Keeping things simple in life is against our culture’s consumerist narrative. But living simply or minimalist out of a contrarian motivation misses the more profound wisdom of simplicity.
The sociologist Niklas Luhman once said that a society’s degree of modernity reflects in its complexity. He made that statement long before the Internet became today’s uber-fast and omnipresent global information broker of emails, social media, fake news, and a whole plethora of other rogue bytes.
Modern Development Comes with a Lot of External and Internal Noise
A lot is going on in the virtual world. Constantly. Simultaneously. Tough times for brains that evolved to excel at focusing on one thing at a time.
But Luhman’s modern complexity, of course, also shows in the physical world. The world is getting ever more noisy with the traffic of planes, ships, and all kinds of other wheeled or hovering vehicles, factories, construction sites, mobile phones.
And then there are human beings, mostly attached to mobile phones. Which, in turn, they use for a neverending cacophony of notification sounds from must-have social networking apps to reassert their ever more confusing presence.
In the so-called developing world, that noise of progress is particularly palpable.
Alas, the number of people longing for silence and simplicity is growing too. No wonder in an environment that overwhelms our natural physical and mental disposition. Let alone, serious questions about the usefulness of parts of the technological feast do remain.
So What to Do to Keep Things Simple in Life?
Monastic Life or Roughing it in the Woods Alone
The most decisive step perhaps would be to move into a monastery, nunnery, or other spiritually-minded community in the countryside. And I am assuming here association that values silence.
If you’ve ever been to a (Theravada) Buddhist monastery in Southeast Asia, you might have experienced how what promises silence and serenity can turn into a funfair with humungous bass pumping speakers during weekends and religious holidays. I am not talking about this kind of spiritual retreat. Think real, Zen.
Okay, you could instead run off to a solitary retreat in a remote location. That would be quiet. But don’t underestimate the daily chores to sustain your life.
The beauty of living in a monastery or nunnery is the daily framework. Just follow the sound of the bell, and all else is time and space for the spiritual quest of your inner silence. After a week in silence, all starts to fade into nothingness.
Potentially, at least. But then you just have subscribed to a congregation organized around a set of strict and straightforward rules (good!) and a belief system (maybe not so good).
If the thought restrictions of the monastery’s belief system outweigh the benefits of a clearly defined living system, there is a concern. Having the interest of a simple life at the expense of an intellectually restricted life is not the real deal.
And perhaps it is a good idea that a retreat unless you enrobe, of course, has a time limit to it.
Also, life as a commoner holds invaluable goodies. But we have to muster the discipline to a regime of simplicity by ourselves.
Keeping Things Simple in Life is Not Simple
Just like Luhman associates modernity with complexity, we usually associate progress with expansion. This association is a civilization bias. And it is everything but productive for the individual.
Let’s Say You Want to Lose Weight? Keep it simple if You Can
Talking about expansion. The global weight management market had a US$ worth of 189.8 Billion in 2018, and researchers estimate this market to grow 6% annually through to 2024.
There are three things that customers of weight loss programs have in common: They feel the need to lose weight, they spend extra money on their nutrition to manage their weight, and they mostly remain obese.
It appears all these people get caught up in the complexity of commercial diet products. At the same time, the straight forward and available to everybody solution couldn’t be simpler: consume fewer calories and move that body.
The simple, free do it yourself and do it at home solution would bring obesity sufferers closer to their goals. At the same time, the complexity of the weight loss industry slows them down.
Why Less Really Can Be More
The psychologist Barry Schartz presented in his influential book ‘The Paradox of Choice‘ how increasing complexity in choices makes finding the right decision harder for us. To Schwartz, the mind-boggling amount of options is conducive to the endemic unhappiness in modern society.
The antidote to this dilemma is to limit options. Life becomes more comfortable when we focus our decisions on satisficing rather than maximizing.
But this requires emotional effort because it flies in the face of the cultural narrative of progress.
Do you Want Financial Freedom? Avoid Being too Smart with Finances
Carl Richards has written a beneficial book illustrating why and how to keep things simple with our finance. In ‘The Behavior Gap – Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money, Richard asserts that keeping it dull and boring is a good thing when it comes to making financial choices.
He favors the approach of slow and steady capital that avoids the temptations of instant gratifications. The principles are apparent, but neglected by most:
Spend less than you earn. Set money aside. Get rid of debt. And avoid significant losses.
Similarly, Investment legend Warren Buffet has recommended buying index funds to small investors. Such funds do well over time and avoid the complexity of managing a portfolio of too many individual shares by yourself.
Or as Berkshire Hathaway Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett’s right-hand man once said: “We have a passion for keeping things simple.”
And: “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”
Enter La Via Negativa as Life Principle
So the quotes by Munger imply that by not loosing, you eventually win.
In a similar vein, the Roman writer and poet Ennius noted some 2200 years earlier – ‘Nimium boni est, cui nihil est mali.’ – ‘The good is mostly in the absence of the bad.’
Philosophy calls this principle the Via Negativa, which translates to the negative path. Or a bit more freely, the way of exclusion and reduction.
In a nutshell, the Via Negative advises looking into eliminating old habits, possessions, or generally speaking ‘stuff’ in our lives before adding something new.
Why? Because we can know what is wrong, what doesn’t work for us with more certainty that what is beneficial.
Adding a Positive to Cover a Negative
Case in point: Many smokers supplement their diet to compensate for the detrimental effects of sucking toxic smoke into their lungs. Let’s visualize for a moment all the thoughts, money, situations, anxieties, annoyances, and discussions that come with the habit of smoking. That is a lot of ‘noise.’ And how to identify and purchase the right supplement. That supplement may be beneficial to your health. But there is a chance too that supplementation is outright damaging to your health, as various studies suggest.
Now compare that to the financial, emotional, and creative space you can gain but just stopping to smoke.
The Via Negativa eliminates noise and enables growth.
The first question for successful personal change is not what are you going to add? Instead, the more important question is, what are you going to avoid?
In his illuminating book ‘Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder,’ the brilliant Nicholas Nassim Taleb recounts when the pope of the time wanted to know about Michelangelo’s genius.
And the pope was especially curious about how the artist had carved the masterpiece statue of David. Michelangelo replied, ‘It’s simple. I remove everything that is not David.’
Our Brains Naturally Thrive on Simplicity
Great minds have always held simplicity in high esteem. And they had excellent reasons to do so.
Here are a few quotations by some of the grandmasters of simplicity and productivity to let that resonate:
‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’ – Leonardo Da Vinci
‘The ideal of beauty is simplicity and tranquility.’ – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in “Goethe’s Opinions on the World, Mankind, Literature, Science, and Art,” p.76
‘It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.’ – Bruce Lee
Simplicity is All Around Once You Can Spot it
We need to sharpen our view from expansion to reduction and simplicity. And then we can appreciate simplicity not only as a reaction to the increasing complexity in modern societies but also as an organizing principle of the highest order.
We can call meditation the art of simplicity. In essential mindfulness or Vipassana meditation, the practitioner actively seeks to slow down by not interfering with occurring thoughts. This way, the focus can shift to the spaciousness of awareness and consciousness.
Likewise, minimalism encourages a simple life to get more from less. Minimalism is about removing all possessions from your life that stop you from doing what you value most.
Minimalism has become quite a movement, both as a contrarian movement as well as a means to reduce noise.
An underlying reason for the desire to keep things simple comes down to our cognition.
Keeping Things Simple in Life is the Path of Least Resistance to Growth
How we can perceive the world around us and interact with it depends on the operational capability of our hardware. Our hardware consists of the brain, nervous system, and cognitive senses.
According to insights from neuroscience, the outside world appears as a reconstruction of reality inside our heads. Neuroscientists appropriately refer to this reconstruction as the ‘mental model’ of the world.
Consequently, how the brain processes the link between inside reality and the outside world can help us understand the power of keeping it simple.
Likewise, the neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky writes, ‘everything about our hominin past has honed us to be responsive to one face at a time.’
So while we consider ourselves to be modern human beings of the 21st century, we have hunter-gatherer’s brains. And these brains are best at focusing on one fellow human being, one edible fruit, or one approaching prey animal at a time.
For this reason, we can’t correctly multitask and, in effect, undermine our productivity when we try to do so.
Accordingly, we perceive single-focussed work as the most rewarding way to get things done.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this state of complete presence and absorption into our work or activity’ flow’ and ‘optimal experience.’
So, sequential simplicity is a prerequisite for the optimal functioning of our model-making brains. And fighting a physiological condition is not wise. You instead want to put it work for you.
Walking the Via Negativa to Move from Noise to Growth
So how to make the Via Negativa work for you to move from noise to growth?
On a higher level, understand that the pursuit of the essential is part of our quest for the human condition. The question of the crucial is contemplating what is vital in our lives, so we are content. The rest can go. Check regrets of people at the end of their lives as a good indicator of what may be essential in life.
On a medium level, the question to answer is: How to best live in a complex, technology-driven, mentally overtaxing world with our hunter-gatherer’s brains?
Here the answer is to keep things simple to reduce the overall noise and pervasive stress. Simplicity is not effortless but requires mental energy. Speaking with pathos, we can even say it requires sacrifice. The guiding principle ought to be your life’s vision to decide on activities that should have a place in our lives.
Making Things Simple Requires an Autonomous Choice
To decide who and what should have a place in your life is and should, ultimately, your own choice. This decision is crucial as a lot of the excessive burdens in our lives come from the desire to comply with external norms.
Walking the path of the Via Negativa and simple life is reclaiming inner focus and autonomy
On the lowest or practical level of daily life, we need to reconfirm every activity is in line with our overall vision. Start somewhere, the more space you create, the better you will feel, and the more creative you will become.
Productivity guru David Allen, the author of ‘Getting Things Done,’ once noted that we are the most creative and productive when we have an empty head.
Keeping Things Simple in Life is not a Reproach to What Is but the Affirmation of the Art of Living
When minimalism is a contrarian movement to consumerism and the technological development per se, it is not constructive. Simplicity is figuring out what works. Simplicity is the answer to how to get from A to B with the least resistance and energy.
As Albert Einstein said – ‘Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.’
And don’t refrain from setting yourself rules and boundaries that help with keeping things simple in life.
Dee Hock summarized this ultimately growth principle beautifully – ‘Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.’