Sunday, January 07, 2018

Simplifying Stuff - My Journey into Minimalism

Minimalism has become an important tool for my life. I like Joshua Becker’s definition of minimalism found on his blog becoming minimalist "The intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from it”. Brian Gardner points out that  minimalism isn’t about stuff, but redefining our relationship with “stuff” is often the starting point for people on a minimalist path. I will do a later post about the more internal aspects of my journey to embrace minimalism.

Francis Schaeffer observed that we live in a world that worships “personal peace and affluence”. Our culture tells us that we should put comfort above all else which leads to a self centered life. Advertisers buy our attention to convince us more stuff will make our lives better. They tell us we should “keep up with the Jones” if not the rich and famous. This encourages us to be dissatisfied with what we have rather than to be grateful. This sort of outlook leads to a consuming hunger that never satisfies our hearts.

The minimalist movement rejects the materialistic driven society while looking for something better. People are discovering once their basic needs are met, that more stuff doesn't make them happier. You can see a growing interest by stories in the media on topics such as downsizings, decluttering, tiny houses, one bag lifestyle, and how kids don't want their parents stuff.

My Path

I was first introduced to a minimalism by my dad’s life. At the time it wasn’t called minimalism… we called it living simply. If something was working, no reason to upgrade it. No reason to buy something to impress others… function ruled. My dad's greatest pleasure might have been simply being outside, experiencing nature. I learned to love simplicity and nature. I dreamed of building a small sustainable cabin like Henry David Thoreau described in Walden. I didn’t want to be weighed down by lots of stuff, with the possible exception of books and music.

In college I became a Christian and joined a church community that had a communal oriented lifestyle dedicated to service. I was introduced to the Christian discipline of simplicity by Richard Foster’s writings, was challenged by a talk by Ralph Winter about a wartime mentality and Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I tried to resist the “gospel” of personal peace and affluence. I desired a life which was light on stuff and heavy on meaning and purpose.

I found that getting married and then having a child made it harder to maintain a minimalist lifestyle. It's not that minimalism is incompatible with being a good spouse or parent, but when more people are involved, it gets more complicated. It's often easier to just add an activity or item than to figure out what would be most valuable to the family as a whole while not overly restricting any individual. In the quest to provide the "best life" for my family, more got added than was necessary. We resisted giving fully into the consumer oriented culture: we drove a modest car, purchased a house that was affordable on one income, kept commute short, was generous to charities, and tried to put time into activities that mattered. Still, life grew ever more full with things and activities that didn’t matter to me. What's sad is some of the things and activities didn't really matter to the rest of the family either... I just thought they did.

In 2011 life was uprooted when I lost my wife Libby to cancer. I found myself in a new chapter of life. I wanted a simpler life full of meaning. I was concerned that I would pass on my dreams because I was afraid to give up my high-tech salary and the comforts it purchased. I decided that I needed to learn to live with less stuff and less money so that I would be free to pursue whatever God had for me. Six years later I share my life with my wife Jackie as we seek to live meaningful lives.

Simplify Clothing by Adopting a Uniform

Many of the articles I read about minimalism suggested the first place to start downsizing was clothing. It’s one of the easily areas for people to take a more minimalist lifestyle, and it’s something that you experience every day. People often start this process by removing clothing they no longer wear. My approach was a bit more radical.

None of my clothing fit because I had just lost more than 30 lbs. I decided to purchase all new clothing and then give away all my old clothing except for my sandals and running shoes. I had read about wearing a uniform in Insanely successful men wear the same thing every day and the women’s version why i wear the same thing to work everyday. I was intrigued by some of the traveling minimalists whose clothing fit in a small daypack. I purchased only what I needed and would be happy to wear every day.  It was summer and I had nothing that required me to dress up.  I purchased 3 pairs of grey shorts, 3 black wool tee-shirts, underwear and a windbreaker. In the fall I added a few pairs of long pants, a wool hoody, and some winter outerwear. As Christmas approached I purchased a suit, a tailored button up shirt, and a pair of nice shoes for a friend’s upcoming wedding and so I had appropriate clothing if I needed to attend a funeral or any other event that required me to be "dressed up".

I love my “uniform” for several reasons. The first reason was unexpected. Every time I put my clothing on I feel grateful. My clothing are comfortable and feel like "me", not a costume I am wearing to please others. I find my heart content. Second, and the original reason for adopting a uniform was to eliminate unnecessary decisions. Every morning I will take whatever is on the top of the stack of nearly identical items and get dressed which requires no thought or planning. Finally, I found I spent a lot less time “shopping” and am able to resist “deals” which used to lure me to buy things that I really didn’t need or enjoy wearing. I can now immediately tune out advertisements because my uniform is all I need. I only purchase clothing when something is wearing out, and then it's a simple replacement... I purchase the identical item

Declutter Home

Once I had cleaned out my clothing closet I decided to declutter the rest of the house. I started with some basic principles from Organizing from the Inside Out which stressed everything should have a place near whether it was used, ideas from Declutter Every Room in Your House and then added to it some of the tidying up ideas from Marie Kondo which is nicely covered in Spark Joy.  I decided that the best thing would be to work on one room at a time, get the room completely finished and then move onto the next room. 

I started with the kitchen. The drawers were filled with countless utensils, many of which I didn’t use and often were on top of the utensils I was looking for. I pulled everything out of the drawers. In the process I found that we accumulated several of the same utensils because we “replaced” an item we had “lost”. Once the drawers were emptied I selected only the items I was sure I would use at least weekly. I thought about how I worked in the kitchen and stored the utensils near where they were used. Everything else went into several boxes placed in the garage. I found that a bit of creativity often allowed me to avoid the hassle of going into the garage to retrieve the rarely used utensil. Over the next six months I retreived just few items from the garage. After six months I gave most of the unused utensils away. I found the streamlined kitchen made cooking more enjoyable. When I needed something, I would pull the drawer open and immediately see what I needed. I also found that a well organized drawer was attractive to my eye compared to a drawer crowded and filled to the brim with items.

Once the kitchen was completed I worked through the house using a method similar to Declutter Every Room in Your House. After the "first pass" I just continued to remove things that weren't added value to life using principles very similar to Colleen Madsen's Ten Principles to Help Anyone Clear Clutter. There are plenty of other articles, blogs and books about minimalism that have been helpful as I trying to simplifying "stuff" in the house, but most don't add substantially to Colleen's simple post. After a while I found material on minimalism to be a bit repetitive, though each person has a different backstory to tell which can be inspiring.

When Jackie and I got married we combined out households. Thankfully, we were quite compatible and found that we both wanted a fairly simple and uncluttered home. The number of "family" items grew slightly compared to what each of us would have had in a house by ourselves, but way short of doubling. For example, the core of our kitchen is pretty much the same as what one of us would have owned (Jackie's plates, my mugs, a mix of our glasses). There was some growth where one of us used something regularly that the other didn't such as Jackie's wok, and my baking pan and blender. Our extras were used to equip other households. We saw a great benefit from our minimizing when we moved out of the house I had lived in for 26 years. We managed to pack the house on Friday in less than 12 hours and were fully moved into our new home by the end of the weekend: all our stuff was put away, all the moving boxes were folded flat, and pictures had been hung on the walls.

Some General Challenges to Minimizing Stuff

I used to struggle giving things away because I might need them some day. I have come to believe someday is often so far away it never arrives. Meanwhile, the items sits around, taking up space and not being used. Something that has really helped me let go of currently unused objects is that I can imagine the object I am no longer using crying to fulfill it's purpose.  It’s saying “I want someone to love me”. If I am not loving the object by using it, I am happy to sent it to a home that will love and care for it. As I have practiced downsizing, it has become easier as my confidence has grown. There are only three times that I gave something away, only to discover I really wanted it back. In each case, I was able to re-aquiring the item without difficulty or a high cost.

Sometimes I know it will be difficult to re-aquire an item because it's one-of-a-kind, handmade, or no longer manufactured. In these cases I will set these items aside in a "holding" box. If I don’t think about these items in a year, I give them away on the theory I won't miss them in the future because I will have forgotten I ever had them.

The harder I worked to acquire an object the less likely I felt comfortable giving it away or selling it. I would focused on the labor I had invested. I have come to appreciate that rather than thinking about what it cost to acquire an object, I should think about the cost of replacing it in the future. These days using services like Amazon can significantly reduces the work to find the right object, and ever increasing efficiencies in industry often reduces the cost of items over time. When factoring in the cost of storage, it is often cheaper to sell or give away an item, even if you will need to repurchase it several years later.

Another challenge are items that have sentiment value.  I came to realize that pictures are almost as good (sometimes better) to promote good memories that the item would trigger, but takes up no physical space, and are easily accessible anywhere and anytime. So I tag these special photos so I can easily immerse myself in memories. There are some sentimental items I have held on to which I specifically choose to keep as a way to honor someone who was very special to me.

My Biggest Challenge: Books

The most difficult thing for me to downsize was my book collection. To me, books are almost sacred. I grew up in a family that cherished books and learning. I like to think of myself as educated and an intellectual... having lots of books is part of that self identity. When I started to downsize my book collection I had ten, or was it eleven, full size (36" x 72") bookcases completely full, often with books double deep. I couldn't bring myself to part with my old friends in one go, it took several years.

I started by looking at large reference books since these had the lowest emotional attachment and took a disproportionate amount of space. Those no longer used, or that could be replaced by resources freely available on the Internet were given away. I replaced any reference materials I used regularly with electronic versions. Even though this cost money, it saved space and made the materials more useful to me.

The first difficulty were books I hadn't read. Often there is a reason I haven't read the book after purchasing it. Maybe I started the book but just couldn't get "into" it. Maybe my interests changed or I had purchased the book because someday I knew I would be interested in the topic. It seemed wrong to give away something I hadn't used, but I realized there is not enough time to reald all the books I am interested in. Keeping these unread books just made me feel guilty. Any books that I didn't have plans to read in the next six months I gave away.

Next, I went through my books and asked the question "Is this a book I am likely to read, re-read or recommend to someone in the next few years?" If the answer was no, I gave it away. I was down from ten bookcases to less than four bookcases.

I changed tacts to identifying books I really wanted to keep. I asked the question  "Which of these books changed my life or I think it's so great that it might change someone else life?"  Those got put into a special bookcase or in some cases purchased for my Kindle and given away.

For all the remaining books I asked two questions. The first was "Is this book on my reading schedule in the next six months?". If yes, I held on to the book. The second question was "Can I get this book again?"  I looked up each book on Amazon. If it was still in print I put it on an Amazon wishlist and I gave the book away confident I come get it back if I needed to.  What's left? Less than one bookcase of largely out of print books. Every quarter or so I looks through the remaining books and ask the question "Do I think I am going to ever read this book or loan it to someone?" Each time I do this there are several books my honest answer is"no", and they get donated to our church or the friends of the library.

The Process Continued

I considered doing the 100 Items Challenge, but decided  my attention would be on how to curate possessions rather than on living. Rather that shooting for a particular number, I just asking the question “Does this item enrich my life on a regular basis?”. If the answer was yes, I would keep it.  Otherwise it went into a box that would ultimately be given away or sold. I posted a Great Stuff for Me (and maybe you) which records where this process has taken me so far.. down to around 140 items.  Along the way there were a couple areas that took some focused attention because I couldn't easily tackle them one item at a time.

I had to work at simplifying electronics... I am a technologist and a geek. I consolidated all the data I needed onto my laptop (backed up into the cloud) which removed the need to have a file server in the house. I stopped running a computing infrastructure which could run a medium size business by switching to use Google Apps and a few other cloud services. In the process I got rid of several servers, a lot of upkeep, and a number of older computers I was holding on to “just in case”. Three large moving boxes filled with cables was reduced to three quart size ziplock bags. I realized I really didn't use the home phone and answering machine so they were dropped and I just used my cell phone. Rather than multiple portable audio devices I decided I would use my phone or if I didn't have my phone, forgo music. Rather than having multiple stereo systems with a complex (and somewhat fragile) streaming infrastructure I switched to a single system based around my laptop and a pair of audiophile grade powered speaker.

Camera equipment was another area that took a fair amount of work. I had a high end pocketable camera that I had with me always (a Sony RX100) because you never knew when you might need to take a picture. I had a camera that was particularly good for in low light conditions without a flash that was perfect for candid shots at events. Finally I had a couple of camera bodies, and numerous interchangeable lens. I had several tripods, flashes, and camera bags. One camera bag could hold nearly all my equipment. Another was good for outdoor events, and I had my original Domke F-5XB which I used whenever I wanted to minimize the amount of camera gear I carried. Every time I was going somewhere I would have to figure out what camera gear to take, and then what bag to use. My downsizing came in three stages. The first was reducing my gear down to the pocketable camera which I always carried, one camera with a couple of lens, and some accessories which would fit into the Domke bag. If an event was "photographic" in nature I would grab the camera bag, otherwise I would use the pocket camera. After awhile I noted that I wasn't grabbing the camera bag very often. I just didn't want to carry it around.  I was mostly happy to make do with the pictures from my pocket camera. A couple of years later I realized that I wasn't happy with my pocket camera. My camera didn't focus as fast as my phone (the newest version of the RX100 is much better), it didn't geotag pictures, and was too big to be in my pocket all the time. I also noted that while the RX100's image quality was better than my phone camera, I found the Pixel 2 and the iPhone X to be "good enough" in most situations. So now I am just using the camera on the Pixel 2 and am generally happy. I have said to myself I can always rent equipment for a specific event, like when I went whale watching... but I haven't done this since I downsized our camera gear. I would rather focus on the event than hassle with the camera. Besides, there is almost always someone else with a good camera who is happy to share the images they captured when were were together. The best of both worlds.

Shopping Diet

In the middle of 2016 year I went on a “shopping diet”.  I decided that I wouldn’t purchase anything new for myself in the next year except to replace (1:1) items that wore out or broke. Of course I would buy food,  pay for activities, and I let myself purchase kindle books that whose price had dropped more than 65% since I put it on my wishlist.  I also permitted myself to purchase gifts and items needed by other family members. I was amazed at how much of an impact the shopping diet had on my time and focus. I never realized how much the constant bombardment of “deals” I see in social media drove my consumption. Even if I didn’t ultimately purchase the item it ended up taking time as I researched the deal and spent time wondering if this was something I might need. Now I just ignore any “deals” I saw. I started to experience that "it’s better to want less than to have less.”  After a year I ended my diet for a few months, but found shopping started to take more of my time and energy, so toward the end of 2017 I decided to do another year long shopping diet and am loving it.

for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.

1 Timothy 6:7-8 (ESV)


David Moseley said...

This is very thought-provoking and challenging. Having seen how quickly I have accumulated items starting afresh in a new home and even having in mind living more simply. Now I should reflect on your approach since clearly my vague intentions in this direction have not worked!

Cheryl Walker said...

Thanks for sharing your journey, Mark. I’ve been walking the same path for a few years and keep enjoying the process and the freedom. I also keep circling back around and honing each realm...on books again right now. It’s actually become a hobby I think :) I’ve noticed a correlation between my inner and outer ‘organization’; when I’m a mess inside it’s manifested in my surroundings looking the same. There’s a joy I experience when my life reflects ‘the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ’ more thoroughly. That said, the uniform is my favorite daily change you’ve implemented. God bless you, bro.