“Humans are built for flow. We just have to design our environment accordingly.”
Minimalism isn’t only about stuff, but minimalism starts with stuff. A decluttered mind starts with a decluttered house. We need to make sure your home is decluttered before going any further.
That being said, decluttering isn’t the only way minimalism can benefit your home. There are many books about how to declutter, but decluttering is only the beginning of how minimalism can benefit your home. Once you’ve adopted the minimalist’s attitude and decluttered your home, you can design your home to support your goals.
To design your home is to consider the goals you have for your life and make sure your home — the layout, the furniture choice & arrangement, and even the decorations — supports your goals. It’s about organizing your home in a way that makes it smooth and easy to live your life.
For instance, a very short maxim of good home design is “Keep all the food in the kitchen. This way you don’t mindlessly snack between meals.” Most people have goals like eating healthier and losing weight, so storing food in a way that makes it difficult to snack is good home design.
Declutter Your Home First
If your home has stuff in it that’s of no earthly use to you, the best thing you can do for yourself is get rid of it. The most well-designed home is, first and foremost, a home without permanent clutter.
There are many different schools of thought when it comes to how to declutter your home. My personal favorite is Marie Kondo’s KonMari method. Instead of making a logic-based decision about whether to declutter something, Marie Kondo asks you to consider if an item brings you joy. When you declutter using her method, you end up surrounded by only that which brings you joy. It’s hard for a method like that to fail. You can declutter your home yourself using her method in Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
You can also use what Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn call a “packing party.” Pack up all your belongings in cardboard boxes as if you are moving. Over the next thirty days, see what you take out of the boxes. Whatever’s still left in the boxes after thirty days are items you know you don’t use all that often and don’t really need.
You don’t have to pack up your whole house. You can do a mini-packing-party, too. You can pack up only items in one room at a time, or pack up only your clothes or only your kitchenware. This is a great way to take decluttering one step at a time.
What’s more important than your decluttering method is that you’re honest with yourself about what adds value to your life. People have many stories they tell themselves about the stuff in their home, but the only way to a house without clutter is to drop the stories you tell yourself and take a hard look at the truth.
- No, you don’t need to keep those manuals, warranties, and other random paperwork you have piled around the house. The contingencies you keep these papers for never arrive, and even if they did, you wouldn’t be able to find the paperwork you need in those big piles.
- You don’t need to scan those documents, either. If you won’t use the physical copies you won’t use the digital ones.
- You don’t need most of your books, either. If you’re not a reader, you’re better off selling those books and getting a library card for the few times you do want to read something. If you are a reader, you’re better off selling those books and doing fresh, up-to-date research about what you want to read when you want to read.
- Your closet is stuffed full of clothes, as well as your under-bed storage bins and your off-site storage, yet the same five outfits are the only ones going through your laundry machine. Your life will be less cluttered and stressful if you admit you’re never going to wear the outfits you never wear and say goodbye.
I don’t know what your particular brand of clutter is or how it’s holding you back in life. But you do. Don’t judge your clutter by my standards or anyone else’s. Only your own.
If you’re decluttering for the first time, you should see a drastic reduction in the amount of clutter you have. After decluttering, your space should feel noticeably more spacious and free. If you’re not feeling that way in your home yet, you may still have more decluttering to do.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to further examine whether you should keep or discard something:
- Did I know I owned this when the day started?
- Would I buy this item today?
- Have I used this item in the past year?
- Would it impact me to not have this item? How?
- Do I own something similar?
- Would I take this if I moved?
- Does it make me happy?
- Why do I want to keep this?
When Decluttering Goes Too Far
“You are allowed to own stuff. Please don’t just get rid of things for the sake of getting rid of them. Rather, keep what you have and cut down on the number of goods you buy.”
Josie Munnings, The Problem with Minimalism
If I’d written a book about minimalism three years ago, I would have said it’s impossible to go too far. After all, each item you own is only another burden. But after a few years of being a minimalist, I’ve found sometimes I can take it too far.
For years, I was caught in a cycle of buying and decluttering. There weren’t many clothes, coats, or shoes in my closet, and there weren’t many things in my possession, but the items in my possession were constantly changing. All the time, I bought things only to decide less than a year later I didn’t want them anymore — and to the donation center they went. Rinse and repeat.
This kind of cycle is harmful for many reasons. It’s hard on the wallet. It’s hard on the planet. But most of all, it’s hard on your heart. If you think buying things will make you happy in life, you will never be satisfied, regardless of how often or aggressively you declutter.
Going through cycles of buying and decluttering feels normal in the developed world, but it isn’t healthy. The appropriate way to live in harmony with possessions is to own them, care for them, and repair them until they are no longer usable.
Minimalists will often say you shouldn’t worry about discarding something because you can always buy a replacement. This is true, but it’s a platitude meant to get people over their initial resistance to decluttering, because the fact is you will almost never need to buy a replacement. It’s true, by the way. For all the buying I did, I never bought replacements for anything I discarded. I always bought something new, thinking it would make my life better, only to find out it didn’t.
Some people really can live a happy life with nothing but a backpack. We’ve all read the James Altucher quote “I have one bag of clothes, one backpack with a computer, iPad, and phone. I have zero other possessions.” My personal favorite example of extreme minimalism is a man named Aaron Fletcher, who lives on public land in a cart pulled by his three sheep. But most of us are not happy with only a backpack or a handcart and three sheep, and that’s okay.
Minimalism isn’t about getting rid of stuff. It’s about identifying things that truly add value to your life and only owning those things. For most people this does mean going through a period of getting rid of stuff, but that should only be a short period. Equilibrium for a minimalist means not buying stuff, not getting rid of stuff, but being merely content with what you have.
A lot of minimalists never find this equilibrium. They declutter and feel fantastic about it, and they learn more sustainable ways of buying new things, but they continue to go through cycles of buying and decluttering.
Here are some signs you’re caught in a buying-and-decluttering cycle:
- You find yourself re-buying stuff similar to the stuff you discarded.
- You find yourself thinking about stuff you own that you wish you hadn’t decluttered.¹
- You find yourself thinking about stuff you wish you hadn’t bought.
Learn New Purchasing Habits
It won’t do you any good to declutter your home only to fill it up with stuff again. To avoid getting caught in a buying-and-decluttering cycle, there are a few simple things you can do to make purchasing harder on yourself.
The first line of defense is to stop thinking of shopping as something you do for fun. Stop visiting stores, online or in person, unless you have something specific in mind you are interested in buying. If people ask you to go shopping with them, politely decline and suggest something else you can do together instead that supports your goals, like hiking together.
If you find yourself in front of something you’d really like to buy, take a photo of it and tell yourself you have to wait 24 hours to buy it. If you still want that item 24 hours later, you can purchase it, but the vast majority of the time, you will not want that item enough to come back to the store and buy it. (If it’s an expensive item, wait a week or a month). You can use that waiting time to do some price-comparison shopping. Being in a rush to buy something is a guarantee you’ll end up paying more for a worse item.
Ask yourself how you can make do with what you have. If you were not even aware of having a problem until you learned about this new item, chances are you don’t need that product in the first place. If you’ve been making do just fine, you can probably keep making do.
How to Design Your Newly Decluttered Home
In a video game, the player is presented with a series of environments. In each environment, the player is presented with a set of options. For instance, the player can talk to a non-player character (NPC), open doors, gates, or locks, go to other areas, or investigate objects, pick them up, or use them.
In real life, our options aren’t constrained by what video game designers have decided for us. But, like little video game designers, our brains constrain our options for us. When we walk into an environment, our brains generate a list of choices that are available to us. These choices are largely based on our immediate environment. When we walk into a living room with a TV and a PS4, our brains generate a list of options that looks like this:
- Option A: Collapse on the couch and watch some Netflix
- Option B: Play some Far Cry
- Option C: Play some FIFA
When we walk into a dirty kitchen with a sink full of unwashed dishes and a pantry full of unhealthy food, the options your mind generates look like:
- Option A: Get some pizza from the fridge
- Option B: Do the dishes
- Option C: Make some ramen
Choosing an option that is not on the brain’s pre-generated list of options is challenging. For instance, if you want to meal prep but your kitchen is full of dirty dishes and unhealthy food, meal prepping involves cleaning your entire kitchen and going to the store, and that’s before even starting to make the food. Your brain shies away from this choice on instinct.
The list of options the brain generates is not rational. It’s not based on what’s possible, on what our goals are, or even what we want. The list of options it generates is based on what’s immediately available and what’s immediately pleasurable and almost nothing else.
Our brains do this because brains evolved to help us survive on a moment-to-moment basis in a harsh, competitive natural environment. And as Richard Dawkins explains in The Selfish Gene, the evolutionary process does not care about rationality, accuracy, or pleasure, only propagating our genes to the next generation.
The wonderful news is we can do something in real life we can’t do in a video game: modify our environment.
In a video game, you’re stuck with what the video game designers have given you. In real life, however, you’re able to make changes to your environment that change the list of options your brain generates.
For instance, consider the kitchen example given above. Our protagonist’s kitchen has a sink full of dirty dishes and a pantry with unhealthy food options, so her brain generates options like “make ramen” and “clean the kitchen.” But what if the kitchen had clean dishes put away and healthy food in the pantry and fridge? Her options would look more like…
- Option A: Cook a quinoa bowl
- Option B: Have some soup
- Option C: Meal prep for the next few days
Now those are some options I can get behind.
Do It Yourself
The first step to designing your environment is deciding what you want out of your environment. In the last chapter, you picked a handful of overarching priorities you have for your life. Now it’s time to look at every room in your house and decide how it can support these goals of yours.
- An office supports goals like building your business, finally writing that novel, and learning how to code.
- A living room can support goals like socializing with loved ones and reading books (though in reality they usually support “goals” like TV-watching and binge-snacking).
- A bedroom can support relationship goals, sexual goals, and health/sleep goals.
Extreme minimalists, like people who live in vans or tiny homes, are simply people who decided one tiny space can support all their goals. If you think one tiny space can support all your goals, good for you! But if not, don’t beat yourself up. Not every minimalist lives in a one-room apartment.
Once you’ve decided what you want each room or space in your home to support, you want to design an environment that makes it easy to work toward your goals and difficult to work against them.
A common example is TV watching. Many people set an intention to watch less television and get more done around the house. A great way to design your house to make this easy is to get rid of your television. Take the entire thing and put it in a closet, under your bed, or somewhere it will be out-of-the-way. In my case, I sold my television and bought a cheap projector on Amazon for movie nights.
Another common example is snacking. A great way to eat healthy and snack less is to refuse to buy sugary and high-calorie snacks. After all, you can’t eat what’s not there. Barring that, you can hide sugary and high-calorie snacks behind closed cabinet doors or in a Kitchen Safe, a time-delayed lockbox.
Most environment interventions are not that obvious or easy to make, but they’re there. For example…
- If you want better sex with your partner more frequently, evidence suggests getting rid of the TV in your bedroom is one way to do so.
- If you want to cook more, refuse to buy snacks and instant-ready meals so you are situationally forced to cook.
- If you want to meditate daily, designate a corner of one room to be your meditation spot and place a cushion there.
A big part of the reason many people struggle to reach their goals is the standard American home arrangement does not support people reaching their goals, and they never think to question it. Most American homes are arranged so the living room has a couch and multiple chairs which face a TV. Desks and bookshelves are frequently an afterthought, stuffed into an alcove or the corner of a bedroom. The home gym equipment is stuffed into a drawer in the coffee table, whereas the alcohol is placed on a shelf where it’s easy to reach. It’s no wonder we drink at night and don’t get anything done.
Every time you set out to do something new, ask how you can change your home to support your priorities. Does your home make it easy to reach your goals or hard? How can you change this space so it supports your goals?
1: If you are new to minimalism, you should know this rarely ever happens. I’ve discarded a huge amount of stuff, but there are only a handful of things I regret discarding: A few tank tops, coats, pants, and backpacks, most of which I “decluttered” within a year of buying them.