In the past 5 years or so, minimalistic living became something very close to my heart and an important part of my life design and superior personal organization. More and more people are joining this movement, since it’s really one of the coolest and most beneficial lifestyles to follow in today’s cluttered world.
In this article, I will describe my experience of going from a messy person who kept every small useless thing to becoming an unhealthy ascetic person and then finally a healthy minimalist. All that hoping to convince you to also try and experiment with this awesome life design concept.
Living a minimalistic lifestyle not only makes room for the important things in life, but it’s also a great weapon against being bombarded with products and sales offers all the time. Not to mention that minimalism makes your wallet full and happy.
After making the first steps towards minimalism, you quickly realize that you don’t need thousands of useless items to be happy, unique and to feel safe.
You do need a few key things that make life comfortable and you need to protect yourself on a material level and enjoy having possessions, but at the same you must know where to draw the line, so that things aren’t cluttering your life, giving you a false sense of identity and dragging your productivity down.
So let’s start exploring the world of minimalistic living. Here are the topics covered in the article:
The world is filled with cheap products and everybody wants you to buy something
If you turn on the TV, you can quickly see one big downside of today’s world. The mantra that crowds all over the world are following, especially young people, is “shopping & f*cking”.
Everybody wants to enjoy life through endless hours of shopping, enjoying material possessions, being famous and having fun. The demand on markets is the highest ever in history and people can’t wait to spend their hard‑earned money (or their parent’s money or even borrowed money) on new products.
High demand leads to even higher supply. That means shopping centers are growing like mushrooms after a rainy day even in small mountain villages, you are exposed to hundreds of ads every day everywhere you go, and the social pressure to own the latest version of a phone, car and fashionable clothes has never been so huge. Everybody wants to get high just one more time by buying a few new possessions.
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At this point a quote from Fight Club serves us perfectly to illustrate the whole picture:
People buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to impress people they don’t like.
The pressure that you are missing out on something if you don’t own everything in fashion, and if you aren’t beautiful, smart, rich, fit and powerful at the same time is very huge. That’s why people want more and more.
Being exposed to all the shopping centers, products and ads, having easy access to money, yielding under all the social pressure and enjoying the dopamine rush when you buy something new is the perfect combination that makes people into unwise spenders.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that we live in the best times ever. There are so many upsides to today’s world, like the lowest poverty, high mobility, access to information, endless opportunities and high safety levels. We can enjoy all that, at least in most parts of the world.
But there are also a few downsides – market complexity, information overload, unrealistic expectations towards life and too many options for everything, including options for buying new things.
Glorifying shopping and the “yolo” mentality are definitely not strong virtues and values of contemporary times. All great things in life were achieved with stoic virtues – frugality, smart and hard work, innovation, superior organization and flexibility. And empires crumbled under epicureanism.
Finding the balance between the inner resources and the outer resources
Minimalistic living is about finding the right balance between possessing inner and outer resources, and finding a balance between materialistic greed and ascetic martyrdom. If we start with the basic segmentation of resources, we know two types of resources – inner (internal) ones and outer (external) ones.
Internal resources are the sum of all of your competences – knowledge, skills, willpower, creativity, innovative ideas, self-image, self-confidence, your life strategy and how you design your lifestyle, and everything else that is a part of your personality, your mindset and your agency. With inner resources, you have the ability to influence your environment and create wealth (money, healthy relationships, creative works, value added etc.).
Your outer or external resources are all possessions and wealth you have that is not a part of who you are – money, connections, contracts, assets and all the items you possess. Now here’s why the inner/outer resources division is important for minimalistic living.
An emotionally healthy person looks for a balance between the inner and the outer resources. Such a person knows that they have to develop their inner resources first, and then with the right inner resources they can always create more outer resources.
For example, if you learn how to code, you can always undertake a new coding project to make more money. If you develop sales skills, you can always earn more money by selling something. The rarer the skills you possess that are in high demand, the better the position you are in. The right combination of inner resources brings the biggest safety ever; because you can always make more money.
With the inner resources, you can directly create more external resources. But the formula doesn’t work the other way around. You can’t directly gain more inner resources by possessing more outer resources. That is exactly what people are trying to achieve by owning thousands of items and constantly buying new ones. Let me explain:
- You hope to feel happier (inner resource) by buying yourself a new thing (outer resource).
- You hope to be more self-confident (inner resource) by putting on new fancy clothes (external resource).
- You hope to be seen as an interesting person (inner resource) by buying the latest version of a phone (external resource).
- You hope that your spouse will love you more (inner resource) by buying him/her a new fancy gift or a bigger car (outer resource).
You may quickly wrongly assume wrong that more outer resources bring more inner resources. You can quickly identify yourself with your possessions. Different brands may feel like parts of your personality.
The dopamine rush might seem like you found the way to happiness by making one more purchase. A relationship might finally seem like a happy one when you buy someone an expensive gift, but what about in a few days? Things go back to normal, where they deserve to be.
External resources absolutely play a great role in developing more inner resources, but not directly, only indirectly. You might definitely look more representative in a nice suit. But you still need personality substance. The suit is only an add-on. You definitely might be more productive with a faster and newer phone. But first you need to be organized as a person in your core lifestyle.
A nice home can definitely bring you more comfort, but it will never make you permanently happy. The substance, like an interesting personality, resourcefulness, likability, status, they’re all developed by working on yourself, not buying things. They get developed by investing in yourself and continuous improvement.
That leads us to the second part of the quote from Fight Club: “You are not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. You are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”
In other words, you are unique and as unique as everybody else. You don’t need thousands of meaningless possessions to feel better about yourself. Feel good about yourself when you are completely naked. Develop your talents, become a healthy assertive person and know that you deserve love for who you are. No possession can bring you that.
Minimalism is not the lack of something, it’s the perfect amount of something. N.B.
Ascetic life, the other unhealthy extreme
Hoping to find happiness, uniqueness and identity in owning hundreds of meaningless possessions (on borrowed money) is one extreme. The other extreme is denying the material world altogether and sliding into an illusion of divine unmaterialistic spirituality, ascetic living and giving up on owning anything that isn’t necessary to survive.
If changing your lifestyle and following new dogmas is based on emotional issues, you can quickly go from one extreme to another.
When you find that material things don’t bring happiness per se and that they can’t calm your hungry soul down, you can quickly decide to join the anti-capitalism march hating the materialistic world filled with advertisements and especially the financial system supporting all the corruption, unfairness and depravity. I’ve been on one side and the other.
Denying the material world is as bad as glorifying it. I’m not saying that the social design is perfect, that the financial system is working well, and that there isn’t a worrying gap between the rich and the poor. I am trying to bring forward the painful truth that the reason why people decide to live the ascetic life and resist the materialistic world or even protest against it are rarely that straightforward.
If you are constantly obsessed that you own too many things, your mind is still obsessed with stuff.
For those people who decide for an aggressive ascetic lifestyle, it’s usually too painful to enjoy the material world, or too painful to fight for material things. The source of the pain might be that they don’t believe in themselves enough, inconsiderately acquire competences that are high in supply and low in demand, or have traumatic experiences in childhood that led to developing a false mindset about possessions.
Being raised in poverty often leads to one extreme or the other – to a greedy soul that’s never satisfied or to a martyr for whom it’s too painful to own anything. I’ve been on both sides, so I know how these extremes feel. They are definitely not the solution and the formula for a happy life.
Denying the material world is not the answer. If you are constantly bothered by what you own, your mind is still obsessed with stuff, and that isn’t healthy. You have to find the right balance between having enough inner and outer resources, so that you can normally grow, create and enjoy life and easily connect with other people. You don’t want to only survive in the material world, you want to thrive.
So when it comes to minimalism, you have to avoid anyone claiming that you should own only an x number items to be a true minimalist or that if you own one expensive item you are a traitor to the minimalistic community.
Minimalism is about possessing the perfect amount of something, be it an outer or an inner resource. Being a true minimalist means that you don’t run away from the material world, but on the other hand you also make sure that you don’t drown in it and waste your life.
The problem of owning too much stuff and basic rules of minimalism
Now that we know not to push into any extreme, the question is what to own and what not to own. Let’s analyze what makes sense. All material things have one big problem. They take up space, time and energy. They have a tendency to pile up.
We all have that drawer full of clutter; and a basement or a garage. And a corner in a room. Things have extreme inertia and tend to stay where they are as dust holders. That’s why all material things need to be managed properly. There are a few rules about that.
He who buys what he doesn’t need steals from himself. – Swedish proverb
Don’t buy things too quickly
By nature, we are all emotional buyers, impulsive buyers. Every purchase gives us a small dopamine rush. That’s why you have to trick yourself into becoming a wiser spender. There’s a simple trick you can do.
Wait a few days before making minor purchases and a few weeks for bigger purchases. You’ll be surprised at how often you change your mind and foresee that at the end of the day, maybe you don’t need that thing that you wished for so much.
Properly maintain what you own
You can extend the longevity of things you own with regular maintenance. It’s better to own fewer things and maintain them properly, than to own thousands of items you forget about or don’t have time to maintain.
Examples are regularly cleaning your computer from the outside and its operating system, taking good care of your car, protecting expensive items with cases etc.
Do regular cleanings
One of the most important things for living a minimalist lifestyle are regular cleanings. You should try to discard the things you don’t need on a daily basis as life goes by, but in spite of doing that, things still have a tendency to accumulate and take up space.
That’s why it makes sense to do regular monthly cleanings and a major one every half year. Right before winter and summer begin, do a major cleaning. Here I wrote how I do regular major cleanings.
Designing a space for decluttering
There are only two types of home design. The one that encourages clutter accumulation and the one that discourages it. Many drawers, shelves, boxes, wardrobes and niches invite clutter and rubbish. You want to avoid that. Minimalistic designs, where there is no place to put a new souvenir, leave you with only one place where the memento can go – trash.
You can always take a picture of the souvenir and save it on your computer for the memories. But you need to build yourself a motivational environment that encourages minimalistic life design and prevents you from throwing things in the corner where they pile up for months.
Everything you own either brings value into your life or drags you down
Everything you do and have in life (material things, relationships etc.) either adds value to your life or drags you down. There is no third option. Things that add value to your life are things that make you happy, lead you to more creativity and greatness, make you healthier and more energetic, develop your talents, and so on.
Things that take value from the quality of your life (aka waste) are the things that bring the negative into your life, to the environment or the society. This list contains clutter, overspending, throwing food away, owning things that only take up space, and so on.
For every item you own, you have to ask yourself whether it brings value to your life or not really. If it doesn’t bring any real value into your life, you don’t need it. The result you’ll enjoy in the end by throwing away things you don’t need is more time, more money, more physical space and more room for the important things in life.
- Do you love the item you own?
- Is the item really useful?
- Do you feel positive energies when you think about the item?
Nevertheless, you must be very careful when answering the question of whether throwing something away or not makes sense, because your emotions might quickly mislead and mess with you. You can very quickly find a superficial argument why not to throw something away. Let’s look at how to deal with that.
I make myself rich by making my wants few. H.D. Thoreau
The mixed feelings you always have when throwing things away
I did a long self-reflection every time I took a step deeper into the minimalistic lifestyle. I also observed many of my friends and family members doing major cleanings. There’s one interesting thing that I noticed. You can extremely easily find an excuse why not to sell, give or throw something away.
- The item holds memories or you are somehow emotionally attached to it.
- You assume that you might need that item someday, even if you haven’t used it for years.
- You feel guilty at the first thought of getting rid of something, even if you don’t like the item, because it was a gift, you were taught not to throw things away, and so on.
- Rooms filled with things don’t seem empty, and that means your life must also be more full.
That’s what usually holds people back. These are the counterforces, battling all the advantages of throwing something away. It feels good to throw something away. It makes room in your life. You get more margin. But it's emotionally hard.
When you tidy up your environment, you always feel like you also tidied up part of your inner self – your mind, emotions and spirit. Not to mention the benefits of the workout you do when you carry all the clutter from the shelves into the trash.
Having more time, more money, more physical space, less stress and more room for the important things in life always feels good and liberating.
When you do major cleanings, when you have to decide whether to get rid of something or not, there are always doubts and second thoughts. That’s normal.
And every time you have to convince yourself that the freedom of not owning unnecessary stuff is much greater and beneficial than any emotional arguments that look for superficial safety in owning things. With time, it gets easier to own as little as possible, but there is always a bit of internal struggle when you have to throw something away. It’s normal and we all have to deal with it.
When you have problems deciding what to do with an item, ask yourself – which moments in your past were the deepest and most fulfilling experiences you had? Which past things made your life really valuable and worthwhile and bring tears to your eyes? It’s probably not an old rusty vacuum cleaner in your garage that you might need some day.
All the options you have when doing major cleanings
Many people assume that when you decide to live a more minimalistic lifestyle, you throw away 90 % of your stuff and that’s it. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Becoming a minimalist is a process. It takes time. You can’t become a minimalist in a single day.
Becoming a minimalist is like peeling an onion. First you start by cleaning things out of your life that you really don’t need, and then you make the standards for what it makes sense to own and what not higher and higher. You just have to be careful not to go into any extremes, as we discussed.
In the process of de-owning, throwing things away is not the only option you have. You have at least four options at your disposal for what to do with things:
- Throw away – You can simply throw away an item for which you know that it has no value at all
- Give away – Sometimes things that have no value for you have value for other people
- Sell – If an item has solid monetary value and you don’t need it, liquidate it into cash
- Rent out – If an item has value and you don’t need it, you can turn it into a cash machine by renting it or getting a co-owner or a co-user
Other options you have that also lead to more minimalistic lifestyle:
- Automate – social media marketing, tasks, production …
- Cancel – subscription, event, appearance, travel, visit, meeting …
- Delegate – tasks, commitments, chores …
- Delete – task, functionality, files, online account …
- Downsize – company, number of relationships, car, house …
- Forget about it – issue, problem, person …
- Let it go – emotional problem, emotional issue …
- Minimize – workload, number of daily decisions, options …
- Optimize – chores, processes, decision-making …
- Opt out – newsletters, projects, commitments, meetings …
- Refocus – reset priorities, define your True north …
- Remove – people from your life, functionalities, options …
- Set limits – for mental masturbation, TV watching, the number of things you do simultaneously …
When I went from one extreme (searching for safety in material things) into the other (not owning anything) I made a big mistake. I threw away and gave away hundreds of possessions that had solid monetary value. A price tag. It was thousands of dollars given or thrown away. Just because I was so eager and enthusiastic to become a minimalist.
It should have been more than obvious to me that a big emotional burden is behind the change and that I was acting irrationally. As I repeat over and over again, be rational on your way to the minimalistic path. A minimalistic lifestyle is no solution for emotional problems. It’s a lifestyle that can lead to a better quality of life, if you do steps into the minimalistic lifestyle in the right way.
You don’t own stuff, stuff owns you.
How to make the first steps towards minimalism
I hope you’re at least a little bit convinced that living a minimalistic life design make sense. Thus the most important question is: what is the next step. Well, there are simple things you can do to begin a minimalistic lifestyle and then you can escalate from there to the point you still feel comfortable.
- Give away clothes you don’t wear and need
- Tidy up your home and make it much more minimalistic
- Digitalize everything that can be digitalized
- Downsize your car if you own a car you can’t afford
- Minimize your reading list, tasks and commitments to the most important ones
- Start acting more minimalistic towards food and relationships
Let’s dig a bit deeper into every one of these steps.
I’m currently looking for a new home, and so I visited a few flats and houses to rent/buy. There was one pattern in all the properties I visited. People had piles of clothes everywhere. On chairs, floor, wardrobes, everywhere. They didn’t even bother cleaning them up and putting them where they belong.
Clothes are cheap, easy to buy and there is always a new fashionable piece you should own. But then you spend 80 % of the time wearing the 20 % of your clothes that you bought years ago.
The best way to start a minimalistic lifestyle is to give away clothes you haven’t worn at all in the past few months. And then be very careful when you buy new ones.
You want to have a home filled with laughter, happy family members, good friends and positive energy. You want to have a bright, spacy and clean home, where there is plenty of room for warm relationships. That means your home needs one big cleaning.
Consider getting rid of all the things you haven’t used in months or even years (that you might need some day) – all the souvenirs, broken items, old books, worn out towels. Who needs all that? Decide to do one big cleaning of your home, and then do it regularly.
It might be hard to throw the first few things away, but after the fifth item everything will be easier and right after you’re done with the cleaning process, you will feel wonderful. You can even have a garage sale, for example.
Everything that can be digitalized
A big enabler of the minimalistic lifestyle is the so-called asset-light living. Asset-light living means you can digitalize many things you had to physically own a decade ago. CDs, videotapes, audiotapes, photo albums, books, notes etc.; it can all be digitalized or bought in a digital version.
If you aren’t a professional collector of any of those things, you can free up a lot of your space by organizing a huge part of your life in the cloud. While you do that, you can also clean your files and folders on your computer, you can delete e-mail accounts and social networks you rarely use, and remove all other waste from your life.
Car is most often the second biggest expense in a household, right behind a home. You don’t want to be slave to your home, and you especially don’t want to be slave to your car. Buy a car you can afford, regularly maintain it and make sure it’s clean and tidy.
The best minimalistic move you can probably do right away is to downgrade your car. There are so many hidden expenses in a car, like insurance, gas and amortization. When you want to sell your car it’s worth nothing, and every new car costs a fortune.
Car is nothing but one big cash consuming machine. Like TV is one big time consuming machine. I don’t even own a car anymore and it feels great.
Projects and tasks
The next very important aspect of life where you can do a big cleanup is the number of projects and tasks you have on your to-do list. The majority of people are overwhelmed with work and they are doing it to themselves by committing to way too many things; sometimes to run away from life in doing instead of also being. Don’t be one of them.
Commit to a few projects where you really bring value and then say no to all the other things.
Go through your tasks, delete all of those that aren’t really that important, and send a few e-mails out that you won’t manage to deliver what is expected of you so you will rather exit the projects. It takes some guts, but you will feel wonderful afterwards. You will do a big favor to yourself and others, who impatiently waited for you to deliver.
Things to read
I really like to read, so it can quickly happen to me to have thousands of unread articles in the RSS reader, ten not-yet-finished books on my Kindle, and a Pocket app full of to-read articles. Then from time to time when I started to feel overwhelmed, I used to just delete everything.
I stopped doing that and decided to go for a smarter strategy. Now I only go for the best content with limited to-read in progress. I don’t queue new things or buy new books when the reading queue limit is reached. You should be absolutely minimalistic in organizing your infostructure; otherwise you can drown in information.
As much as we look for emotional safety in items, we can also look for it in food. It’s called gluttony and it leads to being overweight, low levels of energy and several diseases. Being a minimalist when it comes to food can greatly improve your quality of life.
Don’t buy too much food and don’t stockpile tons of food that you then throw away because you couldn’t eat it before the expiration date. Have a standard weekly shopping list, eat standardized dishes and eat less of more quality food.
Much like you want to be minimalistic with items you possess and food you eat, so you want to be minimalistic with relationships in your life. You want to have fewer relationships, and for those be really quality ones. Key relationships are one of the most important aspects of your life.
People can make your life on Earth heaven or hell. Make sure you take enough quality time with the few people you really love, and offer each other mutual support and encouragement. Be minimalistic in your relationships.
A minimalistic lifestyle is always very kind to your wallet, your stomach and your heart.
My steps towards becoming a minimalist
When I earned my first real money as a teenager, I decided to renovate my room. I wanted my architect to put as many shelves, drawers and wardrobes as possible into my room. Then throughout the years, I piled things up. Technology was my biggest weakness.
I had a PC, laptop, netbook, three monitors, tablet, a few mobile phones, you name it. Books were my second weakness. I had thousands of books lying everywhere. One of my shelves collapsed because of it. Not that I’m against owning books, but I had hundreds of unread books and I was buying new ones and new ones. It’s called intellectual greed.
I had wardrobes full of clothes I never wore, old magazines were lying around everywhere, I had souvenirs from all over the world on my shelves and desk, and I had hundreds of items I never used. I felt like the room was full of memories and I felt rich in a way. But in reality the room was as cluttered and unorganized as my internal world.
As mentioned, I then went from one extreme into another. One day I read about the minimalistic lifestyle and I just decided to be a minimalist. It made sense to me, it could be a solution for my turbulent inner world. I gave away thousands of books to friends, libraries and secondhand bookshops. I threw away all the souvenirs. I decided to go for one laptop with two external monitors. I minimized the clothes I had.
I tried hard to really own as many things as possible. Everything I still owned bothered me. A computer cable that I rarely used, a few coins in the drawer, everything bothered me. I searched for peace and salvation in owning as few things as possible.
Then at some point, I realized the same thing that Buddha taught and was enlightened about. Many times, the middle path is the answer. I figured out that going from one extreme into the other won’t bring me any peace and happiness. So I decided to be a healthy minimalist. Here are the rules I follow now:
- I prefer warm and healthy relationships over owning money and brutally fighting for more possessions and fancy things. But I don’t deny the importance of money and the benefits of enjoying the material world.
- I want to experience life more than to own things; but I have no problem enjoying the few material possessions that I do own.
- I try to own as few things as possible, but I don’t torture myself with how many items I own.
- If owning something brings a lot of stress into my life, I downsize it or sell it.
- From time to time I buy myself an expensive thing I really want and I have no problem with it.
- I give special attention to not enslaving myself with debt.
- I try to simplify my life as much as possible and make the majority of my life about growth, creating things, connecting with people and doing things I really enjoy, which rarely costs a lot of money.
- I know that the real path to inner happiness and peace is not through material things. I strive for a balanced amount of inner and outer resources.
- I try to keep my environment as simplistic and minimalistic as possible.
- I try to digitalize everything that can be digitalized by following asset-light living and having my own digital brain. I also regularly go on technology detoxes.
- I am very mindful about the quality of the food I eat, the quality of the relationships I have and the projects I join and really commit to.
- I very carefully maintain all the items I own. I clean them, protect them, take them to the maintenance shop when needed, and so on. The phone I own looks like new after a few years.
- I do regular cleanings at least two times per year – of my physical and digital environment.
You can read more here about one of my minimalistic cleanings that I did not that long ago. I’m always surprised at how I can still manage to find a few bags of clutter even if I’m very careful about what I keep in my life. Without regular cleanings, there is no minimalistic life.
As I mentioned, today I am a much healthier minimalist, even if I currently don’t own a car or a mobile phone. But I will have no problem buying any of these two items the moment I need them. I always ask myself if something brings value into my life or drags me down. After that, I have a very clear picture of what to do with the item – own it or discard it.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Do you have the guts to try the minimalistic lifestyle?
Now it’s up to you. It might seem scary to get rid of 80 % of the things you currently have, but you can make it less scary by following a carefully orchestrated process that we discussed. The first step is to get rid of one single thing.
Sell something that has solid monetary value and that you don’t need on eBay. Liquidate it into cash. Then donate a few pieces of clothing you really don’t wear. Play a little bit with different ideas for how you can simplify your life and how you can own less. Experiment a little bit, it’s fun.
The only thing you have to be careful about is not to go into any extreme. Don’t drown in stuff. Don’t drown in debt. Be more a producer than a consumer. But don’t be only a producer who doesn’t enjoy life and only works, and don’t try to live the extreme ascetic life; you won’t find happiness there.
The material world is a very important part of the life experience. You are here on this world to grow, create, connect with people as well as to enjoy material things and possessions. Enjoy them, but don’t not look for happiness in them.
Make sure you know where to draw the line and how to find the right balance – between possessing, being and doing. Now it’s time for you to make your first step towards a more minimalistic lifestyle. Get rid of one of the items you don’t need. It will feel good, believe me.
If you aren’t sure, you can try minimalism as a 30 Day Challenge. Rent a completely empty flat, select no more than 100 items and try to live for a month. I know it sounds crazy, but it will definitely be an awesome life experience. Something you can tell your kids about.
If that sounds too crazy, you can find here a solid 30 Day Challenge plan for how to do one thing every day to get one step closer to a minimalistic lifestyle. It’s a smart plan and an exciting challenge you can absolutely go after.
And if you are interested in reading more about the minimalistic lifestyle and personal experience that other people had with minimalism The Minimalists, BecomingMinimalist, mnmlist, TheMinimalistMom and Minimalism Subreddit are some of the most popular resources.