When I think of minimalism, I always envision in my mind the chapter with the character "the Lamplighter" from the book "The Little Prince" by Antoine the Saint-Exupery. The Lamplighter has the task of lighting the lamp when the day arrives and dousing the light when the night comes. But, because the planet he lives on spins at a very fast rate, he has to perform these tasks every other minute and gets no rest or time to do the things he loves. This reminds me of our world, where we need to live faster, more efficient and experience everything. We need to have our life together, which means: having or working on a diploma or degree, a good job, a perfectly shaped body, your own house, a stable relationship and family, a car (or two), travelling multiple times a year, having that latest gadget, knowing about everything that goes around in the universe, following all the trends, have an opinion about everything and, most of all, be happy with it.
In my opinion, these expectations are a result of our increased connection with people over the world. In the old days, we only had to bother about the people within a small community, like our family or neighbourhood. But now, because of the internet and (social) media, we have information about the whole world and every single person living in it. Of course, this has pluses, but all this information can be overwhelming especially when you are sensitive about other people's feelings, even if you do not know them at all (like myself). Besides this, the media is influencing us by wanting to keep us up-to-date with the news and the generalized ideas of a perfect life, while trying to sell you their newest product.
As social beings, humans want to follow or even mimic what people around them are doing and it means a great deal what people think about you. But, sometimes this can go a bit too far when we lose ourselves in the process.
Let me give a personal example: like most of us, I was following the path to "success" by studying, getting a good job and buying a house (the things still "missing" are a partner and kids :P). This definitely helped me to achieve a comfortable life now and I am of course grateful with achieving these things. But I cannot help to wonder sometimes: was this the path to the happiness they promised? And do I need to continue that path of working hard, making a career and buying an even larger house full of stuff? Or can I also be happy with having and doing less? Can I minimalise my life?
What is minimalism?
So, some time ago I stumbled upon something called "Minimalism" (not the trend by the way, which was mainly focused on getting rid of clutter and winning the game of who has the least stuff and the most sterile white house). Although I don't know anymore where I read it, minimalism was described as:
a process of focusing on the things that make you happy, by removing things that do not contribute to your happiness.
So, instead of focusing on gathering more, you focus on gathering less and even removing things from your life. The goal of this is to find out what makes you truly happy, to clear your mind and to let (things) go. Sounds simple? Well, with so much going on it is hard to find out what you have or gather. Not only just for material stuff but also for thoughts, relationships or goals. Then, you have to decide what makes you happy and what does not. And that "letting go" part? That might even be the hardest step.
The process of minimalism
Minimalism is an iterative process, meaning it goes through the same steps multiple times until you are happy with its result.
You decide how many loops you need until you are happy. It is important to keep the steps small and manageable. Take the time and most importantly: enjoy the process.
Step 1. Find and choose a theme in your life
The first step in the process of minimalism is to find a theme or topic in your life you want to "declutter". You may want to change multiple things, but adding focus and determining the scope will help you with the process. There are many different themes to focus on, such as the things you do in a day, the goals you have in life, the stuff you possess or the things you think or worry about. Write these themes down and pick one or a cluster of manageable themes to focus on first. In the next chapter you can find some examples.
Step 2. Make an overview of what you have or do
The second step is to write down or physically collect all things you do or have, related to the theme you choose. For example, every activity you do in a day, every goal you have in life or collect the stuff you own. This can be a tedious process, and it does not need to be final or perfect (certainly not perfect). As mentioned before, minimalism is a process and it may take a couple of iterations before you reach your goal.
Step 3. Highlight the things that make you happy
The third step is possible one of the hardest steps, namely determining what truly makes you happy. For every item you wrote down or collected in the former step, think if it really makes you happy or if it is only cluttering your life. If it makes you happy, highlight it or move it to the "keep it" area. If it is hard for you to make choices about these things (like myself), try to follow your gut and not overthink it too much. The first thought you have about it is most of the time the right one. Remember that this decision is not final and does not mean it is "gone", but it's only to mark it as important or not that important for you.
Step 4. Place the things that are not highlighted in quarantine
The next step is to place all the things that were not highlighted into quarantine (not COVID-related). This means placing them in a box or temporarily taking a break from it. If you find out later in the process that you do need it to be happy, you can put it back into your life.
Step 5. Focus on the things that make you happy
Now it is time to focus on the things you highlighted since these things make you happy. Go, and do the things you love, or in the case of physical possessions, give them a special place in your life. You probably now have more time or space to give that thing attention and enjoy it more.
Step 6. Let go...
After some time enjoying the things you love you go back that that "quarantine box". If you felt you missed that item or thing on your list, you can put it back. If you found out you do not need this to be happy it is time to give gratitude for the moment you spend with it or doing it and then let it go (like Marie Kondo explains in her books). This is probably the hardest step to do. But you know in your heart or from your gut that letting go is the best thing, and will result in happiness, peace and more time or space for the things you truly love. And, maybe you can even make someone else happy with it the things you let go of.
Themes to minimalise
The process described in the chapter above may be a little abstract. So here are some themes to focus on. In the next chapter, I will tell you my personal experience with some of these themes.
Work can be very busy and stressful. Minimising your work can help you to feel more relaxed and comfortable. This does not mean you need to work less or even stop working, but you can also optimize the process by learning (organisation) skills, automation or delegation. This process should always be done in collaboration with your boss, manager and or colleagues. Besides this, look if the work you are doing makes you happy or helps you to create a comfortable life (sometimes you may not like your work, but it can serve a higher purpose or result in more happiness in other levels. For some people (including me) this works very well.)
Besides work minimising your hobbies can be a huge benefit, especially if you have a broad variety of interests (like me) and are struggling to balance them all in the limited timespan of life. Focus on the hobbies that make you truly happy and where you want to spend your precious time on.
This may be a very unpopular thing to apply minimalism to since we learned from the world that you have to do certain things in your life to feel successful. And you are always stimulated to do more. But, some of those things might not be the things that make you happy, but only the people around you or society's expectations. And, the pressure to achieve those goals can result in stress and anxiety. The satisfaction of reaching a goal (if it satisfies you at all) may not outweigh the negative effects of the pressure. Again, make your life goals based on what you love to do and not what other people expect you to do. Of course, it can be important and beneficial to step out of your comfort zone sometimes, but do it because you want it or because you feel it will have a higher purpose and not for the sake of others' or society's values.
Sometimes your thoughts can be very overwhelming. You can think about things that are going right or wrong at the moment, about the future, about things you need to do or sometimes even totally random. It may sound a bit weird to apply minimalism to your thoughts, and it may not be exactly the same application as the other themes. What helped me (as you can also read in the next chapter) was putting my thoughts on paper. This paper functions as a kind of "quarantine box" where you put thoughts away and look at them later again to see if they make sense, deserve your attention or if you need to take action. By putting them away and out of your head you are less afraid of forgetting about them or can postpone the moment you think about them. This can help to clear your mind, sleep better and also improve forgetfulness (which happens to me when I think about too many things) since you organize and prioritize your thoughts.
Another possibly very unpopular theme is relationships with other individuals. Sometimes, we have so many connections that we do not know how to keep up with them. Or maybe some relationships can even be toxic. Applying minimalism to your relationships does not perse mean cutting people off, but managing them effectively so that it suits with your life and the time you have to spend on your relationships.
Of course, there are also the material possessions you may want to minimalise. Look very closely if you really need it, or if you can live without it and possibly make someone else happy with it. Remember that every object you possess has a space in your conscious or unconscious mind. Is it worth it takes up space or not?
Like possessions, your finances can be minimized in a similar way, by writing down or collecting all your incoming and outgoing cash flows and deciding upon which ones you really need and make you happy and which ones don't. This can help you to achieve other financial goals or make it possible to spend your hard-earned money on the things you love.
At the moment of writing, I am also in the process of minimizing aspects of my life. Below I share some of the themes I am currently working on, and maybe this can inspire you too. Please note that the choices I made do not necessarily mean you need to do this too. It is merely to inspire you to figure out your own process.
Work and hobbies
The theme that had the most impact on my life was minimising work and hobbies. I am someone who has a large variety of interests and hobbies and there is simply not enough time in a day to do everything. Yet, I was balancing a lot of hobbies with my full-time job. Besides my job I did some graphic design commissions, was part of a board of a photography association, was part of a digital literature/poetry magazine (where I also did some graphic work), did photoshoots, worked-out 3 - 4 times a week and made digital art in the time left. I got up at 5:00 – 6:00 o’clock in the morning and went to bed at 22:00 – 23:00, and tried to stuff everything mentioned in this timeframe. Mentally, I was able to handle it, since one of my strengths is coping with huge workloads and stress. But, my body did not agree. I did not notice until late in my twenties that I was putting so much stress on my body, resulting in vague symptoms and outbursts of the flu in quick succession, ultimately resulting in anxiety- and panic attacks. Ironically, I only noticed these problems when I was in rest and relaxing. While I was working, nothing was wrong. The adrenaline and ignorance kept me going. Then, in 2020 COVID-19 happened, and a lot of things I was doing were temporarily not possible anymore. Fewer commissions, no association activities, no photoshoots, no gym (but I did continue to work out at home) and working from home. This resulted in a lot of extra time I did not have before. A moment of rest. A moment to relax. The moment all the stress I built up over the years found its way out. This triggered me to look very carefully at the things I did and the amount of stress I was putting on my body. I started to apply minimalism to my work and hobbies.
It was very hard for me to choose which things I had to let go of, because of my broad interest spectrum. But, I looked at the things that brought me the most happiness and deserved my attention and time the most. I reduced the number of commissions and photoshoots, quit my board membership at the photography association. I focused more on my greatest passion, creating digital art.
At first, it was very hard for me to let these things go. I feared that I was missing out on things and even losing contact with people. Yet, I discovered later that this was not the case. Because of reducing my activities, the activities that I now focus on became more special, and feel more like leisure instead of work or "things that need to be finished". And if the relationship with people is strong, it will find another way (or maybe not!). And, because of having more time, new opportunities followed, for example, more time for travelling, more time for the people I love, more time to relax and reflect and most importantly, more time to take care of my body.
When I look back on this decision, I can safely say that it saved my physical and mental stability. Still, I suffer from the effects of putting too much stress on my body. I still suffer from anxiety and panic attacks sometimes, but they are milder and less frequent. I feel I am making progress to heal myself. And, in the end, I discovered I did not miss the things I let go of. It just changed for the better.
I am currently also in the progress to minimize my financials. I was already putting every expense in an Excel sheet to see what was coming in and what was going out of my wallet. It may be a boring activity sometimes, but it is essential to get an overview and be able to minimize your financials. After some months I started to see (unhealthy) patterns in my expenses, for example too many take-outs, subscriptions and money spend on groceries. I started to cut back on these things, resulting in a decrease in my monthly expenses by 10 – 15%.
As an INFJ, I spend a lot of time thinking about things (both real and fantasy or totally random things). Sometimes to the extent that I am not able to sleep or focus because I can’t stop thinking. Mostly, I think of the things I have to do for work (which by the way decreased when I minimized my work/hobbies). To minimize my thoughts, especially during the night, I decided to write things down. I made a task list using the KANBAN method to manage my tasks, thoughts and ideas. Because it was written down, I found out I think about those things less, since I know that they are on my KANBAN board and will get my attention at the right moment. Also, I started a diary to write down my thoughts and ideas. Again, writing it down and getting it out of my head helped me to cope with my thoughts, resulting in better sleep. This process may not be minimalism in the sense of letting go, but putting it away in a quarantine box, and looking back to it later to decide what you are going to do with that task, thought or idea.
Minimalism is a process to focus on the things that make you happy, by removing the things that do not contribute to your happiness. Besides minimising material stuff, like possessions or clutter, you can also use the concept and process of minimalism to non-materialistic themes in your life like the things you do in a day (work/hobbies), goals, thoughts and relationships. Personally, it helped me a lot to prioritize the things I want to focus on and deserve my time and attention and reduce stress and anxiety. I am still in the process, but with every iteration, I feel it changes my life for the better. I hope this article will help or inspire you too. If you have any questions or comments, please post them below. I will elaborate more on some topics in the posts on other blogs. So follow me on social media to stay updated or click the links below to find out more interesting topics.
This article was inspired by:
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari
A Spark of Joy, by Marie Kondo