How to Get Minimal

Originally published in Idler 55 and derived from an earlier piece co-written with my friend Tim for New Escapologist Issue Three.

An awful lot has been written about minimalism. The irony of this is lost on nobody, least of all the people actually writing about it. In a perfect world, this vast body of self-improvement literature would be eliminated. As it stands, however, we have a world in which work and consumerism are valued above almost anything else. If you want to go against this status quo, to live a free-wheeling, leisurely life without work, minimalism is key. It remains a powerful and accessible way to live, hence the need to reiterate it, to keep it on the agenda.

Minimalism’s joy can be summed up thusly: The less you own and consume, the less you’ll have to work in order to pay for it all. Moreover, with less physical stuff in your life, you won’t have much to do in the way of storing, dusting, repairing, moving, hiding and ultimately disposing. As a result, minimalists experience less stress, less debt, less obligation. Suddenly, there’s ample room (and mental bandwidth) for creativity, love, health, spontaneity, and for doing pleasurable things. Idlers will be pleased to hear that minimalism doesn’t ask you to do very much: in fact it requires you to do less. The arts of minimalism and reclining on a chaise are next of kin.

With this in mind, I’d be pleased to share some time-honoured tips and directions for living with less.

Learn of the disease. Know that stuff accumulates of its own accord. No effort is required on your part for drawers, shelves and cupboards to fill with junk. Recognising this tendency, and the vigilance consequently required to counterbalance it, is the first step to minimal living.

Have frequent mini-clearouts. There’s much to be said for the drama and progress of a major decluttering session, but the technique I find most effective (and idler-compatible) is to seize upon a single drawer or cupboard when the fancy takes me. I call this a “minimalist cleansing ritual” and I tend to do it when I’m feeling lethargic or rudderless, or in some way out-of-control. It feels good and helps you to advance your utopian territory demonstrably and bit-by-bit.

Be organized. The better organized you are, the less stuff you’ll need. If you don’t misplace your can-opener or your screw-driver, you won’t need a spare. Likewise, the less stuff you have, the easier it will be to keep yourself organized. The traditional maxim “A place for everything and everything in its place” is easier to heed when you have more places than things.

Be bold. It’s unusual to regret getting rid of something, so you can afford to be bold. On selling, disposing, or giving something away, you’ll quickly forget you ever had it. In rare cases of regret, you can almost always re-buy the item on eBay if you simply must. “It is lumber, man — all lumber!” says Jerome K. Jerome in idler’s favourite Three Men in a Boat, “Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars.”

One in, one out. Fancy a new shirt? Marvellous. Get yourself down to Mr. Pink’s. But when you put the new shirt in your wardrobe, find your least favourite existing shirt and bin it. Better still, bin two. In this way the average quality of the things you do own will go up and your clutter burden will go down.

Encourage consumable gifts. For better or worse, gift-giving is part of the fabric of human life. Presents are laced with social obligation and, as such, can be difficult to jettison. The minimalist will counter this by broadcasting broad hints as to the sorts of presents that will go down well: booze, food, books, socks, toiletries and stationery are all orthodox gifts that can be used or, at the very least, disposed of without offending. Of course, you must reciprocate by giving consumable presents to others.

Treat shops like museums. Thanks to the acquisitive tendency of Western culture, when we see something appealing we all too often want to own it, to possess it. It is important that we squash this desire. In particular, if you see some trinket in a shop that takes your fancy, regard it as you would a museum artifact: appreciate it and move on.

Use a library. Almost every book written in the course of human history is available to you, for free, so long as you’re willing to cease thinking in terms of ownership. You can use the library mentality elsewhere in life too: instead of thinking of something as your own permanent property, try and see it as being on loan from the World Library of All Objects. Sooner or later, you’ll have to give it back.

Reduce storage space. The purpose of decluttering is not to make way for fresh clutter. Once you have freed space, keep it as space. However, stuff tends to fill the storage space made available to it. Therefore, try to eliminate storage space as soon as you have freed it. For example, once you have cleared a bookcase of science fiction paperbacks, consider Freecycling the bookcase or using it for firewood. This will deter you from accumulating more paperbacks.

Seek experiences rather than things. Life experiences take up no space and will not weigh you down. Strive to do and to be, not to own. Do you own your possessions or do they own you?

I sometimes think minimalism might be the most important skill for an idler to master. Cottage industry, the ability to laugh at voices of authority, the joys of simple pleasures: all are easier—and in many cases made possible for the first time—without the costly burden of so much stuff. Minimalism: can’t get enough of it.

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