Thinking Like a Minimalist

Simple Desk. Thinking like a minimalist.
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

What comes to mind when you think of “minimalism?” Maybe words like “spare,” “sparse,” or “sleek?” Perhaps you picture “light,” “free,” “uncluttered,” or “simple.” At the most recent meeting of Minimal Quest – a virtual, free, monthly minimalism meet-up that I co-facilitate – we considered this question as we talked about, “How can we think like a Minimalist?”

There is a phrase, “As the mind goes, so goes the man.” In other words, how we think and what we believe directly impact the way we act. This is particularly true when we are trying to enact change in a pattern of behavior. If we focus exclusively on changing actions, but continue in an old mindset, we will likely struggle to sustain a new approach.

With this truth in mind, and if we want to embrace a more minimalist lifestyle, we might find it valuable to consider both how a minimalist thinks and also how a minimalist’s thought process may differ from a more traditional pattern of thought.  

In my research and experience, I’ve identified three beliefs that typify minimalism.

1. Minimalists prioritize their time and space for things they have identified as foundational and necessary.

During the meeting I shared two examples to illustrate the traditional versus the minimalist mindset.

The first is a story about my sister who, as a mother of young children, got in the habit of carrying around with her anything and everything that her children and family might need on an outing. Her goal was to be prepared for any eventuality. Her family nicknamed her “Chuck,” after the chuckwagon of westward expansion. Whatever the family needed, my sister had it: medicine, Band-Aids, diapers, snacks, water bottles, toys, sweaters, etc. This was a handy mindset for a family on the go, but it did require that my sister carry a lot around with her. People with this mindset take comfort in having plenty of inventory, duplicate supplies, and a lot of variety.

The second story is about my husband, with whom I attended an advanced calculus class in college. Before the final exam, I was trying to memorize roughly 40 formulas that might possibly be needed on the test. In contrast, my husband said, “You don’t need to memorize all 40, you only need to memorize these five. All the others you can derive from these five during the exam if you need them.” The five formulas he memorized were foundational and critical. For him (he was quite adept at calculus), these formulas were sufficient. [On a side note, I still memorized the 40, because I was afraid not to, and he still outperformed me on the exam.] Minimalists are comfortable only “carrying” (i.e., acquiring, owning, and storing) what they believe to be most important, and are willing to adapt in the moment if more is needed.

I want to be very clear that neither of these modes of thinking is right or wrong. They are simply examples of different approaches. After all, during the pandemic, having significant backstock probably came in very handy! However, if we want to embrace minimalism, and if we acknowledge that we’ve been living more like “Chuck,” we might need to start thinking differently about how much we truly need in order to feel at ease.

2. Minimalists care more about what brings them joy than what others think about them.

In today’s world, we are more aware than ever of how other people live. Social media has become the “perpetual holiday greeting card,” relentlessly advertising the perfect family, vacation, outfit, figure, job, and home. Often, we respond by trying meet the implied societal or familial expectations. We feel a need to “measure up.”

Trying to “keep up with the Joneses” typically results in our letting others decide what matters in life, rather than intentionally deciding for ourselves. We get wrapped up in trying to make sure we have all the “right” possessions and are spending our time in the “right” ways. Furthermore, we may invest significant time and energy in telling an impressive (or at least sufficient) story to the outside world.

In contrast, minimalists are willing to be counter-cultural. The minimalist may choose to reject a societal norm because he/she perceives value in an alternate choice. For instance, a minimalist may choose to wear the same color shirt or eat the same food day after day because doing so frees up time and money for other pursuits. Joy in life is less correlated with acceptance and more strongly associated with personal goals and pleasures.

3. Minimalists tend to focus on editing, curating, and refreshing instead of acquiring, building, and documenting.

From the outside, minimalism can be perceived as a lifestyle defined by sacrifice and self-denial. In reality, minimalist thinking is very positive. It highly values clearly articulated priorities, and both actively and consistently removes whatever threatens to get in the way of enjoying them. For instance, if the ability to travel has been identified as a top priority, the minimalist may decline owning a pet or planting a garden because caring for these things while traveling is cumbersome.

The minimalist is constantly evaluating possessions and commitments to determine whether they are contributing to or detracting from quality of life. Additionally, minimalists protect and nourish free time, open spaces, and breathing room.

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At its heart, the minimalist way of thinking is based on mindfulness. The minimalist lives with intentionality.  What does this mean?

When we are mindful, we…

  • Take time to savor the things we enjoy.  We don’t rush through experiences or activities.
  • Acquire possessions and make commitments slowly and thoughtfully. No impulse buying.
  • Notice and acknowledge what isn’t working well. Are we frustrated when items catch and jam the kitchen utensil drawer? Do we have difficulty walking through a room because of items stacked on the floor?
  • Focus on one thing at a time and give people our full attention.

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Minimalism isn’t for everyone, but if you are interested, it is helpful to consider the way a minimalist thinks.

What are your thoughts on minimalism?