The liberation of letting go - of getting rid of stuff

Have you noticed how many homes have garages with have no room for cars? Many Americans have so much stuff that it overflows closets, cabinets, and drawers; and fills up much of the garage. That much extra stuff can weigh heavy on one's well-being.

We live in a society that prides itself on the accumulation of stuff; we worship consumerism. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s - a time when we Americans bought stuff just to have more things - to "keep up with the Joneses." We were defined by our possessions. In college, however, none of us had much stuff - it was a big deal just to have window coverings and coffee mugs. I furnished early apartments with thrift shop stuff and planks of wood between concrete blocks. But then we got jobs and grew into adults. The acquisition of stuff began. Desire and need became untethered in our lives, and shopping became a competitive sport - the Great American Pastime. 'He who dies with the most toys wins.'
For years I acquired more stuff, but after a certain point, I realized I didn't really care about most of it. And it was just getting in the way. Stuff to clean, work around, jostle in closets, cabinets, and drawers. And extra loads when moving to a new, often larger, space. I realized most of the stuff didn't pay me back - it didn't provide any real satisfaction or value.
Our life is frittered away by detail. Simply, simplify. - Henry David Thoreau

Minimalism is the freedom from the belief that you must be surrounded by things to be happy or fulfilled.

Minimalism is a lifestyle that questions what stuff adds value to one's life. By clearing the clutter from life's path, one can make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, and contribution.
There are many flavors of minimalism: a 20-year-old single guy's minimalist lifestyle looks different from that of a 37-year-old mother with two kids. Even though everyone embraces minimalism differently, each path leads to the same place: a life with more time, more money, and more freedom to live a more meaningful life.
Getting started is as simple as asking yourself one question: "Would my life be better if I owned fewer material possessions?"

Minimalism is an attitude, not just a behavior.
The behavior - purging crap, buying less, reusing - is a result of the attitude that who we are and who we want to be is not at all dependent on what we own. The secret to successful dieting (eating less crap and exercising more) is first a change of attitude. Without the commitment, passion, and desire, the less food and more movement behavioral actions won't last long. Similarly, the secret to successful minimal living is a change of attitude: commitment, passion, and desire. Then action.

Mental bandwidth
Decision Fatigue or Bandwidth Fatigue is a psychological condition in which a person's productivity suffers as a result of becoming mentally exhausted from making too many irrelevant decisions. Everything one do and thinks occupies some mental bandwidth - some of the available neurons. Some things occupy a little: walking, drumming your fingers, or tapping your foot; and others, a lot: talking, listening to new information, concentrating, and doing activities one hasn't done before.

Once the finite bandwidth capacity is reached, the efficiency of processing is decreased. Additional input can be stressful. By clearing the clutter from one’s environment, there is more bandwidth for more important aspects of life: health, relationships, growth, and contribution.
Stuff and clutter require greater mental bandwidth. Reducing and organizing clutter uses less bandwidth. Freeing up bandwidth helps one achieve the liberation gained from minimalism.

Minimalism in design
Busy layouts, multiple fonts, and decorative elements each use more bandwidth to process and remember. If the reader is operating on minimal bandwidth and is faced with a complex design, the chances or remembering the message are decreased. Design should be clear and easy to understand to enhance processing and decision-making. Embracing Minimalism's fundamental goal to strip items down to their most basic components, designers can produce items that are more effective, user-friendly, and visually beautiful.

Some designers effectively use a grid, alignment, and visual hierarchy to allow faster mental processing. Most people love a sense of order partly because it takes less mental bandwidth to process any new message or system. Logical connections ease stress and reduce clutter. Historical design styles that use minimalism effectively include the International Typographic Style, Minimalist posters, and much of Art Moderne. Styles that are ‘busy’ include Victorian, Art Nouveau, New Wave, Sixties, and some ornamented Art Deco.

Some benefits of living with less clutter
More mental clarity.
With the heavy use of personal electronic devices, there are more connections to work and to others. Many people lead more cluttered and more complex multi-tasked lives. Loss of mental bandwidth leads to the times when one makes more mistakes, is more easily distracted, and snaps or says things they don’t mean. Fewer distractions, more simplicity, and less stuff helps one achieve more clarity of thought.

More time and money.
Memories one cherishes more likely co0me from experiences than from possessions. Instead of spending time and money on more stuff, one has more to spend on experiences. A more organized household with less stuff decreases the time used for maintenance and cleaning. Moving takes less time - Minimalists don't have as much stuff to pack, sell or store. A minimalist has more time for travel, road trips, parks, picnics, museums, concerts, and movies. Minimalism is about freeing up time to enjoy spending more time with people one loves and doing the things that fill one with happiness.

More serenity.
Clinging onto the clutter from stuff creates stress because of the increased distractions, maintenance, and cleaning. By simplifying and clarifying one's life, minimalism helps one lose attachment to things and helps create a more calm and peaceful environment.

Minimalism in public

When someone is working, driving, or reading while listening to music, they will almost always voluntarily turn the music down or off when they come to something which requires intense concentration.

Learning to drive requires full concentration, making it difficult to hold a meaningful conversation - almost all one's attention is involved in safe driving. Once one is more experienced, driving does not use quite as much bandwidth. One can even have a conversation while driving. But, every now and then, something happens that requires more focus: the traffic increases, other drivers, looking where to turn, a complex interchange, construction and detour lane changes, or the weather becomes difficult. Then conversation is stopped or tuned out; one might even turn the radio volume down. The driver has instinctively realized the need for more brain bandwidth.

Freeway interchanges
While massive interchanges are designed to move traffic efficiently, there is much to distract a driver: a myriad of signs, drivers changing lanes, columns, overpasses, and entry/exit ramps. Some retaining walls and columns have images, patterns, and bas relief sculptures. In the car is often music and talking. That is a lot to process, especially if a driver is new to the area or unfamiliar with the roads. A minimal approach that conveys calm and order would ease some of the driving stress.

If someone is walking at their own pace while being asked questions that need concentration, they will begin to walk more slowly as the questions become harder or more complex. Eventually, they often stop walking.

Visual clutter
The environment of power lines strung across and down streets, telephone poles crowded at the top with transformers, cable tv, sign poles of different types and leaning at different angles, and advertising and store signs, each demanding our attention, take up and waste mental bandwidth.

Unexpected, dangerous, and catastrophic situations while flying require extra bandwidth. Flight attendants and pilots practice disaster drills repeatedly so the rehearsed scenarios become automatic, allowing greater bandwidth to better deal with the passengers and equipment.
There are many opportunities for stress while flying. A traveler is often concerned, worried, or uncomfortable about parking, going through security, long walks, and getting to the gate on time. Busy interior design and layout, traffic flow, crowds, signs and banners, and gate info all help create chaos. Airport concourses, interiors, and signage that are minimal and easily understood use less bandwidth.
The airport below is busy and chaotic - a variety of signs, ads, and a busy ceiling.

Airport below is more calming and minimal. Less stuff to deal with. Tall ceilings, warm wood, repetition, spacious. There is a clear delineation between walking pathways and seating areas.

Mega stores with too many choices can be overwhelming. Imagine the shopper faced with multiple options on the shelf, lively kids in tow, someone trying to get around them, and price comparisons - just imaging such a scenario takes up bandwidth. The layout and design of the store - wide aisles, bright lighting, and clearly marked prices can help ease some of the mental clutter.

The process - tips on how to purge stuff

Decide if it's right for you.
• Minimalism is not for everyone; some people need distractions and others love the latest gadgets. But, if you've read this far, you're likely a good candidate for a better life.
• It is important to understand why you want to be a minimalist, or it likely won't stick. “With constant bombardments from ads, social media and friends telling you to buy as much as possible, it's easy to believe that the accumulation of things is your ultimate goal in life."

You have to be in the right mood.
One that feels like you want to free up your spaces. If you begin and are unable to toss something for some irrational excuse, stop. That is not the right time. Try again later.
Some excuses to consider and avoid:
• Grandma gave me that. Just because the giver was meaningful doesn't make the gift meaningful. The doodads that once filled Grandma's garage now sit in yours? Often, the person who gave you those things didn't expect you to be its caretaker forever.
• I paid a fortune for it. And now it's time to accept your mistake and move on. You won't get your money back simply by refusing to let something go. Maybe some of the investment could be recouped by selling it or re-gifting it.
• One day I'll learn to knit, paint, or play the banjo. People are either artists or collectors of art supplies; knitters or collectors of yarn. If later you decide to take up a new hobby, buy yourself some new supplies that you really like and feel motivated to use. In the meantime trash, sell, donate the stuff you've been saving.
• I'm saving those for my grandkids, the retirement home, or a trip to Paris. Your stuff will probably not be any more loved in its new setting. Hanging on to things because you want your life to be different won't actually make your life different. It's better to let go of the stuff and keep what fits your life now.
• It will be worth something some day. Maybe. Ask an appraiser for an expert opinion. On the slight chance you've got stuff of value, pack and store them where they'll be safe from damage. Add a note explaining to your family their potential value so that they don't chuck their inheritance some day.

Designate a space and label the transfer spots
    • KEEP
      Functional and absolutely necessary for routine living: house deed, tax files, passport, car title, etc.
      Awesome - the pleasure or joy derived from it is too great to lose.
      Used recently and will likely be used again soon.
    • SELL
Use ebay, Craigslist, or a yard sale. Salable items include cameras, computers, VHS and CDs, collectibles, jewelry, furniture, power tools, lawn mowers, toys, sports equipment, and bicycles. Clothing usually goes for a pittance.
    • DONATE
if something has value for someone else, something that will make their life better, give it to them now. For other donations, try Goodwill, Thrift Shops, or university Theater departments for props and costumes. Items include worn-out or out-of-style clothes, linens, coat hangers.
    • RECYCLE.
Check local sites and regulations.
    • TRASH.
Clutter no longer needed and that has little value for anyone else.

Pick one area at a time:
• Closets: bedroom, games, cleaning supplies, guest room
• Cabinets: medicine, linen, dishes, appliances
• Garage: workbench, tools, scrap wood, screws, nails
• All junk drawers
• File cabinets and desk drawers
• Media shelf or cabinet: digitize outdated media if it has value

Select one item at a time.
Give it serious and firm assessment. Place it in its transfer spot

Distribute the transfer bins/piles to their destinations.
Trash, recycle, Goodwill, friend, or charity,

Stay vigilant. It's easy to get excited about the process of becoming a minimalist, but more difficult to maintain those principals as time goes on. Consider using the changing of each season as a time to reassess your closet and desk to see if anything has snuck into your life that doesn't belong.

Enjoy a new sense of liberation, freedom, and a lifting of stress.

Jim Watson, Minimalist

Inspirations and influences

Each of the inspirations below, in no particular order, made a strong impression. Further research, discovery, and experimentation led me to the conclusion that I preferred to be a minimalist. I liked the notion of keeping my life simple. Less stuff. Less crap. Less suffocation. I have found the process of purging stuff out of the house and out of my life to be very liberating and freeing.
Once, while leading a newspaper reporter on a tour of my house, she asked where my junk drawer was. I asked her why would I have a drawer, closet, or anything that contained junk. I don't keep junk. Aren't junk drawers just places where we put stuff we don't quite know what to do with?

Fifties household
My mother was a typical 50s-era consumer. My parents were part of the generation that lived through the Great Depression as children - often doing without and learning to be frugal. Then, after WWII, when industries turned back to producing consumer goods, numerous products flooded store shelves. To move the goods, the advertising industry entered it's Golden Age and heavily promoted that consumers should "keep up with the Joneses". My mother did her part to keep the economy growing.

Sixties: anti-consumerism
At the University of Texas in Austin in the late 1960's/early 1970s, I was surrounded by influences of people turning against the corporate mentality of buying stuff. There was a return to the earth and to organic natural materials. In college dorm rooms and houses, due to very low funds, we made do with less. We learned that it was okay. We had great experiences, even without many things around us.

Mrs. Wilson's sugar holder
Sitting on my parent's breakfast table was a very tacky wooden sugar packet holder. It had tiny farmhouses at each end and slats across the sides. It was painted and adorned with a gingham cloth. Ugly. My mother agreed, so I asked her why she kept it out. "What if Mrs. Wilson comes over and doesn't see it?" Over several morning conversations, I nudged her to the realization that:
1. She would not likely snoop around for the gift.
2. If she couldn't find it anywhere in the house, she was not likely to say anything about it's supposed absence (Mrs. Wilson was a kind considerate person).
3. Even if she had a bout of rudeness and did mention it, my mother could explain it away.
• We should not be defined by our stuff.
• Love from our friends should not be connected to the gifts they give us.

Dansk BLT dinnerware
In the late 1970s, I spent some time as an instructor on the Opening Team for TGI Friday's restraunt. It was a blast and we got to travel all over the country. As a result of the travel, I packed little and we stayed in hotel rooms or in friend's apartments. I learned to get by with very little. And I liked it. I had all I needed: clothes, music, notepad, camera. In Louisville, Kentucky, at some trendy home shop, I saw this set of dishes by Dansk:

The set was called BLT and included just the necessities - a mug, a bowl, and a plate. The plate had a substantial lip that was very functional. I loved the idea of this simple set of 3 pieces - that's really all many people need. I bought 4 sets. I used the BLT dishes for years (they are now out of production, although pieces are available online.
Below left: A simple set from Crate & Barrel. Below right: A set of Massimo Vignelli dinnerware.

Buckminster Fuller

The great visionary, inventor, and designer, Buckminster Fuller, developed the geodesic dome of triangular space frames to enclose the greatest amount of space with the least amount of materials. I had become a Fuller fan the last semester of college in Austin and read whatever I could find about him and his inventions. I was enamored with his philosophies of 'Doing more with less.'

Interior Design teacher: sofa prints

When I was in my 20s, I took a course just for fun: Intro to Interior Design. The teacher shared her philosophy on print fabrics on furniture. She referenced a sofa with a busy, but maybe beautiful, print. It might look great when someone entered the room, in a catalog, or in a rendering. But, what happens if a guest, wearing a busy print or stripes sits on that sofa. Clash. Discord. The sofa exists to support people comfortably, not just to look good in a room. What a great lesson - consider how the design solution works when viewed through the eyes of the user.
Her lesson: the people in the room are the most important design elements in a space. Design around them, not despite of them.
That has stuck with me for decades - the users are the most important design element, not color, shape, placement, typography; but, the people that will benefit from the piece. Below: Andrew Lloyd Webber at some Red Carpet opening event. Poor choice for a backdrop (or a shirt):

Music of Philip Glass
In the 1970s, a friend suggested we go see Koyaanisqatsi, an avant garde film. It was an eye-opener. Just as mesmerizing as the film, was the soundtrack, by Philip Glass. I became a fan and later learned that he was considered a minimalist composer - simple chords and repetition.

Stark room by train station in Rome

On a sojourn through Europe, my EurailPass in hand, I rode the bullet train from Paris down to Nice and then over to Milan and Rome. In Rome, I got off the train and wandered around looking for a room for a few nights. I was relieved to finally find a room and a place to rest. The room was sparsely furnished - a bed, nitestand, and an armoire. I noticed that the room was quite symmetrical. the single window was right in the center of one wall. The bed headboard was in the center of another and the armoire was also in the center of its wall. The thick walls were blank - no artwork or decoration - and the simple symmetrical window had 2 sets of shutters: one inside the room and another that swung out against the outer wall. The sense of order and the almost-bare room was calming and restful, especially after a busy day. I didn't realize until later how much I enjoyed living in that simple sparse room. I didn't take photos inside the room, but I do have clear images in my mind. And it has stuck with me - the joy of such a minimal space.

The purity of wearing a uniform
Like many people, I went through the morning ritual of deciding what I wanted to wear that day and what would go with what. Once I got over the need to impress people with my clothing, I gravitated to the classic ensemble of a white shirt and khaki pants. My life became simpler. Deciding what to wear was really easy - reach for the next white shirt and khaki pants in line. Fashions and fads are so fickle, I didn't mess with it. I stuck to those classics.
Below: A History of Graphic Design class dressed up for Halloween.

One day while on a NYC Study Tour, we were scheduled to meet with the designer Massimo Vignelli. That morning I put on a black shirt in homage to Massimo. He always wears a black shirt with black pants. That is his uniform. That afternoon, however, I went home to change clothes for our visit. I realized that black is his uniform and that I should respect that by wearing my uniform, rather than trying to fit in with he and his wife (she wears all black, also). I'm glad I did. That afternoon he spoke to us about being true to ourselves and not being hypocritical. Massimo stated, "If you're never in fashion (succumbing to the fashion-du-jour trends), you can never go out of fashion."
His design philosophy is also about minimalism. His work achieves a refreshing purity. He avoids the clutter of embellishment, adornment, and decoration.

Many successful people wear the same thing every day
• Steve Jobs wore a black turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers every day.
• Mark Zuckerberg typically wears a grey t-shirt, a black hoody, and jeans when in public.
• Elon Musk usually wears all black.
• Albert Einstein reportedly bought several variations of the same gray suit so that he wouldn't have to waste time deciding what to wear each morning.

A Minimalist house
The kitchen counter is kept clutter-free. Any item I get out for meal preparation goes back to its spot before I sit down to eat. When I return to the kitchen, I don't want to see clutter. Small appliances: blender, coffeemaker, toaster, stay in cabinets. Easily accessible and easy to hide away (shut the cabinet door).

As the pioneers traveled to the Oklahoma Plains during the Land Run of 1889, one of the first things a pioneer woman would do is to put a piece of wood on a wall. It took the place of the fireplace mantel they had in the home they left behind. On the mantel, they would place their most cherished small items. Small because they had to cross country with them in a trunk in a wagon. The 'mantle shelf in my kitchen holds items that bring me joy: mid-century salt and pepper shakers that were on the family kitchen table, evoking memories of family dinners, chats with my parents over breakfast, and a wide array of crafts and science fair projects; a tea and coffee set with creamer and sugar bowl bring a work of sculpture into a normally mundane wall of cabinets; and an Art Nouveau ceramic cup and saucer passed down from my grandmother. The Fiestaware is classic, functional, and the colors contribute a sense of life and joy.
The Ball Clock is a classic design by George Nelson. Another piece of sculpture (or art?)

A minimal wallet
We carry around a lot of stuff - some necessary (driver's license/ID, credit card) and some junk (dry cleaner receipts, reward cards, business cards). I have long been on a journey to apply the principles of minimalism and 'Use less stuff' to this portable closet, the wallet. I now keep a folder in the car to hold maps, insurance info, parking permit, insurance card, reward cards, and museum membership cards (I always drive to the museum and video rental store). The cards are both hidden and locked in the car.
I used to conduct 'Wallet checks' in class. Students would place all the contents of their wallets on their desktop. It was surprising how much stuff there was. Much that the students had forgotten about. A months-old receipt. Coupons that had expired. Almost every student admitted they could purge crap out of their pockets - useless stuff they carried around with them all the time. It was similar to a new laptop with no disc drive - I use a disc drive about 6 times a year but was carrying around the drive every day with my computer.
Options for a more minimal wallet:
Cut out of the wallet any unnecessary pocket or window.
Buy a wallet that supports a minimalist lifestyle.
Adhere a sleeve, that holds cards, to the back of a phone.

A minimal car dashboard

No knobs or dials. The user interface is all on the touch screen and apps,

'The simpler it is, the more beautiful it is'
Dr. Jim Watson, professor of design at UCO, describes his life as a minimalist and why 'less is more'.
By Mary Reinauer, The Vista, September 17, 1996

In a world increasingly filled with the clutter of comfort, UCO's Dr. Jim Watson has less, by design. The design professor, a devotee of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, said he is a minimalist. That means no knickknacks, no undersink cabinets, and few walls. Instead, Watson filled his house with functional items that also happen to be decorative. The overall effect might be described as a loft-tech-meets-Oklahoma-prairie look.
"This house allows me to address all my pet peeves," said Watson. Wasted space and time, obtrusive decorations, and hard to use or uncomfortable items have no place here, he said.

On the front porch of the typical 1950s ranch style Edmond home, Watson explained why less is more and how the ordinary house lent itself to the simple life. "Its all suburban kind of architecture. One story, simple floor plan, etc." The front planter is of Roman style bricks, noted for their long thin shape and used extensively by Wright to convey a low horizontal design that is in tune with the lines of the prairie. There was a lot of interest in Wright's work in this area at the time his house was built. Wright even called his style of wide houses with open floor plans the prairie Style, said Watson. Roman brick is one example of Wright's design that is meant to draw the eyes to the side, he said. Shutters and wrought iron railings were removed, bushes trimmed, and planters added to enhance the strong horizontal line. "The simpler it is, the more beautiful it is," he said.

The house at 424 East 4th Street is in the old Edmond neighborhood of Capitol View where residents plan to form a historic preservation association soon. "Right across the street is the old Clegern house," said Watson. The Clegerns were Edmond pioneers. The old farmhouse was probably built in the teens. "Its still there. Now we have a Clegern school and Clegern Drive. When Watson bought the house last year, it required extensive work to achieve the simplicity Watson desired. "We had six weeks of real serious work: I had electricity only in the bedroom so if I took a shower at night I had to take a lantern in there. "I had about two weeks without a shower, but fortunately I could shower outside since it was August. And I had a week without a toilet. I won't talk about that," he said.

When the walls were demolished, workers found an original set of blueprints for the house, designed in 1952 by Oklahoman Richard Henley. Because this find simplified the task at hand, Watson reacted as if he "had found a treasure map." When the remodeling was finished, he had something even better, he said. Mailcarriers especially appreciate what Watson has done to the old house, even Watson has to train them to find it. A hinged panel on the garage door swings inward to reveal a drop box for Watson's mail. "The postman loves it because he doesn't even have to slow down," said Watson.

In the bathroom, the shower has no shower curtain. 1930s style glass blocks serve as the walls of the stall and as windows that provide light while maintaining privacy. A pristine white sink juts directly from the wall with no visible plumbing or supports. The 'sink' is actually a commercial modern drinking fountain. The pipes are hidden within the unit and run behind the sheetrock. Appropriately hung over the toilet is a colorful oil painting of Elvis on black velvet. "It's fitting that it should hang in the bathroom - that's where he died, you know," said Watson. Watson has two roommates. Austin, a space-saving greyhound Watson found on the Bailey Turnpike, and Dallas, an exuberant Doberman-type mutt who adopted him from the pound. "I spend a lot of time on the highway," said Watson of his dog's names.

The kitchen is a white recessed space that steps down into the laundry room, where faucets project directly over the dogs' bowls. Unobtrusive recycling bins fit under and to the side of a narrow refrigerator. In the silverware drawer, black handled utensils are lined up in a wire basket like a display at Pier One. A stainless apple corer has found its way into the drawer. "That doesn't belong there," said Watson, apparently restraining himself from relocating it. Don't even ask to see Watson's 'junk drawer.' Minimalists don't have junk drawers," he said. Nor do they have sofas, closets, or elaborate wardrobes. Collections, however, are acceptable if they have function. Watson offers a collection of chairs representing 'classic '50s, Art Deco, and vintage UCO dorm styles for visiting and conversing. "People come in and get to pick where they want to sit," he said. A decorative time piece is really a collection of pop icons displayed on the wall in a circular pattern centered with a generic clock movement. "This way "it becomes more than just a clock. Its functional art."

The floor plan is dominated by the multipurpose great room featuring galvanized corrugated tin on three walls. The low-key silver color lends drama to the area and also represents the Oklahoma rural heritage. The great room includes areas for eating, living, and working. The office area features industrial style shelving and tables that can be arranged in a variety of ways to fit the modular setting. The effect is much like a functional puzzle. "Its messy right now because I am writing a book, said Watson, although a look around might prove Watson has different standards for clutter. The topic of the book is appropriately 'creative problem solving.'