Wrestling with Minimalism

by Matt | 1 Year Sabbatical on January 7, 2011

Wrestling with MinimalismThis is the first time that I haven’t had anything prepared on post day.  Generally I have some kind of an idea on what I want to write about but today nothing.  I’m also revealing that I don’t have a backlog of posts waiting to be published.  I like to fly by the seat of my pants.  So I decided to just wing it and see what develops.

The other day I was in the store and started thinking about this minimalist movement that seems so popular these days.  Don’t ask me why this popped into my head but it did.  Maybe it was looking around at all the worthless crap on the shelves.  Maybe I was thinking about the disaster that is my garage.  I don’t know, but it got me thinking.

I’ll admit that I’ve never really understood the allure of minimalism and in fact I’ve been turned off by many of the posts on minimalism, especially the ones that tout their 50 things or less that they own and how liberating it is.  I mean living with only 50 things?  Come on!  You gotta be some kind of a nutcase!  Plus so many of the posts I have seen make me feel like they are talking down to me like I’m some kind of savage for not living as they do.

But as I stood in the middle of that store looking around I started to realize that maybe the reason I was so turned off by minimalism was because I was looking at it all wrong.  I was looking at it as limiting my happiness by taking away things I had placed value on but the more I thought about it the more I realized that instead, hanging onto all these things I own was limiting my freedom.  How is it limiting my freedom you might be wondering?

When I am away from the things of value that I own they tend to consume my thoughts.  Are my things OK?  Are they safe?  Is someone breaking into my house and stealing my stuff?  It’s a way of thinking that takes away from the moment I’m currently in.

It also limits mobility.  We can’t just pick up at a moment’s notice and take advantage of opportunities as they come up.  Instead we have to deal with what to do with all our stuff.  This really applies as we start to plan out our sabbatical and significantly reduce our clutter.  It’s tough because we do have this mentality that these things are important to us.  We’ve placed value and sentiment on items and to think about letting them go is painful.  And this is where I think many of the principles of minimalism will be useful for us to embrace.

Minimalism is a way of living that aims to simplify your life by cutting out the complexities of over-consumption

First, let me give you my definition of minimalism.  Minimalism is a way of living that aims to simplify your life by cutting out the complexities of over-consumption, thus refining your life to just the necessities and deciding that happiness doesn’t come from your purchasing power.  It doesn’t mean that you need to cut your possessions down to 50 items and live in a house devoid of furniture and ride a 25cc scooter to work.  No, it means simply looking at what you have and deciding if it adds value to your life.  If it does then keep it.  If it doesn’t then get rid of it.  It’s not about what another person puts value on, it’s what you put value on.

Making the decision to take a sabbatical and travel the world changes your perspective on what adds value to your life.  I’ve started asking questions like what do I take with me?  Do I sell everything I own?  Do I shell out money every month to store things? What about things that have a strong sentimental value like photo albums, kid’s school projects and family videos?  We own several pieces of fine furniture that were my Grandmas. What do we do when we get back from our sabbatical?  Do we hold things in reserve?  These are all questions we are struggling with and I don’t think we have emotionally come to terms with it.

When in doubt, choose change.

In many respects this decision to take a sabbatical has challenged many of our core beliefs on life and what true happiness really is.  We’ve been forced to look at what happiness means to us, what drives us and what legacy do we want to leave; and to some extent we are still searching for the answers.  I think all of life is a process of self-discovery; learning about yourself, what you like, what you dislike, what your motivations are and what makes you happy.

I’ve really felt that the past several years have been a period of stagnation for me.  I’ve been restless wondering if there was more to life.  Recently I was reading my friend Lily’s blog Explore For a Year about her accomplishments this past year.  One of the lessons she learned was “When in doubt, choose change.”  I’m in a period of doubt so I choose change.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World January 7, 2011 at 2:28 am

I feel you. We’re struggling with what to do with our books (I love my books!) and photo albums… still don’t know what to do with them. Ugh…
Jill – Jack and Jill Travel The World recently posted..The Funniest Travel Writer and Blogger

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matt January 7, 2011 at 9:35 pm

Hi Jill! My big concern is my workhorse computer workstation and Lacie monitor. I do lots of photo work and love having the big color calibrated screen. I’ve thought about taking it to Indonesia (not sure how) or just getting a high end laptop. Still exploring options. But like you there are plenty of things that we’ve grown attached to that will be difficult letting go.

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Zablon Mukuba January 7, 2011 at 3:00 am

i dont like to simplify things, i want more stuff and in excess but i could change this year to a minimalist

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matt January 7, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Hey Zablon! Whatever works best for you is exactly what you should do. If something helps make my life more simple and adds value then I buy it.

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Karen January 7, 2011 at 3:24 am

We live in a society that often measures our success by the amount of things we own. When I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s most families only had one car and somehow managed. Now with two income households almost every family has more than one vehicle. We have TV’s in multiple rooms, a laptop and a desktop computer. We had a pair of “play” shoes and a pair of “dress” shoes. Who do you know who only has two pairs of shoes? The more stuff we have the more successful we must be? But are we? Do all these things make us happier? I’m entering a period of my life where I look at all the stuff I have and wonder what the heck the kids are going to do with all this after I’m gone. I should get rid of some of this stuff so they won’t be burdened by having to go through it and get rid of it. I’m at the point where I’M beginning to feel pressured by having so much stuff. But when you grew up with less and now have more it’s tough to get rid of things. I’m working on it!

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matt January 7, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Maybe part of the problem is that we’ve worked so hard for what we have that we have trouble letting things go because you never know when you will be able to get it again. But I’ve got stuff in boxes in the garage that I haven’t even looked at for years. Is it doing me any good? Nope. And probably an even bigger thing is the marketing that plays every single day in almost any aspect of our lives, shaping us and forming us into obediant consumers. I totally agree with you that just because we surround ourselves with belongings doesn’t mean we are successful and it certainly doesn’t mean we are happy. It’s definitely going to be an interesting experience as we start to work through the clutter.

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Erica January 7, 2011 at 3:55 am

Shaun and I are in the same boat. What do we do with the things we hold so dear? Where do I put my heirloom silver set? It comes with so much ancestry that I can’t just drop it. While I would love a more minimalistic life, I’m still so attached to some things.
Erica recently posted..1000-1000 Challenge

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matt January 7, 2011 at 10:23 pm

It’s definitely been a challenge for us too Erica. I’m not sure what we are going to end up doing. And if we do get rid of everything what do we do when we return home after a year abroad? We will have much less money to play around with. That concerns me.

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Gillian January 7, 2011 at 11:02 am

I think it’s okay to be attached to things…and to have things…but to do it mindfully. There has to be some place of balance between the ‘I live with 50 things’ people and the ‘I can afford it why shouldn’t I have it’ people. Mindful. Cheers!
Gillian recently posted..India- If She’s Been Calling You- You Should Go

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matt January 7, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Hi Gillian! I think everyone should strive to avoid the impulse purchase. Being mindful of what we are buying and how it fits in with enhancing and simplifying our lives is a good way to approach it. Did you guys sell your stuff or store it when you traveled?

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Lily Leung (Explore for a Year) January 7, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Hi Matt,

First, thanks for the link to my blog, second… minimizing and decluttering is so emotionally challenging!

The first time I had an urge to declutter was in 2007 when I came back from 2 weeks of living out of a backpack in Ecuador. When I came home, the first thought I had was “Holy, $#*!, why do I have so much useless stuff around?” I was so disturbed and felt like just throwing everything out that instant. After that experience, my goal was to came home to a house that didn’t give me that same feeling again.

Despite having the urge to declutter, it was still hard. After 2007, it took me 2 years to really start letting go of the things in my closet, like perfect high school math tests (even though I already finished university) or journals from elementary school which weren’t even legible.

As I made small progress, 2 questions I found helped me were:
1. How does this item contribute to my goals? (At minimum it shouldn’t detract from it)
2. If I suddenly lost/broke it, would I replace or fix it? (If it’s not worth it, why do I keep it?)

Applying these questions took (some of) the emotion out of choosing what to keep. Using these questions, it turned out I could toss almost everything I had at the time and still live quiet happily.

Good luck Matt. Months after you start travelling, you might laugh and think that minimizing/decluttering was such an obvious decision and never look back at your stuff 🙂

– Lily

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matt January 7, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Hi Lily! I love these two questions. They really frame the state of mind I want to be in when I am purchaing something. I really do want to declutter. I’m just having trouble motivating myself to get it done. Maybe I need to look at it as letting go of past memories in order to create new memories.

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ayngelina January 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm

The first thing I sold was my books and it was tough as I had two bookshelves full – I love to read.

But then I asked myself why I needed to keep them. The reality was some ugly and pathetic egotistical need to show people I’m well-read.

Once I had the money in hand from the books the rest was easy to sell.
ayngelina recently posted..The secret I’m most afraid to tell you

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matt January 7, 2011 at 10:38 pm

So how many books did you have Ayngelina? These days you can build your whole library on a book reader and take them all with you without fear of throwing your back out. I think the toughest thing for me is going to be my truck. I love that truck!

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Shannon (mynetdude) January 7, 2011 at 11:39 pm

Well you don’t have to remind me of my F-350 Powerstroke diesel truck, even though it has problems (and I would fix it if I weren’t traveling :P) As much as it is a pain to maneuver it, I love the truck.

I have things I want to keep, do they add value? most of it? No, but will I need them when/if I ever come back from my travels/RTW/Haitus whatever! I probably will need it if I find traveling 12 months of the year is too much and I’d rather travel half the year and go home for the other half then I might need some things; but the fact is all of it is replaceable except my high school diploma, my track & field team picture, my letterman certificate, my letterman jacket, my cap & gown are NOT replaceable, some photo prints are not replaceable either at least until I get them digitally scanned.

I have either been giving away my stuff or setting them aside to sell, the hardest things to sell will be tech/gadgets that are a bit old and nobody knows about or tech everybody knows about that have no residual value left. I have 2 major desktop PCs in storage they have been there for 2 years now, I want to give them to my mom but I don’t have the time to set them up yet, I have a project PC it works I just need a heatsink I could give it away but to who? Its so old you can’t even put windows Vista on it, someone who knows about PCs/servers/linux is going to appreciate it but I don’t know anybody who does!

when I get done emptying storage I should have two boxes left, that’s all I’m keeping, I don’t plan to buy souvenirs that have no value to me, if I can get my hands on some hippie clothing in Cambodia that I can wear I’d buy that! But all the bracelets and crap??? You’re nuts! I don’t need trinkets to remember or to have the stress of getting rid of after I’ve realized how stupid it was.

I am GLAD to get rid of my truck & RV and everything else! (oh there’s the R/C plane I never used, but I bought it at a decent price!)

Now my trouble is boxing myself to be minimal, I think I’ve overdone it and by doing that I need a bigger suitcase/bag.

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matt January 8, 2011 at 11:07 pm

I hear ya Shannon. It’s amazing how much stuff we can acquire over the years and most of it just sits somewhere unused. But when the time comes to get rid of it we think up an unlimited number of reasons why we should keep it. I guess we still haven’t decided totally what we will do when we get back and what we should keep here in storage to make the transition back a little easier. I suspect it will be more stressful to come back and have to purchase basic things all over again.

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Shannon (mynetdude) January 8, 2011 at 11:32 pm

basics? That’s what Walmart is for! 😛
Shannon (mynetdude) recently posted..A New Year- It is new- not old and has room for improvements

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Matthew G. Bailey January 8, 2011 at 6:29 pm

I feel ya to Matt. I’m big on the 50 item lifestyle while traveling and also quite fine with it but when it comes to having a home (especially with a family) it’s practically impossible.

But your right, Minimalism to me as well is just getting rid of the clutter,deciding what truly adds value to life, and getting rid of what doesn’t. I barely watch TV so I cut it out cable. I went through old clothes the other day (so much from back in school) and decided my chances of wearing them again were nil so I got rid of all of them. Even some books, I brought them to a book store and exchanged for a couple more I had not read.

It’s good practice and I think MANY westerners could benefit from it. Whether you get down to 500 items or 50 items, as long as what you have is truly what you need, its fine.

I also find this lately with business books. There comes a point when I have to much information and I no longer need books as good as they may be. Whats better is Action!
Matthew G. Bailey recently posted..Just in Time for the New Year- How to Transform Your body in 12 weeks

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matt January 8, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Hey Matt! Yeah, having a family definitely puts a crimp in any idea of limiting your belongings to 50 items. It’s just not possible or functional and I can’t see why any family would want to do it. Seems like it would make your life more complicated not less. I’m all for simplifying my life but I also have standards.

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Shannon (mynetdude) January 8, 2011 at 11:37 pm

Simplifying isn’t that simple as it sounds, for some… that is.
Shannon (mynetdude) recently posted..A New Year- It is new- not old and has room for improvements

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matt January 8, 2011 at 11:44 pm

That’s very true. I guess it all comes down to what a person feels they need to be happy. And that will be different for everyone. Maybe a good way to look at it is if it adds value to my life then I keep it. If it doesn’t then maybe I need to ask myself why I still have it.

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Financial Samurai January 8, 2011 at 9:22 pm

I think the minimalism trend has spawned from younger folks who have a tough time affording more.

I received a very insightful post from a minimalist blogger. Come check it out, and feel free to delete the link afterwards if it’s not allowed here. http://www.financialsamurai.com/2010/12/13/the-minimalist-lifestyle-is-not-for-you/
Financial Samurai recently posted..Financial Samurai Goals And Resolutions for 2011

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matt January 8, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Hey Sam! Appreciate the link. It was an interesting read as were the comments. I can’t say I agree with all the authors points as I don’t think society holds us back from doing anything. We hold that power. I really think that the minimalist movement is about living with only what you need to be happy regardless of how many items that may be. That is different for every person.

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Financial Samurai January 9, 2011 at 12:06 am

You have a good definition. What is it you do Matt and how long have you been with your existing firm?
Financial Samurai recently posted..The Freedom To Chase Storms

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matt January 12, 2011 at 1:50 am

Hey Sam! I work in IT as a network analyst connecting networks and systems. Been doing it since 1999 but only been with my existing company for 5 years.

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Financial Samurai January 12, 2011 at 1:52 am

Ah, gotcha. Good steady eddy paying job! I can see why you’d get sick of it though after 12 years.
Financial Samurai recently posted..Nature vs Nurture- How Important Are Parents To Our Success

Dave from The Longest Way Home January 10, 2011 at 10:42 pm

My backpack is between 15KG and 20KG I wish it weighed a few tons. Minimalism is fine for a year or so. But after that you start to see how worn out those meager possessions are. Even now as a write that I realize it makes little sense to those who like to think of having less is freedom.

But everything in the cloud is the only answer, otherwise you are leaving parts of yourself behind where ever you go.
Dave from The Longest Way Home recently posted..Back to the Future for The Longest Way Home

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matt January 12, 2011 at 1:54 am

Hi Dave! I enjoy being comfortable and if that means having a few nice possessions then I’m all for it. It’s the clutter I am trying to get out from under. So what kinds of things you carry with you in your pack?

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Dave from The Longest Way Home January 12, 2011 at 2:04 am

Aside from Laptop, camera etc, heaviest is charger bag, followed by medical bags. After than, just clothes. And, a few documents.

Full list is here http://www.thelongestwayhome.com/resources/packinglist.html

I travel too heavy, but then again, like I mentioned before it’s 6 years of travel and so keeping things practical is key, whilst putting the memories in the cloud is the only way to go.
Dave from The Longest Way Home recently posted..Delusional happy smiles don’t work with travel

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matt January 13, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Thanks for the link to the list Dave. Happy travels!

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Steve January 11, 2011 at 9:49 am

Getting rid of my car was the biggest weight off my mind. No more worrying about it sitting in the street, no more unexpected expenses. In fact a lot less expected expenses.

And I agree with “when in doubt change”. Your life is going to change whether you like it or not, so you may as well be part of the decision. It feels good too, to choose change.

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matt January 12, 2011 at 1:58 am

Hi Steve! It’s funny how much people invest in their cars. Just here in my neighborhood there are people who spend hours working on their car, washing it, waxing it, putting in a loud obnoxious stereo or a muffler that sounds like a lawnmower on steroids. They spend thousands of dollars on wheels and tires and fancy paint jobs. And at the end of the day it still gets them from point A to point B just like my plain car does. I like having a car, especialy with kids but during our sabbatical we will have no need for one so we plan to sell it. When we return we can just get another.

I’ve struggled with change but I have to admit that every time I’ve chosen change it’s beena great experience. Like you said; your life is going to change whether you like it or not.

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matt January 12, 2011 at 2:00 am

Yup, it pays the bills and provides for us that is for sure. It’s not that I’m sick of it, because I do enjoy many aspects of my job, it’s just that I think at times it’s good to take a break and step away for a period of time and see where things end up.

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