For a long time, I have wanted to simplify my life, let go of things, live with less, and free up space and time for what I really enjoy and desire instead of feeling like a slave to my possessions. I even compiled a two-page newsletter of the short blog posts I had written about clutter back in 2004 and declared myself a minimalist. Despite my good intentions, I am far from reaching my goal. It’s a constant struggle not to acquire and to let go. Without letting go, it’s difficult to move on.
Every step of the way to a minimalist existence is fraught with challenges. The Buddhist saying “the more you own, the more you are owned” rings true. If I owned less, I would be more free. It starts with saying no.
Saying no to people’s offer of material things and service isn’t as simple as it seems. The offer could be useful in the future, even if it is not right now. The item might never be used or appreciated, but you have to decide now. If you accept the gifts, freebies that are useful and in good condition, gift vouchers, and other free items that are perfectly functional and even beautiful, you become the caretaker of the freebie, preventing it from an uncertain fate or going to waste. While you may save the planet, you are at the same time burdened by the responsibility of either finding a home for it in your world or finding someone or somewhere to give it to.
Watching “The Minimalist: a Documentary” reminded me why I had bought and read Schechter’s paperback book “Let Go of Clutter” in 2001, and in the last two months, listened to the audiobooks of Marie Kodo’s bestselling “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” and Peter Walsh’s “Let It Go: Downsizing Your Way to a Richier and Happier Life” on Scribd and Hoopladigital.
Kondo and Walsh give contrasting advice when it comes to the first step of the process in tidying up and downsizing. Kondo advises to start with getting rid of stuff, leaving letters and photographs to the last. On the other hand, Walsh advises to choose what to keep first: your most treasured items. I say to do both. Put what you definitely want to keep on a dining table, as Walsh suggests, and get into a momentum of discarding everything else while putting aside photographs and letters for the final step.
Whatever you keep should bring you joy, Kondo says. The Minimalists echo a similar theme, emphasizing quality over quantity. When you have gotten rid of most things, what little is left should be what you value the most. “Love people. Use things. Not the other way around.”
Indeed, why do we surround ourself with things that we don’t use, don’t like, feel indifferent to or even burdened by? This goes for people, too. Wouldn’t it be nice to know whom we want to spend time with and organize our lives so we can do so, rather than surround ourselves with those we don’t care for?
It’s a sure sign that I have too much stuff when I spend time looking for it or moving things around to fetch it. When I wade into my closet to find clothes and shoes, I see immediately that most of what I own only get worn once a year. There are a few items, still brand new, that get worn every other year. It’s time to embark on Project 333 — choose the 33 things to keep in my closet and discard everything else.
In the 7 Tiny Steps for the Beginner Minimalist, the author advises to start by writing down all the reasons for living more simply.
I have every reason not to acquire, collect, and hoard. I am a traveller. I have also uprooted too many times in my life to keep count. For each move, I have to get rid of things. It’s a time-consuming, painful and expensive process. I always underestimate how much stuff I need to shed and how much time I have to do it.
This time last year, I was pressed against an immovable deadline of emptying my one-bedroom bungalow on Maui. A friend offered to help me set up a final moving sale. As I had already sold the larger items to students and colleagues, what remained were books, wine glasses, dresses, shoes, and miscellaneous household items. While I was bringing the things out, she priced my paperbacks at 25 cents on the curb for a passerby. I was alarmed. Those were good books that I had planned to read. I didn’t want to part with them but I couldn’t take them with me either. I secretly hoped that no one would buy them. In the end, anything that didn’t get sold got donated to a thrift shop. She told me to let go. They’ve all served their purpose, she said.
On my trip to Denver this past spring, I learned that everything in my friend’s luxury house had a home and a function. She would quietly move my nearly empty cup to the kitchen sink or my purse to the guest room. Her home was decorated to be comfortable and beautiful: an empty counter did not signify storage space or temporary shelter for an object without a permanent home.
My key takeaway from that visit is one of aesthetics: clutter is visual pollution. When there is less stuff, there is more space — but not to be filled by homeless objects that threaten to claim every surface and pose an eyesore. I would expect my guests to respect the same.
After my most recent relocation from Maui to Boston and Utrecht to London, I have come to the sad conclusion that I need to train a new habit and simultaneously get rid of old ones to become a minimalist. In the Power of Habit, the author outlines how to break old habits and develop new ones.
I need to kick the habit of collecting freebies, duplicates, and perfectly good items that need a home but have no place in my life. I need to learn to say no, even if it means rejecting the possibility that the item may be useful someday. I need to train a new habit of systematically getting rid of my stuff to prevent eyesores and avoid the hurried and dreaded stressful task of final moving sales.