I watched The Minimalists recently. The subjects of the film – Josh and Ryan – have praised the benefits of minimalism, and documented their own minimalist journey, through their blog for many years. The movie sparked something in me that I hadn’t been thinking much about lately. After the documentary was over, I glanced around my spartan rental home and started to notice all kinds of old and useless (to me) stuff that was taking up space. Books I hadn’t touched in years. Clothes I hadn’t worn in ages. Food that we would never eat.
So began another round of purging.
I lugged three big ’ole trash bags of books I don’t need and clothes that don’t fit over to Goodwill last week. I posted a few things of value on eBay. It’s true, someone out there wants your junk! Case in point, the person who just paid $35 (+ shipping) for my 3-year old laptop messenger bag. Food-wise, we skipped going to Costco this week, opting to eat down our growing horde of staples (still working on that 20-pound bag of brown rice and pack of 20 apples).
I’ve always considered myself a simple person. At some points more than others. During my early twenties, I lived like a monk, well below my means and invested as much as I possibly could. As I began my 30’s and got married, I bought a big house, furnished the entire thing and splurged on a fancy German-made car and nicer clothes. Then, as quickly as the buying spree began, it all ended. I realized that I was living someone else’s life, not my own.
I left my corporate career behind, sold my car, gave away half my stuff, rented out my home and traveled the world. I lived out of a backpack while traveling abroad for six months. Then, returning state-side, my home was a Subaru station wagon while crisscrossing the USA visiting national parks (with my wife and two dogs of course!) for about nine months.
The upshot of all this travel was that it forced me to downsize for good. It’s one thing to travel for a weekend with a small suitcase. It’s an entirely different thing to live like that for many months on end. One of the fringe benefits of extended travel is that it makes it obvious what things are important and what things are frivolous, the principal benefit of any minimalist pursuit. Minimalism isn’t about getting rid of stuff. It’s about focusing on what is important. It just so happens that doing the former makes the later easier.
Perhaps we should be talking about “essentialism” instead of minimalism!
Even still, it is remarkable how stuff builds up and accumulates over time. It’s very hard to live the life of a minimalist in today’s world. Our economy runs on consumption. Advertising is designed to tug at our emotional heartstrings. Holidays and birthdays make it obligatory to buy things to give to others (does cousin Bob need the fifteenth pair of socks or yet another board game?).
Even digital goods are conspiring against us. Do you ever have trouble staying focused at work? Do you find yourself checking Facebook and Twitter without realizing you are even doing it? Do you pull out your phone to check for messages, as if your arm and fingers are beyond your control?
If you say yes to any of these things, you are not alone. The reason this happens is that the digitial products are not just tempting and attractive, they are designed to be addictive! That’s right, digital goods, just like many foods and other physical goods, are designed to capture your attention at any cost. There are armies of super smart people creating experiences that will be so enthralling, that they will hook you for good.
So then, how do we maintain a sense of focus on what matters, without wasting time and money on things that don’t?
Here are six things that have helped me to live with less and be happier in the process.
1) Spark joy
Marie Kondo burst onto the scene with a simple philosophy and story around tidying up. Is tidying up a life-changing experience? Ms. Kondo thinks so, and her book has practical tips to help even the worst hoarder. One of the strategies she employs is the notion of challenging yourself only to keep things around that “spark joy.” Kondo’s advice is to hold the item in your hands and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” If the answer isn’t an emphatic “YES”, then you should get rid of the item. It might sound corny, but it’s a worthwhile exercise. Not only will you end up getting rid of a ton of stuff. You will also remind yourself of the things you enjoy. Surround yourself with things that give you joy, and get rid of the rest!
2) Get one. Give one.
When I acquire new things, I give something away. Get a new book? Donate one that has been collecting dust on my bookshelf. Get a new pair of pants? Get rid of an old pair. No sense in holding onto stuff…it just makes it harder to move around. Also, we are renting a small (800 square foot) home right now. There isn’t space for extra things. The next time you buy something, force yourself to give a similar item you currently have away. This is an important habit if you wish to free up your life. You will, over time, find that you accumulate only the essential things of quality, without the cruft.
3) Giveaway box
If out of sight is out of mind, in sight is – top of mind! Keep a cardboard box somewhere visible in your home. This is your “giveaway” box. Boxes are better than trash bags since you can quickly glance into the box and notice what is in there (or not). Make it a point to add stuff to the box whenever you notice something in your possession that you don’t need or use anymore. You might choose to have two boxes, one for giving away and one for selling. Challenge yourself to fill up the boxes every few weeks!
4) Money-making challenge
Can you pay for your next vacation based on money you make selling things you no longer need on Ebay? In the past few years, I’ve sold a MacBook Pro (super old one), an XBOX 360 and games, various electronic gadgets, a backpack and more. You would be amazed at the number of people out there who would LOVE to have your used stuff (and pay you for it!). I still have about $1000 worth of things I need to sell on eBay this year. Sure, it takes some time to take the photos and put up the listings. However, if you turn it into a game with a goal at the end (e.g. use the money from your sales for a fun purpose), you will be more motivated to do it. If you have kids, you can ask them to do the work and split the profits with you!
5) It’s your money or your life
Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez wrote one of the early books sparking the minimalist movement, Your Money or Your Life. The thesis of their book is that you can either make a living or make a life. You have a choice, but that choice requires an understanding of how your lifestyle and spending habits create a necessity to work harder and harder (to earn more and more) to buy things. If you can gain clarity over the life you want to live, you will find that you need less money than you think to afford that lifestyle. Do you know how much money you need to retire? Do you know how much earlier you could retire if you lowered your expenses by 10, 20 or 30% per year? When you realize that loose spending habits might be costing you many years of care-free retirement, you will be far more motivated to simplify your lifestyle.
I think meditation is a silver-bullet for those who struggle with consumption of any kind. Much of consumerist behavior is based on emotional triggers and not actual need (again, I’ll echo the point that the companies hire armies of people to devise ways to trigger your emotional desires). How can we create more space around our emotions, so we are no longer the tail being wagged by the dog? Mindfulness and meditation practices are highly effective at helping all of us to regain a sense of clarity regarding what we want vs. need. With a consistent meditation practice, you find that you want less, and cherish things of value more.
Minimalism by itself isn’t important.
What’s important is the focus on living a life full of things and actions that create joy. It just so happens that our stuff can get in the way of our capacity to connect with the things that matter. Our need for more stuff can also keep us working harder and harder just to make enough money to get by. The real value in minimalism is in reconnecting with what living well means for you. Figure out what you enjoy, keep those things and jettison the rest. Use the tips in this post to help.
If you have struggled (or had success) with adopting a more simple and minimalist lifestyle, let me know in the comments. I would love to hear from you!
I love this article! As I ready my house to sell, I realize now how much “stuff” I have accumulated with four children. They are now grown, but I am sentimental with many of their items from childhood. I also have my parents possessions to dispose of or find a home for, which is also a struggle. It definitely weighs one down! I do give away items that are still useful. Even old sheets and towels can be donated to animal shelters and home items such as cabinet pulls and light fixtures can be given to Habitat. I am trying to scale down to live in a smaller place and appreciate the great advice! Thanks!
I accumulated so much on my own, I can’t image how much I would have gathered with a house full of kids! Nice work on finding worthy causes to use your stuff.
Great post! It really is so easy to fall into the habits of consumption. I find it even more difficult with kids, fending off their desires while making a run through Target. Don’t even get me started if we have to go through the mall! Donations are huge for us but we could do more. Love the idea to sell on Craigslist for a family goal. Thx for the great insights!
I’ve gotten into a good groove selling things on craigslist…it’s so easy!