A recent episode of Back to Work got me thinking about the larger relationship inherent in all of the possessions we own. I’ve been a fairly vocal proponent of minimalism for a long time — even to go as far as committing a year and a half of my life to writing and maintaining a blog exclusively about minimalism. While my relationship with minimalism has been fairly unflagging for the last five years, I’ve tried to figure out what it means on a deeper level. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the title of “minimalist” for awhile but my actions have always been firmly set within that camp. In the aforementioned episode of Back to Work, Merlin talks about the effect clutter has had on his life. It was refreshing to hear his take on this subject as he has been unabashedly the anti-minimalism guy for awhile. It always felt kind of weird that he was who I most closely emulated in my own online writing ventures but I was positive he’d despise what I write about.
I recently went through my apartment and took photographs of everything I own. I’m not really sure why I decided to do that — but I have some ideas. I don’t think it had anything to do with the minimalist pissing contest I’ve been critical of in the past. I didn’t count my possessions, only took pictures of them. Part of me has always been curious just what exactly I own. Taking pictures of everything made me actually think about my reasons for owning every item I touched. I’m fairly ruthless with how willing I am to let possessions go and yet I was still surprised by how much I had documented in my little photo shoot. It made me think about what it would have been like to do this activity if I wasn’t a minimalist and accumulated and retained items like a typical American.
While I’m definitely a fan of minimal aesthetics that my lifestyle leans toward, it’s not the main reason I’m so ruthless about restricting the physical items I own. I’ve become aware that each item I own represents more than just the simple physical object that it appears. Everything I own carries emotional and psychological baggage that may or may not be a positive contribution to my life. Getting rid of everything I own that I don’t find useful or beautiful clears my environment not only of physical items, but clears my head and my life of emotional and psychological detritus. It’s a very interesting feeling to look around my living space and let my eyes fall on the various objects and know that I made the conscious decision to keep it in my life. That sounds simple but have you tried looking at the things you own and asking yourself why you’ve kept something? Even me, Mr. Minimalist Guy, finds things that have wormed their way into my life without me noticing and need to be removed every couple of months.
Owning less makes me more aware and thankful for what I do own. I’m forced to take better care of my possessions because I most likely don’t have a backup if I break or lose something. At the same time, I can’t remember the last time I lost something. Considering I can fit nearly all of my worldly possessions into two duffel bags, it takes some major lack of awareness to lose something.
My favorite part of living this way, however, is simply for the personal challenge. That is a bit of a misnomer because I no longer find it to be particularly challenging, but I do like testing myself to see what I really need in terms of possessions to live a happy life. Before I decided to try this whole minimalism thing, I would have thought you were nuts if you told me I’d be living with as many possessions as I have now. What about all my video games? What about the rest of my clothes? What’s the point of working hard and making money if I’m not going to buy lots of things? Those were the questions I would have asked myself and these are the questions that people still ask me. However, now I know I don’t need a lot of what other people consider necessities and I have more flexibility and faith in myself because of it. It’s fun to challenge myself to see if I really need what society says I need to live and be happy. I’d much rather find out for myself and so far minimalism has been one of those activities that society says is weird but I’ve discovered is extremely exciting and liberating at the same time.
Living exactly like this isn’t for everybody, especially those of you with families. Being a student and unmarried definitely means I can make decisions about my environment that some of you don’t get to make. However, I don’t consider the end goal to be some magic number of things you should own. Instead, the metric should be whether you’ve consciously made the decision to keep something in your life. If you can look at something and immediately articulate why you have it (and are okay with those reasons) I think you should keep it. The problem arises when you begin looking at items you forgot you owned and/or aren’t sure why you even have in the first place. These are the items that represent a drain on your well-being and are prime candidates to make swift exits from your life. This criteria applies to me, the guy who owns almost nothing, and the most cluttered hoarder on the planet
There are certainly much more difficult and important aspects of living a good life than worrying about what your living situation or office looks like. However, spending some time to think about your physical environment is one of those tasks that seems unimportant but can actually have pretty big ramifications down the road. It only makes sense that the places where you spend the majority of your time should be as energizing as possible. Creating positive relationships, doing great work, and making a difference in the world are all difficult enough. Don’t let your environment drain the precious energy you need to take care of the bigger things in life.