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Simplify Your Life

Most of us are so busy we barely have time to brush our teeth, let alone explore major shifts in lifestyle — even when those shifts promise to restore vitality and balance. That’s why, if you want a life that feels more sane and relaxed, it may help to start small.

Making even one or two tiny changes is often enough to help you feel that other positive transformations are within reach. To help you along, here are 17 quick and easy suggestions — from action steps to attitude adjustments — that can have a surprisingly big impact on your sense of freedom and happiness.

1. Pay Your Bills Immediately

Some people advise holding on to your money until the last possible moment. The idea is that this helps you accrue interest. I say, pay your bills the minute you receive them so you can turn your attention elsewhere. As long as a bill is hanging out there in the unpaid category, it occupies mental space worth far more than the pennies in interest you stand to gain. Another option: Pay your bills the day you get paid. The minute you deposit your paycheck, send in all the bills that have arrived during that pay period. That way, the bills won’t be on your mind, and you will know exactly how much money you have left over until you get paid again.

2. Empty Your Trash

Staring into an overflowing wastebasket makes you feel bloated, while an empty receptacle signals that your slate has been cleared, and you’re ready to move forward. One of the quickest “feel-good” exercises is taking out the trash. (Another place to “take out the trash” is your computer desktop. It’s a spot that gets cluttered quickly — and it feels great when it’s clean!)

3. Take “Time for Self” Every Day

If you let the batteries in your camera die, it doesn’t work. Don’t neglect your own personal batteries. Take what sociologists call “time for self” every day. Figure out what replenishes you — a daily walk, yoga, practicing guitar or a warm bath before bed — then incorporate it into your routine.

4. Spend Time Outdoors Every Day

Whether it’s sunny or overcast or snowing, step outside to reconnect with nature. Even if it’s only a walk around the block or having your morning coffee on the front step, that short time outside will refresh and energize you.

5. Celebrate Your Victories!

In the rush of our lives, too often we allow our “mountaintop moments” to pass unnoticed. When you reach a milestone, even if it’s minor in the greater scheme of things, take time to savor it.

6. Carpool

This old idea is worth revisiting. It not only saves fuel and wear and tear on your car, it also gives you the chance to connect with others and build friendships along the way. What’s more, on those days when you’re the passenger, you can kick back and enjoy the ride.

7. Pay in Cash

Identify a personal-spending trouble spot and shift to a cash-only policy. For instance, if you overspend on lattes, or clothing and shoes, allocate a reasonable allowance each month and pay in cash. Withdraw the cash needed for this category and see how far you can make your money stretch. Paying with cash forces you to see — right there in your billfold — exactly how much you have, preventing you from losing sight of your real-dollar outflow.

8. Save Your Loose Change

Another easy habit to adopt around a “cash diet” is saving your petty change. Here’s how it works: If you buy a bottle of wine that comes to $9.19, pay with a $10 bill. At day’s end, put the 81 cents in change directly into your piggy bank or an old glass jar. This savings plan is relatively painless, keeps the jangling coins out of your purse or pocket, and can deliver a bonus of several hundred dollars at year’s end.

9. Take a Vacation

Be sure to budget time and money for a vacation this year. If possible, take two weeks (or more), preferably away from home, at a place of natural beauty. Studies show that two consecutive weeks — not one week, not 10 days — are needed to recover from burnout. Vacations also deliver long-term health benefits such as reducing your risk of coronary heart disease.

10. Turn on the Ceiling Fan

If you’re lucky enough to have a ceiling fan in your home, use it. Fans circulate the air, provide a soothing, low-level whir (the white noise can help you sleep), and reduce cooling bills in the summer and heating bills in the winter.

11. Hang Clothes Outside

I was overjoyed to rediscover in middle age that my childhood chore of hanging clothes on the line was actually pleasurable. What’s more, putting up clothes, towels and linens in the blazing sun (satisfying tip No. 4) gives your laundry the indescribably wonderful smell of sunshine and fresh air.

12. Determine Whether Your Job is Right for You

How do you feel about your job? Do you feel like you are doing something worthwhile — creating something of lasting value? If the answer is no, reflect on what type of work you would enjoy more. Then, begin looking for new opportunities — or, if there are currently few opportunities to be had, look for ways to make your current job more of what you want it to be. (For tips on that, see “The Paycheck Trap” in the March 2010 archives at experience When you love what you do, life is happier, easier — and simpler, by far.

13. Banish Boredom With Board Games

Instead of electronic entertainment, gather your crew for old-fashioned board games like Monopoly, Clue and Scrabble. Or assemble a jigsaw puzzle, deal a game of gin rummy or play a round of charades.

14. Buy Used

Secondhand or consignment shops are great places to find clothes, kitchen equipment and even furniture. Buying used costs less and cuts down on packaging waste, thus reducing your carbon footprint.

15. Disconnect and Reconnect

Take time every day to disconnect from electronics. At dinnertime, turn off the computer and television, and let all phone calls go to voice mail. Bar all hand-held devices from the table. This will open the way for eye-to-eye contact and genuine engagement.

16. Write Financial Affirmations

Identify a specific financial goal and write it down affirmation-style, as though it is a current reality (“My mortgage is retired,” or, “I am gloriously debt-free”). Then post the affirmation on your fridge, bathroom mirror or as a screen saver. Keep your affirmation short (no more than a dozen words), sweet and upbeat. Your affirmation will help set the stage for a future reality.

17. Stop and Chat

When you’re out for a walk in the neighborhood or standing in the supermarket line, make small talk. Ask the cashier about her earrings or tattoo; compare notes with your neighbor about growing tomatoes. You will find that “small talk” isn’t small, but surprisingly big and meaningful.

Wanda Urbanska is a sustainability activist and author who writes about the benefits and joys of simple living. She is also the host and producer of the television series Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska, which airs on select PBS stations nationwide. This is the second of a three-part series drawn from her most recent book, The Heart of Simple LIving: 7 Paths to a Better Life (Krause, 2010). Visit her Web site at

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