2008: my year of living smaller

By Rick Jelliffe
December 29, 2008 | Comments: 34

(Warning: non technical jottings ahead!)

I tried a little experiment in 2008: living smaller.

I caught public transport only. I got rid of extra lightbulbs. I baked my own bread. I froze my own dumplings. I didn't buy any gadget. I didn't buy any CD. I didn't get a flatscreen TV. No home phone; no home internet; no cable TV; no new art; no gin. I only took one international trip (which was quite important) and two domestic flights (to my dear parent's 80th birthdays) but turned down several work opportunities that involved flying, even though it meant less satisfactory participation at SC34 WG1. I let my passport lapse.

When my kettle broke, I didn't replace it: I use a pot. When my contact lenses broke, I didn't even replace them (which means that when I saw the Benjamin Button movie last week, Brad Pitt looked the same in every frame, unfortunately.) When my socks had a hole, I repaired them; I didn't buy any clothes, and I avoided wearing clothes that would need dry cleaning or special treatment. When my courtyard grapevine died due to amorous possums, I didn't replant.

I worked less, and earned way less, and spent more time writing and thinking. I was asked to write a book, but I decided against it in 2008: living simpler means avoiding tar babies. I am increasingly attracted to the small house idea, a dogtrot house perhaps or La Maison de Plougrescant. And look at Jane Austin's writing desk!

At various times I let my mobile phone lapse too, and toyed with the idea of getting the power cut off: a fantasy involving those camper lights with solar power and a gas burner for small meals evolved and the climate in Sydney is such that you can get away with no heating or cooling if your abode is insulated, at a pinch. Indeed, having no after-dark power might be the best thing for my night-owl-ism (which verges on diurnal manic depression, clinically.) But I couldn't go that far...

This leads to a very placid lifestyle: I don't think I have ever been less engaged with the rat race, and at the same time, less restless (outside office hours.) Part of this is undoubtedly due to the lack of bad news this year: I had no more rare and surprising illnesses and my three closest mates all recovered from addictions or the sicknesses coming from the needle: crystal meths, nicotine and heroin's hep C.

2008 was a good year for my friends: no leap forwards, just the removal of long-standing shackles that moved me to tears of joy on more than one ocassion.

I don't think I could be an eccentric recluse like a hermit unless it was in the middle of a bustling, pretty cosmopolis like Sydney: just this week I had coffee with my favourite Mongolian who had just finished his first novel in German; perhaps I should be more attracted to people in more populated categories. But perhaps a boyhood outside the metropolis gives the gift that the glamour of things is not so strong: I don't know if a lack of consumerism will be a virtue in these molten-down times (making a virtue out the necessity of belt-tightening and small footprinting) or a flaw (since we need to spend to stimulate our economies.)

In Japan under the Shoguns, there were tight sumptuary laws that prevented ordinary people from such luxuries as chairs and tables. The result was a culture rich in fabric, ceramic, paper, lacquer, gardens, calligraphy and small objects that could be stored away. There is little stark about a simple traditional Japanese tatami room, which can be contrasted with the starkness of the ideological modesty of Shaker furniture, for example: indeed, the plainness of tatami room merely provides a frame which shows off the beauty of craftsmanship, design and display. So simplicity is not antagonistic to beauty.

The experiment of 2008 is over. I need my lenses. I don't particularly feel I need my mobile, but my friends consider it unfriendly not to be at their beck and call, to invite me out to watch the transvestites at the Taxi Club or to commiserate with them when they have returned, drunk and repentant. This week I sneaked a connection to a neighbour's unprotected wireless internet and felt very naughty: I think I will offer to share the bill with them rather than getting my own connection however. I have accepted a sponsored overseas speaking engagement for the new year.

So what did I learn? Simplicity is great if it is coupled with quality household goods, but terrible with commodity goods that bust all the time. I am using my grandparents' table knives: they use a kind of steel that has not been produced for about 70 years now: they are thin blades that never need sharpening and cut as well as a carving knife. They are great examples of the kind of quality I am looking for: when you know you will be eating with a sharp knife, you don't need to make concessions in your cooking to making all food soft and mousse loose (which seems to be held up as a sign of good cooking in America, despite being the continent of jerky.) High quality uncomplicates the things it touches, it seems to me. Though not all our modern anxiety can be directly attributed to poor metalurgy, unfortunately.

So simplicity does not let us escape entirely consumerism, in the sense that it leaves one free from considering things: indeed. it seems to merely lift the game. If I want my knives to be in continuous use for fifty or one hundred years, they need to be good. And the quality equation only makes sense over commodity goods if they are beautiful or excellent.

Having zigged in 2008, probably it is time to zag.

Best wishes to all my readers in 2009. I have really enjoyed your comments and private email on the things I have written about, and I am embarrassingly flattered to have such a quality readership.

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery." Mr Micawber, David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

I wish my readers happiness, even if it is just the simple one of the nineteen nineteen six, in 2009.


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34 Comments

Thank you, Rick, for such a fascinating and thoughtful article.

Your closing remarks on the importance of true quality and its ability to magically simplify our lives by providing constant support over time is a topic of special interest to me, especially in our fast-paced, computer-managed times.

I am delighted things worked out well for you. As you point out, 2008 may have been a somewhat extreme year for you, but I believe you will see things differently as you re-enter the "rat race," and will find it easier to keep a peaceful distance without withdrawing from modern conveniences entirely.

Do keep us posted, please, about your progress! In the meantime, may 2009 bring, to you and to yours, the joy and happiness you expect from it.

Yea i live low to the ground as well. ride my bike vs public transportation. have those same kinda knives too and old silverware. and no cell phone. would be nice to have when i'm lost but oh well.

To buy new socks when you get holes on your current ones, or buy baked bread, buys you thinking time (usually in front of a computer). It seems to me that in the industrial revolution we altered the physical world around us, in order to have it supporting us during the next step (which we're taking currently). That support is getting your socks and bread ready, so that you can sit in front of the computer and take that next step, towards the inside-out information revolution. This of course doesn't mean it is sustainable, since we get into the viscious cycle of adding more and more stress in the physical world around us (energy,materials), in order to feed our global brain.

Whether the solution is to take one small step back or a big one like you did, or just wait until we collapse under our own weight, is debatable. I think there is a hope of a sustainable energy and material hungry civilization, through efficient production of both these under newly discovered technologies resulting through the information revolution.

FJ: Thanks
Keith: So does that make us a movement!
Ntino: I am not sure that I count time at the computer as quality thinking time, necessarily. I know how many times I have woken up with a solution to a problem, so there is some kind of background processing going on. And my larger blog items I work out in my head over coffee before work (Bar Coluzzi, Darlinghurst): I find the blog items I write at the keyboard have poor structure and fewer gags. The same is true of the best software or designs I have made.

Rick,
I have Mr O' on my Twitter feed and saw he had a link to your article which is how I got here. I wanna thank him and of course you for giving me lots to reflect on as we go into the new year.

As a New Yorker, simplicity isn't part of my vocabulary. Part of my goals in 2009, is to find a way to let simplicity into my life.

Happy and Healthy New Year to you and all your readers. I'll be back again for more soon.

Jorge Martinez
http://twitter.com/pixelbug

Wow.

That is all I can say because I am speechless.

I've considered simplicity and minimalism but not to that extreme. Thank you for sharing.

And I want to definitely become more eco-friendly and start making conscious decisions to not BUY any longer. The idea of repairing your own socks is quaint, but something I want to start doing.

Fabulously Broke in the City
Just a girl trying to find a balance between being a Shopaholic and a Saver...

Have you read the Kim Stanley Robinson book "Fifty Degrees Below" where the main protagonist spends most of the book living in a tree house? He does this for a number of reasons, one of these is to reduce his impact on his environment, and another is to reduce the impact his environment has on him. It makes some nice points along the way too.

I think it's sad to think that we have to take relatively 'backward' steps in order to simplify our lives - contact lenses are so much better in many ways than glasses, and there are many advantages to being always available on our mobile phones. But I also think what you've done is perhaps one of the only ways to really get some perspective.

I'm a great believer (hoper) that technology in the end will simplify things for us.

Oh, and I'm currently without an electric kettle too (it broke - poor quality) - a pan is fulfilling the need. I had to relearn to put a lid on it to make it boil quicker - another reason perhaps to look back once in a while, to remember what we're forgetting.

Great post, Rick. Congratulations on a year well spent.

One of your comments made me realize that I, too, have not bought a CD this year. Nor downloaded a song, for that matter.

Wow, you really took simplicity seriously. Some of my most memorable items from my grandfather are some knives he made from a (former) leaf spring. He wasn't a professional knifemaker, just a poor farmer during the Depression. I bet my grandchildren will also appreciate them.

Do we have anything comparable made today that will be around for 80 years that folks will still use?

Enjoyed the read. Thank you
Mark

Rick
What you have done is something everything should try in their life, atleast feel for once in their lives what is feels to live a less bloated life away from comforts and living reasonably.

But I do not agree with all your approach, things like cellphone, contact lenses are quite imp, cellphone for frnds whom you cant live without and health
there are somethings that should not be neglected at any cost even if you are trying to do something out of the normal way, just my thoughts

I am dumfounded.

I don't think I could do what you have done. Perhaps it is because the office and the home are the same place and it is all up to me.

I started organizing and will continue simplifying sometime around mid-year, partly because of the twenty ought and six that I am determined to correct.

In some sense, technology is my friend in my vocation and I am pleased how far digital I have gone (especially regarding photography, now saved from the expenses of photofinishers).

I was just congratulating myself about that when I came across this post.

Amazing.

We're so intertwined into the hustle-bustle we're trying to escape that escaping is difficult to impossible for many. For example, unless you're in the middle of a large city with good public transport, you still have no choice but to drive to work.

I haven't taken a huge step back, but I find that if you tweak a lot of small things, they add up. During 2008, I've reduced my expenses by cutting out all but the essentials (sans a few entertainment items), and I've increased my income by taking on roommates and working freelance in addition to my regular fulltime job.

What I'm doing with the decreased costs and increased income hits on something I think we're missing... I'm paying off all my debts very quickly. Nothing chains us to this modern life more than debt, and as such I think removing any and all debt is the greatest way to escape. With less bills and less day to day expenses, you find you can work less and still survive.

Rick, thank you for such a lovely and thought-provoking account. At one point I lived out of a backpack in a log cabin on the north shore of Lake Superior (living in London and New York trained me to live in small spaces). Since then I've let stuff creep into my life again, and stuff has a psychic weight. I think we use it to keep ourselves in place.

Physical simplicity is challenging I agree but simplicity in mind I felt much more challenging.

My observation
Simplicity - living in this moment. Living without any ego (Example: you are a doctor in clinic, parent at home etc. but we try to interchange this role often) and accepting people as they are without any aversion. Being true and straight in thinking.

See things the way it is without any thoughts. Usually we divide things as good and bad, beautiful and ungly. Automatically we carry aversion to something bad and create a chain of thought to good one. Live now and here without thoughts is what I felt difficult.

Simply put no much complexity in the mind.

Ted Kazinsky lived an austere life also. During that time he was able to write a manifesto. Now he lives for free as ward of the state!!!

Randy: Are our only options in life to be either Ted Kazinsky or Paris Hilton? The captain of the Titanic or Elmer Fudd? :-)

And I am not advocating anything for anyone, by the way: but living small is not simplicity and not austerity nor even humility.

It is a force pushing in those directions, perhaps, but my experiment was not for a highly single worked out religious or ecological or psychological goals, though 'a life lived unexamined is not worth living' to be sure. Indeed, such schematic grandness is against the kind of smallness I felt needed to be a stronger force in my life (or which I wanted to yield to.)

It's a rare xml.com posting that elicits regret. In this case the regret that, having had the opportunity to learn something about Rick Jeliffe beyond your role as conference chair or expert, I failed to take it.

Recently I've learned of several thoughtful and engaged people who live behind the curtain of our shared technical interests. I suppose we must all let a little more of ourselves show through in our discussions of software. A resolution? Thanks for the posting and a happy 2009 to all.

A rare post in the programmer's world indeed. Cheers!

Thanks so much for this post, Rick. I'm starting to explore similar ideas to yours, and I'm writing some about this on my site.

I have difficulty with the idea of quality, per your discussion about your grandparents' knives. "Quality" is the justification a lot of people use to purchase things that cost more than other affordable options. Knives are a great example, since so many people seem convinced they can justify spending hundreds on a single kitchen knife. I think there's a limit where a comfort becomes an unnecessary luxury, when its cost exceeds its benefit. The problem is that threshold is hard to pin down. But, I also believe that the more one understands the use and purpose of a tool, that threshold is lowered, making luxury more apparent (and hopefully less desired).

Again, thanks for the article, and all the best!

Jason: The knives are getting a lot of comment! My motivators were neither to avoid luxury nor to maximize the utility of what I had. (Different people get pleasure in different things, so it is futile to only have some utilitarian metric enforcing plainness: that was my criticism of the Shaker plainness as "ideological".)

You remember the cartoons, where Bugs would have a little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other? Many of us come from can-do cultures which have a figure on one shoulder that says "think big!" but for balance surely we also need to make sure we have a figure on the other shoulder saying "think small!"

I am certainly not saying that one is an angel and the other is a devil! Cultures which have the think-small without the think-big are probably oppressed, static, post-colonial, depressed or unambitious: indeed you might say that "traditional" non-imperial cultures only have the think-small, while "modern" and imperial cultures perhaps only have the think-big.

To me it seems obvious that in the future we all will need to have both. Which is why I described smallness as a force earlier, rather than, say, a state or goal.

But there is little help from this in the media: in the publishing industry look at how many articles there are on doing more with less, or on re-cycling, or consumerism. (I think Make magazine is a notable exception to show how a love of gadgets does not necessarily force you into the position of a more -is-better consumer, by the way.)

So what I am hoping I will have learned from my experiment is to have both the think-big and think-small figures: a better balance. What voice do our children have saying to them "Small is Beautiful" as well as "Hit me baby one more time!" What planet will they make without it?

So I guess that is the closest to a Ted Kazinsky-like manifesto I have! :-) When we say "Yes we can!", are we just as happy to say "Yes we can live small!" as we are to hear "Yes we can do big!" without seeing it necessarily as a defeat?

Rick,

This is a beautiful post.

Life, to me, is very much tied into breathing, and there are times when I wonder if, as a culture, we have somehow forgotten how to breath. There is a time for consumption, for activity, for taking the initiative. Yet there is also a time needed for rest, for contemplation, for exhalation. It seems that in our 24/7, gotta have it now, buy buy buy and climb up that corporate ladder world that we've lost the capability for reflection.

Perhaps we're finally beginning to realize how much we've lost.

-- Kurt

Thanks for the response, Rick!

Knives are just so integral to being human, you know? I'd think they were the first tool we created that wasn't just found in our environment. Maybe that still resonates with us. Maybe I'm just making too much out of it. :)

So, I'm still trying to understand your year of "living small." Right now, I'm thinking you did it to immerse yourself in a restrictive lifestyle, to give yourself a real understanding of a balance when you came out of it and started purchasing things again.

I'm not a minimalist or a survivalist. I think my iPhone is just the bee's knees. I'm just trying to understand or define the function that balances the things I let into my life.

Cheers,
Jason

Jason: I don't see balance as something that relates to understanding as much as it relates to habit. Sure, the understanding helps set the agenda for forming new habit s and gets pleaded to in exceptional circumstances, but it is no substitute for the normal way we operate.

Living the simpler life will allow you to dicover what many have forgotten - how to interact and not compete with others! Bliss!
However not replanting the grape vine seems more a symptom of clinical depression than thrift! I'm assuming its not purely decorative. It also seems to be a symbol of our modern approach to geting ourselves into slavery: That will take years to give a return so I'll take the shorter more selfish route and make life less mine in the future.
If you cant wait 3 or four years for a small twig to grow into something that produces pounds of succulent fruit or wine then you need to re-examine your approach.
Nature does not stop producing new life because its not economical over the short term - man does to his great cost!

Tom writes: "However not replanting the grape vine seems more a symptom of clinical depression than thrift! I'm assuming its not purely decorative."

Yes purely decorative.

In Australia and, I believe, many countries, clinical depression is diagnosed using the symptoms in
http://www.depressionperception.com/depression/depressive_conditions/clinical_depression.asp
I don't believe I had "five or more...during the same two week period." I am glad you raised the subject: it is important to be aware of the symptoms, since it can sneak up on us or our loved ones and, often, is so easily treated. Certainly we could be actually thinking negative though we think we are thinking smaller.

Dear Rick, you got this blog post in just under the wire to win my award for "best thing I read last year." Complimenting your story of simplicity, I like the way you posted this almost as an aside at the end of the year. I eagerly expected to find previous blow-by-blow blog posts detailing your progress in being simple, but when there were none I thought "well, how fitting."

What you've written about up there parallels several things in my own life. I've recognized the goal of simplicity leading to personal satisfaction but also further complications in my life. I might take this time to share the joy that is repairing my shoes, but instead I'll share this, which is a thread of thought that deviates from the ideas of your blog entry somewhat, but still I feel it's related...

At one point not long ago I heard having money saved up allows you to feel less anchored to your job. I started spending less, saved $100 and received my next paycheck. I felt free. I continued this way and saved up enough money to live on if unemployed for a few months. Felt great.

Then what came next was unexpected, I started to feel burdened by the figure in my savings account. I became borderline-obsessed with adding to it. I started feeling like I was always saving too little and spending too much.

I think any noble pursuit can become clouded by ego, and I very much agree with the idea of simplicity of thought put forth by the previous commenter Murali.

Very good, sir.

I don't live like a monk and I think that's largely the point of your very insightful post. I have a nice Macbook, an iPhone, but I don't own a car. My iPhone is jailbroken and unlocked, so no contract. I don't have a TV. Cable or satellite. Land line or Internet at home. I only walk, bike, or use public transport. I try to only pay for the things I absolutely need.

One of the most ingrained and harmful aspects of American culture is that if you can afford to buy something you SHOULD. As if refusing to buy it is admitting you lack ambition. In America, only losers save. Or sew their socks.

I will spend money on travel, nice clothes, good food. I don't buy cheap crap. And there is WAY too much cheap, plasticky crap that is constantly shoved down our throats in our dysfunctional cycle of artificial holidays and an endless barrage of advertisements.

One other thing, I don't live in America anymore. If you live in a nation where you are not a product of the culture, you have a measure of immunity to the advertising. It's not that other countries don't drown their citizens in ads, but I can't understand them. And they don't resonate with me. I see them as curiousities. They arose no lust in me.

Anyway, nice post. I hope more people embrace a simpler and more introspective and considerate life. For all our sakes.

Thanks for the great article. It's a refreshing reminder that not that long ago I lived a simpler life without modern media, tools or conveniences and was happy.

I think that the photo of Jane Austin's writing desk was quite telling. We can have the most sophisticated tools in the world, but really, it all comes down to actually having something to say.

It is a tad ironic, it seems, that I'm using an incredibly sophisticated piece of machinery to interact with other sophisticated machines to get your message about simplicity.

Cheers!

I think you went to an extreme (the life of a Western occidental) to an another extreme (autarcic, 0 consumption hermit)

So that's why probably you're coming back. If you went through gradual changes, you'd be willing to continue the experiment. Now everyone thinks this lifestyle is crazy

PS: For small (and livable houses), you need to check out the tiny house blog, which features regularly awesome houses.

You need a balance in everything that you do. I am one of the middle aged computer geeks, who is thrifty from sheer habit. I do not incur a mobile bill of more than 5 dollars a month. I never buy socks until i have actually thrown them away. I do'nt possess anything new until I have gifted away the ones that I own or disposed them off. Life is all about austerity and owning things that we can keep track of.

The only thing that I buy without thinking is books and fresh veggies.

But it is good to possess only enough! That enough should be a single digit number....:-)

Nice post and I am wondering if this has left a lasting impression on your buying trends and also a fresh look at 'rat race'

It's Jane AustEn.

Have you read the Unabomber Manifesto?

http://cyber.eserver.org/unabom.txt

It was posted at Jon Taplin's blog. I wonder how some react to the manifesto if they don't know who the author is and don't notice the sentence about having to kill people to make the point.

The most powerful simplifier is being single. I'm not sure it is recommended but in the sense of reducing the ratio of functions to variables, it is affective.

"...and my three closest mates all recovered from addictions or the sicknesses coming from the needle: crystal meths, nicotine and heroin's hep C."

Aw man, what a blessed 2008. May it be the starting point for an awesome 2009 for you and your mates!

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