If you think that to be a minimalist you’d have to sell, donate and throw out everything you own, except for your Tibetan Matcha Bowl and your toothbrush, then relax. I’m not going to try and convince you to do that (unless that’s the conclusion that you come to on your own after reading this, in which case all the best!). Instead, my intention is to get you to answer this question for yourself with a series of exercises. So first of all, we’re going to put on our yoga gear and do some stretching… I’m just kidding, they’re mental exercises.
Here’s the thing, we live in a society that is driven by consumption, and we are always encouraged to consume more and more. Setting aside for a moment the economic sustainability of such a system on a planet with finite resources, let’s simply consider one thing. Does this make us happy? A lot of our lives are spent working, and a lot of the money we earn is then spent on material possessions: a bigger house, a better phone, a newer car, fresher trainers, nicer clothes… but are these things more valuable to us than our time? Inevitably some people simply wouldn’t know what to do with their life if they didn’t spend most of it working, but there are also a lot of people who spend their whole lives saying “I wish I had time to do this, or that”, which one day becomes “I wish I’d made time to do…”. Whether it’s travelling, spending quality time with loved ones, learning a language or to play a musical instrument, to paint or to write poetry. A lot of our wishes could become reality, if only we’d make the space in our life for them.
And it is that ‘space’ that best describes minimalism, for me. Decluttering isn’t just about clearing out physical things, but time-dependent things too. Some physical things do take time and energy that could be dedicated elsewhere, requiring cleaning, maintenance, or by being a source of distraction in our lives (as is often the case with mobile phones, social media and game consoles). You see, for me minimalism isn’t necessarily about an aesthetic, creating a Feng Shui home, or even necessarily about showing consumerist culture the middle-finger (though it’s certainly a part). It’s about life; A life that inevitably ends with – you guessed it – death. Steve Jobs said, “Remembering you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”
It’s an interesting thought, but actually I keep death very present in my thinking and it reminds me that I have everything to lose, or at least a whole life to spend poorly if I don’t keep check of what’s important. I wish to live a life of meaning, of discovery, creativity and to savour the moments of positive interaction with other people, with nature, and with myself. And it is here than having too many ‘things’ can alienate us from what is important, from other people, and even from ourselves.
The danger is that we value things more than people, and that we lose who we are in what we own. If you woke up tomorrow and everything you own was gone: your house or flat, your clothes, watch, mobile phone, books, car or motorbike… everything. Who would you be? Do you even know who you are? Or do the ‘things’ around you save you from asking that question?
In 2017, I had a suitcase full of my favourite clothes stolen from my car, a week after leaving a flat I couldn’t afford (with nowhere else to go), finishing my uni degree and breaking up from a 6+ year relationship a month prior. The particular cocktail of attachment-breaking and termination of potentially identity-consitutitng elements of life was almost like a catapult into minimalist thinking. I’m not a student anymore, cool. Single for the first time since I was 15, alright. But my clothes, man?! Those clothes represented me. Designs about veganism, reggae music, peace and spirituality… they were my expression, like tattoos are for many.
However, I found it surprisingly easy to detach from those clothes, despite them being so representative of my beliefs and passions. Without them I remained the same person, perhaps more certain of who I am inside without needing to express it so explicitly to the outside world. At the end of the day, I don’t need validation from others, or even to give others the impression that they can know me through such superficial (surface-deep) and ultimately unimportant signifiers. Without them, I didn’t even have a self-imposed idea or expectation of who I am, or who I think I am, to live up to. I could just be me, limitless and undefinable. You know, now is a good time to drop the cliché “less is more”. Well hell, ain’t that the truth.
So anyway, to get back on track… If you are interested in living a more minimalistic life, don’t worry. The idea is only to empty enough physical and mental clutter from your life to fill that void with passion, love and enjoyment. There’s a series of steps you can do to start the process…
Firstly, you can clear out your wardrobe and all those drawers of things that ‘might come in handy one day’. With each item, really ask yourself if you need it, if you have used or worn it in the last three months, and if you will use or wear it in the next three. Also ask yourself, “Does this add value to my life? Does it serve an important function, or bring me joy?” Of course, some things – like a screwdriver – don’t often offer us much joy, but may be used on a regular basis and do add value to our lives by helping us fix things, so it’s important to bear both elements in mind. On the flip side, some things’ only purpose in our life is to evoke a positive emotional response, which is also worth keeping around.
It is with those sentimental things that it can be even more important to really reflect and be mindful of their meaning to you. Is that present sat in the drawer from your grandmother only there because it’s from her, and not because you actually like it or plan to use it? If that’s the case, you love your Gran. Give her a call (if you can, of course), see how she is. Ask her if she’d mind if you took it to a local charity shop as you don’t really use it. Maybe she has a particular charity she’d like you to give it to (here is a list of ones that don’t animal test). Explain, if you need to, that you’re trying to clear out a few things and focus of the things that really matter, and since she’s clearly one of them why don’t you plan a trip to see her?
This is just an example of one of the biggest first steps you can take; to break free of the sentimentality attached to things, to find the value in the intention and in your relationship with the person, and not in the thing itself. And also the way you can go about express to others your desire to own less things.
Every journey begins with just one step
My first action (for intention will stay as just that without taking the first action, however small) was to sort through my clothes and donate to charity any clothes that I hadn’t worn in a while, as well as any items laying around in drawers that time had proven to be simply superfluous. This required breaking through the barrier of ‘someday’ and ‘come in handy’, and to base decisions on the amount an item had been used so far, not on trying to sell myself the idea that I’ll use or wear it ‘someday’.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but I get a buzz from cleaning and organising that really motivates me to carry that energy forward into something creative or productive, like this blog. If you feel a bit of a buzz after clearing out and decluttering, let me know in the comments!
Another element of the decluttering stage, is also to take a look at the people in your life. While some will be screwdrivers, always there to lend a hand, and others bring you joy and happiness, you may find there are some people who are like a piece of Lego that you keep stepping on that hasn’t been the source of any fun or happiness in a long time. To carry on the metaphor, maybe they’re even a piece of Lego that doesn’t fit with any of the other pieces in your life, so you just end up frustrated trying to make it fit. Declutter that sh*t.
The Minimalists (they have an awesome podcast) have a great saying: “You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you”. Think about it. Personally I’ve decluttered A LOT of people over the years, and with no hard feelings (at least on my part!). I just treat it the same as with other things; I make space for the more important things, for the people that do add value to my life, that bring me joy. Let’s not be selfish about it either. It goes without saying that people go through hard times and often need your help when they have nothing to offer in return, but in the long term you can work out if that relationship has been mutually beneficial and symbiotic.
On my personal minimalist journey, my end goal is a more mindful existence; to be surrounded by things that bring me joy and add real value to my life. To free myself from over-consumption and the excessive sale of my time and energy that it would require, in order to have greater ownership and agency over my life, to spend it on the things – and with the people – that are truly important to me.