Monday, November 3, 2014

Step #4 Simplifying Your Life – Part 1

M. Scott Peck began his classic, best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled, with three words, “Life is difficult.” He was right. But, he wrote his book in 1977. Has the world changed since that time? You bet it has. So, here is my opening line --

“Life is complex.”

Several years ago, a woman, about 21 or 22 years my senior, and I were sitting in her office having a casual conversation. Agnes was a lifetime real estate agent in Winchester, Virginia, a small city of about 25,000 located in the northern Shenandoah Valley. The discussion was generally light in nature, but as we chatted, we both touched on some matters that were complicating our lives. Out of the blue, I asked her, “Agnes, you have a few years on me, tell me, does it ever get easier?” Her reply was simple and to the heart of the matter. She said, “Honey, it only gets harder.” Honestly, that wasn’t what I wanted to hear her say.

Many of us grew up in a “kinder and gentler time.” Sure! We had to do our “duck and cover drills” in school to be prepared for the possible atomic bomb attack from the Soviet Union. Even as an elementary school child, having seen photos of Nagasaki and Hiroshima after we dropped “The Bomb” on Japan, I wondered whom they were kidding? If we weren’t instantly turned to cinders, a worse fate followed, that of radiation sickness from the fallout. Other than that, life was pretty simple in the late 40’s, 50s and early to mid 60’s.

A home typically had one telephone, usually; a party line and you could have it in any color you wanted as long as it was black. Most families that had a car typically had only one. Radio was still a very popular form of entertainment and many of the great radio dramas were still being broadcast, a few, lasted into the early 60’s. Television was simple, they were all black and white, small screens, a 19” was the talk of the neighborhood, and there were only a few channels. I grew up in the New York City metropolitan area. Cable TV didn’t exist, yet. In the NYC area we had the good fortune of having seven channels to select from. My, how difficult it was to get everyone to agree on a program. (I’m being a little facetious.) Of course, most homes only had one TV, too. The typical home had two or maybe three bedrooms and a single bathroom. Everything about that time was simpler.

The 60’s were a period of significant change and by the 70’s with all the advances made through the space program, remember, the U.S. put a man on the moon in 1969, things began to change much more rapidly. Cellular telephones were in the early stages of development and testing. They were very expensive. Jet airliners had pretty well taken over the commercial air travel industry and one could fly coast to coast in reasonable comfort in about five hours. Families now had multiple cars and multiple phone extensions with touch tone dialing in different shapes and colors to fit a room décor. Color TV was rapidly replacing the black and white TV. Cable TV was growing rapidly in major markets a fourth broadcast network joined the original three and new cable TV networks were popping up including the beginning of HBO.

Life had shifted from the slow lanes on the U.S. highways to the fast lane on the new interstate highway system commissioned by President Eisenhower in the mid 50’s. You could take the supermarkets that I recall when I was a youngster and put two or three of them in one of the new supermarkets. Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target had all been launched and were starting their expansion. The corner bakeries, delicatessens, candy stores and drug stores were beginning to go the way of the dinosaurs, taking the 5 and 10 cent stores with them. Life was becoming complex and we hadn’t even added a computer to every home, the Internet, everyone having a cell phone including the kids, email, ebooks, texting, microwave ovens, satellite radio and GPS. If you remember the original Star Trek series from the 60’s, we’ve realized much of what that show projected.

Okay, so enough with the history lessons. Some of you who are reading this weren’t even born back then, so this is ancient history to you. You read about it in recent history books. This was our life. So much has changed. I don’t have to go into the growth of terrorism through the 90’s that culminated in 9/11. That was something we couldn’t have imagined in the 50’s and 60’s.

Today, we live in a high-speed society, we tend to work more hours, both the husband and wife work in many, if not most, families – either because they both want careers or they absolutely need two full-time incomes to barely keep ahead of the bill collectors or both. Add children to the family and now we need to figure in pre-school, day care, after school activities, sports, multiple computers and keeping in contact by cell phone or text messaging. Email is beginning to decline already as texting replaces it. Frankly, I’m glad I’m 67 at this writing. I can’t keep up with it all and I’m single and my son is an adult.

We are bombarded by 24/7 news feeds, thousands of athletic competitions each week, hundreds of high definition, all too often, mindless pulp they call, television programs. OMG, who cares about the trivial manure they call news most of the time. Oh my, and I just used a term from a new language – OMG, from the texting world, meaning Oh My God and I don’t even text very often. But, these acronyms are becoming common language. Acronyms used to drive me crazy when I was in the Air Force.

So, here’s my question to you. Do you actually have any real time for YOU? For those who are about 45 and over and especially those who are 55 and older, I’m sure you’d ask the same question I asked my friend Agnes. I can tell you the answer. No! It doesn’t get easier or simpler. To those younger readers who didn’t enjoy that simpler, kinder and gentler time that us older folks remember, you grew up with all of this. You don’t know the difference. But, I think those who are 50 and over understand there is a big difference.

Step #4 in the 12 Step Program is about simplifying your life. There are many ways to simplify and some of them are reasonably easy. Others are more difficult. Many of the things that complicate your life you do traditionally or habitually. Some things you can’t escape, so you need to find ways to simplify the process.

There are some excellent books on simplifying your life. I’ve read many of them. One series of books is by Elaine St. James. She has devoted many years of her life writing books on the topic. The one I found to be immediately helpful to me is Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter. You can breeze through this book and start simplifying immediately. Another book is by my long-time friend and prolific author, Jeff Davidson. His book is titled, The Joy of Simple Living: Over 1,500 Simple Ways to Make Your Life Easy and Content-- At Home and At Work It’s a larger book and it’s loaded with terrific ideas.

I have several more and I’ve just discovered two more books, both in ebook format. I’m really into ebooks because I can carry an entire library in my netbook or tablet computer or my Android smart phone and read them anytime I want to regardless of where I am. I eliminated most of my paper and ink books when I moved from the ranch in 2008. I refuse to buy hard copy books. If they are not available in Kindle or ebook format, I’ll pass. I’ve already acquired, read and reviewed one of them on this blog, Simple Ways to Be More With Less: Life on Purpose by Courtney Carver. The other ebook is by John Haines, a New Zealander, and is titled, In Search of Simplicity: A True Story That Changes Lives. I’ll read and review that one in the near future.

Let’s get started. In the next several paragraphs I’m going to start you on a number of projects to begin simplifying your life. There is a catch, of course. The catch is that you’re going to have to change. You’ll have to change some of your thinking and your lifestyle. Some of these are fairly simple and others are pretty drastic. They may even create some psychological and emotional trauma for you. The choice to implement any of these changes is, as always, yours and yours alone. Whether you apply any or all of these in your own life will not have any direct or indirect impact on me.

Once again, you’re going to create a series of lists. You can label these lists as follows:

1   Newspapers/Periodicals
2   Mail
3   Wardrobe
4   Vehicle(s)
5   Toys
6   Home(s)
7   Phone(s)
8   Holidays
9   Debt
10 Banking/Investments
11 Shopping
12 Job/Employment
13 Health/Fitness
14 Volunteering/Organizations
15 Relationships

This is a lot of territory to cover so I’m only going to touch on most of these topics. I have another blog – The Simple Life that I haven’t updated in a while, however, I will begin posting more detailed ideas on simplifying your life on that site for you if you’re really serious about simplifying your life.

Newspapers and Periodicals

Make a list of all the newspapers and periodicals you subscribe to. You probably still subscribe to either a local newspaper or a national newspaper or both. The question? Do you actually read them and why? First, there is little in the newspaper you can’t learn from listening to the news on your local public radio station and the local “chatterbox” community station. Second, newspapers are costing more all the time and, in case you hadn’t noticed, are getting smaller. You can also use online feeds from CNN, Fox and MSNBC. Your financial news is available on CNBC and Bloomberg. Save the money and the hassle of recycling all that “fish wrapper” and stop the subscriptions. You won’t miss them after about a week, if that long.

Also, you need to eliminate magazines, periodicals of all descriptions and newsletters that come in by mail. Once again, you probably don’t have time to read all of it anyway and virtually all of it is available on line. Eliminate the subscription costs and the hassle of dealing with all the paper you have to stack, store or recycle. Most of us suffer from information overload anyway and you’re no exception. Cross each paper or periodical off the list as you eliminate it from your life. [Hint: I get most of my trade journals in digital magazine format and read them on-line only when and if I have some time.]


Make a list of all the mail you receive, both junk mail and real mail. Once upon a time we looked forward to that catalog from Fingerhut or JC Penney or Montgomery Ward (no longer in business) or Sears. Now, our names are on more mailing lists then Carter has little pills (for those who remember who Carter was). And, to add insult to injury, once you buy something on the Internet, you begin receiving email solicitations there, too. You don’t need any of this stuff and you surely don’t need to spend the time sorting through it and disposing of it all – either physical mail or email. Every time you receive a mail solicitation or email solicitation, look for the way to be removed from their lists, contact them and request they remove your name and address immediately. And, NEVER check or leave checked the little box on email or Web offers when you buy something that offers to “keep you updated with the latest and greatest information from that vendor and their partners.” Indeed stop wasting trees and electrons. They are costly.

As far as real mail like bills from utility companies, phone companies, credit card providers, bank statements, mortgage and car payments, etc. We’re going to talk about them more later in this step, however, have ALL your billing statements sent to you on-line, pay them on-line and, again, stop the paper flow. We seem to think if we don’t have a paper bill in our hand it’s not a real bill. I assure you it is. In fact, most billing organizations prefer that you opt out of the paper and do it all electronically. It’s more efficient and, again, you are saving trees and postage and processing.


Make a list of ALL the clothing in your closets and drawers, stored for the winter/summer, etc. If you’re a woman, you’re probably not going to like this step. If you’re a typical man, you probably will have less of a challenge with it. Make sure you include EVERYTHING – underwear, jewelry, accessories, scarves, hats, and shoes . . . the works. Once you’ve made the list, go back and highlight or check each item that you wear very regularly. Don’t cheat! I’m in the process of finally getting rid of my Class of 1967 camelhair college blazer. Give me a break. I know I’m never going to wear it again. But, I’ve kept it for 44 years after the last time I wore it.

After you’ve marked your list, the chances are there will still be items on it that you marked as “keepers,” but they’ll leave your list as you go through the second and third cut. You’re likely no different then anyone else, which means that you wear approximately 20% of the clothes in your wardrobe. The rest of those clothes are costing you money and could be doing someone else a world of good if you’d simply donate them or even take them to a consignment store (where they might become “found money” to you). You’ll probably find things that you bought or was given to you that you’ve never worn or wore one time. You won’t miss any of it and the maintenance of your wardrobe will be less time consuming and costly. By the way, eliminate virtually everything that requires dry cleaning.


This will be a short list (I hope). List all the motor vehicles you have including cars, full-size and mini-vans, SUV’s, pick-up trucks, the classic cars you’ve kept since you’re very first car (oh yes, I’ve seen people who still have every vehicle they’ve ever had in their lifetime). We could add motorcycles here, but that probably fits the next category better. Go through the same drill as with the clothes. How often do you use the vehicle? What do you use it for? What kind of gas mileage does it get? What are the annual maintenance costs? How much is the insurance costing? What is the depreciation costing? Are the neighbors complaining about the rusted out, smoking old pick-up truck you use to take something to the landfill on occasion?  How many people are in your family – no kids, three kids, six kids and are you single or married?

This one is really going to do the guys in. Get rid of everything except one or two small, economical cars. You’re going to save a bundle in gas, maintenance, upkeep, registration fees, inspection fees, depreciation, insurance, etc. What could you do with all that extra money – maybe not have to work as hard or as many hours to earn it? When you need a van or when you’re going to do some “off road trekking” or need to take some stuff to the dump you can borrow or rent the appropriate vehicle and it won’t cost but a pittance of what your current costs are. And, while you’re at it, SLOW DOWN. Gasoline is no longer $.38 a gallon like it was in May of 1970 when I moved to Washington, DC. By dropping your speed to 60 from 70 or 75, you’ll save two to three miles per gallon. That could save you the cost of a gallon of gas on each fill-up. Over a year, that could be nearly a $200 savings. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Oh, and it will take you 10 minutes longer to drive a 70 mile trip. Leave a little earlier.


Oops, here we go again. Start making your list. Anything you have that is mainly used in some form of recreational or hedonistic ritual needs to be on this list. This is mainly going to impact the men, though more and more women are becoming enticed by various kinds of toys. Motorcycles, jet skies, snowmobiles, ATV’s, boats, golfing gear, skiing equipment, fishing, archery, hunting, video games, basically, if you don’t need it to subsist on a daily basis, it needs to go on the list.

Am I saying that all pursuits of this nature are frivolous? Of course not! What I’m saying is how often do you really use it, how much is it costing to keep it (storage space – even in your home), insurance, depreciation and so on. Again, most people find that they buy things they want and after they have it, the novelty wears off and it basically sits. Needless to say, if you use something a lot and gain a great deal of pleasure from it that justifies its existence. Again, don’t cheat. Be serious in your evaluation of its present value to you in your day-to-day lifestyle. Get rid of everything that you aren’t using enough to justify its existence and either borrow or rent it when you need it. 


This is another one of those short lists. List every home you have. Your main residence, your vacation property and you should also include any time shares you own, since basically you don’t own anything except the right to pay more money to use it for one week out of the year. How big is your main home (or apartment)? How many people live in that house? How often do you entertain guests and do they stay with you? How often do the kids come home (if they’re not still living with you)? How empty will the home be if you eliminate all the excess “stuff” that you’re currently storing and all the furniture, linens, etc. that you seldom use, if at all. What is your primary home costing you in mortgage, interest, insurance, taxes, interior maintenance, exterior maintenance and grounds work, time from your schedule to handle all these details – and let’s not forget the ever present utility bills that keep inching up toward the sky. How many days or weeks of the year do you spend at your vacation home? Make the same evaluation for your vacation property.

Perhaps, you have chosen to have a recreational vehicle, like a travel trailer, 5th wheel trailer or motor home, as your version of a vacation getaway. Again, what is the real world cost on an annual basis and don’t forget to include massive depreciation for the first six years or so? Can you rent such an RV for the amount of time you actually use it and stay ahead of the curve?

This holds true if you have a condominium or you rent an apartment instead of owning one or more homes. Do you need all the space and all the expense or can you downsize, simplify and save both time and money. This is a tough decision, but once you’ve made it you’ll be glad you did. And, one last note, don’t concern yourself with the home mortgage interest deduction. It seldom offsets all the other costs associated with home ownership. It’s a false economy set up to entice you to buy homes that almost always cost considerably more then you anticipated.


Ah, the ubiquitous telephone. People have them stuck to their ears or have Bluetooth “implants” on the side of their heads everywhere they go. One day, I came to the startling realization that I’m not as important as I seem to think I am. Most people have no idea how costly this little convenience is. Make another list and list all the phones, phone services, other accessories (fax machines and such) that you have. Get the monthly bills out and write down the cost of every phone and service. Who has these phones – just you, you and your spouse, each of your kids, business colleagues, etc? You’d be surprised at how much those, so-called, family plans can add up to. Get rid of your landline phone. Get rid of your fax machine. Set yourself up with the cellular phone that provides only what YOU need. Smart phones aren’t for everyone. Don’t get one because it’s trendy or cool or you can play games on it or check your Facebook account. Get one because you actually NEED one. Otherwise, buy a simple phone on a flat rate plan.

Set up a couple Google Voice phone lines – [Hint – they are FREE!]. They provide both incoming and outgoing nationwide and Canadian calling. They also have a very advanced voice mail system that will answer not only your Google Voice line, but also your cell phone line – consolidating all voice mail in one system. Additionally, Google Voice transcribes the voice message to a text message and sends it to your cell phone as a text message and to your email account, plus you can listen to the call from your email, your Google Voice account or on your cell phone – or any phone for that matter. I also recommend you set up a Skype account allowing you to have audio or video chats with friends and family around the world, computer to computer, at no charge. For a tiny fee you can also call landline and mobile phones from your Skype account. Ultimately, you’ll save potentially a thousand dollars or more per year. Time to simplify by using technology.

Here’s one other tip. Just because your phone rings, doesn’t mean you have to answer it. That’s what voice-mail is for. Take a vacation from phone calls whenever you want to. You don’t have to be available to everyone 24/7. Also, disable call waiting. Once again, that’s what voice mail is for. There is nothing as annoying as being in a conversation and having the other party let you know how important your conversation is by putting you on hold to take another call. By the way, you also don’t have to answer your doorbell just because it rings.

This post is very long, so you have enough for right now to think about and digest. I’ll post the other eight simplifying suggestions later this week. And, as I said, I’ll reactivate my other blog on The Simple Life and put more in depth posts up there as well as others that haven’t been covered in these basic 15 ideas. Simplifying, again, is not an overnight process. There are lots of considerations, mindsets and habits to deal with. But, you’ll never get anywhere until you start somewhere. And once you realize how much better life is when you simplify it, you’ll wonder why it took you so long to get around to doing it.

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