By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.
This is Episode 63 and this week I’m talking about simplicity. I’ll be discussing what simplicity is, why it matters for your mental health, and how to incorporate greater simplicity into your life every day to improve your overall wellbeing. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
This episode was originally released on 25 January, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 63, and thanks so much for joining me!
Continuing on from last week’s episode, this year is The Year of Wellbeing here on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast… because wellbeing doesn’t just happen; it takes work. So each week on the podcast I’ll be continuing to share simple ideas for improving your mental health and wellbeing by exploring lots of different things you can do every day to make a positive difference in your life. This week is all about simplicity, and it’s something that I’ve talked about a lot in past episodes as being one of the things that can have a huge impact on our wellbeing, because the more complex things are in life the higher the likelihood that challenges can occur.
Before we jump into this week’s content, I’d like to take a quick 30-seconds or so to say an enormous ‘thank you!’ to everyone who watched the first ever episode of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV, which is now out on YouTube, and also thanks to everyone who reached out to me with lots of positive feedback… it truly made it all worthwhile! Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV is a different show to this podcast; aside from the fact that it’s me talking to the camera rather than into a podcast microphone, the YouTube show is a general discussion about mental health and wellbeing each week which means that I will be sharing lots of different things in every episode as opposed to this podcast (which will continue as is and where each week I focus on one specific topic and explore that in more detail). If you haven’t already watched Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV you can find it on YouTube or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/youtube where you can watch it now. In Episode 1 I talked about five big lessons from 2020 and what they mean for us in 2021, as well as a few tips and ideas for better mental health… so check it out if you haven’t already, and join me every Thursday for a new episode. OK, now on with today’s episode and let’s start talking about simplicity…
The Spice Girls once sang:
And those words of wisdom continue to ring true today (almost as much as ‘zig-a-zig-ah’).
Today we are absolutely overwhelmed by choice: I don’t know about you but we pay for four different streaming services and I swear, half the time we can never find anything to watch on TV and the rest of the time we end up re-watching the same things over and over again. There are just so many options to choose from in almost every aspect of life that it can become exhausting making even basic decisions sometimes… however I’m certainly not suggesting that we go back to a world where there was hardly any choice and all the shops closed at 5pm (because, no). Wellbeing is about finding balance in all things — like those Spice sages said, too much of something isn’t great but then neither is too much of nothing. And so if you have to make a choice about what to focus on and why, where do you begin? How do you find that balance and that middle ground between doing nothing and doing too much? Well the answer lies in embracing simplicity in all aspects of your life, helping you to be more aware of what you’re focusing on and why so that you can make healthy choices which lead you towards the very best version of yourself possible… and so that’s what I’ll be exploring today.
What is simplicity?
Simplicity is about making things straightforward, uncomplicated and easy. It’s about having clarity and making things easy to understand, and it involves making choices that require less effort and so therefore making things either less complex to execute or achieving the desired outcome sooner (or even both).
In the context of wellbeing, simplicity can apply to all aspects of our lives — our physical, mental, spiritual, social, emotional and financial wellbeing along with our working lives and even our public lives. For example, I focus on simplicity as much as I can in my podcast and on YouTube, and so even though I’m working in the mental health space, which can be quite complicated since there’s so much involved, I don’t try to be all things to everyone… I’m here to offer simple ideas for better mental health through my work and to provoke thought and stimulate discussion; if I tried to be all things to all people I would find it very complicated and it would make my work even more difficult.
And that’s the thing about simplicity; the idea of keeping things simple can be applied to all areas of your life. Having trouble with a friend or family member? Step back for a while and find some breathing space. Next-door neighbour driving you nuts because their dog chases the lawnmower and barks like mad however the neighbour just lets the dog do it AND likes to mow twice a week, so when you’re trying to work all you can hear for over an hour is a dog barking non-stop (and yes, I might be talking about a personal frustration here…!); well you could either make an issue of it (which makes things more complicated since you still have to live next door to them) or you could put noise-cancelling headphones on for an hour and block out the sound then get on with your life. I think a lot of the complications that we have in life are actually directly related to our emotional reactions to situations and events, especially when something is frustrating or upsetting, and so if we choose to act on those emotions in the moment (or before we’ve had the chance to simmer down and then approach the situation more rationally) then we end up making an issue much bigger than it needs to be. I don’t mean to oversimplify things here (although simplicity is the point of this episode, over-simplifying things can be damaging — I’ll explain more in a minute), but most things will seem less of an issue if you just pause or even walk away from them for a while and then revisit them in a couple of hours or days or even weeks.
I’d like to share a recent story for a couple of minutes about how choosing to make things simpler can help you to get through even the toughest of times. Last week we went up to Sydney for the day to see my mother in the care centre where she is now; I’ve mentioned in previous episodes that she has dementia as well as some other health issues, and so we’ve been planning to go see and her (which would be the first time since she was moved in there in September) however there were a series of COVID outbreaks in Sydney around the new year period which meant those facilities were all closed to visitors. Anyway, once restrictions were lifted we arranged to go up and visit her — visits are capped at 30 minutes and for us it’s a 7-hour round trip by car so it’s a very long way to go for a short visit… and because of that part of me began to think I should be adding in other things like going to this place or catching up with this person etc. But the thing is that the very idea of going to see her for the first time where she’s being cared for was overwhelming enough in and of itself, and it was highly emotional… so I hope that what I’m pointing out here is that this trip was far from being a simple day-trip to visit someone — it was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in the past few years. Add to that fact that it happened to coincide with the launch day for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV (purely by accident, because it had been rescheduled a couple of times due to COVID restrictions) and I hope I’m painting enough of a picture here of how overwhelming the day was… because when I tell you that I had several panic attacks in the morning before getting in the car I am not exaggerating. So knowing that the day was going to be challenging enough, instead of putting pressure on myself to do lots of different things while we were up there all my partner and I did was go see my mother and then catch up with my aunt (one of her sisters) for lunch (which turned out to be very welcome because it made the trip a lot less depressing by having a nice chat after seeing Mum).
Here’s my point: we often think we need to cram as much as possible into our time in order to be successful at life, but the reality is that just focusing on one or two big things at a time is more than enough to make some enormous strides in our life… and if you deal with anxiety or other mental health conditions, then you just might find that re-examining what you focus on and letting go of all but the big-ticket things that are the most important in your life can make a massive difference in terms of your ability to make progress in a way that is less overwhelming than if you are dealing with lots of complex issues all at once. In my case, choosing to clear my diary for Thursday and let some clients know I was unavailable (and then giving myself most of Friday off to just reflect and process the experience, which turned out to be pretty major) was about giving myself the space to focus on one thing at a time without the pressure of competing priorities; in other words, consciously choosing simplicity over complexity.
And that point actually begins to answer the question…
Why is simplicity important for good mental health?
When we have too much on we can find ourselves experiencing decision fatigue, where it’s harder and harder to decide what action to take next (either in terms of a specific project or just in general).
As noted in an article in Business Insider Australia by Amy Morin, a psychotherapist;
“Mentally strong people know that decisions require mental energy. And your brain runs out of energy when you make too many decisions, just like your body runs out of energy when you’re working out.”Source: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/how-to-improve-mental-health-by-simplifying-work-life-2020-10?r=US&IR=T
Do you know why the iPhone was so incredibly successful? Because it’s simple — tapping a screen is much more intuitive than the old way of having to navigate using arrow keys and those number keys that you had to press multiple times to get a specific letter (that analogy is more for those of us old enough to remember the old-school phones — actually my aunt has still got one and I was trying to show her the other day how to do the COVID check-in with it and frankly I gave up because it was just too complicated!). Nine times out of 10, when you make something as simple as possible you will increase the likelihood of success… because who the hell has time to deal with even more complicated stuff?
The risk, however, is in over-simplifying things. For example, there has been a trend in global politics over the past few years of focusing on one or two things as being the answer to all the problems of the world — from changing policies in an attempt to recapture past glories or rectify social issues, through to promoting COVID vaccines as the quick answer to ending the pandemic and reopening the world (something that in reality is much more complex and will take a lot more than just a quick vaccine rollout) — and the issue with all of that oversimplification is that it inevitably leads to disappointment when things aren’t just magically fixed and wrapped up in a nice neat little package, because life doesn’t work like that. And so what I’m trying to say here is that oversimplifying things is risky, and I say that because many things in life already have layers of complexity built in to them… so we need to know the difference. That doesn’t mean that you can’t approach things with simplicity — by choosing to do no harm, being kind and giving more than you take — but it’s about being aware that sometimes there is a much bigger story involved than just your part in whatever it is. Does that make sense? I hope it does!
Another example there is with the way I see some people try to oversimplify mental health and wellbeing, especially in the self-help industry. There’s very much a school of thought that goes, “eat well, exercise a lot and practice mindfulness, and you’ll never have to worry about your mental health” and that’s just not true… in fact, it’s complete bullshit. Those things most definitely contribute to good mental health, and I talk about them here a lot of the time, but you’ll notice that I never say to just do those things and you’re all set… because that’s a massive oversimplification. Like all things, different things will work for some people and not others… for example, looking at mindfulness, recent research by the University of Cambridge has found what should already be fairly obvious: it works for some people and not for others, and on its own isn’t the be-all and end-all of wellbeing. Why? Because everyone is different and at the same time, no one single thing can possibly hope to address all aspects of mental health and wellbeing on its own — which is a point I tend to make fairly regularly in this show (by the way, that research was summarised in an article in Science Daily; you can find the link in the transcript at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes — find the article here: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/01/210111143422.htm).
So my point here is don’t confuse applying simplicity in terms of the choices you make for your wellbeing with oversimplifying things, because just doing one or two things is not going to magically change everything overnight. Complicated things will always happen no matter what you do or say, so the piece here is about recognising where you can apply greater simplicity in order to make the more challenging stuff easier to deal with if and when it happens.
Also let me just quickly say here that when I talk about simplicity I’m not talking about minimalism; if you’re into minimalism then fantastic and it’s one way to embrace simplicity but I do think that it’s a lot more about your external environment rather than what goes on in your head which has no relation to whether you’re a minimalist, maximalist or in-the-middle-ist (where I would put myself: I like nice things that bring me joy but I hate clutter, so I like to find that balance as much as I can).
So then how do you incorporate greater simplicity into your life in order to improve your mental health and wellbeing? Well, let’s get into the how-to section of this week’s episode.
How to incorporate greater simplicity into your life
It should probably come as no surprise to any regular listener that I’m going to be begin by talking about my favourite ‘r’ word… reflection — the thing I talk about in nearly every episode of this show. So, take time to honestly reflect on your current life and all six areas of your wellbeing — physical, mental, spiritual, social, emotional and financial — and consider where there are opportunities for greater simplification. For example, if you and your partner have two cars but only one of you drives then get rid of the second car and stop having to deal with additional costs plus the time and effort of maintenance etc. If you have a goal you want to achieve and you don’t feel like you have time for it, either change something or modify the goal to fit in with the time you do have. Or if you have a relationship that is taking more from you than it is giving, change it (even if that means taking a break from it for a while or even permanently). If you’re in a job that makes you miserable, change jobs. Again, I don’t want to oversimplify things here but let’s be perfectly honest: most things in our lives aren’t that complicated, and it often comes down to a case of ‘do’ or ‘don’t do’. I tend to take the approach that if it’s not adding value to my life in terms of my priorities then it’s just not worth worrying about, and you’d be surprised how much stuff actually isn’t worth worrying about.
Getting to that point requires you to spend time becoming crystal-clear on what your priorities really are in life. I talked about priorities in detail all the way back in Episode 3 of the podcast, and I covered that topic so early on in this show because it was absolutely fundamental to the stuff that I talk about week after week… and indeed I went through my own process of working out what really mattered to me most in life, and I kept coming back to the idea that doing work which allowed me to feel creative and fulfilled while also helping other people was absolutely essential, and at the time I realised that it meant I needed to take a leap of faith and just give this thing a go… and it turned out alright, thankfully! But that meant I needed to think about the simplest way to do things so that I wasn’t overcomplicating my life, especially while I was still learning how to live with anxiety… so once you’re clear on what are your top 3-5 priorities in life, focus on those and (as much as you possibly can) only those. If something doesn’t serve your priorities, let it go. You’ve only got so much mental bandwidth for things, so stop trying to be all things to all people and stop trying to achieve everything at once; focus on what really matters.
One of the ways we can do that is by being more conscious about the choices we’re making for our overall wellbeing and looking at where we can incorporate a bit more simplicity in life to minimise the amount of complexity we have to deal with. That means actively looking for options to make things simpler and continues on from my earlier point about doing this, however what I’m saying here is that it’s not enough just to look at your life as-is and make things simple; you need to do it every single day and in everything you do and say. So when you need to make a decision, take some time to think about it and consider if it serves your overall wellbeing; if not, let it go, and if so, then identify the easiest way to approach it before you do or say anything… in other words, start from a basis of simplicity and stay there. If things get complicated, pull back or try something different. I tend to operate on the assumption that if things are complicated then I’m heading down the wrong path, and 99% of the time it steers me in the right direction by having that mindset towards things.
Let go more often. I explored letting go in Episode 32 and this idea applies to both your external world and your internal world; let go. The less stuff that you have, the easier things are (whether that’s actual stuff that you don’t use or just baggage that you’re carrying around in your mind — and by the way I covered ‘baggage’ in Episode 7). To quote En Vogue, “free your mind and the rest will follow.”
Continuing on from that point, be honest with yourself about what is a genuine need versus what is a want. I’m going to use the example of smartphones here because, well, let’s be blunt: most of us have been sucked into that cycle of feeling we have to upgrade our devices every year or other year. You don’t need the latest devices; you want them… and when you treat your wants as needs what you end up doing is making life more difficult (not to mention wasteful) because you’re always chasing the next thing that you think you need in order to be happy, then once you have it you’re lusting after the next thing in a never-ending cycle of wanting, chasing, getting, then wanting all over again. As I said earlier, if it’s not high on your list of what really matters in your life — which I would guess for most people is generally more about loved ones as well as feeling secure and fulfilled in life — then don’t treat it as a priority… and honestly, who cares what someone else thinks about your phone? I want people to judge me for the type of person I am, not what I wear or own… so if that means those people drop out of my life, then fantastic! That actually makes things simpler for me, because those are not people I want in my life. Which leads me to…
Say ‘no’ more often. If you don’t want to do something then don’t do it — it’s that simple. Yes it can cause issues that we need to deal with and often it can seem simpler to just go along with something so as not to upset people or rock the boat, but what you end up doing is making life more difficult for yourself in the long term. Why? Because it overcomplicates things and if you make an exception once then I guarantee it will become more and more frequent, resulting in less time for the good stuff in life. I prioritise my time with my partner and our cat, Igor, above all things and so that means I am now very comfortable with saying no and sticking to my boundaries, which leads to a much simpler approach to my work schedule… so find what works for you and say no where you need to. I know that saying ‘no’ to things can be tough, but you’ll thank yourself for it in the long-run.
Do one small thing at least once a week just for yourself. Aside from investing regular time in your self-development (such as listening to this podcast each week or watching Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube — or both!), select one simple thing that adds value to your life and do it weekly, such as reading a book or watching something educational or spending time in nature… whatever it is, do it at least once a week, which will mean that over a year you have done something just for yourself at least 52 times — and the thing about that is that things that might seem little and simple really do add up over time to have much bigger results, so harness the power of cumulative growth just by taking small steps each week (if not more frequently)!
And finally… choose to adopt simplicity as a mindset in all things. When difficulties inevitably arise ask yourself, “Can I control the outcome?” If the answer is yes then do what you can, but if the answer is no then all you can really do is let whatever will be be what it will be. Let go. Choose to adopt a positive mindset (which I talked about in Episode 31) and let go of the need to control things you cannot possibly hope to control (which I explored in more detail in Episode 48). In the words of Confucius, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated”… so choose to make things as simple as you possibly can for yourself.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to simplicity and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: our lives can either be complicated or they can be simple, and it all comes back to the choices that you make. That doesn’t mean that you can avoid all the complicated issues and obstacles that inevitably come our way, because much of life is complex and ever-changing, but what it means is that you’re able to make things easier for yourself and improve your overall wellbeing by focusing on making the things within your own control as simple as possible — in other words, your words, your actions and what you do with your feelings. Be clear on what really matters and make decisions that align with your priorities and which steer you towards being the very best version of yourself possible.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will you make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, and it is:
“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”Lao Tzu
Next week I’ll be talking about patience. I’ll be talking about what patience is, why it matters for good mental health and wellbeing, and how to incorporate greater patience into everything you do.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released in the morning of Monday 1 February in the Asia-Pacific region including Australia; the evening of Sunday 31 January in the UK, Ireland, Europe, Africa and the Middle East; and the afternoon of Sunday 31 January in the US, Canada, Central America and South America. And of course, join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV every Thursday on YouTube!
Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and past episodes (including audio links and full transcripts) and while you’re there join the Let’s Talk About Mental Health mailing list to have exclusive updates land in your inbox — those of you on my email list find out about new stuff at least a week before anybody else, so if you like this show then sign up at the website: letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can find links and information for the YouTube show at www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/youtube.
You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, and discover additional content on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel (click here) — if you haven’t already subscribed to the YouTube channel please do as there will be a lot of extra content coming to that platform very soon.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2021 Jeremy Godwin.