Optimizing a Minimalist Uniform

I first culled my wardrobe after reading Greg Mckeown’s Essentialism in December 2015. I quickly opted to go the ‘uniform’ route; where you cull the clothing down to a few basic items which you wear every day. I’ve been wearing my ‘uniform’ for almost 18 months now, and I’ve learned a lot.

Others have written on the benefits of the uniform practice, so I won’t go into that here. What I want to share is my learning experience of optimizing that uniform.

First, my uniform

When I started, I decided to stick to what I knew was already working for me:

Levi’s Commuter Jeans

Most days, this was fine. I was reasonably happy, but noticed a few things going wrong. Why? My circumstances had changed.

The changes

  1. Increased use: Previously, I was only wearing these items a few times per month. Now, they were getting use every single day.
  2. More physical activity: Previously, I was driving for transportation each day. But then my wife’s car broke and she commandeered my car, leaving me to skateboard, cycle or walk. Now I was being more physically active and introducing more wear & tear to my uniform.

And this is the nature of almost everything: things change. Circumstances change your needs. And this led me to my first learning.

A uniform must evolve along with your needs.
Woolie Boolie sock by DeFeet

A uniform is another experiment

When I set out to realize my uniform, I fully expected to be appearing in photos looking the same for the rest of my life. I wasn’t seeing the uniform in the same way that I had been approaching every other change I made while nomadic working; as an experiment.

My black hoodie’s color had faded in a month, and it’s cotton material was terrible at regulating sweat & body heat during physical activity. My jeans developed holes in the knees in a fraction of the typical time. My Vans were made for skateboarding, not walking for miles on end. My feet were hurting and I had already developed holes in the sole, which at one point left my socks wet during a business trip in the Bay Area.

Of course, I thought, what on earth made me think I would get it right the first time?

Vans Authentic Pro

Upgrading shoes

I decided to tackle the big problem first; shoes. I was walking 5–10 miles per day. I resolved that fashion would have to take a back seat on this one. (Not my usual approach :)

I started with my typical criteria:

  • How long will it last?
  • What will it cost to replace?
  • Can I show up to a meeting in this?
  • Will it work in a broad range of weather conditions, and a large amount of the year?
  • Will it meet my new needs: walking for miles every day in comfort?
  • Will it meet my existing need of light hiking in the mountains from time to time?

Armed with my criteria, I visited my local outlet mall. There was one generic shoe store, a Nike outlet and a New Balance outlet. I tried on probably 30 pairs of shoes across the 3 stores.

I ended up choosing a pair of 2-fashion-cycles-old Nike Pegasus 30 shoes. I was told by the store clerk that they were running shoes and would guarantee hundreds of miles in total comfort.

I checked the tread and saw it was sufficient for trail and ice traction, then made the purchase. It met all my criteria and only pushed my existing $50 USD shoes budget up to $60.

Aside: Fast-forward 2 months: The shoes are indeed incredibly comfortable and perfectly suited to long walks and even light hikes. However, the soles are showing alarming levels of wear compared to my old Vans, and I suspect they’ll be lasting about 30% as long as my old Vans would. More learning huh?

Flint & Tinder 10-Year Hoodie

Upgrading a hoodie

I’ve always loved hoodies. The comfort, versatility and price are hard to beat. But I had already noticed problems with choosing the hoodie for my uniform: cotton didn’t breathe well during physical activity, nor did it hold its rich, black color for very long.

I knew that, unless I could find some crazy company making another “world’s best hoodie” that met my new needs, I would need to branch outside the realm of just hoodies. I didn’t really know where to start, so I went to my local outdoor gear store to just try stuff on.

I considered replacing the layer entirely by going for a light jacket, but that didn’t make sense based on how I wore my clothes historically; I wanted something very comfortable. I tried on some lightweight ‘engineered’ jackets, and I knew I was on to something.

Arc’teryx Argus Jacket

Finally, I tried on the “Argus” jacket by the Canadian brand Arc’teryx, and it was perfect. It was designed to block wind, to insulate during physical activity, and to avoid restricting motion. It even one-upped my hoodie by having a water repellant feature, and it weighed far less. The real clincher was that the sleeves have thumb-holes — a rare and polarizing feature that I’ve always loved.

The problem was, it was $150 USD — it failed my criteria for replaceability. My current hoodie cost half that, which I felt was already pushing the limits of what I wanted to spend. In fact, I noticed this was a trend: all the pieces I found which met all the other criteria failed at the same point: too expensive.

Justifying the price

I’m rarely the type of person to go bargain hunting, other than the cursory 30 seconds on Google. I have no idea why. Maybe I feel like it’s not worth the time. This is a terrible habit.

Conversely, it’s always easy for me to justify the price of something. Maybe this is no different. So here’s how I justified — to myself — the cost of this Arc’teryx jacket.

Like everything in Nomadic Working, it’s an experiment. Like any experiment, there’s only so much data that can be gathered before the experiment should be performed. At the end of the day, we use available data (in the case of researching clothing, that might be your personal preference, performance needs, fashion desires or cost constraints) to get as close as we can to the correct result. Sometimes, that data is good enough. Other times, it’s not, and the experiment must be performed.

This was the latter case. I had never owned a piece of clothing like this before. On paper, it met all of my needs. The reviews were unanimously positive. The manufacturer had a good reputation for quality, customer service and environmental responsibility.

That was all well and good, but on the other hand, my circumstances had changed: I was now wearing a uniform. That practice was an ongoing experiment. During that experiment, I had just received new data, and that data had led me to a new hypothesis: In order to fully meet my new-found needs of a warm upper layer that wouldn’t fade, I must be willing to increase my budget.

My philosophy

For me, the initial purpose of the uniform was to reduce daily decision fatigue and gain time. So far, it had been checking those boxes.

For others doing the uniform, the purpose of it may be to save money or to challenge one’s own desire for high fashion. Everyone has their own reasons.

Since my initial goals of the uniform experiment were being met, I now had to focus on these new goals: to stop my feet from hurting during long walks and to find an upper warmth layer which would allow me to be physically active in greater comfort.

The new information that if I wanted to meet this new goal, I would have to substantially increase my budget was little more than new information which had been yielded through this experimentation.

So I bought the jacket. It hurt because I had set my budget months ago, and my experiment had revealed that — through the changing nature of life — circumstances change needs.

What I’ve learned

All experiments start with the data you have available at the time. Sometimes, that initial data changes over time, or through uncontrollable circumstances, which in-turn, changes the experiment.

From now on, I’m going to try to identify which data is actually just a variable, rather than a constant, before I start my experiments.

‘Upgrades’ and Minimalism

One of the hardest practices I’ve tried to adopt on my journey toward minimalism is to simply use things more, repair them more often, and care for them better before replacing them.

I’ve found that to be far more diffulcult than initially anticipated. I don’t like to wait. If I’ve found a better solution, I want to implement it now. But that approach doesn’t leave a nice mark on the environment. I’m striving to really, truly, wear things out, repair them, wear them out again.

I’ve been doing this with shoes, jeans and t-shirts; repairing holes and the like. I don’t normally need to be very presentable most days, so it’s no surprise that my wardrobe improvement efforts tend to precede any in-person meetings I have.

Generally, I’ve found that there are 3 ‘levels’ of wardrobe developing:

  1. The “Nice” Stuff: It never lasts long, but if I have an important meeting coming up and it happens to be time (or almost time) to replace my shoes, then I’ll replace them early so that I can wear a nice, new pair to my meeting. (My meetings tend to involve an airplane and 3–10 days of time.) Inevitably, though, these once new items found their way into category 2…
  2. The “Daily” Stuff: Exactly what it sounds like. The stuff I wear every day, which winds its way eventually to…
  3. The “Work” Stuff: I wear these when I’m working on the cars, bike or house. It’s stuff I don’t mind getting oily & messy. Tends to be tattered and ugly, but it’s cheaper than buying coveralls :)

And that process seems to work for me. I never planned it, it just showed up, and it works for me.

What do you think?

Everyone’s experience with the ‘uniform’, de-cluttering and minimalism is different. I write to share what I’ve learned, and I’d love to hear about what you’ve learned.

How do you manage your items? Do you use the “one-in, one-out” strategy? Does your climate dictate any unusual wardrobe circumstances? What’s going on in your neck of the woods, and in your experience?