Category Archives: Minimalism

Stop Trying to Get the Most Out of Your Space

For years I hated the plastic bins under my bed. There was something cluttered and frustrating about it that I couldn’t identify. It was strange because to anyone else the space would have seemed very organized. All the objects were intentionally sorted. The bed was just over 54 inches wide, so there was the perfect amount of space for a couple rows of 18 inch bins directly in front of 36 inch bins. Everything was in a bin, and every bin fit under the bed. I was making the most of the space available, so what was the problem?

After years of slowly downsizing my possessions, I was able to permanently get rid of enough stuff that I no longer needed the 18 inch bins. I still used the bigger bins under my bed for storage, but suddenly I was happy about it. Suddenly it seemed right, suddenly it worked. Suddenly I had several inches on either side of the bed for just…space. Nothing was sticking out at all, and the remaining bins were barely visible when I walked into the room. I could slide them in and out easily because there was a little extra wiggle room. There was more space for my toes when I was changing the sheets. That seemingly empty space was still being used, but for action and activity rather than objects. I didn’t realize that the space I had been using for storage was space I needed to live my life.

When I’m touring a client’s home for the first time they often point out a few places that they are hoping to “utilize better”. What this often means is they want to be able to fit more stuff into a spot that is awkward and difficult to use, such as a very high shelf or tricky corner cabinet. But sometimes those awkward and difficult spaces are not meant to be filled. Because the space isn’t ideal, leaving a little extra room is the only way you’ll be able to see what you have and grab what you need easily. The more you pack stuff in, the harder it becomes to use any of that stuff. There is value in empty space.

There will be times where circumstances dictate that you have to Tetris a space to make it work, where the amount of items you need to keep just barely fit into the space available, and there’s no practical way for you to keep these items anywhere else or change the furniture or space to better accommodate them. But in those times, know that you are making a choice. You are saying that the current volume of stuff is worth more to you than being able to live with it easily. You would rather keep all your current possessions even if it means that every time you need one thing you have to pull three things out. There are times when this is the right choice. The important thing is to never let it be your default choice. Don’t assume that the solution to an awkward space is to figure out the best way to use every square inch of it. The solution may be to store less in that space, either by moving lesser-used items to less-convenient areas, or preferably by having fewer items in general.

Empty space is what allows you to eat dinner at your table every night. It’s what allows you to sit several feet away from your TV screen and enjoy a movie. Empty space is what hallways and backyards are made of. The empty space of your home is the only part you ever actually get to live in. Protect it, honor it, make room for it.

Alcove by Michael Johansson
Alcove by Swedish Artist Michael Johansson

Minimalism as Another Thing to Sell to Us

Earlier this year, writer Grace Lee released a video essay called “Kondo-Culture: The Fall of the House of Stuff.” It’s a fascinating dive into how marketing and societal expectations effect our relationships with our homes and belongings, and how even the lack of something can be sold to you if marketed correctly. I’ve heard similar sentiments a lot lately, warning against the commodification of minimalism. For people like myself who find a lot of peace and satisfaction in simplicity, it’s important to remember that happiness doesn’t come from chasing an aesthetic. It’s okay to enjoy the beauty of minimalism of course, just so long as it doesn’t become yet another design fad engineered to make you feel bad about yourself. There’s no inherent virtue in a house that looks like a Pinterest board or Ikea catalog, and no reason anything in your home needs to look a certain way unless it genuinely makes you happy to see it like that.

You can watch Lee’s full video here:

The #WearItAllChallenge – Fall Edition

Earlier this year my friends and I created the #WearItAllChallenge, beginning with #WearItAllJuly. The goal of the challenge is to wear a completely different outfit every day for an entire month. I love this challenge because everyone learns something different from it, and what they learn is often surprising. So we’re doing it again for the month of October!

Here are the basic rules:

Rule #1: Wear a completely different outfit every day for a month.
Rule #2: After you wear a piece of clothing, set it aside. You can’t wear it again the rest of the month.
Rule #3: If you literally don’t own enough of something to accomplish this (for example, you only own 15 pairs of shoes), you can loop back through them after you’ve worn them all once (it’s up to you whether you want to wear through them all again before repeating).
Rule #4: You choose what categories are included/excluded from your challenge, such as hiking gear and ballgowns. You can choose to not care about pajamas, workout clothes, underwear, etc. It’s up to you. The important thing is that once you decide your rules you stick with them.
Rule #5: Your wardrobe is “locked in” at the start of the month. Anything new you buy after that gets put in the used pile and has to wait until next month!
Rule #6: There may be times where wearing something twice is unavoidable, such as with work uniforms or travel clothes. Don’t worry about it. Count the days you want to count.

Here are some of the most common objections I hear and what’d I’d say in response:

“I can’t imagine wearing my snow boots to the grocery store!”

Me neither, that sounds like a terrible idea. That’s why you’re allowed to exclude whatever specialty clothing you want. I personally drew the line at “anything I would have never worn to any job.” It meant I had to include most of my closet, but excluded my fancier dresses, my hiking gear, etc.

“No one would notice if I did this challenge because I’m so boring with my clothes.”

You’re probably right. Our own standards for what’s “weird” aren’t as universal as we think. Most people in my sphere only noticed at the very end of the month, and even then it may have just been because they saw my updates on Instagram. The point is not to get noticed or get attention, the point is to come face-to-face with your own wardrobe.

“I would but I’m traveling/have a work conference/etc.”

Take some cheat days, I know I did. I had a 6-day trip in July where traveling light and re-wearing clothes was a must, so I just didn’t count those days. I still learned a lot during the month and wore through most of my closet.

“I already have to do laundry every week just to have enough clean clothes.”

Do you have to do laundry in order to have enough clean clothes, or just to have enough clean clothes of one category? It’s pretty common to have more shirts than pants, for example, which means you could easily wear through all of your pants all the time, but be skipping over a lot of your shirts. That’s why it’s worth proactively trying!

“I don’t own enough clothes to pull this off!”

I didn’t either. I wore through my entire shoe and bra collections twice. That’s why we made the rule that you can cycle back through any one category once you’ve exhausted it. Remember that people are really bad at self-assessing the volume of stuff they own, so even if you’re positive you don’t own that much, I invite you to go do a physical count. Pull everything out of your drawers and tell me your totals in the comments to prove that you won’t last a week, and I’ll give you a free pass to ignore the whole thing.

“But seriously, I don’t own enough clothes to make it a whole month.”

Could you make it three weeks? Two? I dare you to go as long as possible. I’m not joking when I say you probably have more clothes than you realize, or that I think you can learn something about yourself even if you already have a pretty minimalist wardrobe. A big part of why I did this was because I already felt like I didn’t own much.

“This seems too difficult/complicated.”

You can make the challenge as big or as small as you want, which means it can be as simple or complex as you want. The first time I chose to exclude or be really loose with the rules on pajamas, bras, purses, jackets, and workout clothes. One woman just did the challenge with her lipstick collection and wore a different shade every day. A friend said he wants to do it with just his t-shirts. This challenge is whatever you want it to be.

In summary, whatever your objection is, my response is, “Just give it a try and go for as long as you can.” After all, the worst thing that can happen is you have to end early, and go back to wearing clothes the way you would have worn them anyway.

Happy #WearItAllOctober!

On the Subject of Books & Belle’s Library

You may have noticed a particular affliction among some of your friends, especially common in people born between 1981 and 1991. I call it Belle Library Syndrome.

Belle from Beauty & the Beast is an incredibly aspirational character. She’s smart, beautiful, self-sacrificing, brave, and demands respect from all the condescending men in her life. And she’s got the most amazing library in the world. It’s four stories tall and full of rounded walls and spiral staircases. Belle’s insatiable need for the written word finally meets its match when the Beast gives her free reign of the royal library. And as a little kid you watched her face fill with joy, and you had only one thought: I wish I could have a library like that.

I want to make something abundantly clear right now: if owning hundreds and hundreds of books truly brings you joy, then by all means fill your shelves with them. You know the costs of ownership and you’re fine with them. This article isn’t about you.

For the rest of us, the problem with Belle Library Syndrome is that we strive to match her library without nearly the same benefit. We collect more and more books, buying additional bookcases or at least wishing we could. We spend thousands of dollars on the books themselves, and thousands more over time on moving and storing them. And instead of joy, they bring guilt. Guilt because there are so many we still haven’t read. Guilt because we just bought more anyway. And if ever we dared to do the math, we’d realize that the rate at which we are acquiring books far outpaces the rate at which we read them. The sad truth: most of the books on our shelves will never be read at all.

Sometimes we place a sort of impossible reverence on books. Don’t get me wrong, books are an important and vital part of a learned, civil society. But not because of the physical object. They matter because of what’s inside: the stories, the wisdom, the ideas. It’s the reading the matters, not the books themselves. Books exist to spread knowledge. And I would argue that keeping a huge personal library that no one ever touches is, at its heart, antithetical to the idea of spreading knowledge through books.

If your concern is to revere and honor books, consider that sitting on a shelf, never to be opened or picked up again, is not the true calling of any book. Books are meant to be read – ideally read often and by as many people as possible. Books get read when they are out there in the world, getting bought and sold and donated and gifted.

I’m reminded of a different part of Beauty & the Beast, when Lumiere is singing to Belle at dinner:

“Life is so unnerving
For a servant who’s not serving
He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon
Ah, those good old days when we were useful
Suddenly those good old days are gone.”

Your books have hopes and dreams and purpose just like you. They want to be out in the world. They want to be passed from person to person. They want to be read. So if you aren’t going to read them, considering letting them go free. Let them run out into the world to find a new love.

Your Mission:

Create a personal book policy. This is a set of principles you set for yourself that make it easier to decide what to hang on to and what to let go. Personally I have a few sentimental books, a few active reference books, and a set of principles to guide everything else. They are:

1) If there’s a book you want to read, get it from the local library. If it’s a particularly popular book, just request a hold on it and read it whenever it becomes available.

2) Don’t buy books for yourself. If you want to own a book or there’s a book you want that isn’t at the library, put it on your Christmas list for someone else to get you as  a gift.

3) The moment you finish a book you own, decide its future. If you didn’t love it, put it in the donation box. If you enjoyed it so much you feel confident you will re-read it within five years, it can go back on the shelf.  If you liked it but won’t re-read it soon, decide immediately who in your life might like it, and give it to them as gift next time you see them.

These are just my personal rules. You can use them or change them or throw them out to match what you want from your books. The point is to sort your books with intention, and be willing to let some of them go.

The Real Cost of Things: Five Ways You’re Still Paying for Your Own Stuff

One of the reasons it’s easy to acquire a lot of possessions is that we usually only think of the cost of acquisition, not the cost of possession. We see any item at the store marked down to a bargain rate and think, “Why not? It’s only a few dollars.” Or worse, we’re given the option to take something home for free. Who can turn down free stuff?

You can.

Here’s why: Possessions, like people, have needs. They need to be cleaned, stored, maintained, moved and seen. These are the real costs behind the things you own.

1. Clean

A decorative knick-knack on the mantle seems like it’s just sitting there, but every time you go to clean your mantle you have to pick it up and dust it off. As a former house cleaner, I can’t tell you the time and effort difference between cleaning a bunch of decorative items and cleaning a bunch of open surfaces. It’s astonishing. A small house with a few simple decorations can be completely cleaned in two hours. A small house with a bunch of little decorative items everywhere will take more than a day.

2. Store

It may feel like hedging your bets to have a lot of pots and pans, but they all need to go somewhere. You need to make room in the kitchen, which means either cupboards are more crowded than they need to be, things get pushed to another room, or you convince yourself you need a bigger house with a bigger kitchen. But the frustrated feeling of not having enough storage space is not always the fault of the space: sometimes you’re trying to cram too much into it.

3. Maintain

Clocks need to have their batteries changed, and they need to be set forward or back twice a year. Devices need to be charged, and their software needs to be updated. A cast iron skillet needs to be seasoned, a guitar needs to be tuned. Washing machines and dishwashers need replacement parts. Even clothes need to have loose threads cut off occasionally. Everything requires maintenance to remain in good, working condition.

4. Move

After high school I moved seven times in ten years. When you move, every box counts. Every box has to be found or purchased, every box has to be packed and sealed, every box has to go from the house to the truck, every box has to come back out of the truck and into the house, every box has to be unpacked, every box has to be broken down and gotten rid of. That’s at least six annoying and time-consuming steps for every square foot of chattel. Sometimes I think people should be required to relocate every few years just to remind them of all the things they haven’t touched since the last time they moved. Even if you stay in the same house for decades, you’ll probably have to go through at least one or two major remodels or life changes that cause an entire room’s worth of possessions to be moved around.

5. See

This is the most devious cost of them all. We don’t often think about the cost of visual noise, but it exists. Have you ever had an item in your house that didn’t belong there, but took a while to be picked up? Perhaps a friend’s baking dish they left behind or a book you borrowed? Such things tend to sit in the same place for weeks or months, all the while being technically out of place. When they finally leave, there’s a sense of relief. The whole room seems larger, cleaner. It’s the same feeling you get when you take a bunch of icons off your computer desktop, or clear outdated post-it reminders off your desk. Things in our visual field take energy to look at, even if they do nothing else.

 

Because of these five costs, every item in your home is costing you something at all times. Most of the time this cost is worth it, because the continued value the item brings is greater than the cost. But this is why cheap or free items can be so dangerous. We don’t consider them as carefully, so we end up bringing something home that is a net negative for our lives. When you are thinking about adding something to your home, don’t ask if it’s worth the asking price. Ask if it’s worth the real cost of ownership.

 

Your Mission:

Next time you’re thinking of making a purchase or accepting a free item, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Where will I store this?
  2. What other things will this item displace?
  3. How hard is it to clean?
  4. Will it cost money to maintain (batteries, replacement parts, filters, etc)?
  5. Will is be a hassle to maintain (updates, long cleaning processes, trips to a specialist, etc)?
  6. Is this a duplicate of something I already own?
  7. Could I wait and get it later?
  8. Will seeing it all the time make me happy?

Good luck!