I’ve never been one of those stop-and-smell-the-roses kinds of people. Obsessed with efficiency, my favorite past time was always checking something off my to-do list so I can move along to the next item. The “life is a journey, not a destination” philosophy escaped me until my early 40’s, although achieving that goal was, indeed, on my to-do list.

Yet I have always embraced is the idea of minimalism. You can get more done by streamlining. Whether it’s in verbal or written communications, architectural or interior design, I’ve strived for efficiency -- the ratio of the effective or useful output to the total input in any system. I get frustrated seeing people spin their wheels instead of mapping out the critical path and taking it. I believe we should focus on one or two goals at a time and work towards them right now because life is short.

Therefore, it may not shock you that I am a believer in not only compact, minimalist design, but also minimalist living. This has been a recent discovery by this recovering perfectionist.

Buy less. When I first started making decent money in my 20’s, retail therapy was my favorite past time. After all, Frank Lloyd Wright lived above his means, why shouldn’t I? I wanted to reward myself for my 12-hour work days. Yet I’d consistently get rid of everything I owned every few years as a sort of cleansing. It took about 10 years to realize that buying and having stuff didn’t make me happy.

Do less. Upon learning the “buy-less” lesson, my focus transferred to experiences instead of things, surely a more worthy undertaking. Again, I used experiences as a reward for the hard work: vacations, golf, restaurants, concerts… all expensive past-times that required more money, more work. I was working hard and playing hard, but was I fulfilled? A lot was getting crammed into this experience called life, but was this really living? I was too busy, too committed, and yearned for more time to simply relax and ponder.

Eat less and work out less. I’ve read a ton about health and fitness. After design and psychology, this is my third favorite interest. There is a group of people who believe that the process of digestion wears out our bodies significantly more than any other bodily function. They eat as little as possible and avoid meat in an effort to live as long as possible. They look emaciated in my opinion, but the concept is interesting.

I’ve gone through phases where I’ve worked out a lot - about 7 to 10 hours of cardio or weight training per week in a never-ending and misguided attempt to lose a few pounds. This is an exercise in inefficiency. All the latest information on weight loss indicates that diet, not exercise, is about 80% responsible for weight loss. Working out makes me hungry, so I eat more. And, as with work, I also feel the need to reward myself when I work out. With what? With fattening foods (carbs and sugar) that create the need to work out more.

Here’s the secret to weight loss, at least for me: Only work out enough to have a strong heart, bones, and muscles. Don’t work out to lose weight. Doing 20 minutes of intense cardio plus 20-minutes of intense weight-lifting 2 to 3 times per week is sufficient for that goal. That equals 1-1/2 to 2 hours per week, hardly any time at all, and you’ll have tons of extra time for other things, especially since eating less will also free up your schedule.

It’s helpful to go on a work-out fast for a week to kick this off. Most people try to simultaneously eat less and work out more. Instead, try eating less and not working out at all for a week. You won’t be as hungry, and your stomach will shrink in that first week. Then return to the minimal work-out plan outlined above.

Drinking lots of water is the most significant thing someone can do for good health, yet the constant trips to the restroom have this efficiency-buff unable to fully embrace this agenda. Having said that, I cannot support a “Drink Less” position, unless we’re speaking of drinking and driving, and if so, consider this…

Drive less. Many people who drive to a big city for work complain about losing two hours of each day. Here’s a tip. Don’t do it. It’s your choice to live in a suburb and work in the city. Why not live where you work? There’s a big migration of suburbanites back into the cities for this very reason. Plus driving less is good for the environment as is the dense and efficient nature of city living. Transportation accounts for about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. Commutes are a big part of that equation.

Los Angelans have a secret. Outsiders envision that those that live in LA are constantly trapped in traffic. But LA is actually like a handful of small towns, and many people live in the immediate area where they work, and don’t drive in LA traffic for more than a couple miles.

I’m lucky to live in Santa Barbara, California, a geographically compact town of about 100,000 people. The population is large enough that it offers everything one could want such as theaters and museums, yet small enough that everything is within a 10-minute drive, or a 30-minute walk. Granted, Santa Barbara is expensive, but there are many similar cities that are not. College towns tend to offer this lifestyle.

Many people move to the suburbs because they can get more home for their money. Homes are often more expensive in big cities, because that’s where the lucrative jobs are. But the money saved on gasoline and car maintenance, not to mention, all the other stuff we do to reward ourselves for stressful lives, will help offset the higher prices of city housing. Doing away with your car altogether offers even more savings potential. Most of us use our car only a couple hours per day, and we’d need it even less if we lived in a compact city. Many big cities provide excellent public transportation and are serviced by car share companies, like zipcars, which are convenient and cost-effective. Also, walking is a common mode of transportation in big cities which provides exercise as well.

Or consider these options:

Live in less. A larger home is yet another rolling snowball which creates the need to work more to pay for more furniture, art, utilities, housecleaning, repairs, etc.

Own less. I used to think that if someone rented, they were somehow less successful. It’s actually a lifestyle choice. Owning a home is not all it’s cracked up to be. Not only is there the commitment of a large mortgage payment, there is the cost of property taxes, insurance, Home Owner’s Association dues, and repairs, not to mention the time associated with dealing with repairs. I’ve owned five homes and am still saddled with one. Why? Because my accountant told me to. I made enough money that I needed the tax break. A segway!

Work less. I love what I do, yet still don’t want to do any one thing for 60 hours a week. Moreover, most of us work to make money to buy the things we mistakenly think we need. Even the “basic necessities” like food, exercise, a car, and housing, are not necessarily must-haves, let alone $200 shoes or the bi-monthly mani/pedi’s.

It’s important to do a cost/benefit analysis of a job. Is it really worth the $100k salary, or about $60k after taxes, if you need to spend that entire $60k (or more) on:

  • driving two hours a day
  • owning a big house and fancy car, and all that it takes to maintain them
  • eating out
  • working out at the health club
  • rewarding ourselves with all those things we need to de-stress?

Even if you consider it in purely financial terms, and don’t consider the value of time, how much money you make is not what’s important. How much money you have left is. Like the exercise-eat-exercise hamster wheel, the harder we work, the more we spend. I’ve found that working 30 hours per week is ideal, and I actually have more money (and time) left over than when I worked 50-60 hours per week.

Many people have no choice to work at least 40 to 50 hours per week due to the expectations of their employers. I’d first like to suggest you challenge that assumption. But if you feel it’s necessary to work that much, make the most of the few remaining hours in the day. Imagine how much extra time you’d have if you lived 10 minutes from work, or didn’t go to the gym each day, or get your car gassed-up or washed.

Do these “less-ims” create a less-than life? Quite the opposite. They create MORE - more time to do the things that are meaningful such as spending quality time with friends and family, laughing, conversing, enjoying the outdoors, reading, sleeping, and the occasional splurge. Ironically, these things are virtually free. All of these “less-isms” have exponential effects on the quality of our life and our environment.