12 Secrets to Simplifying Your Life and Focusing on What Matters Like a Zen Master

HJ: Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler, according to Albert Einstein.  We would have to agree.  Complexity tends to fight happiness, productivity and peace and lead to stress and overwhelm.  Not always, but usually…  In this age of information overload, a little simplicity can go a long way…

– Truth

12 Secrets to Simplifying Your Life and Lightening Your Load

By Cate Scolnik


“Our life is frittered away by detail.  Simplify, simplify.”
― Henry David Thoreau

Crazy, isn’t it?

How complex and complicated life has become.  You pack so much into your days that you feel weighed down.  Checking emails and social media over breakfast, and catching up on news headlines before you even hit the shower.  Staying in touch used to involve talking to real, live human beings.  Now we absorb data through a screen more often than not.

There’s so much to remember and so much to do in this overly connected world.  It can feel like you’ve run a marathon by mid-morning.  And the craziest part is, you get so busy rushing around trying to meet everyone’s needs that you forget your own half the time.  You lose sight of what’s truly important.  And all those significant, meaningful things you intend to do are never done.

Like spending time with people you love.  Or organizing a much-deserved weekend away.  Or doing something you enjoy.  You never have the time to do those things because everything else seems so much more urgent.  So, despite your best intentions, you relegate quality time to the bottom of the list.

If only things could be simpler.  Then you’d feel lighter and be able to enjoy life more.  But how do you make things simpler when they’re so overwhelming and complex on most days?  The last thing you need is an extra protocol to follow or a complicated approach to living.

Instead, you need some straightforward, effective ways to make life easier.  Try some of the following strategies to simplify your life and lighten your load.  They’re not complicated, and they’ve worked well for me over the years.  All you have to do is put them into action, gradually, one at a time.

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1.  Question Your Yeses

When someone invites you to a social event or asks for your help, you instinctively want to say yes.  But if you always say yes you can end up rushing around from place to place, getting overwhelmed and frazzled just trying to jam it all in.

Instead, question your tendency to impulsively say yes.  It’s OK to stop and think first.  Ask yourself if you want or need to do this thing, or if you just feel obligated.  Consider how it fits with your other commitments and plans.

Reducing the amount of obligations you commit to, whether they’re tasks or social activities, lightens your load.  You’ll have less to remember and less to do, and that will simplify your life.

2.  Make a Conscious Decision to Do Less

Force yourself to choose what’s really important, and leave the busywork behind.  Busywork is the stuff that fills a lot of our days, but it isn’t meaningful or significant to our lives.  Like checking Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat 20 times a day.

If you’re not sure what’s important, imagine you had to finish your work by lunchtime every day.  What would you make sure you got done before you left the office?  If it’s a personal or social thing, what would you do if you were dying?  Seriously.  Pretend you have extremely limited time left and view the world from that perspective.  Is the event or task so important that you would spend part of your remaining days doing it?

People who have a serious health scare often find that this gives them great clarity.  They gain the ability to work out what’s important and what they can do without.  And they discover that doing less simplifies and lightens life, while deepening their effectiveness in every endeavor and relationship worthy of their time.

3.  Know and Nurture Your Strengths

Take the time to establish your strengths, and work toward using them more often.  By spending more time working in your areas of strength, you’ll get into a state of flow and enjoy more of your work.

You can identify your strengths by thinking about the things you do well.  Maybe it comes naturally to you to plan things out and prevent possible pitfalls.  Maybe you love helping people solve their problems.  Maybe you’re great with numbers or paying attention to detail.

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of believing your strengths are only the things that other people think you’re good at.  What they really mean is that you’re good at that thing compared to them.  And that’s great, but it’s only part of the puzzle.  The key is to focus on what you enjoy doing, and what comes naturally, that also seems to make an obvious difference to others and the world around you.

4.  Know What You Want

One of the common reasons our lives get so complex and crazy is because there’s a big gap between the life we dream of living, and the one we’re actually living.

Get clear on what you want from life (your ‘Why’), and work toward it.  Anything that’s not on your path can be eliminated or reduced because it’s not important.

Visualize the life you want to lead and work on making it a reality, one day at a time.  You don’t have to work toward achieving everything that you want at once; just establish what your key goal is today, and work on that.  Once you’ve got that one under control, start working on the next one.

As you achieve your small goals, you’ll gain a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.  Life will become more joyful and easier to deal with, day in and day out.

5.  Practice Loving Yourself

No one is perfect, and the sooner you accept yourself for how you are and who you are, the simpler life will be.

It’s OK to know your weaknesses and work on minimizing them.  But it’s not reasonable to expect you’ll ever be perfect.  Instead, accept that you are more than good enough just as you are.

Celebrate your achievements, and congratulate yourself on what you do well.  Spending more time focusing on your strengths will build your confidence and self-worth, which affects pretty much everything else.

6.  Think About How You’ll Be Remembered

Have you heard the expression, “They don’t read your resume at your funeral”?  It’s true.  We don’t remember people by their achievements.  Even someone well known, like Steve Jobs, is not remembered by his resume.

He’s remembered for his determination, creativity, drive, and intelligence. That is, he’s remembered for his traits – the traits that led to his successful resume.

Work out what traits you want people to remember about you, and live your life accordingly.  The best way to do this is to establish your values, or what’s important to you, and live your life in a way that reflects those values.

7.  Use a Simplification Lens

When you’ve got a task or project that needs doing, ask yourself, “What is the simplest, most straightforward way of achieving the result I need?”  Focus on outcomes rather than standard processes, and you’ll be amazed how much more efficient life can be, especially in trying times.

I once worked with a senior manager — let’s call him Dave.  One day, Dave’s wife called to say she was locked out of the house.  Dave’s house was a 30-minute drive away, and his client had just arrived for a scheduled meeting.  Dave now had two important people who both wanted the next hour of his time.  What was he going to do?

He calmly picked up his car keys and left the office.  Then, he drove his client to his house while they held their meeting.  Instead of focusing on the conflicting demands, Dave focused on achieving both outcomes as simply as possible.

8.  Go on a Drama Diet

Admit it: sometimes you over-dramatize things.  You think something is a big deal, but it turns out not to be.  Like stressing about your annual performance review, or wondering how you’ll admit a recent mistake to a family member.

Don’t worry; we all do this sometimes.

But the next time you find yourself getting worked up about something, ask yourself if you’re over-dramatizing the situation.  If you’re not sure, find a close friend (or someone you trust) who will tell you the truth, and ask them.

Try approaching these events without expectations or preconceived ideas about how they might play out.  Practice fostering a sense of calm curiosity.  Face the truth with an open mind.

9.  Know the Difference Between Worry and Concern

Worry and concern might sound like the same thing, but they’re not.  A worried person invests a lot of time fretting about something that might happen, but they don’t plan, or do, anything.  A concerned person, on the other hand, thinks about the options and the possibilities and builds a logical plan for taking the next step forward, and then takes it.

When you’re concerned, you’re uneasy about what might happen, but your plan empowers you.  You don’t waste time and energy worrying – because you’re focused on taking the next best step.  You’re comforted that you have thought through all the options, and you have a strategy to move forward.

10.  Focus on Now

A lot of life’s complications come from future possibilities or things that might happen.  Sometimes it’s things that might be unpleasant, or overwhelming.  Sometimes we’re afraid of failure, or success.

Life is simpler if you focus on the here and now.  It’s fine to plan for the future, but don’t stress about it.  If you find yourself wondering how you’ll cope with tomorrow, or next week, remind yourself that you’re here now.  You can do what needs doing today, and nothing more.  Have faith that you’ll be ready for tomorrow, or the next day, when it arrives.

11.  Pay Yourself First

I don’t mean financially; I mean pay yourself first in time.  Get out your planner and schedule all the important, personal things you want to attend or achieve.  They’re key to keeping you happy and productive, and they deserve to go into your planner first.

Put the good stuff in before all the obvious obligations.  Plan out your quarterly breaks, family fun time, and long weekends away so you have something to look forward to.  This will ensure these activities don’t get pushed to the bottom of your priority list where they’re overlooked.  Life feels lighter when you can anticipate enjoyable events, by keeping them visible.

12.  Pay Attention to Little Moments

As Marc and Angel mention in their book, it’s the little moments in life that often have the biggest impact in the long run:

“By watching children, I learned what is obvious to them – that life is simply a collection of little, priceless moments, each lived one day at a time.  That each day should be spent finding beauty in sunrises, rainstorms, poetry and talking to each other.  That a day spent with dreaming and laughing and refreshing breezes cannot be bettered.  But most of all, I learned that life is about sitting on benches with pleasant views and good company, and sometimes, on great days, for falling in love.”


This is your life.  Your one and only shot at creating the life you want to lead.  If you’re not happy with how things are, it’s up to you to change it.

And here’s the secret that most people refuse to tell you: You have the power.  You may have unwittingly gotten yourself into a complex, weighed down situation, but you have the power to change it.  You can create a life that is as simple and light as you imagine.  The only thing standing in your way … is you.

So get out of your own way.  Pick one small step to take, and take it today.  Then take one more step tomorrow.  And the next day.

Cate Scolnik is on a mission to help parents stop yelling and create families that listen to each other. She does this while imperfectly parenting two boisterous girls of her own. Download her free Cheat Sheet to Get Your Kids from “No” to “Yes” in Three Simple Steps and reduce your yelling today.

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