I started keeping a journal in 2011 about a personal project I had undertaken towards simplifying aspects of my life. The impetus came after downsizing homes, having children, and realizing that things I had accumulated began to require more space, maintenance, and attention than I was willing to give. Possessing things began to cost more than the enjoyment they provided in return.
My wife is an un-clutterer, and easily lets go of things. I on the other hand, with my taste for electronics, hand-crafted goods, and toys, am quite the opposite. Going down this path has been a challenge, and writing about it has helped me overcome it.
I have read a good deal about the topic, from ideas about attachment and its relationship to suffering, to the more practical aspects of uncluttering and living a minimalist lifestyle. I began with the easy stuff first, beginning by giving up many of my possessions and changing my consumer behavior and lifestyle.
This is an ongoing series of essays I am writing for myself about aspirations to live lighter, from becoming a more conscientious and responsible consumer, to living a more pragmatic and simple lifestyle. I've found that writing about it has helped me reflect on how to apply the ideas to my work.
16 August, 2013. Fairfax, CA.
I've begun to feel an increased urgency to live a more meaningful life as I've gotten older. This is not uncommon. The urgency intensifies as each year brings one closer to death, statistically speaking. As a young adult, I thought the pursuit of meaning might be spiritual and would begin early in my life. It has come slowly. Starting a career, falling in love, and starting a family have been important events that have contributed to the palpable urgency I now feel.
There's a paragraph in an article on the blog, "The Cleanest Line," that explains what happens to people in terms of this type of maturity once they hit their 30s. I think this explains the shift I'm experiencing.
[T]he frontal lobe of their brain completes its development, becomes fully attached to the brain, and in so doing, completes the process of ‘growing up.’ People start to look at the world with a perspective that’s no longer so ego driven, it becomes easier to see the beauty in things, and they open up to feelings like compassion and empathy in ways that are just plain beyond the ability of younger folks to understand.”
I'll buy that. Makes sense in terms of my experience anyway.
The urgency to find meaning feels more real now. I think it began with the handful of Buddhist books I chose to read in my 20's and 30's, who I chose to marry, and my part in living with someone who studies Buddhism. It has evolved into an approach to life that is based around living compassionately, largely informed by my wife who I consider the more enlightened partner to my pragmatist beliefs.
Recently my personal interests have included martial arts and the connection that awareness of body and mind provides. That link is the simplest path for someone as simple-minded as me to understand. For others this connection is similarly found in Yoga. It feels appropriate to have this parallel of learning something new in martial arts, because as I put on a white belt and gi, I feel free—free as old dude who is trying to learn and move slowly and purposefully.
As I'm being influenced by new ideas, my life is also now inching towards action in pursuing an enlightened attitude regarding my role as a consumer, and experimenting with minimalism in life. When I refer to minimalism, it's the ideological model for making life choices that interests me most, and not simply the aesthetic outcome of living a minimalist lifestyle. As I learn what my opinion is of these ideas for how to live, I also feel the influence on my ideas for how to design with the same intentions.
The welcome part of this confluence of ideas with the knowledge I've acquired in the first 20 or so years of my professional career is that I feel like I am starting over again. But this time, as I empty my cup, I feel equipped to actually begin working with intent.
"Go big or go home." You've probably heard this phrase before if you watch American TV. It's a common line barked on TV shows, suggesting that making or buying things bigger and having more can make anything better. It's one of those expressions that makes me cringe every time I hear it. What does having this attitude really do to benefit or harm us?
American culture seems obsessed with procuring more than we have. To an outsider looking in, it would seem that consumerism is among the most valued of our core values as a nation. It's something I've been accustomed to all of my life. It's only in the last 10 years or so that I've had any serious thoughts about what it means to participate in this society as a consumer, and what it could mean to challenge and change my role as a consumer.
Corporations and the media are constantly telling us that more is better, and when I look around me, it's easy to believe that most of us have bought in to this idea. I've lived most of my life consuming without thought, consenting to the idea that newer, more fully featured, and bigger is better.
The problem of acquiring more doesn't end with things. We live in a world where information flow has gone from the seemingly unctrollable force of a fire hose to what Richard Saul Wurman called an Information Tsunami. The force of the tsunami threatens to bury every meaningful bit in site, and the struggle of designers and information architects has been to create the systems that function with this increasingly tremendous force.
This is the place where I find myself today. Things have taken up too much space, and information has become too voluminous. I've had enough, but more to the point, I have too much.
I feel like I'm silently crying over the overwhelming need to deal with this glut of stuff more and more, and I'm finding tremendous comfort in places I didn't look. I have an understanding of both the philosophical and spiritual ideas associated with living simply, removing attachment, and controlling the mind's desire. It wasn't until I felt the need to start with the basics of uncluttering my stuff that I felt the gelling of ideas into something I can believe and practice.
Uncluttering and carrying less refers both to the reduction or removal of both the physical and mental stuff we accumulate. The desire for, acquisition, and maintenance of physical objects create a cycle that weighs us down and uses up energy. It fills the spaces of a person's home, and the stuff leaves little room for much else over time.
Mental clutter is the collection of repeated desires, tasks, and thought patterns that invade our mind and interrupt every moment. These days, the constant notification and tickling of your iPhone and the incessant ping of email and social networking apps contributes to mental clutter. These kinds of things burden our experience.
Cat Li Stevenson has a nice, short article discussing her strategy for dealing with both the mental and physical clutter. The act of decluttering one's environment and mind are closely connected to freeing up space to find deeper, more meaningful experience.
But before dealing with the mind, I wanted to first deal with the burden of physical stuff. Considering the clutter of physical things is the most obvious path for novices—people like me. This is what I began with, and continue to struggle with daily, because it's practical and real.
I've found a lot of inspiration from adventure sports athletes who approach issues around carrying less pragmatically. Alpine climbers, ultralight backpackers and Randonneurs who do long-distance cycling carry the minimum necessary gear out of necessity when they venture out on adventures alone and unsupported.
Cindy Gilbert, a cyclist and the sustainable design program director at Minneapolis College of Art and Design wrote about the freedom of traveling with less during a 2.5 week, 4 state, 1000 mile cycling ride she took from Montana to Minneapolis. During the trip she learns about what she is willing to give up to lighten her load. She ponders the positive effect of focussing on what one needs, and questioning the value of acquiring everything one wants.
I thought about the potential freedom I would feel to not have, want, buy, care for, protect, and use as many things. I think I am starting to understand why the retired folks in my life are offloading their stuff on me. Physical and emotional freedom from stuff costs nothing and it weighs nothing. Now that's something I am prepared to carry with me.
This idea of giving up the burden of one's things is at the core of what I'm trying to get at. There's freedom lying beneath the pile.
Dave Bruno, who started the 100 Thing Challenge and who wrote a book about his challenge to reduce his posessions to 100 items talks about consumerism and how we become prisoners to it. In his book he writes how early consumerism for young people comes of necessity to begin your life and equip yourself. But the problem we run into after we start acquiring things is that we never stop. We continue to collect what we don't need or sometimes even want.
The problem is that having more doesn't necessarily result in a higher quality of life or better experience. Acquiring more has gotten us into dire economic and environmental straits. If you look at some of the "professional" software that we use, the accretion of features has rendered them overwhelming and difficult.
What it comes down to is that sadly, for many people, more is actually less in terms of overall experience. The more we become a society hell-bent on acquiring and becoming attached to things, the greater the burden those attachments become to carry. It's can be a burden in one's personal life as well as in one's work. Giving up attachment frees you to focus on what's important.
What does this mean exactly? Barry Schwartz, who wrote "The Paradox of Choice" believes that more choice leads to paralysis rather than happiness.
I've been trapped in the cycle of attachment and consumerism for years, and wasn't until the last 5 or so years living in New York that I had been able to do something about it. As my family had grown, so too had our acquisitions, but the decent-sized Brooklyn apartment we lived in had not grown. This is the point where people get creative about storage, upgrade to bigger spaces, or move to the suburbs. I decided to go the other way and remove things instead. My wife is a constant unclutterer (thank goodness) and follows the rule that as things come in, other things have to go out. This is the rule I try to keep to now.
When my second son was born, I decided it was time that I start uncluttering as well, and had been going through the process of reducing my possessions, starting with my closets and book shelves. I'll write more on this later, because I really am a complete beginner when it comes to living simply and I have felt like I fail more than succeed at doing it. I'm no hoarder, by any means, but I know that I have too many things that I don't need.
A few years after starting this experiment, we have moved out of New York to a suburb in California, but we made the conscious decision to find a place that was roughly the same square footage as our place in New York. That is helping keep me honest.
The important thing to me is that I started, and made the conscious choice to draw a line, and say enough is enough. I find it terribly difficult to do this without rules and arbitrarily picked numbers of items like 100. The funny thing is that as I was doing this, I found myself cheating, by spending time researching what I can use as lasting replacements for the things I have. This is a beginning for me, and it starts with taking small steps.
It doesn't have to be this way. By making choices that are appropriate to task, we can simplify, improve, and live more satisfying, meaningful lives. Slowly, I think, internalizing these goals through everyday practice, has started to influence my thought in other areas as well, the key one being how I evaluate products that fit with these ideas.
There appears to be a trend among affluent young professionals in the opposite direction, with some minimalists who espouse simple living and others who choose a more extreme direction (although some on the illusion of austerity. Some of the stories I read feel legitimate and tied to real concern for finding meaning by removing clutter in one's life, while other stories seem shallow on the surface, and more akin to Luddite rebellion. In any case, I am attracted to and motivated by the idea of removing clutter and focussing on making meaningful choices.
Why do people choose a minimalist lifestyle?
People choose a minimalist lifestyle different reasons. For me, the need for a more minimalist lifestyle came first out of a few desires and needs:
From other people's writing, I've gathered some great reasons to choose a life of less clutter and more meaning.
Minimalism is sometimes associated with Zen Buddhism. I do not follow Zen Buddhism, but I find the ideas of attachment/non-attachment confusing. I understand the idea in Buddhism that non-attachment means knowing that one is not separate from the world outside one's skin, and that doesn't necessarily require a life of ascetism. But maybe the idea is that acquisition of things in the world become less important because the pursuit of enlightenment is a journey of the mind. Maybe reducing the objects you possess is a natural by-product of this pursuit or maybe it is part and parcel of the journey--having less is more proportional with this pursuit.
Some feel like prisoners to consumerism and the act of choosing to own as little as possible is a conscious choice to free oneself from this. They needn't be anti-consumerist to make this choice. I don't categorize myself as such, but I like some of the ideas associated with anti-consumerism.
I cannot say that I am drawn to the idea of complete austerity. There's something just-short of minimalism that might value reduction, without removing that which makes something interesting and more than just minimally useful. Less can be more, but really what I'm interested in is what Frank Chimero picked up in Merlin Mann's idea of Appropriatism and what I awkwardly think of as Just Enoughism. Terrible, I know. Maybe a pragmatic minimalist is what I am.
What it comes down to is that I value minimalist ideals, but realistically, I go only as far as I need to before the reduction gets in the way of getting the right things done at the right time. The problem is that needs shift over time, or with the needs at any time. So that makes it difficult to arbitrarily select a maximum number of items or features at your disposal, whether they're items of clothing or menu items, to get things done.
I'll be honest with you, I don't consider myself a minimalist. Not yet anyway. Minimalism may be a goal in terms of where I want to be, but appropriateness is more likely what I live.
I don't make new years resolution, but to mark 2011 I set one goal for the sake of the new year: unsubscribe from every mailing list and catalog that I can. Since then I've been on an unhoarding spree, concerned with how to selectively save and delete with impunity. My experiment with email was interesting to me, and I'm keeping it up so far.
On 23 Feb. 2010, I tweeted:
"After years of using GMail's convention of saving everything with archive, I feel like the virtual equivalent of a hoarder." #
On 5 May 2010, I tweeted:
"I've canceled all my mag subs. Will try to buy all books on iBooks or Kindle iPad." #
"My next exercise in simplifying... trying to cut wardrobe down to 5 items of every category of clothing. Will be hard but I want less stuff." #
"I wont replace much, but I do want things that last. I'm happy to donate all the cheaply made gear. Gap clothes can suck it." #
"Once you get in the mode of reducing and selecting in one area of life, other, bigger ideas become possible." #
The self-imposed challenge was on. I needed to kick my butt into action.
Deleting email and unsubscribing has been the easiest and most successful exercise so far, because it's really not hard to do, and you feel the benefits immediately. I didn't do it one fell swoop. It's gradual, and I'm still doing it. I looked at what was coming in, and took action whenever something new invaded my inbox.
"Buy better. Buy less." I don't know who originally coined that phrase, but it's like a mantra for anti-consumerists and pragmatic minimalists alike. I read it in Yvon Chouinard's book, *Let My People Go Surfing*.
I've adopted a new approach towards what I keep for sentimental value, and I can't see any reason to be attached to items like clothing for sentimental value. Those silver boots that I wore when I was 21 and had blonde hair? The t-shirt I bought at Lacrosse camp that finally fits me again? I don't need them to conjure memories of those times.
The way the media covers some stories about minimalists can make some of the drastic steps they take seem like crazy-making. There's a story on the BBC about modern day minimalists like software engineer, Kelly Sutton, who documented his effort to reduce his physical possessions to nearly nothing on his site, Cult of Less. Just as interesting is the discussion about Sutton on Boing Boing. I don't have a personal opinion of his effort because I don't know him or what his motives are. Maybe that's because the media don't really take the time to dive deeper into their reasons for choosing to live this way.
For some, choosing an arbitrary number and announcing the goal of what number you want to reduce your possessions down to can make it real. The 100 Thing Challenge is an example of this. It's like announcing to your friends and family that you plan to run a marathon or do a 100 mile bike ride. Once you put it out in the world, you're making a contract with yourself that you'll have a better chance of completing. Event athletes know about this.
I'm not dogmatic about creating rules for myself, but I feel like drawing a line or setting an intention is useful. But, if there is something that so vividly captures a memory that I want to keep it, I keep it. For me the idea is to be selective, and remember that these are just things. Allowing things to accumulate and clutter is what I'm against. While sentimental items may remind me of something I hold fond every few years that I come across them, they can easily disrupt the balance of daily living in my small and well-defined space if they become clutter. For me, journaled memories and photos serve better and take up less physical space.
Patrick Rhone, has some interesting thoughts about how you can approach purchases. The first is on making final and lasting choices.
"My desired goal is this. Anywhere I can make a buying choice that I, with proper care and maintenance, will never have to make again for the rest of my life, I do. In those cases, I’m willing to pay far more for an item if I know it will last a lifetime and, even more importantly to me, I will never have to spend the mental energy making a choice again." #
The second idea has to do with deciding what your defaults are for things you use repeatedly, whether it's the the pen you write with, the clothes you wear, or the software you use. Research carefully, make your decision, and don't waste time staring at the wall of choices in the future.
"Sensible defaults can reduce friction and provide simplicity anywhere one can think to apply them. They are the bedrock of minimalist practice and a quiet mind." #
Once you've reduced your posessions, looking at the world this way going forward, you can apply the ideas for buying less and buying better to how you consume. But more importantly, you can take the next steps to apply them not just to the physical things you possess.
Next I'm going to explore the ideas as they are beginning to relate to the features I select in the design of software.