It goes without saying: life can be hard. But we also tend to make it harder than it needs to be. On top of those difficulties that we don’t have any control over (pandemics, job losses, heartbreak), we pile on extra difficulties (packed schedules, non-stop goal-chasing, endless doom-scrolling) until we’re crushed by the overwhelm.
So why would we want to make our lives harder? It’s not necessarily a conscious decision – it has just become our default setting. ‘The modern world complicates things for us,’ says Dr Tara Swart, neuroscientist and author of The Source. ‘Over time, the amount of overload we’ve had to deal with has increased, and we’ve defaulted to meet that demand.’
With the onslaught of social media, the arrival of ‘hustle culture’, and the glorification of being busy, it’s unsurprising. And even though life has been pared back during the pandemic, we’re so accustomed to that ‘more, more, more’ setting, that it can be hard to switch it off. ‘Whatever you have to do expands to fill the time available,’ says Swart. ‘Many of us gained hours in the day we would’ve spent commuting, but this ended up blurring into a longer work day. It’s partly our perception that life is busy and complicated, and we often feel overwhelmed whether we actually have more to do or not.’
‘Overwhelm and over-complication leave us feeling ill and tired,’ says Swart. ‘Your mental, emotional and physical health is all connected. Simplifying your life can result in more energy, less fatigue, increased resilience and improved immunity.’
So, as we emerge back into some semblance of ‘normality’, how can we streamline our days and live in a way that feels easy and effortless? It’s all about finding small ways to reduce unnecessary clogs in our brains. Read on for our top tips…
8 ways to simplify your life
1. Chop up your chores
We spend way too much time procrastinating over tasks that could be done pretty quickly. Enter the much raved-about Pomodoro Technique, which can be used for anything from work projects, to clearing out the garage. Here’s how it works:
- Choose a task, minimise distractions and place a blank piece of paper or a notebook nearby.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes. It’s just 25 minutes, right? Focus solely on your task until the timer runs out. No interruptions or distractions allowed. If you suddenly realise you have something else you need to do, write it down.
- Make a check on the paper, and take a break. Give yourself 5 minutes to stretch or check your phone. If the 25 minutes got you in your zone, you may be tempted to power through. Resist! Your brain needs to regroup.
- Repeat until you’ve made three or four checks, then take a longer break for 20 or 30 minutes. Repeat until you’ve finished the task.
TOP TIP: ‘Before you go to bed, write down the thing you’re dreading most about the next day, then do that as soon as you wake up,’ says Tara Swart. ‘Getting the thing that is draining you out of the way is really good tactic for reducing stress.’
READER TIP: If you can do it in a minute, do it now - @carrie_missg
2. Integrate mindfulness into your day
Mindfulness doesn’t need to mean sitting in the lotus position for an hour – Swart says you can find little pieces of mindfulness throughout the day. ‘You can try mindful eating at mealtimes, which means pausing before each mouthful, and tuning in to the taste of food, without distractions like phones or TV. Or, when you’re talking to a relative, giving them your full attention and eye contact. You can focus on your breath at any time of the day, even if walking around, speaking, or working at your laptop.’ Why? ‘Mindfulness helps you regulate your emotions, and simplifies things for your brain, by narrowing your focus,’ says Swart.
3. Utilise your night-before
Doing these 4 quick things in the evening will give you back time tomorrow morning:
- 5 MINUTES: Find all your family’s essentials for the day, like backpacks, keys and wallets. Establish where they are now so you won’t be hunting for them just as you’re rushing out the door.
- 5 MINUTES: Set a timer and get the whole family to tidy up. There’ll be less grumbling if they know it’s just 5 minutes.
- 20 SECONDS: Look in the fridge. Yes, that’s all you have to commit to – looking. But chances are you’ll end up considering tomorrow’s breakfast and mentally planning lunches.
- 5 MINUTES: Get into your pyjamas. Even if you’re planning to stay awake for longer, do your bedtime prep early. The call of routine is so strong, you may find yourself getting an earlier night, which will make you feel brighter tomorrow.
READER TIP: Load the car the night before with sports equipment/errands for the next day - @sososilver
4. Ease mealtime stress
Meal planning holds the key to easier evenings, says Charlotte Plain, author of Happy Planning. ‘I keep a list of all my favourite recipes in one place, so it’s easier to pick what to cook,’ she explains. ‘Every Sunday, my husband and I go through them and work out what we’re eating that week, jotting down ingredients for our shopping list as we go. Once you can see your list, you can decide which meals need more fruit and vegetables to make sure you’re getting a nutritious balance. When we know what we’re making, we stick the menu up on the fridge so the kids know what we’re having.’ Of course, you can swap as you go along, but it helps to have a guide to fall back on.
5. Reduce your choices
According to science, we make 35,000 decisions every day, from where we move our bodies, to what to eat, to whether to say ‘yes’ to that barbecue at the weekend. ‘See if you can reduce the amount of decisions you have to make in a day,’ says Swart. This could mean limiting your outfit or lunch choices, or simply having non-negotiable routines, like always walking the dog at the same time.
READER TIP: I do 10 mins cleaning per day so I don't have to do it in bulk over the weekend - @larafk1
6. Try family planning
Advanced planning is a great way to make your life easier, but often this burden falls on women – so make sure your family join in. ‘I draw up a weekly rota for the week that goes on the wall so the whole family can see it, and every Sunday, we sit down and go through the rota to see what everyone has coming up,’ says Plain. ‘This can help you troubleshoot for any issues that might arise – for example, if I have an evening meeting, my husband will ensure he’s around to cook dinner that night. Working it out together means you’re not just barking orders, and everyone’s working together to make life run smoothly.’
READER TIP: Found an awesome app called Family Wall. We can put everything in it and all access it. - @lucyparkins
7. Create micro-habits
We know we need to get more sleep, exercise more and eat healthier food, but making these changes can feel like impossible tasks. Swart recommends making small changes in incremental stages. ‘Pick 2 or 3 small things, like going to bed 15 minutes earlier or drinking an extra glass of water a day,’ she says. ‘They feel manageable. Then, every three months, add another 2 or 3 micro-habits and commit to those. By the end of the year, you’ll have 8-10 more positive habits that have become part of your routine.’
TOP TIP: Struggle making habits stick? Attach them onto something you enjoy doing. ‘If you love washing your hair, decide to do 12 minutes of meditation before you jump in the shower,’ says Swart. ‘By creating a reward, the habit is more likely to stick.’
8. List like a pro
Here are Charlotte Plain’s top tips…
- Break up your to-do list into sections. Group together tasks that need to happen today, e.g. collecting a prescription from the chemist. Put the most urgent things at the top. If something urgent crops up halfway through the day, add it to the top of the priority list.
- Write another list next to that one, where you keep ongoing tasks that are important but less urgent, like arranging a check-up at the vet.
- You may also want to have a separate work list too – make sure you keep work tasks specific (‘finish page five of report’) rather than general (‘organise conference’) as it will make ticking them off more achievable.
- Add a self-care list. Keep a list of all the things that make you feel good (painting your nails, reading a book, burning a lovely candle) and try to tick off at least one every day.
READER TIP: I have a ta da list instead of a to do list. Makes me realise what I have achieved each day - @penpenelope
Additional Words: Sandy M Fernandez
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