Principle 5: Empty Space

Pursue quality, not quantity.

If you type “simplicity” into your internet browser, you will discover that simplicity is all about having a stack of rocks…

…a handful of fruit…

…or a single drop of water on a leaf…

I’m obviously being facetious: we all know that artfully arranging a handful of smooth stones on your coffee table does not simplify your life.

To simplify deeply requires artfully arranging all the details of life.

The spare, Zen-like, aesthetic points to something real, though. For example, ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. It is a true art form, with certain conventions that all practitioners follow. The most important convention of ikebana is Empty Space:[1]

 In an ikebana design, space is just as important as the flowers and branches themselves. An ikebana practitioner seeks to create space rather than fill it.[2]

In a piece of music, the rests—the silence between notes—are just as important as the notes themselves. A page of text without any white space is indecipherable.

Modern life becomes complicated when we try to fill space: in our homes, in our closets, on our shelves, on our calendars, in our minds. He who dies with the most toys, wins.[3] We know in our deepest hearts that this is false, and we respond to the images of simplicity because they mirror what we long for, both inside and outside. Like all the principles of simplicity, you can practice Empty Space both exteriorly and interiorly.

Exterior empty space:

  • Simple, spare furnishings and décor
  • few possessions
  • solitude (space between yourself and other people)
  • silence
  • limited commitments and activities

Interior empty space:

  • Silence
  • limited input (TV, radio, music, internet, books, news)

The lists above certainly aren’t exhaustive. Can you think of more ways to create Empty Space?

Go deeper: why do the practices on the list simplify things? Where does the empty space form?

Exercise: consider creating empty space by going on a “media fast.” [4]

Top photo credit:

Other photo credits:

[1] Ikebana International, Chicago Chapter

[2] Ikebana by Diane Norman and Michelle Cornell.

[3] Contrast this sentiment with this quote attributed to Andrew Carnegie: “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.”

[4] “I took a complete 10-day media fast and felt like I’d had a two-year vacation from computers…Once you realize that you can turn off the noise without the world ending, you’re liberated in a way that few people ever know.” Tim Ferris, from his blog Experiments in Lifestyle Design.