Occasionally, a major life event has forced me to dispose of a significant portion of my belongings. A hurricane, house fire, and major moves have all put me in such a position at one point or another. But a few things always managed to survive these involuntary junk purges: an internalized desire to accumulate, and the prized collections that desire has spawned.
I was proud of my books, movies, classic video games, disc golf discs, comics, and board games. I never considered getting rid of any of it, even in the worst-case scenarios. After all, it was part of who I was! I loved the stuff, and surrounding myself with it all made my life better, or at least I thought it did.
But what did all of this accumulation do for me, really? I rarely actually used most of the items in those massive collections, they just sat on shelves or in drawers. So why did the collections keep growing?
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I wanted my collections of books and movies and other things to say something, to both myself and visitors, about who I was as a person. Maybe a visitor would be impressed by a half shelf of books written by a prestigious but challenging author, even if I had only read a few of the tomes. Perhaps they might spot classic films featured in my DVD collection and think highly of my tastes, even though I re-watched them far less than I re-watch episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Something needed to change, and I thought minimalism might be able to help, but I needed some guidance.
The silent to-do list
In his book, Goodbye, Things, Fumio Sasaki talks about what he calls the “silent to-do list.” He argues that every single item in your house, in one way or another, requests your attention. Games ask to be played, books to be read, DVDs to be watched. Even purely decorative items ask to be dusted, and your rug vacuumed.
Individually, none of these are that big a deal. Of course, you bought those games to play, those books to read, and those DVDs to watch. And it’s not like wiping down some knick-knacks and vacuuming your rug are all that difficult or time consuming. The problem is, those seemingly insignificant tasks stack up and become a significant burden. You might find yourself so completely overwhelmed with things to do you’ll have a hard time wanting to do anything. That’s definitely how I felt.
When I found myself with a spare moment at home, I might consider picking up that guitar, turning on that computer, switching on one of my video game systems, pulling a book off the shelf, or revisiting an old movie. Then I’d realize it had been a long time since I’d wiped down that shelf, or vacuumed behind the entertainment center, or updated that computer, and I’d feel guilty for wanting to do something relaxing and enriching when I had more mundane things that needed to get done. In scenarios like that, I would either end up doing chores, or, more likely, I’d take the path of least resistance and poke around on my phone or turn on Netflix and re-watch some mindless garbage.
One of the goals of decluttering and moving towards a more minimalist lifestyle is to drastically reduce the number of things that could possibly show up on the silent to-do list, freeing you from overwhelming choice and irritating obligations.
The pros and cons of a minimalist lifestyle
Unburdening myself from the silent to-do list pulled me towards minimalism, but I knew it would be a hard journey if I went at it alone. If possible, I wanted it to be a team effort with my wife. Luckily, she was already less of a natural collector than I was, so it wasn’t long before she was curious and interested. Before we committed, though, we did a lot of thinking and talking about our goals of such a major change, along with the pros, cons, and potential pitfalls.
The pros and goals of going minimalist:
- Moving would be easy. We’d still need help moving furniture, but everything else could be easily handled ourselves. Moving sucks, and we plan on doing it again semi-soon. The idea that we wouldn’t have to dread it sounds like a dream.
- We would have a much better understanding of what we do and don’t own. Objects would get lost far less often, and we wouldn’t waste money by accidentally purchasing duplicates of things we forgot we had. For example, buying a big pack of AA batteries because we thought we were out, only to discover that we had an entire unopened pack in the back of our junk drawer.
- Every item in our house would either serve a vital function, significantly improve our comfort, or make us happy. If an item doesn’t do one or more of those things, and do it well, we don’t need it. Having strict guidelines about what we allow into our house would free us from casually shopping for things we don’t really need. As an extra bonus, not buying random things all the time would automatically help us save more money, which would allow us do things like pay off car notes more quickly and take nicer, more frequent vacations.
- Minimizing would also lessen the worry of something happening to our things, minor or major. If my phone breaks, that sucks, but no big deal I’ll just buy another one. And hey, my bank account is nice and full because I’m not constantly buying junk I don’t need, so spending that money wouldn’t even hurt that bad. If our house burns down or washes away in a flood, we’d be able to, more or less, replace what we lost without it being such a horrible traumatic thing. I know it’s difficult to not assign sentimental value to objects, but doing it less often and with less stuff would make us less scared to go through something like Hurricane Harvey again. Minimizing lets you think about your stuff like stuff, as opposed to thinking about your stuff like it’s an extension of yourself.
- Shopping would be easy, because we would only do it if we were replacing something specific, or had a clear goal in mind. No more overthinking and over-analyzing purchases. Do we really need that thing or would it significantly make our lives better? If yes, we buy a nice version of it and be happy with it. If no, we put it out of our minds and stop even considering it.
Cons and pitfalls:
- The fear of making a mistake. What if we get rid of something that turns out to be irreplaceable and regret it in a big way? I don’t think this is all that likely, but I do think it’s one of the biggest reasons we have a tendency to hold onto things. It might be useful someday!
- Falling back into the casually shopping trap. I like shopping for games and books and disc golf discs and kitchen gear — I enjoy researching and purchasing and using. Even though I recognize that this is an endless cycle of wasting money that results in us surrounding ourselves with junk we don’t use, I do worry that my enjoyment of the hunt, combined with how good I am an justifying purchases to myself, will slowly creep back into our lives that we have worked so hard to minimize.
What we’ve done, and what we’ve noticed.
After weighing the pros and cons, we decided to go for it. We wanted to look at every single item we owned and choose if we wanted it in our lives or not.
We dumped out drawers and pulled random junk from boxes in our closets. We made a choice about every article of our clothing — were we holding onto those pants because we loved them, or because we paid good money for them and felt obligated to? We got rid of kitchen gadgets, furniture, rugs, art, keepsakes, old electronics, and more. It weirded me out to realize how many old laptops we owned between the two of us — six, not including our current ones! I probably thought I would come up with some cool use for those, but of course, I never did. Time to let go of all of that.
We sold valuable collections to specialty shops, threw away worthless objects, and donated everything we could to thrift stores. We got rid of the bookshelves that were previously jammed with DVDs and games and replaced it all with a few plants. I brought so many car loads of donations to the thrift store throughout the month, the employee (kindly) asked me if someone close to me had passed away.
If you would have seen our house before, you wouldn’t have thought it was crammed with junk— we were clean and well organized — but based on how much we got rid of, you would think we were hoarding.
Now our house is emptier, but it remains perfectly comfortable. Probably even more so that it was before. We can still make all the same meals we did before, can still host friends, and can still enjoy the hobbies that make us happy. But we spend less time cleaning up, and since everything in our house now has a place to live, we naturally put things back where they belong. My house agitates me less frequently than it previously did.
We’ve both also noticed that mundane chores like dishes and laundry bother us much less, because now those tasks aren’t stacked on top of a seemingly never ending list of other tasks. We make the bed every day, put our shoes away when we get home, hang our hats and jackets up properly instead of just tossing them onto the first flat surface we see. I think this phenomenon might be a soft version of the broken windows theory in action. When everything is in order, keeping it that way is more natural.
If you walked into our house today, it probably wouldn’t immediately strike you as “minimalist.” We still have a couch, a bed frame, art on the walls, and enough dishes to host friends. But you can open any drawer or closet, and you’ll be greeted with only what we need to be comfortable. The biggest changes for me, though, aren’t the obvious physical ones.
The biggest impact
Simplifying our physical space has altered my mental space. Not in some grand sweeping singular way, but in many small, significant ones. I’m more selective about how I spend time, less stressed out, I reach out to friends more often, and I think I’ve become more patient in general (although the people around me could speak to that more than I can). I value the things that I do have more, and am more willing to indulge in spontaneous activities like last minute weekends away and evenings out, probably because there’s less to “take care of before we go” at home.
Based on my experience, moving towards a more minimalist lifestyle isn’t about having less stuff. It’s about being mindful about how you spend your time, money, and energy. Viewed this way, I don’t think there’s really anything extreme at all about minimalism. It just makes sense.
What’s next for us
We haven’t been riding this train very long, but already we’ve talked about going over the house again and letting go of even more stuff. We’ve discussed the kind of place we want to eventually move to and agree that we would like something smaller. For us, we have found that simple really is better.
One thing we’ve both come to understand is that “going minimalist” isn’t something you do once, it’s an ongoing process. It’s a mindset shift, one that has you reevaluate your assumptions about satisfaction, success, and happiness.
I don’t think that everyone needs to go minimal — what’s best for someone else is none of my business — but if you feel like you’re in a rut, or stressed, or just feeling generally dissatisfied with where you are in life, it might just help you out. It would be a gross exaggeration to say that I was miserable before and now I’m happy all the time, or that I never get stressed out or angry now that we’ve gotten rid of so much stuff, but the change is real. How far my wife and I take minimalism is something we’ll have to figure out along the way and decide on together, but so far it’s been an enriching, positive journey.
I don’t see us ever going back.