The Beat of a Different Drum

Just finished something ?

Great – why not take a short break.

There, did you enjoy it ?

Now what’s next ?

How about making those phone calls, sending that text message, responding to those emails or updating your social media ? How about checking in on a few blogs ? Maybe you could update your ‘to-do list’, your ‘bucket list’, your ‘reading list’, your ‘films to watch list’ or your ‘wish list’ ? Maybe you could finish reading all those 1001 Things Before you Die books – places to go, foods to eat, paintings to see ? Have you finished watching that new DVD box set you got for Christmas yet, or that new video game, or for that matter that old DVD box set, or that old video game ? Did you get round to listening to the last couple of albums you downloaded, reading that book you bought or organising your photos ?

Or you could do some of the more important stuff you’ve been putting off: sorting out your bank accounts, or the phone, the internet, the electricity, the TV, the heating, the cars, the insurance, the mortgage, your subscriptions or your memberships. Then you can walk the dog, spend time reading with the kids, cut the grass, tidy the house, do the washing, sort the recycling, do the shopping, book the dentist, plan your holiday, make lunch for tomorrow, cook diner for tonight, catch up with your friends, phone your Mum, get some exercise, keep up to date with the news and buy everyone thoughtful presents for Christmas.

Make sure you don’t forget to do some work, and get enough sleep !

More things to do, more rushing, more multi-tasking, more obligations, more commitments, more things to organise, coordinate, choose, pay for and maintain.

Any of this sound familiar ?

If you’re getting stressed just reading this, then it’s probably far too familiar for comfort.

For the last century and a half our pace of life in the West has been speeding up – driven mostly by advances in technology and associated cultural change. I’m sure most of us would agree that this technological advancement is a good thing – saving us time and effort, liberating women from the home, doing away with drudgery and providing us with more leisure time.

So why do so many of us feel increasingly under pressure, unfulfilled and worn out ?

The Slow Movement suggests that although our technology and surroundings have changed, our essential needs and nature remain the same. We increasingly neglect them in our constant personal and societal drive towards doing more and more, and doing it faster and faster.

It’s not just our homes that need decluttering, it’s our whole lives.

Henry David Thoreau, the American writer and thinker, escaped New England society to go and live for two years in a small wooden cabin by Walden Pond, Massachusetts. He recorded his thoughts in the book Walden; or Life in the Woods, published in 1854, which went on to have a significant influencing effect on both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Thoreau wanted to detach himself from much of the clamour of modern life – though not leave it completely, and learn how to live a simpler, less stressful, more connected and ultimately more meaningful existence.

Many others have sought similar detachment in order to find simplicity and meaning, both before Thoreau, and since – including Christopher McCandless, whose journey into the Alaskan wilderness formed the basis for the recent book and film Into the Wild.

Thoreau used the word balance to describe his objective for life – something we all have to define for ourselves.

Perhaps the challenge for those of us wrestling with the rhythm and trappings of our own lives – is how we can also achieve balance ? Both for our own happiness, and considering our footprint on the planet.

It would also be nice if we could find a way to do it where we’re already planted – rather than needing to spend two years in a cabin somewhere, or hitchhiking off to Alaska :)


Photo from Timehettler via Flickr

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The Secret to Happiness

Courtney Carver is author of the blog Be More with Less, and describes herself with “I have been too busy, too tired, too full, too stressed and too overworked for too long and I am changing my ways.” Courtney also runs the One Million for Good site, selling limited edition fine art prints in support of good causes.

I’d like to tell you a story…

A certain shopkeeper sent his son to learn about the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world.

The lad wandered through the desert for forty days, and finally came upon a beautiful castle, high atop a mountain. It was there that the wise man lived.

Rather than finding a saintly man though, our hero, on entering the main room of the castle, saw a hive of activity: tradesmen came and went, people were conversing in the corners, a small orchestra was playing soft music, and there was a table covered with platters of the most delicious food in that part of the world.

The wise man conversed with everyone, and the boy had to wait for two hours before it was his turn to be given the man’s attention. The wise man listened attentively to the boy’s explanation of why he had come, but told him that he didn’t time just then to explain the secret of happiness.

He suggested that the boy look around the palace and return in two hours. “Meanwhile I want to ask you do do something,” said the wise man, handing the boy a teaspoon that held two drops of oil. “As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing the oil to spill.”

The boy began climbing and descending the many stairways of the palace, keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. After two hours, he returned to the room where the wise man was. “Well,” asked the wise man, “did you see the Persian tapestries that are hanging in my dining hall? Did you see the garden that it took the master gardener ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?”

The boy was embarrassed, and confessed that he had observed nothing. His only concern had been not to spill the oil that the wise man had entrusted to him.

“Then go back and observe the marvels of my world,” said the wise man.

Relieved, the boy picked up the spoon and returned to his exploration of the palace, this time observing all of the works of art on the ceilings and the walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around him, the beauty of the flowers, and the tasted with which everything had been selected. Upon returning to the wise man, he related in detail everything he had seen.

“But where are the drops of oil I entrusted to you?” asked the wise man. Looking down at the spoon he held, the boy saw that the oil was gone.

“Well, there is only one piece of advice I can give you.” said the wisest of wise men. “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon”

The Alchemistby Paulo Coelho

This little story with a very big message from one of my favorite books begs the question, “Can we appreciate the beauty that surrounds us while staying focused on what is most important.”

Simplicity answers the question with a resounding “Yes!”

When life isn’t simple and you have to constantly think about

  • debt
  • shopping
  • catching up
  • spending
  • competing
  • appointments
  • health issues
  • falling behind
  • family conflict
  • clutter
  • stuff

then there is no time to appreciate the beauty or protect what is most important to you. There is no time to be happy.

Imagine dumping everything in your life that is meaningless. Everything that you don’t do for love. What would be leftover? It’s time to prioritize the “leftover”. Somehow those most important things, those things (which usually aren’t actual things) get shoved back behind all of the things we are “supposed” to be doing, buying, reading, worrying about.

This isn’t permission to shirk your obligations, but an invitation to put the most important thing in your life today at the top of your never ending to-do list. While everyone will have a different thing at the top of the list, clearing out, or making a plan to begin clearing out clutter/debt/meaningless stuff should be close to the top until it’s gone.

That said, even before you are debt free, clutter free, or free of whatever stands in the way of you and a happier life, prioritize the precioius oil in your life and start living, start enjoying immediately.

There is no doubt that clearing clutter will give you the time and space you need to fully embrace life, but you don’t have to wait for an empty drawer to get started. I know you think you will be happy when you are debt free, or happy when you fit into your skinny jeans, but I can tell you with great conviction that it’s time to be happy right now. You can be happy anytime.

You know me better to think that I am suggesting that you run around with a crazy smile on your face and rainbows shooting out of your pockets, but once you believe that happiness is possible, regardless of your current circumstances, things will start to change.

You will change.

Your life will change.

You will be happy.

Happy reading recommendations

What makes you happy right now?

Photo by Jonathon Benson via Flickr

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A Full Life

If you’re reading this sat glumly at your office desk you might want to spend a short while pondering this post.

Would you like to spend more time with your family and friends ?

How about more time pursuing leisure activities or keeping fit ?

Most of us could easily come up with a long list of enjoyable, useful, life affirming things we could do with more time – spend more time with the kids, get involved in our local communities, relax and unwinding, prepare better food and eat together as a family more, learn a new skill – or teach one, do something creative, or maybe even do some of that voluntary work or take part in civic society the way government keeps urging us all to do.

But instead we work long hours, both during the day and increasingly into the evening and at weekends, commute a few more and as a result feel under constant time pressure as we try to balance all the things we know we should be doing: help the kids with their homework, buy and cook healthy food, get involved with the community, try to keep fit, find time to see friends, not to mention finding time for ourselves and our own interests and relaxation. Modern life can be hectic.

Not all time is equal of course – we might have a couple of hours free before bed, but after our long work day, commuting and the necessary family and domestic duties, all we might be good for is veging out on the sofa in front of the TV or aimlessly messing with our social networks. Time is no use if you’ve got no energy left.

If this sounds exactly like your life, and you’re feeling sorry for yourself . . . wait a moment, because there’s another alternative.

Millions in our societies are also struggling with unemployment, and as economic austerity bites deeper, many have little optimism about their working futures – the young, the ‘more mature’, those with obsolete skills, those suffering from poor health or disability and those with other family care commitments, usually women.

The conventional economic cure for our current economic woes is yet greater efficiency – less people doing more work for less money.

Somehow, we’ve managed to build societies in which millions of people are unemployed, desperate for meaningful work – while simultaneously, millions of others work long hours in jobs they hate, and are too tired as a result. While some of us are overworking, over spending and over consuming, others can’t afford a decent quality of life.

There is a seemingly obvious solution every school table of six year olds would spot.

Why not share the work out more ?

Seems obvious doesn’t it. Reducing the working week, giving people free time to do ‘all that good stuff’ and creating jobs for more people appears to be a ‘triple-win’: good for the economy, good for our quality of life and good for the environment, as, it is argued, people will become less attached to status driven resource based consumption, deriving more enjoyment from their relationships.

A reduction in the working week to an average of 21 hours is being championed by the think tank The New Economics Foundation, as a way of breaking the live to work mindset, rather than working to live. Many other futurists have previously argued the same thing – assuming increasing technology would provide us with ever more leisure time, instead of driving a desire to do ever more work. Keynes himself imagined we would all be working a 15 hour work week by 2030 . . . probably not going to be one of his more accurate predictions.

But this seemingly obvious solution, of sharing the work out, has a couple of major obstacles – firstly working fewer hours means bringing in less money, and those on comfortable incomes may not immediately see the attraction of this, secondly it’s simply not reasonable to expect those on already low hourly rates to simply reduce their hours, so there would also need to be a corresponding increase in the minimum wage.

Will we see societies higher earners giving up a significant slice of their income in exchange for more leisure time, and a better quality of life ?

Sounds unlikely ?

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

For sure, not everyone agrees we should all be working less – another think tank is reported as recently proposed scrapping the UK’s bank holidays to boost GDP, but increasing numbers of people do appear interested in downshifting, simpler living, anti-consumerism, slow living and all aspects of sustainable living. Many also recognise the advantages having a more equal society would bring.

I don’t imagine our governments are about to institute 21 hour maximum work weeks any time soon – but those of us who are in the fortunate position of having options regarding our working week might want to give it some serious thought.

Many of us could get by just fine with a little less money, and would enjoy finding ways to constructively spend the extra time. I know I did, when I moved to a four day week a couple of years ago :)

Less work, consume less, for more jobs, and more time with your family and community – what’s not to like ?

I’d love to hear your views.


Photo from Seo2 via Flickr

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The Year of Anti-Consumerist Living

A guest post by Robin MacArthur, a writer, mother, and one half of the indie-folk duo Red Heart the Ticker. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Shenandoah, and Orion Magazine. You can read more of her work on her blog at Woodbirdandthensome, or listen to Red Heart the Ticker

A few months back our friends Doug and Erika announced that they were challenging one another to a year of buying-nothing-new.

They posted a link to the rules of a social and environmental movement called “The Compact” initiated and named by a group of friends in San Francisco. The Compact is not extremist; one can buy food and anything necessary for one’s health or safety, essential supplies such as brake fluid and toilet paper, anything second hand, and even download music and keep one’s subscriptions.

Radical but not insane.

I thought, briefly, about joining them. But I excused myself by (quietly) proclaiming that I’m not really much of a consumer, anyway; that I haven’t bought a pair of new jeans in two years; that I can count on my two hands (literally) the number of things I’ve bought new for my two-and-a-half year-old daughter during her lifetime; that it wouldn’t change the world, me not buying the little I do. Plus, I said, also quietly, I have a penchant for buying myself the occasional pretty thing. Don’t I deserve that?

Then, yesterday, I came across an article in the current issue of Orion magazine by Scott Russell Sanders entitled “Breaking the Spell of Money”. Sanders argues that in order to fix our economy and our environment we need to break our cultural mythology of wealth. He writes: “Money derives its meaning from society, not from those who own the largest piles of it. Recognizing this fact is the first move toward liberating ourselves from the thrall of concentrated capital. We need to desanctify money, reminding ourselves that it is not a god ordained to rule over us…We need to see and to declare that the money game as it is currently played in America produces a few big winners, who thereby acquire tyrannical power over the rest of us as great as that of any dictator or monarch…and that the net result of this money game is to degrade the real sources of our well being.”

Liberating ourselves…desanctifying money…tyrannical power…well being. Those words chilled me.

Sanders goes on to quote Victor Lebow, a retail analyst who wrote, in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction [and] our ego satisfaction in consumption.” Sanders continues by saying that, in the West, consumption has become compensation for whatever else might be missing from our lives, such as meaningful work, intact families, safe streets, a healthy environment, a nation at peace, leisure time, neighborliness, community engagement, happiness, and “other fast-disappearing and entirely vanishing boons.”

By this point I knew I was in.

I thought back to my initial reaction to the pact. Sure, I don’t buy much new stuff. But how much to I relish the limited buying that I do? How much do I equate that buying with self-love? How giddy do I become? And fanatic? And confused, and slightly crazed? I realized, reading Sanders’ article, that my resistance to “the Compact” proved that I am, by no means, immune from our cultural materialistic (and corporate-imposed) fetishizing, that my resistance was a sign that my own sense of spirit and ego is, indeed, entwined with consuming, at which point I walked outside and told my sweetheart we were in. No buying anything new for an entire year. Starting next week.

The Wiki for The Compact outlines the movement’s goals:

1. To go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socio-economic impacts of U.S. consumer culture, to resist global corporatism, and to support local businesses, farms, etc;

2. To reduce clutter and waste in our homes (as in trash Compact-er);

3. To simplify our lives (as in Calm-pact)

It also lays out the rules:

“Members of The Compact are only allowed to buy underwear, food, and health and safety items such as brake fluid and toilet paper. During their one-year vow the Compact members must shop only at second hand stores. They can also barter or simply share with each other for goods they want. Members of the Compact frown upon material consumerism. However, they are allowed to use services such as movies, theaters, museums, massages, haircuts, and music downloads.”

As I said earlier, this is a radical but not undoable pact. It is not like the sensationalist carbon-zero activists who refused to use toilet paper or take public transportation for a year. It is, instead, a very simple commitment that many of us, without much sweat, could (and can) do. I, for one, am most interested to discover the subtle ways in which it does (or does not) affect me. What will I learn about my own desire? About my attachment to materialistic things and the act of consumption itself? And what are the unexpected, positive outcomes? Already it has brought our household a sense of purpose; this unobtrusive but publicly assertive statement about values is a way to make not-having an active state as opposed to a passive one. A way to affirm and recognize one’s impulse towards simplicity as a choice rather than a result of circumstances.

And it excites, also. When I was a kid I rarely bought new clothes; thrift stores were the treasure troves of my life, a cheap and environmentally friendly way to get my materialistic buzz on. Our household frugality also encouraged creativity and resourcefulness; if I wanted a certain kind of bag, I made it. If I wanted a new bed, or doll house, or desk, I convinced my dad to help me build one. It’s a kind of resourcefulness I want to teach my daughter, and re-teach myself as well; it encourages us to be creative with our materialistic impulses and to alter our aesthetics to match our environmental and social beliefs, rather than having our aesthetics determined by a corporate society we proclaim to hate.

I’m not swearing off buying new things forever—I enjoy and plan on, in the future, supporting my local businesses. But for now I want to learn how to accurately differentiate between wanting and needing. I feel inspired by the challenge of making next winter’s Christmas presents and scavenging thrift stores for a raincoat for my daughter. And I’m excited to discover how the pact will (or will not) effect our family’s holidays, finances, time, productivity, levels of satisfaction, relationships and happiness.

I have always believed that limitations make us happier people; that the cause of so much of our cultural angst is the limitless possibilities that flower before us at every turn. This will test that theory. I may end up in tears in late winter, crooning after some pretty, spring-escent, aqua-colored dress. But for now I can say this: that since committing, my life feels simpler, saner, more purposeful, more clear, more directed, more exciting, more integrity-filled, more youthful and more free.

Why on earth would I trade a few things for all that?

To join us in this pact, or find out more, visit - The Compact

Similar articles – The Art of Giving Up, Can Christmas Still Really Change the World ?, Buy Nothing Day, Top 10 Anti-Consumerist Must Haves

Photo by Miguel Virkunnen Carvalho, via Flickr

Meet Tammy Strobel

A new series of ‘Meet….’ articles focussing on a diverse range of individuals, who are all currently working in their own way to try and make a positive difference in the world.

Tammy is a writer, photographer and simple living enthusiast, and along with her husband Logan and their two cats, she recently continued her journey towards simpler, more minimal living by moving first into a minimally furnished apartment, and then into a ‘tiny house’.

Now a keen advocate for small space living, she blogs about her journey towards a simpler, more sustainable and debt free life on her blog Rowdy Kittens, and can also be found on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

Seven years before, they were living a typical middle class lifestyle, but after a period doing voluntary work in Mexico, she came to realise how trivial most of her problems were. Inspired to transform their lives they sold their cars, gave away a lot of their ‘stuff’, cleared their debt and changed their work. Their new home is a mere 128 square feet in size.

Tammy writes:

“Once we sold our one remaining car, life became even better because we saved money and worked less. It sounds like a cliche, but without the car and the TV we had the time, money and energy to prioritize our health, happiness and life goals. For instance, I quit my day job in early 2010, started my own small business and moved to Portland, Oregon. Without simplicity, I would still be stuck in my cubicle.

I hope our personal story will help you remove clutter from your life, one step at a time.

Good luck in your own simple living quest. Above all, pursue happiness and not more stuff.”


Similar articles – Meet Shane ClaiborneMeet Ellen McArthurMeet Dale VinceMeet Jessica JackleyMeet KT TunstallMeet Toby Ord Meet Julia Butterfly Hill, Meet Doc Hendley

Photo from Rowdy Kittens