Simplify and Spark Joy

Marie Kondo introduced to the world the idea that when it comes to decluttering, a positive attitude will serve you well. Keep only the things that bring you joy, she says, and you will be able to successfully simplify and organise your home, and thereby, your life.

She advises all of us messy, disorganised hoarders to focus on the physical items that we love, and it will naturally follow that the items we don’t love should be discarded (after thanking them respectfully). This positive spin on decluttering means we are not looking for things to throw out. We’re looking for things to keep. So our focus, and our energy, shifts to the happiness-generators and therefore creates more happiness in our lives.

The art of simplifying is beneficial not just for our kitchen drawers or our linen closets. There are parallels to be drawn in other aspects of our world, such as in writing, in art, and in life.

Simplifying writing
During a wonderful Creative Writing course I took last year, we were taught to simplify our writing by removing excessive adjectives and adverbs. This was not an easy lesson to learn, and I still struggle with (and sometimes ignore) it. We were also guided towards making our writing tight and compact, so that what’s left on the page holds more impact.

“Eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” – Hans Hofmann

Hans Hofmann, abstract expressionist painter, defines the ability to simplify in terms of removing the non-essentials to allow the essentials to shine.

But to do this, first we need to know what exactly is essential. In writing, what is your message, what is your tone, where is your impact? Keep the powerful words; keep the slam-dunk sentences; keep the necessary frills. And then, perhaps, most of what is left is excess and can be eliminated.


Hans Hofmann, 1963

Simplifying art
Hofmann painted this piece titled Enigma in 1963, and it was sold at a Christie’s auction in 2017 for a cool 2.4 million USD. Maybe Hofmann had five more colours on his artist’s palette that he could have used. Perhaps he almost used circles as well as rectangles. But he didn’t. He chose the thing he deemed necessary and allowed it to speak. And it spoke to someone who thought it was worth that much money. Hofmann believed that abstract art was a path to discovering reality. He found truth not despite the chaos, but through it.

Simplifying life in the 19th century
Mindfulness has now become a buzzword but it is not a new concept. The poet Henry David Thoreau famously undertook an experiment in simple living in 1845, because he wanted to ‘live deliberately’ and to encounter ‘only the essential facts of life.’ Thoreau lived in a cabin in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts for two years, to experience a simple, purposeful life. During this time, he wrote a book on life in the woods, in which he says:

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” – H.D. Thoreau

Thoreau wished for people to be more self-aware and to value personal growth over material wealth. He explained that outward progress did not necessarily mean inner contentment, and criticised the ‘busy’ mentality of society, advising instead to: “let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

In simple words: cut down, cut back, cut loose. Thoreau found his joy in nature and made that his ‘necessary’ – thereby eliminating the aspects of society he did not like, such as materialism and consumerism.

Simplifying life today
So how do we adopt the advice of a decluttering expert, an artist and a writer in our lives today? To do it Kondo-style, focus on the positive, identify the essential parts of our lives that bring us joy, and respectfully remove the excess. To be an Enigma like Hof, decide on what is necessary, eliminate everything else, and continue your quest to search for what is real. And finally, like Thoreau, make deliberate choices to keep things simple, dig deep through the layers of unnecessary detail to find inner joy, and focus on the things that matter.

Simplify, simplify. Then what is left will be the powerful stuff that’s worth holding on to.

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd