Go Small Or Go Home: In Praise of Minimalism

by schaefer on October 11, 2009 · 56 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

walden

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Spring Break of my freshman year of college I went on a 4-day backpacking trip in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico.  My partner in adventure, Lucas, was a former Wyoming backpacking guide turned potter-philosopher, the perfect companion for days wandering the woods processing what comes about with the sudden cleaving from the static of modern living.  A year prior we had traipsed around Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska on a 14-day trip that cemented our friendship…and wanderlust.

While discussing the details of the Gila trip, we decided to challenge ourselves to go ultralight.  The total weight of our gear, including backpack, could not exceed 20lbs.  It seemed fairly simple, but after pulling out my backpack I was shocked to learn that I’d been carrying around 50lbs of gadgets, gizmos and outdoor accoutrement on previous trips.  Shuddering at the ridiculousness of trying to take so much of the world with me when the point was to leave it behind, I began to scrub my packing list.

I started with a quick kill of substituting a one-man bivouac sac (1lb 10oz) for the two-man tent (9lbs) I had previously carried.  Next was less clothing, a foam pad instead of an inflatable one, a small aluminum pot rather than a cooking set, etc….it took a while, but I finally got it down to 20lbs.  Then the “what if’s” began to flood my mind.  What if we got stuck out there for longer?  What if we didn’t have enough food, clothing, and emergency gear?  I threw in a few extra granola bars just to calm my nerves.

After one day on the trail my fears were alleviated, and Lucas and I knew we were on to something big – the benefits of going ultralight far outweighed any losses in comfort or feelings of security.  Nights around the fire were previously spent nursing sore bodies; now we felt great.  The amount of mileage we comfortably traveled in a day doubled as we found ourselves jogging down small sections of the trail when we got restless.  Scrambling up steep sections would have been slow torture with 50lbs on our backs; now we were able to go explore remote areas that offered the best scenic views.

After 4-days we had covered over 25-miles, but it had seemed much less.  To say the trip went well would be an understatement – in going ultralight we had unexpectedly discovered the benefits of minimalism – simplicity, efficiency and freedom.

The Goods Life

“The things you own end up owning you.” -Tyler Durden, Fight Club

It had been 7 years since my Gila trip and life had moved forward.  There was now a wife, baby, and career.  I found myself roaming the halls of our newly-built 3-bed, 2-bath suburban home fuming that we didn’t have enough storage space.  During college I could carry everything I owned in the back of my Dodge pickup.  Now 1,600 square feet was not adequate to house our growing collection of stuff.  Something was wrong with this picture.  How had I accumulated so many random things in such a short period?

I wondered, “Had men in the past confronted this suffocating malady?”  Somehow I couldn’t imagine John Wayne wondering where to put his new artisan wine rack.

My father came to mind.  His possessions never occupied a greater place in his life than seemed due.  As a boy I used to sit on the bed watching him as he went through his end-of-day routine.  Cuff links, handkerchief, pocket knife, wallet – each used on a daily basis, each set in their proper place on top of his dresser.  Yes, my dad had “things,” but only what he needed and nothing more.  Like a well-seasoned outdoorsman, he understood exactly what was necessary to survive, each tool having a specific purpose.  Granted, my father was a lawyer so his days were spent surviving the jungles of the courtroom rather than those of some remote continent, but the manliness of his effortless utility left a great impression on me even then.

Thinking about men I admired, it dawned on me that most had a quiet contempt towards any excess of material possessions. Their expertise and confidence were displayed by the fact that they did not require much to live successfully. They could just as easily get along for a week in the woods with nothing but a knife as they could living in a posh suburban neighborhood with all its amenities. Possessions had no control over the trajectory of their lives. They were not gadget junkies, seeking their fix from the latest Best Buy sale.  They were in control of the things they owned, not the other way around.  Real manliness meant freedom from the bondage of material goods.

Inspiration charged through my blood, but then came the inevitable “now what?”  I wanted to shatter the bonds of materialist slavery, but how did that idea translate into real life, with all its strollers, high-definition t.v.’s and bread makers?  As I searched for answers…and storage space, I stumbled upon my backpack and was immediately reminded of Lucas and my adventures.  Like a bolt of suburban-lightening, a thought came to me:

Just as I needed to scrub my packing list for the Gila trip, my lifestyle of uber-consumption needed a similar scrubbing.  Simplicity, efficiency and freedom weren’t just for outdoor adventures, they were for the in-between times as well.

Learning to Live the Minimalist Life

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say let your affairs be as one, two, three and not a hundred or a thousand… We are happy in proportion to the things we can do without.” – Henry David Thoreau.

Lucas and I had uncovered a more efficient way to backpack; I needed a more efficient way for my family and I to live.  Surfing the internet for others with similar problems, I found blog after blog praising the benefits of the minimalist lifestyle.  It appeared that our family wasn’t the only one fed up with the constant accumulation of things.

After reading tales of people taking positive action to reduce the amount of clutter in their lives, I ended up at the blog of Mr. Zen Habits himself, Leo Babauta.  The man whose blog has brought the art of less to thousands had just written an e-book, “The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life,” where he answered the question, “what is the minimalist lifestyle?” with the following,

It’s one that is stripped of the unnecessary, to
make room for that which gives you joy.

It’s a removal of clutter in all its forms,
leaving you with peace and freedom and
lightness.

A minimalist eschews the mindset of more, of
acquiring and consuming and shopping, of
bigger is better, of the burden of stuff.

A minimalist instead embraces the beauty of
less, the aesthetic of spareness, a life of
contentedness in what we need and what
makes us truly happy.

A minimalist realizes that acquiring stuff
doesn’t make us happy. That earning more
and having more are meaningless. That
filling your life with busy-ness and
freneticism isn’t desirable, but something to
be avoided.

A minimalist values quality, not quantity, in
all forms.

The last point stuck.  The great men I knew didn’t care about having much, but what they did possess had value.  Whether by connection to a time, place, or person, the things in their life meant something.  An old pocket watch, a beautifully engraved humidor, a good pair of work boots that had lasted a lifetime — ageless, well-crafted…quality.  And though they had value, the possessions of these men were held onto loosely.  They seemed to understand that like a handful of sand, the tighter you squeeze the less you can hold.

At the end of my life what would my children and their children find as they searched through my belongings?  Boxes upon boxes of useless crap, once trendy and exciting, now just a burden to be thrown out?  Or a few heart-felt belongings to be passed down through generations?  Not things by which to be held captive, but meaningful items to be used, enjoyed and eventually passed on to someone else.

And so I began going through each room of my house, searching for one item to throw or give away.  It wasn’t life-changing, but it was a start. With each room I began to realize that many of the things I had purchased with such anticipation and fanfare had quickly been relegated to a dark corner of the closet as their novelty wore off, never to be touched again.  I knew that possessions didn’t equal happiness, but it was apparent that I had been learning this lesson over and over again for the past several years.  Each small step towards a life of less felt like a powerful blow to what had become a vicious cycle.

So, you ask, is throwing away a few old books or t-shirts every once and in awhile all it means to be a minimalist?  Hardly. While decluttering your life is a great place to start, minimalism is about changing one’s whole approach to life and opting out of the race to accumulate more.  Advertising convinces us of needs we didn’t know existed and exploits our emptiness by promising fulfillment for a few easy payments of $19.99.  The shopping mall has become our temple, the credit card our burnt offering…yet, the sacrifice is never sufficient for salvation.  Being a minimalist means one simply quits buying in.  The following are the principles of living the minimalist life as laid out by Babauta:

Leo’s Principles of Living the Minimalist Life

1.  Omit needless things. Notice this doesn’t say to omit everything.  Just needless things.

2.  Identify the essential. What’s most important to you?  What makes you happy?  What will have the highest impact on your life, your career?

3. Make everything count. Whatever you do or keep in your life, make it worthy of keeping.  Make it really count.

4.  Fill your life with joy. Don’t just empty your life.  Put something wonderful in it.

5.  Edit, edit.  Minimalism isn’t an end point.  It’s a constant process of editing, revisiting, editing some more.

I would add the following:

6.  Hold on loosely. Even to your prized possessions.  At the end of the day its relationships, not possessions, that make life worth living.

It’s simple, not easy.  But the rewards of digging into the minimalist life are there for anyone willing to take a few small steps each day.  Of course, most will choose to continue their present habits, but as for me and my house, we’ve chosen a life of less…and in doing so have gained so much more.

{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David Turnbull October 11, 2009 at 10:57 pm

Great post. My minimalist efforts aren’t going particularly to plan at the moment – I still have tons of crap to get rid of – but I am getting there. eBay has let me recoop the cost of a budget of video games and a graphics tablet I own and I plan to go from my burdensome book collection over to a Kindle (saves money with the amount of books I read too).

Stumbled this post too. :-)

2 Cary Grant October 11, 2009 at 10:57 pm

I love a lot of the stuff on AoM, but i have to say, I think this is definitely one of, if not my favorite things ever written. Great writing, brilliant quotes, just an all-around bang-up article. Thanks Schaefer!

3 David Turnbull October 11, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Hmmm, not sure if my last comment went through. But basically: great post and stumbled + tweeted. :-)

4 Shmikey October 11, 2009 at 11:01 pm

I have been on this for most of my married life, and have never really regretted minimalism. The best decision was to rid myself of the bonds of television. I have found that I have a life worth living again. I find critics constantly defending there TV addiction with the excuse that it is educational, or that they need to stay on top of what is going on. Then next thing that I noticed after taking the TV out, was that I was not very concerned about what I was lacking, because I could base that now upon my own conviction and not what the world had to say was necessary. Now I fill my life with relationships and pursuit of virtue, and I haven’t been happier.

5 Dave - The Minimalist Path October 11, 2009 at 11:24 pm

I think this article summarizes the implementation of Minimalism to your daily life as well as imploring others to change their lifestyle and not just a room or area.

I created a similar post on Not Packing Everything… http://lifeexcursion.com/index.php/travel/the-art-of-not-packingeverything/

Also, I started a site called The Minimalist Path as I have found a lot of interest by my readers at LifeExcursion in Minimalism. Here’s that site… http://theminimalistpath.com/

Sorry for the lame plugs. But I think my info may help your readers improve their minimalist approach.

Thanks for posting a great source article.

Dave Damron
The Minimalist Path

6 Glenn October 11, 2009 at 11:25 pm

Tumbleweed Tiny Houses is dedicated to the idea of minimalist living when it comes to your domicile. I really love the idea of these houses which have just enough room for the basics and little else.

http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/

7 Dave October 11, 2009 at 11:45 pm

Awesome post, awesome because it’s inspiring. From what I know, many of the Greeks at their loftiest aspired to minimalism,to not allow earthly goods to tie them down.

8 Shane October 11, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Great post! Really enjoyed it. @Davis Turnball: Do you have a library membership? It’d be even cheaper (free), and you’d have a much wider selection. I never used a Kindle personally, though, so I don’t know a ton about it.

9 David Turnbull October 12, 2009 at 12:10 am

@Shane – I haven’t got a membership at the moment because the problem with the libraries around here is they never seem to have the latest books I want and I’m the type of person to read through a book multiple times, so always having it on hand is nice. :-)

(You totally butchered my name by the way, lol)

10 Ian October 12, 2009 at 12:29 am

Stuff ties us down. It weighs on the mind. It gives us back pain when we carry it around. It gets stolen, broken, or obsolete, then pollutes the world as it breaks down in a landfill. Advertising tells us that stuff will make us happy, and we want to believe that purchasing can solve our problems. Rarely, stuff can actually deliver the goods. But beyond food, clothing and shelter, stuff is not the answer to the most pressing issues in our lives. Worse yet, in a very complicated world, it isn’t just physical clutter that raises our anxiety level – we have too many choices: where to eat, what job to take, where to live, what to read.

We feel moments of clear thought when we’ve stripped away the peripheral things that weigh us down. We live in a small dorm room, go on vacation with a single backpack, or spend a weekend at a retreat in the woods. Our minds feel clearer, and our bodies healthier. We resolve to keep that feeling back when we return to our everyday hectic world, but it slips away in mere days.

Minimalism starts with believing that everything we bring into our lives has a cost to our soul. Every choice we allow ourselves to ponder extracts its pound of flesh. Every dollar spent costs the time it took to earn that dollar. Whatever we do or accumulate has a high bar to make up for these problems. We write about minimizing:

* STUFF: We almost always overestimate how happy a new purchase will make us, and vastly underestimate what a drag it will be to maintain, store, and discard. Advertising successfully manipulates us to make sure the anticipation/reality gap is as large as possible. By focusing only on the best products that really perform, and recognizing that the cost is always higher than you expect, you can eliminate many bad purchases.
* TIME: We can waste most of our lives procrastinating and dealing with useless crap. Stop. Focus on the critical, and stay organized and on track.
* EFFORT: Skill over stuff – if you learn how to do something well, you’ll need fewer gadgets and will know the most efficient way to do things, leading to less effort and more energy to spend on the stuff that matters.
* MONEY: Minimal is not poor. Spending hours managing coupons is not minimalist. A cheap bathroom scale is not simple since it is unlikely to really tell you how much something weighs. A cheap computer will cost you hours of troubleshooting. Spend on the things that you’ve wanted for a long time, not impulse purchases. Save up and stay out of debt. Buy quality. But buy less, and spend wisely.
* ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: Don’t soil your nest. Ick.
* ILLNESS: Taking care of yourself means a minimum of doctor visits later. Without your health, you don’t have anything. Don’t be fooled by magic cures – being healthy is hard work, but often requires more knowledge and willpower than stuff.
* STRESS: Stress that causes growth and excitement is good – without stress, life is boring. Make sure you’re stressing about the things that matter, and clear the path of everything else that causes you to freak out.

***
My name is Ian and I am an evolving minimalist. I’d spent my years growing up in a tiny pre-war bungalow, a member of a family of four. My parents are packrats. Always have been, always will be. What little floorspace remained within the household seemed perpetually encroached upon by the accumulation of “stuff” over the years. Many novelties, doodads, knick-knacks and trinkets. Both my parents had grown up in large families without much in the way of luxury or access. Thus, as they’d explained to me, that growing up with nothing made one appreciate the value of everything. The thing of it is, is that I’d never gleaned much value in the things kept about the house that I was forever tripping over, stumbling upon and eventually, throwing by the curbside. A lot of these items seemed cheap in manufacture, pre-packaged, quickly obsolescent or disposable. Very much Ikea, very much Dollar Store. The longstanding items that stuffed our rafters were seldom anything redeemable in my eyes. Few things I’d ever identified with or have explained to me as being purposeful or utilitarian such as tools, textbooks or something of at least sentimental value.

My eyes were opened in the autumn of 2005. A trip was planned amongst friends to travel to Europe to play a paintball tournament in Spain. It didn’t take long for the schedule to evolve beyond the scope of the tournament itself. Eight of us planned to backpack Europe for many weeks beforehand. France, Holland, Germany, Italy and the end result being the event itself in Spain. The logistics required and the fact that we were to be completely self reliant made me realize the value of “less is more”. That understanding also manifested itself in the fact that I’d returned from that adventure without any souveniers whatsoever, save for the gift of a beer stein from a night spent in Bavaria celebrating Oktoberfest with the locals. I couldn’t care less about bringing home any t-shirts, post cards or bumpers stickers. I came away from the adventure with a lot of photographs, stories and fond memories with friends.

From that point onward, I’ve taken the ‘less is more’ mentality to heart and found much satisfaction. I’m somewhat of a nomad within my own city of one million. I’ve moved four times in five years and I’ve noticed that with each successive relocation, my collection of “stuff” has grown considerably smaller. At this point in time, I am literally in possession of fewer items than can be stuffed in the back of a cube van and I couldn’t be happier or more fulfilled. My friends and family call me “picky” in many facets of life. I prefer the term “discerning”. I am by no means an impulse buyer or “cheap”. Any intended purchase of significant value is researched, evaluated, test driven and negotiated. I am not a person who likes to waste time or money and have never had any qualms about spending a considerable amount of cash on an item of redeeming value and quality construction. This notion extends to everything from the safety razor in my bathroom to the Subaru in my driveway.

“You can’t take it with you” and even if you could, where would you put it?

Some time ago I came across a piece of writing described as “The Minimalist Manifesto” that I feel is quite poignant in describing materialism in contrast to the burdens of materialism;

http://theminimalist.net/the-minimalist-manifesto/

I’m somewhat tickled to see the film Fight Club and the quote of Antoine de Saint-Exupery referenced in the aforementioned article as I have had both committed to memory for many years. I greatly appreciate AoM and articles such as this.

Cheers!

11 Damian October 12, 2009 at 12:40 am

Absolutely fantastic article.

12 Kate McKay October 12, 2009 at 12:42 am

Fantastic article, Cameron! I think this may be my favorite thing you’ve written (and that’s really saying something!)

13 Ellis October 12, 2009 at 12:54 am

Wow, that was timely. I was just climbing into bed in my little dorm room, looking at all the clutter around me, pondering on my many failed attempts to stay organized, and wondering in frustration how I was to organize my life, when I opened my google reader and saw this blog post. It is just what I need! Thanks for the info – I will definitely give minimalism a try!

14 Akshay Kapur October 12, 2009 at 5:55 am

This is a wonderfully written post Cameron! It really flows.

I recently moved and was surprised at how little I had. 6 small boxes sufficed for my stuff, half of which I could’ve (and probably will) throw out. The rest were work clothes easily tossed in the backseat on their hangers.

When I started packing for my month-long India trip, I realized just how little I needed to take with me. I brought 8 pairs of everything, and since arriving have realized I could again do with just half.

Which is why my rule of thumb is going to cut what I think I need in half from now on. Like you said, it provides freedom and mobility, not just physically but also in mind. I’ve naturally been a minimalist most of my life, and since the term was coined, I’ve learned so much more how to be efficient with my stuff.

This post is a great addition to that collection of material.

15 Katherine Taylor October 12, 2009 at 6:28 am

makes you think that almost everything we have right now is just excess, we can live on just the basics and be happy with it. The people of old did it then and they were contented, so why not us. :)

16 Roger Imhada October 12, 2009 at 7:50 am

Enjoyable read thanks!

17 Mike October 12, 2009 at 10:28 am

Excellent article and replies. Now, here’s a question: how do you convince your significant other to adopt this approach? Bonus question: how do you convince your kids as well? This seems like a no-brainer if you are a family / household of one, but what do you do when there are other people in the equation?

18 Michael October 12, 2009 at 10:37 am

@Mike — The number one rule to adopting this approach as a couple is “never throw your wife’s stuff away”.

My strategy has been to use moves and change of seasons to encourage my wife to purge her collection of clothes and shoes. Also, whenever she gets new shoes or a coat, I ask which one it is replacing.

Obviously, you need some manly tact in the encouragement and questioning.

I’ve also learned that I’ll be happier if she has the things she wants…so I only encourage her to ditch the stuff that she never uses and doesn’t have an emotional attachment to.

19 Richard Williams October 12, 2009 at 11:37 am

I like this quote, which is relevant:

“If being rich is having everything you want, the quickest way to become rich is to want less.”

Christ said it this way:

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” ~ Matt. 8:36

20 Uri October 12, 2009 at 12:14 pm

Fantastic post. I reblogged some of it and linked to this site on http://mnmal.tumblr.com/.

I am a climber and computer geek that believes in minimalism. I’ve been simplifying my life for the past 10 years and it’s been great.

21 Jake October 12, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Sounds pretty common sense to me. I have a fair bit of stuff, tools, sports stuff, games, computer stuff, and I enjoy all of it. I’ve had to work for most of what I’ve had, so I appreciate it.

Turning common sense “don’t buy stuff unless you need it” into some sort of philosophy seems a little extreme to me. My last job was in a factory that was made up mostly of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Africa. I worked there for years, and talked to alot of people… and trust me, not a single person there wished they could move back to their homeland and have less stuff.

22 Cameron Schaefer October 12, 2009 at 1:01 pm

@ Jake,

You’re right, there is definitely an aspect of common sense to minimalism – yet, if it was truly “common” I don’t think we’d see the average American family carrying $8,000 of credit card debt. Now, I’m sure some of those families got into debt for emergencies they could not plan for (another reason to have an emergency fund), but I would say the majority are there because they’ve misidentified wants for needs.

Minimalism isn’t about “returning to the homeland” and it will look different depending on the person. If you truly value all of the stuff in your house and life then great, but I suspect most of us have quite a few things we could live without.

As far as the “philosophy” of minimalism – it’s not necessarily as extreme as it sounds. It’s just a pursuit of wisdom in how to live well with less. It’s not for everybody, but I recommend giving it a try, you might be surprised at how much of your stuff you can happily live without.

23 Joe October 12, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Well said Cam.
Thanks for the challenge. I’ll be chewing on this for a few days. :)

24 Jeff Slobotski October 12, 2009 at 4:37 pm

Great post…we can never lose focus of this line:

Hold on loosely.
At the end of the day its relationships, not possessions, that make life worth living.

Wow…so true and could repeat it to myself everyday!

Keep up the great work!

25 Playstead October 12, 2009 at 5:58 pm

As I get older Tyler Durden’s quote from above makes more and more sense to me:

“The things you own end up owning you.” -Tyler Durden, Fight Club

It’s tough to teach kids good values when we put so much value all the crap we buy.

26 mitchel October 12, 2009 at 6:33 pm

This is by far one of my more favorite articles. After my divorce I noticed how much more enjoyable life was without all the junk around the house and the endless shopping trips, garage sales, and dumpster diving my ex did to get her stuff fix.
My girlfriend and I don’t have TV either and I’m surprised that now, we go to Wal-Mart to get basic essentials but hardly ever need a shopping cart and we go to the grocery store and buy food we enjoy, but we don’t have cupboards of foodstuff containers with dust on them. We sit and enjoy each others company in the evening while playing a board game, reading or just talking.
What more could someone want? Surely not spending all day trying to re-position piles of junk or fretting over credit card bills.

27 Gen Y Investor October 12, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Nice post! I’ve always subscribed to the quality over quantity mantra. I don’t mind having nice things, however it always has to be something I’m going to use. Spend your time and money on your passions and forget the rest. Life’s better that way IMO. This is my first time posting on AOM but it surely won’t be my last… I really enjoy this site.

-Gen Y Investor

28 Robyn October 12, 2009 at 10:00 pm

I love reading this stuff – it is so inspiring. Leo’s site has been so helpful too. Over the years I’ve gone through cycles of accumulation and purging and am now on the biggest minimalism effort in years. Almost everyday, I find something to get rid of. In the last month I’ve sold $640 worth of stuff on Craigslist – and of course all of it cost much more when I first purchased it. But I got some good use out of it and it’s nice to get some cash back and know the items are getting renewed good use with someone else. My condo is actually getting to be too big for me now and I’d love to be in something much smaller…ideally a Westfalia van!
As a backpacker I totally relate to your stories. If I didn’t need it on the trail for 6 months why do I need it now?

29 Nick October 13, 2009 at 8:45 am

You guys do realize that Tyler Durden isn’t real…right?

Give it away, let someone else use it…I mean, what did you really think you were going to do with six Sham-Wow’s and a Snuggie anyway

30 Nik October 13, 2009 at 4:46 pm

I find the idea of minimalism rather appealing, but I know I will never be a Minimalist. I want to reduce the things I have, but I still enjoy consumerism, and I know that I will always want a larger wardrobe than I strictly need and more cooking gear than I need. Sure, 2 knives, 2 pots, a cast iron skillet, a baking sheet and some spoons are probably all you need to cook, but I would much prefer to have a food processor and a wider selection of utensils. I know that I prefer the flexibility of having more variety. On the other hand, I will never purchase an avocado slicer or any of the other completely ridiculous, esoteric gadgets that exist. So, while I understand and sympathize with the idea, I know that I will never be a minimalist. I prefer to be a mediumist.

31 Cowboy Bob October 13, 2009 at 8:34 pm

Similar problems here, too. I have lamented that I have accumulated stuff from (what feels like) past lives, some of at considerable expense. It is in storage for “someday”.

Fortunately, I had been doing some minimizing of my own. Boxes of books on Russian and Soviet history were given to the college, other stuff was ruthlessly thrown out, etc. Sure, I still accumulate, but am much more successful than I was at slowing down the purchases. (Ever notice that if you wait a while, you can talk yourself out of something?) When I get obsessed with something, at least I know what I am doing, and that it will pass, and that helps me limit the clutter and expense.

By the way, Emerson remarked that when Thoreau said, “Simplify, simplify, simplify”, that only one “simplify” would have been sufficient. ;-)

32 Cowboy Bob October 13, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Late thought, sorry, should have added this, too.

The basic process of writing things down on a “to do” list (even simple things like “look up the name of the actress that played opposite John Wayne in “True Grit”) helps unclutter your mind from distracting thoughts so that your astonishing mental powers can be focused on more worthy pursuits.

33 Gryphon MacThoy October 13, 2009 at 11:38 pm

Great article. My mate and I have been doing the same in the past two years. Here are some anecdotes:

Reduce It To Data:
If you have a keepsake that you can’t stand not having, consider taking photos of it or if it’s paper (old letters from your girlfriend?) scan them into images on your computer. Make a DVD or CD (actually, always burn two copies!) of the stuff that used to gather dust. Put it into slideshows. Just have it as the “random images screensaver” so that you still get to randomly come across those old memories. And then relentlessly donate or destroy the physical items.

Dump Old Clothes Like A Cheater:
That old t-shirt that rises a bit too high on your tummy or which is discolored in the armpits is your enemy. So are any socks which dare sport holes. So is a tie that curls, or a shirt collar that won’t come clean.
Repair what you really like and reuse it as much-around clothes. (Imagine and old Armani dress shirt now used to paint in…) Treat business or ‘nice’ clothes like crap once they begin to look like crap. And use them until they are DEAD. (This also means never buying another “work shirt” for outside work. Stitch up the holes and use it until it’s dead.
Once you have too many ‘work clothes’ for fixing the bike and gardening, donate your ‘nice’ clothes to people who need them.

Numbers:
Set a number on anything that you have more than one of. Underwear, T-shirts, sweaters, plates, logoed beer glasses, offensive hats, toy robots, etc. When you impulse buy a new one, you have to get rid of one.

Let Go, Emotionally:
When you get rid of something you’ve been lugging around since your teens, call someone associated with that object and its memories and meanings. Share that old memory with them, and tell them what you are doing. “I’m getting rid of old stuff from the attic. I found our music notes from the band. Man we sounded bad… I’m going to get rid of all the sheet music and stuff, after I scan it all in and put it on my website. Do you want to see it when I’m done?” Tell that story and share those memories ONE LAST TIME, and then finally, really, let it go.

34 cosmic mojo October 14, 2009 at 8:40 am

“Thinking about men I admired”–Do you admire any women? or just people, focusing on their accomplishments, what it is you admire, not what’s dangling between their legs?

35 Louis October 14, 2009 at 9:58 am

Great post!

There is quote from Arts and Crafts designer William Morris that echoes the same theme….

“Keep nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”.

Aslo visit http://www.lawsofsimplicity.com for a more contemporary take on keeping it simple.

36 Omar October 14, 2009 at 12:31 pm

I want to live a minimalist lifestyle. I get overwhelmed mentally with clutter. It affects my life and sleeping habits.

37 Matthew Maier October 15, 2009 at 6:21 pm

“Omit needless things”, “Identify the essential”, “Make everything count.”
These seem pretty redundant. For a philosophy based on the concept of iteratively pruning things down until they are barely adequate could, you know, apply the same process to its instructions.

“Fill your life with joy.”
Is this even something people can be reminded of? It seems like reminding people of something requires that they aren’t obsessively focused on it already. Isn’t the whole point of minimalism that people are trying to fill their lives with joy, but they’re failing at it, and if they try something different they will be more successful?

“Minimalism is…a constant process of editing, revisiting…”
A very good point. Removing the least necessary 10% leaves you with 90%. But after a while you don’t think of it as 90%, but as 100%, and now you have another 10% you can remove. Not to mention that our stuff tends to swell to 110%, which gives us another opportunity to remove 10%.

“Hold on loosely.”
This is probably THE key point, in my mind, that minimalism has to offer. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking or noteworthy about the idea of working with less. In fact, there are strong arguments against it because (by definition) it means you are probably less prepared for emergencies and opportunities (the unexpected in general). But, people are strongly attached to the fantasy that they can solve a problem forever.

To build on the Fight Club reference; no, you can’t “solve that couch problem.” There is no such thing as a couch that will last you for the rest of your life. To generalize the example, all solutions to problems are inherently temporary; they vary only in how long they last. So it’s silly to think that anything in particular is inherently important, because at some point in the future you will have to do without it. That means you can at least relax the compulsion to try to never lose hold of something; the fact that you’ll lose it eventually means that you don’t really have it now.

If I were to add a concept it would probably be:
“Try to go without for a while.”
If you’ve never not had something you don’t actually know whether or not you need it. I didn’t realize that I didn’t need TV until I graduated from basic training. It only took a little more than a month without TV to realize that I actually disliked most of it. From that moment forward I’ve never returned to feeling like I needed TV. The best way to actually figure out what is important to you is to go without what you currently have. Do it experimentally and you will be enriched by the experience.

38 Ken October 17, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Is having a computer minimalist? the internet contains more knowledge than all the libraries put together. But it’s practically not there. So I guess getting to the point, is minimalism just about reducing the things that take up space in your house, or taking things that take up space in your mind as well?

39 Elliot Ness October 18, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Thanks, needed that.

40 Jess Que October 18, 2009 at 10:06 pm

I would highly recommend The Happy Minimalist that came out last year.
The website is http://www.TheHappyMinimalist.net

41 Colin October 19, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Great post. Sometimes I have this temporal issue with Leo’s method though. Using the example of a Victor torch setup I bought on craigslist, the valves, tips, regulators, hoses, and gauges take up a whole drawer in my tool chest yet they’re providing zero value to me right now. I don’t have a current need for them, and I don’t even have the requisite Oxygen and Acetylene tanks that they’re meant to regulate. But they’re big, high quality, and bulletproof, probably the same design that has been used for decades. I paid a fantastic price and I’ll have them for the rest of my life. Being that most people view them the same way, I can’t depend on being able to buy them when my need arises. At that point I’ll have to spend a lot of time searching, researching, and agonizing over what to buy, and I’ll probably end up going to harbor freight for junk that I’ll always be disappointed with. I feel good about my torch setup, but there are plenty of instances when the option is to buy good stuff when you don’t need it, or buy junk just-in-time. Either way you’ve got clutter. Fail.

Am I missing the point? Has anybody come up with a better way to handle these instances?

42 West LA October 20, 2009 at 3:38 pm

To the author of the article:

Your writing will be stronger if you avoid trendy cliches like “at the end of the day”.

Advising others to change their behavior is more effective when you give them insight about what prompts them to do the undesired behavior they want to stop doing, so that they can better neutralize the self-defeating impulse.

Excessive acquisition & clinging to stuff is like over-eating: it is often an attempt to compensate for frustrations — feeling you are unable to get what you REALLY want MOST in your life. (ie, ‘I can’t get THAT, but I can sure get THIS.’)

I disagree with your closing statement:
“its relationships, not possessions, that make life worth living.”
That belief is a set up for profound frustration and disappointment.
Actually it is EXPERIENCES (and your perceptions) which make life satisfying.
Relationships are only one part of all of your experiences.
Relationships require knowing high quality individuals who are available to you over time, and you cannot simply command this element to be in your life.
However, you CAN choose to keep DOING things which are fulfilling.

Relationships are precious & crucial for living your best life, but viewing them as the primary source of making life worthwhile sets you up to enslave yourself.
It’s folly to seek (always, exclusiviely) external solutions for internal problems/needs.
Mindlessly relentless activity & social interactions are no substitute for some introspection and contemplation (contrary to mass media brainwashing).
Relationships can reinforce your desired self-perception and provide a means of manifesting yourself, but you can also do these things (partially) with your habitual thoughts and your independent activities. People are conditioned to rely on others to fulfill needs which they could (at least partially) fulfill for themselves, making them unneccessarily dependent upon other people, much like being emotionall dependent upon their possessions (thus being too acquisitive & clinging for their own good).

43 Annie October 24, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Thank you for a wonderful post! Minimalism and simplicity are an ongoing process, as I have learned with my daughter. There is light at the end of the tunnel: instead of constantly bugging me for more stuff my daughter now brags about how wonderful our life is – and apparently her friends are a bit envious because we may not have a lot of stuff, but what we have is “really cool” – and she has a mom who stays at home to care for her instead of working all of the time out of the home- big feat for a single mom sans boyfriend!

44 Dan Jensen October 25, 2009 at 11:47 am

Hey, “Katherine Taylor”, cool photos. But unfortunately they are also under flickr as “Monica Dickey”. So please stop spam-posting, thank you.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/monicadickey/
http://katherinetaylor.info/

45 Matt October 30, 2009 at 2:54 pm

I loved this post!

I have always used the triangle as a symbol for this type of life. You can see the triangle in objects such as bicycle frames, bridges, air plane parts ect. It is one of the strongest and most supportive shapes with a minimum use of materials. It does a lot with little, but just enough.

46 Noah December 1, 2009 at 10:11 pm

An absolutely life changing book on this topic is “To Have or to Be?” by Erich Fromm. I read it once and filled the dumpster at our old apartment!

47 Becky December 2, 2009 at 6:51 pm

I have built a whole company around the ideas in this article. I could not have written a better article myself. Thanks for making it sound so intriguing and worthwhile. It is very hard for some of my customers to grasp this idea as anything but punishment after collecting mounds and storage buildings full of stuff over a lifetime. My wish is for everyone to understand how wonderful it makes you feel to be organized, have only what you need, and what brings you boundless joy!!

Joyfully, Becky Phillips http://www.OrganizedByBecky.com

48 hailey December 2, 2009 at 7:29 pm

the last one is loaded with allegory and wisdom. thanks

49 Ryan December 6, 2009 at 3:21 pm

The minimalist lifestyle is one I came to realize fits me best not long ago. Awesome article and website!

50 Lindsey @ The Herbangardener December 18, 2009 at 12:31 am

I loved your post! In fact, I read it just after I had placed an order online, and almost contacted the company to cancel it! Almost, because it’s actually a gift-type item I can either use myself, or give away. I think, now, it’s slated for giveaway! :-)

Cheers, and thanks for the inspiring read.

Lindsey @ The Herbangardener

51 Stormbringer March 1, 2010 at 6:22 am

I rediscovered this article when I rediscovered my own article on owning too much junk. From there, I realized that I had linked here. I’ve been reading quite a few Minimalist sites, and have a links page assembled for people who want to pursue it further: Personal Productivity, Simplifying, Minimalism at http://stormbringer005.angelfire.com/gtd.html .

52 Ulf March 7, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Thanks Cameron for filling in a few blanks, it was much needed.

Although having regular purges of bits and pieces I’ve accumulated, has been part of my life since very early on (growing up in cramped quarters may be responsible) and never having needed/wanted many belongings, I’ve never quite gotten to where I want to be. This may have just given me the kick up the backside and the focus I needed – thanks again.

@Mike – thanks for asking, I’m in the same boat.

@Michael – throwing her stuff out is a complete “no-go zone”, you’re right, but what if she’s resisting even some of “my” stuff going? With her it’s a combination of having too many belongings (and not letting go) and at times, total clutter. Tact only gets you this far. Don’t get me wrong, I love her dearly, but it’s tough dealing with it at times. If anybody’s out there who’s successfully mastered this, let me know – I’m listening.

“I’ve also learned that I’ll be happier if she has the things she wants…so I only encourage her to ditch the stuff that she never uses and doesn’t have an emotional attachment to”. What if she wants everything she has and is attached to them too…;-) ???

53 M.A.E.Son December 21, 2012 at 11:06 am

Minimalism helped me in many situations I cannot count. It helps you determine what needs to be done, and what shouldn’t be, what should be kept, and what is to be thrown out. I don’t get how impractical people can be these days. It’s not so important to post what you think you realized on facebook when what really matters is that you live it. It’s such a waste of time. Wearing a black jacket just to look good won’t help make a hot sunny day any cooler. The lengths to which people do for looks and the unnecessary complicate life more than it is.

54 Generation A December 25, 2013 at 7:58 am

This article hit it on head. When one is surrounded by “stuff”, it really does begin to own you. Less truly is truly more.

As an analogy, large lumbering armies have no maneuverability, are expensive to provision, and complicated to use due to the all moving parts of it relying on each other for their success. Then there are the guerillas; small, versatile, adaptable and agile due to the simplicity of the organizational structure. A dedicated guerilla outfit will eventually defeat a lumbering behemoth.

Minimalizm in every aspect is superior to complicated. Great article as always AoM.

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