What I learned from 7 years of minimalism

by Jessica Dang
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When I started this blog back in 2009, I was on my way to college and living away for the first time. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I only had a vague idea that I wanted to enjoy it, whatever that might mean.

Eventually I came to understand that the key to making the most of life is to be sure that there isn’t anything holding me back—to make sure that I am free.

When I look back at my earlier posts, I see that in some ways I’m still the same person, and in others I have grown a lot. Minimalism for me started out as just decluttering a few things so that it was easier for me to travel. Over the years, it has taken on a deeper meaning beyond getting rid of stuff. It’s a tool I used to get the most of what I want from life.

Like every practice, the beginning was easy—how to pare down, how to fit everything I owned into a suitcase, etc. The harder stuff came slowly over the years—like how to be grateful for what I have, and how to let go.

Here are some of the easier lessons I learned quickly, and the more advanced versions that took a few more years for me to put into practice.

Lesson 1: Essentials
Easy: Having only what I need—identifying the useful from the useless. Easy.
Advanced: Learning that what I need changes, and adapting to it—growing an awareness to what I wanted from life at different times was harder. When I travelled a lot, being able to move with just one bag was essential, now I’ve settled down and running a business, things are different. Without material distractions, I am constantly reviewing my goals and making sure I make steps towards achieving them. I can’t hang onto ideals like having  less than 100 things like I used to (there is such a thing as being too attached to minimalism) but I also have to be aware that the things I own don’t end up owning me.

Lesson 2: Life
Easy: Decluttering my home—throwing things in charity bags was easy, and so was not buying new things that I didn’t want just because it was fashionable or because other people had it.
Advanced: Decluttering my life—my distracted mind, unnecessary commitments, toxic relationships, are all things that were harder to get rid of. I took up meditation to focus my mind, I refused to do more work than I had to, and I phased out people who were emotionally taxing on me. It might sound a little selfish, but because of it I was able to concentrate living a better life, and helping other people who needed it more.

Lesson 3: Time
Easy: Minimalism helped me make time for what matters—not caring what other people thought, and learning to say no lead to fewer commitments, which gave me more time to do what I wanted, and what I felt was important to me.
Advanced: Once I had time, I needed to actually make the most of it—I had goals and dreams, and after minimalising distractions I had no excuses. It was time for the harder stuff. I studied hard and graduated. I worked and travelled. I trained and ran (a lot). I quit my job and started my own business. People who misunderstand minimalism are missing the harder lesson—it’s not about getting rid of stuff, it’s about making room for what’s important. And then actually doing it.

Lesson 4: Relationships
Easy: People can’t be ‘converted’ to minimalism—I learned very quickly that talking about minimalism in daily life to people who haven’t heard of it before made me sound like a new-age hippie.
Advanced: I can show them the benefits, or just not care—instead of just talking about it, I learned that a better approach would be to live my life how I want, and if people take notice or ask questions, then they are ready to listen. Otherwise, I’ve learned to not really care too much about what people do and how they live their lives.

Lesson 5: Charity
Easy: Practicing minimalism to make a better life for myself—I’ve lived abroad, moved several times, and now I live in a beautiful apartment. I don’t work 9-5, I wake up at whatever time I want, and take holidays whenever I want. Save a small student loan, I have no debt, and I don’t live paycheck to paycheck.
Advanced: Practicing minimalism to make a better life for others—instead of wasting my money on car payments or branded perfumes, I can donate to people in need. Instead of wasting my time on pretending to be busy at work, I run my own business which gives me more time to give to people I can help. There is still so much more I can give, and instead of just talking about it, minimalism has helped me find the path to do it. You wouldn’t believe how much time/money/effort/anguish you save when you don’t care about impressing anyone.

Lesson 6: Sentimentality
Easy: Digitizing—books, CDs etc. I buy digitally if I can help it. I scan important papers and take photos of things to make it easier to throw them away.
Advanced: Learning to let go altogetherI’ve come a long way but still have a lot to learn. I just can’t bring myself to throw away some things from my childhood, or keepsakes that mean a lot to me. So I keep them. There are no minimalist ‘rules’ to dictate me, or anyone. I’m not as strong as some people who really aren’t attached to anything. Maybe I’ll never be like that, but for now I don’t care. For me, learning to let go is an ongoing practice.

Lesson 7: Gratefulness
Easy: Learning about mindfulness and gratefulness—I’ve read dozens of books about the subject, including almost anything published my the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh (I even went to his retreat in Plum Village, France).
Advanced: Actually practicing it—remembering to be mindful, or grateful is hard. Whenever I realise, ‘I should be really grateful right now’, I find myself staring into blank space trying to do it, whatever that means. It’s hard. But I’m slowly getting better at appreciating small things, seeing the beauty in the ordinary, and recognising moments of happiness. I expect to be practicing this lesson for the rest of my life too.

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  • Jen

    Thank-you for this, I always love your posts. You articulate so much of what I am thinking/doing in my own life. I’m still trying to figure out a way to work for myself, though! Glad to hear it’s working out for you.

  • Josh

    Lesson two & three (Life & time) are difficult, to take away habits
    which add no value to your life. Often, they stem from real desires we
    need to allow to come out and express themselves. There’s the pickle. I
    find this is where stoic philosophy helps
    me, putting beliefs you want inside yourself, then allowing the
    feelings and emotions to follow suit. (The basis of Cognitive
    Behavioural Therapy).

    Lesson four and five (Relationship & Charity) go hand in hand to me. Why else would you do so much personal development if not to better yourself and the people around you. It’s the message of most religions, to live your life in a
    heartfelt way. I piggyback this to your daily habits (a big thing for
    me lately) because when you take away the poor choices you can fill it
    with life-giving ones smile emoticon

    Lesson six (Sentimentality) I do not think it’s bad to cling to something. I
    know this goes against Buddhist ideas, but when the bad comes, clinging
    to the good seems very sensible. We only live once, so we are told, so
    even having attachment to a material object is not as bad as its often
    claimed. We know we will die, we know our object of affection won’t be
    there forever either, but we can enjoy it while we can. If someone
    wants to claim unchecked materialism because you want to enjoy the world
    and its contents mindfully, that’s their problem.

    Lesson seven (Gratefulness) is paramount. I find this is where I can let my
    inner child out and see the beauty in everything. I stay mindful that
    my gratefulness and trustworthy nature being taken advantage. Often, to
    shut you up people will say ‘be grateful’, especially when they want to
    screw you over. Gratefulness if great, but so is fairness.

    Great article, got me thinking 🙂