There’s always been this ‘trend’ in the sphere of minimalism to count things. It’s almost like it’s part of the process – but I’m here to tell you it really isn’t. Minimalism is not a numbers game. Let me repeat that, being a minimalist does not require you to count anything at all (with an exception, but I’ll get to that later).
Where does this idea of counting come from?
I reflected on my early days of pursuing minimalist ideals, where I got my information and understanding from. Of course, I could go far back and look at how Taoism in my teen years influenced my thinking, but I’m talking a deliberate look at minimalism as a lifestyle choice. The easiest target is The Minimalists, who were probably the first “big” people to successfully promote this way of living. One of their most popular methods is the 30-day ‘game’, actually highlighted in their main blog menu. It’s very simple, as they write, all you have to do is:
Each person gets rid of one thing on the first day of the month. Two things on the second. Three things on the third. So forth and so on.
For 30 days. There’s a printable calendar, an infographic, and of course there’s also variants on this. Lots of other articles, such as “Delete 1000 photos in 11 days”, “1-in-10-out Rule”, “Everything I Own: My 288 Things” and more. This is just one site. Beginners are bombarded with the idea that counting stuff, making numerical choices on the things we value and have is the way to do this.
Controversial, possibly? Maybe. But allow me some time to explain.
Clearly Defining Minimalism
Minimalism is a lifestyle, not a number. We are challenged to reduce our possessions and that’s the positive part. It’s streamlining our possessions and needs and wants to the functional minimum. We’re not in a ‘race to the bottom’ to have the least amount possible, in order to reach some sort of idealistic zen/nirvana/spiritual state of perfect contentment. Nor are we to deny ourselves things because we “must have less” – this is also known as asceticism, and is not part of what a minimalist should be thinking.
For me and my house (my wife is a “sort-of” minimalist), we have some simple rules – the consumable parts of the house are allowed some leeway in having an extra spare. For example, cleaning materials, toilet rolls, certain foods are stocked so if we run out, we still have some so we can arrange our shopping accordingly. We live fairly remotely so don’t have the immediate access to shopping that allows us to just pick up the said items when we’re going to/from our work. Is this minimalist? I like to think so. We minimise the amount of shopping trips, the hassle of having to add more things to our day and just by using judicious planning can make our lives simpler.
Simplicity is a part of minimalism. Functionality is a part of minimalism. Optimising and focusing is a part of minimalism. Sacrificing things for the sake of having less is not.
In the article “Why Minimalism Isn’t About What We Own”, Someday Slower writes that:
I think we get hung up on the numbers because they are tangible, they are a goal we can achieve. We can see them, deal with them, no matter how hard it can be. We can actively strive toward minimalism by decluttering and simplifying what we own. But it’s got to go further than that, so much further because at its heart, minimalism isn’t about the things.
And this is true – minimalism as a lifestyle, is really about how we feel. What’s important to us? What’s essential to us? Sure, we can look at the numbers of things, or determine that we’re going to follow a “1-in-2-out” rule, or declutter x amount of items in y amount of days – but this isn’t minimalism. Minimalism is a driving force behind these decisions. It’s about renewing our mindset towards doing more with less. From the design and art standpoint, this is what minimalism is. Designers spend huge amounts of time with the aesthetics of products we use, items we own. Everything is designed. Everything is considered to some extent. With the more minimalist designs, this process is taken much much further. Boiling down the item to it’s bare essential.
How The Numbers Game Can Bog You Down
The counting means that the number must keep going down. When the number stops, it’s a problem to these people. But the issues is, they have missed the point. The number should only be as useful as the information it provides.
But in this case, the numbers are hindering us. Or they are causing us to waste huge amounts of time by obsessing over them. Matt D’Avella did a video in which he spend what obviously seems a huge amount of time doing a complete count and catalogue of everything he owns. Which leads to my immediate questions whilst watching it:
How long did it take? What was the end result?. Well, it very possibly took a long time – not only to do the actual counting and cataloguing, but also filming, editing, uploading etc. The end result is a boring, disappointing video which I actually skipped nearly all of it. Why? Because it’s ultimately a pointless exercise, just a way to get “some points” for demonstrating how “minimalist” you are. Don’t get me wrong, Matt has some great videos, but this was by far the worst. A very small section right at the end where he says that whatever the amount we own, it’s important that we are intentional and thoughtful about them.
That’s all that is needed. I don’t need to go through Every. Single. Thing. and document it to know that. In Matt’s video, he mentions that his partner, Nat, has less stuff than him. It doesn’t matter.
Counting can easily consume the wannabe, the curious or even the well-established minimalist. When we begin being minimalist, we look up searches, and often the hits are helpful, but it’s full of “10 things to declutter RIGHT NOW” or “7 things that aren’t minimalist”, but then there’s also the extreme minimalist fringe who are “47 things I own.” and more. Presented with smiling faces, happily able to somehow show off a well-presented video that has been professionally shot, but no mention of camera, lenses, lighting, mic, editing gear, etc are mentioned. It’s suspicious at worst, and devious at best.
Be happy with what you have, and seriously, don’t get suckered into counting.
Where counting is valuable.
Now I mentioned earlier that there are exceptions to counting our stuff where it is helpful and beneficial. I’ll demonstrate with an example, one that I often go to – T-Shirts.
I wear the same t-shirt for home/leisure, and I have a separate one for DIY/Cleaning/Maintenance stuff. I have a few work shirts for my job. I have 12 T-Shirts in total. Why have I counted this number? It’s because this is the optimal amount I need to have my laundry cycle regularly, that considers daily use, work, doing extra things, bad weather or just spilling a bit of pasta sauce on one of them.
12 T-Shirts. I counted out how many I could need, the bare minimum, the excessive amount, and through a process of trial and error, got to this number. It works for me. It’s minimal in that I have a T-Shirt brand that is steady and consistent, I can replace any damaged one with the exact same. I don’t need any more. I could live with a few less, but then I’m running risks of having to launder more often, etc. It’s just the right amount – and its the right amount for me.
This is where counting can be valuable. Working out what is best for you. But I would advise caution and only use counting for the item in question, not as a “I live with only 50 things, why don’t you do it because if you don’t you’re not a proper minimalist”.
Top tip: There is no such thing as a “proper minimalist”. You either adopt the mindset, or not. It’s really that simple.
I have no clue how many things I have. I’m still working on some areas, but the way I look at it as a minimalist – I have enough.
The value in things.
So, as I come to a sort of conclusion I need to wrap some of these things up into a few points.
What we need and use are hugely variable. Even in areas of similarity. For example, I only have one set of motorbike gear. I use that gear all summer and winter seasons. Sure, I have a couple of liners for my hands and neck for winter, but there are other bikers who have winter, summer, wet gear. Whose approach is right? Neither really. It’s what works for you. Minimalism would dictate that it’s what you need and how you use it that matters. I use my gear every day, chuck it in the wash regularly enough, and that system works for me. Other bikers would balk at that and use winter specific gear.
We all have the freedom to make choices on things. I love fountain pens but only have two. I’ve got my eyes on a couple more, but they’re not essential. I love the ink colours and there’s always more inks I could try. I use them for my to-do lists, projects I have that aren’t noted on my computer, for my personal journals, any paperwork I need to fill in. I could have a LOT more, because it’s easily an obsession for some, but I keep a measure on it. I refine what I have from time to time. Now, there’s nothing wrong in having these things, because that’s not where minimalism lies. It’s the mindset behind it. I don’t have lots of pens and even more inks because I consciously choose not to. It’s not denial, asceticism or anything like that. It’s not important to have them all, and I’m happy with what I have.
Counting has some benefits. It can be used to guide us to optimise things. We don’t guess how much fuel goes into our cars or bikes, we don’t estimate what day it is. Numbers have value in their place. When they become the driving force in what we decide and do, we become almost like The Dice Man, driven by a number rather than the feelings and thoughts of our own mind.
And that’s the final point – stop counting your stuff, unless you’re trying to optimise. Otherwise it’s a trap of being constantly dissatisfied with where things are, and always bothered about the “number” of things. This reduces the simplicity and enjoyment that minimalism as a lifestyle can provide.
I’m sure most people offended by this essay won’t get this far. They may label me as hypocritical for writing so much and taking a long time to labour this point. Fair enough. But if it stops someone taking minimalism to an extreme that is unhelpful, then it’s worth it. People often become disillusioned with minimalism because they fall into the trap of less stuff = happy, find they aren’t getting happier, remove more stuff because they aren’t “minimalist enough”, find it’s not working and eventually will revert back to their old selves.
Firstly – it’s not about happiness. Its about contentment – finding the right level of stuff. Secondly, these people are far more likely to complain, and there has been a trend of videos and essays (I’ll update with a list later) of people disappointed in the minimalist lifestyle. It’s typically a case of where it’s been taken too far.
Finally – if you want to fully count your shit. Go ahead. I can’t or won’t stop you. But I can guarantee this – it won’t satisfy you, either now, or in the long term. As I said, focusing on counting for limited and specific purposes is helpful, and I strongly recommend that instead.