Five Steps to Minimalism

In Essays, Minimalism, Self Improvement

I’ve previously discussed the benefits of minimalism, but I’ve not gone into much detail about how to achieve a minimalist way of living.

Being a minimalist means striving to reduce everything to it’s core essence? What do I mean by this? Well, it’s more important what you understand it means.

Each one of us will have different tolerance and contentment levels for what is enough, and also different opportunities to express ourselves. Someone at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in Sub-Saharan Africa will naturally tend live like a minimalist, because they haven’t had the opportunity to purchase and horde goods. However, this doesn’t make them a minimalist. Theirs is an issue of money and opportunity, not a conscious lifestyle decision.

Conversely, you might have a professional in an economically advanced nation who lives a simple life, doesn’t spend much, as is generally content with very little. This person will still own far more than the Sub-Saharan African at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, but, is nevertheless still a minimalist.

So minimalist is a state of mind, and then a series of action taken in the state of mind to reduce that which is not truly necessary. Again, I will stress the fact that this changes from person to person. The taxi driver who gives up his car because he wants to be minimalist is not being minimalist, he is just being stupid, as he has reduced beyond his core essence.

The steps I present below can be taken in any order that suits you, but I’ve arranged them in the best sequential order to minimise friction, so from easiest to hardest.

1. Declutter Your House

Most people’s homes have several boxes of completely unnecessary “things”. This situation has normally been brought on by a few factors:

  • Buying things on impulse.
  • Receiving unwanted gifts from others
  • The inability to throw old unused items away
  • Having things “just in case”.

The issue with having a clutter home are twofold.

Firstly, these things have a psychological weight to them. The slow us down in our life, they take up precious space in our minds, and, more trivially, they clutter up our living space

Steps to Take.

One radical solution to a clutter house is to pretend that you’re moving out, and pack everything into boxes. Yes, I mean everything. Then, for the next week, take things out of the boxes as you need them. Whatever is left in the boxes at the end of the week, you should probably get rid of.

A slightly less hardcore approach is to slowly carve away at your own belongings over time. So you go through your house and remove anything which is clearly not required and simply junk that is hanging about. Over time, as you remove items, you’ll find your minimalist sensitivity will grow, and things that you once thought you could not live with, will become prime candidates for removal. With this method, it normally takes around six months to a year to truly live in a minimalist household.

There are some benefits and drawbacks to the latter method.

The benefits are two fold.

Firstly, it gives other people a chance to get used to the incremental change, and so no one will think that you’ve gone crazy. It’s incredible that, as a society, the pressure to conform is so strong that people will become genuinely concerned when you don’t. Also, when you take action that is clearly visible to other people, and this results in you living in a different manner, they will naturally tend to become defensive, because by openly living differently, you are hinting that way they live in wrong, and we’ve seen before how everyone hates being told that they are wrong.

Secondly, this is also easier on yourself mentally, as small incremental changes over time are always more likely to stick that sudden large changes. From a slightly more practical point of view, it also gives you time to think about how you will layout your house, and you’ll have time to think of what you need to buy to make your new minimalist house liveable (ironic, I know). However, having removed most things in your house, you will find that you may need to make some purchases, and it’s can be better to give yourself time to make these decisions.

A drawback to this slow approach is the very fact that it is slow, and not very radical. Some may argue that a radical approach is exactly what is needed when tackling a change such as becoming minimalist. Also, because of the general tendency we have to accumulate things and act as consumers, due to the incredible amount of advertising that we are bombarded with on a daily basis, a slow, incremental approach may not be enough to overcome this socio-economic pressure.

2. Workspace

Moving on from your house, it’s now worth tackling your workspace. Depending on the type of job you have, this may or may not be an easy task.

For instance, if you work at McDonald’s, you’ll have a hard time changing anything in your environment, as it is so standardised.

However, if you do another type of work, especially if it’s of the intellectual variety, then you will most probably have some degree of control over your working conditions. I generally tend to work from home, and while you may think that step one would have also covered my workspace, it actually didn’t, or at least not to my liking.

My personal preference for a workspace is something that has only what I need to focus on the work at hand. For me, this means a pen, one or two moleskine notebooks, and my iMac. Everything else is superfluous.

Most people I have seen working in offices tend to have folders and folders full of papers, and post in notes scattered everywhere, and sometimes even old coffee cups and a whole bunch of other things. While this stuff often flies under the radar, it’s incredible how much better you can work once you actually remove it. It can be incredibly distracting to have all this stuff on your desk.

Steps to Take.

Think about what your goal is when you are working, and take steps to remove anything that does help you accomplish that goal.

When you finish work, spend a minute just tidying things up. Often during the course of a workday your space will fill up with unnecessary items or temporary things, such as paper notes, that can then be discarded.

If possible, digitise. I’ll get on to this point a little later, but the premise is simple. We don’t need stacks and stacks of paper any more, we’ve got more storage in our computers than the biggest physical libraries in the world.

3. Cooking & Nutrition

Because we have to eat it’s worthwhile spending the time and effort to look at what we eat, and also how we cook it.

There is an argument that simply eating out or having takeaways is the most minimalist approach, because you don’t need to cook anything yourself, and theoretically you could even do away with owning a cooker, an oven, and even a fridge.

However, if you zoom out, this really isn’t the most minimalist approach. Firstly, restaurant food is not designed to be healthy and nutritious, it’s designed to be enjoyable. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless you make it your daily diet. The same goes for fast food take aways. This means that if you eat this food day in day out, you’re setting yourself up for a whole host of health problems down the line that will require doctors, surgery, medicines, and more, and that’s definitely not minimalist.

So by all means, enjoy the occasional meal out, but don’t make it a daily habit. I was guilty of this way of doing things for the last two years, I literally didn’t cook once. Apart from the monstrous expense of eating out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it also took a toll on my health, and I’ve gained approximately 5kg /11lbs in the last two years alone. In the last six months I’ve been transitioning to cooking at home, and I am really enjoying it. I’m saving lots of money, I am eating food I like, and I also know exactly what goes into my food, which is more than you can say when you eat at a restaurant.

Coupling this change with my latest 100 day experiment that includes not having coffee, alcohol, or breakfast, and generous amount of exercise, and I’ve now started to notice changes in my body composition.

Steps to Take.

My advice for applying minimalism in your cooking and nutrition is.

  • Keep things simple, use easily available ingredients that don’t require too much preparation.
  • Stick to unprocessed food where possible. This has the double benefit of making every dish you prepare healthier, and generally it will make your shopping cheaper.
  • Your fridge should be colourful from plenty of fruit and vegetables, and limit meat as much as possible, it’s a massive resource hog on the planet, and not fit for consumption for a true minimalist.

4. Digital

The digital world is amazing. I work in technology and design, and every week my jaw drops with some of the latest developments.

Of course, the latest technology is not good per se, like anything, it can be used well or badly.

While smartphones are undoubtably an extremely useful tool, it also means that nowadays people tend to interact less, and spend more time looking at the piece of metal and glass in their hands.

The same technology that can serve you up the world’s collected knowledge, can also be used by child molesters to find victims, by terror groups to organise attacks, and by the government to spy on everyone.

My standard is this: If I would be embarrassed explaining how I use these incredible tools at our disposal to someone in the 1950’s, then I am using technology in an incorrect way.

Imagine telling someone from the 1950s that you have the equivalent of a super computer in your pocket, but instead of using it as an incredible learning and self development tool, you spend hours each day idling on social media or watching cat videos on Youtube.

With that in mind, let’s move onto how we can use the digital world to help us simplify the real world, without turning things into a Kafkian nightmare.

Steps To Take

  • Digitise paper. If you’ve got a hard copy of a document, think about whether you actually need it. Most documents can be digitised with a scanner or simply by taking a photo of it, and the original can be destroyed without an issue. Make sure that you don’t just store things on your computer, you should back everything up to the cloud. I make the assumption that my computer/laptop/smartphone will stop working at any time, so I always make sure that everything is backed up by default.
  • Get your calendar online. Having a calendar that is synchronised across multiple devices is a big win in the fight to simplicity. As long as it’s not the type of calendar that will constantly send you notifications, you’ll be able to always stay on top of things, and never forget what’s coming up next, without having to be in a certain place to access your information.
  • Keeping a digital journal is a great use of digital technology. Depending on your setup, it is generally far more secure and private, and you’re also more likely to keep it going. Personally, I use a fantastic app called Day One.
  • Don’t constantly switch systems. While experimentation is great, switching consistently between operating systems, phones, laptops, word processors, browsers, etc, is simply a waste of time. Make a choice, and stick to it, and then review every six to twelve months. Five years ago I made the choice to switch fully to Apple products, and yes, while I lose some flexibility, I also gain a huge amount of familiarity and things just work. The hassle of switching to another operating system would not be worth it, as this is good enough.

5. Desires

Now we start getting to the tough part.

If we remember that minimalist is all about reducing things to their core essence, and if we are looking to reduce the things we have, then our desires definitely merit an examination.

After all, they are something that we all have, and they are essentially our rainson d’etre.

My point of view on desire is this: the less, the better. 

It is much easier to practice curbing our desires than to try and actually fulfil them. Even if it was generally quite easy to fulfil all of our desires, new ones would just come up and take their place, so like a good minimalist, it’s best to see where we can make cuts.

I would also like to take the time to point out that this is not going to make your life a grim existence, but will actually enhance the enjoyment you get out of life. You will have less stress, probably less expenses, and you will generally be content. Also, even if you allow yourself to have desires but only indulge in them every so often, you’ll enjoy them far more. I covered this in depth in my essay on Delayed Gratification.

The best way to handle our desires is to focus them only on the things that we control (our thoughts and actions) and nothing else. This means that we will always be able to fulfil our desires at any time, and will never be disappointed. Note that this is a radical shift in behaviour, but is actually recommended in many philosophies and religions. In fact, I would say that pretty much any influential thinker in history that has studied desires has reached the conclusion that we should not let me them grow unhindered.

I would add that unrestricted desires are the cause of almost everything that is wrong in the world, from corporate greed, to war, poverty, environmental damage, and so on.

So this is an extremely important part of our conversion to minimalism, and without it, I doubt that you would ever become truly minimalist, as unchecked desires would simply overcome your single desire to be minimalist. Remember also that minimalism is not just about the things you own, it’s also about the way you behave, the way you think, and the actions you take.

It’s about making life simple and removing distractions, so we can concentrate and appreciate the things that truly matter, instead of chasing endless baubles and taking part in the rat race.

Steps To Take

  • List out all your main desires, and challenge yourself to give them up, even temporarily.
  • Practice these Stoic Exercises that you’ll find useful and gain great benefit from.
  • Whenever you lose your tranquility in regards to something, stop to think about whether you had any control over it in the first place.

Conclusion

You might think it strange that is essay ends after only five steps, and I am sure that you can think of plenty more steps you could take to become minimalist, such as the way we travel, the way we use our time, the way we spend our money, and so on.

Yes, there are important, but I wanted to cover what, in my opinion, make up the absolute basic steps towards becoming a minimalist.

It’s clearing the physical clutter in your home and work life, it’s looking carefully at one of the most important things we do in our lives each and every day (eating) and then reviewing our use of technology, which is almost ubiquitous in our day and age, and so cannot be ignored.

Of course the way we spend our money is important, but I felt that many of these other possible steps are sub-steps of curbing our desires, not definitive steps in themselves.

Note that these steps don’t have be taken sequentially, and perhaps not all of them apply to your situation. The best way to look at this essay is to see it as a list of advice, and then take and test what you think is pertinent to you.

Remember – there is no right answer.