10-Day Simplification Challenge

Emily Ley has twin toddlers and a 6-year-old, runs a business that employs five people, writes books and creates the popular organizer line Simplified Planner. To make it all work and still have time to have a life, she has simplified in as many ways as possible. After reading her latest book, A Simplified Life: Tactical Tools for Intentional Living, I spoke with her at length about where those of us who don’t even know where to begin should start. What follows are her suggestions for 10 easy, bite-size ways to jump-start a simpler way of living. Do just one each day as a New Year’s 10-Day Challenge, or if you’re on a roll over a weekend, complete a handful of these in a row.

Photos by Gina Zeidler

Why simplify? People juggling work, home life and other commitments can feel frazzled and “like our hair is on fire,” Ley says. “Creating some margins gives us time to breathe, to love and to be creative.” Ley’s “margins” include a gap in the schedule, an empty shelf or a clear email inbox. Simplifying life at home requires ruthless cleaning out, whether it’s a drawer, a closet, the photos taking up space on your phoneor time commitments on your schedule. The thought of where to begin can be overwhelming. Ley recommends starting with your house. “After you get your house in order it will inspire you to create margins in other parts of your life. It will happen naturally,” she says.

1. Grab a trash bag. “Go through all the rooms in your house and look for trash,” Ley says. “You’ll be surprised at what’s just lying around.” Whether it’s expired coupons, boxes, empty shampoo bottles in the shower, dry-cleaning tags, a dead plant or wastebaskets that need

emptying, just making this first step will make you feel better. You may even decide you’re ready to make a second round with a light look for items you can donate,

like books you’re never going to read again. “This will ease you into the process,” Ley says.

2. Stop stuff from coming in. You can get started by curbing junk mail. Register at DMAchoice.orgto help stop the flow, and then take it a step further. “If you notice certain companies sending you catalogs too often, take the time to call them up individually and get off the mailing lists,” Ley advises. “And put your number on the National Do Not Call Registry.”

3. Attack kitchen drawers. “This one is easy — there is so much extra stuff you don’t need in the kitchen,” Ley says. “Take everything out and realize you don’t need three carrot peelers or two ice-cream scoops.” Keep a donation box or bag nearby so you can put extras in there right away. When you’re done, put the box or bag in your car so you’ll have it handy next time you drive by Goodwill.

4. Organize your food. Once you’re done with the drawers and cabinets, attack the food in the pantry, refrigerator and spice cabinet. (You can break this down and shoot for doing just one of these a day for a while.) Take it all out and chuck anything that’s expired or stale. If there’s an ingredient that works only for that impossible recipe you’re never going to whip up or is something your family just won’t eat, put it in a bin for the food bank.

5. Get a handle on laundry. “This is one of my favorite tips that I learned from my mother,” Ley says. “Start a new habit of throwing one load of laundry in the washing machine every morning. This keeps you from having to tackle a mountain of it on Sunday.” With a household of five people, Ley has no time for sorting, so she uses a product like Shout Color Catcher or Carbona Color Grabber that allows her to run mixed loads.

6. Turn off the noise. Make more time for family and friends by turning off mindless TV, letting go of your

phone and rethinking your social media habits. “There are things from your life that don’t have to be out there for all to see. When you post it all you start to lose intimacy,” Ley says. Constantly thinking about our posts and documenting everything takes time and focus away from what we are actually experiencing. To ease yourself into a new perspective, she suggests taking a complete break for 24 hours — or better yet, an entire weekend. She deletes social media apps off her phone for these breaks. “After a three-day break I felt refreshed and was able to back off social media a little,” she says. “You’ll realize you’re not missing anything, and it will change your perspective.” When you add the social media apps back to your phone, Ley recommends putting them all in a folder together so they aren’t front and center, tempting you every time you open your phone. And turn off those notifications that add more noise and send you straight to the apps.

7. Attack the closet. Now that you’ve got your feet wet and eliminated some distractions, you’re ready to tackle your closet. “We have an emotional connection to some of our clothes that makes it hard to get rid of them,” Ley says. “We think ‘when I get skinnier these pants will fit,’ or ‘this doesn’t look good on me, but I paid too much for it so I have to keep it.’” Let go of those kinds of thoughts. Then cherry-pick only your favorite things that make you feel confident and put the rest into the donation bag.

8. Take stock of what’s in your linen closet and medicine cabinets. Figure out what’s essential, what you need to toss and what needs restocking. Take expired medications to the pharmacy for safe disposal.

9. Clean out your computer. Delete unnecessary files, clean off your computer’s desktop, empty that little wastebasket, complete your updates and then restart your machine.

Ley likes to clear the photos and videos from her phone and computer, uploading keepers to an online storage service (a.k.a. the cloud) and creating a family yearbook every year. (She uses Dropbox and Artifact Uprising.) Finally, just as you did with your snail mail, prevent more junk from coming in by unsubscribing from those that email too often, setting up Smart Mailboxes to have tempting deals stashed out of your main inbox and getting some help from an app. Ley recommends Unroll.me.

10. Clear a shelf — then leave it empty. Let an empty shelf you’ve cleared off breathe awhile. “Our first instinct is to go buy something to fill it, but let it just sit there empty, even though that can feel oddly uncomfortable,” Ley says. “This is how it feels to have a margin at first, whether it’s an empty shelf or a free hour in your schedule. If you take the time to figure it out, these things will fill up in a better way naturally.” Other chock-full areas can spread out a bit, or something interesting and unexpected will turn up to place there. For example, after completely clearing her kitchen counters, Ley let them stay uncovered for a bit. Later she unearthed a tattered and beloved recipe box of her grandmother’s, and now it sits proudly in the kitchen and she admires it and uses it every day.

Warning: what not to do. The temptation to buy more stuff to help you get organized is strong, but resist! “I’m a big fan of using boxes and bins you can find around the house,” Ley says. “You might think some magic shoe rack or a set of beautiful little acrylic boxes with lids will solve all your problems, but it probably won’t.” She has made this mistake herself. “Now I have like 16 little acrylic boxes with lids in my bathroom and it just doesn’t work, you have to pull them out, remove the lids … I tell you, The Container Store is just full of hope,” she says with a laugh.

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