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Simplify your life to reduce stress

By Mayo Clinic staff

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Simplify your life to reduce stress

Stress is part of life, but it doesn't have to rule your life. Fight stress by simplifying and decluttering your life and mind.

By Mayo Clinic staff

You've probably noticed the word "simplify" popping up in magazine articles and talk show discussions about how to deal with the chaos and complexity of modern life. There's even a monthly magazine about how to simplify your life.

The resurgence of an old idea — living a simpler life — isn't surprising at a time when many people feel overwhelmed by their busy, complicated lives. The voluntary simplicity movement, as it's sometimes called, preaches the value of living a more balanced, less stressful, deliberate and thoughtful life. You don't have to be a zealot, though, to want to simplify your life.

The effect of clutter

Can't find your car keys amid the piles on your counter? Tired of having to excavate the kitchen table before you can serve dinner? There's no question, being surrounded by clutter is an ongoing cause of stress. It's more than just an irritation, though. When you're surrounded by more things than you can manage, it sends a visual message that your life is out of control. And it can become a vicious circle, where disorder brings about procrastination, which only perpetuates the chaos. To make matters worse, when you're under stress, cortisol, the stress hormone, short-circuits your brain leading to forgetfulness, irritation and plain old meltdowns.

It's not just your home that can get cluttered. Your life and even your mind can also become overcrowded with too much junk. Maybe it's time to try a new approach. The following are ideas to help you simplify your life and reduce stress. Choose one and give it a try.

Clear the clutter

Pick one area to tackle, such as the junk drawer in the kitchen or the piles of clothes in the bedroom. Take a hard look at what you've accumulated. Clear out any items you're not using. If they're in good condition, consider donating them to a local charity. If you absolutely can't part with some items, box them up and put an expiration date of a year in the future on the box. Store the box. If the box remains unopened until the expiration date, you clearly can do without its contents. Trash or donate the box unopened.

Switch off the media

TVs, radios, smart phones, laptops, video games — they all contribute to audiovisual clutter. Being flooded with stimuli, even entertaining stimuli, is a tremendous source of stress. Unplug and unhook yourself. At the very least, turn off the TV while you're on the phone, or turn off the phone when you're watching TV. If that's not enough, try a vacation from the TV news, the daily paper and news magazines. It can take a couple of weeks to adjust and get beyond the withdrawal effects. Eliminating the daily paper will also reduce the amount of paper coming in and cluttering up your home.

Clear your calendar

How often have you complained that there aren't enough hours in the day? It's not the clock that's the problem. It's the number of activities you're trying to pack in. Being too busy can become a habit so entrenched that it leads you to postpone or cut short what really matters to you, making you a slave to a lifestyle you don't even like. You may have so much going on that you don't have time to assess what matters most to you, let alone make time to do it.

What can you do? Only say yes to activities you really care about. In other words, learn to say no. Remember, it's easier to decline an invitation than to figure out how to get out of it later. If you need a reason for saying no, explain that you've promised your family you wouldn't take on any new activities. If you're involved in volunteer work or even a social group that you dread, get out of it. Think about how pleasant it would be to look at your calendar and find that all the don't-want-to-but-have-to commitments have been erased.

Stop multitasking

Your mind can also be cluttered, your attention spread too thin among too many tasks. Long touted as the mark of the highly efficient, multitasking has recently been revealed to be less of a boon than once thought. In fact, recent research shows that people who multitask tend to be less able to concentrate and more easily distracted than people who rarely multitask.

Perhaps more importantly, multitasking doesn't let you get into the flow — a state of being so absorbed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. When you're in the flow, also called in the zone, things seem to happen effortlessly. You're totally absorbed by what you're doing. There's no room in your awareness for conflicts or contradictions. Flow creates a sense of fulfillment and engagement, and even contentment.

So, try for more flow and less multitasking. Start by turning off the electronic distractions and focusing on one task. Only when you've completed that task can you go on to the next. Focusing on one task is also a good way to learn to be present — or totally engaged — in the moment. This is mindfulness. It doesn't get any simpler than that.

  1. Kustenmacher T. How to Simplify Your Life: Seven Practical Steps to Letting Go of Your Burdens and Living a Happier Life. New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill; 2004:17.
  2. St. James E. Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter. New York, N.Y.: Hyperion; 1994:6.
  3. What is simple living and why is it important? Accessed Feb. 24, 2010.
  4. Rosen C. The myth of multitasking. The New Atlantis. 2008;20:105.
  5. Hallowell EM. Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD. New York, N.Y.: Ballantine; 2006:5.
MY01230 March 16, 2010

© 1998-2012 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use only. "Mayo," "Mayo Clinic," "," "EmbodyHealth," "Enhance your life," and the triple-shield Mayo Clinic logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.

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