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Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

March 1, 1996
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Featured Article
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Trend watchers will tell you that we’re in the midst of a social movement to simplify, to cut out the clutter—literal and otherwise—in our lives. I know it’s happening, but it’s taken me time to take it all seriously.

My incredulity dates to the holiday season. I was stranded in a long line of weary shoppers at the bookstore. There were stacks of a best-selling guide for "simplifying your life" on the counter. At that time of year—when I still had presents to buy, hadn’t written a single card and wasn’t ready for an imminent party at my house—simplifying had a strong appeal, so I picked up a copy. I flipped it open at random, and found this advice: "Sell the boat." That’s all I read, so it wasn’t hard to equate the book to that other landmark social manifesto, "The Preppy Handbook."

I wasn’t prompted to change my mind after reading a lengthy magazine article exploring the phenomenon. How can you take any movement seriously, I wondered, that advocates stripping away excess on the one hand and then coins phrases like "voluntary simplicity" on the other?

And yet despite the sometimes silly trappings of this movement, there is something sufficiently compelling about the idea that I keep coming back to it. Apparently so do a lot of other people, because the social movement is now large enough that it has implications for the workplace. Many people have decided either to scale back on the amount of time they’re willing to commit to the job or to get out of the job altogether—all in the name of balance or fulfillment or, yes, simplicity.

It isn’t hard to see why. We live in a hustle-bustle world in which we don’t know our neighbors, don’t have time to cook dinner (and barely time to eat it) and probably don’t go on vacation without a laptop in tow.

Simplifying, however, is not simple. I tried to simplify shopping by buying from catalogs. No driving, no parking, no lines; it would be simpler. But reality intruded: The computer was down when I called to place my order, so I had to call back. I did so and placed my order, but some merchandise was on back order and so the items would be shipped separately. Imperfect, but I thought I was done. Then I got a postcard notifying me that there was a problem with the order and that they had tried, unsuccessfully, to contact me. I called again, and got a recording explaining that they couldn’t answer because the blizzard had forced them to close. I called again and found that all they had to do was verify my billing address. In theory, my order is now on the way, but I wonder: Is this simpler?

If simpler shopping is this elusive, imagine the challenges of creating a simpler workplace. There, attitudes have been shaped by downsizings, mergers, overwork and more. Not everyone is in a position to downshift in response, of course, but that doesn’t mean that we can ignore the fad as something taking place only in the pages of People and Vanity Fair.

The reality is that people are stressed to the breaking point and demanding a change. That fact is shaping everything from presidential politics to TV ratings —and work is no exception. I doubt if the ideas in Jennifer Laabs’ cover story represent the final thinking on this issue, but I have no doubt that attention must be paid.

Personnel Journal, March 1996, Vol. 75, No. 3, p. 4.

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