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Minimalism Isn't So Minimal

by Jerry Brito of Unclutterer

Minimalism Isn't so minimalAt Unclutterer we often get the same exasperated question from readers: "How little is little enough?" We offer advice on how to trim away every last ounce of clutter and redundancy and useless ornamentation, and I imagine that some readers think, "But I like my ornamentation!" It might seem sometimes that the "minimalism" our site and other sites advocate entails living a barefoot monastic life of want. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Wikipedia tells us that the term "minimalism" has very specific meanings as it describes movements in the arts, including music and literature. When people call themselves minimalists, however, they're probably not referring to how much they like Philip Glass. Instead, they mean they consciously choose to do with less things than they could otherwise have, usually because it brings them peace of mind. To this point, Wikipedia only has one sentence: "The term 'minimalist' is often applied colloquially to designate anything which is spare or stripped to its essentials." That colloquial meaning deserves exploration.

Being a minimalist is not about monasticism. If you are an audiophile and love your collection of hundreds of vinyl records, then an article about decluttering your space by digitizing all your music probably won't have much appeal to you. Much less will the suggestion that you really don't need all those LPs. Demurring that advice is fine because there is nothing incompatible between minimalism and consumerism. If you love your LPs, getting rid of them in the name of minimalism and simplicity would be wrong, and we would never ask you to do that.

To me, consumerism -- defined as consumption beyond one's basic needs -- is not an evil in and of itself. I don't need all the clothes I have, and I certainly don't need a DVD player and movie collection to live a satisfied life, but those things make me happy and give me enjoyment, so I think that they're fine to have. Living beyond one's basic needs becomes a problem only when the accumulation of property becomes a source of stress rather than enjoyment. Unfortunately, I think finding balance is difficult for many because purchasing and accumulating can be effortless, while planning ahead and organizing takes effort.

Choosing to live simply is trying to find balance in order to enjoy what one does have and to avoid becoming overwhelmed by clutter. It means consciously choosing to have fewer things, but knowing that what you do have will be of high quality and truly worth cherishing.

The minimalism we espouse, therefore, does not require monasticism, but rather advocates getting rid of (or preferably avoiding) distractions that prevent us from enjoying a modern, luxurious life. It's about smart consumption, not no consumption.

Clutter happens when you have too much stuff. We're all guilty of acquiring more possessions than we need simply because we can. Sometimes a deal is just too good to pass up. Sometimes we buy something to make us feel better. And sometimes that new knick-knack just seemed like a very good idea at the time -- but in retrospect, what were we thinking?

Connie Cox and Cris Evatt in 30 Days to a Simpler Life share a simple maxim that was a revelation when I first read it. Never let anything cross the threshold of your home unless it's something that you know you need or that you know you will love and cherish for a long time to come. That bobble-head you got for free for filing up your gas tank doesn't count. Neither do pasta machines, breadmakers, or ice cream makers in most cases. Before you buy anything, ask yourself, do you really need it? Is it a replacement for something you're throwing out? Is it another black sweater? Or is it something you don't already have?

If you're just buying yourself a treat to reward yourself or cheer yourself up, consider a consumable, such as a nice meal. Or, if you're watching your figure, how about a movie or a concert? How about downloading some music or getting a massage or manicure? You get the picture. The idea is to not let anything into your home that won't serve a purpose while nonetheless avoiding a monastic life. It takes some conscious effort, but it's rewarding when you come home to a serene space.

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Bravo...well said

Thank you for a well thought out article. As a mother of four children, I wanted to add my two cents: I love the idea of giving children experiences rather than things. At some point, our home doesn't need another plastic object from Target. I would much rather have my children experience something worthwhile, like a visit to a museum, a park, or an interesting restaurant; music, art or horseback riding lessons; a hike, a long bike ride, or a chance to pick the next movie from the Netflix queue. A rich life is one full of rich experiences. Yes, I love and have no problem indulging my need for my creature comforts. I am not into austerity. But, I pick and choose things that truly bring me joy. Sometimes, that means waiting to buy what I really want, instead of an inferior substitute. (Our family spent ten months saving up for the leather sofa and chair that caught our eye last fall.) Sometimes, that means buying one fantastic thing that makes my heart sing, rather than two or three items that merely suffice. Sometimes, that means choosing a shorter experience---a few days in a four star hotel, versus a week in a Days Inn.

In the end, I find this truth self evident: the more content I am as a person, the more I care for myself excellently, giving myself rest when I'm tired; quality food when I'm hungry; exercise for energy; pampering when I'm wrung out; solitude when I'm frazzled, the less material stuff I need to feel whole.

I first dove into minimalism/simplicity 12 years ago, a refreshing change from four years at a private, elite university, where the one with the most (luxury) goods wins.

Ough. Sorry for the double

Ough. Sorry for the double post.

I've tried to post a comment

I've tried to post a comment before, but something went wrong. An attempt to recreate it below:

Very nice article. I especially like the last paragraph, it is something that I recently learned.

After reading a post about keeping only 100 things on Unclutterer, I decided to give my room a major overhaul. I've thrown lots of stuff away and even more up for sale. Now my room is so empty, and so open, I love it! I never want to clutter it again (although I know that to some point that is inevitable).

Besides removing stuff I never or barely use, I also tried to get rid of as many ugly things as possible. I think that when you're surrounded by beautiful objects, it inspires you to make beautiful things.

- Sijmen

Very nice article. I

Very nice article. I especially like the last paragraph - it's basically what Unclutterer has learned me.

After reading that post on keeping only 100 things, I decided to do a major overhaul of my room. With success. I've thrown quite some old stuff away, put even more up for sale, and now it's so empty an clean.

The emptiness and openness inspire me.

Also, I've decided to keep only (what I think is) beautiful stuff. Every time I walk into my room and see the beauty that's in it, like my furniture, Powerbook, Wii.

I think that being surrounded by things you find beautiful makes you even more motivated and inspired to make beautiful things yourself.

Beauty doesn't have to be phyiscal or even art, instead, you can write beautiful things or make beautiful programs or code.

That makes me happy. Thanks to LifeRemix!

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