A minimalist lifestyle does not make you a better person

A minimalist lifestyle can have many legitimate motivations. Sanctimonious anti-consumerism isn't one of these, nor is saving money. A laptop computer with a sizeable hard drive replaced my desktop computer, all my DVDs, all my CDs, all my books and (given a scanner too) all my paperwork. This isn't a "simpler lifestyle" in the sense that a laptop computer is simpler or cheaper than a book. In fact I still have all my DVDs and CDs in storage, in case I need to rip them all over again. Paring down all of one's clothes to point where they all fit on one clothing rail is good, but the reason it's good is not that an excess of clothes tarnishes the soul. It shouldn't be conspicuous and self-congratulatory. A minimalist lifestyle does not make you a better person.

But it may make you happier. It is not a weight off my soul, but it is a weight off my mind not to have too much to worry about.

I have very little storage space, so, the less stuff I have, the more room I have for myself.

I can't stand clutter, so the less stuff I have, the more space there is on the table for works-in-progress, and the easier it is to clear it entirely in preparation for a meal.

I get bored after staying in one place for too long. The less stuff I have, the easier it is to move. Not actually owning the house is also a big factor in that. I enjoy mobility.

I get irritable when my lifestyle has redundancy. I only really need two kitchen knives, why have seven? I only want to watch the movie, why buy the copy with the magic-draining "The Making Of" features? "I don't use this. Someone else could." "I never wear that. Someone else could." (Aside: Perl's motto is "There's More Than One Way To Do It". It's stupid. When you have to refactor a piece of code that somebody else wrote, they could have done anything and you have to be able to recognise everything they could have done. I prefer there to be one way; the right way. There is one Phillips screwdriver in my house.)

I like being able to find stuff. It's easier to organise a small amount of stuff. It's easier to find a specific thing when there's only one place it could be.

And the other thing is that, if I was held at knifepoint and told to decide, I'd be forced to admit that there are relatively few things in my life that (1) I'm sentimental about and (2) can't be digitised. I do go through old photographs and think "That was a cool time, that was a cool day with those people I know and love". But old clothes are just old clothes. Trinkets are just trinkets. The few concrete objects that I do love - mostly from prehistory, i.e. before 2000 - all fit in one big grey plastic crate, alongside the other nine under my bed which contain my stored DVDs, CDs and books. Maybe I'm broken in some way, or I've just grown up a child of the internet and electronic things are all that I really value, but a physical memento of that event doesn't pin me to it any more strongly, because what I really treasure is the memory of those events, and I have blog entries and photo galleries and video recordings which can just as easily trigger those memories, even after I've forgotten them myself.

In fact a physical object, to me, is a liability. Something physical can be broken or lost or burned down. Something electronic can be duplicated and backed up on multiple continents. It's a weight off my mind. I don't have to worry. If my house was burning down, and I could go and rescue one thing, I might not bother.

It is not possible, nor is it desirable, to own nothing. In fact, a point comes when not owning critical stuff (a bed, a toilet, a room) starts becoming stressful again, in a whole different way from "too much stuff" stress. "Simplicity" is a relative term, and perhaps inapt; try "convenience", which has more useful connotations. Fitting my life into a small number of boxes tucked under my bed makes me happy. Fretting over the precise enumeration of the items in those boxes would completely defeat the object of the exercise.

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Discussion (32)

2010-08-18 22:16:08 by Sam:

As a complete derail, I'm curious as to what title people would use for this article. Originally it was simply (and appropriately) titled "Minimalism" but I decided to go with one of the punchier assertions from the early paragraphs. I was tempted, however, to use the "burning house" line instead. What do you think?

2010-08-18 23:08:08 by sarra:

I'd stick with it, since it roused in me thoughts on what really irritates me about minimalist cults!

Some minimalist blogs are gear-obsessed. Okay, you need good tools in order to attain good function, but the point at which the amount of time/thought/money (YMMV) put into finding The One Perfect Do-All Tool outweighs the actual time you could've been doing other things *well* with just a couple more tools destroys minimalism. Maybe I've got a skewed definition of minimalist.

What I'm thinking is similar to your point - part of me is rather Buddhist and understands the idea of attaching yourself neither to stuff nor pride. Past a point, which for me is pretty low, feeling happy about paring down your toolkit (or your digital photos, or your cutlery, etc) is pure self-indulgence, and it's really quite unpleasant.

I used to like Unclutterer, the site - now I can't help but see it through this lens. Awful. Anyway, time to let this one go, too.

PS got an error when posting (Can't have 'CDATA' at byte 1) using Basic mode - trying again with no HTML parser and no em tag in par 2

2010-08-18 23:10:37 by sarra:

I also apply this heuristic to writing. It doesn't come out in my waffly internet comments, but I hold my head in my hands when writers can be so obsessed with their own minimalist journey that the actual act of packing and paring becomes more important than the *message*. Good writing is clear. If you want to communicate a message to other human beings who aren't going to spend six hours with your paragraphs you need to make compromises.

</barely relevant soapbox>

2010-08-19 06:04:39 by Cal:

Wall of text incoming.

Hey Sam; long time reader, first time poster.

I was having a (drunken) conversation with my friend the a few days back about much less junk we own than our parents and something you said struck a chord with me:

"Maybe I'm broken in some way, or I've just grown up a child of the internet and electronic things are all that I really value, but a physical memento of that event doesn't pin me to it any more strongly, because what I really treasure is the memory of those events, and I have blog entries and photo galleries and video recordings which can just as easily trigger those memories, even after I've forgotten them myself."

It's amazing how wide this generational chasm really is. I'm 21 and have grown up around computers all my life - certainly fitting the description "child of the internet". My parents and their friends and coworkers are somewhere between 40 and 50 and don't really understand computers nor the internet enough to be able to shed certain material objects like we can.

When I first left for college, the dorm building I was sent to was overbooked, (They do this on purpose so that when kids drop out in the first few weeks they can reassign rooms without having to move much and so they can claim that they have guaranteed housing for incoming students.) so they set me up in a study lounge with 3 other guys. We didn't have much room for any stuff, so I brought clothes, one poster, and my computer. It turned out they overbooked the dorm really hard and I was in that tiny study lounge with the others for about 2 months, and I learned a lot about living with nothing on my own.

When the first of us moved out of that room, my parents thought it was strange for me to not want to bring in more stuff. They didn't realize all that a computer can do. My machine was my internet browser, TV, stack of DVDs, photo albums, video rental store, video game station, newspaper, word processor, stack of novels, mailbox, instant messenger, and far, far more as I'm sure you are well aware. Just by using this powerful tool I cut all of these down to the size of my desktop.

Like you said, having all of these (especially in a small space) can be a liability when I can just have two or 3 copies of each just lying around in hard drives. Even after I moved out of that study lounge I didn't take much more with me from home. If I'm never going to use it again or look at it again, then why do I need it with me? If I deem it relevant I can likely stuff it into my computer somehow, but if not then I might as well leave that space for something useful.

So what we're really getting at here isn't so much keeping a lack of things as it is keeping a lack of physical things for convenience. People from our generation understand how to move objects from one category into the next, and manipulate the data once it is in the computer. I guess this is where the whole "child of the internet" comes in. I was always poking around my old PC jr. and the Apple ][s at school (even when I had yet to learn to spell on my own), and still today my mother uses "askjeeves.com" on IE6, plays advertisement games on facebook, and needs someone to help her navigate folders.

So what's the lesson at the end of the day? I'm not really sure. One obvious answer would be "computers make your life easier", but I think it's even more interesting as to how the generation gap breaks up the population and what we should take from that, a topic I don't even know where to begin with.

tl;dr People don't get computers and computers do sweet things.

Sorry if this seemed a little jumbled, I'm kind of just spewing it all out. As a short aside, is it really true that you have only one screwdriver? I would guess that you have at least 5 if you own a set of hobby screwdrivers for really small screws.

2010-08-19 06:39:06 by Ross:

I agree with the title of this page.

I do not agree with the subthesis being presented: that physical objects are largely useless.

You fellas find it incredibly liberating to reduce your physical objects, up to a point, and to multiply your digital objects without bound. Many, many people, and I don't just mean older folks like me, find that TERRIFYING. "Everything is virtual" is not an inherently virtuous statement.

It is not an inherently evil statement either. I'm just invoking the different strokes clause here.

Certainly, you can do an awful lot with a computer. And maybe a scanned photo can evoke memories for you as well as a physical object. But I find that the more stuff I scan and rip and turn into bits, the easier it is to forget I ever had it at all.

I recently came across a CD of interactive fiction games I had downloaded about six years ago. I had completely forgotten I'd ever played them! I'd forgotten about how much I enjoyed some of them, how much I hated others. Yes, the memory came back pretty rapidly once I examined the bits ... but out of sight, out of mind. You cannot keep terabytes in sight at all times. The fact that they are searchable does not mean they will be accessed frequently enough to justify keeping them.

I have three tall bookshelves in my basement overstuffed with books. I visit my bookshelf pretty frequently; I pass it on the way to the laundry room. There isn't a week when I don't pick out an old book I've read years ago, bring it upstairs and reread it with pure enjoyment.

I also have a folder with thousands upon thousands of ebooks downloaded from, ahem, certain newsgroups. I haven't read most of them and I doubt I ever will. Perusing the directories is FUCKING TEDIOUS and not enjoyable at all. I have slowly started bringing them into Calibre, concentrating on those I know I enjoy, but when I'm done, so what? They'll be easily searchable but will I remember I have them?

As they say, I'm just sayin'. This digital divide you perceive yourselves to be on the "future" side of, may not be as clearcut as you think. It may even swing back. My father could memorize baseball statistics and recite them on command. My older brothers collected baseball cards. I could care less about baseball, and my younger nephew loves fantasy baseball leagues. Things change, but the change is hardly unidirectional.

2010-08-20 05:39:10 by Kochier:

Well I was inspired by one of your earlier posts regarding the subject to buy a new cell phone, that combined my camera, video recorder, music player, and of course phone all in one, and it was a great feeling getting rid of all the stuff I don't need.

I'm the same way in that I have most of my physical possessions in bins, all my childhood stuff I don't care too much about, but in the same vein won't get rid of. If someone came and stole them away I wouldn't really flinch, the main reason I keep them is for my future children, some junk they would love to have ( I hope anyway).

I'm not as big on mobility as you, I'm happy to be owning a house, though I suppose I'm trying for a different lifestyle, I'm still very mobile, it wouldn't be hard to pack, but I want a home base. Right now there are three things I would run into my burning house for, and that's my wife, my pets, and my external hard drive (in order of importance). I am trying to move my whole hard drive online as well, so I will have 3 back-ups and not even need to worry about the external drive.

I would never get rid of my books though, and that is my biggest downfall, I have way too many books. I tried to digitize them, but I would have to buy them all over again and that's not worth it.

2010-08-21 10:35:53 by sarra:

Here's something thst brought me back to this:


And I've just realised, from that last point: maybe the minimalist cult, or at least one important subset of it, is actually a form of that cult which makes me queasy - productivity. Read faster, clear your inbox, how to sift through all your 000s of blog posts every day, do more, do more, do more. It's an endless driving for *completeness* (doneness), and it's futile. There is no completeness.

The guy who scanned his birthday cards and shredded them without looking - well, as someone said above, data is out of sight out of mind. I'd put a small amount of money on the probability that he's not going to experience those birthday cards at all. Which is okay - but don't load them into a myth of perpetuity Just In Case.

My basic feeling is that the striving for finishedness misses what I see as the point of minimalism altogether - to appreciate what you have, or what you're experiencing *right now*. (I have to be evenhanded, though, and say that at least it is certainly possible to perform endless minimalism-chasing tasks with your heart and attention fully in it.)

2010-08-28 20:49:43 by Watcher:

Absolutely irrelevant, but I would appreciate it if done: Google Reader supports favicons, your's does not seem to load.

2010-08-29 21:23:54 by jonas:

I envy you. I store lots of useless junk (I call it "treasure"), some of which I never find any use to but still won't throw away. What takes most space is the lots of books, my lecture notes, and the comfy armchair, but there's lots of other really useless stuff in boxes such as my collection of empty Tic Tac boxes. I couldn't move easily.

2010-09-02 09:36:25 by OvermindDL:

His favicon is absolutely correct according to the HTML standard, he has this in his page:
<link rel="shortcut icon" href="http://qntm.org/page/favicon.ico" />
Now, Google Reader is known to be broken in that regard as it does not follow the standard and only tried to load it from http://qntm.org/favicon.ico, so he could fix it by making a symlink to that or so, but there might be a better RSS-ish method that would be more correct though.

2010-09-07 18:03:08 by Novodantis:

Minimalism can take electronic forms as well; it's not just a reduction of clutter from the physical. If anything the virtual world mirrors the real. I find I'm fairly austre in either case (in fact, I'm probably unusual in that virtual clutter seems to trouble me more. My PC is normally cleaner than my apartment). I like only having a few things to focus on, because I can focus on them more. It's just that like anything when it goes too far/becomes cult; it's all about following trends that make no sense.

I would agree on the house mobility point; I'm sick of hearing how renting is dead money. I pay for a up-and-go mobility, that's all.

2010-09-14 09:28:53 by DDR:

To some degree, having one screwdriver is nice.
It's just that I often have different screws I need to tighten.

I prefer to have hard copy of important stuff, because I am not at the mercies of corrupted data... or forgotten data. While having 10k picts of your vacation is all well and nice, your kids just aren't going to care. At all. Picture a couple dozen terabytes of data, labeled 'grandfather.zip'. How well will our grandkids take care of this massive, and mostly pointless, heirloom? Will they be able to _open_ their heirloom? If you are anything like me, you have stuff scattered around your folders in an occasionally haphazard fashion. What seems obvious to me, is, after a month, sheer confusion. I don't think heirloom data will age well at all. A nice picture album, all hard-copy cloth and plastic, will sit much nicer on a shelf - it will get opened, the old 2D pictures wondered over, and a few stories will be told. (and lots of 'I have no freaking clue who this guy is.')

In regards to the photos on the internet, there is no guarantee the sites will care to continue to host them. It's not somewhere I'd care to keep important memories. I am 19 years, and I am, too, a 'child of the internet'. I've still got all my crap hanging around, but I don't look at it very often. It is, for all intents and purposes, not experienced. Some of this, like programs from elementary school, are electronic in nature and _have_ to be stored this way, and that's all good. Others, like pictures, I find work best if they're printed out and stored as images on my hard drive. I both have the physical object, and I have the infinite backup. (Wall-mart has a nice digital photo printing option somewhere in it's website, very handy.)

My father has some files I'm at a loss as how to open, and he has had to pull programs out of our floppy diskette archive to open them. I would never guess which DOS program opens which files, and so - the data is lost to me. Although we have standards now, like jpeg = photos, there are tens of thousands of more obscure formats for data - and probably hundreds of overlaps in extension. I expect, in a hundred years, or in 50, we may have come up with something which renders .jpeg photos obsolete. My children, can open them. My grandkids - not enough interest to research it, download the software, and actually look through the files. I'm *gone*.

Bah. I worry about this digital obsolescence thing too much.
Thanks for bearing with me,

2010-09-14 13:09:25 by Sam:

Obsolescence is not limited to digital files. If the original program which opens a file is lost, that's like losing the player for some obscure form of record or some of the pieces that go with an old chessboard. Real stuff decays over time, images fade, articles of clothing and toys degrade in condition to the point where they're too fragile to touch - hence, useless for anything but just keeping and not touching.

Additionally, keeping your heirlooms in a digital form is a relatively new concept. If an old floppy disk has to be dug out just to make sense of the file that can't be read, then maybe the real problem is that the floppy disk should have been archived too. People will get better at this and file formats will become more standardised. And files can be shifted between formats if one becomes obsolete.

2010-10-07 14:01:01 by ticktock:

the problem i see is when this is taken to an extreme and your house is burning and you can save one thing but you probably won't bother and your significant other is inside, or are they inside? Most likely they never existed for you and you are alone. :(

2010-10-07 15:34:07 by KellySutton:

Nailed it.

2010-10-07 16:09:31 by mrpsbrk:

Man, "own" is a tricky word. Our idea of "owning" is very much culturally determined. A few days ago i would think that to be over-analysis, but i just read the first chapter of David Graeber's "Possibilities" (it is a stand-alone article, maybe it is available from somewhere else...) and it really blown my mind...

2010-10-07 16:17:07 by phomer:

You don't find happiness by owning more stuff, just more work. I often think that people become obsessed by acquiring more and doing more, in order to escape from the drudgery of their lives. If you keep running forward you don't have to worry about where you've been or what it means. We seem to live in a "don't think about it, just find more distractions" culture.


2010-10-07 17:44:28 by drea:

any form of extreme-ism is too tiring and tedious to make it worth the effort. those who strive for the extreme of ANYTHING are doing it in an attempt to find something at all to cling to in the world, something solid, something to control. just like those who practice anorexia or cutting or smoking cigarettes or 'religion'. legalism is an attempt to escape the chaos of the world. and we're all guilty of it to a certain extent.

2010-10-07 19:03:34 by kbob:

You need three Phillips screwdrivers because Phillips screws come in three sizes. When you use the wrong size driver, you damage the screw and the driver tip. The three sizes are called #1, #2, and #3, profoundly enough. #2 is the most common outside of electronics, so that's probably what you have.

(Do I win the irrelevance award?)

2010-10-07 20:04:31 by Arvin:


Please email me at tips at lifehacker dot com. We're interested in republishing your article.



2010-10-15 18:15:06 by PaulSilver:

What is really essential?
This is a wonderful personal exercise for managing things and finances and relationships.

2010-10-15 19:07:47 by EllisBenus:

I'm not going to lie. This article junk punched me in my man business...

2010-10-15 22:58:48 by rageface:

The implication here, that *other* minimalists are in it for reasons not up to snuff, that they're all sanctimonious and in it for looking good or feeling superior, makes YOU a smug asshole. And anti-consumerism and saving money are both completely valid reasons to make a life change, including minimalism.
As an aside, I'm sorry you suck at perl. Your analogy with screwdrivers is poor, because perl is much more like a swiss army knife, and it's focus is ease of use -- if you have to spend some time rewriting shitty code, I'm sorry. But that's not language-specific.

also, your comment form silently fails without a name field? losing my entry in the process? Maybe you should spend some more time coding before attacking languages.

2010-10-15 23:01:57 by Sam:

Actually I deleted your earlier "test" comment. Tidiness, you know.

Minimalism, anti-consumerism and cost-saving are orthogonal life goals. They coincide up to a point, but become mutually exclusive after a certain point. Some forms of minimalism are very expensive.

2010-10-16 20:55:23 by Cal:

Hah, I just got linked here from lifehacker. Congrats on hitting it big time.

2010-10-17 16:29:48 by jjunior:


2010-10-17 20:31:39 by ragefaceagain:

*actually*, the comment I was referring to which was silently dropped was identical to the one I did post. The test comment was narrowing down what, precisely, was preventing me from commenting.
it should return an error, not just reload the comment page with no data.

2010-10-17 20:32:33 by ragefaceagain:

but, you know, don't let that stop you from continuing to be a smug asshole. tidiness, you know.

2010-10-17 20:37:10 by Sam:

Well, if you can reproduce the bug, let me know exactly what you typed in and I'll be happy to fix it.

2010-10-18 02:27:49 by MohanArun:

Regarding your statement:"It is not possible, nor is it desirable, to own nothing. In fact, a point comes when not owning critical stuff (a bed, a toilet, a room) starts becoming stressful again".

I think you are confusing minimalism with 'self-denial'. By all means, own/use stuff you need, want, like and fancy owning (in that order) if you can afford it. But you dont need (or it doesnt strike my personal fancy) to buy a fancy decorated plate that hangs on the wall, occupies space and has no functional value (except possibly artistic/aesthetic value but I am not a big fan of that as imho investing in art isa waste of money). That money is better spent saving for your Roomba or Scooba. (functional value, not aesthetic value). Again different people have different tastes. If aesthetics, paintings, drawings and wall art forms interest you, by all means, buy them if you can afford to spend for them. But that doesnt mean you got to get into debt to buy them (Americans file the highest number of bankruptcies on earth). Why get into debt when you know you cant afford to repay the debt? If your income is low, spend only on essentials and consumables, not on things like art. That is like, basic money management skills.

Most people also confuse austerity with minimalism. Consumerism (materialism) is better than austerity. But just because I am pro-consumerist I dont buy crap. I enjoy owning things that matter to me, yet I consider myself a minimalist (I own only ~3 sets of pants but I splurged on a 500 GB external portable hard drive and a laser printer recently). If you think it will make you happy and make a difference in your life, by all means, buy and enjoy it, if you can afford to spend money on it.

I first saw this post on lifehacker, and with all the clutter there, i found it difficult to read. But when I clicked through and reached your page, the post was much more readable and easier on the eyes because your blog is uncluttered (one aspect of minimalism). So 'uncluttered functional minimalism' (your blog's presentation) is better than the 'cluttered materialism' that is lifehacker's way of presenting stories. I wont fault them, they have a large audience to cater for. And with a large audience comes a number of UI expectations they need to cater to.

2010-12-11 19:09:22 by Exile:

Everything ends, even immaterial things. The key isn't to make everything last, which is futile, but to accept change, which is inevitable. Any purity of action is only considered pure because we consider it pure. In exposing the ism in minimalism, you've exposed the ism of your own thought, as well.

2011-06-01 15:45:24 by Miles:

The post above has hit the nail on the head for me - The amount of times recently I've found new ideas, and decided that following them will make me happy, including minimalism...

I have to say however that deciding on stuff to get rid of has made me aware of how much perceived value I've placed on things. I can remember when I didn't care about things, and placed value on experiences without realizing it, but at some point I decided to become more materialistic.

Thinking about it, there is nothing particularly wrong with getting things that don't provide a clear value to your life, as long as you are aware of exactly what value they bring to your life. I think keeping the items you own down to a minimum helps with this awareness, as well as making it less stressful to find things and keep things, and also helps you live more in the moment as letting go of things helps you to accept change.

Sorry this post is a bit jumbled. I'll end this by agreeing that an extreme of anything is a bad thing, material or immaterial, and the only thing we truly own in this life is our own experiences and possessions are just part of that experience, whether they make us happy with our relationship with the objects, whether the objects simply provide a link to a past memory, or they help clutter the place up and make our lives somewhat more stressful.