Opt Out: A Simplicity Manifesto

Our lives become filled, even controlled, by the things we think we need to do.

We think we can’t live without these things, but actually, we can.

We can opt out.

Think about how busy our lives have become. Think about how distracted we’ve become. Think about how many things needlessly pull on our attention, our time, our money, our sanity.

We have let these things overcome us, but in fact, we have a choice. We can become conscious, we can choose to do and consume and need less.

It’s the simplest way to simplify our lives: we simply opt out.

Some examples — note that I don’t think these are all evil. I only think we can reconsider:

  • Facebook & Instagram. Of course, these are easy to pick on, but in truth, they take up a large space of our mindshare. Many of us check them multiple times a day, getting a constant stream of distraction. And ads. And tracking of our online activity. Without too many benefits. Opt out: I’ve been off Facebook for years now, and don’t feel I’m missing anything. I am on Twitter, but rarely check it, and don’t have it on my phone.
  • Advertising. We put up with advertising, which is intrusive and distracting and makes every experience worse. Opt out: Stop watching advertising. Block it. Don’t participate in things that are ad-supported. Yes, that means that good publishers will have to find other ways to support themselves.
  • Email. I do email every day, and have nothing against it. But many of us check it constantly, and feel we have to reply to things asap. This disrupts more important work, and means we’re responding all the time instead of consciously choosing what work to do. Opt out: Eliminate email for most of your workday. Set expectations by telling people when you check email (this is inspired by my friend Jesse, who is experimenting with only processing emails on Friday afternoons).
  • All the online reading. I’m as guilty as anyone — I procrastinate by checking my favorite sources of online reading, and I can get lost for an hour reading interesting things. I have a feed reader, and my favorite sites. For some, it’s news sites, others read Reddit, others read blogs. We fritter away so much of our time — imagine what we could do if we dropped this habit! Opt out: Block those sites using a site blocker. Catch yourself before you run to these distractions. Pause and face the important work you’re trying to escape from.
  • Shopping. For many people, online shopping is their escape. We all get lured by the sexiness of clothes, bags, shoes, gadgets, tools. And there’s an endless sea of it out there. This saps away our time, and our money (which represents time we’ve spent earning the money). Imagine what could be if we stopped this habit — we’d be able to retire or travel or work less or invest in something great! Opt out: Put a 30-day moratorium on pleasure shopping. Or do it for 3 months. Trim down your possessions, and don’t let yourself get anything new. You have more than you need already.
  • Christmas gifts. We do it because we associate Christmas with gift giving, but it doesn’t have to be about buying. We do it because everyone else does it, but that’s the problem — we get stuck in patterns without being conscious about how we live our lives. Opt out: You don’t need to buy presents to celebrate Christmas. Talk to your family ahead of time, and find other traditions to celebrate. Bake Christmas cookies together, go caroling, volunteer, play games, go somewhere adventurous, tell stories, do puzzles.
  • School. I’m not saying school is evil — two of my kids went to traditional school and they’re awesome. But we don’t have to send our kids to school just because everyone else does it. There are other possibilities, and it’s smart to consider all of them. I consider school to be a good option but far from necessary. Opt out: Consider unschooling (a radical form of homeschooling). We unschool four of our kids (well, one is now uncolleging) and they are doing great. Lots of unstructured time and creative projects, learning isn’t restricted to classes, learning about self-motivation and self-direction.
  • The 9-to-5 job. For years I was gainfully employed, and while I know that some people have great, fulfilling jobs, I wasn’t one of them. It drained my soul. There’s nothing wrong with a job, but don’t do it just because everyone else is, or because you’re too afraid to swim against the current. Opt out: Start your own business. Radically downsize your life so you don’t need much, and then travel, doing odd jobs or freelancing to support yourself. There are thousands of possibilities.
  • Meat, dairy & egg industries. It’s strange to me now, but for most of my life I ate animals because that’s just what I grew up doing, and everyone else was doing it. It was the norm, and not eating it would be weird. But now that I’ve been vegan for years, it seems weird to eat the bodies of animals that we love. And it’s not only cruel, but horrible for the environment. Opt out: Consider a compassionate diet. It might seem weird but you get used to it quickly, and I now find it delicious and healthy. Try the 7-Day Vegan Challenge to start with.
  • Self-improvement. We constantly feel like we need to improve ourselves, but in fact, we’re already pretty great. We just need to see that. Opt out: Toss out self-improvement, and practice mindfulness and self-reflection.

These are just some ideas. You don’t have to opt out of all of these, or any. Find your own path — these ideas were just things to consider.

Living the Simple Life

So what’s left after we’ve opted out of social media and online addictions, shopping and advertising, and the ways that most people live?

We become weirdos! In the best way.

But seriously, once we opt out of the norm … our lives are wide open. Our possibilities are staggering.

Imagine waking up and being free to do anything. You could sell everything and travel the world with a backpack. You could start a business on a shoestring budget, building something meaningful. You could read more, take long walks, go on a bike trip, take classes and meet new people, teach something online, finally write that book you’ve been meaning to write, finally learn to draw, paint, play music, speak a new language, dance.

Or you could do nothing. Just sit. Be content with the world, as it is.

The point isn’t to opt out of life. It’s to see that life is much more than we dare to believe it can be.

Opt Out: A Simplicity Manifesto was first published on Zen Habits on 2/23/16.

Our Everloving Quest to Control Our Lives

Almost our entire lives are spent in a quest to gain control, security and comfort in our lives. Unfortunately, we never really get it, so we keep trying, relentlessly.

This is the main activity of our lives.

What would happen if we stopped?

We could be less restricted by fear, less anxious, less driven by the need for comfort … and more in love with life as it is.

You might be surprised by how much we strive for control.

The Ways We Try to Get Control

The basic nature of life is that it is everchanging, uncontrollable. When we think we have stability in life, something comes up to remind us that no, we don’t. There is no stability, no matter how much we’d like it.

And this kinda freaks us out. We don’t like this feeling of instability, of loss of control. So we do things to cope, out of love for ourselves. These are strategies for control, security and comfort.

Some examples among many:

  • We go on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, because doing so is comfortable and feels like we know what we’re doing (a feeling of certainty, of things under control).
  • We make a to-do list or even try out an entire productivity or organizational system, because it feels like we’re getting things under control.
  • We clean, or declutter, or organize our desks.
  • We tackle email, because it’s out of control, and getting it under control sounds much less anxiety-inducing.
  • We procrastinate on a project that fills us with uncertainty, and procrastinate with our favorite distractions, which have less uncertainty for us.
  • We get frustrated with other people, even angry, because they’re acting in a way we don’t like (we don’t control that part of our lives, and it’s difficult for us) … so creating a story in our minds about how horrible they are and how right we are and how life would be better if they just did X, helps us to feel under control.
  • We try to organize the apps on our phone, to avoid dealing with our feelings of difficulty.
  • We plan, plan, plan. On paper, in our minds. Everything feels under control when we plan.
  • We research, google things, so we feel we’re gaining control over a topic.
  • We buy books to gain control over a topic.
  • We sign up for classes.
  • We make resolutions and goals and bucket lists.
  • We create systems.
  • We try to gain control over our health by creating a diet and workout plan.
  • Shopping feels comfortable.
  • Eating for comfort.
  • Drugs make us feel like we’re controlling our state of mind, including alcohol.

There are thousands more examples. Examine everything you do with this lens: is this activity a strategy to somehow gain control?

Now, I’m not saying these strategies are bad. They help us cope with difficult feelings. Some of them result in a healthy life. They all come from a place of love.

But it is good to be aware of this need for control, and perhaps this awareness can even help us free ourselves.

Why These Attempts at Control Keep Failing

So we do everything above, all day long, when things are feeling uncertain, uncomfortable, out of control, unsafe. They are strategies for control, security, comfort.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

Let’s say you make a to-do list and a plan to make yourself feel under control. Now you have to do the first thing on the list. But this makes you feel uncertain, because it’s a difficult task and you don’t know if you can do it. So you go to the easier things on the list … but the difficult task is still there, just put off for a bit, and you feel bad about it.

Eventually you run to distractions, or check your email, so you don’t have to do the task. Or you start cleaning up around your desk. You make some calls. The feeling is still there, though, in the back of your mind. None of the strategies work.

Or take another scenario: you’re feeling lonely. You don’t want to face this feeling, because it’s uncomfortable and you don’t feel under control. So you eat. Or you shop online. Or you watch TV, porn, Youtube. The feeling doesn’t go away. So you do it again. Or you turn to alcohol or drugs.

Maybe you get everything under control — you’re organized, have systems for everything, are spot-on with your productivity, have only healthy habits. Congratulations! You win! Except, things keep coming up that are ruining your perfect palace of control. You get anxiety until you deal with these things, and get control back. But when you were doing that, more things came up. People are calling, emailing, interrupting you, and you get irritated often because everything is getting messy. Your OCD is not resulting in a feeling of comfort and control, but just the opposite.

Finally, consider that you might feel things are stable, but then someone dies, you get injured or sick, a family crisis happens, you company goes into crisis mode, there’s a crisis in your country. Things are never under control, so you feel anguish because you thought you had stability.

Luckily, we have another way.

The Mindful Way

If life is uncontrollable, and because we don’t like the feeling of being out of control, we do all kinds of things to seek control … but it doesn’t work … what alternative is there?

We can practice mindfulness, and learn to accept the uncontrollable nature of each moment.

Start by just sitting still, and try to pay attention to the sensations of this moment, around you and in your body and even in your mind. Just notice what’s going on.

Then notice that your mind wants to run, to planning or worrying or getting a grasp on things. We run from this unknown, uncontrollable moment to a strategy of control.

Notice this urge to run, to control … and don’t act. Do nothing. Just observe, taking no action.

Notice how this feeling of being out of control feels. Where is this feeling located in your body? What is the sensation of it in your body? Is it one thing, or changing? Investigate with curiosity.

Be still with this sensation in your body. Practice with this a little at a time, for days, for weeks. You’ll start to get to know it intimately.

And then it won’t be so bad. You’ll learn to sit with this feeling of out-of-controlledness, and be OK with it. You’ll learn to trust in this moment, not to lead to an outcome you want (control!), but to turn out just fine.

You’ll need to do fewer things to get under control, to get comfort. You’ll still do some of them, because no one ever truly masters this (control!), but you’ll need it less.

And then what? What’s left when we don’t try to control? Love. We still act, but not out of a need for control. We act out of love for others and ourselves.

This is the other way.

Our Everloving Quest to Control Our Lives was first published on Zen Habits on 2/26/16.

Constantly Worried About How Others Perceive Us

If someone tells you that they don’t care what other people think, they are fooling themselves.

None of us are free from this worry.

Everyone is trying to look good in the eyes of others. Everyone stresses out about how they look, how they’re perceived, whether people think they’re awesome or good people. It’s why Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and mirrors exist.

Unfortunately, this constant worry about how we’re perceived in the eyes of others can cause us to struggle. We worry about having the right clothes, about how our bodies look, how our hair looks (or the lack of hair, in my case), whether people will laugh at our writing, whether someone will “like” our photos or posts. This takes up so much mental energy.

We can’t just completely forget about it — it’s not in our human nature. We can tell ourselves that “other people’s opinions don’t matter” or “no one is really thinking about us” but it won’t stop our brains from worrying about it.

So what can we do?

We can be aware of these anxieties as they come up. We can realize that the anxieties aren’t a command but rather just something that arises, like clouds coming over a mountain. They’ll pass, float away, if we just watch them without too much attachment.

Then we can go below these anxieties and see our basic goodness underneath. We are good people, with good hearts, and we just want to be loved and appreciated. We worry about not being loved, we worry about being judged, and these are very human worries. We are good, underneath it all.

I encourage you to take a minute right now to contemplate this.

Get to know this goodness in yourself. It is always there, and you can tap into it when the worries come up.

Because no matter what other people think of you, you’ll know that this goodness is there.

Constantly Worried About How Others Perceive Us was first published on Zen Habits on 12/11/15.