Month: July 2020

Summertime and the living is….simple!

It came as no surprise that a recent poll showed that a mere 12% of the population want life to return to pre-lockdown ‘normal’. After a life that’s been unavoidably pared back, how can we take the positives of operating in a more streamlined way and apply them when ‘normal life’ resumes?

‘Lockdown has been simplicity’s moment in the sun,’ says Julia Hobsbawm – entrepreneur, speaker and author of The Simplicity Principle. ‘It has connected us to the idea that, in the end, all we really want is to be safe, well, and to love and be loved. Now we know this, I don’t think our old lives will hold the same appeal.’

That said, lockdown life can be knotty in its own ways. We have become even more reliant on technology for social interaction, and, in many cases, our careers, home-schooling and hobbies have become tangled into one big messy ball. Plus, the world has possibly seemed more confusing and disorientating than ever before.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that humans are about as complex as it gets anyway. We have 86 billion neurons firing all the time in our brains, and our bodies are made up of nearly 40 trillion cells. We are capable of doing amazing things yet this is at complete odds with the simple needs we have, emotionally and physically.

‘Our working memory – the part of the brain that governs reason and behaviour, typically shows a limit of between 4 and 7 items at a time,’ explains Hobsbawm. This would be fine if we were all still hunting and gathering like we did thousands of years ago, but it’s not so useful now, when we’re overwhelmed by endless choices, multiple social media accounts and we’re constantly zig-zagging between tasks.

‘Neuroscience shows us that once things get too complicated, our brains effectively short-circuit and cut out,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘When we are overloaded, we make mistakes. We get stressed, anxious, depressed, angry and disappointed. We struggle.’

So is it ever possible to cut through the chaos and find simplicity? The short answer is, yes.

Hobsbawm embarked on her own quest for simplicity five years ago, when an exhausting decade filled with illness, grief, and the challenges of balancing a busy career with motherhood, left her feeling burned out and overwhelmed.

In response, she made a commitment to remove as much unnecessary complexity from her life as possible.

‘Life will always be complicated, and we can’t control everything,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘Plus, we are curious creatures – we like intrigue and variety. But that doesn’t mean that how we soothe ourselves and complete our tasks shouldn’t be streamlined and simple.’

‘I’ve learned that it’s about pattern, structure and rhythm, such as having regular sleep and setting boundaries,’ she says. ‘It’s about knowing when to stop and stand back.’

Here are my 10 top tips and helpful ways to find calm in the complexity, and clarity in the chaos…


‘Our brains can only handle a maximum of seven things at once, so – to stay within this – I have chosen six as my magic number,’ says Hobsbawm. You can use the number six as a guide in all aspects of life, for example, having no more than six people in a group chat, or on a video call. But it really helps when working through your to-do list. ‘Start each day with a list of just six major things, and perhaps six tiny tasks you need to do by the end of the day,’ she says. ‘It will immediately focus your mind on the most important things, rather than blurring the boundaries between essential and optional. It means that you can commit to what you’re doing and be confident of success. Another benefit is that when you focus on fewer things a day, you make sharper decisions more quickly.’


You can also streamline your life by dividing your day into time-zones. ‘I break up my day by using the “three Ps”: personal, process and people’, says Hobsbawm. ‘Personal can mean exercise or reading a book, process could be anything from tackling my inbox to financial management and people is all about connecting with others, whether friends or clients.’ When you’re in your ‘personal’ time-zone, switch your emails off. When you’re speaking to friends, give them your full attention. Divvying up your day will help you focus your mind on what really matters in the present moment.


We make tons of unconscious decisions every day – in fact, science has found we make a staggering 35,000 separate decisions, on everything from where we move our bodies, to what to eat, to whether to click on your Instagram app. You might not even notice it, but all of these tiny decisions can add up to make you feel overwhelmed. ‘The ability to decide both faster and more firmly is a sign of clarity,’ says Hobsbawm. We often think more choice is better, but in many instances, they can actually just crowd our brains and make decisions harder to make. In fact, a famous study in a California supermarket found that a table offering a limited range of six jams elicited a 30% purchase rate, compared to just 3% on the table offering a choice of 24. So, find ways to reduce unnecessary choice in everyday life. You could make like Barack Obama, who admitted that he limited his choices of suits and shirts. ‘I have too many other decisions to make,’ he said in a 2012 interview. You could do the same with your lunch options or hairstyles – whatever works for you.


‘Experiencing the world around you is a powerful tonic for clarity and inner peace,’ says Hobsbawm. There are countless studies showing the benefits of walking in nature for promoting relaxation, lowering heart rates and reducing stress. One study from the Netherlands even found that looking at a picture of nature is enough to calm the parasympathetic nervous system. ‘Nature teaches us a bit of humility,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘You can’t keep up superior airs and graces, job titles, or look-at-me Instagrams when you’re amongst all creatures great and small because, well, you realise how silly it all is. Simplicity hinges on balance, and nature is the great re-balancer.’


In order to gain clarity, it’s also important to be crystal-clear yourself. ‘There is nothing worse than muddle and confusion, which brings with it delay, miscommunication and distrust,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘When you’re clear about something, others get clarity. Being clear is an act of generosity.’ For example, if you want to ask your kids to do some chores around the house, give basic, broken-down instructions. This means they’re more likely to get it right, avoiding complication in future. This also means saying ‘no’ to something you don’t have the time, energy or mental-space to commit to. When you start setting clear boundaries, you’ll be less scattered, and you might even find this frees up more time to nourish your closest relationships.


The benefits of tidying up are well-noted – it’s true that physical clutter can actually clog up your mental space too. One American study found that people who described their homes as ‘cluttered’ and full of ‘unfinished projects’ were more likely to be depressed or tired. This doesn’t mean you need to embrace full-on minimalism – according to Hobsbawm, it really is as simple as having one place for everything, so you can always find it. ‘Not only can it be terrifying to find something in an emergency when you don’t know where to begin, but it symbolizes something deeper: if you can’t keep your house well, what else is too messy in your life?’ says Hobsbawm.


Many of us wear the fact we can multi-task as a badge of honour. But actually, research from Stanford University has shown that when we try to do more than one thing at once, it has an immediate and negative impact on our memory. Humans are monotaskers by nature – we work better when we focus on just one thing at a time. ‘Decide the one thing you want to do or achieve and stick to that until it’s done,’ suggests Hobsbawm. ‘This could be reading, writing a document or clearing your inbox. The latter of these, I find, is essential. I recommend never finishing the week with anything in your inbox. If it remains full, so does your brain.’


There will always be obligations we simply can’t drop, but many obligations are ones that we’ve actually created for ourselves. ‘Arianna Huffington puts it beautifully in her book, Thrive, when she talks about release from too many tasks,’ says Hosbawm. ‘She writes, “It was liberating to realise that I could ‘complete’ a project simply by dropping it – by eliminating it from my to-do list. Why carry around this unnecessary baggage?”’ Look at your own goals and think, what actually needs doing? What can you postpone for now?


We’re bombarded with news and information at all times – whether that’s on TV, through app notifications, or as we scroll through social media. Hobsbawm describes this as ‘infobesity’ – ‘just has our bodies can get clogged, and slowed down by too much complex food in too-high quantities, the same is true of knowledge,’ she says. ‘We need it, we should enjoy it. We just need to simplify how we absorb it.’ Hobsbawm recommends coming up with a “knowledge dashboard” to keep track of what you’re taking in. ‘Aim for no more than six sources a day,’ she suggests. ‘You should aim for both a mix of topics – for example, three that cover news and views, one that covers whatever your specialism is, and some general entertainment. And then a mix of mediums – whether that’s blogs, trusted news sites, TED talks or books. Curation cuts down and cuts through the fatty tissue of TMI: Too Much Information.’


Being able to relax and press pause is key to living a simple life, but we tend to overcomplicate the act of rest. ‘In order to practice meditation or mindfulness seriously, you have to do something – whether that’s setting aside time, sitting down or turning on an app,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘Ironically, you are turning your mind on in order to let it relax, and switch off.’ It can be simpler than that: ‘by weeding out all the limitless possibility and narrowing our focus, we can achieve a state of reset,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘When I listen to a piece of classical music or chop a single piece of garlic when I cook, I am simplifying my actions. In slowing my thought processes, I’m reaching that increasingly elusive state in our frantic world: relaxation.’

And that’s surely what we want more of in our post-lockdown world.

Patience in a post-lock down world

I read a wonderful article recently about post-lockdown behaviour. Have you found yourself tutting and flashing your eyes above the mask when someone inadvertently wanders within your 2 metre zone? Saying an audible sarcastic ‘Thank you’ when you have to walk in the road to pass someone? Guilty as charged I’m ashamed to say! However, words from those who have returned from a period in lockdown offer us some advice about navigating our way forward in this post-lockdown world.

Christiane Heinicke took part in a simulated Mars mission on Mauna Loa volcano. For a year, there were no phones, no cars, no money, nothing commerce related. She was there to focus on the science. ‘Everything was straightforward’ she said. ‘At the end, I have to take time to contemplate all the things I hadn’t needed to think about for a year.’

She went on to say that she gave herself time to prepare to re-enter the world which would be louder, brighter and stranger than she remembered. Having to turn her filters back on after they had been off for a year in isolation would take time.

‘Re-emerging into the world made me realise how many choices there are. You can say ‘Actually, you know what, I don’t need this technology. I don’t want an iPad.’

So what advice would Heinicke give us preparing to leave lockdown?

‘Coming out of isolation takes a physical and psychological toll. It’s normal to find that you are really tired, so give yourself time and space. The filters take time to return, so be patient with yourself and others. You may have forgotten what it’s like to have to deal with other people.’

‘Isolation is a beautiful opportunity but, it’s also a trauma, so take your time – give yourself a lot of patience and consideration.’