When in Doubt: Simplify

Not long ago, I was speaking with someone very wealthy. She was telling me how much happier she and her husband were once they sold off a few of their mansions around the globe, got rid of half their staff, and downsized their possessions across the board. Having all that stuff -- even when they could hire staff to help them deal with it -- was making their lives more stressful, not better.

Her story reminded me of two of my own.

As someone who lives in constant chronic pain, my bed is important. The time I spend in it each night directly impacts my pain level for the next day. It's not the only factor of course but it's an important one. So I spend a lot of time (and money) fiddling with my bed, anything to help shave even a little pain from my life is worth it. The tendency has been to improve my comfort through addition: adding another layer of cushion, buying yet another bed, sandwiching foam in just the right spots and so on. Despite all this, over the last few months, slowly but surely, my pain has been increasing every morning upon waking--sometimes it's been so bad that the pain wakes me in the middle of the night. As the pain worsened, I kept adding more and more things to my bed in any effort to produce just the right adjustment. And still things kept getting worse.

Finally, at the suggestion of my partner Brook, I took a different tack: I stripped everything back to basics, swapped out my mattress for a more basic one, and got rid of all the extra layers I'd been using. The result was immediate: from the first night, my pain (and sleep) improved.

This is a pattern that's repeated itself endlessly. Years ago, my primary doctor had me on so many medications, I could hardly keep track. Medictations for the pain, then even more medications to manage the side effects of the pain medications. Then even more medications to manage the side effects of the meds that were supposed to manage the first round of side effects! I was a mess. Not only was I getting worse, the situation was confused. I couldn't tell what really helped and what didn't. So I started from scratch: I discontinued almost all the meds (slowly and carefully) and only took the bare minimum of medications that I was absolutely certain beyond any doubt made a major contribution to my well-being. The results again were amazing: I started feeling much better. At least half of what I was experiencing turned out to be side effects and not the original pain. It all went away when I stripped things down.

Often, our tendency is to try to solve problems and improve our lives by adding to it. We tell ourselves: "If I could just buy X,Y, or Z" or "Hire this or that person" or "Go here or there" or "Do this or that," our lives will be so much the better. Most of the time, it's not true. The more we acquire things, the more complexity we bring into our lives. The more complexity, the more stress. I've seen it again and again in my life and others. It doesn't matter if it's material things, emotional entanglements, or even pharmaceutical medications. More isn't usually better.

So that's my life motto (though I don't always remember it myself): When in doubt simplify. You'll find that things will almost always improve, often immediately.