Focus on What Matters Most

Right at the time I thought I had it all, I realized I had no time to spend on any of it. Thankfully, in a book by Elaine St. James, Simplify Your Life, I found someone who had experienced this feeling and set out to find a way through. Over six months, I de-stuffed and de-scheduled. Elaine’s was no back-to-basics message, encouraging me to grow my own food and pedal to work. Her message simply suggested that we might want to slow down and enjoy the things that really matter.

All along my journey, her words provided me inspiration and insight into how to focus on what mattered most. Several years later, while writing for a magazine, Elaine granted me some of her time to talk about simplifying, writing books, and finding a place in the world. That conversation took place fourteen years ago. I’m thrilled to report I’ve stuck with a simplified approach to life ever since. I still have too many magazines, spend too much time en-route, and collect too many t-shirts at conferences. Overall, the time I once spent keeping up with society’s expectations, the latest fashion, or traditions long since useful are much better focused on today.

It’s the world around me I’m worried about now. While minimalism may seem in, the gluttony of civilization overall saps more than our energy. It’s sapping our planet too.

Last week as I revved up for going into de-stuff maintenance mode, I re-read Elaine’s first book. As I dive into the piles on my desk and the overstuffed t-shirt drawer, I thought it was time to share our original conversation with you. Enjoy!

Marcia Conner: What do people need to learn in order to change their lives so that they can get to and do what really matters?

Elaine St. James: There are a number of different approaches. I think that any one of them could be a trigger for someone to get it, and then go on and follow their own mode to the result. I also think that we are all at different points along the path. There are many people who just picked up one of the books and got it—like you. There are other people who don’t necessarily get it as quickly, or who understand the overall picture but can’t quite figure out how to get their own lives there. I think one of the first things people need to learn is what it feels like to begin to take the time.

Conner: So how can we do that?

St. James: It’s kind of a step-by-step process—especially in relation to work and life. I devote the first chapter of Simplify Your Work Life to cutting back on the amount of time you work so you have more time for the other areas of your life. That includes things like cutting back to a forty hour work week, for some cutting back to a thirty hour week, for others getting in the habit of leaving their briefcase at the office two or three nights a week, not working weekends, or eliminating their commute if possible. Take your vacation. How often do we brag about the fact we haven’t had a vacation in three years? Or take a sabbatical. There are numerous sabbatical programs, many of which are even paid for and sponsored by employers. So, start with beginning to take the time.

You can also cut back on some of your social obligations. Cut back on some of the material stuff in your life that you have to spend time taking care of so that you can begin to feel what it feels like to have the time for what really matters.

I was at the point where I just knew I had to do this. A lot of people are at that same place. Others may have the desire to do it, but they don’t believe it’s possible. So, for some people this means taking a leap of faith and saying, “Okay, I’m going to start cutting back here and there and just see what it feels like.” Others need to reach a point where they see that it actually can be done. When we’re in the midst of these crazy lives it feels like we can’t slow down, like we can’t stop. It feels like if we stop for even a minute we’re going to lose out on everything. We won’t be able to keep up with the information; won’t be able to keep up with the technology; won’t be able to do what we have to do to keep going.

Conner: Lotte Bailyn at MIT Sloan recommends experiments, or trial periods of time where little by little we see it actually can be done.

St. James: When we begin to slow down we learn that the world won’t come to an end if we stop. That was a revelation for me. I realized that, “Hey, the world is still turning, I’m still living, and I can stop for a bit and everything will still be OK.” We reach this point where we think we’re holding it all together: our lives, our families, our social community. But the fact is if we step back from it or even out of it for a little while, the world is going to continue on without us and everything will be fine.

Conner: Sounds like you have to let go of some ego, too.

St. James: Oh, yeah, big ego letting go. When we’re in the center of it we feel like we’re it. It takes some humility to be able to step back and say, “My assistant could do that.” But it’s quite another challenge to ask, “Does it even need to get done?” There are certain type A personalities that fall into this, and it’s often the “Type A” personalities that need to let go of the ego a little bit, too.

Then I think we need to learn that we don’t have to know it all either. There is so much emphasis today on information technology and we think we have to know it all, we have to be on top of it. I finally figured out that I could work 24-hours a day and I still wouldn’t get it all done, and I still wouldn’t know it all. I realized that even if you don’t know it all, you are still a valuable person, and you can still contribute to the world. You can still accomplish tremendous amounts.

Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than information.” I experienced this first hand after I canceled my magazine and newspaper subscriptions. I’ve never been much of a TV watcher, but I just kind of unplugged from everything. I found out that I could take the time at the end of the day to just sit and daydream, opening myself up to really thinking rather than constantly reacting. We all fall into that habit. We react to the things that are going on around us and feel there is a certain response or a certain expectation that we have to live up to—usually somebody else’s expectation. If we let go of that, we can really get the feel of how important imagination is in our life. It’s not that information is not important, but imagination is what we do with that information. We have to learn to take the time to tap into our own intuitive knowing.

Conner: Are you suggesting we get rid of all of our magazines? My office would be empty!

St. James: No, just those you don’t have time to read. We often feel a lot of guilt about all the magazines that are stacking up that we never have time to read, and the guilt adds to the stress. But it is so simple: cancel the magazines you don’t have time for. If you can’t find the time for it, it’s not that important to you.

So often we depend on outside sources when we really have a tremendous source of knowledge and understanding within ourselves. The trouble is that we’re moving too fast and we’re too exhausted most of the time to really tap into it.

There are simple things you can do to tap into that intuition. I write about some of these in Simplify Your Work Life. They are things like taking a break, getting up and walking around the block when you’re tired, taking a nap, or daydreaming. And of course, making sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating right, and taking time for that balance in your life. These kinds of things will contribute to your ability to hone that inner knowing.

One tool that I learned to use if I’m dealing with a problem or a challenge is to write it out in a journal before I go to bed at night, getting clear on what the crux of the problem is. In writing it, I consciously direct my subconscious mind to help me find the solution. Then I go to bed and forget about it. Then first thing in the morning when I wake up, while I’m still in that kind of semi-sleep state, I start writing in my journal the first thing that comes to me. Sometimes I give it a jump-start by saying, “So the solution to this problem is…” And insights just start pouring out. You can use this for lots of different kinds of situations in your work life, your family life, and your relationships.

Conner: That’s quite a contrast to searching the Internet for every possible solution imaginable!

St. James: Yes, the internet is a powerful tool, too, obviously. Sometimes we simply need to strike a balance between acquiring the information that is available to us through modern technology and the wisdom that is available to us through our inner technology via our intuition.

Conner: Absolutely. Did you use intuition before, or are you able to now access it because of the change you’ve made in your life?

St. James: I’m definitely able to access my intuition much more readily since I slowed down the pace of my life.

In a sense that’s what happened when I had the epiphany to simplify my life. I had a real estate investing business, also a seminar business, I had written a book on real estate investing, I’d just returned from the book tour, and I had all of these things going on. I came back and was sitting at my desk, just overwhelmed, looking at this huge time management system, and it was like a light went on—I’ve got to simplify my life. I didn’t even know at that point what it meant. But the feeling was strong enough that I spent four days at a retreat house and forced myself to just sit there and think about what was complicating my life, and come up with ideas about how to make it simple. Part of that the motivation was desperation. I just knew I didn’t want to go on living the way I’d been living. It was just too much.

Now that I’ve simplified, I see that I’ve survived by cutting back and doing less. I’ve prospered by finding an entirely new career that I love, and I’ve been able to develop a deep, rich, rewarding, and inner life in the midst of a chaotic world. From time to time I’m still involved in that chaos, but I have made sure that what I do is valuable and worth it to me.

We spend so much time spinning our wheels. It often feels like we’re getting something done; we’re at the office, it’s late at night and we’ve got the computer on, the fax on, the cell phones are ringing and all that, but are we really accomplishing anything?

Conner: There are so many things written suggesting busy people should become minimalists—getting rid of everything, growing all their own food, trading in a comfortable car. But to me that would take even more work and keep me from doing what matters. There’s nothing wrong with it if that’s what matters most to you, but simplifying should be the means, not the goal.

St. James: Exactly. I talk about that in Living the Simple Life because that question kept coming up. Simplifying doesn’t mean you have to go live in the woods. That is not what it’s about. What made this simplify-your-life concept work—certainly what made the book successful—is that it was the first time somebody put these ideas together under the context of “simplifying.” Not so we could grow our own food necessarily, but so we would have time for whatever is important to us. Many of us have reached the point where we have great lives, we just don’t have the time to enjoy them.

We all want to simplify for different reasons. Some people want to simplify so they have time with their kids. That’s why I wrote Simplify Your Life With Kids. We realize that our kids are growing up and we never see them. We don’t know what’s really happening in their lives. We feel guilty about it so we buy them stuff, but we’re not spending time with them. Simplifying helps people create that time.

For single people or for people whose kids are grown and gone, simplifying may have a different focus. We see life passing by, and we haven’t done what we wanted to do with our time and with our lives.

Conner: The same can be said for work. We don’t often know the people we spend so much time with each day. There needs to be a sense of recouping that time, finding a place in our hearts to be able to share who we are, and to have that inner knowing with other people.

St. James: I think the challenge gets bigger as the technology separates us even more. We’re plugged into technology all day; we don’t have the interaction with people we used to have. I think our souls miss that. We are social animals after all.

Conner: And as a social animal, what has simplifying done for your life?

St. James: I think it has given me a much richer, fuller life. I make sure I take the time now to enjoy my friendships and my relationships. I have a family of cousins that I grew up with back in the mid-west that I hadn’t seen in years because my life was too hectic. I went for years without taking vacations. Since I simplified, I had the time to establish this wonderful reconnection with my family.

Conner: Wonderful. How did you create that time?

St. James: In part by simplifying my relationships! Before, I spent a lot of time with people I didn’t really want to spend time with. Often out of habit, often out of obligation, often just because it was easier than to do something to change it. Now I make sure that the people in my life are people I really want to be with, the people that really matter to me.

Sometimes we need to keep blinders on so we don’t get distracted by the cultural and media messages we’re so bombarded with to keep our lives complicated. So there has to be a certain amount of discipline about saying “no” to things that don’t matter to you.

Conner: What matters changes over time, right?

St. James: Right. When I simplified my life, I realized I was spending a lot of time doing things that had mattered to me ten or fifteen years before. I went for a long period of time not realizing that those things didn’t matter anymore.

Conner: So we have to revisit our priorities. And, we have to make choices about those priorities. We can either choose to live a simple life or we can choose to live a complicated life, and that’s made up by lots of tiny choices. We can choose to keep this paper, or that magazine, or the big house, or this friend, or we can choose not to. We are in control and we have the ability to make these choices for ourselves.

St. James: That’s exactly it. We are in control. We can create our lives exactly the way we want them. Often there are outside demands, family pressures, social pressures, community pressures and so simplifying often means we have to be willing to buck those. We have to realize that nobody else is going to give us a day off. Nobody is going to say, “You can leave the office at six o’clock tonight.” Nobody is going to give us the weekend off. We have to seize that time for ourselves.

Conner: It shouldn’t seem so crazy that if you’re healthy you can take a well day off!

St. James: Absolutely—the point being that we each have to find a system that works for us.

Conner: Thank you for helping us find a system that works for each of us.

St. James: It’s just been wonderful talking with you. I appreciate your support, and your thoughtful questions.


Elaine St. James is the author of the national bestseller Simplify Your Life, which detailed how she scaled back her own life in the early 1990s. Hailed as the leader of the simplicity movement by The New York Times, St. James wrote five other best-selling books on simplifying: Inner Simplicity (1995), Living the Simple Life (1996), Simplify Your Life With Kids (1997), Simplify Your Work Life (2000),and 365 Simple Reminders (2000).

For the record, I simplified my life for the first time in 1995, complicated my life in 1996, simplified again in 1999, and believe I’m now it for the long haul because in 2014 I’m still on a simple path. Throughout, I’ve never lost sight of what matters: my family, my health, my writing, and my learning.

When I decided to republish this interview, originally written for a magazine I used to edit, I sent an email to Elaine thanking her for how much she’s improved my life and asking if it would be OK with her if I resurfaced our conversation. I didn’t need to do that, but I thought it a good thing to do. The email bounced back, which isn’t surprising from a decade old address. Yet when I sought out every other people-searching technique now available in the digital age, I found her no easier to find. In this era of digital social lives, Elaine has also mastered living off this electronic grid. That’s wow-worthy on its own and something the “I’m going to try to stay off Facebook for a month” crowd might find outright astonishing.

Here’s to Elaine, once again inspiring us by focusing on what matters.

[photo credit: Thomas Quine, Snowy Beach Stream]
Focus on What Matters Most
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