It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience. -- Albert Einstein
The quote above is often paraphrased as "everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler". It's a warning again both over-complicating, and over-simplifying.
Yesterday I spent a bit of time reading through a series of articles by a friend of mine who's been on a campaign to pare down his number of possessions to the minimum necessary. During the course of the articles, he mentions several excellent resources of which I'm very fond, including David Allen's Getting Things Done system, explained in the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Leo Babauta's website Zen Habits, and the 100 Things Challenge (a challenge to reduce one's physical belongings to 100 objects) which began on the website A Guy Named Dave and is described in the book The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul.
I've had a longstanding interest in simplifying my life, and I've made increasingly good progress over the past few years. One of the more difficult things is trying to balance the tradeoffs.
As an example of this, consider one of the most fundamental human activities: eating. The tradeoff in that respect is complexity of preparation versus complexity of consumption. I prepare food a lot. Preparing food for my wife and I allows me to simplify the ingredients, using basic whole foods, avoiding the alphabet soup of chemical additives, preservatives, and the over-processed, over-packaged, nutrient-poor dreck which constitutes most of the standard American diet.
On the face of it, whole, unprocessed, organic foods may seem simpler. Actually, in choosing that route, I've added a great deal of time management complexity to my life. I have to research foods and preparation techniques, plan menus, shop, prepare the food, and clean up. Aside from the cleanup this is a very satisfying activity to me, is much cheaper than eating out, and is certainly healthier than the alternative. But from a time budgeting standpoint, eating out wins hands down. Eating out offloads a lot of the complexity to the mammoth food service industry. We would just show up, order our food, eat, pay, and let someone else deal with the generated mess.
For those of you who cycle, a similar dilemma presents itself in bicycle touring. The most basic means of touring is to carry camping gear, an assortment of bicycle repair tools, food, and other gear aimed at self sufficiency. The other option is "credit card touring" whereby one just takes the bike, a basic patch kit, a cell phone, a few minimal supplies, and stays in motels and eats out using the credit card. Again, much of the personal complexity of being on the road is offloaded by the credit card method.
So what exactly is simple living?
Is it living with the least amount of clutter?
Is it living with only some bare minimum of technology?
Is it trying to do only the necessary activities to meet some goal, and making those activities as time efficient as possible?
I'm going to spend a few weeks writing about simple living and its related topics (clutter, time management, appropriate technology). I don't think I really have any definitive answers to the questions I've raised, but hope to focus them, and discuss the tradeoffs. I'll also write a bit about how I'm currently managing those tradeoffs in my own life.