Embracing Simplicity | A Book Review of Elaine St. James' Simplify Your Life

I recently sat down and read Elaine St. James' book Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter in one sitting. I bought a used copy many months ago after reading that world-renowned zero-waster Bea Johnson was reading St. James' books at the beginning of her waste-free journey. It has since sat on my bedside table. I thought that I would read a little bit each night, but you know how that goes ... It doesn't.

Many months later, I'm happy to say this little book is one of my new favorites.

These days minimalism has become fashionable again. Throughout history, waves of production and consumerism have been followed by a desire for simple living and minimalism. I suppose it's only natural. Henry David Thoreau was writing Walden directly after the Industrial Revolution, the hippies of the 1960s were advocating going back to the land after the boom of the post-war 1950s - a decade that saw the invention and mass-production of many household technologies, and the 1990s became another respite from the consumerism of the 1980s. 

"Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind." Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Elaine St. James was a 51-year-old former businesswoman in 1994 when she published Simplify Your LifeShe says, "Like many others of our generation, my husband, Gibbs, and I had bought into the Bigger is Better and the More is Better Yet philosophies of the 1980s. We had the big house, the big car, most of the conveniences, and many of the toys of the typical yuppie lifestyle. Then we gradually began to realize that, rather than contributing to our lives, many of these things complicated them far more than we had been willing to admit."

St. James went on a retreat and emerged to help initiate the simplicity movement of the 1990s that I have come to love so much. By the mid-1990s, an estimated 10-12% of adults in the United States practiced some form of "voluntary simplicity", a term first coined by Richard Gregg who wrote an article in 1936 espousing the benefits of simplifying one's life for the sake of personal reflection, and it was called a top trend by the Trends Institute. (source)

St. James' book lays out "100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter." She says in her introduction, "For us, living simply meant reducing the scale, maintaining the comfort, eliminating the complexity, and minimizing the time demands of life as we had known it in the 1980s."

"Wise men and women in every major culture throughout history have found that the secret to happiness is not in getting more but in wanting less." Elaine St. James, Simplify Your Life


Here are my favorite points that she lays out in the book. These ones are still a challenge for me, but ones that I'm excited to pursue.


"Studies have been conducted over the past fifty years comparing the time our grandmothers and mothers spent on certain chores with the time we spend on them today. It's interesting to see that even though automatic washers and dryers greatly reduce the amount of time it takes to wash and dry a load of clothes, we're spending just as much time on the clothes washing chore as our grandmothers did, and in some cases more. Why? Because we're doing more loads.... It'll be easy to cut back... to one load [of laundry] every two weeks, especially once you've simplified your wardrobe and have mostly dark colors that don't need to be laundered so often!"


"You could save a great deal of time, money, effort, energy, water, and other natural resources (gas or electricity for the mower), as well as unnatural resources (chemical fertilizers and weed killers), by replacing your lawn with ground cover.... Imagine never again having to concern yourself with a lawn. Just get rid of it!"


"There are no surprises here. This is basically the diet food and health specialists have been recommending for years. The real surprise to us was that in simplifying our diet in this way, not only did we cut our meal preparation time in half, we also cut our monthly food bill by more than half. I'm constantly amazed, as I go through my grocery store with our shopping list, at all the things we don't buy. And now that we've come close to eliminated packaged foods from our diet, we have greatly reduced the amount of trash we have to dispose each week."


"If you're used to drinking highly flavored or stimulating liquids, water may seem boring at first. But after drinking water for a change, you'll wonder how you ever drank some of those yucky-sweet sodas and carbonated or caffeinated beverages we as a nation have become addicted to. Also, you'll be amazed at the reduction of glass and aluminum cans you have to worry about recycling."


"I've learned to drive more slowly. Doing so has given me a whole new appreciation for driving, since I now have the opportunity to see and hear and feel more when I'm behind the wheel. And I'm more patient with other drivers, which has reduced the stress of driving. Paradoxically, it seems that slowing my driving speed has given me more time; more time to think, more time to reflect, and more time to enjoy life."


"Have you ever stopped to think about how much energy you spend - and how much you complicate your life - by pretending to be someone other than who you are? We all do it. It's part of being human.... If your lifestyle reflects someone else's idea of how your life should be, take a few moments to imagine how much simpler it would be if you dropped the pretense and learned to just be yourself."


"Then a curious thing happened. When I had only one nail file, I always knew where it was. As soon as I had several, I could never find a nail file when I needed one. Over the years, I've discovered that same phenomenon applies to many things."


This little book is amazingly contemporary for being more than 20 years old. With the exception perhaps of #32: Get Rid of Your Car Phone, all of these points are able to be pursued today in our modern lives.

Today Elaine St. James is in her mid-70s and assumed to be living the simple life in Santa Barbara, CA. If you like what you've read, I suggest scouring a local used book store for a copy. When you do, tell me your favorite points and I'll give you five simplicity points each.