Developing a taste for minimalism

I wrote earlier about my response to a presentation I attended on the concept of minimalism. While I’d heard talks on it before, and even one by the same person, it never really stuck. I’m not sure what was different this time, but this time the message hit home, becoming more than just a nice idea. I spent that afternoon and evening reading up on the philosophy, soaking up everything I could get my hands on. I found that people I knew or have met around town were going through the same kind of process I was…simplifying, minimizing, trying to take control of their things and subsequently their life.

I even spent the weekend reading several zen lifestyle sites (example), which I would usually have just dismissed as a nice idea but not really applicable to today’s busy life. Or more specifically, me in my life.

GoodwillStack

Hadn’t worn most of these in a year…and a few items still had tags on them.

Any way, I decided to put into practice some of what I’d been reading. A big part of minimalism comes just from eliminating things that don’t add value to your life. Does clutter add anything to my life? Not if you don’t include frustration. So last Saturday I made a first pass through my closet, getting rid of the low-hanging fruit: clothes I hadn’t worn in a year…or in some cases – ever. Shoes that I had quit wearing because they hurt my feet, but never gotten rid of.

After boxing up the clothes, I looked around the house for other areas I could address. I was struck by the amount of stuff that filled many of the surfaces. Not that the house is messy, and we’re not really into tchotchkes, but the horizontal planes of our house have become a magnet for stuff. My desk in the front room is little more than a catch-all, with very little thought given to how it looks or functions as a desk. It’s a physical representation of my to-do list: stacks of receipts, invoices, home records, the business mail, books, magazines I was saving, etc. As I began to work my way through stacks, it occurred to me if I had just dealt with this stuff at the time I used it, I wouldn’t be giving up my Saturday cleaning my desk.

Same goes for the garage. Or the family room.

A plan is hatched

So was born a new two-part experiment: any time I interact with an object, be it mine or my wifes, I will make sure that when I’m done with it, it goes where it belongs — not, and this is the important part —where I got it.

The plan is taking some getting used to:

  • Mail, when brought into the house, gets sorted immediately: bills get opened and filed, junk mail goes into the recycling bin – it doesn’t get stacked on the counter
  • My briefcase goes next to the desk – not on the table, or in the hall, or on the bed, or…
  • When I’m done with any dish, glass or utensil it goes into the dishwasher – not the sink, not left in the counter
  • Clean laundry gets put away as soon as it comes out of the dryer; clothes that are worn either get put into the hamper, or back in the closet
  • Shoes get put in the closet – not by the door

While not a true minimalist everything-must-go shift, this new philosophy accomplishes a couple of things:

  1. Existing stuff, and any collections/piles thereof, will be addressed without having to spend all day cleaning – small steps are easier to accomplish
  2. I’m training myself to be less likely to end up here again

The second part of this experiment will be harder to adhere to: as our things wear out, or break, or get chewed by a dog, we won’t automatically go out and buy a replacement. We will thoughtfully weigh whether or not we need Object X, and unless it’s something that we absolutely can’t live without (like a refrigerator, say), we will not replace it.

A kind of minimalism through attrition, as opposed to elimination, kind of thing.

So far, so good

While the first couple of items were tough (the new mail being delivered meant that I had to deal with the rest of the pile), the new philosophy is working out pretty well. The kitchen has been more consistently neat, as dishes end up immediately in the dishwasher and the mail stack has been dealt with. My section of the closet is less cluttered, and I’ve eliminated any stacks of laundry that tend to accumulate there. The part of the bathroom counter that usually houses my razors and such has been emptied now that these items are now in a drawer…or are at least some of the time.

Challenges

I’m finding the biggest challenge is not so much the stuff itself, because we know to put things back when we’re done with them. In my experience, it comes down to time management. We don’t put the laundry away not because we don’t know how, or that we should, it’s that we needed one clean shirt and then we’re out the door, off to work or another commitment. Shoes get left by the door because that’s where we’ll need them next, or I’ll be right back and will put them away later. Dishes end up in the sink because we’re in a hurry or in the middle of a movie or just don’t want to mess with cleaning them so they’re dishwasher-ready right then.

It’s easy enough to put a glass in the sink and come back to sit on the couch, realize what I’d done, and get up and put it away. It’s much more difficult when the couch is my car and I’m on my way to work before I realize my autopilot morning has left the kitchen a cluttered mess.

I’m getting there, but I feel like a child learning how to pick up after myself.

In a sense, I guess I am.