Five years ago, W and I were getting ready to move into a studio apartment down the street from his new job. It felt daunting to downsize our whole life to fit one room, but I took it as a personal challenge. I read and listened to everything I could find about “living simply” or decluttering, and it wasn’t long before I came across the concept of minimalism.
I had never heard of minimalism before, and there was suddenly a wealth of opinions and information about it everywhere I turned. People have connected through this subject all over the place, both online and off. “R/onebag” and “r/simpleliving” are both active communities on Reddit. “R/minimalism” exists but seems to spend most of its time arguing. The tiny house and van life movements are huge, ironically, with YouTube videos chronicling every detail of these non traditional experiences. I read books like The 100 Thing Challenge, The Joy of Less, and my favorite, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I read blogs like The Minimalists, Be More With Less, Zen Habits, Becoming Minimalist, Everyday Minimalist, Project 333, and Minimalist Tree-dwellers. Okay. I made up that last one, but the rest are real.
After five years of deep diving into the minimalism world (most of which were spent living in a studio apartment), there are six things I think people need to hear before they head down that road. Read on!
1. Just like we can get carried away in thinking more stuff will solve our problems, we can easily stack all our hopes on what life will be like when the stuff is gone. Just the word “simplifying” carries a hopeful connotation with it by default. When things are simpler, they’ll be better. Easier. Less expensive. That can definitely be true, but if you aren’t taking the process a step at a time and being mindful of your decisions, you may end up with no healthy or realistic end goal. When you start downsizing, it can be addictive. When “simple” doesn’t deliver on the massive expectations heaped upon it, it’s disappointing. We look at our disappointment and instead of taking a step back, we might insist the solution is to keep striving for simpler and simpler. It can become an obsession and provoke anxiety. I’ve been there. Life isn’t perfect, and there is no perfect amount of simple. You’ll never reach it, and you’ll only hurt yourself trying to get there.
2. Minimalists love to talk about how they waste less time than they used to. Here’s the thing: when you free up all that time you used to spend purchasing/cleaning/maintaining the stuff or the house or whatever, guess what you have left over? Lots and lots of free time. Less distractions from anything you want to focus on, like your favorite hobby…BUT also less distractions from anything in your life that you might have been avoiding. It’s no coincidence that many of these minimalists talk about big life changes like finally getting treatment for mental health struggles, cutting ties with unhealthy relationships, or starting an active lifestyle. Free time (not to mention the freed-up financial resources) can be an opportunity to work through challenges, if you choose to look at it that way. When you give your mind the space, it tends to bring things forward that need attending to. Whether you like it or not.
3. Tread carefully if you decide to quantify your belongings. If you’ve spent any time googling terms like minimalism, you probably came across someone’s blog post or YouTube video called something along the lines of “I Got Rid Of All But 75 Things” or “The 50 Things I Own.” Sometimes I think I’ll write a parody called “Mary Poppins One Bag Minimalism Story – I Only Own 5064.5 Things,” but I haven’t. There’s nothing inherently wrong with counting your stuff, and if it helps you in some way, go for it! The tricky part is that numbers are easy to compare. A number is always equal to or less or more than another number. There will always be someone with exactly 1 less thing than my number of things. Even if I only had 1 thing, somebody somewhere would somehow be managing with zero. Everyone is a different person with their own life and unique preferences and needs and wants. You might love making homemade waffles regularly and therefore need a waffle maker. I might not need a waffle maker. It’s all good! Just be wary of unfairly comparing your number to someone else’s.
4. I’ve read criticism of minimalism that claims that “mess is authentic.” I don’t entirely disagree, but neatness or an aspiration to be more neat can be authentic too. Disorder doesn’t have dibs on authenticity. I like straightening things up and keeping surfaces empty and easy to clean. I’m not here to compare what my house looks like when my life gets busy to someone else’s. If someone who enters my home doesn’t find it (or me) authentic because it’s tidy, then I’d say it’s my life and not theirs. Whether or not you can see stacks of papers lying around someone’s living room is a pretty shitty means by which to judge others. How’s that for realness?
5. You may think pursuing minimalism means you’ll inevitably end up meditating on hill tops and eschewing retail therapy and riding your bicycle instead of a car and eating a lot of wheatgrass (sometimes while riding your bicycle). Don’t worry! I tend to avoid the great outdoors, including hill tops, I have yet to eat wheatgrass, and I don’t even know how to ride a bicycle! You don’t have to become That Person, unless you want to. The one I want to drive home here is that you can still enjoy shopping. I absolutely love some wandering through stores, be they thrift shops or chain or big box or anywhere else. I’ll never stop touching fabrics, smelling candles, and browsing through all the home decor items. It makes me happy, and I’m comfortable with that. I make less impulse purchases than I used to, and I feel good when I find something I really like. Don’t listen to people who tell you that isn’t “real minimalism.”
6. These all lead me to my last point, which is that minimalism looks different for everyone. Not everyone is a single white guy named Chad who sold his five bedroom house and quit a $200,000 a year job to go find himself in Thailand and start an automated online supplements company called Gainz or VitaBro and coaches people on starting passive income so you too can live a life as free as his. And then he does a TED Talk. You did it, Chad! You escaped, or something! Okay, I’m done. But you alllllllll know what I’m talking about. This is a very narrow view of what minimalism (and life in general) can look like. It can look like a woman learning to cope with a travel-heavy job, or an old man adapting to life in a big house alone after his wife passes away. It can look like a mom of three, laying down boundaries with grandparents who go overkill with gifting so many toys that her home is chaos. When we gate keep minimalism, all we do is barricade a door against people who are looking to discover how it could change their lives for the better in some way. Minimalism isn’t always a vaguely Nordic empty white room with a single red chair and a vintage rotary phone on top, and minimalism certainly does not belong to only Chads.