21 Easy Hacks to Simplify Your Life

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!  I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.” – Henry David Thoreau

By Leo Babauta

If you’re trying to simplify your life, it’s best to follow the four simple steps I’ve outlined before — it’s just the simplest method.

But sometimes life gets in the way, and you need a workaround, some way to get past your usual obstacles and to trick yourself into keeping things simple.

I use these “hacks” myself (in this case, “hacks” refers to workarounds or tricks to reach your goal), and I’ve found them to be effective in many cases. Please note that you might have read some of these once or twice (or thrice) on this blog before, but I thought it would be a useful resource to gather them all into one post.

Also, don’t try to implement all of them — that would be far from simple. Not all of them will apply to your life anyway. Pick one or two and try them out.

Simple tricks to simplify your life:

  1. Three-box decluttering. If you’re trying to declutter a room, drawer, shelf, desk … use three boxes to quickly sort everything. Just quickly go through each shelf or drawer or flat surface at once, putting things into three separate boxes: Trash, Donate, Maybe. The first two boxes are obvious … the Maybe box is for stuff you’re not too sure about — you can put this in storage for a few months and decide later. Put everything else — the stuff you love and use — back neatly.
  2. Create a no-distractions zone. This is great for when you want to do some focused work — which is just about every day for most of us. Create a zone with no distractions — no phones, no email, no co-workers or kids or spouses, nothing on the walls, no IM or Twitter, no web surfing. Just the tools you need to do your work and nothing else. You could also create a time within your schedule for this distraction-free zone — say 8-10 a.m., for example. No distractions within that block of time. You can do email and phone calls before and after, but not during. I like this hack for when I need to do some writing but have a hard time concentrating.
  3. Create a short-list. This is for the big-picture simplifying. If you’re having a hard time getting your life to something truly simple, create a short list of things you love doing most. This should be 4-5 things. For me, that’s writing, reading, running and spending time with my family. Your short list will be different. Then, try to eliminate everything in your life that’s not on the short list, to make room for the things you love.
  4. Deflect all requests for a week. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, make the decision that you will not say “yes” to any new requests this week. If you get a new request, politely decline. If it’s a request you can’t decline, tell them you’ll get to it next week because you have some projects you need to finish this week. Then pick one or two or even three projects (depending on their sizes) and focus on finishing them this week. You can worry about new stuff next week. Repeat this hack when needed.
  5. Go schedule-less. This works well if you’ve been over-packing your schedule. Try this: set a policy that you won’t schedule any appointments. This won’t work for some people who have mandatory meetings, but if you control your schedule, you can tell people, “I’m sorry, I don’t make appointments anymore. Call me on that day and we’ll see how things are going.” Leave your day wide open. At the beginning of the day, pick a few things to focus on and try to get them done. If you need to meet with someone, call them and meet.
  6. Single-task. This is good for those who tend to be all over the place. I’ve talked about it many times before: don’t allow yourself to switch between tasks. When you’re working on a report or writing an article, don’t do anything else. When you’re processing email, get to empty and do nothing else. One task at a time … finish the task … move on to the next. Try this for one day, focusing on it completely for that day. If it works for you, try it again the next day.
  7. Start your day with peace. I love this one, because it’s so easy to implement and yet it can have such a powerful effect on your day. When you first rise, do something that is calming and peaceful. That might be running or walking, having a quiet cup of coffee with a book, watching the sunrise, meditating or yoga … whatever works well for you. It can be 10 minutes or an hour, but find some peace in the morning and use it to calm you throughout your entire day. Read more.
  8. Eat only 7 things. If you’re trying to be healthful, but are having a hard time navigating complicated diets, try this hack to simplify things. Limit yourself to non-packaged foods. Eat only seven things: fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, lean calcium, beans, nuts, good fats. Nothing from a box. This will require that you cook your food, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Read more.
  9. Go paperless. This works great for certain types of jobs — mine, for example. It won’t work for other jobs. But if you can do it, you can save time filing, save time searching for stuff, save space, simplify your office, and save a few trees to boot. First, insist that everything be sent via email or through online documents. Then create a filing system that works for you. Personally, I like to keep things online, and just archive and search rather than creating a complicated hierarchy of folders, but you might prefer a more traditional system on your hard drive. Do what works best for you. For those things that can only be sent via paper, scan and toss. Try to limit the scanning, and request that things be sent electronically.
  10. Go media free. If your life is filled with information overload, and you find little time to do the things you love to do, consider eliminating media from your life, at least temporarily. This includes cable TV, DVDs, newspapers and magazines, Internet news and the like. Now, I’m not saying you should eliminate the things you love. For myself, I would never eliminate reading books, for example. You might love a certain TV show — in that case, eliminate everything else. You can go media free for a week to see if it improves your life, and then consider extending it for longer. This hack won’t work for everyone, but I enjoy it.
  11. Limit yourself to 3 tasks. If your to-do list is long and overwhelming, pick three tasks you want to do today — important tasks that aren’t just urgent but actually have a long-lasting impact on your life. Focus on getting these three tasks done before anything else. If you finish early, you can either call it a day or get some bonus tasks done. Read more.
  12. Limit yourself to one project. How many projects are you juggling right now? If there are too many, you might be limiting your effectiveness. Instead, focus on one project right now, and put the others on the back-burner. Try to get that one project done as quickly as possible, and then work on the next one. Read more.
  13. 5-sentence emails. This works well if you spend too much time writing emails. I got the idea from Mike Davidson, who advocates limiting each email to five sentences or fewer. This forces you to keep your emails brief and to the point. It limits the amount of time you use doing email. And it forces you to decide what’s important in each email. I generally follow this rule (though I break it from time to time) … and if you get short emails from me, you now understand why.
  14. 30-day rule. This is a fantastic hack for those (like me) who have trouble with impulse buying — that great enemy of simplifying. The rule is that if you want to buy something, you have to write it on your 30-day list, with the date that it was added to the list. After 30 days, if you still want it, you can buy it. This doesn’t apply to necessities such as groceries … which helps you distinguish between wants and needs, a great skill for simplifying.
  15. Only wear a few colors. I actually do this, and it helps me simplify my wardrobe. I basically wear only black, blue, grey and green, with some browns thrown in now and then. This means that it’s very easy for me to match my clothes, and I don’t need a lot of clothes. You’ll have other colors you love to wear — build your wardrobe around them. This won’t work for people who love having lots of clothes in a wide range of colors, but for myself, it keeps things nice and simple — and I don’t like thinking about clothes anyway.
  16. One in, two out. When you bring something into your house, you have to get rid of two things. The normal rule is one in, one out, but somehow that never seems to work — things still accumulate. Instead, get rid of two things and things will stay simple.
  17. Work four days a week. Of course not everyone can set their own schedule, but if you have that luxury, limit yourself to four days a week — 8 hours or less. You might even set it to 6 hours if you can manage that. And then make it three days. But how can you work only four days if you currently work 5 and are overloaded as it is? It’s funny, but you can somehow make it work. It’s a well-known law that our work expands to fit the time we give it … and the flip side of that is if you shrink the time, you will shrink the work to fit the time. If you only have four days in a work week, you will pick the most important tasks. You will get the work done that needs to be done, and you’ll naturally eliminate the rest. You’ll set a schedule that works. You’ll delegate and outsource and automate and eliminate. And you’ll have an extra day off. Try it and see — I bet you can manage it.
  18. Retire early. This is a radical hack, but it can work for some people. In fact, it’s worked for many. Simply set an early retirement date (maybe even next year!) and force yourself to save up the money you need. Take a mini-retirement if necessary. Then go back to work and save up for your next mini-retirement. Or set your early retirement in five or 10 years, and then never go back to work. It sounds unrealistic, but if you look at it this way, you can save the money you need to retire. It means forcing yourself to make choices — do you want to spend impulsively now, or retire early? If you cut back on spending you can save more. Live simply and frugally and invest the difference. Make more money in the short term so you don’t need to work as much later.
  19. Limit storage space. Do you tend to save everything? Have tons of stuff in storage, in closets or attics or garages or cupboards? The less storage you have, the less stuff you’ll save — which will save you the stress of having to go through all that storage to find stuff, to organize stuff, to maintain stuff, to get rid of old stuff. A good example is my desk — I work on a table with no drawers. This means I don’t have all the usual stuff in a desk, and forces me to keep things simple. You can apply this to all areas of life if you like.
  20. Staunch your information flow. Similar to the media fast, you can cut back on the amount of information coming into your life. Do you currently have tons of emails coming in? Find ways to reduce them — unsubscribe to mailing lists, ask people to stop sending you joke or chain emails (or block them from your inbox), automatically filter things you don’t really need to read, pre-empt common questions with an FAQ. Do you read a lot of blog feeds? Unsubscribe to those that don’t give you value. Do you read a lot of news? Pick one news source instead of five.
  21. Send only five emails a day. I did this for a little while and loved it. I would pick five important emails to respond to, and that was it. The rest would be delayed or deleted. I ended up prioritizing, and while some people didn’t get a response, I also didn’t spend all my time in email. It freed me, and made me realize that I don’t have to respond to every email — people will make do.

“Reduce the complexity of life by eliminating the needless wants of life, and the labors of life reduce themselves.” – Edwin Way Teale