We got through 2020 together, apart, struggling or just okay. But maybe you still have a little bit of new year motivation to take on some goals (resolutions, habits, whatever you want to call them). If so, I challenge you to direct your whoosh of initiative-taking energy into minimalism!
Minimalism is about decluttering your life of excess material things and obligations.
My first introduction to the concept of being a minimalist was sort of by chance. During our old church going days, my brother’s youth pastor had announced that he was leaving the profession, packing up everything and moving across the country to start a completely different career. I was intrigued so I looked into what he was doing next. That’s when I heard about his 2010 book, “Simplify,” by Joshua Becker, one of his first books about minimalism.
Becker became one of the early pioneers of what is understood as minimalism today, and his book explained it succinctly: having less material possessions and not acquiring more things over time is the basic principle to more time and freedom in today’s consumeristic world. Other principles involved choosing to have a smaller sized home, getting rid of financial debt and living without a car. To learn more about all this you should check out his website Becoming Minimalist. I especially remember and really liked what Becker calls “rational minimalism,” a practical and customizable approach to living with less that matches your values…and square footage.
My own practice of rational minimalism has not come naturally or easily since learning about it from Becker’s book and subsequent other books about a decade ago. At the height of it I was downsizing my family’s home and spending countless hours churning through decades worth of accumulated belongings. Each season of the year I go through my inventory of things to minimize more. I know it’s a practice that must be ongoing because some accumulation of new things is inevitable, so revisiting it consistently is a must. This especially became a necessity after moving to New York City from Vermont, which meant a significant shrinking of my real estate footprint.
Here’s what I’ve learned along the way and why I think you should consider being minimalist too:
No. 1 Our mortality is 100% guaranteed.
There is beauty and motivation in the understanding that our time on this planet is finite and unpredictable. Considered a taboo topic, we don’t talk about dying a lot. But there is also the risk of leaving your loved ones to deal with all the stuff you’ve accumulated, many things that were saved for that rainy day that never came. And because I’ve been on the short-stick-end of dealing with inherited clutter and an overabundance of things, this is my number one personal reason in vowing to continue the practice of minimalism.
My mother passed away when I was in my mid-20s. In the aftermath I was left with the predicament of what to do with her belongings. And there was a lot. She used a fairly large walk-in closet of the master room fully as her own. It was packed so densely with clothing that I’d have to lean my entire body weight into creating a gap big enough to hang something up or take it down. She had a tendency to keep things “just-in-case”, borderline hoarding. Even my old high school sweaters and shirts worn when I was a teenager were found secretly hidden in the depths of her suburban closet.
What became the bane of my existence when dealing with her stuff were items from the Christmas Tree Shops, Marshalls and Crate&Barrel. Those stores were her shopping Achilles. Cheap decor made abroad filled different sections of our home, sharing fire mantel and prime shelf spaces alongside our old elementary school awards, scatterings of old framed photos and my brother’s middle school clay art sculptures. The kitchen cabinets were overfilled with multiple sets of dessert dishes, more tea mugs than we ever had guests, and a separate set of special event dishes above the laundry machines because there wasn’t space for them in the kitchen. Glass-paned cabinets in another room displayed more expensive “overflow pieces” that were more unique in design or had been deemed really pretty in some way to my mother. She cherished her collection. She didn’t use a lot of them most of the time, but she’d touch them sometimes and they brought her joy. I cringe remembering I had gifted her several of her displayed pieces on birthdays and mother’s day, feeding her hobby of collecting nice dishware.
That’s just clothes, decor and dishware. I won’t get into what was in the basement. As a professional cellist, my mother also had been using a space meant to be a dining room as a music studio, which was filled with various musical instruments (which I sold over Craigslist), tubs of vintage classical records (I sold in bulk to a guy from Jersey for $300) and sheets of classical music (unresolved…).
From 2014 I was flying up from New York almost every long weekend or holiday week over the course of more than five years. I put in long hours organizing, cleaning, donating, and throwing out things. It has taken years off my life to clean out a lifetime of her things.
There are 300,000 items in the average American home (LA Times). Our house may have been double that figure. Looking back at all the things I sorted through, I can tell you they were not commercially valuable. Yet they were so numerous in quantity. The things I didn’t find personal value in myself I would try and gift to others from my mother’s life who would value it, which took extra time. What I could sell, I did eventually over time. This was truly an immense task and one I don’t wish anyone else to deal with in their lives. I look back on this with a sense of accomplishment and fulfilled duty, but also with a knot of resentment and disdain for the part of my mother’s personality or lifestyle that let this happen.
As of late last year, and after three large yard sales, multiple full van-loads to Goodwill and what felt like endless trash bins, it’s almost over. This past summer I was also forced to clean out the rest of my own belongings from my childhood home. This last run-through included the toughest categories I have avoided: photos, home videos, music, and items with emotional value. Sorting through these items isn’t just minimizing stuff, but an act of salvaging what I have of my heritage, memories of my mother, and family history. Some plastic tubs are marked to keep for future children: Korean traditional outfits and the children’s books written in Korean. These really important keep-for-later items that cannot be squeezed into my 650 square foot Brooklyn apartment ended up in safe spots thanks to really good people in my life. They’re safe, but still a burden – an unfinished task for me to go take these items back sooner than later.
I implore you to tackle your categories of minimizing now, during this pandemic, if you find you have time or need for a new project. A highly recommended and healthy resource for approaching certain categories over time, especially if you’re in your 60s, is the book: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, by Margareta Magnusson.
If you’re convinced, skip to the bottom. Otherwise, continue onwards for more reasons for adopting minimalism:
No. 2 Clutter and too much stuff is creating stress and anxiety…
and is overall bad for my health. Read The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter. I suffer from general anxiety disorder so minimalism is also a way for me to battle those demons. A clear surface, an organized room, and overall owning less stuff means less for me to be anxious about.
No. 3 Having more things or spaces is a real time sucker.
This thought occurs to me every time I might look at a product online or touch a sweater I’m considering buying at a shop. How much do I really need or love this? If it loses value within a few years, how annoying will it be to try and resell it or even coordinate to give it away? All of my things accumulated together also make for X number of moving boxes when it comes time to pack up and go again.
No. 4 The physical work of minimizing things can be cathartic and sometimes fun.
That’s right, I said “fun.” Read How to De-Clutter Your Life, the Anya Hinmarch Way for some neat strategies. There are also many professional organizers on instagram if you search for them.
No. 5 Giving away things one-at-a-time helps to connect me with my community.
I’ve been connecting with neighbors during the pandemic (mostly virtually) to give away things through the Buy Nothing Group and even those small interactions can be really fulfilling. If you do it strategically you can also get some exercise, run errands and be a superwoman like me all in one go. You’ll also find that you begin resisting the consumerist urge to buy something new, which contributes to a more sustainable planet and a curb on your spending habits – read more at this blog post. There’s also a lovely article about The Buy Nothing group in the San Francisco-based online magazine The Bold italic.
No. 6 I try not to buy my friends or family any stuff and it feels good to be intentional.
Referring to no. 1, I just don’t want to be encouraging what happened with my mother’s things. However beyond this personal reason, I find that my friends and I just don’t buy each other things on the regular – not for holidays or for birthdays. I make it clear to friends that my gifts of love come in the form of intentional scheduling of catch-up video calls (these days) or coordinating fun outings, meals or work out sessions together (pre-covid). When I am gifting things to friends in those more unique moments of life (giving birth to or adopting a human, getting married, being a frontline worker during the first pandemic we’ve had in a century), I hope it is something useful, healthy or experiential (running, a super cool looking plant, a gift card to a local restaurant). During holidays, part of our family has started to use a secret santa system so you’re only paired with one person for gift giving (which can be in any form – dark chocolates, donation to your favorite charity of choice, an ebook.)
No. 7 I canceled my Amazon Prime account as of the end of 2020.
It has helped curb random spending (and accumulation of stuff). Once you do this, you’ll be forced to wait until you have enough items adding up to enough to get free shipping. In my own wait time, I often realize I don’t need it anymore. Goodbye random spending of my hard earned cash. And why did I ever think I needed anything delivered to me within 12-24 hours?
No. 8 Minimalism is good for the environment.
When I buy less new stuff, I’m choosing not to participate in the production of products and the supply chains that come with it.
Other Minimalism Resources:
Whoever is preaching the message to live with less these days, everyone is saying the same thing in different ways. There are two best friends, Josh and Ryan, who call themselves “The Minimalists.” Their original documentary, The Minimalists, from 2016 features a lot of authors and first pioneers in the modern day minimalist lifestyle movement, like Becker. The film is more of a visual essay in convincing you why minimalism is a good thing and consumerism is not, with a scattering of real world examples of folks who put it into practice in their lives.
But you can honestly skip their original documentary if you plan to watch their new one, released in 2021. Minimalism, Less is Now examines the psychological connections between growing up in poverty and an environment of lacking “stuff.” This film features personal finance guru Dave Ramsey, Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard and the Director of the Foundation for Economic Education T.K. Coleman. Josh and Ryan repeat their personal history and narratives again in this film, so heads up if you’re watching this one right after their original documentary. This time, however, they do a good job at connecting the dots to American society a little bit more directly. The high level answers to the “why” and the “what” of minimalism are here. They also have a podcast, check them out!
If you’re ready to go further and want to be inspired to tackle a specific project, I suggest you watch Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. This series does well with both the visual transformations and the emotional challenges of downsizing our households. I’ve taken some methods from Kondo’s approach, but not all, so don’t think there are any hard rules with her way of doing things.
My next posts will be going through categories of things I’ve already minimized. I’ll wrap up these series with what I still have left to tackle, the toughest categories. And as a bonus I’ll post some details I’ve learned about what I consider the most ultimate minimalism goal: writing a final will & testament.
Feel free to pick and choose what makes sense for you to try out in your own life now. I promise you it’s a game changer.