I’ve wanted to be “minimalist” since roughly 2016. I went through multiple phases of trying and failing, but was eventually able to make permanent changes.
Today, my closet is the smallest it’s ever been, my bookshelf has been cut down to 10-15 books, and my cleaning is the most efficient it’s ever been. The progress so far has even allowed me to discover new and exciting interests.
This is an account of my journey with minimalism so far, including the failed attempts and some key insights that made a big difference for me.
Changing my ingrained patterns is a huge struggle for me, because I’m pretty inconsistent and have a hard time willing myself to do (or not do) different things. Nevertheless, I kept trying to apply various minimalist strategies to my life.
When I wanted to focus better, I’d clear off my desk and file everything away neatly in drawers. The clutter quickly came back.
When I wanted to think less about getting dressed, or when I wanted to reduce how much I shopped for clothes, I’d try a capsule wardrobe… and then within a few days I’d decide to wear something that wasn’t in the capsule and fall back into my regular patterns.
And when I thought I had too much stuff, I’d go through some of it and painstakingly make a little pile to take to take to Goodwill… and then maybe half the items would be “rescued” from the Goodwill pile when I decided I could continue to use them.
I also tried to reduce the amount of stuff I owned by asking for only consumable gifts, because I had such a hard time getting rid of non-consumable gifts I had been given in previous years. This made me less stressed out about accumulating more things during the holiday season, but didn’t significantly impact the number of things I owned.
This went on for maybe three years. I had the best intentions, I read a lot of blog posts about minimalism, and I really wanted a cleaner space, but I just didn’t make very meaningful changes.
Key Insight #1: Remove Stuff
The first big turning point for me in my journey was the realization that I needed to remove stuff. Minimalism is about not being burdened by physical possessions, which (for people like me) means having less stuff.
Yes, in retrospect, this is pretty obvious, but a big part of my failed attempts at minimalism was that I never succeeded in removing a significant amount of stuff. I’d reorganize without removing, so the clutter would always come back. And I’d remove a few items here and there, but then offset them with more shopping, so I never made any meaningful progress.
The practice that helped most with finally removing a large amount of stuff was Marie Kondo’s item send-offs. When saying goodbye to an item, Marie Kondo advises holding the item in your hands and thanking it for its service to you, whatever that service was. “Thank you for making me look nice on that date,” and “thank you for teaching me not to buy bras without trying them on,” might be examples of how to thank an item during its send-off.
When I did send-offs, it became easier to part with more items, so I’d do more send-offs, and part with more items.
The part of the item send-offs that was so magical for me was the expression of gratitude. Before I learned about item send-offs, I had a very hard time getting rid of things. I owned lots of things with nothing really wrong with them, and getting rid of them felt like a waste, and I hate to waste. Expressing gratitude for what an item did for me made its use to me explicit, showing me that it was, in fact, not a waste.
In addition to item send-offs, reading Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye, Things, challenged my conception of which items I truly needed, putting things like dedicated shampoo on the list of items to be considered for removal. (I’m currently using a combo shampoo-body wash.)
I also needed to cut back on shopping in order to keep down the amount of things I owned. This continues to be a challenge for me, but I am getting a lot better. It has also gotten easier as, due to minimalism, I have begun cherishing the things I own more.
Key Insight #2: Minimalism Is Not A Goal
I got all fired up and spent a number of weekends sorting through my possessions and removing stuff. But as much as I enjoy having less stuff, I quickly realized that that removing stuff was not how I wanted to spend all my free time.
My big realization, after I had removed a bunch of stuff, was that I don’t want to be a minimalist. That is, that’s not what I want my friends to know me as, and that’s not want I want to talk to strangers about when I meet them for the first time.
I want to start a successful business, be a great engineer, make cool art, and/or learn biochemistry. Minimalism, like meditation, is a really great tool to help me achieve such cool things; it’s not a goal in itself.
My failure to realize this earlier was probably also a reason for some of my failed attempts. I knew that minimalism would make getting dressed easier because I’d have fewer clothing choices, but outside of that, I thought of it as mostly an aesthetic pursuit. Little did I know it is not a goal in itself, but rather a way to achieve other things and generally improve my life.
And with that, on to the benefits of minimalism that I’ve experienced.
Benefit #1: Fewer Chores
As it turns out, when you have less stuff, cleaning is a whole lot easier.
I currently live in an apartment with rather dusty, old carpet, and dusting and vacuuming used to be quite the struggle. I’d always have to move things so I could vacuum under them or dust around them. Now, I have less stuff, so I have less stuff to deal with when cleaning!
Also, when I had more clothes, I used to let the laundry pile up, because I could always wear something else clean from my closet. Then, laundry days would be big, annoying days. I had the same problem with dishes; I used to let dishes and pans pile up (yeah, I know, yuck) because I could easily grab another clean one.
Since I cut back on clothes and kitchenware, I do chores more regularly and in smaller bursts. Each burst is a small amount of work, often small enough to complete while waiting on something else, so the total amount of time I dedicate to chores and cleaning is much smaller than before.
Every item I own requires care in some way. If it’s out and I use it regularly, I need to regularly clean and dust it. If it’s not on display or is infrequently used, it will still require care to pack and unpack during my next move.
Having fewer things has resulted, wonderfully, in fewer things to care for and thus fewer chores.
Benefit #2: Relationships With My Things
I have magically become much more appreciative of the things I own. This is probably in part due to occasionally following Marie Kondo’s method of thanking each of my items when I am done using them for the day. It’s also in part due to having fewer items that I can reuse for more purposes, so many items I own are hardworking ones that get lots of use.
Whatever the cause, my newfound relationships with my things makes me treat my things better while I own them, makes me eager to find better homes for them when I do not use them, and makes me careful about what new items I bring into my home.
Finding better homes for items I don’t use is especially relevant for reducing books. Books are containers of information. Letting them sit on a bookshelf deprives them of sharing their information. Because of this, I’ve been able to let almost all of my books go. I like to imagine that they’re happier in a Little Free Library than on my bookshelf because they have a greater chance of being read and enjoyed by someone else.
The desire to find better homes for items I don’t use has also showed me the joy of giving. Not only is finding a new home a great way to treat the item itself, it can also be a wonderful thing for the gift recipient! I gifted an easel to a very-excited 12-year old, and I gifted all my knitting supplies to someone who was looking to try out a new hobby. My relationship with my things doesn’t mean that I will always keep all my things, but rather that I want to find them the most appropriate homes.
My relationship with my things also affects how I bring new items into my home. Rarely do I buy non-consumables just because they are on sale anymore. Instead, I think about what items I might have that fulfill a similar need. Continuing to use something I’ve owned for multiple years is a better decision because I trust that that item will continue working for me. A new item has a chance of warping in the wash, breaking after a few uses, or not performing as well. Thus, I often don’t feel the need to buy new things, because I prefer what I already own.
An unlikely relationship that I’ve developed is with my cast iron skillet. On average, I use it daily, and it gets better the more I use it. I hope to never have to replace it. I’ve gone as far as taking it on the occasional trip with me, because I prefer it to the pans available in most Airbnbs.
I’ve also rekindled a relationship with a pea coat that I’ve owned since high school. When I was more in-tune with the constantly-changing fashions of the day, I thought it looked a little out-of-style and tried shopping for something that looked more modern. But since I pared down my coat closet, I have rediscovered how much I like the classic style as-is, how the weight is perfect in a variety of temperatures, and how well the material has held up over many years. It is now my single nice (non-athletic) coat, and I adore how it does its job perfectly, and has done so for many years.
Benefit #3: Personal Discovery
Having fewer things has resulted in me having more free time and energy. To be fair, some of my newly-freed-up time is definitely due to the ongoing pandemic, but I attribute the newly-freed-up energy to my minimalism pursuits.
I’ve recently been reading a lot more books, exploring new fields and ideas, and researching various interesting careers.
My newly-empty bookshelf has allowed me to stop feeling guilty about the books I kept hoping to read, so that when I recently identified an exciting new area I was interested in (biochemistry!), I could buy a book or two to learn more and really focus in on it without getting distracted by my other possessions.
My newly-cleared space has allowed me to invest in things I need to go deeper in this exciting area; in particular, I purchased a microscope and have been looking at various specimens! While this would’ve been possible before I made progress with minimalism, it would not have been nearly as successful because I would’ve had less time and mental space to devote to the new pursuit.
Oh yeah, and I also started a blog!
Conclusion And Resources
So that’s my 5-year journey with minimalism. I don’t think of myself as a minimalist and I certainly still have a lot of things, but I feel like I have come very far nevertheless. I continue to discover new ways that minimalism changes how I think about the world and I have no doubt I’ll continue trying and experimenting.
My favorite minimalism resources are:
- The More of Less by Joshua Becker: A great and extremely practical starter book that I wish I read sooner, which is especially useful for understanding motivation and what minimalism is (and is not) about.
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo: The ultimate hands-on guide to discarding with loads of effective tips.
- Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki: A book that pushed me to challenge Marie Kondo’s “spark joy” criterion and go even farther.
What key insights helped you make minimalism stick, or what are you struggling with if you’ve yet to make it stick? Do you have any favorite minimalism resources?
Engineer, 8w7, and practical idealist. Sharing practical strategies and learnings to help you on your personal journey. I post on Mondays.