The benefits of minimalism and where to start
Amid my depressive episodes, it feels like I’ve lost the instruction manual to life. When the black smog descends, it can be impossible to see meaning and purpose in anything, even things we love. That’s when hopelessness can set in, as we’re overwhelmed by so many ideas and such an inability to make sense of them. And, in my experience, hopelessness is the most dangerous state I’ve encountered.
During my mental breakdown, I often complained that I had lost myself. I didn’t know who I was, or what I was supposed to be doing. I had so many dreams and ambitions, but could not put them in a coherent order. This was immensely frustrating. However, through regular therapy, I learned that I did know myself after all. I knew myself more than most people, and the frustration arose from suppressing the real me in order to conform with societal expectations.
I spent many years pretending to be somebody else. Drinking alcohol. Dressing to impress at football matches. Preserving the classic image of a council estate upbringing, although I loved reading and writing and American sports. This eventually corrupted my soul, and simply cutting out the pretence had an instant positive impact in my mood. Such brutal self-analysis was my first step to recovery.
Cultivating your true identity, your true principles and your true worldview will help you make sense of our existence. Adhering to some code of practice, belonging to some underlining philosophy, will give you more purpose. It will add value to your life. In stark terms, it will create another reason for you to keep going, another weapon against the onset of hopelessness.
For some people, religion provides that structure. Others find meaning in football, meditation or music. For me, minimalism had a major impact in ordering my priorities and enabling me to live a more meaningful life.
Rather than explaining what minimalism is, I will first explain what it is not. Minimalism is not simply getting rid of your possessions for the sake of it. Minimalism is not living a nudist life in the Amazonian jungle. Minimalism is not insisting that everything must be white, black or silver.
So, what is it, then?
Minimalism is a tool that shows us how to remove all the excess noise, clutter and stuff from our lives. Not for the sake of doing so. Not in some random decluttering vacuum. We remove these things to streamline our existence, quieten our minds, consolidate our responsibilities and make room for things that actually enrich our lives.
I discovered minimalism by accident while researching self-help techniques. I stumbled upon theminimalists.com, the brainchild of Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, two friends who adopted the ideology after becoming disillusioned with their existence.
The Minimalists both had six-figure salaries working in corporate America. They had luxury cars and fancy job titles. They had large houses and expensive wardrobes. They had all the must-have trinkets and trappings of modern affluence. But they were also miserable. They also suffered from depression and stress. They also worked too much and neglected their closest relationships. They were also crippled by debt, both financial and spiritual, obeying the so-called American Dream but losing their own sense of direction.
Then they made a change. They embraced minimalism, removing all of the items and possessions and relationships anchoring them to that grim nadir. They started a website, wrote about their experiences, and eventually added videos, films, podcasts and books to the repertoire. They pursued their mission, helping millions of people in the process.
I would strongly recommend that you spend an hour navigating their website or listening to their podcasts. When I was totally adrift in those stormy seas, reading and hearing their wisdom helped me a lot. Sure, we still need large helpings of luck and love to make this all worthwhile, and there is sadly no formula for that, but minimalism fuels hope and hope makes opportunity.
So, where should you start? Minimalism can be applied to every aspect of your life – possessions, spending, career, diet, relationships, interior designs. Anything and everything. How far you choose to go in applying minimalism is a matter of preference. If, like me, you suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, I would be particularly careful of taking minimalism too far. Try not to let this take over your life, because then any positive effects will be cancelled out. Take small steps. Don’t rush. If this scares you, try something else. There is no pressure here.
Minimalism: Where to Start
Grab a piece of paper. Find a pen. Write down the name of every single person with whom you communicate regularly. Close family, extended family, work colleagues, friends, loved ones, the owner of the corner shop. Everybody who is connected to you, no matter how tenuously.
Once you have this list, assign to each name a number: one, two or three, depending on the closeness of that relationship. One will be the closest bracket; three will contain your most peripheral connections.
After completing that task, assign to each name one of the following labels: positive, negative or neutral, depending on how this relationship impacts your life, specifically your mood.
You should look to immediately end any relationships that fall within the negative impact category, starting with those people closest to you – i.e those with a number one beside their name. These people are a drain on your most vital commodities: time, space, clarity of thought and sanity.
This may be a difficult process, but be strong. The rewards – in terms of freeing the real you - will be worth it.
By the same token, you should dedicate more time, love and care to those relationships within the closest bracket that have a positive impact on your life and mood. These people bring out the best in you and they have your best interest at heart. They are your most important relationships, and your time is better spent maintaining them than chasing the negative or the peripheral.
Finally, within the neutral category, divide those relationships you would like to develop into the positive bracket from those you are totally indifferent towards. This will effectively expand the positive and negative categories, providing a more streamlined outlook.
Review your relationships regularly and be brutal in dissociating with those people who are negative and unreciprocating.
Look after yourself and the people who truly matter.
2. DeclutterThis is the classic association of minimalism that most people have: throwing stuff away. But there is far more underpinning this concept, and it can have far more benefits than a simple obtaining of clarity
Check through all of your possessions, large or small. From the car on your driveway to the broken electric razor that has been stashed in a drawer unused for two years. When checking each item, apply some kind of rule to your decision-making.
The Minimalists, Joshua and Ryan, used The 30 Day Rule – if they had not used something for thirty days, and did not plan to use it in the next thirty, they got rid of it.
Personally, I found this to be a little extreme, but that is a matter of preference and how far you wish to take your brand of minimalism. Other popular decluttering rules include getting rid of anything that does not add value or joy to your life.
Find a rule that works for you, depending on what you want to achieve. Then sort through your items, noticing the lifting of pressure from your mind as you go.
There are ways to make money from decluttering. Selling old books on Amazon, for instance, or listing old clothes on Depop. I tried this with certain items, but I also donated things to local charities. This was instantly rewarding not only for me, in the clarity that I found, but also for those receiving the items.
One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure. I will never forget the gratitude shown towards me by a homeless man to whom I gave a winter coat on the steps of Charles Thompson’s mission in Birkenhead. The coat had been unworn for three or four years, left in a cupboard. The man was delighted because it had a hood. This perspective is humbling and enriching.
Some minimalists will abandon their mobile phone entirely. This has always appealed to me, but it has never been practical from a professional standpoint. However, we can all take steps to salvage our time – and our minds – from the grips of social media and other distractions dressed as aids.
Start by reviewing your notification settings. Perhaps turn off instant notifications that appear on your lock screen. Perhaps turn off the sound of all notifications, so you are not disturbed by pinging and ringing every couple of minutes. Perhaps turn off notifications altogether.
Then, it is time to cut down the number of apps that you have downloaded. Again, apply the same decluttering rule that works for you. Maybe if you haven’t used an app this week, and you are unlikely to use it next week, delete it. The new Battery Usage feature within your iPhone settings is particularly useful in this endeavour, presenting some startling statistics as to our time wasted scrolling numbly.
Creating a healthier relationship with social media will be covered in depth elsewhere on this website, but regular reviews of your usage are always beneficial. As a good first step, try to leave just one or two social media apps on your phone. For me, Instagram and Snapchat were particularly enjoyable. Accordingly, I left these apps on my phone but only used the desktop versions of Twitter and Facebook. In effect, this eliminated a daily compulsion to pick up my phone and procrastinate. It minimised my wasted time, which could be spent in more meaningful areas.
Try to get down to one page of apps on your phone, if possible. Keep cutting and pruning as your usage habits change. Soon enough, your phone will be a useful tool, not a constant distraction.
A general rule: email inboxes are accurate indicators of our daily chaos. We receive so much spam and spiel, marketing jargon and useless deals. Sifting through all the email crap is a concise – if slightly overwrought – metaphor for life. We need to reclaim our inboxes, if we are to have nimble autonomy over our plans. Organisation is king.
So, take a couple of hours to plough through those five hundred emails. Unsubscribe from all marketing lists. Yes, even the custom advent calendar distributors you unwittingly signed up for while shopping frantically. Everything. You don’t need this stuff. If you really need to buy something, youwill find it, rather than being provoked into snatching a ‘bargain.’
You should also set up folders within your inbox for things like finances, family planning, essential documents, receipts and any specific projects you are involved in. You can even consider creating Outlook rules that dump emails from certain addresses directly into these folders, providing automated organisation that will reduce your stress levels.
Protect your inbox. Block spam and organise correspondence. A tidy inbox makes for effective reviewing and planning, essential ingredients to progress.
The Internet is littered with self-help articles about goal-setting and future-planning. Again, there are different schools of thought as to the benefits and drawbacks of thinking in a goal-oriented manner. Obsessively planning has been a real problem for me at various points, creating dark frustration when I don’t perform well against the arbitrary, self-implemented timeframes. This is something I have to manage constantly.
Therefore, when I refer to goals in this sense, I really mean analysing who you truly are. Strip away the pretence. Get rid of the imaginary. Dig beneath the usual thought pathways that have congealed over time. What makes you tick? What makes you happy? What are you passionate about?
Make a list of these things.
Then, make another list of the things that occupy your time on a typical day. Everything from showering in the morning and spending eight hours at work to eating dinner and walking the dog.
Do you spend a lot of time doing things that you aren’t passionate about? Do you waste time on projects and engagements that aren’t the real you? Do you pretend and stall and plod along and settle for second best?
Define what you want to achieve in life – really and truly – and try your very best to pursue that mission. There may be anchors such as money, status and identity holding you back, but try to think differently.
Think for yourself, not for everybody else.