’s ability to be creative, if for no other reason than you may actually have time to create because you are doing less, and working less because you have fewer obligations to fulfill with the money or prestige that over-work might have provided.
In my personal life, I formulated the creative momentum concept and started with de-cluttering because I discovered that so long as I felt as if obligations or events in my life were interfering with my creativity, they did. As I noted above, I still feel a tension between wanting things simple and wanting things exciting, but I have cleared away enough “chaff” from my life to ensure that I have time for the creative activities I enjoy–at least most of the time.
Leo Babauta, author of Zen Habits blog and the book “The Power of Less,” lists the following as the creative benefits of simplicity (the interpretations that follow are mine, the ideas his):

  • Simplicity can lead to focused, elegant ideas, ones that cut through the clutter of modern-day existence.
  • Simplicity clears distractions. How many creative folks do you see writing on Facebook that they can’t break away from it to create? By simplifying one’s life, one can (at least temporarily) short circuit our continuous-interrupt culture.
  • Simplicity can help creative people focus on one project until it is done.
  • Simplicity can encourage making the most of short spurts of time. Making art or coming up with innovative ideas doesn’t have to take all day. Sometimes, 20 or 30 minutes of complete focus is all it takes.

Sara, the author of the blog, had a creative epiphany about simplicity while teaching finger-painting to 3-year-olds.

“I used to teach art to pre-K kids, with the emphasis being on process art.  In process art settings, the outcome of the project is irrelevant….

“One of my favorite parts about this kind of environment is how naturally kids adopt this attitude of experience over end result … I have ridiculous amounts of cool kid art on file because at the end of the day, the students were not concerned about compiling a collection or showing off their skills.  They just want to make art for the sake of enjoying the creative experience.

“This is an attitude that many of us would be wise to adopt in our hobbies, especially crafters of any shape or form.  The end result can suck (hard), because the point is having fun….Emphasizing the process, not the product is just another way of saying that life is about the journey.  It really doesn’t matter where you end up; the entirety of your time is spent on the path, not at the finish line.”

Resources for practicing voluntary simplicity

Zen Habits blog
Leo Babauta’s blog on simple productivity has grown into a community of more than 163,000 RSS subscribers. His posts continue to inspire, and his guest bloggers bring in a variety of perspectives on simple, creative living.

Thriving on Less: Simplifying in a Tough Economy
This is a link to a free e-book (in PDF format) by Leo Babauta, written in response to the challenges of the “Great Recession.” (And no, I am NOT on Leo’s payroll–just a big fan of his work.)

The Simple Living Network
A nice clearinghouse of information about voluntary simplicity.

30 Ways to Make Your Life More Simple
From Quick list of tips that can make a difference in one’s “life clutter” quotient.

Voluntary Simple Living – List of Links
From Nice round up of simplicity resources.

Alternatives for Simple Living
Alternatives for Simple Living, an organization that’s been around since 1973, focuses on simplicity from a spiritual (Protestant/Catholic Christian) perspective.

Simplicity and Success
A collection of articles on simplicity by life coach Bruce Elkin, who has written a great deal about the “creative tension” (a term borrowed from his mentor, Robert Fritz) between wanting to live a simple life and wanting to be productive and enjoy the fruits of one’s labor, as well.

Related Creative Liberty Post

The Bare Essentials
A series of exercises to help you pare your creative practice back to the minimum you need to create.


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