What is Minimalism?

I wrote and re-wrote this post about four times. I struggled with the best way to describe minimalism without sounding generic. On paper it’s easy to define, but in real life it’s a little more complex. Minimalism is not a yes-no or black-and-white lifestyle. It’s full of gray areas with idiosyncrasies, sometimes irony and the four letter word many people hate – work. So, I decided to speak freely from the heart and describe what minimalism has done for me without the bells and whistles or the curated ‘moment of epiphany’ story that seems to align so perfectly with a life lesson. Minimalism has never been that for me. Like I said, it’s work, especially at first. But, eventually it becomes entrenched in your life and the benefits are beyond rewarding.

How Do You Define Minimalism?

Pen on paper, minimalism is freedom from the unnecessary tangible and intangible clutter in our lives so we can make room for what truly matters to us such as >>::insert list::<< In doing so we can focus on making intentional and mindful choices that perpetuate a free lifestyle.

For me, what matters is health, relationships, self-improvement and development, and community. This list may look different for you. It’s important to define these pillars as you embark on a minimalist lifestyle because it will be the compass that you refer back to.

I don’t like to look at the path to minimalism as a path at all. I think it evokes too much of a linear timeline instead of a lifestyle. Think of it more as a layered circle with the tangible things on the outside (clothing, electronics, vacation souvenirs, etc…). These things tend to get in the way of what truly matters to us and how we want to define our place in the world. They are the things we think will make us happy, but never really do. The next layer inward are your actions, behaviors and habits. What you do that defines your character. It’s turning off the automatic button and making more mindful and conscious decisions. These are the choices you make that allow you to achieve focus on the third, and final, most inward layer: your pillars like health, family, friends, self-improvement, and so-on. We are simply a dot on this circle, moving all around, hopefully heading towards the center. But sometimes we are pulled back out to the surface. We succumb to a blow-out sale on our H&M phone app and buy clothing we didn’t need. We need to pull ourselves back in and maybe modify our habits so we can get back to what matters. Maybe we temporarily delete the app or turn off notifications to reduce our temptation to browse. The point is, we are constantly moving around that circle, with the goal of working on staying in the center and adjusting our layers as needed.

Minimalism on a Surface Level

On the surface, minimalism can look like decluttering your home, downsizing, reducing the number of things you own, and wearing a uniform everyday. After all, cluttered homes can foster clutter minds. We are more impacted by our environments than we may consciously be aware of and living in chaos can create feelings of anxiety and stress. The reason many soon-to-be-minimalists begin with the tangible items is because it’s often the most obvious and therefore, in many cases, the easiest to deal with. It might take a few cradle rocks to pull yourself up off the sofa and start cleaning out the storage unit, donating those clothes you never wear, or tackling the junk drawer. But once you get going, the momentum is compelling. It’s freeing to let go of things. It enables a less distracted environment that can allows us to pay attention to the habits we want to build or the behaviors we want to exhibit so we can keep moving towards the center of the circle.

Having less leads to wanting less. When we cut the excess we often find we don’t need all the things we thought we once did. Our happiness is defined within, not by the 32 pairs of shoes collecting dust in the back of our closet, the dozens of brand name handbags we went into debt for, the hundreds of books we didn’t read but keep so people believe we’re well-read, the ski equipment in our storage unit we’ve used once in ten years, the list goes on. Cleaning house is often the best way to expose who we are beneath all the crap. Getting rid of the excess baggage lets us focus on self-improvement, building relationships, and dedicating your most valuable resources (time and energy) to what truly matters to you. I think it’s also worth noting that getting rid of the excess can also include people or situations. Toxic relationships or jobs can cripple you, making it impossible to pursue what really matters. I’m not saying to quit your crap job tomorrow or burn a bridge with a bad friend but these are the areas in life we should re-assess from time to time. There will always be grunt work we have to put in or situations where a friend unintentionally lets us down. These are facts of life. But it’s important to be mindful of what’s happening around you and recalibrate when the situation or person has become toxic.

What’s Beyond the Purge?

So what happens after you’ve purged all the excess items in your home? What’s next? Have you achieved minimalist success? Are you enlightened? Do your problems go away? No. Like I said, it takes work. Just because you purged your closet doesn’t magically make you immune to shopping sprees and the occasional self indulgences. These habits take time to curb. There are many habits you can modify as you see fit: reducing social media time, making weekly phone calls to friends that live far away, eating healthier, journaling, meditating, budget tracking. The list goes on. Now that you’ve cleared the clutter, it’s time to focus on what you want to change or improve. Set goals, be realistic, don’t berate yourself when you fall short because it will happen. As much as you push yourself be just as forgiving on what you perceive as short-comings. Minimalism takes work, especially in the beginning. Some days are easier than others. Some habits you adopt become second nature while other require a more conscious effort. But when done right it can be very rewarding. Investing time into your relationships, instead of accumulating things can foster life-lasting friendships with people who will offer unconditional support and love. Saving more instead of going into debt to “keep up with society” can open you up to a world of possibilities that may offer a chance for fulfillment way beyond any brand name handbag ever could like early retirement that enables you to pursue a passion, travel that changes the way you perceive the world, and charity for those who struggle with problems that go far beyond what I could fathom. The options are endless.

For me, minimalism started off as an opportunity to downsize before a cross-Atlantic move. Coming from a family that has a hard time letting go of things and personally loving to shop, it has (and continues) to take a conscious effort to navigate this lifestyle. Yet, it has been so freeing to leave behind all but two suitcases and a carry-on. I’m no longer responsible for maintaining all these things. I no longer have to clean, organize, or be distracted by all these things. I can focus on the experience at hand of living abroad in a foreign country, writing everyday, pursuing my creative passions, and learning about a new culture and way of life. Even further, minimalism has enabled me to pursue financial independence. It’s allowed me to live a more mindful, conscious life, becoming more aware of what I let in and what I want to remove.

When Minimalism Goes Too Far

Minimalism is not deprivation. Minimalism is not deprivation. Minimalism is not deprivation. Do you hear me? If you’re depriving yourself you’re doing it wrong! Now, that’s not to say you can’t learn a lot about yourself and discover new lifestyle habits you grow to enjoy through deprivation. Like the benefits of taking a cold shower, removing caffeine, alcohol and sugar, or getting rid of social media. There are many bloggers or podcasters who have experimented with deprivation (myself included), and you can certainly get a lot of insight and ideas from them. (One of my favorites – Matt D’Avella.) But minimalism should be about reducing the unnecessary, excess things in your life and not depriving yourself of what matters to you. If your home is filled with books you purchased just to fill a bookshelf so it “looks good” then there truly is no need for them. But if your home is filled with books you enjoy looking at, love to flip through and occasionally re-read from time to time then by all means keep them! Keep what matters to you, what brings you joy and remove the things that don’t. Do not deprive yourself.

Remember, minimalism looks different for different people. What works for a single person living in a studio apartment does not for a family with five children. There is no one-size-fits-all and there certainly is no billboard or poster child look for what it means to be a minimalist. Only you can decide how minimalism looks and what you want from this type of lifestyle.

Define what matters to you and how will you create a life that allows you to put those pillars at the center.