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The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters

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Have you ever found yourself asking, “Is this all there is to life?” Or wondering if this bigger life you have created is actually a better life? And do you wonder how it all got so out of control?

In her groundbreaking bestseller The Not So Big House, architect Sarah Susanka showed us a new way to inhabit our houses by creating homes that were better–not bigger. Now, in The Not So Big Life, Susanka takes her revolutionary philosophy to another dimension by showing us a new way to inhabit our lives.

Most of us have lives that are as cluttered with unwanted obligations as our attics are cluttered with things. The bigger-is-better idea that triggered the explosion of McMansions has spilled over to give us McLives. For many of us, our ability to find the time to do what we want to do has come to a grinding halt. Now we barely have time to take a breath before making the next call on our cell phone, while at the same time messaging someone else on our Blackberry. Our schedules are chaotic and overcommitted, leaving us so stressed that we are numb, yet we wonder why we cannot fall asleep at night.

In The Not So Big Life, Susanka shows us that it is possible to take our finger off the fast-forward button, and to our surprise we find how effortless and rewarding this change can be. We do not have to lead a monastic life or give up the things we love. In fact, the real joy of leading a not so big life is discovering that the life we love has been there the entire time. Through simple exercises and inspiring stories, Susanka shows us that all we need to do is make small shifts in our day–subtle movements that open our minds as if we were finally opening the windows to let in fresh air.

The Not So Big Life reveals that form and function serve not only architectural aims but life goals as well. Just as we can tear down interior walls to reveal space, we can tear down our fears and assumptions to open up new possibilities. The result is that we quickly discover we have all the space and time we need for the things in our lives that really matter. But perhaps the greatest reward is the discovery that small changes can yield enormous results. In her elegant, clear style, Susanka convinces us that less truly is more–much more.

From the Hardcover edition.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2007

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About the author

Sarah Susanka

42 books78 followers
Sarah Susanka is a bestselling author, architect, and cultural visionary. Her "build better, not bigger" approach to residential architecture has been embraced across the country, and her "Not So Big" philosophy has sparked an international dialogue, evolving beyond our houses and into how we inhabit our lives. In addition to sharing her insights with Oprah Winfrey and Charlie Rose, Susanka has been named a "Fast 50" innovator by Fast Company, a "top newsmaker" by Newsweek, an "innovator in American culture" by U.S.News & World Report, and is this year's recipient of the Anne Morrow Lindbergh Award for "outstanding individual achievement, a spirit of initiative, and work that exemplifies great dedication toward making positive contributions to our world."

Sarah is a member of the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects, and a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council. The author of seven books, Susanka resides in North Carolina.

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5 stars
217 (24%)
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303 (33%)
3 stars
224 (25%)
2 stars
101 (11%)
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50 (5%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 161 reviews
Profile Image for Ginger.
57 reviews3 followers
May 25, 2008
I really wanted to like this book. I'm a big fan of the Susanka architectural books and I hoped to find something accessible in the same way about life remodelling. Unfortunately, while there is some good stuff in the book, it's couched in language and a sense of privilege that left me uncomfortable and annoyed.

If you're a well-off upper-middle-class or wealthy reader, the book may help, but if you've ever rolled your eyes at the concept that you make your own reality (especially if you equate that with class privilege), or if a certain pretension of language leaves you cold, this book is not for you.

I'm disappointed, because I'd hoped for better.
Profile Image for Zjourney.
249 reviews
November 11, 2011
What mixed bag! I thought I'd never get through it. Finally I just gave in & let the words wash by, whether I registered them or not. There a lot of good stuff in it, most excellent Rumi quotes - - & also just a lot of stuff.
Profile Image for Milissa.
187 reviews2 followers
April 14, 2012
Now I know why this book has been on the bookshelf for so long. I started it a couple times, got bored, and re-shelved the book. When I picked it up last week, I was determined to get through it. I really wanted to like the book. But I didn't. I forced myself to read the whole book looking for at least some part of it that I loved...or even liked...but that part never came.

I really like the concept/title "the not so big life." I strive to live my life this way...but I guess the definition of "not so big" is all relative. (This is true of houses too...I checked out her "not so big house" website. Again, the title and concept really appealed to me. But I was disappointed as I noticed most of the floor plans are significantly bigger than my current home and I think my current home is too big. Sorry to digress.)

I felt a lot of the information was conflicting. I felt her stories didn't really fit. And as someone who understands and believes in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, I felt many of her exercises and challenges were forcing people to always dismiss their preferences and choose the non-preferred way of thinking rather than embracing their preferences and becoming aware of the pitfalls. If you are not familiar with or do not understand the MBTI, the best way I know to explain this is hand dominance. For example, I am right handed. I can write with my left hand. I know what the letters are supposed to look like and I can make my left hand draw them. But writing with my left hand is neither easy nor comfortable and I do not want to do it...especially "long term." I understand stepping outside your box and challenging yourself to grow. But to beat yourself up over being right handed and trying to change into a lefty seems pointless to me. I don't see the value in that. That's how I felt while attempting to embrace some of her philosophies and exercises.
Profile Image for Nicole.
16 reviews3 followers
April 6, 2010
It's fine, but really there isn't much information here that you can't find in better self-help books. Her architecture metaphors are cute, but don't necessarily add to the message. I don't think the worksheets she has you do are all that helpful just because they don't:
- cause you take action
- provide any discussion when you're finished (other than your own)
Really, what is the point of spending 20 minutes filling out a worksheet on your preferences if there aren't follow up questions or an action plan. You probably already knew them, which is why you could fill out the worksheet in the first place.

Her idea about always be conscious of your actions from a non-biased perspective (finding a watcher) is interesting to read about, but not a new idea.

So if you're a self-help junkie and want to read everything there is about the topic, then dive right in (just don't expect to hear anything new). If you're looking for a book to set your life in the right direction, there are other books that can help you more.
Profile Image for Christine.
193 reviews16 followers
March 4, 2021
I was expecting this book to be a more cut and dried self help book about creating a more meaningful and mindful day to day existence, with each chapter's different lesson framed by an architectural concept. It was that, but also a surprisingly dense dive into a lot of spiritual concepts, which I guess I wasn't expecting but was pleased to discover. TBH, I have owned this book for awhile and had started it a couple times before and kind of lost interest, so I think you need to be in the right frame of mind for it, which this time around, armed with a highlighter and a notebook for the suggested exercises, I happened to be.
Profile Image for Katie.
52 reviews
April 8, 2014
In “The Not So Big Life,” Sarah Susanka tosses out hooks, but before the fish can bite she drowns them in more worms than there is water.

She seems like an interesting soul, but her best ideas are buried in a kind of rambling that feels as if I picked up her journals and not a concise final draft of a self-help book. She needs an evaporator to make a few precious drops of syrup out of her sugar water ideas.

Valuable reminders conceal themselves among the pages: to give self-reflection, meditation, and dreamwork a try. Personally, I hope to remember to engage her suggestion, “I am not that thought” to combat negative thinking. Admittedly, at times she waxed a bit too poetic for me; I reject the idea that everything magically works out as the universe intended if we only open ourselves up to synchronicity.

Furthermore, I dutifully setup my journal as directed, but the book’s flow doesn’t follow the prescribed journal layout. I have found value in sporadically using its framework to capture ideas, but separate from my experience of reading the book. When the book did refer to “Your Turn” journaling activities, I suspect that other readers, like myself, found it difficult to pause and immediately identify a deeply revelatory memory, idea, or pattern on command.

Start with the end of the book, and read the six page owner’s manual. If it speaks to you, read the book. If you get distracted and look away before you finish each page, the rest of the book will be 250 pages of the same experience. She espouses a not so big house and a not so big life. If only she’d written a not so big book.
Profile Image for Laura.
267 reviews
October 13, 2007
I think I've only read a very small handful of self help books in my life, and I have a bit of an aversion to their format. They start out telling you about the problem, then move on to an overview telling you how they will teach you how to overcome it (but not actually telling you anything yet, just that they WILL tell you). The next step always seems so flimsy, where they actually tell you the secret of life, the universe, and everything. Or whatever it was they promised you. Only it's usually fairly anti-climatic, and you get to the book and wonder if you missed the important chapter.

So far, this book fits the formula. I'm not sure how long I'll last. I want her to tell me the secret of life, but I just have a feeling it will be just as unfulfilling as the number 42. Also, unfortunately for me, the architechtural analogies are quite lost on me. I need an analogy to get the analogy, but that's just my completely non-creative mind talking. Ok, I'll stop overanalyzing and try to just hear what she is saying. Maybe I'll (shock!) actually learn something useful.

I just can't make myself listen to any more. It's like a really long magazine article, not anything mind blowing.
Profile Image for Nancy.
296 reviews
January 15, 2014
I really enjoy her books like The Not-So-Big House about designing for living, but this is a pass. There's some good stuff about slowing down and doing what matters in life instead of just being busy. But that's buried in too much other content. Mostly, it's overly wordy and overly woo-woo on the life inventory stuff.
Profile Image for Kimberly.
3 reviews2 followers
August 1, 2008
reads more like a journal of how she "got" the meaning of life. It's been done before and by more experienced writers. Couldn't finish.
Profile Image for Prab Doowa.
29 reviews
January 13, 2021
This was oddly the perfect book to read first in 2021! I didn't expect it to be as thought-provoking or inspiring as it was. The Not So Big Life is about learning to listen to what your heart longs to do and to integrate these passions into your everyday life. The book often mentions that when you engage with what you are truly passionate about, you are automatically present in what you are doing - you are showing up completely in each moment.

I like the way the book discusses architecture and design in that just as we can tear down the interior walls of a house to open up space, The Not So Big Life shows us that we can tear down our fears, assumptions, and conditionings in a way that opens us up to new possibilities so we can start engaging in the things we long to do. I thought this was a pretty interesting way to describe life and learn about the effective ways we can change our conditions, mindset, and perspective by remodeling parts of our routine. One small shift will ripple through the rest of your life.

Extensive review here: https://prabdoowa.wixsite.com/home/po...
Profile Image for Nikki.
217 reviews4 followers
January 6, 2019
I picked this up from a little free library because the title looked familiar (I think I’d seen it recommended somewhere). I initially quite liked it – I agreed with the central idea of reducing overwhelm of all kinds to allow a clearer focus on what's truly meaningful, and I liked the broad definition of ‘clutter’ to include things like unhelpful underlying beliefs and habitual response patterns. As I got further into it I found it less compelling though, and I never quite got around to finishing it. Some sections were a bit too left-field for me (such as the instructions on dream interpretation, or the example of trusting the universe to arrange the promotion of her book), and others felt a little strained, with the content having to be shoehorned into the architectural metaphors she was using.
Profile Image for Jenny.
18 reviews1 follower
February 20, 2023
Great for some, not for me. On the surface, this book was made for me. It’s rooted in mindfulness, meditation, waking up, surrender, manifestation, and enlightenment, but was ultimately a painful read. It’s riddled with self-importance and long-winded architectural metaphors and personal stories that serve as weak metaphors. It urges release of control via ultra-detailed, prescriptive control. I’m aware that I may feel this way about Sarah’s writing because I’m worried my own writing sounds like this.
March 21, 2017
I listened to the audio book version shortly after resigning from an eleven year career due to severe job stress. It provided exactly what I needed at exactly the right time - a blueprint for remodeling my life from being a worker bee to into living a life that reflects my passions and my dreams. As I embark on the exciting adventure of aligning myself to my own unfolding, I can see that the author is right. All that is required is our presence. It is only when we choose to slow down and learn how to be fully engaged in living, that our life will become the expansive and meaningful journey that it was meant to be.
Profile Image for Lawrence.
27 reviews9 followers
September 18, 2020
I agree with goodreads reviewer Katie:

"Start with the end of the book, and read the six page owner’s manual. If it speaks to you, read the book. If you get distracted and look away before you finish each page, the rest of the book will be 250 pages of the same experience. She espouses a not so big house and a not so big life. If only she’d written a not so big book."

It's what I call a very dense book. Lots of good ideas...just hard to keep reading after a while.
4 reviews
September 24, 2021
I'm newly interested in the idea of slow living, while valuing more of what is actually important, so this book seemed like a great idea book for me to read: I normally get engaged in books and become immersed in them - so normally I finish my books quickly. Unfortunately, this was not the case with this book. Maybe it was all the architectural references, perhaps it was all the sideline stories of the authors own revelations, but this book was just hard for me to finish.
Profile Image for Shawn Jorgenson.
10 reviews
March 18, 2022
What started off so good just fizzled out for someone who wasn’t looking to read a book on “the secret” thoughts become things ideologies. The authors analogies relating building spaces and functions to life were spot on and framed “the not so big life” with perfect clarity. The extended musings on synchronicities, the universe, etc made most of this book a chore. There is some great wisdom in this book, but in totality, not an enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Wendi Lau.
434 reviews24 followers
September 21, 2017
This is a book about organizing your life. Who and what do you want and need in your life. Who and what do you not want. How you can make those decisions, see in new ways, and accept the flow of energies around you. More spiritual than I wanted but did most of the exercises in each chapter anyway. I guess I read the title too literally and was looking for home organization ideas.
Profile Image for Yoko.
5 reviews1 follower
January 20, 2019
Excellent book. Really good message of 'do you really need a big house?' poses a question what really matters in your life. I typed up a year end ritual and spend several hours every year to reflect on the past, present, and future at the end of each year. The unique part is that the author is an architect, so no technical jargon in this book.
Profile Image for Lindsay InAustin.
115 reviews3 followers
February 12, 2020
A good wake up call to what matters. One star off for saying that everything that happens to us is exactly what we need. She has obviously never worked in a hospital or child protective services if she really believes that. But otherwise, good ideas and exercises to help focus on what matters most.
Profile Image for Dorothy.
206 reviews
November 30, 2022
The ideas are excellent, but the metaphor Susanka leans on heavily is architecture and building your new house (literally, she is an architect). So if that doesn't work for you at a deep level, a lot of the book may not resonate. There are very good exercises re self-examination, time-management, decluttering ideas/people in your life, reprioritizing.
Profile Image for Lacy Arnett Mayberry.
218 reviews8 followers
February 9, 2019
This beautiful and deeply thoughtful book was exactly what I wanted to start my year. Susanka has a very zen approach to life's problems, such as: there are no problems, a kind of thinking that resonates more and more as I age. Highly recommend!
Profile Image for L.
477 reviews
January 1, 2020
I loved this book. It was very powerful, insightful, inspiring and surprising. I finally tore myself from it and returned it to the library. I kept returning to the chapters to find more in there to help me reframe this next stage of life. I highly recommend this book!
Profile Image for Susan Sanders.
1,372 reviews5 followers
June 10, 2020

This book really baffles me. I thought it would be 100% my jam, but I never clicked with it. I am glad I have my own copy because I would like to refer back to it someday or reread. Perhaps it will resonate then.
Profile Image for Snoopypanda.
1,007 reviews37 followers
December 27, 2020
This is a not-so-great book for those like myself who were expecting a Marie Kondo-type book about how to declutter. This book is about remodeling a home to fit your needs. The one consolation is that I bought it at Goodwill so at least the money went toward programs for the less fortunate.
6 reviews
January 26, 2021
What a gift

Practical, immediately useful and user friendly. I am so grateful to Sarah for sharing this manual for discovering a more meaningful life. By applying a metaphor of a house renovation to creating the life we are all searching for truly resonated with me.
2,451 reviews
June 16, 2017
I loved her books on architecture. I only read this one for a book club. I wouldn't have read it otherwise.
Profile Image for Kris.
548 reviews1 follower
October 17, 2019
I just don't have time - or interest - to figure out the architecture analogies.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 161 reviews

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