On Living With Less: Travel and Simplicity

I wrote once that it took living out of a backpack for me to realize how much I enjoyed living with less.

When you’re changing cities every three days, or going through customs at fifteen different borders — you don’t choose to simplify, you’re forced to.  Quite literally, when traveling for months at a time, the things we carry at home — they just don’t fly. (Cue laughter for bad travel pun here.)

As I reflect on my last year and look forward to this year, it is clear that traveling has given me some of the most enriching, joyful times of my life. Travel is the greatest education there is, and not just because it opens our minds and exposes us to other cultures, perspectives, and narratives.  It teaches us how to live well.  

“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” – Socrates

I also wrote once that one of the reasons I travel is that it puts me in touch with my authentic self.  I’m no longer the girl with a certain degree, a certain type of clothing, or a certain type of friends.  In some ways, we get to reinvent ourselves.  Travel removes many of the external factors that influence our identities.

What are these external factors?  It’s easy to point to clutter or consumerism, or even peer influence.  We know these are things we want less of, and travel often provides an escape from them.

Since I’ve been home, however, I’ve realized there is more to the equation.  It’s not just living out of a backpack.  It’s not just choosing experiences over things.  It’s not just a change of scenery.

It’s the removal of noise.

And no, I don’t mean actual noise.  One trip to a major city in Asia and you’ll know that can’t be what I mean.

I mean “noise” as in the continuous streams of information that now make up our modern daily lives.  Also–noise as in the stories we tell ourselves, and the fear of letting go of things that help us craft our story.

Consider that when you travel, you don’t own anything that you can’t carry on your back.  This forces us to evaluate, both at the start of a trip and during it, the utility and/or meaning of every item in our daily lives.  Simply put, there is finite amount of space for things we own.  We can’t accumulate what we’re not also willing to give up.

“Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” – William Morris

You also don’t have: voicemails, texting, phone notifications.  Except for in those moments of wifi connection (when and if you find it) you’re free of social media, news updates, and (sigh) popular culture. Disconnection from technology means we’re back to (gasp!) face-to-face conversations, living in the present moment, maybe even reading books. The majority of our experiences are sensory and authentic, not filtered or crafted.

Admittedly, travel often means the removal of responsibilities other than the essentials in life: roof over head, food in stomach, connections with others.  It’s back to basics, and that can be quite refreshing in a world that can and will dictate our priorities if we let it.

Traveling allows us to step out of our path and walk a different path for a little while — if only to return to our original path having taken a critical look at it.

We witness others who are happy with so much less.  This creates a shift in mindset that may have you questioning that path I just mentioned a little bit more.


how to simplify

It’s not easy, but it’s worth pursuing! My simple simplifying post-it reminder…

Is it worth examining how simplifying — as we do when we travel — may apply in other areas of life?  Here are some of the questions that came up for me:

At Home:

  • What things are you keeping out of fear of someday needing it?  Would you carry it on your back?
  • Is it useful? Is it meaningful?  If not, why are you keeping it in your space?
  • Could someone else benefit more from having it?

In Relationships:  

  • Are the people you’re interacting with lifting you up, making you laugh, sharing experiences? Or are they enabling defeating behaviors, distracting you from what is meaningful to you?
  • Re: people in our lives… When they speak, do you want to listen? Or are you just filling the silence?
  • Travel helps us realize that there are so, so many people in this world.  The farther we get outside of our bubble, the more we realize the potential to find people who align with what we value.  Who are you spending time with because you truly want to be, and who stays in your life just because they’re there?
  • I used to be scared to travel alone, dine alone, sit alone…traveling has given me the gift of realizing “it’s better to be alone than in bad company.”  Guess what?  You’re never alone for very long, because by saying no to company that doesn’t suit you, you invite space for company that does.
  • Sharing our things connects us to people, keeping them to ourselves leaves us…by ourselves.

On Social Media:  

  • We are constantly bombarded with images and information online. Are you being selective in what takes up your time and headspace?
  • Are the online sources you subscribe to adding value to your life with their posts? Value could be anything from the content they share, the content they create, or simply an ability to make you laugh or make you think.
  • Who do you find yourself comparing to, even keeping in mind that they are deliberately showing you their highlights reel?   Whose mundane updates are you reading…when really you not know them well enough to care what they ate for breakfast…or even if they get a promotion at work?
  • As this article so poignantly stated: “Before Facebook, it required a deliberate effort to hold on to these weaker relationships.  Now it requires a deliberate effort to get rid of them.”
  • Generally, I am a huge fan of the information flow and the connections that social media enables.  But you have to manage it — so that it doesn’t manage you.  Are you managing?
  • Enter the “unfollow” button.  And the creation of lists — on Facebook, Twitter, RSS readers.  I can pare down whose thoughts I actually want daily access to.

In Writing:

  • When writing, we can begin to look at words differently.  Again: is it useful, or is it beautiful?  There’s nothing worse than a run-on sentence that contains little actual meaning.
  • Are the words you are creating or consuming effective and efficient? Or are they adding to the noise without adding value?

At Work:

  • How many of us are familiar with the term/the plague that is “busy work?”  It’s easier said than done, but what could you accomplish if cut out tasks that are non-essential?  More often than not when I’m stressed, it’s due to taking on things that aren’t productive and might not even fall in my job description. It can be anything from procrastination to office gossip.

Travel changes our relationship to people, places, and things — whether we like it or not.  

What in your life is “just stuff” or essentially, noise, that we use to distract or falsely fulfill?

Who are you when you’re outside your normal sphere of influences?  What does life look like for you without your language, your culture, your friends/family?

We get the chance to hear ourselves think when we travel because we are detached from the things that string together our daily lives.

So what about those empty spaces, you might ask? Or moments of silence? Both can be uncomfortable.  Both are rare commodities in today’s world, if you ask me. So, if you’re going to fill the space or the silence or the time, I ask you to consider this: if something isn’t meaningful, isn’t it time to create space for something that is?

simplicity journey baggage-Charles Dudley Warner

(Cue another travel pun, something I do consider to be both useful and meaningful.)

Have you found ways to travel and live simply?

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