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.

* * *

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.

*   *   *

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?

36 thoughts on “Thinking Like a Minimalist”

  1. I know one person specifically who is a minimalist and he really has it down to a science. That said while I could embrace aspects of this type of lifestyle pretty sure I could never fully convert myself. But great advice and the calculus story brought me back to my days of higher level math classes for my math teaching degree btw ?

    1. Wow, good for you with a math teaching degree. My hat is off to you! I don’t think I am a minimalist either, but I am interested in what aspects of minimalism might work well for my life!

  2. “Minimalists tend on editing.” Likely, minimalists focus on the pursuit of less and that awareness drives all that they do. They have incorporated the mindset.

    I like this idea because it shapes the entire outlook of how minimalists live which gives them their purpose.

    1. Our thinking really does precede our actions. Heard this morning, “What you think about, you get more of,” and this is the same idea. If you think about protecting and prioritizing space, you will act in ways that make this happen!

  3. This is a thought provoking post, Seana. I had never given much thought or time to how a minimalist thinks or approaches living. In reading your post, I realize that I am somewhere in the middle. I am doing better at disregarding other people’s opinions. I am living much more intentionally and focusing on my personal beliefs, values, and goals. However, I still love to have some odds and ends that serve no real purpose other than I like them…I am going to keep this post to reread from time to time because you have great nuggets here.

    1. I actually think the “odds and ends” ARE serving a purpose, which is bringing you joy! That is a purpose. The minimalist lifestyle isn’t austere, it is just prioritized. I think we get to choose what is most important to us, and then to allow our belongings to serve those purposed!

  4. Loved your stories! I personally align with “The minimalist is constantly evaluating possessions and commitments to determine whether they are contributing to or detracting from quality of life” In my own home I use a Zone Plan and touch everything in my home every year. Each time I tackle a new zone I strive to eliminate what is no longer needed or loved.

    1. Ooooh, I love that “zone plan.” That is so healthy that you touch everything each year. That really helps you know what you have. So often we forget what we even own!

  5. There are a lot of interesting ideas here to consider about minimalism. It’s a fascinating movement that emerged as a reaction to overconsumption and 24/7 access to life/work and the “instant” pace of life. There is also the ‘slow movement’ in which many food-related industries participate—growing your food or using local growers. It makes sense that people are thinking about how to calm life down. It has become so overrun by stuff, by access, and by an impossible pace.

    While I am in no way a minimalist, I feel that many of the values you described I have. Thank you for sharing your ideas and observations. There is so much to ponder.

    1. I had myself thinking as I wrote this one, Linda! You are so right about this movement being something of a “push back” about the pace of accumulation and the burden it has been creating. I find the mindset empowering. I get to CHOOSE what matters to me, rather than simply follow along with what people are doing around me.

  6. Yes, yes, and yes. I’m not a Minimalist in all areas of my life, but I am in some ways….for example, the purse I carry is quite small. I can’t carry much, and don’t want to. But I was also a Girl Scout (“Be prepared”). So, if I’m only going to be out a few hours, there’s a LOT I can do without until I get home. But a couple of aspirins (not a whole bottle!) are tiny. Why not be able to help someone (or myself) continue about their day pain-free? And…while this has yet to happen, I would hate to be in the presence of someone having a heart attack and NOT be able to offer them an aspirin! (And a 911 call, of course.) My purse “emergency supplies” fit into a snack-sized baggie with room to spare. This is reminding me of the First Aid kits we made in Girl Scouts that fit into a metal Band-Aid box, complete with a dime — yes, a dime — taped into the hinged lid for an emergency phone call

    1. Ah yes, I remember the metal Band-Aid box, and I always had a dime, which eventually became a quarter. Life sure has changed, right? But I do try and have what I might need in my car. When I was traveling last week, and trying to carry a small bag, I “re-remembered” what supplies I keep in my car vs. carry on my person. As I get older, I find I want to physically carry less in general, but also that having Advil has become more important LOL!

  7. Just yesterday my daughter and I were discussing focusing on one thing at a time and giving people your full attention. Otherwise, our interactions are watered down and become so much less valuable. (Of course it’s hard when you’re a young parent, with few little ones at home that need your full attention.)
    I really liked the entire concept here, especially when you said, “As the mind goes, so goes the man.” In other words, how we think and what we believe directly impact the way we act.” I know this to be true because I know that when I believe it, I will see it….over and over.
    It really does come down to knowing what’s important to you. What you can live with and what you can live without. I’d say that’s being mindful to the fullest.
    Ronni Eisenberg recently posted…7 Ultra-Smart Baby Nursery Ideas That Even Your Baby Will Coo AboutMy Profile

    1. Yes, exactly, it comes down to knowing what is important to you. We do so many things out of a “should” mentality, and that doesn’t bring us joy. I remember those days with a little one – constant interruption! A time of learning to do the best we can, right?

  8. My husband and I are pretty minimal when it comes to our home. However, he has been on a kick, clearing out and reducing. While I have been doing this in a small way, I found that my DIY projects need supplies and tools that do not get used every week unless I do a project. So, I accepted that I was going to have more stuff because of this. I have decided that I will only buy things that I run out of or break. No extra supplies just because they are on sale. That has been helping me a great deal and saving me $$$$.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…14 Signs Your Kitchen Needs DeclutteringMy Profile

    1. I love that approach, Sabrina. I think I am largely in a “replacement” mindset as well. I honestly don’t want any more stuff to manage! As we know, it often gets worse before it gets better. I’m working on painting a banner for my church’s VBS. Needless to say, my dining room table is a mess at the moment. But, it is temporary, so I let it stay there while I’m working on it!

  9. This is a fascinating discussion, Seana which made me realize I embrace many of the concepts of minimalism but dislike the word itself. For me, it’s been too closely associated with a sort of self-conscious, designer aesthetic rather than the principles you outline here. Thank you for helping me stop and think about this more closely. And this is the absolute truth, love how you phrased this in particular: “Social media has become the “perpetual holiday greeting card,” relentlessly advertising the perfect family, vacation, outfit, figure, job, and home.” Yes indeed!
    Lucy Kelly recently posted…Migraines suck and you can get through them. Three tips to ease your burden.My Profile

    1. We’ve been having a wonderful discussion on minimalism that has made me think about it in a whole new way. Yes indeed is right! Sort of exhausting, isn’t it?

  10. Great thought points! Minimalism is a process for me and I’m constantly curating and refining my space to reflect the present. I explain to clients – as circumstances fluctuate, so does your space. It’s important to maintain awareness of your things so they don’t get lost under piles of new things.

    1. That’s a great phrase, Melanie, “as your circumstances fluctuate, so does your space.” It is most certainly an ongoing process. I don’t think we are ever “done.”

  11. I used to actively resist minimalism and now I’m embracing it. I truly think I’m both. I can be more like your husband, and just have what I need – the bare bones foundation. I can also go on a trip and need an entire comfort back of things. For myself! Forget even for being a mom.
    I also know what it’s like to travel light and realize it’s rather freeing to only have a few things.

    1. I love that feeling when I am finally on the trip and know I will just make do with whatever I brought. The thinking is over, and now I can focus on the enjoying, even if what I brought is precisely perfect!

  12. This is an interesting approach and I love how you walked through the concepts. My clients often assume (or fear) that I am a minimalist, and I am absolutely not. Looking at your two examples in the first section, I am more your “chuck” friend, and I would have studied all 40 formulae because the anticipation of not having what I need would far outweigh any satisfaction from having just enough. I pack a LOT for a vacation, but even if I’m (happily) high maintenance, every article of clothing, every item I bring, gets used…because I have a strong sense of what I need. Similarly, not having all 40 formulae would assume that I could “derive” under pressure, just like not knowing every word of a presentation would assume I could “wing it” under pressure, which I know that I cannot.

    Yet, as in your second and third sections, I do not acquire for anyone’s satisfaction but my own (least of all, those ubiquitous Joneses who have all the good stuff) and I am constantly curating and refreshing. Somewhere between minimalist and maximalist, there needs to be a good definition of someone who is as mindful as the minimalist but is still content to carry Tylenol, bandaids, and a snack because it keeps one’s mental health in balance. Perhaps the solution is to be found, not in organizing, but in linguistics?

    I’m reminded of Einstein’s quote: ““Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” My gut instinct (which is surely unfair) is that minimalists want to make things even simpler, but you’ve brought me back from the edge and seen that, as with everything, even within minimalism, there is moderation.
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Noteworthy Notebooks (Part 1): Re-Surveying the LandscapeMy Profile

    1. What a great line – even with minimalism, there is moderation! That’s the beauty of these “boxes,” we can dive into one, or design our own. I think I fall somewhere along the same line as you. However, I think I am getting more minimalist with most things as I get older. I’m just not up for carrying as much along in my life.

  13. I am definitely a wanna be minimalist. I usually say future minimalist which I think is funny when you think about struggles with clutter. I love #2. We don’t need to keep up with the Jones or worry about what others think. We just all need to be ourselves and do what is right for us.
    Kim recently posted…Change Can Be Hard, But You Got ThisMy Profile

    1. Only we are living our lives. Focusing on trying to fit in or keep up with others is exhausting and unsatisfying! Let’s just all be ourselves and be content with what we want and need.

  14. I really like this statement “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.” They adapt in the moment is key. People keep everything so they have the exact right tool, dish, blanket, handbag, dress etc when they need it. Being flexible and able to adapt is what makes life easy.

    1. I talk about holding onto a coat that you wear one day a year. While it might feel nice to have it on that one day, the question is, how is it impacting your life on the other 364 days, right? If it is crowding your space and is a problem, perhaps it is better to borrow a coat for the one day and have more space for the rest of the year.

  15. I found this very eye-opening. I love the idea of minimalism but didn’t think I could be one because I enjoy buying nice things. Now I realize that it’s not about not buying things, but of only doing so after thoughtful consideration, and for me that includes choosing items that are good quality so I will enjoy using or wearing them and not have to replace them for a very long time (if at all).
    Janet Barclay recently posted…Your First Website: Are you ready to dive in?My Profile

    1. I completely agree. Minimalists definitely buy nice things, just quite mindfully. In fact, they might even have more truly nice things and fewer of the random, low/value items that many of us tend to acquire.

      1. I think the “capsule” wardrobe fits well here. Years ago, I bought clothes because they were on sale, not necessarily considering how well an item would fit into my existing wardrobe. As a result, I had a lot of clothes but a limited number of outfits. I’m much more practical now, choosing items that can mix and match well, so I have fewer clothes, but more options!
        Janet Barclay recently posted…Website Hosting: Are you giving your site a good Home Sweet Home?My Profile

  16. It’s so hard to not give up and be fully conscious about what you’re buying, if you really need that or if it’s just a “heat of the moment” kind of thing.

    As part of a cleaning service business in Frisco you see all the time that people own so much more stuff than they need to or truly want to. The thing is, once you buy them it gets harder to get rid of them rather than never having bought it in the first place.

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