Every now and again life has a way of helping us to declutter and reevaluate what is most essential. Sometimes the influence is as small as an impulse to clean out the closet or make a drop off at the local Goodwill. Other times, this life force shows up as significant life changes like new careers, falling in love or letting go of someone who has been close to us. Recognizing and responding to this influence gives us the opportunity to refocus our efforts on those aspects of life that fuel us, and to cut out the things that are distracting or toxic.
Northern California is only the latest location in the U.S. where people have found themselves — against their will and without warning — faced with one of those big life changes, their focus thrust entirely on what’s essential to them. In an odd twist of fate, I was actually planning to move up to Santa Rosa this summer. I was looking for a location that had more of a small town feel, somewhere a little less hectic, a place that might be healthier for my mind, body and soul than the middle of Silicon Valley. The same Santa Rosa neighborhoods that burned to the ground are the same ones where I was looking to live.
Ultimately, I was not feeling the flow of the choice and, though I could have made it work, to me that’s always a sign to take a step back. In doing so, I was fortunate to have personally sidestepped this tragic event, and feel deeply for the great many who were not so lucky. Had I gone through with the move, however, I would have very likely been one of those people who woke up at 2 am to a wildfire encroaching on their home. Within seconds I would have decided to grab my cats and my computer, and fled without a second thought to the rest of my belongings. I likely would have left my phone and glasses behind, because they are replaceable. My animals and the record of my life’s work on my computer could not. The immediacy and danger of the situation would have made the choice simple.
However, had my new location been in one of those “be ready” zones, choosing what to take and what to leave behind might have involved more contemplation. One friend who lives in a warning zone shared that he and his wife narrowed what was essential down to their dog’s kennel (and of course the dog), food and feeding bowls, their computers, two week’s worth of clothing, small family heirlooms, and wedding photos.
“It was agonizing, but also somewhat liberating at the same time,” Jamie remarked. “Suddenly, those out-of-production shoes I scoured the internet for didn’t matter. My extensive wine collection, which I spent years building and felt so much pride in was suddenly worthless to me. All of these things in my life, which I had invested much time, energy and money on were no longer things that meant anything to me. Even if the fires don’t reach our house, I’m probably going to get rid of a lot of stuff anyway.”
This reflection is not uncommon. Significant personal loss, or even just the possibility of it, can often trigger an awakening of sorts, as people become more present to what really matters to them. Some may experience intense feelings of gratitude towards people and things that they — in part or in whole — had previously taken for granted.
Quite a few of these people will eventually go back to their regular lives, picking up what pieces they can and rebuilding the rest. Others may find themselves permanently transformed by the experience and can come out the other side with a renewed sense of clarity and purpose.
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And these numerous natural disasters throughout the U.S. — wildfires across the West and hurricanes and flooding in the South, Southeast, and the Caribbean, have prompted a desire in me, personally, to undertake the same tough decision process that these disasters have forced so many people to go through. I have started examining my life direction, activities and possessions, paring things down to focus on what is necessary and essential, and releasing what truly does not matter.
As we go through each day, it’s easy to collect possessions, information, job responsibilities, and even relationships that don’t support us in achieving the experiences we genuinely want. Left unchecked these things add up to spatial and emotional clutter that slowly encroaches on us, quietly building up stress that we don’t even notice — except for in those moments when we stop to wonder why we feel so overloaded! By decluttering our lives and minds of things that don’t honestly matter, we can discover a hidden happiness in living a more simplified, focused and ultimately, more fulfilling life.
We don’t have to wait until a significant life event, or that feeling of overwhelm forces us to pare things down to what fuels us rather than depletes us. We can do this continually with every choice we make. And, over time, as we choose to practice this path of essentialism, we often find it’s easier to resist activities and relationships that are distracting and unfulfilling.
Practicing essentialism starts with identifying those things we value in our lives, and what we want to nurture. Questions like, “What’s important to me?” and “What do I love?” are good jumping off points. They can help you zoom in on what aspects of life you can’t live without, what things that you find necessary because they help you attain something you value, and what things bring you joy and fulfillment.
Once you have a sense of these essential core elements of your life, compare them to how you spend your time, energy and money. Evaluate your career, personal relationships, entertainment choices, eating habits and other aspects of your life to reveal how they contribute or distract from what you see as essential to a fulfilling life. Then, make choices to keep those things that support what you want more of in your life, and release those things that are contributing to clutter and dissatisfaction.
Keep in mind that essentialism isn’t about making choices about what to give up, as much as it is about being more discerning and cognizant of how we spend our time, money and emotional energy. It’s not about doing less, but being more mindful of what we choose to do and why.
That is not to say you may not feel a void, as you let go of elements you have long harbored. The distractions are there for a reason, after all, and there may be an impulse to fill them again with more clutter. If you trust in the process, however, that feeling of the void will dissipate, and you will find yourself feeling more focused and purposeful.
Without the pressure of a fire or hurricane catalyzing your focus, this attention on choice requires a more conscious effort, but happily, it becomes easier and easier the more we let go of the people and things that needlessly pull our attention. Such a mindful approach to your world can help ensure that everything it holds is there for a purpose and not by accident. By pursuing a life that is more selective about the actions you take, you can regain control of your own choices and free yourself up to live in ways that genuinely matter to you, and amplify your ability to achieve your life goals.
This week, take the time to examine your life from the perspective of essentialism. What aspects are most important to you, and what do you want more of in your life? Then, how do the choices you’ve made in the past support or detract from your ability to experience a life full of those things you feel are essential? What’s one thing you can do this week, to let go of some non-essential elements and free yourself up for more of what you want?
“Essentialism isn’t one more thing; it is a different way of doing everything. It is a discipline you apply constantly, effortlessly. Essentialism is a mindset; a way of life. It is an idea whose time has come.” — Greg McKeown