Category Archives: Minimalism

Review: The Art of Discarding and Goodbye, Things

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As I look forward to another move this summer, I’ve sought fresh decluttering inspiration two new-to-the-U.S. books on decluttering and minimalism: The Art of Discarding by Nagisa Tatsumi and Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki. Although neither offers new insights to experienced minimalists, I found Goodbye, Things to be the most motivational of the two and a good complement to other works on decluttering and minimalism .. and not just because his comment “I can move out of my home in thirty minutes” (Sasaki, 2017, p. 162) sounds so promising.

I picked up The Art of Discarding by Nagisa Tatsumi with some excitement, since it was the book that inspired Marie Kondo, whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up I read and reviewed shortly after its English-language publication in 2014. Unfortunately, Discarding suffers the same problem any early work within a genre suffers — the information in it now feels stale after reading Kondo’s book, which so skillfully incorporated and expanded on Tatsumi’s insights. Although I did learn a little more about Tsukomo-gami and the Japanese perspective on the souls of things from the introduction, in general the advice here is pretty run-of-the-mill for anyone who’s already read a few works on decluttering, especially Kondo’s.

One can certainly see the origins of many of Kondo’s insights here, though; for example, Tatsumi titles one section of her book ” ‘Sometime’ never comes,” just as Kondo titles a section of her bok “Unread books: ‘Sometime’ means ‘never.’” Yet there are differences, however; places where Kondo moves beyond her inspirational mentor. For example, Tatsumi advises readers that perfection is impossible: “But even I can’t claim to stick to all this advice all the time. Just take the points that feel right to you and implement them as far as seems reasonable” (Tatsumi, 2017, Loc. 881 or 1618 [Kindle]). By contrast, Kondo argues, “It is not hard to tidy up perfectly and completely in one fell swoop. In fact, anyone can do it. And if you want to avoid rebound, this is the only way to do it” (Kondo, 2014, p. 20). But in general you’ll find more similarities than differences between these books. It’s also worth nothing that Tatsumi is focused on “discarding” — by which she means throwing away or recycling (Loc 1469 of 1618) — whereas Kondo sees decluttering as the first step toward wholesale lifestyle revision (Tatsumi, notably, has nothing to say about folding strategies or sparks of joy).

I hesitated a few days before buying Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki for two reasons. First, I’ve never been a fan of extreme minimalism and was glad when the minimalist movement broadened, and second, I’d read enough about the new Japanese minimalism online in the summer of 2016 that I wasn’t sure the book was going to offer anything new. When I began reading the book I cringed, because it starts with a series of photos of extreme minimalists’ living spaces and backpacks of possessions; exactly the sort of barren spaces that make most non-minimalists recoil and never want to read a minimalist work again. But it got better, and if you’re looking for a book to inspire you to declutter, I’d say this makes an excellent complement to Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic, especially if you’re wary of the “sparks joy” criterion. It’s also a good addition to other books, such as Peter Walsh’s and (written all the way back in the 1990s) Don Aslett‘s useful books on decluttering.

Sasaki is an extreme minimalist, and that lifestyle’s not going to resonate with a lot of readers (although it’ll probably set a few afire with minimalist passion). But his introduction is an interesting set of speculations about why we accumulate clutter and how it affects us, touching on issues such as existential angst and social value. His “55 tips to help you say goodbye to your things” and “15 more tips for the next stage of your minimalist journey” are short and very readable, boil down the wisdom offered by other writers (including Kondo, Petri Luukkaisen’s My Stuff documentary, and the unattributed Derek Sivers, who advised in 2009, “If you’re not saying ‘HELL YEAH!’ about it, say ‘no.’”), and sometimes thought-provoking.

Just as I found Kondo’s advice to hold an item and ask if it “sparks joy” to be an unexpectedly useful way to get in touch with my feelings about things (INTJ here….), I found Sasaki’s comments about accumulating stuff to project an image or to cling to a past self a useful reality check (Miss Minimalist blogged about “fantasy self” clutter in 2011, although Aslett touched on the same concept in his 1990s books). Similarly, I liked Sasaki’s exhortations to view stores as our personal warehouses and the city as our personal floor plan — not always realistic options for those who aren’t fairly well-to-do and living in an urban environment, but a useful reminder that none of us are obliged to accumulate all the paraphernalia required to entertain at home if we don’t want to. Finally, Sasaki discusses throughout the book the amount of time and energy that seeing, working around, and thinking about Stuff took up for him, and I completely sympathize. I realized years ago that I work better in an environment that focuses me on my goals and offers little other visual distraction. I’m looking forward, in fact, to better organizing my environment after this summer’s move so that writing things like my novels and this blog will come more naturally than they have in my current living space. (As it happens, I’m writing this post in my university office, which is much better-suited for writing than my home!)

In addition, Sasaki’s comments about letting go of gifts, memorabilia, and inherited items are similar to Kondo’s and Peter Walsh’s but may be much-needed reinforcement for those still struggling with sentimental clutter. Of course, as an extreme minimalist, Sasaki pushes beyond Kondo’s advice when, in his “15 more tips,” he  suggests “Discard it even if it sparks joy” (Sasaki, 2017, p. 145). However, like most contemporary minimalists, and despite his own extremes, Sasaki emphasizes that everyone must understand their own motives for wanting to declutter, and that every minimalist’s minimalism looks different. Very true. Because as much as I hate clutter, I’ve got a closet full of Faire and steampunk costumes that aren’t going into a donation pile anytime soon.

Related Posts:

Minimalism is Not Necessarily…

Magical Thinking and Material Goods

The Magic of Possessions

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Minimalism: Where It’s Been, Where It’s Going

kongobujiBack in 2008 I began writing occasional posts about minimalism. I wrote about why I don’t like television, even though I’m a media scholar (or maybe that’s why); about the emotional strain of going through my very non-minimalist mother’s possessions after her death; about objects  and ownership in terms of magical thinking; and about the relationship between photographs and fear of ephemerality. Then in my early 40s, I explained why I found extreme minimalism  — often touted, it seemed to me, by young men and women in their 20s  — problematic (my post pissed off ex-minimalist blogger Everett Bogue) and listed my own moderate “rules for stuff“. I also pointed out that minimalism isn’t necessarily all those great things that minimalist bloggers like to tell you it is.

I haven’t blogged much about minimalism lately, in part because one of my own minimalist choices has been to avoid blogging if I have nothing significant to say. However, recently I’ve been thinking about how the minimalist lifestyle movement has changed in the last seven years and what its future might be, and I’d like to offer my reflections to others for consideration.

I believe the minimalist lifestyle movement has matured quite a bit since the ’08s, in part because those early, extremist minimalist bloggers have either moved on or mellowed out, and in part because a greater diversity of voices have joined the discussion — people of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, and marital and parental statuses are now blogging about their experiences (Miss Minimalist’s Real Life Minimalists feature is a good way to get to know some of them). I remember when Joshua Becker and Leo Babauta seemed to be the only minimalist parents who were blogging — and not surprisingly, both were moderate voices among the extremist majority. Now most minimalist bloggers happily acknowledge that there’s no one-size-fits-all minimalism. Lifestyle choices that work well for young, single professionals, such as digital nomadism, tiny houses, and bare rooms, may not seem as attractive when spouses, children, and/or dependent parents enter the equation. Moreover, extreme minimalism doesn’t work well for certain jobs, hobbies, or choices; for example, art, sewing, canning/preserving, home-schooling, and the like all require a fair amount of paraphernalia, even though those pursuing them may still be minimalists in all other respects. (The book Essentialism reminded us of the importance of organizing and streamlining one’s activities to achieve one’s goals and offered a useful term, “essentialism,” that sidesteps some of the “stuff” baggage tied up in “minimalism.”)

Over the years, the minimalist lifestyle blogosphere has also engaged in healthy self-reflection, some of it occurring early but more kick-started by Everett Bogue’s infamous 2011 “Fuck Minimalism” post. Various writers, minimalist or not, have noted that obsessing about stuff is in itself a form of materialism, and that minimalism may be counterproductive for the creative. Some minimalists have realized that discarding objects that don’t “spark joy” is problematic if they discard so much that they don’t have what they need anymore — for example, it’s not cheap to replace an entire wardrobe. Other critics have suggested that minimalism is a bourgeois perspective promoted by several powerful corporations  or pointed out what appears to be a class/wealth bias among minimalists. Numerous minimalists have reflected on these criticisms, some objecting to the characterizations and others cautiously agreeing that adopting a minimalist lifestyle implies the choice to not adopt that lifestyle, a choice denied to the poor. We are seeing the movement catch on in different countries and hearing more about downsizing/rightsizing as Baby Boomers enter retirement and begin to shed their possessions — which, it seems, their kids don’t want.

The beginning of the (neo)minimalist lifestyle movement is often pegged to the Great Recession of 2008; that’s certainly, from what I’ve seen, when it really took off as a lifestyle choice in the blogosphere. Now that the recession is over (or so I hear from the news), will the minimalist movement wane? Is the move toward moderation correlated with the gradual easing of the recession?

Despite the fact that this year Millennials (now 18-34) overtook Baby Boomers as the U.S.’s largest living generation, they are still underemployed and saddled with more debt, much of it education-related. That ought to pose some challenges for advertisers; they will want Millennial dollars, especially as Millennials enter the family-building, house-buying ages, but they may find that Millennials don’t have the dollars to spend. Those Millennials who do, though, will need to brace for the upcoming onslaught of messages aimed at them and at their children. Minimalism may be hard to sustain under those circumstances.

On the other hand, Baby Boomers (now 51-69) are entering retirement, most of them with nothing near adequate savings to maintain the lifestyles to which they’ve become accustomed. This suggests first, that they will no longer be attractive to advertisers (which is why I think the advertising shift will move to Millennials), and second, that they may become minimalists whether they like it or not … leading us back to that issue of minimalism vs. poverty. They may find minimalist writings useful, but those minimalist bloggers who are still relatively young might need to take into account the fact that the elderly may have physical limitations and health conditions that preclude extremely Spartan living conditions (climbing up a ladder to a bunk bed in a tiny house, for example, might be impossible).

And then we have Gen Z (now 0-20), which grew up with the Great Recession and has internalized economic uncertainty. Will this generation embrace minimalism as one strategy for ensuring financial safety? Possibly. The oldest are only now starting to enter the workplace, so we’ll have to see what happens, but I’d guess that many may swing toward their own version of extreme minimalism, just as a number of Millennials did at that age.

The minimalist lifestyle movement isn’t going to die out  — there have always been people who’ve chosen to be minimalists  — but I believe we may see fewer Millennials espousing it as they enter their thirties and forties, traditionally ages of accumulation. Those who blog about minimalism might want to more proactively address both Baby Boomer and Gen Z readers, two demographics that will soon be looking for help dealing with their differing, but equally challenging, financial prospects.

(….And in the meantime, we skeptical, self-reliant Gen X’ers [now 34-54] will make do, as always, kthxbai).

Photo Credit: Bell tower of Kongobuji, Japan, by Dru Pagliassotti

Cheating on My Love Affair with Minimalism

horribleAt a convention recently another writer raised an eyebrow at my steampunkery  and asked, “Do you have a whole closet full of costumes?” I stammered a little and then reluctantly confessed to having made a couple of incompatible lifestyle choices.

You see, for all my years of pursuing minimalism, there’s one part of my life that remains less than minimal — my “special events” wardrobe.

Day-to-day, you’ll find me in jeans, black v-neck tee, and boots. That’s my Uniform, plus a blazer when I’m teaching or a flannel shirt around friends and family. I have a handful of blazers, flannels, and boots, so it’s not utterly boring, but it’s certainly limited and doesn’t take up much closet space.

But then if you go to, ahem, the other side of the wardrobe, all of the sudden you’ll be confronted by cloaks, vests, corsets, overcoats, ascots, gloves, belts, hats, goggles, masks, replica weaponry, and the velvet doctoral robes that get yanked out twice a year for the university’s opening convocation and  commencement ceremony.

Sometimes I fantasize about getting rid of it all — usually around the time I’m packing to go to a con! — but….

Not yet.  :-)

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.

 

Minimalism Maintenance

essentialismNature abhors a vacuum, and so do friends — ever since renting a large house with a housemate, it seems that more and more of our friends’ odd pieces of furniture and glassware have taken up “temporary” residence here. So much, in fact, that I’ve created a list of “stuff to give back” that I’ll be checking when I finally move out. (As an Air Force brat and longtime apartment dweller, my assumption is always that I’ll be moving each year! It’s a pleasant surprise if I don’t.)

Minimalism certainly requires maintenance. I’ve been practicing it for over 15 years, and if I didn’t carry out periodic purges to stem the clutter creep, I’d still be overwhelmed. It’s amazing how much Stuff (including digital files and time commitments) accumulates, even when you are consciously doing your best to keep life simple.

One of my maintenance practices is to read books and blogs about minimalism, simple living, and the like. They seldom have much to teach me — after 15 years, I know how the process works — but they do offer affirmation that I’m not the only person who’s making unconventional choices in an effort to keep out excess, since none of my friends and colleagues share this particular mindset with me.

One book I’ve recently read and appreciated is Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. I prefer his term “essentialism” to “minimalism” because it better captures my perspective on the practice — that is, it’s not a matter of having or doing less, necessarily; it’s a matter of having or doing enough and no more to pursue your goals. This typically means paring down your belongings, sure — clutter causes all kinds of time wastage — but it also means paring down other distractions, too; voluntarily narrowing your choices and focusing only on those activities that will get you where you want to be. McKeown’s book is, in fact, more about essentialism of effort than essentialism of stuff, which makes it stand out from so many of the other minimalism books I’ve read, which usually focus on Stuff and only later address Effort.

Again, it’s not that McKeown’s book offers much that’s new to those who are already practicing minimalism, but it addresses the issue from a slightly different perspective — it’s primarily about the importance of asserting control over your life choices, work routines, and leadership decisions — and of course it affirms that it’s not crazy to voluntarily eliminate things from your life that most people consider necessary, if doing so helps you focus on what you’ve chosen as your life’s priority.

If you’re a minimalist, or considering it, or if you’re a creative struggling to find time for your passion, I’d recommend reading McKeown’s book. Essentialism isn’t easy, and it does require constant maintenance, but in the 15 years that I’ve been honing my practice — whether under the name of voluntary simplicity, downsizing, minimalism, or essentialism — I’ve found that I’ve never regretted the effort. …For one thing, those books lined up on your right would never have been written without it!

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!

An Edited Life

For some time I’ve been editing old status updates and other people’s comments off my Facebook wall, on the theory that most of them are meaningless after a few days or weeks … and because I’m uneasy about the fact that all that data is being preserved and mined by marketers to refine their consumer profiles. As a minimalist, do I really want to contribute to their cause? Absolutely not.

I do want to communicate to friends, family, and the occasional digital passer-by who may visit this blog.  But I don’t want to make it easy for data-miners to use my information.  So this is my compromise: editing out old posts. After all, is anyone really going to go back to read my “Happy New Year” post from January 1, 2007? I don’t think so. Off it goes, along with well over 200 other trivial updates and comments I’ve posted over the last four years. My goal will be to preserve posts that offer information or thoughts that may, possibly, have enduring interest to readers and to get rid of the rest … just as I edit my writing, my possessions, my activities, and my social network accounts.

Cheers!

 

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

Minimalism vs. Survivalism

I’m 43; I’ve been practicing voluntary simplicity for over a decade and currently practice non-extreme minimalism. But I’m also a professor, which means everything is subject to critical analysis and questioning … including the things I believe in. Which leads to this post….

Is U.S.-style minimalism well-adapted to the Great Recession?

It sounds like a strange question, since many minimalists talk about the ways in which their lifestyle keeps them frugal, mobile, and adaptable. Certainly those are all desirable traits during an economic downturn. But…

Most U.S.-style minimalists keep nothing but that which they use or love, and extreme minimalists want to pare their possessions down to what can fit into the trunk of a car or a backpack. The minimalist lifestyle is predicated on avoiding the accumulation of excess; it’s a lifestyle based on just-in-time delivery rather than redundancy and stockpiling. (Note: I’m using “U.S.-style” to characterize the messages of the best-known minimalist bloggers right now, most of whom are U.S. citizens; some are “rational” and some are “extreme,” but none are survivalists.)

Survivalists and homesteaders, on the other hand, accumulate everything they might need to live off the grid and prefer plenty of backup and redundancy. Generators, food supplies, extra freezers, emergency kits, gardening/farming tools, canning/preserving equipment, camping gear, hunting supplies, homeschooling supplies — survivalists store whatever they think will get them through a long-term emergency situation in which they can no longer rely on government to provide basic services. True, extreme minimalist survivalists may need little more than a knife and their foraging skills to get by, but that’s more a case of short-term personal survival rather than long-term rebuilding-after-the-crash survival.

So, is the minimalist or the survivalist better-suited to life at a time when towns are closing down public libraries; shortening school weeks, curtailing public transportation services, reducing or outsourcing police services, and turning off streetlights? If that sounds fanciful, read Friday’s article in the New York Times, “Governments Go to Extremes as the Downturn Wears On” or the Wall Street Journal’s article “Cities Rent Police, Janitors to Save Cash. Minimalists often argue that they don’t need to own certain things (e.g., books, cars) because they can find alternatives in the public sphere … but what happens when those public services are cut back due to lack of funds?

I’ve thought about the minimalism vs. survivalism question a bit myself. When I critiqued extreme minimalism, I pointed out that emergency items like fire extinguishers, medical kits, snow chains, and earthquake survival kits were seldom listed in extreme minimalists’ possessions, yet they can make the difference between life and death when they’re needed. And I think about it whenever I hear about another public library closing down, since I visit my own library several times a week. I thought about it when I read The Things That Keep Us Here by Carla Buckley, a novel about an H1N5 pandemic and a family trapped in its suburban house as society collapses. And I thought about it again yesterday, when my grocery store’s credit/debit-processing computers went down and I had to wait for them to be fixed before I could buy food.

What if? What if the electricity were out for several days or more? Access to the web and to digital telephone services would be lost once batteries died and couldn’t be recharged; ATMs wouldn’t function; debit and credit cards wouldn’t run, schools and businesses would close, and suddenly not having a stockpile of candles or firewood, matches, canned or preserved food that can be eaten cold, and other supplies would make a big difference. What if the water supplies were cut off? What if an earthquake or flood cut off the main roads, stopping deliveries of food and other goods? Or the price of gasoline just got so high that business began to stop deliveries themselves, deciding only to pursue sales in the most profitable regions of the country? Or a serious flu outbreak hit us, the way it did in 1918, and the public infrastructure quietly collapses as a third of the population falls ill?

Miss Minimalist argued that in a serious emergency situation, she’d have to strap on a backpack and get out of Dodge. Are most minimalists in this position?

I enjoy the minimalist lifestyle, but I think the question of whether one can be a typical U.S.-style minimalist and still be prepared for an emergency — or just for further cutbacks in social services — is worth discussion. What is a minimalist’s greatest priority? Owning less … or surviving an emergency? Can we do both? How?

Photo Credit: Old Desert Farmhouse by royalshot.

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?