Author and minimalist Sarah Wilson shares how simplicity makes life sweeter and change easier.
My health issues changed my life massively,” Sarah Wilson says. The Australian journalist and entrepreneur struggled with anxiety throughout her childhood and at 21 was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, which causes hyperthyroidism. Dietary changes and acupuncture treatments resolved her symptoms.
But seven years later, Wilson developed another thyroid condition — Hashimoto’s — which rendered her unable to work. She left her job as editor in chief at Cosmopolitan Australia for an army shed in the tropical forest to reassess her life.
Using her journalistic chops, Wilson researched the disease and learned about potential contributing factors, including gluten, cosmetic toxins, and genetics (her grandmother also had both Graves’ and Hashimoto’s diseases). “Gradually, I built up my life by playing out a huge number of experiments one by one to see what would work,” she recalls. “And that essentially defined my career going forward.”
In 2008 Wilson launched IQuitSugar.com, the online wellness community that served as a forum for discussing the challenges and benefits of avoiding the sweet-tasting substance. She also authored a companion series of New York Times best-selling I Quit Sugar books. Working with biologists and endocrinologists, she created an eight-week program that has since helped 1.5 million people in 113 countries quit sugar.
The now 44-year-old closed IQuitSugar.com in March 2018 so she could refocus her time and energy on educating her audience rather than growing the business. “I’m an educator, a communicator,” she notes, “not a money-spinner.” (Wilson donated all of her profits to charity.)
Wilson, who grew up on a subsistence farm, sees her latest title, Simplicious Flow— the world’s first zero-waste cookbook — as a natural extension of her work and life.
“It was just a matter of what came first,” she explains. “Anxiety probably came first. I addressed that by quitting sugar and processed foods and by cooking. And now the minimalism part of the story encompasses all of it, because the real key to well- being is living simply.”
Experience Life | The New Year always inspires people to make changes in their lives. What are your thoughts on resolutions? And how can we be successful in reaching our goals?
Sarah Wilson | I think it’s great that there’s a time of year when we get mindful, take stock, and reflect on how we want to live our best life. However, we often go about the messaging and planning with a very draconian approach. We think, I must do this or that action in this or that particular way to be successful.
What I find works is starting with a positive, not a negative. For example, when we see wet paint with a sign that says, “Do Not Touch,” all we want to do is touch that wet paint! It’s because it’s in the negative. A better approach is to start with a positive message that resonates and inspires taking a positive action.
I’ve always tried to highlight the small things that we can do to make a difference over the things we need to stop ourselves from doing. For example, when I started the I Quit Sugar movement, it had one positive action: quitting sugar. Later, when I began talking about how to heal anxiety, the first step was seeing what I thought of as a beast — anxiety — as something beautiful.
I think a key to success is seeing change as a curious, gentle experiment and then taking a bunch of small actions to point yourself in the direction you want to go. Research shows that we change our brain pathways and habits by making small shifts.
EL | Many people struggle to make themselves a priority. How can we overcome this?
SW | I want to share two ideas. The first, from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian spiritual leader who developed Transcendental Meditation, is about watering the root so that you can enjoy the fruit. The idea is to get strong and grounded in yourself so that you can go out into the world and create “wonderful” in whatever you decide to do. To be a wonderful parent, coworker, or creator, you’ve rst got to get certain in yourself.
I see this a lot with women. If they have a metapurpose — the idea that they’re going out to make the world better — they’ll focus on getting themselves strong, healthy, and happy.
The second idea comes from research that compared the unhappiest women — professionals like doctors and lawyers in their 40s — with the happiest women. Researchers found that instead of trying to find life balance — such as attending the same number of yoga classes and the same number of your kids’ soccer matches — the happier women tilted toward what they enjoy.
They didn’t “do it all.” They spent more time on what was meaningful, purposeful, and energizing to them. So instead of trying to spend the perfect number of hours in a yoga studio, getting your nails done, or sitting in lotus position, put your time and energy toward things that feel good.
EL | How have you prioritized your well-being?
SW | I talk about this a lot in my book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety. I keep things close. Instead of looking for answers from a new self-help guru, at a shopping mall, or from some far- flung place, I look within. This keeps things within my grasp rather than reaching for happiness someplace else.
I also keep things simple. I do three things every day: First, I meditate for 20 minutes with my eyes closed. Second, I cook my meals — which is my No. 1 tip for improved health and well-being. Finally, I walk everywhere. I don’t own a car, so I walk to meetings and to go out with friends.
Walking has many great physical benefits. Studies have shown that it dampens anxiety. When we walk, we’re also moving at the same pace as discerning thought, which is important because we live in such a mad world where everything goes too fast for us to get a grip on what matters in life. Walking gets us into a space where we can process all of that.
EL | Tell us about your new zero-waste cookbook.
SW | I hope it’s a motivator for people to take action against food waste, which is an enormous environmental issue.
I think it’s empowering to know, as consumers, that we don’t have to wait for governments to take legislative action; we can eliminate our own food waste.
The super benefit is that zero-waste cooking saves time and money. The book includes 348 recipes, and more than 90 percent of them can be made in one pan with one utensil. You even eat out of the pan, which saves time on washing up.
I offer meal plans and shopping lists for buying sustainable ingredients when they are at their cheapest and most abundant — and every broccoli stalk and chia seed gets used in full.
EL | There’s always been some backlash against the wellness industry, but it’s been in the news again lately. How have you seen it change over the years?
SW | When I entered this realm, it was quite new and fresh, and it was really empowering for people. Over the years, I’ve seen it become more selfish and materialistic. It often seems to be more about buying the next new “healthy” thing instead of living in a more mindful way.
I see wellness as a tool, a practice, almost a responsibility. We get well so that we can become our best self and help the world. We’ve got to keep in mind the image of the monk who sits up in a cave on the mountain meditating all day, every day for a number of years. It eventually dawns on him that he’s not helping the world, so he comes down from the mountain, joins the villagers, and helps them create a better life and community.
I see yoga studios serving water in disposable cups — that’s not mindful. If this movement really is about being healthy and mindful, we’ve got to actually be mindful. We’ve got to rise to the occasion — and to do that, we have to return to our roots.