Guest blog by Colleen Valles
We’ve all found ourselves in this situation: life is so hectic; we’re running from place to place trying to catch our breath, and feeling like we need to do everything for everyone all the time.
When we do finally take a minute to stop and breathe, we recognize the feelings of stress and overwhelm that have been plaguing us, and then the feeling of guilt that washes over us for not being busy at that moment.
A few years ago, I was at exactly this point. Each day on my excessive commute, I would wonder how everyone did it all — took their kids to activities, spent time with family and friends, read books. I would feel guilty for not doing as much as others; and I would be sad that I wasn’t getting to do enough of what I love: spending time with my daughter and writing.
It was frustrating and unsustainable, and I knew that something had to change. That’s when I decided to simplify our lives and to slow down. As a single mother working outside the home, I had certain schedule constraints that would take longer to change than others, so I decided to make what changes I could and start working toward the bigger ones. It has been an exercise in patience, but the recognition that sustainable living lessens our footprint upon the earth, as well as the stress, overwhelm and guilt that come with leading overly busy lives have helped keep us on track toward a goal of an all-encompassing definition of sustainability.
That goal was helped along by a tour of a trash facility for work and seeing that nothing ever really gets thrown “away.” I had already taken steps to lessen the amount of trash my daughter and I produced, including reducing our use of plastic and disposables, but I knew there was much more we could do. So while I worked to streamline our schedules, I also worked to decrease our carbon footprint. What I found is they are not mutually exclusive, and in fact are very compatible. This effort led to major changes that have helped me slow down and simplify, and by doing so, I’ve actually found time to do more of what I love and less of the stuff that just doesn’t matter.
Here are 7 steps I took and realizations I had that helped make major changes in our lives.
Keep your eyes on the prize
You have to know: what’s your ultimate goal? For me it was more time with my daughter and more time to write, as I’m trying to build up a freelance writing business. Keeping focused on that goal helped me determine what would count as a priority. I would ask myself “could I be writing now?” or “What would be fun for my daughter right now?” and “Can this wait?” These questions helped me see that maybe I didn’t need to run to the store to buy some organizing contraption I saw in a magazine.
These questions also helped me decide which changes we should make. In order for me to spend time writing and with my daughter, our changes couldn’t be too time consuming. So, for instance, I could make yogurt and bread (http://slowsimplelife.com/2013/03/bread/), which are largely hands-off activities, but I wouldn’t be making butter or raising chickens for eggs. I buy my butter wrapped in wax paper and cardboard and my eggs come from the farmer’s market, where I return the carton each week so the farmer can reuse it. You have to decide what is right for you, and a lot of it has to do with your schedule. Which leads to the next step I took:
Be ruthless in decluttering your schedule
Simplicity and sustainable living aren’t just about decluttering your closet and not filling it back up again. They also are about making a schedule that’s right for you and that fulfills your values and aligns with your priorities. It took a long time, but I’ve been able to arrange that. It has meant leaving a job I really believed in, but where I was on-call 24/7 every other week and where my commute was eating up two hours of my day. I work close enough to home now that I can bike to work and my total commute is still just over half an hour. (That one was a two-fer: I got time back and decreased my carbon footprint!) But it took me three years of applying to jobs and interviewing to do it.
It has also meant saying no to friends when they want to hang out. I’ve had to be choosier about which invitations we can accept, but talking to my friends and partner (http://www.slowsimplelife.com/2016/07/slow-steps/) ahead of time have really helped. They know from all the complaining I did before just how much it has bothered me that I haven’t been able to do all the things that I’ve wanted. And because they love me and want me to be happy, they’ve been understanding when I can’t do something. Do I feel like I’m missing out sometimes? Yes, of course. But I’m also grateful for the opportunity to do what I truly value.
Make things from scratch
This might seem like it goes against the time-consuming rule, but it really doesn’t. I find it’s easier, cheaper and faster to do a big batch of shopping and cooking once a week. You can make dishes ahead of time and freeze them for later in the week. And it’s less time-consuming and less expensive than running to the store every time you’re out of certain ingredients. This helps you save money and cut down on things that come in plastic, plus it saves trips to the store. Luckily we can walk, but many people have to get in the car and drive.
It’s also healthier to eat fresh foods. We use our dinner leftovers for lunch the next day, and if we have a lot, my daughter, who loves to experiment in the kitchen, will sometimes try to get creative with what we have the next night.
Kill your TV
Well, not really. But downsize your cable plan or get rid of it altogether. We just use Netflix and Amazon Prime, and while that took some getting used to on my daughter’s part, it has freed up way more time for us to talk and be outside and do things together. If you don’t think you watch much TV but aren’t sure, do a little experiment. Track your TV watching habits for a week. Just write down the start and finish time every time you sit down to watch TV. Include those times you keep the TV on in the background just for the noise. I find the TV is really distracting, and even if I have it on just for the noise, I’ll wind up stopping what I’m doing to watch. I find during those times, TV can easily be replaced by turning on the radio or streaming some music or listening to a podcast.
I bet at the end of the week you’ll be surprised by how much TV you watch. The average American watches just over four hours of TV a day. Four hours! You don’t have to cut TV out entirely, but there are probably some times where you can cut down on your watching significantly. I think you’ll find yourself more active and more alert and able to focus in other areas better. That’s what happened to me.
We’re moving into a tiny house. My fiancé lives in another town and because we each have kids, neither of us can leave our respective towns to live together just yet. He’s not much of a tiny house dweller, but ever since I was a kid I’ve loved the idea of having a house that travels with you, and now I get the chance to live in one. Until my fiancé and I can be together in the same house, my daughter and I and the baby on the way are moving into a tiny house on wheels.
We’ll put it in my parents’ back yard, which will be mutually beneficial — they help me out with my daughter, and I can help them out around the house more easily. It will also provide us a measure of stability in the crazy Silicon Valley housing market, as well as significantly decrease our carbon footprint — we’ll use less water and energy, plus we won’t buy unnecessary things simply because there’s no place to put them. We’ll be living with what we know we need, and not hanging onto things we’ve accumulated with no thought or intention behind them.
While it’s a lot of work to get to that stage, I’m excited to live in a carefully curated space. Everything will serve a purpose or be something we love.
With a baby on the way, that can be difficult. Well-meaning loved ones want to help us out and get us what we need. The truth is, we’ll need more items with a baby, but this is where I’ve discovered the beauty of registries (http://www.slowsimplelife.com/2016/07/baby-stuff/). Baby registries can help you let others know exactly what to get you, and let you control the influx of items to your home. People really do want to get you useful items — no one wants to buy you something that will just sit in a corner gathering dust,
Go with the flow
My partner and I are expecting, and the baby is due Nov. 4. The tiny house is due at the end of the year, but that hasn’t derailed plans to go tiny. We’ll just get rid of more of our stuff to make room for the baby and its stuff. It’s all about rolling with it. Stressing out over things doesn’t solve the problem, but taking a deep breath, stepping back and thinking about the best way to manage a situation can help you get past something that might otherwise seem to be a problem. In fact, it could really be a blessing.
Keep your eyes on the next prize
Living intentionally and sustainably isn’t a destination that you arrive at, it’s an ongoing journey that takes little tweaks every day and sometimes a few big tweaks here and there. I’m still working toward having even more time by trying to work as a freelance writer, which would give me more flexibility. With a new baby, that’s the kind of change I need to make next, and living more sustainably and smaller will help because it cuts expenses.
There’s always another goal to be focused on, but it’s important to enjoy the steps along the path, or else you’ll never feel like what you’ve achieved is worthwhile. The changes we have made already and are in the process of making have taken a long time — years in some cases. So they’ve required some patience, but they’ve been worth it and have given us the encouragement we need to keep going.
Listen to the podcast with Colleen