" No one is his own master, only a steward of that which is in his care."
Amish ~ 'Rules of a Godly Life.'
Working means two distinct things, and we need to consider them both carefully. Firstly, work can mean your employment by others or by yourself; secondly, it means how you approach what has to be done – and then doing it. Simple living requires close attention to both of these facets of work and finding ways to accommodate them.
Simple living cannot be attained without a considerable amount of work, and that work has to be done on a daily basis. So much of what we think of as modern life is based around the idea of ‘labour saving.’ In fact, these labour saving devices, such as ‘ready meals’, ‘non-ironing’ clothing and the rest of these slogan-based ideas, largely thought up during the latter half of the twentieth century, have us all working harder and longer in order to allow us to buy them. What we need instead is a new attitude to work, one which is happily accepted as part of a full life. It is essential that we don't do work in a hurry to get things finished and move on to something more interesting; rather, we should take joy from doing the work in hand and take satisfaction from the finished task. Not all of us can be artists, craft workers or skilled artisans, but we can all dig, cook, clean, launder and look after our land and our families in a way that delivers us deep satisfaction.
"Discover for yourself work to do and carry out the work staking your whole being on it - then the work is rightly your mission."
~ Ham Sok-Hon (Quaker)
Whatever your definition of simplicity, it will need to take account of money. Without money you can achieve some degree of self-sufficiency, but it is difficult. Things need to be set in place, you will need somewhere to live, somewhere to grow your food and you will need equipment; all of these things require money. Even the Amish, who achieve a great degree of self-sufficiency, need cash and whatever you do, you will need it too. It might be that your journey to simplicity begins with your having assets, either in property or the bank, that you can use. Maybe you have inherited enough to get you going or you may be in receipt of a pension, but for most of us, employment is the means to getting enough money to live our chosen life. Simple living should not be dependent on having a large income; even those of modest means can aspire to a simple life.
If you do have any investments you should consider whether these are fully compatible with your ethical values. If you have strong feelings about the arms trade, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, illegal drugs, pornography, animal testing etc., then you will want to make certain that your money is not doing your dirty work for you.
For many of us, a job means working in a profession or following a chosen path, but for others, a job is nothing more than the means to an end, a way of paying the rent. Either way, you may need to sit down with a calculator and a notebook and work out how much you need to earn. Note the careful use of the word ‘need’; avoid the train of thought that directs you to earning as much as you can; that is not the simple way. It could be that accepting your real ‘need’ for money allows you to free yourself of many of the constraints of employment and start thinking about work from a different perspective.
Part-time employment could help you to pay the bills whilst using the time that has been freed up to become more self-sufficient. In most cases, reducing the number of days you work is the most helpful, but less time at work each day could also be helpful. You might also consider seasonal work. In many urban and rural locations, seasonal work is available in the months coming up to Christmas and maybe even in January for the ‘sales’. Working in the winter should leave you with more time for the busy growing and preserving months during the spring, summer and autumn. Careful planning could provide you with valuable income. As a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario you could work for maybe two days a week in the spring, summer and autumn, and five days a week in the winter. A job like that would be perfect for self-sufficiency!
If you have a partner, then an almost perfect solution is at hand; one of you gets a job and the other takes on responsibility for land and home. This will be very hard going for both of you, but offers a perfect way to develop a simple lifestyle with a steady income, plus all the benefits of self-sufficiency.
Doing the Sums
It costs you money to go to work, especially if you are with a partner and have young children. Try this method of working out the true earnings from your job. Take your annual salary after deductions and subtract from this your transport costs. (If you travel by public transport this might be simple, but drivers must calculate the yearly cost of the car, tax, insurance, fuel, maintenance etc.). Now deduct the cost of work clothing (you spend more on clothing for work than you would spend otherwise), any child care (project this figure if you are planning more children), take off further sums for the amount you can save with the time available for home cooking, home repairs and greater energy efficiency (in my case this is chopping wood to use as a fuel instead of buying oil). What you have left is what you are actually working for. If you can cut back by that amount or earn that much from home, then you can do the deed and become a one income family. Of course you will still have some financial planning, such as making provision for old age, etc. In the UK the NHS will take care of most health costs, but in some countries you will also need to buy health insurance.
“People might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get.”
~ Frederick Douglass
There is nothing wrong with adopting a simple lifestyle that involves you in paid employment; most of us have little or no choice about this. If paid employment is your lot, then make the most of it; work as hard as you can and secure yourself a position of trust and respect in your job. Take care not to get carried away with your own importance and take time to consider carefully any offers of promotion offered to you; money is, after all, not everything. Try your very best to avoid bringing the cares of the working day home with you; a simple life is not one of worry and sleepless nights.
Self-employment may look like the perfect way to ensure a simple lifestyle, but it is not as easy as it seems. You may be lucky enough to earn your living as a crafts person, artist or writer, all of whom are able to control the amount of time spent on their craft to some extent. However, many seek self-employment by means of producing goods or services and only supreme self-discipline will stop you from spending more and more time doing this, leaving less time for simple self-sufficiency. The problems come from marketing your services, being constantly ‘available’ by phone and internet and having little control over your busiest times of the year. All of this can conspire to make this option a bit of a ‘juggling act’. Should you become successful, will you have the willpower to turn business away to preserve your simple lifestyle? Again, if you start a business and your partner takes on responsibility for self-sufficiency, this could work out much better.
You may decide to run a business selling surplus from your production to bring in a cash supply. This might work out well if you have sufficient land and time, but for most people the money you make selling produce will only be of limited help in keeping your finances ticking over; you need a lot of land and high productivity to earn a living from your plot.
“Earning happiness means doing good and working, not speculating and being lazy. Laziness may look inviting, but only work gives you true satisfaction.”
― Anne Frank
In the days before banks started to make the news on the front pages instead of the business section, many people could take ‘early retirement’ to help them on the road to self-sufficiency. Today such things are hard to do and we are told that the ‘retirement age’ for many of us has moved from 60 or 65 years to 68 or even 70! Few would want to start with a radical change towards self-sufficiency at such an age, but if you are one of those who would, I don’t see any reason for dissuading you.
In my moments of Utopian dreaming, I consider a world where you work five days a week until the age of forty, then four days a week until the age of fifty, three days a week until fifty five, two days until sixty, followed by one day a week from sixty until you decide to retire altogether. This would keep expertise in the workplace and allow individuals to develop a new chosen way of life whilst still young enough to do the groundwork. Retirement can be a wonderful time to devote yourself to the simplicity and self-sufficiency and even a small pension can provide enough cash for those needs that you cannot meet yourself.
It may be that you have considered all options and the only way to make it work is for you and your partner to work full time. If this is the case, weekend self-sufficiency is an excellent alternative. You will need to ‘clear the decks’ during your busy times of the year so that weekends are protected and as productive as possible, but it can be done. If your job is not too physical then you may well have the energy and enthusiasm to spend summer evenings tending to your crops and preserving your produce.
"Learn to limit yourself, to content yourself with some definite thing, and some definite work; dare to be what you are, and learn to resign with a good grace all that you are not and to believe in your own individuality."
~ Henri-Frédéric Amiel
Working at Home
Working at home, whether as a business, homesteading or looking after children, will require a high degree of self-discipline and task-driven determination. Have a definite time when work starts each day and stick to it; be dressed, ready to get going and have some kind of plan for what you need to achieve, at least in your head if not a few notes on paper. As for the sequence of the day, some things are more important than others; living things demand your attention before any other chores. Children, the elderly and the sick need your attention first, followed by animals and then plants (or get up very early and see to the animals and plants while the human dependents are still sleeping)! If chores need doing every day, then it is best to come up with a logical sequence that eventually forms itself into a routine. (See Simple Harmony.)
As well as those tasks that need daily attention (or even several times per day), there are those jobs which need doing once a week, once a month, once a season or once a year; you need to build these into your working days or they just won’t get done! Some jobs, mainly those done outside, are weather dependent, so if you go to bed with plans for the next day, then make sure that you have an alternative plan for if the weather is bad. Making plans for getting things done is good, but don’t be over-ambitious, try to plan jobs that be completed, or stages, of jobs that can be completed, in the time slot available between chores.
Work hard, get those jobs out of the way, enjoy the tasks even if others might look at them as menial and repetitive, develop an eye for what needs to be done and do it. Sharing work is wonderful if you have others that are willing and able to help you. One of the strengths of Amish communities is that many jobs, from barn raising to vegetable processing and quilt sewing are done in company; ‘a task shared is a task halved’; but to find others to help you may be difficult, unless you live in a community or a large family group.
When working for yourself, be a good and kind employer; give yourself short breaks every couple of hours and a decent lunch break. At busy times of the year when work continues into the evening and darkness, give yourself a decent supper break too.
"Economy and frugality are to be commended, but follow them on in an increasing ratio and what do we find at the other end? A miser! If we overdo the using of spare moments we may find an invalid at the end, while perhaps if we allowed ourselves more idle time we would conserve our nervous strength and health to more than the value the work we could accomplish by emulating at all times the little busy bee. "
~ Laura Ingalls Wilder
A fine way to help others is to involve yourself in some kind of voluntary work. This could be anything from an hour or two a week working in a charity shop, to donating a year or two to voluntary work overseas. Take care make sure that your calling is real and that you can commit yourself to a reasonable length of time. If you find times in your life when you are too busy to do such work, don’t be too hard on yourself, particularly if your time is taken up with young children. If voluntary work is not for you then fully support those who have a calling in whatever ways you can. Make certain that your voluntary work does not rob others of employment opportunities and that you are convinced that the products of your voluntary labour are not being used for the financial profit of others.
“In the busy years of home life the parents are upheld and strengthened by their dependence upon God and upon one another; the efficient running of the home, the simple hospitality, the happy atmosphere, are all outward signs of this threefold inner relationship. Homemaking is a Quaker service in its own right. It should be recognised as such and a proper balance preserved, so that other activities – even the claims of Quaker service in other fields – should not be allowed to hinder its growth.”
Britain Yearly Meeting (Quaker) ~ Faith and Practice
It is wrong to think that the only barrier to how much you can do is your attitude, in fact, work has several limiting factors that you need to take into account. Tiredness will affect you and reduce what you plan to do, you can expect to get more tired if you are loosing sleep (babies and young children are often a cause of this), if it is the middle of winter, and as you get older. You can not always fight tiredness, but you can alleviate it by taking regular breaks (literally with your feet up is good), by eating properly, avoiding sugary snacks, and by getting a good night's rest. You will probably never get all the things done in your days that you would like, but you can with careful planning achieve an impressive amount of work each day.
Illness can be a terrible problem, especially if others rely on you to look after them. Always regard your own health as top priority and give yourself time to get over any illnesses that come your way. If your illness becomes such a factor in your life that it regularly stops you doing the things you need to do, then you have to sit down with others that you live with and work out a new life for yourself that fully takes account of your disability; you may need some professional advice to move forward on this.
"When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself.”
— Karen Blixen
Huge Tasks and Backlogs
Planning your tasks may of great help, but even in the best laid out projections for what to do when, things go wrong. Apart from the obvious disasters of fire, flood, drought and hurricane, I might add illness, bereavement, new babies, building projects and guests to that list. Coping with these things may mean that our work gets seriously behind so we need some techniques to cope. First of all sit down and decide a list of priorities; things that must be done very soon, things that must be done less urgently, things that can be put off for a better time, and finally things that can be forgotten in the present or forgotten altogether. When facing a time of crisis or backlog don’t be afraid to work very hard, but make sure you are eating properly and resting when you get the chance. Don’t give up your healthy eating routine in favour of ‘take-aways’, but eat meals you have preserved (frozen or ‘canned’) with plenty of fresh fruit and salad.
“In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.”
~ Leo Tolstoy
Laziness is one of the most strange human failings, I have met many people who claim to be ‘lazy’, but who, as observed by the rest of us seem hives of industry. Others who claim to be hardworking and diligent appear to all to be idle and time wasters. For this reason I suspect that laziness is better recognized by others observing us than by self examination. However, if you feel yourself to be lazy, either on an occasional basis or as a daily attitude, then consider these tips;
· Get better at judging the time a job will take and carry on until finished.
· Do not work with electronic devices that will distract you and add to the total time the job takes.
· Don’t waste time complaining, or discussing, how much you have to do, just get on with it.
· Don’t worry too much about getting too tired, just do the job and deal with the tiredness with a good night's sleep.
· Don’t compare your output of work with others, we are all different, just work as hard as you can.
· Give yourself a small reward (like a cup of tea and a ten minute break), but only when the task is done.
· Move on quickly to the next task.
· Carefully consider your attitude to work and, if need be, change it.
· Stop hurrying work so you can do something else; give the job the time it needs.
· Consider going part-time to devote more time to self-sufficiency.
· Consider you or your partner stopping full time work while the other carries on.
· Consider a seasonal job to fit in with your own self-sufficiency work.
· If you have a paid job, work hard at it.
· Don’t go for promotion unless it’s what you really want.
· Be prepared to accept less money for a better, more simple life.
· If you have money invested, check that you are happy with the ethical nature of those investments. Consider changing them if necessary.
· Consider working for yourself.
· If you have artistic or craft skills, consider whether these could become your main source of income.
· Consider partial or early retirement from full time work.
· If your financial security is sound, give up full time paid work and become fully self-sufficient.
You may like to read
Dolly Freed ~ Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and with (Almost) No Money Tin House Books 2010 edition. A useful guide to doing just that!
Giddion Burrows (editor) The Ethical Careers Guide New Internationalist Publications UK 2006. If you want to work in a way that provides you with an income and makes the world better, this is a good place to start. A new edition would be nice!
(C) Ray Lovegrove (aka 'Hay Quaker') 2014