Minimalism: The Latest Life-Improvement Buzzword or a Path to Reclaiming Your Freedom? / by Alison M. Newcomb

Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it. —Joshua Becker
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In my yoga class last Friday, the instructor talked opening up our side bodies and our heart spaces, in order to clear out what is no longer serving us and make room for what gives us joy. Similar words are echoed on Simple Habit, the mobile meditation app on my phone. And I am sure not a day goes by when I don’t read something about how I can declutter my life (both literally and figuratively). It feels like deja-vu-all-over-again, but could this be the universe’s way of pulling me toward the thing I need most right now? Or is it simply the recency bias of my own perspective, influenced by the omnipresence of this whole Minimalism concept? 

The Urge to Purge

Whenever I feel overwhelmed or so buried I can’t see the forest for the trees, I start cleaning. Whether it’s organizing my desk or cleaning the entire house—something about that feeling of purging the clutter calms my mind.

This reason I have been drawn to this concept of Minimalism—the neatly-written articles, sparse and clean quotes on Pinterest, books telling you that you can fix your entire life just by tidying up—is because it makes so much sense to me, on a certain level. 

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I devoured the book Spark Joy by Marie Kondo, which had been read and recommended to me by countless friends and (almost entirely) female colleagues. My first exposure to her follow-up sophomore follow-up release to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up coincided with a point in life when nothing felt like it was in any rational order. I found an unhealthy level of satisfaction in pressing and then folding every towel, dishcloth, or linen in our entire house, following Kondo’s meticulously illustrated, step-by-step instructions to the letter. Although I do still revisit her guidelines every now and then, if I happen to find myself reorganizing one of the many closets-turned-junk-spaces in our home, the pristine state of our linen closets, sadly, did not last longer than a few days.

While I am compulsively drawn to the minimalist concept, I also seem to find its ubiquity in popular culture and dialogue somehow irksome. Its everywhere-ness has created a pretty large umbrella, under which countless spin-off philosophies seem to have taken shelter—from tiny houses to millennials who don’t drive and make all their own clothes. Perhaps this snowball effect helps develop a cult of personality vibe to the whole thing, with minimalism gurus popping up on every bookshelf and Netflix feed. Whatever it is, it does a lot more than irk some people.

In an article penned by Brett and Kate McKay called The Problem with Minimalism, they pass the fairly hefty verdict on Minimalism’s ability to achieve its own self-stated purpose: 

The great irony of minimalism is that while it purports to free you from a focus on stuff, it still makes stuff the focus of your life! The materialist concentrates on how to accumulate things, while the minimalist concentrates on how to get rid of those things…ultimately they’re both centering their thoughts on stuff. It’s like a compulsive overeater and a bulimic. One thoroughly enjoys eating, and stuffs his face whenever and wherever he can. The other eats, hates himself for eating, and then purges it out. But they’re both obsessed with food.

This estimation is not aided by the near-celebrity status surrounding some of the most charismatic of the Minimalist movement. Consider the two men behind Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (of which, despite my protests herein, I am a big-big fan). Josh and Ryan are both full of existential cool as they travel across the country to explore alternatives to compulsory consumption.

At one point in the film, we are told that their panel discussion had twice the audience turnout as the Ken Burns event only days prior at the same venue. Ryan, in particular, is like this sexy version of Steve Jobs—black-shirt-and-jeans uniform and all.

To be fair, in order to reach that level of visibility and influence, it is a rare occasion that commercialism doesn’t create some level of information overload. And nearly every individual interviewed in the film is quick to say that they are simply sharing their approach to stepping out of today’s consumer culture.

The modern democratization of information, through social media, Reddit (and other open forums), and the like, makes it impossible to prevent others from coopting any idea they choose and turning it into their own expression of the original concept.

It seems to me like that is exactly what the guys behind the Minimalism documentary are targeting.

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Formula for the Simple Life

If you get obsessed with the subject and devour as many books, blogs, and documentaries on Minimalism as I have over the past few years, you will find a common thread throughout—that there is no formula or single mantra for simple living. Finding ways to live simply, with increased clarity, is really the end goal of it all, if you had to boil it all down to one guiding principal.

Though it can be easy to deduce the whole concept down to shedding “stuff,” practicing your version of minimalism can reach far beyond just “stuff,” depending on your individual values. Or, more simply, your Why.

On his blog, Becoming Minimalist, Joshua Becker has the following to say about Minimalism’s blueprint-vs-brainwashing nature:

Find a style of minimalism that works for you. One that is not cumbersome, but freeing based on your values, desires, passions, and rational thinking.

Had I paused to consider whether Kondo’s precise folding technique served any sustained value to our family and our home, besides the momentary satisfaction that a manic cleaning fest can bring, I might have rethought the hours (let’s be honest, days) I devoted to this singular endeavor. Had I actually read between the lines of her own book, I might have seen a similar message in her words and understood that her philosophy is broader than simple organizational strategies for the home.

I am often guilty of reaching out for that silver bullet solution or latest attack strategy for catching up from behind in life. I’ve implemented, and later abandoned, dozens of productivity tools, cleaning and errands schedules, health trackers, meditation apps—if its promise includes the words “streamline” or “simplify” in the marketing copy, I’ve probably tried it out. But what I am starting to realize is that each is always its own singular endeavor, targeting symptoms of my over-busy life, and not an underlying cause.

Saying No to Make Room for Yes (or just Blank Space)

You will find dozens of references to this idea of saying “no” to things that you do simply out of obligation and getting over the guilt of disappointing others. This idea is echoed in the words of the great Brene Brown and in articles from pre-holiday issues of magazines, like Simple Living, carefully outlining real-life scenarios, with suggested responses for how to respectfully, yet sternly, decline without guilt or hurt feelings.

There are numerous factors that influence the frenetic pace at which we all seem to live life these days. Most days, it feels like an uphill battle just to find 15 minutes of true, uninterrupted focus time.

And this extends to our kids, who are assigned packed daily schedules starting before they are even old enough to read. My husband and I, who both grew up in a small Southern town, often reminisce about the broad swaths of empty, unscheduled (and very often alone) time we had as children. We spent nearly all of it outside, riding bikes to the river, or to the Subway for lunch, or just over to another neighbor friend’s backyard to jump on their trampoline.

With overscheduled parents and booked-all-day kids, what chance do we stand at creating any space at home for simply being together. Many a weeknight has felt like one frenzied, absent-minded drill to another, with the only goal in mind being to get everyone (including myself) to sleep.

This place in life—this daily feeling of living between a rock and a hard place—is where the foundations of Minimalism are the most viscerally resounding for me today. I recently read the following quote in the book, Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne:

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Relationships are often built in the intervals, the space between activities, when nothing much is going on.

 

 

It reminds me of the whole “Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans” quote I’ve so often silently uttered to my planning-addicted self. More importantly, it feels like truth.

Not a Minimalist by Choice (Initially)

Despite all the seductive power that Minimalism seems to have over me, I cannot say I would have arrived at it by choice. It took a series of events, across several years, to forcibly place me here at its door. It has taken many journeyed paths, hard lessons, and humbling failures to render me naked enough to admit I have to change how I am living my life.

But that is another story for another time. For now, let me leave you with a few practical tips for one of the most common mental barriers to simplifying your life.

But What About…

Kids

Let’s take on the most obvious roadblock first. How on earth are we supposed to live a Spartan, streamlined life when we share a house with small humans?

As a stepparent, who married into an insta-family, the number of obsessive organizational hacks for LEGOS, toys, markers, crayons, shoes, coats, hats, and mittens that I have attempted in our house would astound some people. Only to realize that I was just making room for more clutter, in the clean, empty space made available because of my clever storage solutions.

Joshua Becker, a parent himself, offers some great realistic advice for attempting a minimalist approach with kids on board. The two we have come to follow religiously, to quite positive outcomes, include purging often and regularly and insisting on a “home” for everything.

We purge often in a couple ways—one being more of a monthly/quarterly calendar kind of purge where we donate items, and the other being our daily promise that anything left out or lying around on the floor, whenever the kids leave the house, is fair game for being eaten by the dog or thrown in the trash can.

The “home for everything” measure is a bit more challenging, but we have managed to find solutions to suit the various sizes, shapes, and consistencies of the kid stuff in our house, in order to make this work as an expectation for what “cleaning up” actually means (plastic baskets and bins in multiple shapes and sizes work especially well for us, FYI).

Another way we have approached minimalism with kids is to abandon any attachment to children’s fashion. Perhaps it is easier with boys than girls, but we no longer buy new clothes for them (unless we find something on a too-good-to-miss sale). At their rate of growth and tendency to destroy and/or lose every item that leaves our house on their bodies, we have taken to shopping at our neighborhood Goodwill store. My last trip yielded an entire winter wardrobe for both kiddos, made up of unstained and unworn (even sometimes brand new) items in just the right sizes for a grand total of $37. A quick wash at home and the boys think they’re brand new.

Another thing I’ve recently been experimenting with is the Buy Nothing Project, which has local Facebook groups all around the world. It’s a gifting-based community and we are just now dipping our toes into our area groups. So far, we have unloaded several pieces of unnecessary furniture and found ourselves a free, brand-new stainless steel composting pail.

Everything Else

Besides the kid issue, there are many other barriers so often rationally raised when faced with this kind of life simplification. We will touch on some of these early next year here on the Better Blend blog. In the meantime, you’ll find some helpful advice in the Suggested Reading list below.

Space to Really Hear

I had a rather profound conversation with my oldest stepson this morning. We are the two early risers in the house and, since it was still before sunrise when we finished breakfast, we lingered by the Christmas tree for a bit, while he guzzled his cocoa and I luxuriated in a hot cup of coffee.

We were talking about New Year’s and our goals for 2018. Everyone in our house agrees that this next year has to be different. There has been a great deal of change and personal upheavals in the last 18 months that has heavily impacted our family. We’ve gutted through it but I cannot vouch (for the adults, at least) that we have done it all with much grace.

As I shared some of the goals his Dad and I had talked about the night before, he listened quietly, nodding his head in agreement every so often. When I was finished, his response left me speechless:

“You know how in the last few years, you and Dad have tried to do everything all at once to make things better? I think this next year we need to focus on just one thing or one goal. Like not working late so we can all eat dinner together on weeknights. Or other routines that might help next year feel more…normal.”

From the mouths of babes, right?

He gave me the answer I was seeking—to what Minimalism means to me. It means saying no to what does not serve our family and clearing space in our overly-busy lives so that we won’t miss the wisdom that children (and the entire universe) is just waiting to offer us.

 Photo by  Karen Maes

Photo by Karen Maes

 

Recommended Reading

Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne

The More of Less, Joshua Becker

Chasing Slow, Erin Loechner


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