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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.