Less is More

How Limiting your Possessions can Improve your Life

Japan is already into it in a big way and the rest of the world is catching on. Minimalism is the art of living a much simpler lifestyle, in order to focus only on what’s important – creating more time to pursue connections with others, experiences and giving more to the world than one takes.

For many, the decision to pursue a minimalist existence is borne out of financial necessity. For others, it’s a giant “fuck you” to the grossly excessive nature of our materialistic aggregate. One of the reasons so many people feel like they couldn’t live with less stuff is that it is the way we have been conditioned to think and feel – this society has been shoving its giant consumerism chode down our throats since the day we were born. Advertisers target children to try and create happy early memories of their products and pull us all onto the work-spend treadmill as early as possible.

People are groomed to feel insecure and, as pointed out by Tyler Durden in Fight Club, we begin to “buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like”. It’s a circle-jerk of wasteful spending and nobody is winning except the corporations. All of this mindless consumerism is placing alarming amounts of stress on the environment, as heavily industrial countries like China suffocate underneath the pollution created from meeting the rest of the world’s production demands. It needs to stop.

Enter minimalism.

Author Tammy Strobel, and her husband Logan, struggled with debt for years and were both working full-time to pay for all the unnecessary things they were racking up on their credit cards. They were overworked, miserable and loaded with student debt, which began to cause problems in their relationship.

One day, Logan suggested that they try to live in their two-bedroom apartment as if it were one-bedroom, to see if they would be able to deal with having just one room. They emptied the second room out and taped it off, and within a few weeks they realised that it was possible to live in less space. They packed away the TV and began decluttering their possessions (albeit slowly – like any of us would, they struggled at first). Next, they got rid of one car, then another - forcing them to use bicycles, resulting in less commuting time and improved fitness. Ultimately they ended up moving to another state, saving them even more money.

The Strobels gave up 90% of their possessions, moved into a tiny home on wheels, got their debt paid off (and began to accumulate savings), changed their careers to healthier ones that suited their lifestyle and, in short, were able to remove a massive amount of stress from their lives. They ditched the things that didn’t serve them, and tailored their surroundings and possessions to complement their life, not make it harder. This shift in lifestyle prompted Strobel to write a book about their journey - You Can Buy Happiness (and it’s Cheap!).

Over time, “the things you own end up owning you” (Tyler Durden yet again, smart man), due to the time you waste keeping them tidy and maintained. Once you take away all the mind-numbingly unnecessary garbage that you inadvertently allow into your home, you start to feel freer and lighter. Life doesn’t feel as stressful because you don’t have as much junk to keep track of. Why are we attached to stuff? It’s just… stuff. We should feel defined by our experiences and actions, not by the shit that we own.

Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus are two guys who decided in 2010 that minimalism was definitely the right fit for their lives, and subsequently have taken the good word on tour, with numerous books, podcasts and a documentary on the subject. These guys seriously live with very little stuff, which is apparent in their documentary the Minimalists when you see them packing for a road trip – almost everything Millburn owns fits into his suitcase!

Referring to themselves as the Minimalists, their aim is not to minimise life, but instead to maximise it. “Minimalists don’t focus on having less, less, less; rather, we focus on making room for more: more time, more passion, more experiences, more growth, more contribution, more contentment. More freedom. Clearing the clutter from life’s path helps us make that room.”

I myself have had casual brushes with minimalism – after living with a couple of very messy flatmates, I developed a mild phobia of ‘having stuff’. It was around this time that I randomly stumbled on Strobel’s book and, in my vulnerably pissed-off state, it really spoke to me. I subsequently decided to whittle my possessions down immediately. I owned quite a lot of random curios, and I adopted a steely judgment system in deciding what would get the hatchet. Basically it came down to three simple questions:

  1. Have I used this in the past six months?
  2. Is it easy to replace if I want another one in the future?
  3. Does it have a legit function/purpose in my life?

Everything that didn’t pass my beady-eyed assessment got given away. There was a LOT of stuff, and, in order to get rid of it, I posted pics of each item in a Facebook album entitled “FREE TO GOOD HOME”. I gave away all manner of musical instruments, books, art, clothes, cameras, collectibles and gadgets - some stuff still unopened in the box! 

Many people thought it was weird that I was giving away so much stuff, when I “could be getting money for it”, but I had truly become so squeamish about clutter that it was more important for me to get rid of it all as soon as possible, rather than dick around dealing with transactions. I didn’t need the money as much as I needed everything gone.

We shouldn’t automatically assign value to an item just because we paid money for it once upon a time.  This is a very important thing to wrap your head around if you ever want to truly stop having so much attachment to shit that you just plain don’t use or need. Crazily, everyone absolutely jumped at the chance to take all that stuff off my hands – people are pretty indiscriminate about what objects they will bring into their home, especially if it’s free (which is probably one of the reasons so many people have so much useless crap).

Do I recommend decluttering for everybody? Hell yes. Decluttering is a subjective task, you can choose to be quite brutal and minimalistic or you can decide to just start with one area and see how you go. A good place to start is the kitchen. Do you really need 23 mismatched plates? Or are you just creating a situation where you are continually faced with a stack of dishes because your flatmates are too lazy to wash them and will continue to use all of the clean plates you own until there is nothing left but a giant pile of dirty mismatched crockery?

You could streamline your wardrobe (no, that orange trench coat won’t be rolling back into style, and you probably don’t need to hang onto that Oktoberfest beer maid costume from that one party five years ago).

Digital simplification is a power move – uninstall old programs on your computer and phone or tidy up your music/photo folders. Paper decluttering is great too – clear out those old papers you have stashed away in random drawers and file/trash them properly, then focus on dealing with your incoming paperwork better in the future (or minimising it altogether!).

Whichever way you choose to pare down your junk, it’s far more likely to have a positive impact on your life than a negative one. One’s physical environment plays a huge role in our mental state, and it’s no surprise that hoarding behaviour is borne from serious mental issues. It’s also a very overwhelming feeling when you have too much stuff or clutter and your house constantly gets messy. When you’re too overwhelmed, all tasks often only get done half-heartedly, which can really add to feelings of depression.

My advice to everybody is to try to be mindful about your stuff and really consider how much your possessions are doing for you – weigh up what they are costing you mentally or spatially to hang onto, versus what you are getting out of them. Many minimalists in Japan adopt an 80/20% mentality – ditch 80% of your possessions and utilise the shit out of the remaining 20%. In Japan possession minimisation is also a smart move when you consider both the amount of earthquakes the region suffers and the high cost of living space; as New Zealand increasingly reflects these conditions, we should be operating under the same logic.

Blogger Dave Bruno’s 100 Thing Challenge has been a popular project for anyone with a minimalist streak. Bruno has taken it upon himself to cut all his possessions down to 100 items, but there are certain liberties taken - for example, he would count a pair of gloves as one item, not two. The project can be tailored any way that suits you. You might be a vinyl lover who chooses to count your entire collection as one item, while adopting a brutal approach everywhere else, right down to your last fork. The point of it all is not just to systematically get rid of everything you own, it’s to make you choose wisely between the items that you have, so that you are eventually surrounded by only those things that have a true purpose in your life, or bring you joy.

Think about your current lifestyle, and what you need - if you’ve flatted before, you will already know the epic struggle of having to cart your stuff from flat to flat as leases expire. Half the stuff you are towing around is probably just junk - old lecture notes, odd shoes, clothes you don’t wear, crappy furniture, old books that you absently chuck into boxes as moving day approaches. Do yourself a favour and make your next move an easy one - see if you can limit your belongings to one carload.

This article first appeared in Issue 7, 2017.
Posted 12:02pm Sunday 9th April 2017 by Chelle Fitzgerald.