Keeping things in perspective: why my minimalism has limits

DSCF4038aI’m currently doing a free online course in happiness. It’s really good (not nearly as ‘out there’ as it sounds), and I’ll probably write a post on it soon. But today I’m going to focus on one thing it taught, which really stayed with me. It’s the folly of something called ‘medium maximisation’.

A medium, in this context, is essentially a tool we use to get something we want or need. Money is the classic example. It’s of no use on its own, but you trade it to get stuff or services you would like. The trouble is, people get fixated on the money, and forget why they wanted it in the first place – to work less, to live in a nicer area, to be happier. They work more, accrue more just for its own sake, and end up miserable. Medium maximisation is this tendency to focus on the medium instead of the outcome you’re after.

There are other examples. Take status. Why do people want it? They want to be respected, admired. They want what they say and do to matter to other people, they want to have an impact on the world. But some end up tailoring what they say and do, simply to gain people’s approval. Others pursue positions of power and start abusing them. Or they work so hard, they lose touch with the very people they wanted to impress. They may build up status, but respect and admiration? Maybe not.

So when you have a goal, it’s important to remind yourself occasionally why you’re working towards it. I think it’s the same with minimalism. Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists once said you could easily get rid of all your stuff tomorrow, but still be miserable. Minimalism is only a tool you can use to improve your life. It isn’t the improvement in itself.

When I think about why minimalism first appealed to me, a few things come to mind.

I liked the idea of not having to tidy, clean, maintain and organise my stuff as often as I was doing. I liked the idea of spending less time looking for lost belongings. I liked the idea of needing less space for my stuff, giving me the freedom to up sticks and move, or go travelling, more easily. I liked the idea of freeing up my time and money so I could try interesting experiences and socialise more with family and friends. I particularly liked the idea of buying fewer things so I could pay off my debts instead.

Essentially, I wanted to be happier, to see and do interesting things, and to spend more time with those I care about.

The trouble is, if you start trying to dramatically cut down the number of things you own, you can get carried away with pursuing minimalism for its own sake. Yes, there’s plenty of junk you find it easy to ditch at first. Then you find yourself wondering if you can bin old letters from friends, because the drawer would look so much emptier without them.

But what would the point of this be? If I’m trying to spend more time building strong relationships with the people I care about, what purpose would it serve to throw away the nice handwritten letters from grandma? They’re not exactly taking up space, or weighing me down emotionally.

That’s why I think I’ll only take the minimalism so far. I’m not sure an empty drawer will make me happier than a drawer full of memories. And happiness is the goal. Minimalism is only one way of getting there.

9 thoughts on “Keeping things in perspective: why my minimalism has limits

  1. LR says:

    I have just started reading your blog and find it similar to my own feelings and issues. In response to your post I have had similar experiences regarding when enough is enough with minimalism. I remember someone posting on another blog that each person’s minimalism looks different – so true! One thing I have discovered is feeling based goal setting. If you determine basically how you want to FEEL rather than what you think you should have or be or aspire to it can help guide your intentions and help you to make decisions that correspond to those intentions. Then you can ask yourself, ” Is this going to help me feel how I want to feel?” The answer will make your decision clear. I must credit this idea appropriately – Danielle LaPorte’s Desire Map. Like minimalism I’ve taken the best parts of her ideas that work for me. Great blog, I will be back for more.

    1. Béatrice says:

      This is so helpful! I would even take a tiny bit further and formulate the question as: “Is this thing/activity/goal putting me emotionally in balance or off balance? “. I often hear that the decisive factor for an object to be kept or not is if it brings you happiness. This is helpful to some extent but not always. For exemple, one can have a surge of happiness for a new pair of trousers but feel totally overwhelmed when coming home and finding no space in the closet to put them! I will also check out Danielle LaPorte.

  2. Danni says:

    This post really resonates for me. When setting goals, it’s vital to figure the why of the goal. The parable of the Mexican fisherman ( illustrates the same concept so well. As I was being pushed into a management position at work, I kept thinking about this story and finally realised that the promotion would eventually have the opposite results to what I really wanted.

  3. This is one of the things I keep having to explain to people: minimalism is about what works best for you. I roll my eyes at people who say their goal is to old own an arbitrary number of things. If you feel the need to get rid of clothes you never wear but can’t bear to part with books, and the books aren’t posing a fire hazard or stacked in a way that they’ll fall over and trap you, keep your books! If I only have thing on a countertop, and they one thing is consistently in my way and the only time I touch it is to move it, it’s too much and needs to go! It’s about needs and objectives, not being more minimalist-than-thou.

  4. Grace says:

    Marie Kondo has written a book called the “life changing magic of tidying up”. A quick read to teach basic organization etc. she also teaches how to purge, on of her tips is to only keep items that bring you joy.

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