I have my own definition of minimalism, which is that which is created with a minimum of means. —La Monte Young
Minimalism is a concept that, at least on the surface, seems to run counter-intuitive to the American way of life. Americans are taught that the advantage of freedom and democracy is that we can have more. Each generation should have more than the one preceding it. Consumerism is embedded into our way of thinking. Bigger houses, more cars, more clothes, and more things seem to be the goal of every person in American. To accept any other form of philosophy feels unpatriotic.
If having more is good, though, then try explaining why those who would seem to be the embodiment of American success, middle-aged white men, are killing themselves at an alarming rate? Does having it all leave us feeling as though we have nothing? At the end of the day, just how much stuff do we really need? Could embracing minimalism actually end up giving us more of the things we truly value?
Mind you, I’m speaking of minimalism in the Zen tradition, not necessarily the art style or the fashion of Calvin Klein, Jil Sander, or Miuccia Prada. Minimalism is the practice of having fewer possessions, fewer things around us, so that our lives are more unobstructed by things that are distracting, freeing us to do more with our lives. This isn’t a minimalism born of poverty, but of purpose.
Minimalism Sounds Impossible
There are different approaches to minimalism and one has to make some difficult decisions at times as to exactly what matters. We make decisions about what is most important to us. We know what we need, what things we use more often, what things are required. When we have more than we need, everything else can get in the way.
As I was going through my newsfeed this morning, I found this short video rather inspiring. Take a look:
One might watch that video and think, “That’s Japan. The crowded conditions of limited real estate make having less more of a necessity.” To some degree, that’s true. Those living in apartments don’t need lawn equipment like mowers and trimmers. More people ride bicycles rather than driving cars. Yet, Japan has one of the most consumer-driven economies in the world, after our own. They can manage to squeeze a lot into that little bit of space when they want.
What matters more is the realization that not only do we not need so much stuff, but that our over-abundance may be stifling our creativity, limiting our exercise, endangering our health, and making us less intelligent. Our abject consumerism makes us less active, eat more, read less, and less imaginative. At the most extreme, those who we might refer to as hoarders live in danger of being crushed by all they own.
Having more isn’t necessarily good for us. There are better ways.
Several years ago, I sat in my home office in our nice five-bedroom home just North of Atlanta and realized that we had more than we could manage. The demands of keeping up with the house and the lawn, running three boys to various school and scouting activities, and making sure everything was working properly left us no time to breathe. While that situation did not end as I might have liked, what I learned was that getting by on bare necessities can be a very good thing.
Look around you. How many of the things in your current location do you use every day? Every week? Every month? Are there things you haven’t touched in a year or more? We fool ourselves into thinking we have to keep all those things because we never know when we might need them. While that might be true for the tools of one’s profession, it’s not valid for the 39 pair of shoes or 27 little black dresses in your closet. Why do you have multiple bottles of nail polish when you don’t wear any? How many jogging outfits do you need if you don’t run?
Minimalism actually requires some discipline to not only avoid over-buying but getting rid of the clutter around us. I’m embarrassed when I look at the mess on my desk. From candy wrappers to almost-empty bottles of beer, the clutter is a sign of laziness. I don’t need these things here, I’ve just not bothered to throw them away yet. We generate a lot of trash, which then becomes the clutter that makes our lives a mess.
Ease Into It Gradually
Minimalism sounds like a great idea until you actually start to do it, then it gets scary. Here are some ideas for slowly transitioning to getting by with less.
- Except for formal wear, if you’ve not worn something in the past year it needs to go. The limit on formal wear is five years, max.
- Choose the 14 outfits you wear the most and put them at the front of your closet. Note how often you wear anything outside that set.
- Buy less, buy better. When you do need to purchase something new, make sure it will last so you don’t have to buy often.
- Be generous. Consider giving away everything you’ve not used in the past year.
- Wear less. If you don’t have children in your home, or large glass windows with no covering, go naked. Minimize wear and tear.
- Let go of sentiment. Once towels begin to fray, toss ’em and don’t replace them. Same for shoes and clothes. Let go.
- Generate less garbage. Buy food with minimal packaging, stay away from disposables that linger around the house for months.
- Minimize dinnerware and kitchen utensils. A family of four doesn’t need place setting for 12. You don’t need more pots than you have burners.
- Limit personal grooming items. Look nice, but you don’t need 37 choices of fragrance.
- Unplug everything. If you go two weeks without plugging it back in, consider whether you really need it at all.
As you do this, clean and organize so that what you do have is put away and clutter is minimized. Watch the free space open up.
Enjoy The Benefits
Over the past weekend, we helped the kids sort through their toys, which had become excessive. Things went into three piles: Keep, Giveaway, and Trash. The kids made most the choices, though there was a strict rule that anything broken had to go in the trash pile. Our dumpster is now full, a large bin of give-away toys sits by the curb (feel free to come rummage), and what’s left is a much more manageable collection of toys with which the kids actually play. It’s an important step toward minimalism.
Along the way, as you reduce the number of things around you, you’ll notice other benefits as well. You have more time. You save money. You become more environmentally aware. You might be healthier (especially if you have blood pressure issues). What you do have means more. You feel more relaxed.
There are some caveats. We don’t throw away books, music, or art. Tools one needs for employment get an exemption though they should be able to match the flow of the rest of the house. Children naturally require more, especially in terms of clothing.
Minimalism can change our perspective on life. When I had everything down to what would fit in the backseat of a car, I saw the world very differently than I did sitting in a five-bedroom house. It is possible to have too much. Look around you. Do you really need all that stuff?