Pragmatic Minimalism

The Trend Towards Less

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:

  1. A need to unclutter because of the confines of a small space and a growing family.
  2. A desire to exercise control over my life, to pursue a life of meaning free from the burdern and attachment to things.
  3. A desire to break the cycle of wasteful and meaningless consumerism, in order to acquire primarily items that are built to last, that have meaning, or are worthwhile in terms of the pleasure and utility they provide.

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.

Being realistic and figuring out what's worth keeping

"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.

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