How Slow-Motion Minimalism can make you happy & free

You know it: Your stuff bogs you down. In a world with endless consumption options, it’s easy to find yourself spending all of your mental energy managing your stuff, and not having any energy left over to live your life.

The result is a vicious cycle of consumption. Having too much stuff depletes your willpower and builds a consumption habit, making you vulnerable to buying more stuff.

But, some items are truly useful. They give you a surplus of mental energy for living your life, and doing great work.

Okay, so throw all of your stuff in a dumpster this weekend, and you’re done, right? Most of us are a little too…how do I say it…human for that.

I suggest, instead, Slow-Motion Minimalism. Slow-Motion Minimalism helps you iterate in going minimalist. You build all of the tiny skills required to be minimalist. Your life gradually gets simpler and more free, without any dramatic upheavals.

I recently moved to another continent, and had to reduce my possessions down to a few suitcases. Fortunately, through Slow-Motion Minimalism, I had built the skills to handle it well.

I know, a few suitcases isn’t extreme minimalism, but the point is to have just enough stuff — no more, no less. Besides, I grew up in the midwest, where we keep the boxes for all of our electronics in our giant suburban basements. So, I’ve made dramatic progress.

We grow attachments to our stuff. As soon as we start sorting through it all, we run across our old photos — paper photos — and we spend the rest of the day reliving old memories.

Additionally, as soon as we start sorting through our stuff, our dumb brains start fooling us into thinking the stuff is more important than it is.

  • The Endowment Effect makes us think our stuff is more valuable than it is.
  • Loss Aversion makes us afraid to get rid of stuff. We can’t see when something burdens us more than it helps us.
  • Whatever is in front of us suddenly takes on new importance. We are mesmerized by our baseball card collection — once we find it in the closet and dust it off — even though we haven’t thought about it for a decade.

To be a Slow-Motion Minimalist, you need to be aware of the skills it takes to be minimalist, and gradually, over time and in bursts, build those skills.

The skills required to be a minimalist:

  • Recognizing value in your items: It can be easy to fool ourselves into thinking we need to keep an item. Usually, it’s a just-in-case effect. Maybe we’ll need it someday. We ignore the fact that the item is burdening us, and that in the small chance that we do need it someday, we’ll figure it out.
  • Changing your emotional relationship with your items: We hold stories about ourselves in our possessions. So, we put off getting rid of them, and it blocks us from getting rid of everything else. As the stories in our stuff shape the stories in our lives, this may even block us from growing as people.
  • Getting rid of things in a responsible/economical way: We feel guilty about throwing an item in dumpster, yet selling it or giving it away doesn’t feel worth it amidst the rest of our lives. So, it’s easier to just hold on.
  • Having a digital system for organizing: Paper files and mementos are lurking in your house. It’s not until you start trying to clear things out that you encounter them, feel overwhelmed, and decide you’d rather be eating ice cream. If you have a trusted digital system for capturing them, they’ll be easier to clear out.
  • Choosing the right items to own: The goal of minimalism isn’t just to have less stuff, it’s for the stuff you have to actually make your life better. So, you have to research, try out, and finally decide on things that you do own. You can’t just succumb to impulse buys.

This is a lot to cover, and it’s why so many of us still hold onto our things. As soon as we start getting organized, we feel an acute sense of boredom, or overwhelm, or we suddenly think of something else we’d rather be doing. Our emotional selves take over, and fool us into thinking we’ll do it some other time.

The problem is, by making going minimalist into an all-or-nothing prospect — as if we have to do it all right now — we set ourselves up for failure. We have to gradually build each of these skills, and iterate, getting better and stronger all the while.

Here’s a few ways to do Slow-Motion Minimalism:

  • Tackle small projects: There may be little elements that are holding you back from going minimalist in other parts of your life. Identify the small projects that are big wins, and tackle them one-by-one. You could digitize your paper photos (I used FotoBridge), set up an Evernote notebook for digitizing mementos, or familiarize yourself with selling your stuff on Amazon (you can even have them ship it for you). By mentally recognizing that you’re building skills for future projects, it will be easier to motivate yourself to complete these projects.
  • Practice detaching: Your emotional attachment to items can be your biggest impediment to going minimalist. Try digitizing a few mementos, throwing them away, and seeing how it feels. You’ll probably find it stings a little at first, but you grow to not regret it — or even to forget it. Start with your less-important mementos first. After digitizing, I threw out my childhood drawings, and notes from an ex. As Marie Kondo would ask, does it spark joy?
  • Make a real deadline: I owe my progress in minimalism to the many moves I’ve taken, but also to the many mini lives I’ve lived over the years. Obviously, you get rid of lots of things when you move, but also, if you rent your place out on AirBNB, you’ll make a deadline for getting things tidy. Mentally, I use these deadlines as fuel to do more purging than I need to. You’ll never be more motivated — nor in a more appropriate mental state — to get organized, than when you’re moving. So take advantage.

Reducing your possessions to the essential few simplifies your life. It leaves you with more energy to go about your day, and to grow as a person. But, you don’t have to do it all at once. Bit-by-bit, you can build the skills required to shed the cobwebs for a sleeker, simpler, more functional you.