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Monday, August 31, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 35 - The summer nothing happened

Back to school! As usual, the kids had a total of 9½ weeks of summer vacation this year. As usual, we had something planned for about 3 of those weeks (sending them to camp, traveling, seeing relatives, going camping). Which means there were still at least 6 weeks left unplanned.

As usual, I did not fall in the trap of booking them with activities 24/7. In fact, I organized pretty much nothing. After a full school year of tight schedules, I needed the break as much as they did. The only thing I made clear to them was that mornings would be dedicated to my - freelance from home - work, during which they could keep busy in any - safe and acceptable - way they saw fit. (Screen time was still limited to a max of 1 hour per day - figure out what to do with the rest of your time.)

As for afternoons, I wanted them to be left to the spirit of the moment. I wanted us to be spontaneous. Honestly, I also wanted us to experience idleness. Boredom, even. I longed to get lost in my thoughts, and I wished the same upon my kids.  Because, after all, having nothing to do has been shown to be good for children.

After three weeks of social gatherings, canoeing, swimming, hiking, fishing, bike rides, and other sports, campfires, restaurants, museums, parks and historical sites, you would imagine this sudden return to quiet would bore them to death.

When children are bored, two things happen. 1) They complain about it. 2) They start thinking. Boredom is the birthplace of creativity. Your brain has to generate original ideas. Something very important happens in the minutes that follow "I'm bored".

(Keep in mind that children who are not used to being bored might temporarily become annoying - let's not be scared to call things by their name here - but it should resolve if you give them a chance to figure it out.)

We did end up doing a couple fun things. We went to the beach. We visited - more - museums. We took walks in public gardens, in the woods, and on the waterfront. We visited the library. We went for bike rides. We played tennis. We picked berries. We flew a kite. We watched movies. We watched wildlife. We watched shooting stars. We baked. More importantly, we talked together.

But a lot of the time, I just let them be (and they returned me the favor). It was wonderful. I had time to exercise. To chat with friends. To read. To write. To hug my dog. To smell the flowers. To daydream. (Ah, the wonders of daydreaming! For more on the topic, click here.)

Left to their own devices, what did the kids do? They drew. They read. They wrote stories. They did self-directed crafts (my living room is now decorated with a sailing ship made out of cardboard boxes and rags). They played with Lego. They built forts. They played basketball on the street. They practiced their piano. They rode their bikes ad nauseam. They played outside with the neighbors.

Because I'm a cruel mother (ahem), they even helped with chores. The oldest was also hired by a neighbor to water his garden while he was away.

The only moment I heard them complain was whenever I told them to reapply sunscreen.

My kids are not saints for being able to thrive without structured activities and organized sports. Truth is, most kids can do the same... if given the opportunity.

A good friend of mine who also spent the summer at home with her children and did not plan much for them to do was commenting on how well-behaved they were. According to her, the reason was that they finally had time to rest. Most kids do so much usually, with school, organized sports and all, that they are exhausted... which has an impact on their mood. 

Children don't need their days to be filled with child specific activities. What they need is a safe environment in which they can explore and be creative. And when specific activities are happening, children don't have to be at the center of the plans. They can tag along. Simply respect their pace, get them involved... and let them be.


Mountains of paper have left my home office as I am going through my filing cabinets. This must be one of the best feelings in the world. If I can remain organized in the paper department, it will qualify as one of the biggest accomplishments of the decade!

Your turn to share about your struggles and victories of the week! What did you resist? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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Monday, August 24, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 34 - To do or not to do, that is the question

Brendan DeBrincat, Flickr

"Vacation means a change of pace, a gentleness with ourselves, a time of rest and renewal, and a time to stretch ourselves and encounter new people, new lands, new ways, and new options. The very newness opens the possibility of expanding our spirits and flushing out the stagnant particles in our blood." (Anne Wilson Schaef)

As consuming becomes less and less a temptation, and as my summer vacation is coming to an end, I am discovering a challenge I didn't know I had. I don't buy too much anymore. I don't own too much anymore either. But...

I still try to do too much.

Which can result in either two situations, depending:

  1. Either I am super productive and accomplish tons of things, which is satisfying in a way, but also stressful, frustrating and exhausting in other ways...
  2. Or I get discouraged by the amount of things to do and throw in the towel altogether, which is relieving in a way, but also stressful and frustrating in other ways.

Sometimes this struggle takes ridiculous forms, as this recent example will show.

My friend and neighbor M invited me to go pick blueberries about a kilometer from our houses. So we hoped on our bikes, pedaled for a few minutes, and found THE blueberry paradise, a whole area covered in more blue than green, all organic of course. Here was a seemingly endless supply of one of the healthiest foods on earth, usually not cheap in stores, for free! We filled a couple containers, and agreed that we would come back every single evening until the season is over. We did go back the next day. But on the third night, I did not feel like picking blueberries. For no particular reason. Just not in the mood. Instead of simply not going, and calling it a night, I briefly tortured myself with the thought that there were still free, delicious blueberries for me to pick out there, and that by my being lazy, I was going to miss on them! Suddenly the wonderful blueberry resource had become a source of stress instead of a source of happiness. 

Time to reframe!

The blueberry situation was quickly resolved, but it made me realize that we often feel forced to do things that we don't feel like doing just because we think we have to do them. 

Since time and energy are arguably more valuable resources than money, it might be a good idea to put those instances under the microscope, determine where our time and energy can be more wisely invested, and declutter our lives by ditching the rest.

Can you think of examples?

1) Do you have to clean your house to the point of immaculate before friends show up? Or can you just pick up the most obvious and relax, knowing that they won't notice?

I have been working on that one relentlessly. What's so terrible about letting your friends see an imperfect version of your house? Could it have anything to do with difficulties letting them see imperfect parts of yourself in general? Vulnerability issues, anyone? But I know that nobody likes perfect people. Plus, they know very well that it's just a facade. As I said. I'm working on it.

2) Do you have to entertain the kids on a vacation day? Or can you stick to making sure they stay safe, fed, rested and hydrated, and trust that they will be able to put their youthful energy and creativity to good use?

This one has been much less of a struggle. Every time I give some rope to my kids and let them figure out what to do with their time, I just love what they come up with so much (past the initial whining, of course). It reinforces me in the idea that they don't need my constant interventions.

3) Do you have to have to go out of your way to be friendly and bubbly with that person you don't really like, or is being polite and minimally pleasant enough?

This one was inspired by a recent conversation with a friend. Of course it's important to be nice and kind. Even to people we don't care for all that much. But we don't owe people anything more than treating them fairly. Giving yourself away to people who don't seem interested, or worse, don't show you minimal respect, is a sure way to get burned. (In the same vein: do you have to call this person who never calls you, or who monologues endlessly but never listens to your stories?)

4) Do you have to use all your potential fully? Or can you pick one career, one main hobby, and only use your other talents occasionally, without any hope of achieving anything big in those areas? Talk about relieving some pressure.

I have realized that it's not necessary, and often not even desirable, to try and reach the most advanced level in all areas I show potential for. Intermediate goals, that fit well within the rest of my life, can be perfectly acceptable. Then I can devote my time and energy to the one pursuit that really matters the most.

"Doing the best I can without too much anxiety or strain sounds like a relaxing way to live." (Anne Wilson Schaef)


After months of pretty much no purchases (with the exceptions of necessities, of course), we have had to open our wallet a little bit more often lately. After school supplies and new shoes, it was time to take a look at the kids' clothes. What had they outgrown? Did they need anything? We went through the closets and dressers, one piece at a time, and discarded all that needed to go (either too small or too damaged). Then, we wrote down the specific items they needed. We went shopping with that list in hand, and only bought what was on it. Other temptations caught some eyes, but by carrying an actual list, it was easier to quickly put everyone back on track: "Remember, we are here to get you gym pants; you don't need anything else".

The discarded items that were still wearable went to a thrift store (2 big garbage bags).

Your turn to share about your struggles and victories of the week! What did you resist? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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Monday, August 17, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 33 - The unexpected effect of decluttering

JSM, 2015

If you are serious about decluttering, this might happen at some point: 

You will realize that your house is actually too big.

As you should. House sizes have increased significantly in the past decades, and we would be silly to claim that this increase stemmed from a true need. More likely, it's a change in culture that has prompted us to go for the biggest possible house. Interestingly, we then proceed to acquire stuff in order to fill said house. Maybe it's the nesting instinct. I often wonder if a smaller house could fulfill the need for a cozy, nest-like environment.

In 2007, D and I walked into our bank to discuss mortgage options on our first house. I remember a big sign at the entrance: "40-year mortgage, no down payment required!". I am no economist, but that immediately hit me as a bad idea... the kind that can only lead to a disaster. Sure enough, between 2007 and 2009, a great recession was to happen, closely linked to the American mortgage crisis. Proof that everything in life has a cost. 

As for us, we opted for the more reasonable 25-year mortgage with down payment, and started making extra payments as soon as we could to get rid of the mortgage as early as possible. It wasn't about sacrificing everything - we still "have a life" - it was about carrying as little a financial burden as we could. We also opted for a house about 15% less expensive than what the bank was willing to let us buy.

Today, after 33 weeks of decluttering coupled with a shopping ban, I am noticing more and more unused space in the house, to the point where I'm questioning whether it might be too big.

Keeping in mind that the majority of humans on this planet make do with very modest living quarters, what are the factors to consider when deciding what size of house you need?

The number of people who will inhabit it. That goes without explaining.

The number (and size) of pets who will inhabit it. Crates, litter boxes, cages, and pet food and toys take up space.

The age of the people who will inhabit it. Adults don't need that much space. Children can share a room; as for their toys, they often own too many anyway. Teenagers, on the other hand, appreciate some privacy. My godmother had 4 boys and I remember her saying, while house-hunting, "I don't mind the size but I want each of them to have their own room". As for babies, the equipment they require according to our society does take up a lot of space: strollers, full-size cribs and high chairs are not small. If you "need" bassinets, swings, changing tables and such on top of it, there's really no way you can live in a tiny house or apartment. The question might then be: do we really need all that stuff? Other cultures make without most of what we consider "baby essentials". Food for thought.

The climate you live in. When the outdoors can be used as living space most of the time, the indoors don't have to be as spacious. If, however, the temperature is below freezing point six months of the year, it might be wise to invest in indoor space. Even though I thrive in a tent or small log cabin in the summer, I know I would feel claustrophobic in a tiny house during our long Canadian winters. (Also, we need a place to store our winter tires in the summer, and vice-versa.)

Your social life. People who like to entertain mention big entrance ways, kitchens, family rooms and patios as "needs". People who often have company over from out of town appreciate having a guest room. That being said, there are alternatives: my parents had friends in Hong Kong who couldn't possibly host parties in their tiny, Hong Kong sized apartment. Solution: they would meet at cafés, restaurants or parks instead. As for guest rooms, despite being "expats", we ourselves have never had a designated one. When someone sleeps over, we lend them one of our beds. Oftentimes, the kids end up sleeping on mattresses with sleeping bags. I have yet to hear a complaint.

Your hobbies. Some hobbies are space-consuming. Examples include painting and crafts, baking, making music, listening to music (my parents had a friend who devoted a big room of his house to that), collections (the same friend also devoted a room to his rock and mineral collection), sports, outdoor activities, etc. In our house, even if we try to keep it simple, the camping equipment, the sports equipment, and the books do require extra storage. We also have a piano. That being said, we have gotten rid of anything sports/camping that we did not use, we try and store the remaining in space-efficient ways, and I am in the process of rethinking by book ownership.

Your work. If you have a home-based business, you will need space for your work supplies. Although your home office might not have to be that big and that full. 

Perfect temporary "home office" for the summer.
JSM, 2015

Your property. Whether I like it or not, I need a place to put the lawnmower and other gardening materials. Land requires a certain amount of maintenance.

Your style. Well, if you enjoy big, tall furniture, life-size statues, medieval armors and the like, you will need space to put them! A more space efficient and still aesthetic choice might be to opt for small, decluttered space, with light colors and big windows.


With school starting in less than 3 weeks, we had to go shopping for school supplies. This year, I tried to reuse everything that had been salvaged from last year: backpacks, lunch bags, some pencils/crayons/erasers are still perfectly good. Why replace them? Same for clothes. It's a trend to buy back-to-school clothes each year, but why? My children's wardrobes are overflowing with good quality items that still fit; therefore, I will only replace the occasional piece they really need.

The main purchase has been shoes. Indoor shoes, outdoor shoes (two different pairs as per school regulation), rain boots, winter boots (some companies now conveniently make boots that can be used for both). Good shoes are important and one of the rare things I will not buy used (unless it looks like it was never worn).

Your turn to share about your struggles and victories of the week! What did you resist? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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You might also like: Your Biggest Investment

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 32 - Materialism VS Happiness

Davidd, Flickr

"They look happier than I've ever been. Is it living simply that I'm looking for?" 

(Levin, in Anna Karenina.)

We might know it, sometimes it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves of what does and does not foster happiness.

And what better way to do it than watch a documentary on happiness? In 75 minutes, "Happy" takes you around the world and into the offices of the big names in "happiness writing", such as Sonja Lyubomirsky, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Matthieu Ricard, and the Dalai Lama.

What are the first things we learn? That there are some big traps in the pursuit of happiness. They include pursuing goals such as money, fame and beauty. According to research, none of those, past an initial but ephemeral thrill, will significantly increase your happiness. Imagine: there would be no notable difference in happiness between the person who makes $50,000 a year and the one who makes $5,000,000. As long as you don't live below the poverty line (which would imply struggling to fulfill basic needs such as shelter and food), you are fine! How's that for evidence toward the relevance of minimalism. And if status and physical appearance don't really cut it either, there suddenly is a lot of room in your life for... simplicity.

Now you might wonder what has been shown to increase happiness levels! Here it is:

  • fun (to play, to laugh)
  • physical activity
  • nature
  • purpose
  • change
  • social interactions (and a strong social circle)
  • cooperation
  • helping others
  • working reasonable amounts

To this I would add creativity (any art form will do) and meditation.


I realized this week that there are a few things in the house I might never replace once they run out. Namely:

  • Traditional cleaning products. We already don't use many, I don't see why I would ever buy anything else but vinegar, lemon juice and baking soda, since they work so well.
  • Shampoo. Baking soda has been my shampoo for months now, and I am not going back. My hair is much shinier, and easier to style.
  • Scented products. And environmentally-unfriendly products in general. My soaps, detergents and such are slightly more expensive, but they keep my family and the planet healthy.

Your turn to share about your struggles and victories of the week! What did you resist? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 31 - What to do with your - minimal - time

Alan Cleaver, Flickr

Quote of the day: "My goal is to build a life I don't need a vacation from." 
(Rob Hill Sr.)

Response: "Wait 'til you have kids!" (unknown)

Fact: Life is busy for most of us, and particularly for working parents. How do we reclaim our time?

What we do with our free time is telling. Vacation is a perfect illustration of the multitude of choices we face when we aren't working. Interestingly (and sadly) enough, we sometimes choose to not take any vacation, or we use most of that time to... work: house chores and projects, entertaining/taxiing kids, etc. The same logic applies to evenings and weekends. 

Those activities might be - at least partly - enjoyable, they still qualify as work. When I became a mom, for example, I soon realized going to the beach would never be relaxing again: little ones require constant supervision near water (even in the presence of qualified lifeguards). 

When we keep working "after hours", we might feel productive, efficient, organized, and devoted. But we can also end up feeling deprived of life enjoyment and even meaning. No matter how busy, we all deserve to take care of ourselves. We shouldn't worry this will take time away from serious and necessary tasks: when we start with fulfilling our needs, we become more efficient at everything else. And no, all those things we do aren't absolutely necessary. It is possible to cut back. Not only is it possible, it is crucial. Otherwise, we pay the price, in the form of exhaustion, stress, crankiness, unhealthy habits, and the general feeling that our lives are slipping through our fingers. 

First things first. Let's set priorities. There are only 24 hours in a day, and last time I did the math, it's impossible to do everything that needs to be done and everything one wants to do in a day. It just doesn't add up. So I decided to start with the basics.

1. Make sure you sleep enough. If you start your day insufficiently rested, nothing can be expected to flow nicely. To sleep enough, you might have to go to bed earlier. If a full night of sleep is unrealistic (eg. you have a newborn), make sure you nap later in the day (during baby's nap). If this is still difficult, a nap on the weekend might be better than no nap at all.

2. Exercise. Exercise is necessary for your physical and mental well-being. Since few of us are in the mood later in the day, might as well get it out of the way as soon as we leave our bed. Go for a run, a walk, a swim, or simply do some strength training and cardio at home (there are plenty resources online for that, no equipment necessary). 

3. Stretch and/or do a short meditation. Nothing better than starting your day calm, centered and grounded.

4. Shower (and other personal hygiene). Keep this short and sweet. Endless grooming is a waste of time. Nobody notices the difference. Your hair is fine. Leave the bathroom. (But not before applying sunscreen.)

5.  Have a healthy breakfast. This is the first meal you're fueling your body and brain with. Choose wisely. Also: start hydrating right away. Have a glass of water before anything else.

6. Before parting for the day, hug your loved ones. Give them a kiss. That includes your pet, if you have any: an easy way to lower your blood pressure is to cuddle your furry friend!

7. Work. We think of paid work first, but other responsibilities fall within that category. Anything productive counts as work: developing skills, networking. raising kids, doing chores, maintaining the property, running errands, honoring appointments, making phone calls, paying bills.

8. Take a break. There should be a moment, during your day, when you leave work aside altogether. Eating lunch at your desk just won't cut it. Ideally, find people to chat, go outside, take a walk.

9. Back to work. 

10. Have a sit-down supper with your partner or family. Some nights, this is not possible, but try and make it happen as often as possible. The benefits of eating together are innumerable and have been confirmed by studies. This is especially important if you have teenagers.

11. There might be a little more work to do after supper (such as doing the dishes or driving a kid to an activity), but try and keep it minimal. And ensure that some nights are free of any obligations. By now your body and mind are ready to slow down. Honor that. You deserve it. And no, children don't need an extracurricular activity every single day of the week.

12. Have a tender moment with your loved ones. You might not see each other all that much during the day. Make this count.

13. Do something you like. Yes, something YOU like. Something pleasant. It can be creative, but it doesn't have to be productive. The day was long, and you worked hard. You deserve to have fun. At this point, it is totally acceptable to watch TV if that's what you like, but if you find yourself unable to do anything else but slump on the couch and pour yourself a glass of wine, night after night, you might have neglected one or many of the previous pieces of advice. Revisit your approach tomorrow.

14. Floss.


The reason we skip those basics is precisely because we think we don't have time for them. But the truth is, when we are properly rested, exercised, well-fed and hydrated, etc., our levels of energy and concentration are so much higher that we achieve way more in less time. We also engage in less self-destructive behaviors.

One note on multitasking: it is seldom recommended, but sometimes useful. Personally, I like to use my exercise time a a socializing time as well (by running with a friend) or as a learning opportunity (by watching at TED talk as I lift weights, for example). 


I asked the kids to sort through their clothes and hand me anything they don't think they'll ever wear. We got rid of (donated) a few pieces. 

I almost bought a hammock, but D gently reminded me it's not a need. Guess it will have to wait.

Your turn to share about your struggles and victories of the week! What did you resist? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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