How (and Why) To Simplify Your Life


7 min read

I’m a firm believer in the idea that most people can drastically improve their life by simplifying it.

By doing less things, but with more focus.

By working fewer hours, but with higher productivity.

By focusing less on duration and more on intensity.

By saying “yes” to fewer activities, but giving more energy to those activities.

I think there are plenty of hours in the day for most people to make progress on their most important goals, yet many fail to do so because they make their daily life unnecessarily complicated. They let little distractions consume their time. They say “yes” to too many things and overfill their schedule.

The good news is that it’s possible to simplify your life through a few simple tactics.

How to Simplify Your Life

The reason to simplify your life is so that you have more time to spend on things that actually matter. Things like close relationships, meaningful work, and time to just sit and be present.

The way to simplify your life is by using three simple tactics:

1. Remove obligations. The Minimalists say “the easiest way to organize your stuff is to get rid of most of it.” In the same vein, the easiest way to simplify your life is by getting rid of most of your obligations. Say “yes” to less things.

2. Focus on intensity, not duration. You can get as much done in four hours with no distractions as you can in eight hours filled with distractions.

3. Automate and outsource. Automate the tasks that you spend time doing manually each week or each month. Outsource the tasks that you hate doing or have no expertise in.

In this post, I share some realistic ways to do all three of these things.

Remove obligations.

The easiest way to simplify your life is by removing unimportant obligations.

I’m not talking about non-negotiable obligations: you still have to feed your pets, take care of your kids, and pay the bills. I’m talking about things you spend time on that add little value to your life or are simply unnecessary. Here are a few examples:

Social events: How many parties, social gatherings, and other occasions are you saying “yes” to on a regular basis just because you feel obligated? The ones where you think to yourself “this is gonna be so boring” as you’re driving to them. Life’s too short to say “yes” to group events you don’t want to be at.

I prefer to use the “HELL YEAH!” or “no.” rule popularized by Derek Sivers: 

Use this rule if you’re often over-committed or too scattered.

If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say “no”.

Meetings: Naval Ravikant once said, “Unnecessary meetings (and most are) are a mutually-assured-destruction of time. Learning how to avoid them is a prerequisite of doing anything great.”

One of the easiest ways to simplify your life at work is to avoid meetings as much as possible. During my short career in Corporate America, I was able to wiggle my way out of most meetings by saying I had other, more pressing work to get done. On other occasions, I was able to convince people to sort things out via email rather than an in-person meeting. 

Now, as a solopreneur, I still avoid meetings as much as possible. When companies reach out to me asking to “hop on a call” for a collaboration opportunity on one of my sites, I ask them to instead send an email summarizing their offer. If they’re unable to do so, I’m not interested in working with them.

Professional tasks: Whether you work in an organization, as a freelancer, or as a solopreneur, there are professional tasks that you have to do each day. More than likely, some of these tasks are more vital than others. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or squeezed for time, you’re probably spending too much time on tasks that just don’t matter.

As someone who earns income from websites, I spend almost all of my time writing new articles. I could decide to spend more time on freelancing or consulting which would increase my income in the short term, but that would mean I’d spend less time on the things that are likely to substantially increase my income in the long term.

There are only so many hours in the day. As much as possible, drop the tasks that you currently spend time on that aren’t absolute necessary. Remember that it’s not about getting more things done, but rather the right things.

Greg McKeown echoes this advice in his book Essentialism:

“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”

I personally use the Ivy Lee Method to ensure that I work on the most important tasks each day.

Focus on intensity, not duration.

Once you’ve removed the unimportant tasks from your life, the next step is to optimize how you spend your time on the remaining tasks that you deem to be important and necessary.

The best way to do so is to focus on intensity, not duration. Forget about the number of hours you work. Instead, focus on getting shit done when you do work.

You can get as much done in four hours with no distractions as you can in eight hours filled with distractions.

My favorite book to reference on distraction-free work is Deep Work by Cal Newport. In a nutshell, Cal argues the best way to get more meaningful work done is by working “deeply” on a single task without distractions.

He makes a clear distinction between what he calls “deep work” and “shallow work”:

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

One of the benefits of deep work is that you can get things done in less time when you choose to focus solely on one task with distractions. Cal explains that you suffer from something called “attention residue” when you try to work on several things at once:

“…when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow – a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.”

Multitasking is the death of productivity. When you occasionally check your email, social media, or texts while you’re working, you’re inhibiting your ability to stay focused on your main task, which means it takes longer to complete it.

Personally, since quitting my day job and becoming a solopreneur, I’ve noticed that I can get the same amount of work done in four hours at a coffee shop as I could in an 8-hour workday in Corporate America.

This isn’t terribly surprising. At my day job I used to work in an open office setting where coworkers would stop to chat, people would randomly bring in snacks or treats, email notifications would pop up, and Skype messages would appear without warning. It was incredibly difficult to concentrate without distractions for several hours at a time.

Now I have the freedom to sit with my headphones in, sip on coffee, and work for several hours in a row with no distractions. It’s no wonder why I only have to work for four to five hours per day to finish everything on my to-do list.

No matter what type of work you do, focus on getting things done rather than spending an arbitrary amount of time working on them.

Automate and outsource.

By this point, you’ve removed unnecessary tasks from your life and you’ve identified a strategy for making real progress on the tasks that you deem to be meaningful.

The final step to simplifying your life is to automate tasks that you’re currently doing manually and to outsource tasks that you hate doing or that an expert could do more efficiently.

Here are some examples of tasks that you can automate.

Tracking net worth and account balances: I personally used to track my finances manually by logging in to my various accounts and entering my balances into an Excel spreadsheet. Now I simply use Personal Capital, which automatically tracks my account balances, cash flow, and net worth. This saves me a considerable amount of time each month.

Saving and investing: No matter which investment platform you use (Vanguard, Fidelity, Charles Schwab, etc.), there are ways to set up automatic recurring investments on each platform so that you can designate a specific amount of money to be invested in your portfolio on a regular basis. Most platforms also give you the ability to automatically rebalance your portfolio on a regular basis without manually doing so yourself.

Manually keeping track of recurring bills: I personally use Trim, a free financial app that keeps track of all my recurring monthly bills and also negotiates lower cable, internet, and phone prices on my behalf whenever it identifies an opportunity to do so.

Micro-investing: I love the idea of investing small sums of money on a regular basis, but it can be a pain to manually do so each week or month. Fortunately, I’m able to use Acorns, a free financial app that took literally five minutes to set up and automatically invests my spare change for me in a diversified portfolio.

Here are some examples of tasks that you can outsource using free software.

Household chores: Anything from house cleaning to dog sitting to landscaping can be outsourced these days. It’s up to you to decide whether or not your budget allows for it, but outsourcing these various chores can free up a ton of time.

Common errands: Things like grocery shopping, dry cleaning, and other common errands can all be outsourced, which is another potential way to free up time.

Taxes: One of the most annoying tasks that everyone has to do at least once per year is file their taxes. Fortunately, places like TaxSlayer and other online services make it both cheap and fast to file taxes.

Anything related to business: If you have any type of side hustle or business, you can outsource things like graphic design, marketing, search engine optimization, copywriting, and other business-related activities to freelancers who are experts in those specific areas.

The Benefits of Simplification

The point of simplifying your life is to free up more time to spend on things that actually matter to you.

Stop spending time on obligations that don’t add value to your life. Adopt the Derek Sivers philosophy of “HELL YEAH!” or “no.”

Stop focusing on the number of hours you work and instead focus on getting things done during the hours that you do work.

Stop spending hours each month on things that could be automated or outsourced. 

By doing these three things, you can greatly simplify your life and gain back valuable time that you can spend on things that are actually important.

Zach

Zach is the author behind Four Pillar Freedom, a blog that teaches you how to build wealth and gain freedom in life.

Zach's favorite free financial tool he's been using since 2015 to manage his net worth is Personal Capital. Each month he uses their free Investment Checkup tool and Retirement Planner to track his investments and ensure that he's on the fast track to financial freedom.

Although the bulk of his net worth is invested in index funds, his favorite place to invest in individual stocks is M1 Finance, a site that allows you to build a custom portfolio of stocks for free.

His favorite way to save money each month on his recurring bills is by using Trim, a free financial app that negotiates lower cable, internet, and phone bills with any provider on your behalf.

His favorite micro-investing app is Acorns, a free financial app that takes just 5 minutes to set up and allows you to invest your spare change in a diversified portfolio.

His favorite place to find new personal finance articles to read is Collecting Wisdom, a site that collects the best personal finance articles floating around the web on a daily basis.

Zach

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