The absolute joy of letting go - of getting rid of stuff
Have you noticed how many homes have garages that 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 blinds and coffee mugs. Many of the guys I knew didn't; they'd tack a sheet over the bedroom window and drink from Styrofoam cups. 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.
There was a period when I believed stuff meant something. 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. I realized most of the stuff didn't pay me back - it didn't provide any real satisfaction or value.
I later found that this awakening attitude had a name: Minimalism.
What minimalism is
One definition of many, from two guys promoting the minimalist lifestyle (more from them at the bottom of the page):
Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life's path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.
There are many flavors of minimalism: a 20-year-old single guy's minimalist lifestyle looks different from a 45-year-old mother's minimalist life. 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.
Some synonyms used most often are simplicity, intentionality, and focus.
Getting started is as simple as asking yourself one question: How might your life be better if you owned fewer material possessions?
Minimalism is an attitude, not just a behavior.
The behavior - purging crap out, 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. It is dependent on our own confidence, sense of worth, and desire to be rid of trappings.
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.
Minimalism is about increased clarity, not less stuff.
Years ago, with the introduction of personal gadget electronics, we were promised more leisure time. Didn't happen. Maybe, even the opposite. We are now more connected to others and to work. Many of us lead more cluttered and complex multi-tasked lives. We need more simplicity, more minimalism - more clarity. That's right, Minimalism is about clarity, not just less stuff.
Clarity of thought, clarity of purpose, clarity of surroundings. Having less stuff is a way to achieve clarity. But, less stuff is not the goal - it's a way to help achieve the goal.
An attittude of minimalism can help one achieve more lucidity, free flow of thought, creativity, and freedom. Freedom to experience life at a deeper level, love more passiontely, and devote more time to meaningful relationships.There will be less stuff, not just in space, but in one's mind.
Example: In 1998, while summoned to serve on jury duty, I was assigned to serve on a juvenile case and got a map (below left) to the Juvenile Courthouse. I was somewhat appalled at the poor design of the map so, of course, I had to redo it (below right). The existing map looked cheap, sloppy, and unprofessional. The original was probably designed by someone who already knew how to get to the Juvenile Court, so it doesn't do a good job of clearly communicating to the novice - and almost everyone who gets the map is a novice on where the Juvenile Court is located.
The one on the left is simpler, with fewer lines - we might decide that, compared to the busier one on the right, that it is more minimal. But, it is so simple. It is almost useless. The one on the right is clearly better. It provides more pertinent info (freeway access, exits, landmarks) and more clearly conveys exactly where the Juvenile Court is located and how to get there. Even though it appears to be more complex, and it is, It requires less complex thought. It is more minimal, because it is more clear.
Inspirations and influences
These experiences impacted my attitude and growth towards having more clarity with less stuff:
1. 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 in keeping the economy growing.
2. 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, to organic natural materials.
3. 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.
4. Living cheaply, making do
In college dorm rooms and houses, we were required, due to very low funds, to do with less. We learned that it was okay. We had great experiences, even without many things around us.
5. 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 employee'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 most people need. I bought 4 sets. Back home, I unpacked the sets and used the BLT dishes for years (they are now out of production, although pieces are available at Replacements and ebay).
Below left: A simple set from Crate & Barrel. Below right: A set of Massimo Vignelli dinnerware.
6. 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.' Full story on the Tripod House shown above.
7. Interior Design teacher: sofa prints
After returning to Dallas from Austin and college, I took some courses just for fun: Photography at Richland College and an Intro to Interior Design Course at Eastfield College. I don't remember the teacher's name, but she was an experienced and serious proponent of good design. I have vivid memories of her lecture on print fabrics on furniture. She referenced a sofa with a busy, but maybe beautiful, print on a sofa. She commented that it would look great when someone entered the room or in the designer's renderings to the client. But, what happens if a guest, wearing a print or stripes, or some other busy fabric or outfit sat on that sofa. Clash. Discord. Bad design. The sofa exists to support people comfortably, not just to look good in a room. Wow. What a great lesson - consider how the design solution works when viewed through the eyes of the user.
8. Music of Philip Glass
In the 1970s, a friend suggested we go see an avant garde film at the Inwood Theater on Lemmon Avenue in Dallas. I said, sure. The movie was Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio. It was an eye-opener. Link to film site. Just as mesmerizing as the film, was the soundtrack, by Philip Glass. I became a fan and bought more Glass albums. I later learned that he was considered a minimalist composer - simple chords and lots of repetition.
9. Stark room by Rome train station
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 it's 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. I didn't realize until later how much I enjoyed living in that simple sparse room. I didn't take photos but have clear images in my mind of that room. And it has stuck with me - the joy of such a minimal space.
Each of these inspirations made a strong impression. Further research, discovery, and experimentation led me to the conclusion that I preferred to be a minimalist - an attitude, philosophy, and lifestyle of using less, having less, and wanting less. 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 (see the article here: 'The simpler it is, the more beautiful it is'; Dr. Jim Watson describes his life as a minimalist and why 'less is more'), 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?
Some of the benefits of living with fewer possessions
There are a few obvious benefits to a minimalist lifestyle - less cleaning, less stress, a more organized household, and more money - but there are also a few deep, life-changing benefits. What I have realized is that when I reduce, I reduce a lot more than just stuff. A minimalist lifestyle encourages me to throw out what I don't need in order to focus on what I do need. Minimalism reduces the amount of distractions to allow me to enjoy and focus on the more important things in life.
Create room for what's important
When we purge our junk drawers and closets we create space and peace. We lose that claustrophobic feeling and we can actually breathe again.
The accumulation of stuff is like an anchor, it ties us down. We are always terrified of losing all our 'stuff'. Let it go and you will experience a freedom from greed, debt, obsession and overworking.
When you spend less time trying unsuccessfully to keep up with the Joneses, you create an opening to do the things you love, things that you never seem to have time for.
Less focus on material possessions
All the stuff we surround ourselves with is merely a distraction, we are filling a void. Money can't buy happiness, but it can buy comfort. After the initial comfort is satisfied, that's where our obsession with money should end. We are bombarded by the media presenting promises of happiness through materialistic measures. It's no wonder we struggle everyday. Resist those urges, they won't make you happy.
More peace of mind
When we cling onto material possessions we create stress because we are always afraid of losing these things. By simplifying your life you can lose your attachment to these things and ultimately create a calm, peaceful mind. The less things you have to worry about, the more peace you have, and it's as simple as that.
When de-cluttering your life, happiness naturally comes because you gravitate towards the things that matter most. You see clearly the false promises in all the clutter, it's like a broken shield against life's true essence. You will also find happiness in being more efficient, you will find concentration by having refocused your priorities, you will find joy by enjoying slowing down.
The entire minimalist lifestyle promotes individuality and self reliance. This will make you more confident in your pursuit of happiness.
Minimalism in design
For fun, when I was in my 20s, I enrolled in Intro to Interior Design at EastField College in Dallas. The matronly instructor who spoke with an air of authority and respect discussed priorities. A sofa or chair with a bright busy print might look great in the showroom, in a catalog, or even in the living room - but imagine what will happen when a guest with a busy print, striped, or colorful dress sits on that sofa. Not so great anymore.
Take a look at Andrew Lloyd Webber at some Red Carpet opening event. Poor choice for a backdrop (or a shirt):
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.
Minimalism in design
Stress takes up mental bandwidth and prevents the brain from being able to most efficiently process complexity and innovation.
How relates to design. People love a sense of order because it takes less bandwidth to process anything new, and environment, system, or product.
Examples in design
Theory: Complexity of design images and text varies dependent on mental bandwidth available for processing. Less bandwidth = poorer decision-making.
Mental stress takes up bandwidth.
* Poor health
* Less education
Stress class - need less new input to process, busyness, chaos, complex text wording.
Design should be more minimal to ease decision-making. Target/Walmart - sans serif.
Bandwidth helps explain rationale for minimalism and clarity.
Environmental micro aggression
Design, layout, text copy, visuals that are out of whack that requires attention
Sometimes ‘out-of-whacks’ can help aid attention and retention. But, only if used judiciously and sparingly.
Design of everyday things. Poor design a balance but we usually except and adjust. But maybe all of those many triggers are having an impact on our quality-of-life and our well-being.
Impacts quality of life: busy, chaotic, stressful.
ITS, Minimalism, simple Art Deco
Victorian, Art Nouveau, New Wave, Sixties,busy Art Deco
Terminals: D DFW, Austin,
Real feel temp
Streets with no left turn lane: stop and go
Thames ped bridge: respect grid or sdd to chaos
4th St & Park Place: violate grid, fabric of the city
Reconstruction: never goes back the way it was
Vignelli/Purity and clutter
Justin wine labels
Songs with lyrics vs instrumentals. Lyrics demand to be processed, adding another layer of complexity to our understanding.
Turning the music down in the car in traffic, to reduce the stress layers.
Grid, alignment, order
Emergency outline font at hospital
Everyone is stressed at the airport
“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” - Eliel Saarinen
A psychological condition in which a person's productivity suffers as a result of becoming mentally exhausted from making so many irrelevant decisions. By stressing over things like what to eat or wear every day, people become less efficient at work. This is precisely why many people have decided to make life easier by adopting a wardrobe uniform: Make Life More Simple.
Because of hyperconsumerism, we're forgetting about fundamental things and wasting human strength on frivolities that have little to do with human happiness. Many of us are guilty of obsessing over material things. When it comes down to it, they bring no real value to our lives. True fulfillment is acquired by going out into the world and fostering palpable and benevolent changes. Buying a new pair of shoes might make you feel more confident in the short-term, but it will not enrich your life in the long-term. We might all consider simplifying our lives a bit more by reducing the amount of time we spend thinking about pointless aspects of our day. In the process, one might find that they are significantly less stressed, more productive and more fulfilled. Life is complicated enough, don't allow the little things to dictate your happiness.
Our life is frittered away by detail. Simply, simplify. - Henry David Thoreau
The science of simplicity: Why successful people wear the same thing every day
By John Haltiwanger, November 2014
Have you ever thought about how much time you likely waste deciding what to wear in the morning? It's probably made you late to school or work. We waste so many precious moments concerning ourselves with frivolous details. We've become an excessively materialistic and superficial society. There are greater things to worry about than clothes. Don't sweat the small stuff. Make your life easier by concentrating on the big picture. Some very successful people have adopted this philosophy in their daily routines:
• 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.
• 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.
The process - how to purge your stuff
Two criteria for keeping stuff
• If the item is functional and absolutely necessary for routine living.
• If the item is so awesome that the pleasure derived from it is too great to lose.
If neither of these is true, then get rid of it.
1. Most important: 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 reason, stop. That is not the right time. Try again later.
2. Pick one area at a time:
• Closet: bedroom, game, utility (cleaning supplies), guest room
• Cabinets: medicine, linen, dishes, appliances
• Garage: workbench, tools, scrap wood, screws, nails
• Junk drawer
• File cabinet
• Media shelf or cabinet: digitize outdated media if its keep-worthy
3. Organize the transfer spots. Have an area or bin for:
• Items that can be donated
• Items that can be recycled
• Items that are go in the trash can
• Items to keep - put them where they belong right then
4. Select one item at a time. Ask yourself if you've used it recently. Does it have value for anyone else - will it make anyone's life better?
5. Distribute the bins/piles to their spots.
6. Feel liberation, freedom, lightness, and a lifting of burden.
Some ways to purge your clutter
By Hilary Sterne, Parade magazine, April 2012
Where: ebay, Craigslist, or a yard sale (a way to have neighbors pay you modestly for the favor of hauling away your stuff, not as a moneymaking venture)
What: Hot-ticket items on ebay include cameras, computers, collectibles, jewelry, and new-with-tags clothing. If you don't want to bother with crating and shipping, start local and use Craigslist, where furniture, baby gear, power tools, and sports equipment do well.
What: Furniture, power tools, lawn mowers, toys, sports equipment, and bicycles typically move briskly - though you won't get much for them. Clothing especially tends to go for a pittance.
Where: The curb - trash can or recycle bin
What: Items that are stained, broken, or irreparably damaged belong here, along with unwanted mementos that are meaningful to no one but you (like that Little League trophy from 1978).
Give it away
Where: Charities - Goodwill or a local Thrift Shop.
What: Used-but-still-wearable clothing, plus unwanted books, furniture, and kitchenware
Things to throw out today
By Alex McDaniel, Parade magazine, April 2012
VHS tapes, cassette tapes, or old video games
VCRs won't be making a comeback - and neither will boomboxes or prehistoric game consoles. If there's something you really cherish - a wedding video or a favorite mixtape - digitize it. Check online for transfer services.
Home gym equipment
Even if you and your family work out all the time, you probably still have little-used exercise gear (like a rowing machine, some infomercial contraption, yoga mats, workout clothes, and water bottles) lurking in a closet or the basement. Ditch anything you haven't touched in the past year.
Throw away threadbare towels and mismatched bed linens in favor of a few well-made items.
Hair accessories from years past
Is your bathroom cabinet overflowing with hair dryers, irons, hot combs, and rollers? "Unless you use it daily or weekly, toss it."
Extra coat hangers
"For the love of all things environmental, collect and return them to your dry cleaner."
Reminders of past hobbies
Your interests change over time, but the things connected to them - that old set of golf clubs, the guitar you never learned to play - tend to linger. Hand these dust-gathering items off to friends or relatives who can put them to better use.
Single-use kitchen gadgets
Unless you chow down on grapefruit every morning and host monthly crab feasts, you can dispose of the grapefruit knives and crab mallets; opt for multipurpose tools instead. The exception? "Things for holiday baking or cooking - the Christmas-tree cookie cutters get a pass, but everything else goes.
Most common, but still not valid, excuses
By Hilary Sterne, Parade magazine, April 2012
But Grandma gave me that.
Just because the giver was meaningful doesn't make the gift itself meaningful. An engagement ring or a christening gown? Sure. The doodads that once filled Grandma's garage and now sit in yours? Not so much. "In most cases, the person who gave you those things didn't expect you to be their caretaker forever."
But I paid a fortune for it.
And now it's time to accept your mistake and move on. The fact is, you won't get your money back simply by refusing to let something go. If your white elephant is in good condition, browse the "completed listings" section on ebay to see what it fetches there; you might be able to recoup some of your investment by auctioning it off.
But one day I'll learn to knit/paint/play the banjo.
"People are either artists or collectors of art supplies; knitters or collectors of yarn." In fact, there's a term for this sort of just-in-case hoarding: instrumental saving. If one day you decide to take up a new hobby, says Johnson, "go out and buy yourself some new supplies that you really like and feel motivated to use." In the meantime, she says, give what you're storing to a friend.
But I'm saving those for my grandkids/my retirement home/my trip to Paris.
Who's to say you'll even have grandkids or a bigger place - or that your junk will be any more loved in its new setting? The longer those old baby clothes molder in storage bins, the less use they will be to anyone anyway. "Styles change. Elastic deteriorates," says Johnson. As for all the stuff you're saving for your new life - say, when you retire to Paris? "Hanging on to things because you want your life to be different won't actually make your life different. It can be painful to acknowledge that, but it's better to let go of the stuff and figure out what fits your life today.
But it will be worth something in 20 years.
Maybe. Or maybe you've just watched one too many episodes of Antiques Road Show. Convinced your collection of Marvel comics or Star Wars action figures can't help but appreciate? Ask an appraiser for an expert opinion. On the off chance he agrees that you've got a gold mine on your hands, pack your treasures carefully and store them where they'll be safe from damage. And be sure to add a note explaining to your family the potential value of the contents so that they don't chuck their inheritance one day.
How to Practice Minimalism as a Student
By Janet Schiesl, Lee Fisher, and Katy McWhirter. More info about minimalism for students
While there is no single definition of minimalism, the synonyms for minimalism used most often are simplicity, intentionality and focus. Minimalist living in college can be a great way for students to rid themselves of physical or mental clutter, thereby allowing them to move about freely and not be bogged down by clutter and unnecessary stimulus. In a country where accumulation of possessions is a way of life, minimalism can help provide freedom from the belief that you must be surrounded by things to be happy or fulfilled.
Benefits of Choosing Minimalism
• Less time spent making decisions. Instead of waking up 20 minutes earlier to dig through your closet and find the perfect outfit, a minimalist's closet only has things that they feel comfortable and confident wearing.
• More money in your bank account. When you aren't concerned about buying the latest i Phone or a cool, new pair of shoes you saw online, you'll soon find that your bank account has a much higher balance.
• More time for you. Newly converted minimalists soon find they have tons of extra time on their hands when they aren't shopping online or fighting their way through long lines at stores.
• More time to focus on what matters. Once all the extra stuff is out of your life, the things that are most important (such as relationships, sleep and good mental health) are much easier to manage.
• Less time spent searching for misplaced items. It's much harder to lose a term paper, textbook or pair of shoes from last winter when your apartment isn't packed to the gills with items you don't use.
• Happier mental state. Believe it or not, clutter can weigh you down. By eliminating anything that doesn't bring joy to you, happiness naturally surrounds you.
• Freedom to go. The thought of moving abroad instills panic in the minds of those who have accumulated many possessions, but minimalists realize they don't have to be tied down to one place because they don't have tons of stuff to pack, move, sell or store.
A guide to minimalism
• Change your mindset. Minimalism expert Lee Fisher notes that it's important to understand why you want to go 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."
• Be ruthless yet realistic. When doing an initial purge of items, the three categories to keep in mind are sentimental, legal or essential everyday items. If something doesn't fit in this category, it probably needs to go.
• Find a place for everything. After the initial paring-down, assign a place for all the items that you decided to keep. This makes it easier to access those items, but is also a great visual reminder if you start accumulating again and don't have a place to put things.
• Enjoy the benefits. Minimalism is about freeing up your time to enjoy the things that really matter, so don't forget to reap the benefits of spending more time with people you love and doing the things that fill you with happiness.
• 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.
• Decide if it's right for you. “Minimalism is not for everyone; some people need distractions and others love the latest gadgets," says Fisher. “As a student, now is the perfect time to understand whether minimalism is for you. Student life is busy and full of constant distractions, and dorms are often cluttered; this is the perfect environment to test what works best for you."
Some inspirational resources
From Joshua Becker: becoming minimalist
From Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus: the minimalists
Below: Jim's presentation with the OKC Minimalists in August, 2014: