Category Archives: Clutter

Uncluttering Facebook Updates

clean-facebook-wallAm I the only person who periodically unclutters her Facebook timeline?

I was wondering that this morning while I went back and deleted some of the less-significant status updates I’d written, such as grumbles about being on campus grading over the weekend or comments about articles I found interesting at the time. I figure Facebook posts are the same as physical belongings and digital files — if you don’t love ‘em or use ‘em regularly, get rid of ‘em.

I suppose I could purge the whole thing … how often do I go back and look at those convention photos from two years ago, anyway? … but so far I haven’t reached that stage of digital minimalism. I don’t really mind having old posts sitting in my timeline; I just think they ought to be periodically curated.

But maybe I’m just strange that way…?

Image Source: Le Free Logiciel

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

indexI don’t read many books that give me new perspectives on decluttering and minimalism anymore — the last one was Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, which was useful more for its focus on managing one’s expenditure of energy and time rather than on sorting through one’s physical possessions. However, the new U.S. edition of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up offers advice that’s just different enough from most Western decluttering hints to have given me fresh inspiration to do another re-evaluation of my Stuff.

This is a touchy-feely, emotional book, which ought to raise the eyebrows of anybody who knows me, because I’m definitely not a touchy-feely, emotional person. Nevertheless, the author’s advice — “take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’” (p. 41) — made a difference in how I viewed what I owned. I went through my bookshelves and wardrobe again, handling each item individually and deciding whether it made my heart lighter or carried with it any lingering sense of guilt, obligation, or sadness. I ended up hauling away to Goodwill a startling number of bags full of things I was holding on to more out of a sense of obligation or of slightly guilty nostalgia than because I actively wanted to own them now, as my life is in the present moment.

In its essence, Kondo’s rule of joy isn’t much different from William Morris’s oft-cited advice, “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” which has been my guideline for years. But it turns out that there’s a subtle difference between touching/knowing and believing. Kondo’s book helped me understand that I can believe something is beautiful and appreciate its appearance in situ yet still feel no actual joy in its ownership. Once I began unlinking my intellectual/aesthetic appreciation of owning certain objects from any actual physical sense of joy or pleasure, I realized I owned a number of things that I considered beautiful or interesting but that made me feel subtly uncomfortable to be around — and that, for me, was a revelation.

I don’t subscribe to all of Kondo’s advice. I do fold over the tops of my socks and don’t see myself neatly coiling them as she recommends all any time soon — and I firmly believe in hanging my clothes rather than folding them. However, I agree with Kondo about the pointlessness of keeping paper, and I liked her advice on not keeping spare buttons (although I kept the spare buttons I could match to the blazers I wear on a weekly basis). I also appreciated her constant linking of person, possessions, and home in terms of relationships and respect; she gets more animistic than I’m comfortable with in a few places, but at a fundamental level I agree that we ought to take care of our possessions, whether it’s to please their spirits or simply to show ourselves and those around us the respect of a neat, clean, and open environment.

Some of the lines I highlighted:

“Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.” (p. 21). Later, toward the end of the book, she discusses the effects that decluttering can have on a person’s mindset and lifestyle. Nothing unusual here, except that it was another reminder to me that my desire to declutter my physical space usually indicates a deeper desire to declutter my life/mental space; and while physical decluttering is, I think, a necessary first step, it’s only a first step.

“It’s extremely stressful for parents to see what their children discard….” (p. 48). This rang very true to me! Kondo warns that parents (and I might add siblings, friends, roommates, etc.) get nervous when you start decluttering and can inadvertently undermine your efforts with their comments or might appropriate your discards for themselves, cluttering their own lives as a result. As Kondo says, save them the stress and be considerate of their feelings — keep your decluttering private. She’s not encouraging deception, but she’s reminding us that not everybody understands the concept of living with less.

“Not all clothes have come to you to be worn threadbare. It is the same with people. Not every person you meet in life will become a close friend or lover.” (p. 60).  This helped me give up some of the more expensive clothes I’d bought but ended up never wearing. A lot of things, and people, enter our lives. We can’t expect to keep them all. Treat them with kindness and respect and let them come and go freely and without guilt or regret.

“The true purpose of a present is to be received. Presents are not ‘things’ but a means for conveying someone’s feelings.” (p. 107-108). This is a useful reminder that it’s OK to give away a gift; it doesn’t mean you’re belittling the consideration behind it. Kondo adds, “surely the person who gave it to you doesn’t want you to use it out of a sense of obligation” (p. 108). I’m not sure that’s always true — I think some people are a little more selfish than that — so I’ve always told people that they’re welcome to discard of any gift I give them with no hard feelings.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up gave me some fresh insights into myself and my relationship with items, something I hadn’t thought was possible anymore. I’m sure a number of people will read it and be left cold by her quasi-magical approach, but others — especially those who resonate to emotional, relational advice, but even occasionally an over-intellectualizing reptiloid like myself — will find her advice (re)motivating.

 

Wabi Sabi Steampunk

wabisteampunkI’ve been struggling for years to reconcile my appreciation for the steampunk aesthetic and my personal need to live in a minimalist environment. I love the rich, baroque look of steampunk but I function best with minimal distractions and quickly become uncomfortable in a cluttered or crowded room.  I love studying a cabinet of curiosities but I don’t want it making visual and cognitive demands on me when I’m trying to work.

Friends often send me photographs of steampunk interiors or furniture because they know my rooms make an aesthetic gesture toward steampunk, or at least industrial, design — I own adjustable ironwork tables, old metal chests, leather chairs, a vintage barrister bookcase, etc. But as much as I delight in those busy, gleaming steampunk interiors, part of me knows that I’d go crazy if I had to live in them 24/7.

What I’d like to see developed is a sort of wabi-sabi steampunk — call it that, or steampunk zen, or minimalist steampunk, whatever you like. They’d all look a little different, but they’d emphasize a reduction in clutter and an opening of space.

Are wabi-sabi and steampunk irreconcilable concepts? Wabi-sabi  has a variety of meanings, but its essence is the natural, impermanent, unpretentious, and antique. Steampunk also has a variety of meanings, but as a visual aesthetic, the areas in which it probably differs most from wabi-sabi is natural vs. industrial and unpretentious vs. gadgeteered.

As far as natural vs. industrial goes, I’d suggest that the heft, weight, texture, and patina of vintage industrial furniture and decor have elements that can be reconciled with the wabi-sabi aesthetic. The scratches, dents, and rust on the 19th-century antiques (real or faux) beloved by steampunk designers bring to mind a sense of nostalgia and age, imperfection and impermanence as much as an old, hand-thrown clay pot or woven basket. Both steampunk and wabi-sabi value craftsmanship and artisanry (there’s a strong DIY maker-culture in steampunk), and they both value materials that weather well, aging with strength and grace. Wabi-sabi may be more rustic than most 19th-century-inspired steampunk design, but there’s no reason why steampunk can’t look away from middle- to upper-class English urban Victoriana toward more modest, perhaps international, 19th-century modes of decor.

More difficult to reconcile are the opposing values of  unpretentious vs. gadgeteered. Without a doubt, much steampunk style is intentionally pretentious and overdone, with a sense of humorous quirkiness in its unnecessary twists and flourishes. By contrast, wabi-sabi prefers the simple and understated, although it values the flawed, “ugly,” awkward appeal of the weathered and/or handcrafted object or environment. The person seeking a wabi-sabi steampunk aesthetic will have to choose steampunk objects with care, looking perhaps for those manufactured with simpler lines and from darker, more worn materials.

I don’t know how feasible it is to mesh these aesthetics, but I’ve been trying to do it in my own home for some time — which is something of a challenge in rented, relatively recently manufactured spaces (distressed-wood floors, natural stone walls, and vintage appliances are well out of my budget!).  Does anybody else share my desire for a more minimal steampunk aesthetic, or am I just strange this way? I’ve started a Pinterest board for wabi sabi steampunk; I’d enjoy getting examples from other people to add to it!

Magical Thinking and Material Goods

Commodification is a form of sympathetic magic. That is, telling someone that if they buy designer clothes they will be considered as desirable as the celebrities who normally sport the stuff is akin to telling someone that if they put on a wolfskin belt by the light of the moon they’ll turn into a werewolf. I want to draw this out a little bit more, but this time with an eye toward how a similar form magical thinking can arise within the organization, voluntary simplicity, and minimalism movements.

I’ve written before about the the magic of ownership, where I pointed out that possessions can be perceived as performing a sort of sympathetic magic: that is, owning the symbols of a certain lifestyle, social class, profession, or pursuit is thought to somehow bring that lifestyle, class, profession or pursuit into our lives. Possessions can be perceived as acting as a magical or symbolic extension of ourselves, a visible representation to others of parts of our identity that we want to show to the world. Possessions are also “memory-laden objects,” that, through sympathetic magic, bond us to better times, powerful people, or the support of our ancestors.

Advertising has strengthened the magical appeal of possessions. Its message is “This object will grant you powers you didn’t have before you purchased it.” This liquor, this car, this suit, this cologne will attract women. This purse, this lipstick, this dress, this perfume will attract men. This computer will make you smarter. This antibacterial spray will make your children healthier. This music will make you part of the in-crowd. This wolfskin belt will turn you into a wolf.

These messages promote a form of magical thinking. Magical thinking is a form of “causal reasoning that looks for correlation between acts or utterances and certain events,” according to Wikipedia. With regard to advertising, magical thinking occurs when we believe, at some unacknowledged or subconscious level, that buying or owning something causes a desired event — or prevents an undesired event, in the case of such products as antibacterial sprays. Magical thinking is very powerful and can even have psychological merit, as in the case where belief in a placebo leads to an improvement in health.

This is the magic that professional organizers must confront when they’re trying to help people get rid of their clutter. How often have we watched or read a professional organizer intoning something along the lines of “remember, your mother’s teapot is not your mother”? They are fighting the power that the fundamental, often unacknowledged belief in sympathetic magic has over our minds. Sometimes their invocation of logic acts as a successful counterspell to the magic of material goods; sometimes it doesn’t.

In attempting to counteract advertising and consumerism, however, organization, voluntary simplicity, and minimalist efforts often offer a slightly different type of magical thinking. In this magical formula, a possession is not associated with something positive, but with something negative. Often-repeated phrases in the movements include “Clearing space will clear your mind,” or “owning less stuff will mean having more time.”

The phrases are backed up with explanations, of course, such as arguments that possessions are distractions, cost time and money to purchase and maintain. But it is the magical formula “possessions = problems” that many people are likely to internalize, just as others have internalized the message, for example, that “diamonds = love” or “luxury cars = social status.”

“Remember, no matter where you go, there you are”. — Buckaroo Banzai

This originally Confucian concept points out that it doesn’t matter how we may change our material world — by moving ourselves to a new place, by gaining or shedding possessions, by hanging crystals in our windows — ultimately, we are what is in our heads. And if what’s in our head is worried, nervous, stressful, antagonistic, pessimistic, or otherwise unpleasant, it will still be there no matter what physical changes we make to our environment. What needs to be worked on is our Selves.

The great majority of those who write about professional organization, voluntary simplicity, or minimalism know this, and they talk as much about making changes in thinking patterns as they do about making changes in the environment. I expect, however, that this deeper message often gets forgotten or ignored by the people they’re working with. We humans tend to be impatient sorts, and our penchant for magical thinking tends to lead to simplified understandings of complex messages. The formula “possessions = problems” is very simple and easy to adopt. Getting rid of material objects is much easier than changing deeply ingrained patterns of thought.

How many people have frantically jettisoned their belongings in the belief if they can only get their possessions down below some arbitrary number, their lives will get better? How many have prowled restlessly around their houses when they’re feeling tense or stressed out, cleaning and organizing and decluttering as if those assertions of control over their environments will somehow also impose control over their emotions? How many set off on vacations or sabbaticals hoping that a new environment will transform them into a different person? How many have desperately read advice book after advice book, as though the books themselves could somehow conjure up more money, a neater house, or a simpler life for them?

I have to admit, I’ve certainly done a few of these things. I’m as prone to magical thinking as anybody else.

In the best of situations, behavioral changes do lead to psychological changes. Placebos stop the pain, diamonds affirm love, and uncluttering helps a person relax. What is important for us to remember is that in these cases, the effect is not caused by the object or its removal. The effect is caused by the changes in one’s mental state that are triggered as a result of taking, buying, or decluttering that object. The object or action doesn’t cause the effect; it is only correlated with the effect. Object/action > change in mental state > emotional or physical change.

Magical thinking is very powerful and can be used in very beneficial ways. However, on those days that you find that your possessions or open spaces or rituals aren’t changing your life for the better, remember that it’s not the possession, open space, or ritual that does the work. It’s your mode of thinking. The real work of organizing, simplifying, and minimizing must go on inside of your head.

Photo credit: Brunosub

The Minimalist Professor

My university department is about to move to a new building, which, as you can see from the photo, means that I need to pack everything up. That’s all right; I enjoy moving. It gives me a chance to scrutinize my possessions and think about what’s still working for me and what isn’t.

And that’s what I did yesterday, asking myself why I’m still keeping books on my shelves that I haven’t opened in years … sometimes ten years or more.

I came up with the following answers:

(1) Because keeping them around proves to visitors that I’m a scholar. (The “magic of ownership“)
(2) Because I might need them if I ever decide to go back and turn my dissertation into a book.
(3) Because I still find the subject interesting.

To which minimalist-me (not to be mistaken for mini-me) replied: (1) the diplomas on my wall suffice to indicate that I’m a scholar; (2) if I ever really do revisit my dissertation, I can get the books through interlibrary loan; and (3) since I haven’t opened the books in years, my interest in the subject is obviously being satisfied by new material, in which case I should let the old material go.

The only volumes I really need to keep on my office shelves are the books I’m actively using to teach my classes or to conduct my research.

So I’ve donated over 100 volumes of the manga I purchased while working on my BL research to Yaoi-Con’s reading library, and I’ve made an appointment with a used-book buyer to scan my collection and buy whatever she can use. After she’s gone through the stack, I’ll put whatever is left in the “free books” shelf in the Humanities building or haul it to the local library, depending on the subject matter.

I’m sure my movers will thank me.

If you’re also thinking of becoming a minimalist professor, here are some tips that are working for me:

1. Scan your articles and files and shred the paper. Keep the scanner on your desk if you can; otherwise it’s too easy to let the piles accumulate.

2. Scan or photograph representative student works that you are keeping as examples or for accreditation purposes.

3. Use an electronic course-management system, if it’s available on your campus; I put my syllabi, lecture material, readings, and assignments on Blackboard and require students to upload their papers and projects to Blackboard, as well. I digitally mark up electronic student papers and re-upload them for my students to review; it’s very efficient once you get used to it, and students appreciate the faster turnaround. Since all the files are archived by the university, this helps with #2, as well.

4. Return hard-copy tests, papers, or projects to students promptly; don’t allow students to leave clutter in your office.

5. Bring a laptop or electronic reader to class and use it to refer to your lecture notes instead of using paper. I tried this last spring with an iPad and was generally satisfied with the results, especially since it meant I had access to the entire course’s worth of lecture notes at once.

6. Sell or donate the books on your shelf that you’re not actively using anymore. If you’re like me, this will be a real ego challenge — books are intimately tied into how we do “being a professor” — and it may take some time and several attempts. Obviously, if you own rare and/or extraordinarily expensive volumes, this guideline doesn’t apply … unless you’d consider donating the books to a research library so that other scholars can use them, too.

7. Avoid bringing new books into the office — use your library, interlibrary loan, the internet, or borrow the book from a colleague. If you must buy a book, consider buying digital; a lot of reader software permits annotation and bookmarking. Avoid requesting review copies unless you’re seriously considering using the book, and don’t keep the copy if you decide not to use it.

8. Pass along the tchotchkes you accumulate from the university and students — the paperweights, keychains, water bottles, magnets, thank-you cards, etc. Scan or photograph the ones you want to remember; donate the rest. Don’t keep your conference badges, either (why do so many of us do that?)

9. If your department has a central office space where supplies are kept, keep moving accumulations of intercampus mail envelopes, paper- and binder clips, pens and pencils, and so forth over to it. These things have a tendency to multiply, so make it a habit to drop off a handful every week or two while you’re in the supply cabinet rummaging around for a fresh dry erase marker — the only professorial tool that doesn’t breed well in captivity.

Those are the practices that I’ve been following over the last few years. What other things can a minimalist professor do to keep down the office clutter?

Minimalism Is Not Necessarily….

Footprints in Death ValleyMinimalism is not necessarily….

1.    Cheap.  People often equate minimalism with the “college dorm room” look; particleboard and plastic. But you could be a minimalist who buys only objects of the very highest quality that reflect your exquisitely refined taste.

2.    Frugal.  Minimalism is often cited as a great way to save money. However, you could be a minimalist who buys whatever you need at the moment and then throws it away as soon as it isn’t needed anymore.  Or you could be a minimalist who owns almost nothing but spends an incredible amount of money on night-clubbing, dining out, taking exotic vacations, feeding a drug habit, playing MORPGs, or engaging in any other relatively expensive, non-material-goods-related activity.

3. Practical: Minimalism venerates open space and few furnishings — which can be a lovely aesthetic but completely impractical when you’re trying to have friends over (where do they sit? what do they eat off of?) or find storage for your toiletries or kitchen supplies (minimalist design shuns cabinetry, unless it’s all but invisible).  Heating those open spaces can also be a challenge (see #2, above).

4.   Relaxing. Minimalists often argue that they have reduced their stress levels by owning and doing less. But you could own virtually nothing and still be stressed out by your many time commitments.  Or you could do virtually nothing and still be stressed out about your family, friends, finances, health, and the like.

5.    Green. Minimalism is often cited as a way to reduce the consumption of goods and fuel and thus promote environmental sustainability. But you could be a minimalist whose few furnishings are all made of endangered woods, whose few clothes are manufactured and dyed in environmentally unsustainable ways, who eats food that hasn’t been sustainably produced, and who travels all around the world without a thought about your carbon footprint.

6.    Virtuous.  Many minimalists suggest that they are living a life of clear vision and moral virtue and that not being minimalist means you’re either a consumption-brainwashed dupe or ethically corrupt. But a minimalist can be a fool, a liar, a criminal, a jerk, or a wastrel, just like anyone else.

Minimalism can be frugal, relaxing, green, and virtuous (and even cheap, although I don’t personally recommend it) — but not by itself.  Don’t read a minimalist blog or two and automatically buy into the hype — be a critical consumer of whatever lifestyle choice you make, and make certain your behaviors all systematically align to reflect your core values, whatever they may be.

Image Credit: Footprints in Death Valley, by S. Bilodeau

Paperlessness, Ephemerality, and Death

Dawn on the Ganges 2008Three or four years ago I spent a lot of time and money creating a series of scrapbooks that combined photos, art, and artefacts to describe my life.  Last weekend I ripped them all into pieces.

Most of the pages and photos were thrown away. The rest will be scanned and then thrown away.

Minimizing is an exercise in detachment; how much can you bear to lose? When I scan and then shred the photographs and documents that record my life — grade-school report cards, achievement certificates, diplomas — I know I’m losing something. Paper texts can survive for thousands of years. Digital texts are likely to corrupt or become obsolete in a matter of decades.

So my fingers linger over the items a moment before I rip them in half or consign them to the shredder. Their destruction is a commitment; by destroying them, I loosen myself from my past. The digital files are still there, of course, like a safety net, but how often will I look at them? How long will it take before they’re lost or corrupted?

I destroy documents with an awareness that I’m destroying the very data scholars like me love to consult for information about the past; with an awareness that I’m going to forget many of the times recorded in these artefacts because I’ll no longer have them at my fingertips as reminders; and with an awareness that I’m saving my relatives the pain of deciding what to do with those documents after I’m dead.

For me, simplicity, minimalism, and paperlessness cannot be separated from my awareness of ephemerality and death.

I didn’t always think this way. When I was an Air Force brat, home was where my Stuff was. Houses and schools and friends might change every few years, but my Stuff was always with me, a sign of stability and security.

Of course, as I matured, I realized there is no stability and security. Everything changes. I began practicing voluntary simplicity after my divorce, looking for answers that couldn’t be found in other people or in material objects. My practice shifted toward minimalism after my mother died and my sister and I had to decide what to do with all the things she’d left behind.

Now, every object I give away and every paper I shred means one less thing to attach me to the past and one less thing to trouble my heirs in the future.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not completely unsentimental. I’ve kept my share of nostalgic items: my dented silver baby cup; the Alice in Wonderland books my mother read to me as a child; mementos from some of my trips, and the like. Nor do I live like an ascetic: I enjoy artwork and own nice furniture and buy rather too many blazers. But I’m trying to keep my eyes on the future rather than on the past and to put my faith in the spiritual rather than in the physical. So I keep paring down, editing, and streamlining, reminding myself that these items are simply passing through my life the way I pass through the lives of others — for a very brief period of time measured against the vastness of eternity.

Image Credit: Dawn on the Ganges, Varanasi 2008, by Dru

Rules for Stuff

KeyYesterday I blogged about why I’m wary of 100-thing minimalism. Despite my skepticism about the “100-thing” practice, however, I still believe it’s beneficial to avoid clutter and overconsumption. I agree with the voluntary simplicity guideline that you should strive to own only those items you (a) love, (b) use on a regular basis, or (c) need for emergencies.

A.  Those items you love

Extreme minimalists would reject this first category of Stuff entirely.  However, bare, completely functional rooms don’t give me any aesthetic pleasure. My apartment contains artwork done by friends and family, antiques inherited from my mother, and other oddball items that give me pleasure to view and hold. These “useless” items remind me of people and experiences I’ve enjoyed, and they make my apartment feel like a home.

The trick is to keep this category small. Look at every nonessential item you own, evaluate the amount of pleasure it gives you, and edit out anything that isn’t personally meaningful and fulfilling. Remember as you do this that objects are not magic; they are not the people and experiences they represent. Getting rid of a space-cluttering memento does not imply rejecting an individual or memory.

B. Those items you use on a regular basis

For many of us, careers come with unavoidable material trappings — for example, the artisanal supplies you use as you paint, sculpt, sew, design, and decorate; the equipment you use as you compose, perform, program, troubleshoot, repair, and build; the artifacts, evidence, and/or reference works you use as you inspect, research, analyze, and model, and so forth. In addition, we use many other objects outside of our careers — furniture, linens, cookware, and the like.

The simple-living approach is to make sure that you own only those things that you use regularly, seeking to use the same item for multiple tasks and to rent or borrow items only used once in a while.

The minimalist approach would be to cut down to the bare minimum necessary to do the job.

What’s the difference? Someone practicing voluntary simplicity might choose to own two sets of sheets; one for use while the other is being washed. The minimalist might choose to own one set, washing the sheets and remaking the bed with them in the same day.

C. Those items you need for emergencies.

The decluttering guideline “if you don’t use it in a month/year, get rid of it” has one serious flaw: some things are worth owning even if you hope you’ll never use them. Fire extinguishers, for example.

Don’t be so clutter-averse that you risk your life by not having important emergency supplies on hand!

…Although minimalists would stop there (if they even bothered with emergency supplies at all), those practicing voluntary simplicity may want to extend this perspective to items they don’t use often but would be difficult or expensive to replace. Do you own camping gear that you only use once a year? A minimalist might say “get rid of it and borrow or rent what you need when you need it.” However, if you already own the gear, getting rid of it may not be the most simple or frugal choice. Weigh your aversion to clutter against your frugality and make the decision that makes the most sense for you.

Relevant Reading:

• In a nice bit of timing, Joshua Becker at Becoming Minimalist, one of the blogs I recommended yesterday, has just released his ebook today — Simplify: Seven Guiding Principles to Help Anyone Declutter Their Home and Life. He’s using the term “rational minimalism” to differentiate his approach from the same kind of extreme/100-thing minimalism I’ve been critiquing here; I suspect his rational minimalism is more or less what I’m calling minimalism (in the non-extreme sense) or simplicity.

• My comments on Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat?, The Power of Less, and Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less.

Unclutterer — a great blog on getting rid of clutter informed by the voluntary simplicity movement, albeit not necessarily minimalism.

Why I’m Wary of 100-Thing Minimalism

KeyI’m 43; I’ve been practicing voluntary simplicity since 2000, with varying levels of successes and setbacks. This isn’t a minimalist blog, and I’m not claiming to be a minimalism expert.

(4/26/10: Welcome, readers from Far Beyond the Stars; if you want my response to the post that sent you here, it’s over here. But please read this one first, so you can decide if you agree or disagree. Be a thoughtful minimalist!)

I’ve noticed that a number of younger minimalist bloggers take an extreme view of minimalism, particularly touting the ownership of no more than 100 things. I’m guessing this works for them for several reasons: (1) many don’t have office-based employment or aren’t established in a field that requires a lot of equipment or books; (2) many aren’t married and/or don’t have children; and/or (3) many haven’t yet lived through a major earthquake, fire, freeze, or flood — after doing so, one is likely to list at least a few emergency supplies among one’s possessions.

However, holding up 100-Thing minimalism as a platinum standard for minimalist practice excludes those of us who have different life circumstances and practice minimalism in different ways. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be a 100-Thing minimalist; if the approach appeals to you, adopt it. But if it doesn’t, here are some reasons not to worry about it.

If You Obsess, You’re Owned: Many minimalists enter the lifestyle in an attempt to free themselves of “being owned” by their Stuff, physically and psychologically. However, you’re just as psychologically owned by your Stuff if you fret over whether adding a notebook means eliminating a pair of underwear as you would be if you can’t get rid of any gift you’ve ever been given.

Is your Stuff — no matter how much of it you own — living in your head rent-free? Or do you allow it to come and go freely through your life, without spending undue amounts of time counting, categorizing, reorganizing, and re-evaluating it? Is it more desirable to own 100 things that you count constantly, or 1,000 things that you never worry about at all?

Making Exceptions Undermines the Ideal: Many lists of 100 things exclude or lump together things like toiletries: shampoo, soap, deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpastes, tampons, condoms, towels, cotton swabs, prescription medicines, cosmetics, combs, brushes, and the like. Or paper: seven years of back tax files, marriage and divorce papers, birth certificates, vehicle registrations, passports, insurance policies, Social Security cards, and so forth. Some 100-Thing minimalists don’t own this stuff; others get around it by counting all their files or toiletries or  clothes as one “thing.”

What, then, constitutes a “thing”?

I also don’t often see beds, bookshelves, tables, chairs, lamps, sheets, pillows, blankets, shower curtains, shower liners, blow dryers, brooms, vacuum cleaners, mops, dusting rags, garden supplies, kids’ drawings and sculptures, hobby supplies, vehicles, or things in one’s professional office or cubicle counted.  I realize that some extreme minimalists don’t own many of these things because they live with their parents, in a dorm room, on their friend’s couch, or in a series of hotels as they travel. And others don’t own many of these things because they don’t have gardens, or kids, or hobbies, or vehicles, or offices. But others get around ownership by making exceptions again: “well, that’s jointly owned with my parents/roommates/spouse/kids, so doesn’t really count as mine.”

What, then, constitutes “ownership”?

And what does this mean for single minimalists who can’t blame couches, towels, and cups on their family?

I realize some practitioners will argue that “there are no rules” to the 100-thing approach. But — pardon my ISTJness — calling more than 100 things “100 things,” or saying one doesn’t own an object that one lives with and uses, strikes me as doublethink. And, ultimately, pointless.

Relax! What’s the point of creating bulk categories of Stuff or denying the ownership of something that you’re living with and using just to get your list of possessions down to 100 things? There’s no god of minimalism poised to canonize you if you squeeze your list of possessions down to some arbitrarily decided number.

How many things you own will depend on what kind of life you live, where, and with whom. If you’re a painter, for example, you probably own more than 100 items just in paint, brushes, canvases, and cleaning supplies alone. Does that mean you can’t be minimalist? Of course not. Just purchase and store the minimum art supplies necessary to do your job, a number that will vary depending on your approach, expertise, and output.

Minimalism involves reducing a thing to its fundamental principles or essential elements without sacrificing its function and aesthetic appeal. Minimalist art, music, and literature still does what it’s intended to do; it is not deficient in its role as art, music, or literature, even though its style may not be to everybody’s taste.  So, too, the minimalist lifestyle.

Those who choose a minimalist lifestyle seek to pare down their possessions and practices to align with their core values and goals without sacrificing things that are important to them. One minimalist’s practice may not appeal to another minimalist, but it doesn’t have to; the minimalist aesthetic can be explored in many different ways. (Would anyone like to talk about a postminimalist lifestyle?)

So, practice 100-Thing minimalism if it appeals to you and you’re in a situation where you can do so. Heck, call more than 100 things “100 things” if it makes you happy. But if 100-thing minimalism doesn’t appeal to you or isn’t possible given your current circumstances, don’t stress about it. No matter how much it’s being emphasized by minimalist bloggers right now, it’s not the only or even the best way to practice minimalism.

Adapt minimalism to suit your life; don’t adapt your life to suit minimalism.

Relevant Reading:

• Every time 20-something Everyday Minimalist posts photos of her apartment on one of her blogs, somebody criticizes her aesthetic choices. If it’s functional and appeals to her, however, why should anybody else care? Design your own minimalism.

• 29-year-old Sunny discusses her less-than-100-thing minimalism with a wry and delightful narrative voice. I enjoy her blog, even though I’m long past the days where I enjoy sleeping on couches.

• Young minimalist Everett Bogue is a proponent of less-than-100-things minimalism and recently wrote The Art of Being Minimalist. I found his book to be strongly geared toward readers without families or jobs that tie them to a particular geographical area, however.

• The early-30s Joshua Becker of the Becoming Minimalist family of four addresses ways to practice non-extreme minimalism with children and wrote a book offering practical tips on creating the minimalist home.

• The  Guy Named Dave popularized the 100-thing challenge, inspiring a Time magazine article. (He was 37 in that article, so I’m guessing he’s 39 or 40 now).  He made clear exceptions to his list from the outset, arguing, “I get to set the rules and decide when a rule can be stretched or outright broken.”

• Last but not least, Leo Babauta’s Mmlist site isn’t updated often but is more focused than his Zen Habits blog. He argues for living with less than 100 things, although he doesn’t count possessions shared with his wife and six children. With more years of practice behind him than most of the other minimalist bloggers, Babauta is highly respected for his posts on simplicity, productivity, and creativity.

The Magic of Possessions

KeyProfessors keep paper — way too much paper. After ten years of accumulation, this summer I began purging my files of articles I’d saved but no longer used. In doing so, I ran across an article I’d kept called “The Ineluctable Mysteries of Possessions.”

The article disputes the assumption that the relationship between people and possessions is a rational one. Possessions, it argues are ascribed magical powers, in a sense — and the more magical they are, the more valued they are.

Tests for a Magical Object:

  1. Are you unwilling to sell the object for its market value?
  2. Would you buy it virtually regardless of its price?
  3. Do you believe the item couldn’t be substituted?
  4. Are you unwilling to discard it, even if you don’t use it anymore?
  5. Does owning it make you happy? Would you be depressed if it were lost or damaged?
  6. Do you treat it like a person? Name it or consider it part of the family?

If your answer is “yes,” you probably have an irrational — “magical” — relationship with that object.

What kinds of possessions are most likely to be “magical”? The list is long….

Parts of Self

Bodies and Body Parts: We regard our bodies and those of our loved ones with reverence and save, protect, and adorn them, even ascribing magical properties to things like, for example, locks of hair, or a tattoo.

Perfume, Jewelry, and Clothing: These possessions are magical because they’re in close contact with the body; they retain some aura of the person who wore them (a dead father’s watch, a dead mother’s wedding ring, a boyfriend’s jacket, a girlfriend’s perfume) and can also be transformative (a good luck shirt, a power tie, “beauty in a bottle”).

Food: Because we bring food into ourselves, it, too, is magical. Many religious and even secular ceremonies involve rituals of food or drink (communion, birthday cake, Thanksgiving turkey), some foods are seen as unclean (pork, beef), and the health movement regularly characterizes various categories of foods as good or evil, transformative or detrimental.

Security (“Transitional”) Objects: These are objects children become attached to almost as though they were parts of the self: blankets, stuffed animals, pacifiers, and so on. Adults often keep their childhood security objects or adopt new ones. (A charming photo book about security objects is Creature Comforts: People and Their Security Objects.)

Extensions of Self

Home: We see our homes, and others see our homes, as extensions of our identities, with the public areas of the home equivalent to our social selves and the private areas equivalent to our true selves. Also, the door to a home is sacred; people are usually only allowed to pass it by invitation.

Vehicles: Vehicles operate like homes, but they tend to be laden with more fantasy and sexual symbolism, especially for men. People who dote over their vehicles — polishing, customizing, detailing — are especially likely to see them as extensions of their own identities.

Burials and Grave Goods: Grave markers, flowers, and monuments for dead loved ones become extensions of the self — think of the care taken over a family member’s grave site. Also, we nod to this magic whenever we bury or burn people’s beloved objects with them. The article doesn’t mention the objects laid at the Vietnam Memorial or at accident sites, but I’d group those into this category; very few people would take a stuffed animal left at a child’s death site!

Pets: Although some may consider pets members of the family rather than possessions, ultimately, they are objects owned but invested with great emotional attachment. Some researchers argue that pets serve as adults’ transitional objects.

Magic, Science & Religion

Religious Icons and Relics: These figures are often considered to possess  magical power, even by religions that officially condemn such investiture, such as formal Christianity — for example, the faithful might feel uncomfortable discarding even the cheapest Bible or prayer card.

Amulets, Fetishes, Talismans and Totems: Contemporary examples might include naming an automobile, hanging a “lucky” item in a window or over a door, or keeping around any object one thinks can magically protect, empower, cure, or bring good fortune.

Drugs and Medicine: Mind-altering drugs have long been considered to have magical powers, but can we consider contemporary medicine magical? Sure — consider the extraordinarily well-documented placebo effect; studies have even shown that the more we pay for a drug, the better we think it cures us … even when both test and control groups are given the same drug. It’s magic.

Memory-Laden Objects

(This is the big problem category noted by most decluttering experts!)

Gifts: Gifts are magical because they represent both the giver and the recipient’s social connection to the giver. The gift economy has traditionally been kept separate from the cash economy (which is why giving money as a gift tends to be deprecated); gift-giving tends to be ceremonial in nature (removing a price tag, wrapping it in special paper) and invested with emotion.

Family Photographs, Souvenirs, and Mementos: These act as talismans connecting us to other people, places, and moods. Moreover, the way we preserve and display them can serve to edit and refashion our pasts in some desired way (for example, think of removing an ex-spouse’s photos from a photo album). Childhood toys kept into adulthood may fall into this category, representing a longing for perceived innocence and simplicity.

Heirlooms, Antiques, and Monuments: While photos, souvenirs and mementos may be personal, these items are more aggregate, symbolizing a family or other larger social group. Even antiques bought from a store can be seen as linking the owner to a desirable past era.

Rare and Mysterious Possessions

Treasure and Money: Money is seen to be magical, making people do what we want, offering security against danger or loss, etc. The article doesn’t mention, but I’ll add, that foreign coinage is often kept as a souvenir, perhaps in part due to this reason.

Collections: An item that belongs to a collection is conferred special, magical status; it becomes more than it was on its own. People often claim collections are valuable, but they usually aren’t; instead, collections give their owners a sense of purpose and importance and are an approved outlet for possessiveness.

Stars and their Relics: From saints to athletes, people collect stars’ bones, clothing, autographs, cars, and even houses. The article notes, interestingly, that male stars are revered more than female stars.

Art: Traditionally, art was granted a special place in people’s or organizations’ collections; today, high-quality reproductions may have devalued art’s magical power.

Quintessential Corporate Icons and “High Tech Pornography”: Iconic brands and products that must never be changed (Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Levi’s 501 jeans) and expensive objects, especially technological — iPhone, anyone?

Sexual Pornography and Sexual Fetishes: I’ll take the author’s word on this, but I suppose if you can’t get no satisfaction without it….

Conclusion

I wanted to hold onto the article until I could post about it because I think a lot of decluttering books act as though people are rational — and we’re not. Even though we probably don’t say to ourselves, “I can’t get rid of Mother’s necklace because it’s magical,” the fact is, we’ve ascribed some kind of mystic link between our mother and that necklace that makes us feel guilty about selling or donating it. And this also explains why we buy things — owning an iPhone or a pair of Manolo Blahniks will magically make us powerful and attractive. Owning shelves of books makes us smart or creative. Owning lots of Tupperware protects us against future hunger. Or whatever.

The ascription of magical qualities to possessions predates capitalism and consumerism, of course, but for nominally rational, modern concepts, both capitalism and consumerism certainly play to this deeply seated human tendency. Commercials, after all, are nothing but messages extolling the magical qualities of a product or service — this object will make you sexually attractive/beautiful/rich/healthy/happy/etc. It will save you from anguish or danger. It will keep your children safe. It’s magic — buy it.

I’ve worked hard to declutter myself and I constantly monitor my spending habits to make sure I keep my possessions down to a comfortable minimum. But I’d be the last person to say I’m rational about what I own — after I got rid of the excess junk, the remaining objects I cling to now are almost all magical in some way, from my bringing Artifact home from my mother’s apartment (named; link to dead family member; totem figure) to collecting pocket watches and  restoring an old trunk to use as a coffee table (they’re antiques I associate with a desired age/identity — steampunk)!

I think this article got it right. We don’t accumulate and treasure the bulk of our possessions for any rational reason. We accumulate and treasure them because they’re magic.

Original article, and my apologies to the author for oversimplifying his points! —

Belk, Russell W. (1991) “The Ineluctable Mysteries of Possessions” in Rudmin, F. W. (Ed.) To Have Possessions: A Handbook on Ownership and Property [Special Issue]. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 17-55.