A woman simplifying her life by watering plants.

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Does your life feel cluttered and complicated? Do you sometimes feel like you should escape to a simpler time or place?

One reason why Henry David Thoreau went to the woods was to live a simpler life. To accomplish this, he adopted a certain mindset and made specific choices. From his example, you can simplify your life by considering what you can do without, managing your resources wisely, and savoring what you have.

Keep reading for three tips on how to simplify your life with insights from Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau’s Simplified Life

If you want to learn how to simplify your life in 21st-century society, look for inspiration in a 19th-century life. Henry David Thoreau explains that the choices he made in moving to Walden were motivated in part by a desire to live more simply—and he doesn’t hesitate to say that he thinks his readers should simplify their lives, too. During the two years he lived in the woods, Thoreau chose a life of what he calls “voluntary poverty.” He reduced what he produced and consumed to just what was necessary for survival: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel.

While Thoreau believed there is dignity in labor and in working to provide for oneself, he contended that people consume too much and work too much to pay for it. He explains that people can live on much less than they think possible. Then, with that change in perspective, they can stop overworking themselves to afford a large home, a vast family farm, fashionable clothes, or even an expensive education. Thoreau contends that the drive to acquire these and other material things results in unacceptable costs in terms of time: time that we give up for truly living in order to obtain possessions that aren’t necessary and don’t fulfill us.

Simplify Your Life

Most of us can’t just leave town and move to the woods to live a simpler life. But, if you want to follow in Thoreau’s footsteps in clearing room in your life for the things that are most meaningful to you, he offers a few principles that you can put into practice.

#1: Consider What You Can Do Without

Thoreau believed in the virtue of economy: rejecting materialism and practicing simplicity. Throughout the book, he warns against overworking yourself just to spend money and time on things you don’t need. For instance, he chose to avoid eating animal products: In addition to saving money by foregoing purchases of butter, milk, or meat, he notes that abstaining from hunting and fishing also allowed him to avoid the cooking and cleaning that would go along with preparing meat or fish. 

(Shortform note: Thoreau was mindful of his diet, but he didn’t stick to rigid rules, according to historians. He saved money by foregoing meat, butter, coffee, and milk. But when he spent time with others, he ate what they ate. He also wanted to reduce the amount of meat he consumed for ethical reasons. This might call to mind the philosophies of some modern writers: Jonathan Safran Foer recommends in We Are the Weather that we reduce our meat consumption for the sake of the environment. And Michael Pollan advocates in The Omnivore’s Dilemma for taking greater responsibility for the moral transaction between us and the animals we eat. )

#2: Manage Your Resources Wisely

Like all of us, Thoreau had to choose how to best put to use the supplies and money he had. For example, when he hosted large numbers of visitors at his cabin—he entertained as many as 25 or 30 people at one time—Thoreau didn’t use up all his supplies to feed them all. Instead, he found other ways to make them feel welcome, such as entertaining them outside, without worrying about society’s standards for hospitality. 

#3: Savor What You Have

Thoreau believed that an important part of living a simpler life was experiencing gratitude for what you have and what you’re able to do. For instance, he writes that when you sit down to eat a meal, feeling gratitude for your food and paying attention to what you’re eating is much more important than what’s on your plate.

(Shortform note: In Thoreau’s time, American society was undergoing a transition. While people had traditionally grown their own food and made their own clothes, they were becoming more dependent on industry to employ them and to produce the things they needed. But rather than increase consumption, Thoreau wanted people to make use of what they had instead—or obtain what they needed in the least costly and least harmful way possible. That’s why he foraged for food and salvaged materials to build his cabin. Thoreau has been characterized as an early proponent of sustainable living. Some experts believe that this practice was motivated by his distress over the ways in which modern economies were bad for people and bad for nature.)

How to Simplify Your Life: 3 Tips From Thoreau’s Walden

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Walden summary:

  • The philosophy behind Henry David Thoreau's classic novel
  • How you can build a meaningful life by living in harmony with nature
  • A look at how Thoreau spent his time at Walden Pond, outside the book

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *