Considering Minimalism

While never I’ve never been one prone to gathering too much in the way of clutter, the effort to simplify my life has been a conscious challenge. Every so many years I would get tired of the way I have packed things and commitments into every available corner of my life, and I would go through a purge. Clothes, bikes, furniture, appliances, etc would all be on the chopping block, and subsequently end up in a Goodwill donation bin or on Craigslist. Social engagements weren’t safe either: the car club or the online forums and discussion boards, standing golf games, meet up groups or creative gatherings…when the time came, they all went by the wayside.

While the freedom this purge afforded always felt great at the time, I would inevitably discover that I’d gotten rid of something I needed, so it would be back to the stores for a replacement jacket or band saw or boots or car vacuum. Before long, not only would I have replaced the items I’d gotten rid of, but more than likely I’ve added more stuff on top of the original set. But hey, new stuff is great, right? And besides, I needed these things.


I recently attended a Phoenix Creative Morning session where the speaker was Joshua Becker, a somewhat renown minimalist, if that makes any sense. At any rate, during his session he spoke about the moment when he realized that he didn’t have to “own everything.” This was the first time that the idea had ever occurred to him, and the idea changed his life. Ever since, he and his family have lived a minimalist lifestyle, and has actually gone around spreading the good news of simplicity, being featured on NPR, the CBS Evening News, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Boston Globe and authored several books on the subject.

Interestingly, I had heard him speak for five minutes at an Ignite Phoenix event a few years earlier (watch the video here), and though I remember the message resonated with me at the time, I didn’t remember the particular speaker who delivered it, and I while it made for an interesting discussion on the ride home, it really didn’t make any lasting impression on me at the time. Same as his Ignite presentation,  his message is simple: we own too much stuff, and in reality, this stuff actually owns us. Minimalism will save us all.

Now, these Creative Morning sessions are attended by photographers, art directors, designers, web developers, writers, etc. Arguably, the livelihood of many of the people in the room depended on the success of the advertising/marketing machine that Joshua named as part of the problem. Even though a lot of the blame fell at the feet of our society and culture, most of his presentation was about changing your own mindset. Just because we see ten thousand ads a day doesn’t mean we have to buy everything we’re sold.

It was fun to watch people squirm a little when confronted with the idea that they didn’t have to have the latest iPhone, or the fastest car, or the biggest and most powerful computer. During the Q&A, people asked about things that were obviously important to them: a collection of books, a bunch of new photographic equipment, a closet full of designer clothes. His response was simple, no pun intended: “Don’t start with the hard stuff.”

He said to start with the easy stuff: the things in the closet that don’t get worn any more, the boxes of stuff in the garage that haven’t been opened in years. The crap in the trunk or on the floor of the back seat of the car.

The junk drawer.

He talked about how commitments – even the good ones – have a way of contributing to a cluttered life too. It makes sense; if every minute of every day is packed from morning to night there’s no time to breathe, much less deal with our stuff, stuff that needs to be cleaned and put away and dealt with. By default our lives will become more cluttered:

No time to read the mail? Just leave it on the counter, you’ll get to it tomorrow. A week of tomorrow goes by and suddenly the stack of mail is a mess that now requires real time to deal with. Time we already didn’t have. In contrast, if we take two minutes every day to deal with the mail not only is the counter kept clean, but that half hour you might have spent looking for bills and sifting through junk mail can be spent elsewhere.

Much of what he said rang true to me this time. When I got back to my office, the one I thought was clean enough and semi-streamlined, I took stock:

Oh, don't make me get rid of my Baseman desk figures!
Not even my Baseman desk figures are safe
  • Three sets of headphones
  • Three reusable/travel coffee cups
  • Two reusable water bottles
  • Half a dozen toys and figurines, one still in the box
  • Four moleskine (or similar) notebooks
  • Three containers holding probably thirty pens and pencils
  • A drawer full of assorted condiments – the result of when your meal comes with two containers of Ranch dressing or Honey Mustard or ketchup and you only use one
  • Three calendars
  • Five Post-It pads
  • Foam boards full of funny or inspirational or thoughtful sayings or pictures
  • Boxes of framed awards that I had boxed up for a move and never bothered to unpack
  • Paperwork and memos and newsletters spread all over the desktop surface
  • An overflowing recycling bin

And this was just a first cursory pass!

Point taken.

I took some time over lunch to straighten out my workspace – emptying the physical recycling bin, getting rid of non-essential paper and memos, and took down two of the calendars, put the publications and books back where they belong.

As this idea really resonates with me, I’m sure I’ll be focusing more on this in the near future. It seemed like my life was ready for some kind of simplification anyway, but it’s exciting to see where this new idea might lead me. Even better if its a long-term change as opposed to the usual temporary fix.