Before we go off on this listicle, I’d like to invite you to take a moment to imagine living in Thailand (my home) 200 years ago.
I know—random, but bear with me for a moment please, as this little thought experiment will be the foundation for the advice to follow.
Okay, justification done. Now let’s get back to 1820 Thailand where there’s no TikTok. No work emails on the weekend, or the weekdays. No YouTube with billions of hours of videos. No Netflix with thousands of films to pick from. No Wikipedia to dive down a rabbit hole in.
What is here?
Rice paddies for a few hundred meters around. The sound of chickens bickering and scratching at leaves. The smell of smoke and boiling rice. The sun beating down on you and the humid air soaking your skin. Here, you go out to toil in the field for a few hours in the morning, take a long siesta in the afternoon, and then back to work ’til sunset.
Then, imagine that this is your life on repeat—for 20 years. For better and for worse, what do you think your mind would be like then?
This might sound like the disgruntled daydreaming of a dissatisfied millennial (I admit it—somewhat true), but it’s not just an abstraction. It’s a life that I know intimately. It’s a life that people still live, with some changes, even today in the dirt-road parts of Thailand and on the fringes of much of the world.
And it’s a life that offers a simplicity and groundedness that’s so needed now.
For sure, there are costs to this. Poverty. Poor medical care. The risk of being driven out by big companies or the government. Crippling debt that some will never crawl out of. Gullibility. Increasing economic marginalization. But it does offer something so many crave.
What follows are five ways to live more simply, without having to sell all of your stuff and live in the countryside.
They are, in many ways, gifts from the Thai rural areas that I’ve called home for the last 10 years, and gifts from my own living out in the middle-of-nowhere while also working a complex, high-demand job. (Don’t ask how those two fit, but somehow, they do.)
1. Aim Lower
In my own humble opinion, at the root of 90 percent of the complexity and stress of modern-day life lies high expectations. Parents want their kids to get into the top schools, get the high marks, and live by the seemingly benign modern-day mantra of “be the best version of yourself.” Employees want to have a boss they respect highly and a job that fulfills them and aligns with their principles. Others want to do great things, transform the world, ensure justice for all. Some want to find their soulmate or discover their true calling in life.
These are all wonderful things. But trouble comes when those folks start expecting reality to match their desires, and when they don’t, pulling all the stops to make those dreams a reality. Worse, many folks have high expectations for most areas of their life: relationships, career, money, society, spirituality.
Good luck with that is all I’ve gotta say.
On paper, they sound good. Why shouldn’t I be demanding of myself and those around me? Why shouldn’t I want the best for my children, my partner, or my parents? Because these expectations can carry a hidden and heavy cost. They can crush us and others with stress. They can make us default to a “gimme-gimme-gimme” mindset that makes enjoying things difficult. And they can complicate and busy our lives in the pursuit of that goal or, even worse, multiple, conflicting with our goals.
Look, this is a hard pill to swallow, especially for those who’ve grown up on the gospel of big dreams and hard work, who’ve spent years grinding away to achieve their goals, to be successful. And maybe I’m a fool, and feel free to dismiss me, but there’s something in this that rings true, something in you that says, “I’m tired of this, of grinding and sacrificing.” For those tired and ready, welcome. Cast off your nagging feelings of failure and inadequacy. Stop burning out. Take life slowly. Expect less. Enjoy your life as it is.
This might sound like a recipe for complacency, but it’s not. “What will happen if I stop pushing myself? I’ll just become a mediocre nobody. I won’t be able to support my family. I’ll have a difficult, bitter, unaccomplished life.” Maybe. But you might have that even with all of that flagellation. Or you could end up like Magnus Carlsen, one of the greatest chess players in history, who plays out of sheer love of the game.
2. Schedule Less
When was the last time you spontaneously went over to a friend’s house or called someone up and chatted for an hour? If you’re like me, too long. For most, even my own parents, our lives have become so busy that even meeting a friend for coffee, stopping by to say hi, or calling them up for a chat requires at least 24 hours notice and a negotiation of schedules before approval. Many have their entire weeks carefully planned out from the time that they wake up in the morning until the time they go to sleep—seven days a week, 365 days a year. Many books actively encourage this as part of a necessary formula for success. Set S.M.A.R.T. goals. Make a schedule. Make every minute count.
But there’s a cost to this: that nagging feeling that there’s always something else to do and somewhere else to go. Often, it comes with this compulsion to cram as much “good stuff” into a day, week, month, year, or lifetime as humanly possible—and cut out all of that “not good stuff” that’s not helping them meet their goals. But neither life, nature, nor our own hearts follow a clock. Meeting the love of your life doesn’t follow a clock. Nor does being stricken with cancer. Nor does the unexpected overnight success of a business or its catastrophic attack by hackers.
Sure, there are times when being a penny-pincher for a time is absolutely necessary. If I had a few kids and worked two jobs just to keep everything together or I had a huge deadline coming up that I just couldn’t miss, it might be necessary to have an exacting schedule to survive. But in a majority of cases, living by a strict schedule clutters up life with a long list of to-dos.
Instead, schedule loosely. Instead of “7:00-8:15 p.m.—Running” or “6:00-6:30 a.m.—Meditation,” perhaps decide to run in the evening and meditate in the morning and then see what happens. Or you might not even need to write anything down, just take it day-by-day. Obviously, you don’t want to be too loose with what time you get to work, but I’m pretty sure your run times can have a bit of leeway. Also, leave blocks of unscheduled time. Give space for life to happen and to enjoy things without having to worry what’s next.
3. Have Tech-free Zones/Times
Technology is one of the biggest drivers of complexity and busyness. And while it’s helped me stay connected to my family despite living over a thousand miles away, it’s also complicated my life with endless notifications, 24/7 news cycles, and highly addictive YouTube algorithms. One of the easiest ways to manage this: limit using tech to particular areas or times, as it’s a lot more tempting to check your Instagram when your phone is in your pocket as opposed to when it’s a minutes’ walk away, buried under a pile of shirts, and powered off.
One option is to have dedicated, regular unplugged time. It could mean when you go to bed you turn your phone off and put it in a drawer in another room. In the morning, wake up with an alarm clock and do your routine without touching a computer or cellphone. Pick it up and turn it on on your way out the door. You could also have an after-sunset tech fast. Or you could say no technology on Sundays. Find what’s right for you.
But just as it’s hard to do a fast with a steaming bowl of your favorite soup on the counter, it’s hard to stay away from technology if it’s just a few steps away. When I want to start my unplug time, I turn off my cell phone and laptop and put them away in an inconvenient place and go out for a walk with my dog. For people who can’t do that, there are also programs like Freedom, which can limit your access to certain apps or websites on devices.
4. Do One Thing at a Time
Just as many modern folks try to do too much in one day, they also try to do too much in one moment. They listen to a podcast, get dressed for work, and fry eggs for breakfast—simultaneously. I’m guilty of this too, but while it might seem like I’m saving time, the truth is I’m squandering it by not being fully present for what I’m doing. Stuff like that busies the mind and, downstream, complicates life.
In my opinion: don’t do it. Instead, when eating, eat. When sweeping, sweep. When cooking, cook. When reading, read.
I understand the impulse for more. Long work hours. Long commutes. And then there’s all of these little housekeeping tasks that seem to eat up the few remaining hours in a day. And, yet, there are so many great books to read, podcasts to listen to, and movies to watch. Why not just get in a good book on leadership while also getting my exercise in? Because it impoverishes your most precious resource: time.
While multi-tasking, running doesn’t ground you as much as it should and you don’t retain or understand as much from the book you’re reading. You’d be better off both intellectually and emotionally by just running and then, when you have time, dedicating yourself to the book fully, even if it’s a humble 30 minutes a day. Those 30 minutes do me better than a half-assed hour-and-a-half while on the treadmill.
Ironically, for those folks who consistently cram too much into every moment, a time-scarcity mindset awaits downstream in a few weeks or months. For someone who wants more and more from every hour, there’ll never be enough hours in the day. Even if I gave those folks 30 hours, they’d want 35. If they got 35, they’d want 40. Why? Because it’s not about time, really, it’s that insatiable greed for more.
There are so many great books to read. So many exciting things to do. And, in the end, they’re never quite fully present for what they’re doing now. Instead, they skip ahead of their book, eager to get to the end. Or they skip through boring parts of the film. Or they scroll too fast while they read so they can check that article off and devour something else. But, honestly, when will it be enough?
For most, time will come when they give themselves fully to what they’re reading without worrying when they’re going to finish or wondering about the next amazing book they’re going to read. If they just gave themselves fully to reading, washing dishes, showering, or running, I trust that they’d find each activity rich and fulfilling in-and-of-itself, with some practice, of course. They’d also find that instead of living in a time desert, they live in a rich tropic of time with all day to do the things that they love, or whatever else happens to pop-up.
5. More Hands-on Stuff
A hundred years ago, 90 percent of the workforce was primarily manual labor. They paved roads, laid bricks, sewed socks, and plowed fields. Now, the workforce is reaching 90 percent mental labor: writing reports, analyzing numbers, designing new strategies to win the market, comparing with competitors, planning, and managing teams. What’s worse: many of those same folks crunching numbers in offices go home and do more heady stuff, like reading The New Yorker, taking online courses on Evolutionary Psychology, or playing Wordle. But if you’re spending eight or nine hours a day at your job exerting your brain, then it needs to rest—not be crammed with more stuff. Without rest, the mind quickly turns into a restless, ineffective soup of thoughts.
Instead of going home to do more heavy thinking, consider spending time getting out of your head and into your body. Take up a craft, like playing guitar, gardening, or making furniture. And instead of trying to be the best or take on a side-hustle—in other words, something to keep you busy or complicate your life more—do what you do because you love it. When you make time for the simple things you love, more and more simplicity will find you.