simplify Feed

The value of white space in your life

Foraged mulberries. Little eco footprints

One of the benefits of simplifying is that my life now has white space. Pockets of time where nothing is scheduled.

In graphic design, white space is the empty space between the elements on a page.

It can improve clarity, make viewing easier, and ensures the purpose of a piece is clear.

The space left empty is almost as important as the actual content.

Fail to leave sufficient white space and a worthwhile message can be lost among the clutter.

Empty space is equally important in our day-to-day lives.

Time intentionally left empty is as valuable as the scheduled moments.

Without the white space we can lose sight of our purpose and become lost in overwhelm.

In my experience, white space rarely stays empty. But it being there allows me to better respond to challenges and grab opportunities.

White space makes you more resilient 

A sick child home from school for the day; no internet for a week; or a broken down car. These unexpected hurdles would have once caused me stress. I would have bemoaned the time wasting.

Now that my schedule has a margin of error, I find it easier to turn negatives into a positive.

A sick child is cause for a slow day at home cuddling on the couch. No internet is embraced as time to clear the clutter from my mind. And being stranded for a few hours evolves into time to wander, read and enjoy lunch in a cafe.

The broken down car happened in the midst of writing this piece. I'm certain that if the idea of turning a hassle into something to appreciate hadn't been at the forefront of my mind, being stranded would have left me frustrated at the time I was wasting. Instead, I was grateful for a few rare hours to relax and eventually returned home feeling like I’d had a mini holiday.

A margin of error in my to-do list also gives me time to embrace positive opportunities.

If our schedule is full to the brim, opportunities aren't even noticed, let alone embraced.

I recently spotted a mulberry tree laden with fruit. There was a time when I would have felt too busy to stop. Or perhaps I wouldn't have even noticed the fruit. I would have rushed on by.

Instead, I stopped and enjoyed picking fruit with Little Eco. We shoved sweet berries into our mouths and laughed at our mulberry stained hands.

It’s these little unexpected moments that I’ll remember.

The following day a friend, knowing that I like making bone broth, offered me as many chicken frames as I wanted. The catch was, they weren't gutted. If I accepted I’d have to drop everything and gut the chickens that night. The old me would have said: "No thanks. Not this time. I'm too busy." Instead, the less frantic me said: "That would be unreal thanks. Would you like some garlic and zucchini in return? I now have a nice stash of nourishing bone broth – and it was free.

For me, stopping to forage and trading home-grown food fills my heart with joy and nourishes my soul as much as my belly.

The unexpected moments of joy that fill your white space will likely look different to mine.

Not all white space is filled by the unexpected.

Sometimes it remains empty.

It’s these moments I enjoy the most.

Time to breathe, reflect and dream....



I’ll be back next week with tips for clearing the clutter from your schedule to create white space.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 9th November 2015.


Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 1. Little eco footprints

I appreciate the importance of not over-scheduling my daughter’s time. For extracurricular activities we've always had the rule of "swimming plus one". But we've been cheating. I gave in to my desire to give her as many opportunities as possible. We squeezed swimming and gymnastics into one afternoon – and briefly ignored the fact that her schedule included three structured activities.

But then my daughter reminded me that what she wants most is "more time to just play".

Time to play is what our children need most.

Unstructured play is how they learn to imagine, create, communicate, and resolve problems. It’s how they learn to live a meaningful life.

Two recent moments of free play reminded me how valuable time to simply play is.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 6. Little eco footprints

I made a batch of play-dough. At eight I thought Little Eco might be too old for play-dough. But I was wrong.

She and a friend grabbed some animal figures and built a paddock, horse jumps, stables and a farm house. They spent hours in their imaginary world absorbed in meaningful creative play.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 2. Little eco footprints

On another day they built a cubby with sticks and decorated it with bunting.

They proudly told me "we made it all by ourselves" and asked to build a campfire.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 3. Little eco footprints

I appreciate the importance of safe childhood risk-taking as much as free play – so agreed. One of my favourite quotes is from outdoor play advocate Richard Louv:

"Small risks taken early (and the natural world is good place to take those risks) can prepare children to avoid more onerous risks later in life."

I wandered back to their cubby with matches, a picnic hamper, pan and a batch of pancake batter.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 4. Little eco footprints

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 7. Little eco footprints

They proudly cooked their own pancakes and afterwards set about adding more rooms to their cubby.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 8. Little eco footprints

Little Eco spotted a tree in one of her pancakes. Can you see it? 

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 9. Little eco footprints

She had to photograph it of course. Definitely her mothers daughter.

Free time, some sticks and an opportunity to create their own world evolved into a magical moment I'm guessing they will remember for a very long time.

A similar childhood play session is one of my favourite memories. The moment was so insignificant that my mum can’t even remember it.

It was school holidays and my mum was busy – so she gave me a block of clay to keep me occupied. I can clearly remember the joy I felt in having hours to sit and lose myself in creating with my own hands. It’s moments like this that matter.

I had pottery lessons later in my childhood. But that moment instilled in me a love for creating with clay – far more than the structured lessons did.

Childhood is not a race or a competition.

Our children don’t need to be drowning in extracurricular activities to become talented and capable.

What they need is plenty of empty moments.

They need time to be bored.

It’s the moments of boredom that force them to learn how to entertain themselves.

We each have a lifetime to discover and nurture interests. We don’t need to do everything we desire immediately.

I'm yet to act on my desire to create with clay. I will one day. But there’s no rush.

Similarly, Little Eco is dropping gymnastics for now. Perhaps she’ll drop guitar lessons one day to take up gymnastics again. Or she may move onto something completely different.

Our children don’t need to excel at everything right now.

There’s no sense in rushing their one and only precious childhood.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 31st August 2015.

Do more with less - function stacking

Chicken tractor - a great example of saving time by function stacking. Little eco footprints

Time is precious. It’s a limited resource and I'm guessing most of us feel like we don’t have enough of it. One of the techniques I use to save time is function stacking – a permaculture concept that can save time and resources in the garden and beyond.

What is function stacking? 

At its simplest, function stacking suggests that anything you plant in the garden should serve multiple functions. For example, if you want to plant a tree for shade, select one that will also give you fruit.

The idea is to increase efficiency by maximising outputs.

Chicken tractor - a great example of saving time by function stacking. Little eco footprints 2

My chicken tractor is another example of function stacking.

A mobile chicken pen enables me to increase the number of functions my chickens perform. They not only give me eggs and manure, but also weed my garden and prepare soil for planting.

I also stack functions beyond the garden.

I try to maximise the function of car trips. If I have to drive somewhere, I consider what chores or shopping I can do along the way. I stop at roadside stalls and make the most of driving near favourite organic stores.

Time with Little Eco is also often function stacked. When cooking or gardening I’ll lower expectations about how long something will take and involve her in the process. We create a meal and have fun as well.

Function stacking is different to multi-tasking.

When juggling more than one task at a time – it’s easy to become overwhelmed and not give either task the attention it deserves.

Whereas with function stacking, you can focus mindfully on performing a single task, yet get to enjoy multiple outcomes.

You kill two (or more) birds with one stone.

Perhaps - not everything can be function stacked all the time

My blog posts are also function stacked - published first as a column in the local paper. Most weeks my republished column is the only blog post I’ll write and I have both my newspaper and blog audiences in mind when I write the piece. I save myself having to write a blog post and make the most of my efforts, giving me more time to do other things.

But a recent conversation reminded me that not everything can be function stacked all the time. A friend wrote that she was sad that I don’t blog much these days. "But I blog consistently once a week" I responded. She told me that "republishing once a week is not quite the same thing". It seems my stacking isn’t as effective as I thought. My blog audience feels neglected.

The encounter reminded me that if a function is important, we may need to focus on it fully occasionally. For example, every now and then I need to play with my daughter – on her terms. Playing her games is how I remind her that she’s important to me. Similarly, I'm thinking I need to occasionally write something just for my blog audience (patient blog readers - the plan is to eventually find time to write a second post each week just for the blog. One day....)

The opportunities to function stack seem endless.

Digging in the garden – exercise and prepared soil.

A deep dam with a pontoon – water storage and a swimming hole.

A milking sheep – milk, wool and meat.....

What I love most about function stacking is that you can do less, but achieve more.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 15th June 2015.

Do what’s important (not urgent)

A family bushwalk and hot chocolate. Making time for what is important. Little eco footprints

I've banned myself from using the word "busy". I no longer respond to the question "How are you?" with an automatic "busy". My to-do list is still long, but the sense of busyness is almost gone.

The main change is that I'm getting better at distinguishing between what is important and what's urgent. Important tasks take priority these days. And I try to steer clear of urgent tasks that are really not that important in the scheme of things.

There will always be urgent things to do. We can busy ourselves forever ticking urgent things off our to-do list. Tick a few off and a few more appear.

But the problem is, the important is all too easy to neglect when we’re bombarded with urgent things to do all day.

I don’t want to waste my life bumping from one urgent task to another – without saving enough space for what’s truly important. Because, as author Annie Dillard points out: "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives".

Using the Eisenhower Method to manage your time

Productivity enthusiasts may be familiar with the "Eisenhower Method". This time management tool stems from a quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower: "What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important."

Tasks are assigned to quadrants of a matrix – based on whether they are important or unimportant and urgent or not urgent. The method suggests important and urgent tasks are done immediately. Important but not urgent tasks are scheduled to happen by a certain date. Unimportant and urgent tasks are delegated. And unimportant and not urgent tasks are dropped.

We can apply this idea to our everyday life.

Deal with the important and urgent as soon as practicable. Make time for what is important (but not urgent) each and every day. And simply drop the unimportant.

How to work out what's important

Unfortunately – many of us are so busy and overwhelmed that we've lost sight of what’s important.

When I was drowning in busyness I found it easy to mistake urgent and unimportant tasks as important.

It often takes an illness or accident to remind people of what’s truly important. But life is so precious that we should be setting aside time to contemplate what is important, without being motivated by a tragedy.

I sat on a rug in the sunshine with a notebook and contemplated what I want my legacy to be.

Then I mapped out an ideal day, ideal week, ideal month and an ideal year. I then mapped out what my actual days looked like at that point in time. I realised most of my time was being spent on tasks that weren't truly important to me. I had lost myself in other people’s "important".

Now that I have a clear vision of my goals and how I want to spend my time – I find it easier to drop unimportant tasks. I've found the confidence to say no when needed.

Become a deadline rebel

I've also become a deadline rebel. I purposely miss unnecessary deadlines. Our society has a fondness for imposing deadlines – even when they aren't necessary.

Not everything has to happen now. Even important things can often wait.

Let's save busy for when it's truly justified - not everyday life

Of course life does get busy sometimes. But I like the idea of saving that sense of urgency for when it’s truly justified. Let’s not spend our entire lives being "busy".

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 1st June 2015.

Riches without dollars: embracing the gift economy

Somewhere along the line, money took over our lives. The dollar became almighty. And now we’re paying for it. With our happiness, our health, and the environment.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

We can embrace alternative economies. These informal economies can provide many of our needs – without the exchange of money. And as a bonus, the fuel for these alternative economies – sharing, trading, generosity and gratitude – build stronger and more resilient communities.

Generosity breeds generosity. A basket of homegrown mushrooms recentlly gifted to a friend to say thank you for a gift they gave us. Little eco footprints

Generosity and gratitude builds strong communities. A basket of home-grown mushrooms I gifted to a friend to say thank you for a gift they gave us. 

Charles Eisenstein, in his book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift And Society In The Age Of Transition, argues that the money system has contributed to alienation, competition, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth. In contrast: "In a gift society, if you have more than you need, you give it to someone who needs it."

Eisenstein suggests generosity is how you earn security: "Because if you have built up all that gratitude, people are going to take care of you." He says that "if there are no gifts, then there is no community. And we can see, as societies have become more monetised, that community has disappeared. People long for it, but you can’t just have community as an add-on to a monetised life. You have to actually need each other."

The gift economy builds community. A basket of gifted sourdough cinnamon scrolls. Little eco footprints

A bakset of homemade sourdough cinnamon scrolls I gifted to some strangers that had had a rough few days. I'll never see these people again....but perhaps they will (intentionally or unintentionally - it doesn't matter) pay it forward. 

Mechanisms to facilitate alternative economies can be formal and structured – like the many new collaborative consumption tools. These effectively enable sharing, lending, trading, renting, and gifting. These traditional actions are far from new, but new online technologies have made them easier. For example, there’s Freecycle, TimebankingLETS, Car Next Door, Airbnb and Home Camp, just to name a few.

There’s also more local options available. For example, a gifting circle that Eisenstein describes in Sacred Economics sounds delightful. In this weekly gathering, participants state one or more things they would like to give and one or more things they would like to receive. Often, a magical synchronicity of wants and needs unfolds. "You need a potato masher? We have three." Or, "You need a ride to the airport on Friday? My husband is flying out then, too."

My favourite way to embrace alternative economies is even simpler – take money out of the equation as often as you can. For example, our laundry is out of action. Rather than pay to use a local laundromat, I’m using a friend’s washing machine. As a bonus, I’m catching up with our friends each time I drop off or pick up laundry – and it makes them more comfortable next time they ask us a favour.

These days, money has taken over situations where generosity is more appropriate.

A friend had been minding my daughter a lot lately. I haven’t offered money for the favour, nor has she asked for it. But what we each get out of the interaction is far more valuable than money.

I recently said to her "I owe you big time". With a cheeky grin she said "yes you do". I like that one day I’ll be able to return the favour. 

What you give comes back, but not necessarily from the person you gave to.

A treasured original painting by Brian Nunan. - a gift from a friend. Little eco footprints

I was recently given a beautiful original artwork. The painting was gifted, not because I was generous to the giver, but because she has observed me being generous to a mutual friend. Generosity breeds generosity.

Money only has value because society gives it value. But there’s nothing to stop us putting greater value on non-monetary things. Wellbeing, kindness, fresh air, biodiversity, family and friendships. We can decide these things are of greater value than money and live our lives accordingly.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 27th April 2015.

Interested in exploring the idea of the gift economy more? 

Here's an inspiring story by Sash from Inked in Colour about the creation of a local timebanking project

The Flower Exchange by Grown and Gathered provides a beautiful example of the gift economy in action. 

Sacred Economics: Money, Gift And Society In The Age Of Transition by Charles Eisenstein can be read for free here