How I Accidentally Discovered the Secret of Simplicity

“Simplicity is making the journey of this life with just baggage enough.”  – Charles Dudley Warner

Four years ago, my family and I rented an apartment in Testevere for six weeks — a five-story walk-up in a 19th-century building. The climb upstairs was a killer, but the apartment had two terraces, one overlooking the Tiber and the other looking down onto a medieval garden. The breeze was almost constant on the porch. We had two bedrooms, one for us and one for the kids, and a little office in which I could work.

As idyllic as it sounds, I wasn’t sure this plan was going to work. Though I knew I could communicate with my clients primarily by e-mail, I had a long list of things I feared — that the phone lines would be unreliable, that the time difference between Rome and the U.S. would prove troublesome, that I would need something critical from home for a project, etc. As crazy and stressful as my life was back then, it was hard for me to imagine it any other way.

But what actually happened was quite remarkable.

Of course, the phone service worked just fine. The time difference was, if anything, a blessing. And I never missed what I didn’t have. Gradually, the way I felt about work, about money, about almost everything, was different. And I was forever, fundamentally, changed.

The transformation happened a little bit every day. During the first week, I worked about eight hours a day, waking several hours before my family did so I could be with them for a few hours late in the afternoon. By week two, I was ready to meet them around 2:00, after lunch. By week three, I was working just four hours a day and joining my family for lunch — followed by visits to churches, museums, and parks. Sometime during the fourth week, I made a conscious decision to completely change the way I worked . . . which would end up substantially changing my life too.

I suddenly realized that although I had always written down, and acted as if I had, four life goals . . . I had only accomplished my primary goal (acquiring financial independence). All of the needless distractions and worries that I usually engaged in back home robbed me of the time and energy I needed to do anything else. My personal goals, my health, and my relationships with family and friends were all suffering. I was completely out of alignment. And I was paying a high price for it.

This new life I was living — this exquisite balance between earning a living and enjoying my leisure time — brought me a great deal of peace and pleasure. I discovered a pace and routine that was simple, productive, and enjoyable.

Wake up early. Enjoy a light breakfast. Work on something I care about till noon. Have lunch with my family . . . maybe even take a nap. Do something fun and educational. Enjoy a good dinner. Read a good book or have a good conversation. Get a good night’s sleep.

I also discovered what I didn’t need, and never enjoyed, about my busy days in the U.S.: volumes of business e-mail; long business meetings, writing and reading long memos, having and resolving arguments, watching television, and reading bad news … Just for openers.

Not only had I spent 80% of my time doing things I didn’t like and that didn’t seem to matter all that much, but the habit of doing them left me with precious little time to do the things that made me feel good.

If your success has been a trap — if you work too hard, enjoy life too little, and worry that you won’t find peace, happiness, and health now while there is still time to enjoy it — you owe it to yourself to re-evaluate. Take a few minutes today to analyze how you are spending your time . . . and compare that with what you would like to be doing. Do you spend most of your time doing work you enjoy? Or do you trudge through most of your working hours stressed and unhappy?

If you are not happy with how your life feels, you need to spend a moment considering whether you have the courage to do something drastic to change it.

It isn’t easy to change your habits — and the habits we have in regard to money (be they productive, counterproductive, creative, or self-destructive) are some of the hardest habits to change. If you want change, your first task is to merely (a) recognize that your current behavior is responsible for your current frustration and (b) accept the fact that if you want change, you must be willing to behave differently.

Still with me?

Good. So how do you determine what habits to lose and what new habits to replace them with? Start by keeping notes in your journal (You ARE keeping a journal, aren’t you?) about how certain tasks make you feel. Note too when such tasks were performed and under what conditions (e.g., “Wrote the trip memo. Afternoon. Office. Angry.”). This may seem silly at first — making notations such as “bored,” “excited,” “anxious,” etc. alongside the entries that pertain to your daily activities. If you keep at it for a while, however, you’ll notice certain patterns that will become clear, as well as certain exceptions that may be startling.

In my case, for example, I found that whenever I do e-mail first thing in the morning, I become anxious and often frenetic — and that those unpleasant feelings often follow me through the day. I found, too, that I tend to rush through other more important tasks, which makes them feel less rewarding. In contrast, when I begin the day by writing something I care about, I am rewarded with a feeling of equanimity, and I set a more relaxed, more thoughtful tempo for myself that makes all my subsequent work more enjoyable.

These sorts of observations have helped me understand not only what sort of work I like to do but also when I like to do it and where. (I like working outside my office for an hour or two in the late afternoon.) After you’ve figured that out, you need to spend some time plotting your transformation. Establish a new schedule that allows you to spend more time doing what energizes you and find ways to delegate or — if possible — ignore all those things that you dislike. You’ll probably be amazed (as I was) to find that many of the tasks you abhor are also tasks that do little or nothing to advance your goals (business, social, or personal).

They are just habits — busy habits — that you’ve latched onto over the years.

Spend some time reading biographies of people you admire. Read about change by authors (researchers, philosophers, poets, etc.) who have thought about it. Ask yourself, “If I didn’t have to work for a living, what work would I do for the pleasure of it?” And make an inventory of everything that is truly important to you. Keep prodding yourself like this and you will gradually develop a sort of unconscious compass that will tell you immediately if what you are about to do is taking you where you want to go.

This isn’t all you have to do. It’s just the beginning. But starting down the right road is an enormously good feeling — especially if you’ve been treading down the wrong path for any length of time.