"I could quit this job and do something else."
Most people entertain dreams of quitting their jobs and doing something else. This fantasy is usually followed by a list of the many things they could live without: a car, expensive holidays, luxury clothing.
These dreams seem to appear more frequently in the dead of winter, when the relentless cold weather worsens the daily grind and further frays the short tempers that dominate competitive work environments. (In my "what if" fantasy, I teach yoga in Costa Rica. It's not a dream I entertain very long, considering I don't even practise yoga.)
One of the most stressful material burdens we place on ourselves is all the stuff that comes along with success. For me, each pay increase was correlated with an increase in spending. I felt I needed to spend more on goods and services – dog walkers, food delivery, house cleaning – to accommodate my ever-more-demanding lifestyle. It's a constant struggle to focus on the important things and not have success lead me down a path of excessive consumerism.
Which is why the book Everything That Remains, by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who call themselves the Minimalists, strikes a chord. As they turned 30, these childhood friends from Ohio left their six-figure corporate jobs, large homes, nice cars and demanding work lives to explore what it meant to pursue a more fulfilling life with less.
Their book seems to suggest that the metaphysical struggle of "work-life balance" wouldn't be an issue if we simply dropped the "work" part and replaced it with something else. In the book, Mr. Millburn writes that he started replacing the word "work" with specific activities such as write, speak or teach. These activities produced monetary gain, but no longer felt like drudgery.
The Minimalists don't stop at paring down things; they advocate examining all relationships, work habits, digital activities and even careers to ensure that each element brings something important to their lives. They call careers "dangerous" because people become so associated with what they do, it becomes who they are.
Embracing a minimalist esthetic is no easy feat, however, and it starts with ridding ourselves of things. I struggled while writing this piece because I was also trying to get rid of personal items; somehow I only managed to throw out a pair of old sunglasses.
It is difficult not to fall into the trap of endless consumerism. A recent Toronto Life magazine article underscored this by listing the best services to use when you need to "outsource your life." As we become busier, more services crop up offering to live our lives for us, from training our babies to sleep to stocking the liquor cabinet. Work hard, to spend more, to help you work harder.
Not buying into this lifestyle is not a new idea, of course. Mr. Millburn says that the idea of simplifying your life traces back thousands of years to ancient Greece, but that the message of minimalism is more important than ever.
"In today's world not only do we have more noise, we have more pacifiers than ever vis-à-vis consumerism. It's not that there's anything wrong with consumption, but many people have turned to compulsory consumption as a means of pacification. You could say that we're passively pacifying ourselves to death," observed Mr. Millburn, whom The Boston Globe likened to Henry David Thoreau, but with WiFi.
Happiness, according to Mr. Millburn, comes from aligning your actions with your beliefs, from asking difficult questions, and from constantly improving your life rather than going shopping. "There's no long-term reward for passivity, just a beer gut and an empty existence," he warned.
Fair enough, although few of us are going to wander off to Walden Pond or, like the Minimalists, a log cabin in Montana. Yet we can all find ways, large and small, to simplify our lives and get into the habit of questioning whether our actions and decisions are being developed with our true priorities and needs in mind.
Going down a simpler life path, even if I insist on wearing my designer boots for the journey, is an idea I can get behind.
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org