The view from out there

Elaine St. James, the author of Simplify Your Life, is an advocate -- some would say the guru -- of the simplicity movement, a recent social trend that focuses on uncomplicating the complexities of modern life. We asked her whether simplifying is practical in this E-mail, cell-phone world.

Not only is it practical, it's absolutely essential. And in one respect it's easier now than it was a few years ago because everyone is much more aware of how complicated life can be today. Many technologies can simplify our lives tremendously, but we have to learn to use them effectively. With a cell phone, for example, you can easily let a client know you'll be delayed -- but if you constantly feel you have to respond to a ringing phone, it can draw you off center.

It's much easier to simplify when you know what your priorities are. You have to recognize that you can't do it all. Rather than trying to do it all or know it all, you can focus your attention on the things that support those priorities and let the rest go. This can be challenging in the information age, but if you're committed to your priorities, it's doable.

E-mail, too, can greatly simplify your life as long as you use it in a way that actually helps you. I use E-mail to connect with readers of my nationally syndicated column, but I check it only several times a month, setting aside the time to respond to them. So I've made it work for me. But I recently sat next to a young executive on an airplane who receives more than 200 E-mail messages a day, half of which, she said, she doesn't need to see. It takes up a tremendous amount of her time just to decide which ones to answer. We have to learn to be selective in giving out our E-mail addresses, and in asking people not to send information that isn't relevant to us.

It's the same with the Internet. When you know what your priorities are, you can focus only on the pertinent information. But the Internet is so seductive for many people. You can spend lots of time surfing the Net, sidetracked by information you have no real need for, when you might be spending time with your kids instead.

Simplifying your business is also a matter of knowing your priorities. When you're clear about your goals and what products you want to bring to your clients, you can focus on those rather than be distracted by what everyone else is doing. It helps to be doing something you love, something you feel will be of benefit to your customers. If you stay focused on that, it's easier to make the important business decisions you need to make.

The creation of new wealth in this economy is very exciting. The challenge comes when you get distracted by the unlimited number of options that wealth can offer. Money can expand opportunities to make life simpler and more enjoyable. If you know what is really important to you, you can have money and still live simply. Many people with money do.

Another challenge brought by all this new wealth is that there are many young people who feel they are failures because they haven't yet made their millions.

Wealth can certainly be a factor in measuring success, but when you really come down to it, money doesn't necessarily make us happy. As we all know, there are many people with a lot of money who are miserable.

Never lose sight of the fact that you are the one in control. You can pull the plug anytime. You can get caught up thinking, "I have to work 50 or 60 or 80 hours a week." Often, when you do that, it's because you haven't analyzed whether you really want the big house and the expensive car. But you can say, "I don't have to do this." You can simplify anytime you choose. --From an interview with Susan Beck

For more insight on the current state of small business, see The View From Out There.

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