Many more people believe in minimalism than practice it. They want to get rid of things but fail at it. I’ve gotten decent at it and found three things work best.
First, some context to understand why people fail. The best first step for solving a challenging problem is nearly always awareness.
Context: why people fail to get rid of things
When people think about getting rid of things, even if they have a sincere desire to, they get hit with a powerful emotional barrier, usually anxiety bordering on fear based on the potential loss.
When considering getting rid of something they think “Minimalism is better than having too much stuff. Getting rid of X will free my budget, schedule, and so on.” Sounds great.
When it comes to getting rid of the thing, their thoughts change to “Hmm… before getting rid of this, could I use it sometime in the future?” This question becomes their main and often only criterion for getting rid of things: could they use it sometime in the future.
Of course they can. They didn’t expect this question when they planned to get rid of the thing so they didn’t create response. They don’t ask out loud so they don’t challenge it. They change their plan and they end up keeping their thing.
Repeat for everything they have and you have someone who believes in minimalism but practices maximalism. Sad and pathetic, but incredibly common.
To understand this mental pattern in greater depth, read my series “Empathy Gaps — one of the most insidious barriers to getting hard things done and how to overcome it.”
Trick 1: Think of what you gain, not what you lose
Read my post on my getting rid of my wall of books. After growing up valuing books and holding on to mine for decades or so, I got rid of hundreds of them and learned to think of getting rid of material possessions as gaining freedom not losing the object.
My mental models for getting rid of things is
Getting rid of something gives me freedom.
I’m not losing something, I’m gaining freedom.
Material stuff weighs me down.
I value few things more than freedom so this belief makes getting rid of things a lot easier.
For books, clothes, and other usable things, I also don’t think about throwing them out. I give them to charity or library and think
I’m putting it into circulation.
Thinking of someone else gaining instead of me contributing to a landfill helps me get rid of things. With some things I even feel compelled not just to give them away at all but to give them away quickly.
Trick 2: Ask “Will I miss it?”, not “Could I use it if I kept it?”
The mental chatter of “Hmm… before getting rid of this, could I use it sometime in the future?” will kill your motivation every time if you let it. You can always think of how you might use something later. If you don’t change this counterproductive mental chatter, this question will crush all your plans to simplify your life with thoughts of “Well, maybe one day I could use this thing for some remotely possible purpose. I’d better keep it just in case,” and you won’t be able to get rid of a paper clip.
I’ve written at length of how to overcome counterproductive mental chatter. The upshot here is not to try to stop the old question, but to crowd it out with more productive mental chatter. Instead of “could I use it if I kept it?”, think
Will I miss this if it’s gone?
Think of a book you could get rid of, even something as useful as a dictionary. If you ask yourself if you could use it one day, of course you can. Even if your phone, computer, tablet, and ereader all have dictionaries, you might still think, “Well, one day the power might be out and I might really need to look something up.” A moment’s discussion with anyone else who also values minimalism would override that thought, but mental chatter doesn’t work that way. Instead you put the book back on the shelf and think, “Great, I have a resource I could use some day,” not realizing you undermined your original goal. Let you’ll feel frustrated at your inability to change your life, not realizing how decisions that seem tiny and inconsequential in the moment add up to powerful feelings of powerlessness.
If instead you imagine yourself without a dictionary needing one, would your life fall apart? Another way of asking this question is
Would I buy this if I didn’t have it?
Imagine you didn’t have a dictionary. Would you buy a new one? Not likely. Internet access gives you access to plenty. Even if you were in a bookstore looking at dictionaries and could have used one earlier that day, you probably wouldn’t consider buying one or even taking a free one home. That tells you getting rid of this one won’t leave you in the lurch. Meanwhile, you’ll be feeling more free without the material object taking up space and causing you stress.
Trick 3: Practice (start small and build)
If you can’t get rid of everything you want, get rid of some things. Feel the reward of the freedom it gives you. Notice how you don’t miss it. Now move to bigger things.
The most effective way to solve a complex problem is to solve a simpler problem, develop the skills, and then apply them to the complex problem. You’ll probably find that with the new skills, the once-complex problem will seem simple.
Learning behavior through experience will trump trying to learn without experience.
A friend and his girlfriend decided they wanted to get rid of most of their stuff. Instead of trying to do it all at once, they made a joint project to get rid of three things each per day. I’m sure they’ll start with the easy things like broken pens. After a while, I bet they’ll feel they can’t wait to get rid of big things like televisions and cable contracts.
My brother-in-law read my post on getting rid of books and decided to get rid of his pile of science fiction books he knew he’d never re-read. That relatively small act led to him reviewing his overall life perspective on material stuff, looking to create more freedom by getting rid of more of it all the time. Also the next, effective step of avoiding acquiring it in the first place.
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