Friday, October 28, 2011

Living Well with Less

Extreme spareness and simplicity. That's how the dictionary defines minimalism. It doesn't sound too appealing. It doesn't look it either.

To me, minimalist decor is cold and uninviting, not like a home but something that's in progress. Here's your typical minimalist scene:

But, I've envied those who could make it work. Who wouldn't want to be happier with less? To have everything we need and not want for more?

I thought it was impossible, at least for me. A lifestyle defined by a rigid set of rules: don't buy this, don't use that.

But, minimalism is more flexible than I gave it credit for. It's about knowing what's enough for you. It's about owning only the things that you'll use and sharing the things that you don't with someone who will.

What brought about this revelation? The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life by Francine Jay.

She prompts you to take a close look at all of your stuff, room by room, and ask each one: "How often do I use you? Would I replace you if you were lost or broken?"

She writes, "Anything you use often, and which truly adds value to your life, is a welcome part of a minimalist household."

Then there are things that don't actually do anything (artwork, for example) but that you like to look at. These, too, are welcome, but with one caveat: they must be in a prominent place in your home.

"If your collection of Murano glass is collecting dust on a shelf – or worse yet, is packed away in the attic – it’s nothing more than colorful clutter."

Basically, if you don't love it enough to give it a place of honor, then you don't love it enough to keep it.

Living with less, Jay says, gives us the freedom to do things. Our homes are no longer storage spaces but are spaces that we can use for the activities we intended them for. For instance, you can eat at the dining room table without having to clear off the clutter that has accumulated there. Or, you can watch a movie without searching the house for a misplaced DVD.

Other benefits:
  • You have fewer things to clean, so housekeeping becomes less of a chore. And you can more easily clean areas that were previously obscured by clutter.
  • If you decide to move (and as an apartment-dweller, I move every few years), packing and unpacking is more manageable. 
  • Last-minute guests no longer cause embarrassment (to you or to them).
  • You spend less on things that you don't really want or need.
  • You help the environment by using what you already have or buying used goods.
After taking Jay's advice, I was able to clear out three garbage bags of unwanted goods and ditch two small tables. My living room isn't as sparse as that in the picture above, but it's what I consider minimalist:

Living Room

Jay's strategies for living with less are numerous, but here are the ones that have stayed with me.

Set Limits

Jay recommends paring down your things to only what you use or love, examining each item room by room. Then, set limits for yourself to keep clutter under control.

For example, limit your DVD or book collection to the space that you have available or to the number of items you currently own. When a new item comes into your house, an old one goes out. If you can't decide on an item to purge, then do you really want enough? For me, the answer is usually "no."

Don't Let "Stuff" Define You

Even if you're not aware of it, some of your purchases are aspirational, intended to reflect a certain image of yourself. And while we all know that products won't make us something we're not, Jay illustrates the point well enough to be convincing.

Consider clothing and the designer labels that you can spend hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for.

"Ads encourage us to define ourselves through our clothing—and ideally, with brand name apparel. These designer labels don’t make our clothes any warmer, our handbags any sturdier, or our lives any more glamorous."

Products won't make us something that we're not, and if they haven't delivered on their promises yet, then it's time to let them go, Jay says.

"We have to remember that our memories, dreams, and ambitions aren’t contained in these objects; they’re contained in ourselves. We are not what we own; we are what we do, what we think, and who we love."

Personally, I have a thing for kitchen gadgets and baking supplies. I don't cook or bake, and any new purchases make me feel guilty later on when they sit unused in the cupboards. After reading The Joy of Less, I finally realized that I liked the idea of being Amy Homemaker more than the activities themselves. You'll be happy to know that I can now pass Le Gourmet Chef without a backwards glance.

Clean Up as You Go

When you leave a room, scan the surfaces to ensure that they are flat. Pick up the items that you are no longer using and put them where they belong. It's tempting to leave your keys on the end table or a glass on the night stand, but clutter begets clutter. As soon as someone in your household sees that it's okay to leave things out, more and more starts to pile up, and you have a mess on your hands.

Go Digital

Digital books, photos, movies – all take up less space than physical objects. And they're often more convenient. Carry an e-reader with you, and you can read any book in your collection wherever you are. Photos can be easily shared online with friends and relatives, and movies can be streamed through a rental service without the burden of ownership.

Don't Try to Recreate the Outside World at Home

I've found that it's much more enjoyable to go out for waffles than to clean, store and maintain a waffle maker. The same goes for the fondue pot that I rarely use and hate to clean.

Jay concedes that her cappuccino maker never got much use, and also cites big ticket items, like media rooms, fitness centers, and bathroom spas, as items that we can probably do without. "It’s almost as if we’re going to hunker down and never leave our houses," she says.

"Instead of purchasing, maintaining, and repairing all that equipment, why not have a fun night out at the movies, go to the gym (or take a walk), or treat yourself to a day at the local spa? That way, you can enjoy such activities when it strikes your fancy – without having to store and care for all the stuff," says Jay.

To learn more about living a minimalist lifestyle, read The Joy of Less, which is available from the following library branches: Central (downtown), Audubon, Dudley Branch, Hamburg, Julia Boyer Reinstein Library, Kenmore, North Park, and Orchard Park. Click here to search the catalog.

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