This is the long-overdue, final installment of a three-part series on minimalism.
Part 1 discussed our efforts to go paperless and embrace technology. Since that post, we’ve also pushed to replace physical media (e.g., books, movies, music, even software such as video games) with their electronic counterparts. Like books, movies, and music, video games can now be downloaded and run directly from a console, making discs all but obsolete. Of course, there are downsides to electronic media. First, the price is often fixed and set by the retailer/publisher, whereas physical media is often sold at discount. Also, you cannot re-sell electronic media without violating a host of copyright/anti-piracy laws. But it’s worth it to us to reduce clutter — we’ve only ever re-sold media to get rid of it from our home. Plus, higher prices will discourage us from purchasing media unless we really, really want it.
Part 2 discussed our efforts to streamline our financial life both in terms of the process and the number of accounts. Going paperless helped us get a better handle on our finances as we can access key statements and tax documents from anywhere. We no longer have to have paper in front of us. Even though our taxes became 1000x more complicated this year, we were able to handle them with little fuss as all of our information was readily accessible to us and we had a handle on our finances through adherence to our system.
I believe there are three primary ways to minimize one’s life:
- Avoiding information overload
- Automating/optimizing tasks
De-cluttering is eliminating unnecessary things to focus on what is essential and/or important. That’s the takeaway from the post on going paperless. Going paperless is just one example. We thought long and hard about everything we owned before deciding whether to keep it. When we moved in together, we got rid of a car (and corresponding expenses for gas, maintenance, insurance associated with the second car). I’ve pared down my wardrobe significantly. Why keep that awkward fitting shirt that I rarely wear? Why keep the underwear that always rides up? How many plates/bowls/cups/utensils/cookie cutters do we really need? Getting rid of what’s not needed leaves more space for things that do matter. Learning not to acquire such things will ultimately save a lot of money. Why do grown-ups need to spend $1000 a year on clothing? That money can be spent on better things.
De-cluttering goes beyond things. It also extends to relationships and time. My inner circle is very small and I purposefully keep it that way. I devote a significant amount of time and energy to my inner circle. I don’t allow myself to feel beholden to anyone outside of my inner circle. Even though I might consider some of these folks to be good friends, I don’t have the mental bandwidth to remember their birthdays, send holiday cards, etc. When I got married, we kept the invite list very small (just over 10 people) and hoped that we laid enough groundwork with those were who not invited so they did not feel offended. In that case, we simply did not want to have a big and expensive wedding. De-cluttering relationships might be difficult for really sociable people and it might depend on your personality type, but it is an option worth considering.
I also de-clutter my time. Instead of focusing on a gazillion different things, I focus on a few. Staying in shape is important to me. Because it’s one of a handful of priorities, I can allocate enough time to it. Another way I de-clutter my time is to avoid time sinks. I intentionally have a short commute so I don’t waste my time getting to and from work. One of my co-workers has a 2 hour commute each way to work. That means they spend 1,000 hours a year getting to and from work. That’s equivalent to 40 days or 6 weeks of commuting! Even half of that seems insane! A lot of people do this so they can live in the city or have a bigger house, but it just doesn’t seem worth it!
Avoiding information overload
The next minimalism concept is avoiding information overload. These days we’re inundated with information from TV to social media to advertising. We try our best to tune all of this out. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter. I don’t feel the need to show off to people I barely know and am even less interested in having others show off to me. We do not have cable or satellite TV. As such, we are able to avoid commercials, political campaign ads, TV shows that are actually ads, reality TV, morning talk shows, and other IQ lowering drivel. We watch what we want on Netflix and borrow the rest from the library when it eventually comes out on DVD.
If you’re still with me, we’re almost there. The last, and perhaps most difficult, concept is creating systems to automate the annoying small tasks that we all have to handle. This takes some creativity and will vary depending on your responsibilities. An example is how we handle our finances. I created a system where there are only a few affirmative tasks we need to perform to keep the system running. Every two weeks, I manually transfer a portion of each paycheck into a tax holding account. When I do this I also make sure (1) we got paid (2) we have enough left over so we don’t overdraft when our automatic investments/payments kick in and (3) we have enough set aside to pay our estimated taxes. Each month, I tally our net worth and expenses. When I do this I make sure our spending is in check and our asset allocation is not out of whack. Then once a year in April I prepare our taxes and schedule our estimated tax payments. Finally, once a year in January I contribute to our IRA and HSA accounts. That’s basically it. Imagine if I had to pay bills by writing checks and going to the post office. Or balance a checkbook. I automate all of that, which in the end, simply saves me time and my sanity.
The concept of automating tasks can be applied to other areas too. When I was growing up, our neighbor was always slaving away in his yard on the weekend. His yard was very pretty. But instead of maintaining a thirsty lawn, what I would have done is lay down some astroturf and save myself hours of watering/mowing/fertilizing/trimming/weeding, etc. Or perhaps I would opt out of the stereotypical lawn-look and plant some local plants that do not require year-round watering and fertilizing.
The close relative of automation is being able to kill several birds with one stone. This is a great time saver. We like to make dumplings, chili, casseroles, etc. in large quantities so we have several meals prepared at once. When we go to the gym, we do compound exercises (e.g., deadlifts, squats, bench press, pull ups, etc.) because these movements take more energy and work out more muscles than isolation exercises like calf raises. Instead of running on a treadmill for 30 minutes, we do a few minutes of high intensity interval exercises because they are simply more effective for weight loss and muscle gain. These are but a few examples. I highly encourage everyone to take a closer look at your own lives and habits and determine where you can cut back or optimize.
* * *
Pursuing minimalism is an ongoing, iterative activity. Don’t be intimidated to take the first step, especially if your house looks like the picture above. You will not regret it. Once you’ve gotten past the first round, you find that you are motivated to keep refining until you have a clean, well-oiled lifestyle that runs on its own. In the end, what you gain is worth so much more than what you’ve gotten rid of. You gain time to spend on your hobbies and relationships and money for your financial security. Good luck!