Owning more stuff doesn’t make you happier. In a world where the consumer economy is booming and people go on a shopping spree to reward themselves, some people are starting to break through the mold and think differently.
Somehow, somewhere, we started to associate materials with happiness. It makes sense in the short run. When you buy a nice new dress or a cool new game, you get to own, to use something new. That feels good. It’s innate.
However, when you toggle the switch to ‘long term’, you see how silly materialism really is. So you bought 8 new pairs of shoes in 2018? How lovely! Will they make you happy ten years from now? Will their presence be a constant source of happiness for the years to come? Or will you get enough utility out of them to warrant the extra purchase? Or to phrase it differently: Will they actually change your life in any significant way?
Minimalism is simple. If you’re buying an object and the answer to the questions above is no, then don’t buy it.
Let’s delve into the subject together. At the end, we’ve included a list of do’s and don’ts to help you get started.
Live with meaning, and without clutter
Minimalism doesn’t require every object to have ‘meaning’. For example, you need a spoon to eat with. Does the spoon improve you as a person, contribute to your long-term well-being, bring you joy (“Ah, my dear, dear spoon!”), or do any other fancy self-help stuff? It doesn’t. But it does provide enough utility to warrant the purchase. In other words, it’s worth the space and money. It’s important.
But if you buy a new set of cutlery because it’s cute, the answer to all qualifying questions above will, in all likelihood, be no.
So you need to determine which questions are the right ones, and ask them to yourself before making any purchase – or before throwing stuff out (decluttering).
Now, decluttering is a whole another subject. It deserves an article of its own. However, since it’s so closely connected with minimalism we’ll skim through it in this piece. You need to know about decluttering from a minimalism aspect in order to get the basics right.
Decluttering means, in simple words, throwing stuff out. Specifically, stuff you don’t need. The emphasis there is on ‘need’. Need doesn’t mean ‘want’. Normally when we declutter, we throw out all the stuff that we can’t or won’t use. However, if you have five pairs of leggings and you use them all, ideally you’d still give away at least one of those when striving for minimalism.
It sounds painful, but it’s simply what you signed up for. Minimalism is about…less. As little as possible, almost. The average person can do perfectly with just 2-3 pairs of leggings or jeans, so when decluttering you need to keep staples that you can (and do) use every day, that match most tops and are suitable for most occasions.
Simple living and minimalism – what’s the link?
People often use ‘simple living’ and ‘minimalism’ interchangeably. If you’ve read about the former in detail, you’ll know that it’s quite different from minimalism. However, there are some distinct similarities – which might explain the confusion.
Personally, I think of simple living as an umbrella term or category, with minimalism being one aspect of it. After all, simple living refers to so much – your hobbies, your network, your habits, the products you use – while minimalism tends to focus solely on ‘stuff’. Minimalism doesn’t by definition include your social life, your work and other such areas. It tends to focus exclusively on conscious consumption, and although you can branch out to different aspects they wouldn’t come under minimalism anymore.
If you think another way, simple living might be the next level, after minimalism. The latter is simple – you just cut down on your consumption of products and throw out what you don’t need. Simple living, however, is a bit more complicated…while being very simple at the same time. It’s just…simple living. It’s living simply, cutting out all complications, all negativity, all drama, everything you don’t need and/or which doesn’t add real value to your life (‘real value’ is a subject for another time). You could say it’s the intermediate step between minimalism and spirituality.
Simple living is how to live with meaning. It takes us back to our roots while opening our eyes to the many possibilities life offers. What’s the goal of our life? Is it reproducing? Making friends? Going on adventures? Being remembered? Do any of these actually (again, a topic for another time) make us happy? Do we really need to do any of these, or is it something society requires of us? The answers are often shocking.
Books about simplifying life
Some people learn best from videos and podcasts, while some others prefer written media such as blog posts and books. While blog posts are great for short pieces, books are unbearably the best resource when it comes to a lengthy discussion or guide. A blog series is a great substitute, but it does entail going online and checking for an update every few days. If you need to look something up, you’ll need to scroll through many posts. Books are simpler in this respect.
If you’re a book person and are looking for books about simplifying life, I’d recommend ‘The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life’ by Leo Babauta. It’s an excellent book which covers the basics of minimalism, delves into its philosophy, and lists many tips and insights the author has learned over the years. Leo Babauta also has a blog where he’s posted much of this information, so think of the book as a condensed version of the blog.
I found this book helpful while starting out on minimalism, and then as I started to understand minimalism, I could put the book aside and be confident I knew what had to be done. They say books should regularly be re-read, however, so I’ve slated it for a re-read in 2021. Who knows, maybe I’ll need it again. It’s certainly a pleasant read.
There are many other books on this subject – some focused on philosophy, some others are humorous. Some are short, some are long. Some bestsellers, others undiscovered gems. So look around to find what works for you, and read it through – and then re-read it.
Setting short and long-term goals
If you want to measure results, you need to set goals. I’d suggest going with a monthly goal, and then one for three months and six months. Some people prefer weekly or even daily goals so you’re constantly seeing the progress you’ve made, but I think having too many goals complicates things. With minimalism, we want the opposite. Simple is good.
Cut out visual clutter (start decluttering; more in the section below). Resist impulse buys and ‘rewards’. Form a habit. Review what changes you’ve made.
Change your rewards system to something more sustainable. Re-evaluate your financial situation if needed. Consider re-reading the minimalist living book.
Think (briefly) about what you want from life. Do you want to take the next step and try simple living? Are you happy with the level of minimalism you’ve achieved? What changes, if any, do you need to make?
Do’s and don’ts to get started
Okay, so now you’ve understood what minimalism is, and you’ve set some goals. Ready to get started? I bet you are. Here are some do’s and don’ts that’ll serve as a crash course. I’d suggest sticking to these for six months, and by then you’ll have an idea of what aspects of minimalism you like and dislike, what you’re doing perfectly and what you need to work on further. Your long-term goals should be based on that analysis.
THINGS TO DO
– Make a list of what you need
What do you genuinely need? If you have something that fulfils a purpose, don’t buy another thing that fulfils the same (or a similar) purpose. Groceries go on the list, as do items needed for healthcare, hygiene, repair and maintenance. Ask yourself the consequences of not buying something. That will help you understand whether it’s really necessary. Consider switching to reusable options where possible to cut down on purchases.
– Help yourself overcome temptation
Shopping is addictive, and going cold turkey is difficult. So give yourself some help – delete the Amazon app from your phone, disable email notifications about offers, delete shopping-related bookmarks from your browser. Make it easy for yourself to forget about shopping, and harder to go out and buy things. Make a weekly routine to buy necessities from a grocery store near you. Delete your credit card info from sites, so impulse buys require you to dig out the card and enter everything again. One extra second is all you need to change your mind.
– Discard three items every day
In order to live with meaning, you need less stuff and more space in your mind. So start decluttering with three items each day. They can be anything – old files, t-shirts, broken electronics, a bird feeder you don’t use…anything. Put aside three items daily that you don’t need, and write them down on a list. Unless you really need something, don’t take it back from the pile. At the end of a week, if you haven’t had to take it out, give it away.
– Do it for 21 days straight
When you’re trying to form a new habit, you should do the activity in question for 21 days without a break (yes, including weekends). So don’t buy more stuff and throw out three things daily for 21 days without a break. If you break the cycle, start again for another 21 days. Living with meaning is hard. You have to be accountable. Forgetting or making excuses simply won’t do. Take responsibility for yourself.
THINGS TO AVOID DOING
– Shop to cheer up
‘Retail therapy’ is unhealthy and addicting. Instead, find a sustainable, healthy hobby that works for you. It could be taking a walk, reading a book, watching birds, writing, jamming to music…anything as long as it fits those two criteria.
– Rewarding yourself with stuff
Many people have a rewards system in place. For example: “If I lose 3 pounds this month I’ll buy that foundation I want” or “If I finish this report by Saturday I’ll buy that video game”. Rewarding yourself with ‘stuff’ isn’t healthy. Things are easy, they’re shallow, meaningless. Instead, give yourself a stress-free hour, or acknowledgement for a job well done. Genuine acknowledgement is shockingly rare, and when it happens, trust me, it feels better than the average gift. It’s meaningful, and it visibly affects your mental health and confidence.
– Going full throttle
People want to live with meaning, but they want results the very next day. Things don’t work like that. Lifestyle changes take time, and you need to commit. If things weren’t hard, achieving them wouldn’t be worth it. Throw out all thoughts of going cold turkey – especially when it comes to decluttering. That’s not sustainable. You’ll do this one step at a time, and you’ll succeed.
– Telling people about it
You’re excited about making this change, and you want to tell others – to get them to join you. But don’t. Telling people about a goal makes it that much harder to accomplish. The way I see it, if you have x amount of enthusiasm and you spend a tenth of that in telling your friend about it, you’re now left with 90% the energy you started out with. Some think telling family and friends adds accountability, but that’s the sort of thing we want to move away from. If you want your life to have meaning, you need to be more disciplined than that.
So this was a quick guide to minimalism. Remember that as with everything to do with the mind, the meaning of minimalism is flexible. I’ve tried to keep this guide versatile so it helps most of my readers, but if something doesn’t work for you and you think changing it will help you improve your life, by all means go ahead and do it.
Just keep in mind that the end result should be to make your life cleaner, simpler – to not dedicate your life to ‘stuff’