Balancing Work Life With A Minimalist Life

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One of the biggest life questions that I’ve been battling with lately is how to balance work life – and everything that it comes with – with a minimalist lifestyle.

Can you have it all?

Since I was a kid, I have been extremely ambitious. I daydreamed about having a successful career. I would climb the corporate ladder, and the only glass I would encounter wouldn’t be a metaphorical celiing, but the full length windows to my corner office overlooking the city.

I imagined myself making ridiculous amounts of cash, buying a big house and getting VIP access to the coolest places.

The ambitious person inside of me still wants that.

The minimalist in me sees how fruitless it all is in the end.

The world of work feeds our desires, always making us want more. More money, more stuff, more status.

Since starting my corporate career a few months ago, I’ve found myself falling into this trap. It’s contagious, and I’m only human. Now that I have my own apartment and more stuff than I need, am I really happy?

A big part of me misses the time when I used to travel the world with my trusty suitcase which held all of my life possessions. Every day was an adventure. Now, every day is the same as yesterday.

Over the last few months, I’ve been so damn close to packing it all in and getting back onto the road, forgetting all of the reasons why I got off it in the first place.

There were so many times on the road that I would go back to my old daydreams. I decided that it was time to put my aimless wanderings on hold and finally settle down with a challenging job that would pay for my own apartment. For the longest time, I wanted a place that I could call home.

Is there a way to balance our ambitions, to have a ‘successful’ career, without losing our contentment with what we already have and getting sucked into a materialist lifestyle?

Part of the answer is finding a job that you love, that you’re good at, and that pays well. Unfortunately, this is a bit too idealistic for most people.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who have well paying jobs that they love, and don’t squander their money on useless stuff. The main problem is that when work is such a drag, saving up to buy something nice is all that you have to look forward to. A treat for all your hard work…

…and we’re going in circles, back to square one.

I don’t have the answers to this one. Yet.

This is something I’m going to have to learn the hard way. Any suggestions?

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  • Carolyn C

    When I was working full time while trying to get my bachelor’s degree, I also disliked my job very much after a year. I was still living at home, but at from 19-22, I was making more money than most of my peers.

    The first year was a new experience, but eventually the mundane tasks I was assigned bored me to death.

    So the 2nd year, I spent so much money buying anything and everything I wanted.

    The 3rd year, I went on so many different vacations to keep myself sane. This is also the year I found your blog, and began to realize that all stuff I bought stressed me out even more because my room would be a constant mess. That’s when I cleaned through all the clothes I did not even wear or couldn’t fit anymore, detached emotional attachment from many (not all) objects, and started valuing experience over anything else, plus taking risks constantly (which has shaped my very happy current life, and I can’t thank you enough for your inspirational words). 3.5 years at this place, I decided I was going to quit and start saving so that I could go back to school for a second degree in web design because that’s what I really love.

    The 4th year, I was starting to become bitter. I finally graduated and got my first degree (in English). To find something to do, I took a sign language class, a theatre class and a web design class offered by my union so that I can find a reason not to leave my job. It was difficult to quit because I knew my parents would not easily let me quit a stable job with great benefits. They didn’t know my plan to quit. I even downloaded a countdown app, and sometimes watched it, hoping the seconds can move faster.

    4.5 years after working at that job, I said goodbye, and it was the best decision I have ever made.

    I understand from your post that you are living on your own so you can’t just quit because you have bills to pay, but remember what you’ve said before in the past? Find experiences because that’s what will be most precious to our life, and what we’ll remember most as well as shape who we are.

    I don’t know exactly how many hours you work a day, but find just one hour or two when you are off and find something to do. A special event, a concert, a new type of food you’ve never tried, take a short class in a subject you’ve never imagined you’d enroll in (i.e. trapeze class, scuba diving, mixed martial arts). Check Living Social & Groupon for experiences (I’m not sure where you live, but they are very popular so they may be available worldwide). Try to find other people with similar interests. I am from NY, and my friend is currently living and working in Hong Kong. He learned to cope with being on his own through, and he’s also been visiting neighboring countries largely on his own.

    Whenever I find I am lost and need some reassurance, I always come back to your blog. Every time someone asks me how I can be so stress-free and carefree, I tell them my life was drastically changed because I found your blog at the right time in my life.

    Yes, there have been many times where I would struggle with knowing I shouldn’t buy things I don’t need, but buy it anyway. Then return it a couple days later, but sometimes I’d keep it. I’ve let myself be a little more lenient so I do allow some sentimental attachment. I think it’s natural, and sometimes it’s okay to be lenient, but we all just need to remember to do everything in moderation.

    I hope my experience that I shared with you could give you some consolation. I know even the people who offer fantastic insight and advice about life sometimes also need a reminder of their own great philosophies. Good luck, and I’m sure you’ll find a solution that’s right for you.

    • Thank you for sharing Carolyn, I enjoyed reading your comment. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve taken some of your advice and found things to do that I enjoy in between work, which makes it much less stressful. I also find myself enjoying my own company a lot more lately, which is something that I must have forgotten over the last few years. I’m much happier right now than when I wrote the first draft of this post, things do get better!

  • Jason Locke

    My name is Jason and when I was sixteen I ran away from home; no identification, birth certificate, nothing; because I believe things like money and the american dream do nothing but hurt people. I biked from Missouri to Colorado and then walked the rest of the way to California.

    I left because I wanted to find a greater kind of love. Not romantic, not platonic, just love. What I found in other, normal, employed people was pain and sadness and I did everything I could to make people’s lives better, even just a little bit. What I found in myself was enlightenment and happiness living with nothing but a backpack.

    I feel like the true meaning of life is to give it your own meaning, and my meaning is to make people happy.

    My suggestion? Act on impulse. I’ve gone hungry just to buy a man a lottery ticket whether or not he got anything out of it was pointless. The look in his eye is and was unforgettable.

    Do what you want to do the moment you feel the urge. Life is about experience. The road is my home, but it isn’t for everyone.

    There’s an Alan Watts quote that I always come back to when I feel like going back to my old life.

    “Nature is wiggly, everything wiggles, the outlines of the hills, the shapes of the trees, the way the wind brushes the grass, the clouds, tracks of streams. It all wiggles. And for some reason or another we find wiggly things very difficult to keep track of. And you know, we say to people, ‘keep still so that I can see you, keep still for the camera. And we say, “well let’s get things straightened out, let’s get this ironed out, let’s get it all squared away.” And then somehow we think we understand things, when we have translated them into terms of straight lines and squares. Maybe that’s why they call rather rigid people squares. But it doesn’t fit nature. You know wherever human beings have been around and done their thing, you’ll find rectangles; we live in boxes. Our streets – especially across states like Kansas and Nebraska – are laid out in a grid pattern. They even dropped a grid pattern on top of San Francisco, with all those hills, so that cars run away. Because it seems that the human being really has a very simple kind of mind. And all this wiggliness is too complicated.”

    • Ruth

      I have had jobs that made me want to spend to treat myself for the pointlessness of what I was spending many hours doing with my life.

      I kept looking, leaving a job and onto the next until now when I am now very fortunate to have a job I love, have embraced minimalism and am much happier.
      My advice would be to cruise in the job a little while you plan your next step, what gives you energy? What makes you passionate, what makes you buzz with excitement or fulfillment. Can you change careers towards that? Can you create your own company. We’ll all different but we can all find something we love. Keep looking, please.

    • “Act on impulse” – I like it, thanks for sharing Jason. I also love the Alan Watts quote, like everything else he says, it makes a lot of sense and somehow sounds beautiful at the same time. Thank you.

  • fresno1606

    Travelling is great but a traveller will always be a spectator of the world. While you are travelling, you watch others work and take pictures of them, you get to know lots of people and have great conversations with them. Basically every time you introduce yourself to a new person, you have to start over. You tell them who you are, they tell you who they are… you feel like a newborn. That’s all part of travelling, it’s part of its magic.

    But the locals you meet are not travelling. They live there and work there and give their contribution there. In many different ways, of course. They give to society something in exchange for the services they get. And when you travel you depend on these people. Basically, you are not as free as you think, or at least, the sense of freedom you have when you set off, gradually fades as your wandering goes on. Travelling is the best thing a man can do, but it cannot last forever.

    My humble suggestion is: if you want to travel, consider the idea of settling down somewhere else. Find a job there and then explore the surroundings in your free time. Spend a few months or even years there. This way you live a place, you do not only “see” it. Otherwise, if you don’t really want to leave the country you living in now, but just feel locked up in your office, then look for another job which makes you work closer to people. It might pay less but it’s much more rewarding at the same time. And one important thing is: make sure what you do is useful to the whole society, and does not only serve a few superiors. And above all make sure it is useful for your personal development.

    And in order not to fall in the trap of consumerism, just keep yourself busy with extra activities, and maybe find a small grocery shop so that you stop going to huge malls full of all those tempting things… Being tempted by goodlooking stuff is just human, so try to keep it out of your sight 😉

    What I have just written is what I keep telling myself about how I want my future to be. Sorry I might have gone a bit off-topic, I don’t know, but I just really needed to write it down.

    PS: Congratulations on your blog, your posts are really inspiring to me! Greetings from Italy.

    • Thanks for your comment, I totally agree. When I’m travelling, I tend to go to a place and stay there for at least a few weeks, if not a few months. I like to settle down, really get to know a place, and the people who live there, make my mark and then move on – that’s what I believe real travelling is all about.

      Glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog!

  • Guest

    You don’t need a lot of money and no two days can ever be the same. But I don’t think Buddhist Right Livelihood and corporate capitalism are compatible. Try growing vegetables, vegetarian cooking, care work or educating children.

  • Ruud Hollenberg

    I live to big, with to much stuff. by the end of this year I want to move to a bigger city (called Haarlem in the Netherlands) preferably a studio or something.
    I have also realized that going out, experience things, can be an expensive ordeal. But not buying stuff I don’t need frees up a lot of money to go on vacation and for instance go to the movie theater instead of watching a movie from the internet. Spend your hard-earned cash on life, not things. that could be rewarding right?
    I gave myself a year… wish me luck.

  • James Bennett

    I found myself nodding my head several times throughout this post, and for different reasons.

    I’ve been searching like crazy lately on all things minimalist…one bag living, etc. Reason being, a few years ago I sold everything I owned and traveled in a van for a year and a half. Eventually, I found myself back in a house, buying things…things I thought were “bettering” myself.

    It’s only now that I’m, again, starting to sell all my things and question why I ever started back into this type of lifestyle again. It’s tough, we’re raised in this society where consumerism is 70% of our economy (in the US, but regardless) – it’s ingrained in us. But it feels so good to get rid of all the “things” again, and I’m looking for a way back into that traveling, OBL lifestyle. The freedom is intoxicating, and just not knowing what exactly will happen the next day is something I crave.

    Anyway, sorry for the novel – I just felt a strong connection with this post. If it helps any, my ultimate goal is to build my own house, more like a cabin. I’ve been interested in the Tiny House movement for a while for obvious reasons, but I think a cabin with a solar setup and a garden…just try to be as self-sustainable as possible so that a “corporate” job or “full-time” job in that sense wouldn’t really be necessary, maybe just a few streams of passive income. Love the blog btw!


  • “Is there a way to balance our ambitions, to have a ‘successful’ career, without losing our contentment with what we already have and getting sucked into a materialist lifestyle?”

    Short answer: yes, I claim there is.

    I think the answer is staring you on the face: like you said, it’s a balance. To dream and strive is human.

    Striving for nothing sounds like a miserable existence. We are meant to grow. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the process getting there. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the struggles and challenges, the hard times, the camaraderie and dignity of a battle well won.

    The way I see it, there are 2 camps of people. There are the high achievers – those who understand the meaning of goal achievement – and there are the minimalists – those who understand the meaning in non-tangible moments.

    But do you see the problem with taking one side? There is meaning in both. To ignore EITHER, is to live incomplete.

    The two are not mutually exclusive. You can set a goal, and then work towards it consciously. You can be grateful for your health, but seek to improve it. Does that make sense? There’s benefits to both, and rejecting either one is unhealthy.

    Science supports this now. The people who live the longest and report the most happiness (not just short term positive affect, but long term satisfaction upon reflection of their lives) are those who DID have stress in their lives and strove for better things.

    Less stress does NOT mean better life. And coincidentally, it also doesn’t mean a longer life. I think minimalism, essentialism, and the simplicity movement work to eliminate stress…. But the truth is, sometimes we need to feel it. We need to understand it. We need to embrace it. Here’s why…

    Humans are in a constant state of flux. The person you are now is not the person you will be 10 years from now. We routinely forget that we live a life of constant modification, and goals/growth are an extension of that.

    To put this in words of nature, imagine a young sapling. Imagine it works to grow more, but you cut off most of its sunlight claiming it only needs “the essentials”. You prune its roots and stalk because it strives too much. But, it’s in its nature.

    And growth of mind and skills is in ours, too.

    Beware the modern minimalist trap, where negation of everything is sexy. Not needing anything else sounds wonderful on paper. But just as materialism to medicate a lack of purpose is unhealthy, so is seeking “real happiness” by rejecting what the world has to offer.

    That’s why there’s so many people in the streets. So many “passion seekers” who worship short term peace and joy, but cannot fathom the meaning in growth, and how it bolsters more than just themselves.

    They miss the meaning and impact of striving to be more.

    Does that make sense? Be curious to hear more of your take compared to mine.

    (Don’t get me wrong. Right now, more people need to embrace simplicity and focus on things that matter more: other people, relationships, experiences trump unessential materials 90% of the time. Way too many are unconscious of the beauty around them)