Simply Living: My Voluntary Simplicity Project

About ten years ago, my husband and I took a class series based on Duane Elgin’s book, Voluntary Simplicity. We met, did readings on various topics related to deliberate living and intentionally living with less, and discussed the changes we were each making in our individual lives. Reading Elgin’s book was not part of the class (although we read excerpts), and I didn’t finally pick up his book until this month.

The class was eye-opening and informed many of our life choices over the intervening years. But over the years, I distilled the teachings down to de-clutter, spend less, and do without. I seem to have lost the intentionality around voluntary simplicity and was going through the motions by rote.

Without the consciousness around my actions, I felt unfulfilled. I had a craving for simplification, but I wasn’t sure how to start. I wanted to live in a tiny apartment in the city or in an RV or in a cabin in the woods, but when my husband asked me why, I couldn’t articulate the reason. When challenged, I had to admit that those ideas weren’t particularly compatible with our lifestyle right now and, more than that, it wasn’t clear that these were even necessary or desirable goals for our family. Not only that, but they were completely incompatible with each other. If the answer was in one of these actions, we’d be up a creek if we chose the wrong one.

It wasn’t until I picked up Duane Elgin’s book this month that I figured out what was missing.

Elgin writes,

Western cultures…have fostered the understanding that a state of continual mental distraction is in the natural order of things. Consequently, by virtue of a largely unconscious social agreement about the nature of our inner thought processes, we live individually and collectively almost totally embedded within our mentally constructed reality. We are so busy creating ever more appealing images or social facades for others to see, and so distracted from the simplicity of our spontaneously arising self, that we do not truly encounter ourselves or one another.

The idea of slowing down provokes anxiety in me. I’ve spent most of my life proving to myself and trying to prove to others that I’m smart, and I tend to equate multitasking and constant thought with intelligence.

In reality, I think much of the mental chatter that comes with multitasking is a distraction. If “continual mental distraction” is part of our social contract, then in order to live simply, we must opt out of that contract.

For some, this might mean moving to a farm in the middle of nowhere or going on a meditation retreat or taking a vow of silence. I’m not in a position to make such a dramatic change right now, and I don’t think I even need to make a big change in order to live more deliberately.

As Elgin points out, you can follow voluntary simplicity in a city, in the country, in a suburban neighborhood, or, like my friends Victoria and Tucker and their kids, on a sailboat. It’s about filling our lives with what we value most and cutting out the rest, and that’s something we can do anywhere. I need to strive for conscious living within the life I lead right now. It means deciding what activities are crucial and cutting out the rest so that I have adequate time and energy and attention to devote to living my core values.

Back in my corporate days, I took a Stephen Covey course called “What Matters Most.” In it, the instructor used the visual of a clear bucket representing a day that you needed to fill with rocks representing all of the large and small tasks of our days. The key to fitting them all in the bucket was adding the big rocks first, then the next smaller and next smaller down to the tiniest pebbles which could fill in the gaps between all of the bigger rocks. I still want to put the big rocks in first, but I’m thinking that perhaps there’s no reason to fill in all of those little gaps. I think those spaces left in my day are where I’ll be able to breathe and deepen my experience and understanding of myself and others.

I’ve come to realize that when I’m frustrated at my kids or when I feel frazzled or overwhelmed, it’s because I’ve not created the space necessary to be conscious with my children and with myself. So, I want to create that space. And in order to create that space, I need to cut out those things that are unnecessary. But I want those cuts to be meaningful and to be consistent with my values. If the cuts I make cause me to feel deprived, that’s missing the point of voluntary simplicity. The goal of voluntary simplicity is to live more with less, to spend more time and energy on the things that we truly value and only cut those things that we don’t value as much. If we only cut things that don’t matter so much to us, it won’t feel like we’re depriving ourselves.

With this in mind, I don’t want to start from the “cutting” side. I want to put in those big rocks first and just leave the small ones be if they don’t fit easily. If I jumped in with enthusiasm and used someone else’s formula for simple living—reducing my wardrobe to an arbitrary number of items or challenging myself to make our home into a zero waste household or cooking on a wood stove—I would run the risk of continuing to feel unfulfilled, especially if those cuts weren’t where I need to cut or if those changes were done by rote rather than as a result of conscious intention.

So, I’m starting with consciousness.

And this, I think, will be my new Project to follow up my Happiness Project. The goal will be to be more conscious. Unlike my Happiness Project which I set out for myself month-by-month for an entire year, I won’t have a plan beyond the challenge of the moment. As I find something that works, I’ll keep that thing and add to it.

Last week I started Doing One Thing. That one thing was dishes. When I did dishes, I did only dishes. I didn’t listen to the radio, I tried not to think about what I was going to do next or what I would rather be doing or what my RV/cabin in the woods/tiny city apartment would look like. I just did the dishes.

It’s surprising to me just how much calmer I felt just Doing that One Thing. I found I had more patience for my children, and I even found myself, once or twice, being present for them rather than rushing us through to the next task all the time.

I’m going to keep up with Doing One Thing while doing the dishes this week. And I might even try Doing One Thing while cooking dinner or while talking on the phone.

And when I think about it, when an insight strikes that I can put into words, I’ll let you know how things are going.

The soapy dishwater is the key.

11 Replies to “Simply Living: My Voluntary Simplicity Project”

  1. I have just come across your blog and I love this and the Happiness Project. I’m wondering how you Do One Thing with young children? Specifically, I have a 17 month old who is very attached to me and always wants to be physically near me and, if I allowed it, would want my constant and undivided attention so I can’t even conceive of being able to do the dishes (or any other task) and concentrate on nothing else if she’s around. Unless she is sleeping, but I prefer to reserve that time for reading, showering, and sleeping. I suppose I could try mindfully showering 🙂


    1. Thanks for stopping by, Stephanie!

      My first was extremely focussed on me and in need of my constant attention until she was about three (when she started to loosen up a bit). With my second it’s been a little earlier at entertaining himself for short periods of time, but with both, I found that baby carriers were essential to focus of any sort. I don’t know how many meals I’ve cooked with a toddler on my back or a baby nursing or sleeping in a sling or mei tai. With my daughter, I went for hikes a lot. I’d put her in the mei tai or a woven wrap carrier and we’d hike alone or with friends. She’d fall asleep while we walked and I’d breathe in the smell of the redwoods (we were in California then).

      With my son, I actually re-started my meditation practice while nursing him to sleep. I just lay there counting breaths, 1 through 10, then back down, over and over, just as I used to in pre-baby (or between-baby) times sitting on a meditation cushion (this was a practice I’d adopted from the book The Three Pillars of Zen).

      It’s even possible to Do One Thing with the kids. During my son’s first year, I had a lot of trouble giving my then-four-year-old my undivided attention, which she dearly needed. I’d set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes and we’d have “Special Play Time” during which I would just be with her. We’d play what she wanted. I wouldn’t ask questions or try to teach her. I wouldn’t answer the phone or the door. I wouldn’t try to lead the play. I’d just be with her. My son would be on the floor next to us or in a baby carrier or (sometimes) with my husband in another room. I also made a point of reading to her each night and singing a song before bed, making sure I was there with her and not thinking of being somewhere else. What Doing One Thing looks like changes as our children grow and change. And as much as the individual phases feel like they last forever, before you know it, things are totally different. You have freedom in places you hadn’t before and are more restricted in places you were free before. At least that’s been my experience.

      And mindfully showering is a great way to go, in my opinion!

      This has turned into something of a blog post of a comment. Maybe I’ll make it into a true blog post soon! Thanks so much for the question!


  2. Yet, again you’ve provoked an entirely new way of thinking about simplicity, guilt, attachments, and happiness for me. I discovered some tissue paper thin layers of conceptualizations I hadn’t noticed before. I’m in the process of gently tearing them away now.

    I look forward to this new theme. I know you’ve been searching for a direction (even though your posts post-project have been just as qualitacious)


    1. I love words like “qualitacious” (especially when someone whose blog I admire applies it to my writing).

      It feels a little scary to announce a direction without a specific plan, but I’m going with it.


  3. I was inspired and empowered by your project of “Doing One Thing.” Bringing one-pointed, conscious attention into our lives is a high skill and art that is acknowledged by all of the world’s wisdom traditions. Your approach to simplicity appeals to me. Thanks.


    1. Thank you so much for stopping by my blog and for your comment. I really have the sense that everything builds from there (from Doing One Thing), and that if this is all I end up doing, that’s enough. I’m very pleased I picked up your book this month. It’s been a comfort and an inspiration.


  4. Something that helped me was (hm, have I mentioned this before? I’m getting deja vu, so please excuse me if I have) making a little list of the things that really mattered to me. Only four things (they could be goals or they could be things I really enjoy). By writing those things down, I can use it as a guideline. If something comes up that is stressing me out, I look at my list. If it has nothing to do with the things on my list, and it does not lead to the goals I set for myself, then it really is not important and is not worth getting stressed about.

    I have also been trying to “be” more. Just be, and nothing else. If I, like you say, am washing dishes, then I am washing dishes, and there is no sense in thinking about or worrying about anything else.

    Have you read Chop Wood, Carry Water? I read it a few years ago, and I can’t quite remember exactly what it was about, but i think it was along these lines as well. Being conscious of your activities throughout the day. Being here, rather than somewhere else. There is also a short movie/documentary that we watched a little while ago called Radical Simplicity (on instant Netflix streaming) which was interesting.


    1. I’ll have to check out Chop Wood, Carry Water and Radical Simplicity. I’d not heard of either one.

      I like your list idea, but I feel nervous about writing down what’s important to me. With how I’m doing this, I really feel like I want to go at it organically, and I worry that writing down what’s important to me at the outset might send me in the wrong direction. I’m hopeful that once I’ve spent some time being more present, the important stuff will just naturally rise to the surface and I’ll just scoop them up.


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