Minimalism: A Basic Guide

Topics: Japan, Minimalism

The Way of Tea is naught but this:

first you boil water,

then you make tea and drink it.

– Sen no Rikyu

Minimalism as a lifestyle is concerned with stripping unnecessary components to arrive at the most fundamental ones.  Minimalism has strong roots in Japanese lifestyle and design, such as Zen Gardens and Tea Ceremonies, and these things had a very strong effect on me during my sojourn in Japan.  My stay also caused many of the truths found in Christianity to become clearer and more personalized.

photo by telmo32

When people first hear the term “Minimalism”, it most likely conjures up ideas of empty rooms, riding buses instead of driving cars, paintings with practically nothing in them, and ordering “a tall cup of Joe” at Starbucks instead of your “double pump no foam soy mocha latte with whipped cream”.  Minimalism is not about elimination only, but rather about minimalizing the fluff and mere distractions in order to get to the truly beautiful things in life.  It’s about giving up that new cool car so you can save for a round-the-world plane ticket.  It’s about gutting mindless TV shows in order to free up time for creativity and relationships.  It’s about eliminating clutter in your house and office so you can focus on living life – without always having to clean it up!  It’s about decreasing the amount of time you spend checking email and text messages so you can notice the mesmerizing way the light reflects off trees when the afternoon breeze flows through them.

In reaction to the United States’s rampant consumer-culture of overspending and superfluousness,  I’ve developed a few basic principles that I try to abide by in my own life.  Just a few pragmatic things that have helped me simplify life and stay organized.

Toss Unnecessary Paper.

Junk mail, receipts, financial records, shopping lists, and random papers can really add up to create a lot of unneeded clutter that crowds our workplaces and home lives.  Finding ways to eliminate or decrease the amount of paper we handle can really help foster organization and decrease some of the stress we encounter in our lives.

One of the products that I use almost every day is Evernote.  Touted as “an external brain”, Evernote is a note-taking software that can capture just about any type of data and file it away into a searchable database.  Did you really enjoy that bottle of wine you had last night?  Take a picture of the label, upload it to Evernote (very easy if you own a picture phone), Evernote will automatically read the text in the photo and make it searchable, then go ahead and tag the note as “wine” to find the wine instantly next time you go to the liquor store.

Another program that I really enjoy using is Remember the Milk.  It’s a simple, easy to use to-do list that syncs across multiple platforms and can be used online.  I keep two lists: a to-do list, a shopping list, and I’m thinking about moving my bucket list from Google Docs to RTM.

Also check out Lifehacker’s Complete Guide to Going Paperless, which includes tips for dealing with financial records, printing to pdf, and other ways to minimize tree killification.

Cultivate a Limited Media Lifestyle

Consistent with minimalist philosophy, the goal is not to eliminate everything, but to remove the unnecessary in order to expose the truly important.  I think it would go well with us to do the same with taking in media, aimless web surfing, TV, news, email pushed to smart phones, and other distractions.  I don’t cut off these things entirely, especially during election years (!), but I’ve found that most of the media that I took in was completely worthless.

“To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” – Henry David Thoreau

I did a media fast for two weeks last year – no news, no TV, no movies, no books, no web “browsing”, no magazines, no blog reading.  I had so much extra time that I was oppressed by it.  I freaked out.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was forced to resort back to doing interesting things like practicing my guitar and talking with my family.  Try it out and see what happens.  I’m thinking about doing another media fast soon, but maybe for a whole month this time.

Decrease Clutter

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and dust destroy, and where theives break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where theives do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there is your heart also.  Matthew 6.19-21

In the most pragmatic sense, minimalism is about owning less.  One good cooking pan is better than three average ones.  One good pen is more useful and reliable than a hundred ball point pens stolen from the local bank.  One pair of comfortable and stylish jeans will get worn more often than three pairs bought at a discount store.  Most of us know it to a certain degree already, but we don’t always acknowledge that our earthly possession give us a false sense of importance and status.

Start by going through each room in your house and identifying all the things you haven’t used in more than a year, or items that are constantly taking up space.  Get rid of them, and thank me for it later.  Craigslist, thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales should become your new bff.

At his time of death, Ghandi’s earthly possessions could be counted on two hands.  I think it’s time to reanalyze our opinions about what is needed in order to have a positive impact on the world.  It seems to me that possessions hinder, rather than aid, our ability to positively affect situations and people.

Automate Life at Every Opportunity

Time is quite possibly the most valuable thing we own.  It’s an asset which rich and poor are given equal share, a distinction which I’m quite sure is given by God to remind us that no man is better than another.  What better opportunity to be good stewards of the investment that’s been made in us than spending our time wisely?

Some simple ways to free up time:

  • Automate your budget by using
  • Sign up for direct-deposit at work and automatic bill pay for your monthly expenses.
  • Import all of your email to one account (I suggest Gmail).
  • Use a credit or debit card to keep track of purchases instead of using cash or checks. (But not recommended for those with little self control.)
  • Use an RSS reader like Google Reader to read blogs instead of visiting the site every five minutes to see if there are new posts.
  • Setup an automatic savings withdraw for each paycheck.  Put away a certain percentage into another savings account.
  • Batch tasks.  Do your laundry once every two weeks on Sundays.  Check your email twice a day at 11:00 and 4:00 (or once every week if you’re ambitious like Tim Ferriss).  Cook three days worth of food and refrigerate the extra for later.

Finally, find ways to automate income.  Perhaps the most vital key to freeing up time, most people don’t even realize that creating passive/residual income is possible.  Time doesn’t have to equal money, and you don’t have to put in the 9 to 5 in order to get paid.  I haven’t been able to build this process into my own life yet, but I’m keeping my eyes open for potential opportunities and doing a great deal of research on the topic.  Here are some resources to get you going: Steve Pavlina’s blog post – “10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job“, and book – “The Four Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferriss.

Live Debt Free

Living debt free allows you to better leverage your time and money.  Getting control of finances is a daunting task for some, and most especially for those who have, up to this point, lived paycheck to paycheck without a budget or any financial plan whatsoever.  “Learn to be SMART with your money!” as financial guru Dave Ramsey always says.  I highly recommend you get his book “The Total Money Makeover” and start listening to his radio show (9-5 M-F on 105.5FM here in Colorado Springs) or podcast.  He’s a virtual bank of practical financial knowledge, and it’s very motivating to hear people call into his show who, after digging themselves out of thousands of dollars in credit card debt and completely pay off their mortgage, yell the famous “3…2…1…We’re debt free!!!”  You can start by checking out the 7 Baby Steps to Financial Freedom.  No bills to pay?  Seriously, how minimalist is that?

Closing Thoughts

The same with every philosophical thought I encounter, I do my best to weigh it against the perfect example of Christ.  Jesus didn’t just teach people to live a simple life, he grappled with the deep issues of people’s hearts.  If you chisel away the passions and possessions that this world tends to distract us with, you aren’t left with purity or peace like Buddha teaches, you’re left with emptiness.  I believe that only through Christ, who claimed to be God, can we understand the meaning of our existence and gain purpose in our lives.  Shedding the extraneous stuff is only beneficial when you fill it with something better.   Morality, ethics, and philosophy can only be defined by a God who is “outside the box”, not by any human being, and so in this fashion we must fill ourselves with love for God, his people, and his truth.