We don’t need art to survive. But without it, we would simply be not-dead.
We live for flavor—it’s what makes us human. Visual art, dancing, music, fashion, entertainment, sports, technology, pizza: we could live without them, but much less fully. Culture and personality are shaped around extraneous things.
But when it comes to extraneous material expressions, such as most of the things we own, how do we find balance? At what point do objects no longer enrich our lives? And when our drive for flavor evolves into a taste for excess, how do we pull back while acknowledging (and embracing) our need for the unnecessary?
What is minimizing?
A growing movement says they’ve found the answer to happiness: chucking all your stuff out.
Minimalists advocate condensing our possessions into a well-curated pool of only our most beloved things. Extreme minimalists are left with a bald apartment partly because they didn’t love anything they owned. But for the rest of us, crafting our space intentionally can help articulate what we stand for—as not only our aesthetic, but our experiences, passions, and values are reflected back at us.
Minimizing isn’t about stripping your house bare, but of wading through the dilution of generic possessions to eliminate what doesn’t move you or serve a distinct purpose. Humans actually need so little to survive, that I doubt there is a happy one who lives with only what they need. Living this way isn’t what minimizing is about: you can keep your wall paintings. But just as a pithy sentence or small tomato are most potent, boiling down what you have celebrates your personality with abundance.
Identifying your clutter
In my view, minimizing is to differentiate the flavor we live for and the excess we live in. By minimizing, you are setting standards and establishing habits.
Each of us has a different definition of “enough.” By enough, I’m not talking about the tent, canned beans, bottled water, and blanket we need to survive. I’m talking about the point at which we feel whole, yet unburdened. We’ve grown up with a lot of chatter around what comfort, success, and satisfaction looks like; we’ve become reliant on things society has taught us to need. It will take most of us time to reconstruct our understanding of what we need to be happy.
My strong suspicion is that we need much, much less to be happy, and in fact would be much, much happier with less. It only requires some experimentation before we get a sense of how good it feels.
Start by doing a sweep-through of your house, getting rid of any possessions that aren’t used regularly or don’t “spark joy,” as Marie Kondo, queen of decluttering, recommends. Once you get used to the idea of letting go of things, you’ll realize how much weight you were unconsciously carrying, and how capable you are of living without the seeming comfort of “more”.
At first, your clutter might seem essential: old books, once-cherished nicknacks, gifts, the “just in case” miscellaneous awaiting their moment of use. But the more you navigate your surroundings with a shrewd minimalist eye, you will begin to see those things for what they are. Of course, some of these things will never stop feeling essential to your life, and that’s fine. Yet other things might no longer serve you, but are too precious to give away: pack them up and put them in storage.
When you begin decluttering, you’ll inevitably get rid of some things that you’ll come to mildly miss. Do not regret your decision to give them up, or let this stop you from marching onward—some inconsequential loss is part of the process. Finding your sweet spot takes trial and error.
When you strip off your weighted blanket of possessions, you’ll find that you are just fine: all you need is yourself, your loved ones, and a few beloved or useful things. You’ll develop more confidence because you no longer rely so heavily on what’s around you, and with this clarity and room to breathe, it’ll be hard to fathom how you lived otherwise.
Sentimental items: to keep or not to keep?
You can have warmth for the role an object played in your life, while acknowledging that its role has been fulfilled. If it no longer brings you joy, but sits in your house simply because of the meaning it once held, it’s become dispensable: let it go.
We don’t need to hold onto something physical to carry meaning with us or to solidify the existence of past experience. Moving on does not negate or disrespect what the object symbolizes, and commanding the confidence to recognize that it’s no longer needed at this stage in your life is liberating.
That said, if your chotchkies still hold warmth and joy, keep them. And if they hold warmth but not joy, put them in storage!
Things you rarely use
If you adore a shirt that you’ve only worn once, it might be time to let it go. You can continue to let it rest in your drawer, hoping for its unlikely time to shine, or you can:
- Gift it to someone who would make better use of it.
- Put it in storage. If you haven’t missed it after 6 months (or more if it’s seasonal), give it a new home.
- Give it a limited second chance. For example, “I will wear it one more time before I give it away.” Or, “I will give it one more month, and if I haven’t worn it, I’ll give it away.”
Rotate the toys
What happens when you keep all your puppy’s toys out for them to play with? Your puppy gets bored with them. Dog owners are therefore advised to keep some toys out of sight, rotating them in to stimulate interest.
Our drive for novelty, and tendency to accumulate and guard possessions, is our inner puppy at work. Instead of throwing your toys out for new purchases when you’re bored, select a few to rotate in and out of use.
For example, if you tend to buy a lot of shoes, tuck a few into storage: when you pull them out to exchange for your current batch of shoes, it’s like discovering a pot of gold—and your interest in them is reignited. (Note: this doesn’t work as well if your things are particularly in vogue, so for longevity’s sake, avoid buying into fads!) Try making this a tradition every year on a special day—New Years is a good one.
You can also arrange “stuff rotations” with friends. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating: like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, You can partner or group up with friends whose taste you appreciate, and swap dish sets, dining room chairs, bed spreads, kid’s toys, etc., either permanently or on a rotating schedule. Just remember to note which things originally belonged to whom!
Look for redundancies
Is there anything in your cabinet that has just a marginally different function than something else you own? For example, do you need an emersion blender, a bullet blender, and a blender-blender? The answer depends on the life you lead. But for many of us, the benefit of doubling or tripling up on equipment is meager.
Don’t entertain your scarcity mindset
If you collect and consume like there will soon be nothing available to you, there will soon be nothing available to anyone.
We are territorial creatures. Our reptilian complex drives us to compete for resources, establishing and protecting what’s ours. Nowadays competition takes the form of modern warfare, politics, sports, business, and even consumerism. We want to be and to have the best—to be acknowledged and admired: what simpler way to do this than to gather as many coveted resources as you can?
Though competition is arguably necessary today, our instinct for it is out of date: it was established in a world in which resources were difficult to come by and our personal supplies were constantly under threat. But in the 21st century, where resources are scarce in a drastically different way, it’s important that we stop this hunting and gathering.
Fear of Mistakes
Are you afraid of giving something away because you can’t get it back? Do you have a hard time making decisions because “yes” to one thing means “no” to another? Do you collect things you don’t need, in case it could be useful down the road?
It’s normal to experience all of these at times. But if fear of regret is overbearing, perhaps because of an internalized negative experience, it will play on self-doubt, diminishing your confidence and leading to inaction. Since every voluntary thing we do requires decision and comes with a potential “wrong” decision, we don’t want to get stuck in this habit. We need to be able to make mistakes.
Sometimes fear of mistakes is the result of a loss, or an experience during which resources were truly scant. Sometimes it comes from the insecurity that what you have or who you are isn’t good enough—the classic source is a childhood urge to appease stern parents. Sometimes it’s because we’ve made a high-consequence mistake in the past.
Fear of mistakes can lead to many things, including a very cluttered house! If you are uncomfortable throwing anything away, lest you regret it later, you might hoard. If you agonize over shopping decisions, you might decide to not decide, and bring home all of your options. If you have everything, you never have to find yourself unprepared, to compromise, second-guess, or wonder what life would be like otherwise.
If you struggle with this paralyzing form of perfectionism, minimizing might be just the thing for you. It’s great practice to simply let go and stop caring about mistakes for a moment.
Let yourself regret the purging of your Tupperware—it’s not the end of the world. Let yourself make concrete, decisive actions with things that don’t have feelings. Start from a clean slate as you bring things into your home, so that more clutter is no longer welcome.
Accepting calculated loss is a skill that comes more naturally to some than others. At the heart of your fear of mistakes might be a fear of loss: fear of lost opportunity, unfulfilled potential, missed experience.
For those who need more practice (like myself), keep in mind that certain loss is traded for significant gain. We can learn to be content, even happy, without having everything. We can learn to put less weight on decisions; we can learn to be ok with “wrong” decisions, or accept that perhaps (if a life isn’t on the line) there’s no such thing. We can carry so much less burden.
Leaving possibilities untapped and curiosities unfulfilled, though painful and counterintuitive—especially for the info-loving millennial accustomed to googling definitive explanations to every ambiguity—is sometimes necessary. “Leaving things be” doesn’t oppose your thirst for understanding, your adequacy, or whatever else might feel threatened, but can help you achieve balance.
When you let go, when you move on, when you give away, when you choose not to buy, you are leaving some potential untapped.
I attended an artist talk recently, during which the artist described her evolving relationship with “loose ends” in her work: “having things that constantly have potential and not fulfilling it is unsettling,” she said, “but it’s also sustainable and beautiful.”
Contending with the guilt of not completing something is exhausting. But before I heard it framed as this artist did, I had never considered that unfulfilled thoughts, ideas, and creations can in themselves be beautiful. When is something really complete, anyway?—there is always more potential!
With loss comes unfulfilled potential. When you reduce what you have, you are inherently stifling and refusing the development of a relationship with an object. But when you accept the loss that comes with saying no to an item, you are also leaving room to focus on other things: you are being selective about the potential you fulfill.
Take a clue from nature
Nature leaves things inherently unfinished—existing in cycles, sustaining systems with no conclusion, presenting no closure before death, and from death, yielding life.
Finite resources are only finite because we make them so; we create an end to natural materials, systems, cycles—turning them into non-degradable plastics and storing them to sit, “used,” in landfill.
In nature, beyond the triumph of staying alive and imparting life, there is no final success to be achieved, no accomplishment that is enough: and this is sustainable. Why don’t we learn from this? Humans are animals after all. If we go with the flow, accept the cycles that appear in our lives, exist more fluidly, we don’t have to constantly be fighting against nature. There will never be one surmountable thing that satisfies us—not the status we acquire, not the money we make, not the things we buy.
Adopt an attitude of abundance
By taking a step back from our need to control what happens in our lives, we are not giving up our agency, but taking it back. Taking things less seriously, both material achievements and experiences, can help us feel less tied down, more open, and more forgiving. We can become more generous with possessions, knowledge, talents, and emotions.
But how can we take materials less seriously if, in our efforts to be more green, we aim to treat resources with the value they’re worth—to use them stingily? How can we afford to have an attitude of abundance?
Clarification!: we should take our resources seriously when by “our” we are referring to the planet. When we are referring to our own wealth, we can afford to have an attitude of abundance.
Having an attitude of abundance is to acknowledge that the world provides bountifully for you, even if your material possessions are slim. It’s to “count your blessings” without clutching them too defensively, because you recognize that unknown gifts await you.
You are abundant: you are not smaller than others, your stuff is not inferior to others. What you have is wonderful; you don’t need much more. In fact, there is a lot you can afford to give. Spread your wealth of energy, knowledge, and material to others, and to the environment.
• It’s scary to think of living with less when you equate it with compromising ease, security, or freedom. But having less does not limit you: once you step back from the comfort zone of “more,” you can love living with less. It streamlines processes, simplifies decisions, removes distraction, overwhelm, and guilt. It saves time and money, provides focus and clarity, and keeps you in the present. You aren’t losing, but gaining—by defining, molding, and bringing to light aspects of your life you want to enhance and cherish.
• Embrace the person you are right now by fine-tuning what’s around you instead of adding or replacing. By pruning what’s physically in your life, you can discover meaning and joy from what you’re left with, and each object has a clearer role in your life.
• Purging your house introduces loss: you say goodbye to things you’re familiar with, sometimes to things you later wish you’d kept. But this superficial loss is great practice for letting go, because it’s nothing you can’t handle.
• Your primal instinct for survival is part of what drives you to compete for resources. Though these tendencies are of a bygone era, you are forced to contend with them when it comes to consumption of any sort. When temped to accumulate, ask yourself who you’re competing against, and why.
• You are always evolving. Look at life as a process rather than a ladder to climb. Look for the beauty in what you have and where you’re at, because satisfaction isn’t guaranteed in the next, bigger thing.
• • •
We often see “upgrading” or buying new things as an expression of growth. But reducing what you have fulfills that purpose much more thoroughly and harmoniously.
However, as much as we like to downplay our reliance on stuff, it can’t be denied that stuff is an extremely important part of solidifying our identity. Likewise, stuff plays a big role in our frame of mind: if we wear clothes that make us look like a giant baby, after a while we’ll feel like a giant baby. For now, we can’t divorce ourselves from stuff and we shouldn’t. But we need to learn to be more purposeful about what we surround ourselves with, and keep it to the minimum.
Captive Overconsumers: Why We’re Stuck in a Cycle of Spending
Progress Over Perfection: Finding Balance as a Conscious Consumer