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10 Ways to Simplify Your Life

The first thing you should know is that simple doesn't mean cheap, it doesn't mean fast. It means easy. And easy for me doesn't mean easy for you. I've tried to make these as generic as possible, but if you're looking at one of them and thinking about how complicated that would be to use in your own life, it's time to read suggestion #8 below.

1. Know your priorities

The most important thing you can do to make your life simpler is to know what is important to you. When you know what is important to you, you can easily tell when you're being roped into doing something that's important to somebody else. There are, of course, plenty of occasions where that happens, but not all of them deserve the same amount of your attention and time and energy.

I keep a list of the five things that are most important to me at any time. Just looking at that list reminds me of what I should really be spending my time on, and helps me know when a time-sucking project should be dumped.

2. Remove choices

Remember when there were only 4 channels on TV? It was a lot easier to choose what you wanted to watch then, wasn't it? When we had a satellite TV service, we programmed the "Station Guide" to show us only the few channels we actually watched. It made deciding whether there was anything good on TV a lot easier.

There are other ways you can use this. If you have trouble deciding what to wear in the morning, consider engineering your wardrobe. Get rid of redundant pairs of shoes, multiple bottles of shampoo, whatever you have that makes you pause during your day and decide among what seems like endless alternatives, reduce those alternatives to the highest-value and make the decision easier.

Another good way to do this is to arrange the movies you own by last-watched date. So when you're looking for something to watch, you can grab the one at the top of the pile. This works best if you don't keep movies you hate (or even ones you're indifferent to; the idea is to make an easy choice that results in a desired outcome, not to just fill your time).

3. Make decisions once

Speaking of removing choices, some decisions really only need to be made once. If you're constantly trying to come up with meals that are nutritionally balanced and tasty, you should really be writing down the menus you come up with and putting them in a notebook somewhere handy so you can use them again. I keep track of the calories in the food I eat, but I don't recalculate them every time. I just reuse the same calculations I made months ago.

4. Build generalized systems

I have a little motto: "If it worked once, it will work twice." It doesn't mean what you think it means. It means that if standardizing your wardrobe worked well, then standardizing your eating habits will also work well. I like making decisions into little pellets that I don't have to handle too much, and that works for me. I have my simple wardrobe where no outfit can be bad, and a simple set of meals that I choose from. Pellets work for me.

If you function best with more choices --perhaps having the Chinese menu type approach (pick one from each column and everything is OK) -- then use that approach for more than just getting dressed or choosing dinner. Use it for buying toiletries, for example. It worked for you once. Try it again.

5. Keep your memory outside of your brain

This is a basic one. Don't try to keep track of to-do lists or systems or pre-made decisions in your head. Just write them down. A few sheets of paper are fine. I like a dedicated notebook. Some people use their computers. Just get it out of your head. Knowing you're free to forget it without losing it forever will take a load off your mind.

6. Avoid technical solutions

If you're trying to solve a problem with your life getting too complicated, the way not to make it come together fast is to buy or download a bunch of highly specialized software that is supposed to make your like a hundred times easier. If you are having trouble getting your life together, spending every night for two months building a perfect database with all the fields you need and an open data structure might get you a nice piece of software, but it's not making your life simpler.

Or if you already have this stuff, don't try to learn every trick in the world to make it work best. Constantly optimizing your systems adds complication.

If you find that stuff fun, have at it, but do it during your "free" time and do it because you love it. Gearing up won't make your life simpler. It will just add one more thing for you to think about.

7. Put it in front of you

Whatever is in your line of sight will get noticed. So when I need to keep something in the front of my brain, I put it in the middle of my desk. If you look at my desk, it is actually a map of how critical various projects are to me at any given moment. The center is where I have what I am working on right now. Around that are supporting projects or unrelated projects that I need to keep in my mind. On the very edges are things that related to important projects but are not of themselves important.

I use this system in other ways, too: pieces of projects I'm working on go on my computer's desktop; my pile of things to take with me from house to house goes in the middle of the table; my morning to-do list is at the top of the notebook page for that day.

Another way I use this is to leave myself notes. If I keep forgetting to make sure the cabinet doors are closed (I'm trying to learn to do this automatically), I put a note where I'll see it when I leave the kitchen that says, "SHUT THE DOORS!" For a while I had a note on the door that said, "Did you brush your hair?" because for some reason I kept walking out the door and realizing my head was a tangly mess.

People who come to visit may think you are insane, but you won't be walking around with the feeling that there was something you were supposed to do.

8. Get lazy

I think the best engineers are the laziest engineers. Frank Gilbreth always wanted to see how the laziest person on the assembly line worked. There is a simplicity in laziness. When you're looking at a problem and having trouble coming to grips with how to approach it, imagine the way you would deal with it if you were much lazier.

For example, I could have written my own content-management system. But Movable Type was much easier, and instead of requiring real dedication on my part, it took me all of a few hours to install and get running, and that was only because Perl needed upgrading. I could use a more flexible system, but I've got Movable Type up and running.

Laziness keeps you from spending time and energy on things that are not important to you. If half as good is good enough, why on earth are you spending the extra energy? It better be because it gets you something you want.

9. Embrace handwaving

This is my big bugaboo. I'll spend weeks and months agonizing over all details of a project, trying to get all the tiny details perfect. This is so unnecessary. Sometimes, it's easier to make a decision after you have gotten started. So I'm teaching myself to insert "handwaving here" into my plans. When I get to that, I know I shouldn't try to figure out exactly which PVC connectors I will need for the pond filter system until I start assembling the thing, for example. I can always make a couple trips to the store during the day.

10. Overestimate

You can spend a lot of time trying to get every estimate perfect, and still be wrong. So if you're trying to decide when to leave to get to a meeting on time, give yourself 10% more time than you needed. Don't book a flight that lands an hour before your presentation. Buy more plywood than you think you need for the project. Make too much food for a party.

Not having to engineer everything will make the process easier. And if you do make order-of-magnitude mistakes, you can make note of them and fix them next time.

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