Some years ago, living in a small 50 sqm (approx 500 sqft apartment) in Denmark, I was growing increasingly tired of the stuff my girlfriend and I owned. I was tired of spending time on a lot of stuff when I just felt that I was using — and getting value — from a small part of it.
I found it extremely stupid to clean up and move things around, that I didn’t regularly use. I decided to try to get everything in our apartment cleaned up and pile up everything that we didn’t use at least once every 3 months in the middle of the floor. The idea was just that we should only own the things we actually used and nothing else. The result, the big pile in the middle of the apartment, was a pretty big shock for me. In that small apartment, we had sooo much stuff that we found no value in. This was a turning point for me and the start of me becoming a minimalist.
From that point, I’ve been very focused on just having the very few things that I really need. When starting to travel full-time 3 years ago, being a minimalist has just been extremely natural. You don’t wanna carry a lot of stuff around all the time and me, personally, prefer to spend my money on experiences instead.
Perfection is achieved not when there is Nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to taking away
Some years ago a successful entrepreneur told me that software is not done when there are any no more features to add, but when there are no more to remove. I later found out that, that quote is from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a french writer.
This quote is something that you can probably recommend from for example your work. When talking about design, writing, code, cooking and most other stuff, the important thing is not just adding more, but just having the exact right things and no more.
So why are we not doing this in our lives in general? We’re experts in and have built our whole world around, adding more stuff. Success nowadays is equal to more and not less. Personally, I find life more than enough complex and I don’t see any reasons to make it even more complex for myself.
Minimalism is not about just living extreme with no stuff at all. It’s just about knowing what the important things in life are and removing the other things, so you can focus on those important things.
The total cost of stuff
When buying stuff it’s very easy to just focus on the immediate gratification in the situation of the purchasing decision. We’re very often driven just by that and not taking other elements into account. For me, stuff comes with a total cost which goes beyond the price on the price tag.
The total cost consists of:
- What’s the price of this product if I look at the price before I’ve paid my taxes?
- How many hours do I need to work to be able to buy this product?
- How does this product, including transportation, affect the environment?
- What’s the human cost of producing this product? (I’ve been to Bangladesh and trust me, a lot of the stuff you buy comes with a big human cost)
- How much negative time will be associated with buying this product? (cleaning up, moving it around, storing it etc.)
Looking at the cost of the product in a more 360 perspective really adds to the total overall costs.
It’s almost Christmas and I think this way of thinking should really be used when buying Christmas presents for kids. In my opinion, it’s amazing how much time people spend at their jobs — away from their kids — to buy them more stuff the need and stuff that at the same time has a big negative impact on the environment. It doesn’t make sense.
Owning stuff is a trap
Buying and owning stuff are a trap that we people have built for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of capitalism, but there are some downsides too. I consider myself a hippie capitalist, who sees capitalism as the far best system we have had. So far.
But capitalism is a tool, that we humans can be extremely poor at using. A lot of us believes that happiness lies in earning more money and owning more stuff. If you ask most people about their end goal, they would probably say something like happiness and freedom. But in my opinion, we’re creating exactly the opposite of happiness and freedom when we focus too much on just earning more money and buying more stuff. Actually, research shows that when people become more materialistic, their emotional well-being takes a dive.
When I call buying and owning stuff a trap, it’s because we think it makes us more happy, but it doesn’t. Buying and owning stuff, always earning more money so we can buy more stuff are taking our focus away from the things that really matters and thereby always giving us a short instant gratification instead of long term satisfaction.
Thinking that we will be more happy with more money, the new iPhone or a bigger car is like only eating processed cereal products full of sugar and expecting it will make us super healthy and look like models.
Decluttering your life
To be honest, I think life is pretty complicated. I see no reasons to make it more complex that it already is. That’s why I see a big value in decluttering my life, my head, and my physical surroundings as much as possible.
I believe that all stuff we own has some kind of place back in our head. Filling your drawers, closets, garage etc., with stuff will also meaning filling your head with stuff. It’s more stuff you need to think about and take decisions about.
Decluttering your life of physical things is the first and probably the most simple element of minimalism. It’s where you start and it’s where you really experience the value of removing stuff from your life and simplicity.
But decluttering your life is not just about things, it’s about you too. It’s about letting go of thoughts too. Thoughts like what other thinks, what you could also be doing, focus and so on. This is the really, really, really hard thing about minimalism. This is what I’m trying to do myself now. I’ve let go of stuff and decluttered that part of my life. Now I’m trying to go one step deeper for a more meaningful and better life.
Next level minimalism
I considering myself a minimalist, but on a very, very basic level. When talking about stuff that I own, I’m a minimalist and many think it’s pretty extreme just owning more or less one bag. I just consider this the first step.
What I’m working on now is what I call next level minimalism and it’s much, much more difficult. It’s all in your head and it’s about extracting and just focusing on the most important things up in your head.
Most people (I think) and me personally (for sure) has a very cluttered head with so many thoughts. We’re concerned about so many things and it’s preventing us in being really happy.
One of my own biggest challenges is thinking too much about what other people think. This is where I will do some work on next level minimalism and see how I can declutter those negative thoughts and have a more simple and focused mindset too.
How to get started with minimalism
- Start simple. As with all habits, it’s better to take small steps and only focus on a few things at the time. Don’t become an extreme minimalist one day to the other.
- Stop buying stuff impulsively. All things you do decide to buy should be well-thought through decision where you look at the total cost of stuff.
- Allocate part of your money/time/energy/focus to experiences. Proactively focusing more on getting more experiences in your life will slowly automatically make you a minimalist, because you will devalue stuff to be able to get more experiences.
- Remove stuff. You can start as simple as just focusing on one room of your place. Go through everything and add all stuff you’re not using regularly in a pile on the floor. I’m 100% sure you’ll be surprised at how much stuff it is. Set up clear rules, like stuff you keep should be something you use at least every 3 months and that all things should have a fixed spot in the house.
- Realize that nothing you’ll ever buy, will ever, ever make you happy.
What I have in my backpack
My girlfriend and I recently sold our apartment back home in Denmark (we have been traveling for 3 years, so it’s stupid to have an apartment in a country you only spend a few months each year in) and in 2 weeks we’re getting rid of our car. Besides a few extra things (winter clothes for example) stored at my parent’s place, this is everything I now own and bring along wherever I go:
- One Macbook + charger
- My iPhone + charger
- A Porter backpack, 25 liters
- A fleece jersey
- One pair of warm pants
- One Montbell down jacket
- One Montbell soft shell jacket
- Four t-shirts
- A light-weight sleeping pad
- One pair of running shoes
- 5 pair of socks (inc. for training + extra warm)
- A pair of gloves
- One warm hat
- A light-weight sleeping bag
- One Bose noise-canceling headphones
- A small bag with shaving gear, toothbrush etc.
- A small bag with basic pills etc.
- A headlamp
- A warm scarf for the mountains
- Running shorts + shirt
- A buff
- One pair of shorts
- A water bottle
- An Aeropress coffee maker
- A Porlex coffee grinder
- A 250g bag of coffee from Copenhagens best coffee shop :-)
But, remember photos of a minimalist backpack and blog posts about just owning X amount of things are just fun and a good way to create a bit of focus on minimalism. It’s not about how much stuff you own. It’s not a game where the winner is the one owning nothing at all. It’s just about focusing on the most important things in life and realizing that happiness is not something you can buy.
Typical counter arguments against minimalism
“This is extreme”
Answer: It’s not about living with just one backpack, it’s about detaching you from stuff and understanding that you need way less than the average person. You can own almost nothing or more or less the same as the average person and be a minimalist.
“I couldn’t live with that little clothes “
Answer: Then don’t. A good little hack, that I use a bit myself: I travel with just one backpack with a few sets of clothes for a few months each. But back home with my parents, I have some extra stuff. So when I visit them every 3 months or so I can change the clothes and it feels like I get a completely new wardrobe every 3 months. Good clothes can last a very long time.
“You couldn’t do this with kids”
Answer: I would suggest not using your kids as an excuse for doing things in life. And of course you can have a minimalist mindset, even with kids. It would make even more sense.
Originally published at Nikolaj Astrup.