Minimalism has not caused enlightenment, only mild annoyance

This year, with the exception of children’s toys which seem to proliferate wherever we go (in this case to thanks to decluttering friends), we are living the minimalist life.  Why?  We’re going back to our fully stocked home in less than a year and don’t want to spend extra money on things we don’t need.  We make do.

We have settled down to having exactly what we need and pretty much no more.  What a simple life we are living.  How fortunate we must be.  To cut down to the bare necessities.  Unencumbered by the clutter of daily living in our 2 bedroom, 1200 sq ft apartment.  I could totally start a minimalist blog.

We only have one big pot and one small pot.  We have one big bowl, which means that sometimes the small pot gets repurposed as a mixing bowl for dry ingredients.   We spend a lot of time washing things for immediate use.  Or sometimes we just don’t make the thing because we don’t feel like cooking *and* washing right away.  I’m sure if I were a minimalist blogger, I would write something about how this makes me more mindful and in tune with the rhythms of something or other.  Immediacy.  Sadly, as an economist, my thoughts instead flow to the inefficiencies of being unable to exploit economies of scale.

It is a lie that minimalism saves time.  It is true that having too much disorganized stuff takes time.  But having “just enough” stuff also takes excess time.  Sure it is easy to find our one big pot– it is probably in the refrigerator full of last night’s dinner.  But having to repackage the food and wash the pot before cooking takes time.  And then the repackaging will eventually have to be washed.  One big pot is enough, but it is certainly not time-saving.  Minimalism takes time.

We could, of course, just not cook the second thing until we’ve finished whatever is in the pot.  But again, that does not improve our quality of life, even if it may be ideal from a minimalist perspective. We like a little variety.  The stuff in the pot will get eaten, but not exclusively for several meals in a row.

Minimalism means not having extra.  Not having extra results in sore feet if you don’t replace your shoes quickly enough. It causes you to wear damp clothing when the laundry didn’t completely dry. Or a kid to sleep on an uncovered mattress after an accident. Minimalism requires the kind of time and flexibility that only minimalism bloggers have, because that’s, you know, their job.

While it is great to be mindful about purchases and possessions, cutting down to the minimum is unnecessary.

I suspect most people have an ideal amount of stuff, and when stuff gets cut below that amount, they go on shopping sprees. So yeah, don’t buy stuff you don’t need, get rid of stuff you don’t use, but it is ridiculous to conform to some arbitrary standard that makes your life harder instead of easier.

49 Responses to “Minimalism has not caused enlightenment, only mild annoyance”

  1. simplelivingconnect Says:

    Ultimately it’s about enhancing quality of life. If not, reexamine what you are doing.

  2. Leah Says:

    ^—– This. Minimalism is so not me.

  3. hollyatclubthrifty Says:

    I definitely think there’s a point where minimalism becomes absurd. I also think some minimalists get addicted to the idea of minimalism so much that they no longer care how it affects their everyday lives. I consider myself a minimalist, but my kids pretty much ruined the idea of minimalism in this home for the time being.

  4. Parker Says:

    I think minimalism is enjoying the simple things in life, its not about the things you own but more on how you see life with a simple perspective.

  5. Leslie McKendry-Smith Says:

    I think you misunderstand minimalism. It isn’t about having “just enough.” It’s about having the right amount. That amount varies from person to person and family to family.

    Clearly, you need another bowl (or two) and another pot (or two). Don’t feel guilty about it. It’s just what you need. What other people need doesn’t enter into it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Why on earth would I feel guilty?

      Minimalism isn’t some kind of monolith that you hold the definition of. The most vocal members of the movement preach more than just mindfulness, they preach, you know, minimalism.

      (Note this article is all about mindfulness being good.)

  6. Debbie M Says:

    This line made me laugh: “Sure it is easy to find our one big pot– it is probably in the refrigerator full of last night’s dinner.” I’m sorry I laughed at your pain, but I’m laughing with you, not at you.

    Part of me wants to argue that you don’t, in fact, have “enough” stuff for your current lifestyle. You need two big pots for home cooking your meals yet not eating the same thing every day. (Also, don’t you need one for the pasta and another for the sauce?) But then a part of me remembers how *luxurious* it felt to get scissors in every room. So that implies that having extras is a luxury.

    I like minimalism (in other people) for helping me notice areas where I can cut back and to get ideas on how to do that. For helping me figure out, now that I have enough, how much is just right. For example, I now know that one (small) drawer full of knee socks is enough for me to have a clean pair of an appropriate color every day but not so much that I can’t easily find them. I love, love, love having this amount of socks.

    My main problem with minimalism is how much faster things wear out when you have barely enough. I’m hoping I can get to the next smaller size, where I belong, before wearing out this current batch of clothes. I barely made it to this size in time after deciding not to buy more clothes in my previous size!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We have a big pan for sauce. We have a bunch of pans (from decluttering friends).

      If I am misunderstanding minimalism then so are all the blogs that I read. Who holds this definition anyway? Not Wikipedia, I checked. It just directs you to simple living.

  7. CG Says:

    I appreciate your sharing your experience with real-world minimalism. I got into a slightly testy exchange about this topic on facebook a couple of weeks ago with someone I didn’t know (which I admit is weird and I let it go fairly quickly after realizing the other person took it very personally). The person on facebook assured me that everyone would feel better with less stuff. My biggest issue with the minimalist movement is that it fetishizes absence and austerity, but it misses the forest for the trees. If you have so much stuff that managing it is taking up all your time, or causing you to think that you need a bigger house when you really don’t, or just bothering you in some way, then yes, it’s a problem FOR YOU and some streamlining is probably in order. If the amount of stuff you have (even if it’s a lot) brings you pleasure, and doesn’t get in your way, and you can afford it, it’s not a problem FOR YOU and you probably don’t need to feel bad about however much stuff you have. Having stuff, in itself, is neither a problem nor a moral failing, and I think in some cases the idea of minimalism creates a problem (feeling bad about your possessions) where none previously existed.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      YES. This post is really a reaction to that last, creation of problems where none existed.

      • CG Says:

        I was thinking of the problem being that you feel guilty or bad, but you point out that there are also practical problems like having to wear damp clothes!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I should emphasize that we’re not being minimalist right now because we think it’s a magic bullet that’s going to somehow improve our lives, but because we’re living in a small duplex for a year and will be going back to all our stuff next summer. We’re more accidental minimalists.

        But we’re living this life that we see other people trying to get to because they’re sure it will solve all sorts of problems. Well, we’re at that ideal. It’s not all that.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Re: a minimalist life that people may aspire to: People who are having emotional problems dealing with life as it is often try to change the externalities first. It is a lot easier to say “I will be happy if I just don’t have so much stuff” than to sit down and do the long-term mental & emotional work on the whole vast issue.

        Minimalism and decluttering have been a thing for a few years, and got a boost with Marie Kondo recently, but IMO it’s like a juice cleanse for your house. A few people will actually use it to get healthier in their relationship with stuff, most people will just use it as the latest fad approach to redecorating.

        As to N&M – I’d say the level of minimalism involved with the year away from home is too much, simply because you’re discontented. It shows in your writing. Even though you are going back to the big house in less than a year, I personally would spend the money to get enough “extra” stuff that you are not feeling hassled or frustrated or inefficient all the time. :-)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        In the writing of this particular post (which is actually the expansion of a comment elsewhere), or in general?

        If it’s in general, I wouldn’t make too much of it. We’ve both been pretty busy so a lot of stuff is coming out of drafts, and the drafts are a bit more negative on average than our regular cheerfulness (otherwise they’d have posted already, which is ironic given the blog title).

        And don’t worry about the amount of stuff we have– the amazon wishlist has many things on it that will probably start coming to our house two days after black Friday. Minimalism enlightenment is a point in time thing.

      • chacha1 Says:

        In general, but particularly in replies to comments, there’s been a wee flavor of crankiness. :-) You are supposed to be enjoying a year in paradise! Yay for Black Friday incoming. I plan to do a little therapy shopping myself.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That’s probably also a function of being busy.

      • xykademiqz Says:

        Even though you are going back to the big house in less than a year…
        I chuckled at this one (The Big House). N&M, how do you look in stripes?

    • Rosa Says:

      Not everyone will do better with less stuff, but I do think it’s really common for people to have a level of stuff that they find just fine in ideal conditions, but it’s actually taking so much time/energy to manage that when anything else goes wrong – mental health, aging, a health crisis, whatever – it becomes unmanageable and is a problem. Keeping under that level instead of at it is important.That’s equally true for intangible things like time commitments too, but those are usually easier to stop in a crisis and go back to when things are better. Clutter can turn into filth or disrepair really fast during a crisis.

      It’s really obvous with older people, but I have several friends who monitor the messiness/clutteredness of their lives because things starting to slip is one of the signs they’re sinking into depression, for instance.

  8. monsterzero Says:

    Some of us are natural hoarders, though, which can cause more than mild annoyance. I could maybe benefit from a 200 Things challenge…assuming I’m allowed to count all books and all CDs as one Thing each.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I bet you money that if you get down to 200 things you will feel awful and it will not last and you will buy a ton more stuff.

      But sure, go ahead and declutter. Get rid of stuff you don’t use or want, don’t buy stuff you don’t need. There’s not generally any negative effects of mindfulness, that I know of.

  9. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I sense feistiness here… so I’m hesitate to say something but I think one of your previous commenters was right– you need more than what you have. Have just what you need doesn’t really mean stripping down to bare basics although some people who do practice minimalism claim that. I think that there is another word for that, and it applies to nuns and monks, but I can’t think of it right now. I personally don’t think that cutting back on excess is a bad thing. I’m a pretty middle of the road kind of girl. I also think minimalism is a personal thing and what one blogger considers minimalism isn’t really what everyone else does or what works for everyone else. I think the things you find across most minimal blogs like capsule wardrobes and 200 things challenges are just easy things for people to do and that appeals to people– esepcially those who write blogs and participate in online communities. It’s fun and easy to share your common experiences. Building a community on something that is more vague is harder to do.
    All that being said, I do sympathize with your struggles. It is hard to get by on a lot less than what we are used to whether it be money, space, things, etc. and often forces changes in habits and routines we are not inclined to change or let go of. At least it’s temporary!

  10. Annalisa Crannell Says:

    I actually think what you’re describing is “enlightenment”, but of a different sort. I really like the practice of trying to do without something, just to see if it makes my life better or worse. So now you guys know for sure that what you have is not enough — at least not enough pots and dry clothes! And I bet once you get back to having all your stuff, you’ll be extra grateful for it.

    Not the same thing, but in my senior year of high school, I cut my hair really short. I hated the hair cut, but I have always been really glad I did it, because now I *know* I don’t like uber-short hair (on me), and I don’t have to spend the rest of my life wondering whether I’d like it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I dunno, this isn’t the first time we’ve lived in a tiny apartment without much stuff, and (other than gifts) we don’t tend to bring things into the house that we don’t need or want. So I don’t think we’ve even learned that.

      Other people who didn’t waste years in graduate school might get that lesson though!

  11. psycgirl Says:

    I’ve been practicing a pretty minimalist approach to work, mostly because I’m cheap. but also because when I was in grad school we were taught to “get by” with the resources we could. However, I’ve just gotten sick of it lately and I’ve been on a spending spree buying work supplies, software, equipment that all make my life easier. Wish I had done it sooner. Amen to having what you need.

  12. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Once I said to my mom, “Hey Mom, thanks for the great pot. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.”

  13. Catwoman73 Says:

    I really appreciate this post, and the timing is great. I am in the middle of decluttering our lives- our physical space, our finances and our emotional lives. I tend to go overboard when I take on any task, and this post is a great reminder that some things are worth holding on to. I would lose my mind if I only had two pots, given that I often have all four burners on the stove going at once. Minimalism really can only be defined by those of us trying to practice it, and it is an individual thing. I am happy to eliminate clothes and toys and books, but desperately need a very well stocked kitchen.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We can have all four burners going, but 2 of them have to hold pans. (And one of the pans is truly a saucepan– it fits as much as the little pot, if not more.)

      Absolutely people have different utility curves and different budget constraints.

  14. xykademiqz Says:

    I have found many times that more of the same thing reduces stress. Examples: 1) While pumping breast milk at work, buying 6 nipple shields as opposed to having just 2 (so 2 shields for each pumping session) drastically reduced my stress and increased my happiness and will to live, because I didn’t have to wash them non stop, but could rather wash them all once I got home; 2) multiple pans so I can make crepes/French toast/Wiener schnitzels/whatever in large quantities in parallel as opposed to in series; 3) as you mentioned, having extra sheets/pillow cases/clothes, so we can actually be OK if we are late with laundry and things are not dry. I have absolutely no guilt about it though — I have left a country where you had to live a minimalist life because things were hard to afford (even though my family was middle class). I am going to be comfortable now that I can afford it. This extreme minimalist business sounds like another OCD-type lifestyle choice, where people get their kicks from depriving themselves (it seems the point is to do it for kicks, not out of necessity; if they couldn’t afford things, that would take the coolness out of it in no time at all). I don’t think it’s a wise or sane choice for most people, though. I bet most people who by necessity live a very minimal life would not mind being more comfortable by having a few redundancies built in.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      “if they couldn’t afford things, that would take the coolness out of it in no time at all”– Great point.

      And there’s definitely a big difference when you have very little stuff but know you can buy whatever you need easily if and when you need it compared to wanting to hold on to things in case you need them later because you won’t be able to get them later. I can even travel light because I know that if I need anything I can turn money into whatever it is I need.

      • ivy Says:

        yes, it doesn’t make sense to be minimalist if you’re poor – keeping extras just-in-case makes more financial sense (think keep your old laptop/phone/jacket in case your new old gets stolen).

  15. A student Says:

    YES. Due to grad school, I have to be incredibly careful about buying stuff because a) no money and b) no space. My cooking was incredibly stressful, however, until I got more pots and pans and supplies-I still don’t have much, but what I do have is pretty decent quality and I can cook a decent meal for my friends with it.

  16. MutantSupermodel Says:

    Would you say there is a difference between a spartan lifestyle and a minimal lifestyle?

  17. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    As the resident of a <400-square-foot apartment with pretty good storage for its size, but only for its size, I identify strongly with this description (I do have a small bowl, however, and an assortment of pyrex measuring cups in varying sizes, which are very versatile, especially if they have lids). I get very annoyed with people who live in larger spaces and are fascinated by tiny houses, since the "enough but not too much" sweet spot for efficiency also applies to space. 400 square feet can be pretty efficient (and becomes more so as I line more of the walls with shelves, cabinets, drawers, etc.), but it definitely takes more time, thought, effort, etc. than having the same amount of (mostly necessary, give or take a few hundred books) stuff in twice the space.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Definitely. In grad school our 1st apartment was 100 sq feet and our next two were 300 sq feet. We didn’t buy anything partly because there was no place to put anything. Of the places we’ve lived, I think 2200 sq ft hit the sweet spot for our family. 3000 sq ft is too much and 1200 isn’t quite enough, though if we had 3 small bedrooms instead of 1 large and one small, it might work better. We don’t *need* more than 1200 sq ft–we can fit everything we need and still have space, but it sure is nice to have more room.

  18. Ryan Says:

    I can definitely understand the feeling. I wonder however if many who make this change understand the why behind the what. Minimalism isn’t about getting rid of everything. It’s about applying functionality and purpose to your things. If having only two pots is turning out to be a burden, then by all means, get another pot. Minimalism shouldn’t be a burden. It’s about having only what you need and what adds value to your life, your family and to others. If you have a child who still is prone to bed accidents, then having only one set of sheets for his or her bed isn’t minimalism, it’s impractical. My wife and I love to cook. We love to invite people over, share our time with them, and fellowship with them. So having only two pots and one couch wouldn’t serve our purpose, it would interfere with it. So our minimalism journey isn’t about getting rid of EVERYTHING, it’s about getting rid of everything that doesn’t help to serve a purpose in our life. Before giving up on your journey, first reevaluate your situation and take an inventory of your life. Find out your why and build your life around that. Hope that helps.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I never had a minimalism journey…

      As an economist I’m pretty good at figuring out where my budget constraint is hitting my marginal utility curves. Or maybe I’m just in-tune with myself.

      This post was more for people who think getting rid of stuff is a magic bullet that will fix all the problems in their lives and feel guilty because they have more stuff than someone else. It isn’t and they shouldn’t.

  19. Link love | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] A reminder that sometimes having 4 coffee cups is not too many coffee cups. […]

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