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Sterling Marino had offers from top universities after finishing his doctorate in psychology 35 years ago. He took a job as a professor and counselor at a small community college near Monterey, California instead. He and his wife bought land in nearby Carmel while it was still affordable. They raised goats, chickens, and rabbits, grew berries and vegetables, and built their own furniture, partly to save money, but partly because they enjoyed it. Now that they are retired, Sterling and his wife hike and mountain bike. He teaches an adult education course each quarter, and she teaches enrichment courses at the local elementary school.
The Marinos’ approach to both their work and personal lives is in sharp contrast to the norm. Research on how professionals balance work and the rest of life found that most juggle, pursuing career success full-throttle while also trying to excel in their non-work endeavors. They hope to achieve balance by running faster, working harder, and cramming more into their lives. This leads to a rich and multifaceted life, but it’s also exhausting.
Our research identified people like the Marinos who have maintained or regained their sanity by opting out of the rat race—a strategy for work-life balance that we call “simplifying.” Simplifying is hardly a new concept. In fact, it’s a bona fide movement. Type “voluntary simplicity” into your favorite Internet search engine, and you’ll find dozens of Web sites, support groups, books, newsletters, and case studies designed to help you establish a more wholesome way of life.
Some simplifiers take an extreme approach by moving to the wilderness and living off of what they can grow themselves. Others use the same strategy on a more moderate scale. They uncomplicate their personal and professional lives in order to achieve better balance, often rejecting the values of consumerism. On the non-work side, simplifiers may move to more modest homes that are closer to work, drive old cars, cut back on their social schedule, or send their children to public schools rather than private schools. At work, they may turn down a promotion, shift to a part-time role, or take a position that is less absorbing, requires less travel, or allows them to work from a home office.
Simplifying poses some obvious financial constraints. You can’t minimize your work commitments and expect your income to keep escalating. At the same time, simplifiers find that financial viability is only one reason for streamlining personal expenditures. Elaine St. James was an enormously successful real estate investor back in the 1990s. She and her husband owned a sprawling country home far away from their jobs, with her husband commuting to work four hours each day. The house became more of a burden than a blessing. Upkeep was expensive, and the couple was rarely home long enough to enjoy their investment. Elaine’s knee-jerk reaction was to hire more help. They already had a housekeeper, gardener, and bookkeeper. Why not hire a cook? Although the couple could easily afford it, Elaine’s husband resisted it. “You already spend so much time managing household help,” he said. “Now you want to manage one more person?”
The couple concluded that they didn’t need more help. They needed fewer problems. So they moved to a smaller home, got rid of seldom-used possessions, and began a move to overall simplification, including cutting an hour off of each ten-hour workday. As they became more devoted to their new lifestyle, advocating simplicity eventually turned into a new career for Elaine.
In addition to streamlining pay and possessions, simplifying can mean narrowing your list of professional and social contacts. Madison Geery, an internal consultant with a high-tech company in North Carolina, occasionally receives invitations to serve as a board member of non-profit organizations. “I’m always flattered that they ask,” she says, “but when I calculate the time each commitment would require, then consider the subsequent loss of free time, it’s easier to say no.” Plus, many simplifiers find that reducing the number of their professional and social relationships actually enhances the quality of the relationships they choose to keep.
Simplifying isn’t for everyone. If slowing your pace or tightening your budget sounds like your worst nightmare, you’re probably better off trying a different balance strategy. However, simplifying does provide a way to reduce stress, focus on your highest priorities, and live life more deliberately. Your life may feel a lot more manageable when you have the freedom to do whatever you want—or to do nothing at all.
Although simplifying almost always means sacrificing earning power and possessions for quality of life and relationships, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. A little simplifying can go a long way, including getting more mileage out of your possessions by repairing them instead of replacing them, turning down volunteer or social opportunities that aren’t highly meaningful to you, canceling subscriptions for newspapers or magazines that you don’t read very often, and streamlining your birthday and holiday celebrations.