Minimalism and Essentialism are two philosophies that have become vital components of my personal and professional life. In this blog, I share how the habits I’ve built around them have had an impact on my life personally and professionally.
Let’s start by identifying that Minimalism and Essentialism are not the same things, but they do share many intrinsic qualities, Minimalism relates to the things we own, our possessions and the value we attach to them. Essentialism relates to the things we do and the importance they have in our life.
The theme of this blog is, taking action to pare down your life. I’ve come to believe it’s important to get rid of all that extra stuff, so we own only the things we love and need, and do (for the most part) only the things that are essential to our purpose, passion and well being.
When we focus on Minimalism and Essentialism, we are more likely to follow our passions and align with our personal and professional purposes. As we reclaim our health and well-being, we evolve as happy individuals.
The goals are to reclaim control over our time, reduce stress, live in the moment, follow our purpose, maintain health, have a sense of true freedom, and not worry about what we can’t control. At least, that’s what happened to me.
My Journey to Minimalism & Essentialism
Where did this all start
While I was growing up my father was a minimalist. Of course, I didn’t know that was a “thing” back then. My dad fought against materialism and always wanted to provide us with experiences rather than toys and extra clothes.
Although I never really paid much attention to it at the time, his philosophy planted the seed in me.
Years later, my wife, two daughters, and I had to pack up our entire lives and move to New York. A few years later, we had to do it all over again and move back to Vancouver. Towards the end of our time on the East Coast, we floated somewhat like gypsies around Manhattan and Connecticut, in and out of Airbnbs, hotels and friends’ apartments. We’d temporarily whittled our stuff down to three carry-on duffle bags, a backpack, purse and diaper bag!
Some four months later, when we finally settled back into a two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver, a moving company dumped a few pallets worth of our things smack in the middle of our living room. There, piled high across the hardwood floor, we were reintroduced to all our stuff.
We’d adapted to living with just a few items of clothing and essential personal items; we’d almost forgotten we owned this much stuff,` and now we didn’t know what do with it all!
Looking at the 90+ stuffed animals we had, endless pictures, decorations and clothing we didn’t wear, we realized that much of what we owned we did not need and certainly did not love.
The Magic of Tidying Up
In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing author, Marie Kondo says, “Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle.”
“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life. But when you really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”
So, throughout the next two years, we sold or gave away things we didn’t need or love. Items that spoke to our hearts, we thought were beautiful, genuinely sentimental or important, stayed; the rest went.
Things we weren’t sure about, we set aside. If after six months to a year we hadn’t missed them, they were given away.
Clothing, at least for me, became a capsule-like collection of essential items I wore daily, augmented by fashion items I loved.
Although our children have small toys and a favourite “stuffy,” they don’t have a ton of playthings. During our American adventure, my wife took the girls to museums, parks, craft stores and just explored the city instead of hanging around the house.
“The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and failed to teach us the happiness of not having things.“
Does minimalism mean that I have to get rid of everything?
Absolutely not. As the Minimalists themselves make clear on their iconic blog:
“That doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with owning material possessions. Today’s problem seems to be the meaning we assign to our stuff: we tend to give too much meaning to our things, often forsaking our health, our relationships, our passions, our personal growth, and our desire to contribute beyond ourselves… ”
It’s true. Studies have found we tend to value things we already own as higher than their actual worth. This is called the Sunk Cost Bias.
Further, you don’t have to be a vagabond family to live a minimalist lifestyle.
The Minimalists Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus say,
“There are plenty of successful minimalists who lead appreciably different lives. Our friend Leo Babauta has a wife and six children. Joshua Becker has a career he enjoys, a family he loves, and a house and a car in suburbia. Conversely, Colin Wright owns 51 things and travels all over the world, and Tammy Strobel and her husband live in a “tiny house”• and are completely car-free. Even though each of these people is different, they all share two things in common: they are minimalists, and minimalism has allowed them to pursue purpose-driven lives.”
We’re a family of four and, if you entered our apartment today, you’d see that we don’t eat on the floor and take turns sitting on one chair. We have things. But we just have what we need and what we love.
For us, a beautiful simplicity followed the unburdening of our life, and we are living more lightly.
Living By Design
There is a German saying, “Weniger Aber Besser” which means less but better. Not less for the sake of less—which I find is one of the common criticisms of Minimalism.
But it’s a functional way to live—especially as the cost of living is going up and people are being forced to down-size.
Did you know that the average home size in countries such as China, Japan, UK, Spain, France and Germany is between 500 and 1200 sq ft? That’s just about half what we’re used to in North America. Yet, almost 10% of Canadians and Americans still rent storage units for all the stuff they can’t fit in their house and will probably never use again.
And when I say “we,” I mean myself included. Our move to New York and back to Vancouver took us from a 10×10 storage unit to a 4×8 and eventually to a 3×6 that we share with my father. Although we still have stuff in there, we’re nearly cleared out completely. I haven’t looked inside the unit for over two years, and I couldn’t even tell you what is in there, so I obviously don’t need it!
Just as there is physical stuff in our lives, there is also non-physical stuff crammed into our lives. This ranges from taking on too many projects at work to being on many boards and committees, taking part in too many extracurricular activities, and engaging in too many distractions with Social Media and smartphones.
Just as consumerism has made it hard to say no to owning things, filling the spiritual abyss or the need to feel important has made it hard to say “no” to things that take up our most valuable resource: time.
To borrow a quote from Greg Mckeown’s Essentialism,
“What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead, we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives. What if the world shifted from the undisciplined pursuit of more to disciplined pursuit of less, only better”
Imagine if we took some of that time and invested it back into our relationships, children, true passions, a specific work project and our well-being?
If we’ve embraced Minimalism, we’ve pared down the things we own to only what we need and love. Now, let’s get to the essence of doing only what we need and love as well.
Trade-Offs & Saying No
I’d love to do a podcast; the reason I don’t is that I don’t have time. The trade-off is that I do this blog—posting about once per month. Doesn’t this blog still take time, you ask? Yes, but I dedicate my airplane-travel time, and the time I wait in airports, or quiet evenings when the family is in bed to blog writing. I found a formula that works for me.
The belief that “I have to” or “I can do both” is a dangerous one. It draws us into situations that burden us with so many things that we feel we can’t do any of them well. In life, we need to make trade-offs.
Real trade-offs are not easy decisions to make, but they are critical to doing what is essential. The way you make a trade-off is by saying “No” to something. At first, saying “No” will feel awkward and you’ll likely worry people will become upset with you or think less of you because you’re no longer their go-to “Yes” person. But let’s be clear, you’re not saying “No” because you’re trying to do less for the sake of less, you’re focused on less but better.
Speaking of trade-offs, Greg Mckeown would say that consistently saying “No” gracefully to things that aren’t essential will be a trade of popularity for respect.
Additionally, once you’ve stopped piling your plate so high with things to do, you’ll find the space to think, to listen and to just “be.” This is where you can excel at what you really want to do.
“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”
What’s Important in Essentialism
The wisest investment of your time is the investment that will have the highest value of the contribution to your work and to your life.
Everything else is non-essential.
Get out a piece of paper and write down all the things you’re doing in your life from extra extracurricular activities, to work projects, committees, networking events, social functions and even what you’re doing for your children. Are you investing in the activities and actions that are truly essential to your personal and professional goals?
Stuck staring at a page of too many items? Think of it as the pile of stuff that sat in our living room when we moved. If you’re unsure about something, instead of keeping it to determine if you like doing it, stop doing it and see if you miss it.
For instance, I value, time to think, time to read, time to exercise, time to be with my loved ones, and time meditate. Yet, I’m a hard working entrepreneur. Is that a contradiction?
No. I’ve seen the direct return on investment in the work that I do when I choose to focus on balancing my life with everything that is important to me.
Of course, we all don’t have the same work schedules or personal situations, so we need to create a system that works for us. Whether that is our morning routine or if we work from home or bike to work—it’s really anything that specifically speaks to you.
It’s a work in progress
This past year, as I transitioned from my first company to a second startup and I truly wish I had taken a moment to pause in between. It’s not that I regret starting a new company, not at all, but it’s rare when we have a chance to pause, reflect and re-align on our careers.
As such, the overlapping roles made for an onerous situation and I had to make the trade-off. I stepped away from the board and advisory positions to be truly effective at the essential work I was committed to. This was hard as I love to be part of a team doing important work and giving back to the community.
Also, I learned to monitor distractions. I took a break from social media. I even took a different approach to my relationship with the daily news and for the most part, stopped reading it.
An Interesting Story on Distractions From the “Daily Stoic”
Ryan Holiday writes “An actual New Yorker headline from last week: “How Should We Think About Kanye West’s Tweets?” It’s an easy answer: Nothing. We should think nothing about them because they do not matter at all.
C’mon, people. There are things to care about, and there are things that don’t need to be cared about. The deliberately provocative—or possibly insane—nonsense tweets of a musician gearing up for an album launch? Nothing to care about there
The next time you see a headline asking “What should we think about _____?” or “What’s wrong with _______?” or “What’s the right take on _____?” don’t waste your time on it. Do nothing. Nothing. The purpose of this kind of “news” isn’t to inform you; it’s to waste your time. Remember Epictetus: “If you wish to improve, be content to be seen as ignorant on certain matters.” Or better yet, “If you wish to get things done, to be happy, think deeply, and study philosophy, then don’t have an opinion about nonsense. Just ignore it.”
Ryan’s opinion may be on the extreme side, but he’s making a strong statement about Essentialism when it comes to the content we consume online each and every day.
There are so many great tips, lessons and ideas on how to achieve Minimalism and Essentialism in your life. I’m still learning and growing into this process; I think it’s a lifelong journey of mindfulness. The first step is the hardest—the decision to make radical changes in your life and then to actually make them. There is no special code or rule; each journey is unique to the individual. Over time, the subsequent steps become easier and more rewarding. Taking these steps means that we actually leave less of a footprint on the planet so I encourage you to start today by answering this question: What can you do without?
If you have thoughts about implementing Minimalism and Essentialism into your life, I recommend checking out these other great resources.
Here are some great references:
- Leo Babauta’s Description of Minimalism
- Joshua Becker’s Benefits of Minimalism
- Courtney Carver’s 25 Reasons You Might Be a Minimalist
- Colin Wright’s Minimalism Explained
- Sam Altman’s Productivity
Thanks for Reading, be well!