How to Get Started with Minimalism: Assess Your Personality

I am no expert, nor am I a perfect or pure minimalist. Truthfully, there is no pure or perfect; there is process. Process is about experience, learning, trial and error. In this post I’ll share with you some of the things that worked for getting me and our family going with minimalism, especially with regard to decluttering and living with less. Minimalism is more than just stuff, but that is a big part of it, at least when you begin.

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We are not a family living in luxury; there are many basic things we go without, not entirely by choice, but by matter of circumstance (mainly lack of money). However, we live in Canada and not in poverty so I know we’re living very well. That said, we don’t have a lot of things that families consider necessary and basic. We don’t have a car, we don’t have a dining table (read here), we don’t have a desktop computer, TV, air conditioning and so on. But, still, we do have lots of things. Many of these things are the things that easily accumulate like toys, books, and clothing.

If you’ve read books about de-cluttering, like Marie Kondo’s opus, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, you’ll know that she recommends doing your tidying and discarding all in one go. Wait, what?! That’s just slightly impossible to imagine if you work full time, have young children and/or are single parenting. It’s just not realistic. That said, I do recommend people read her book, not necessarily for the process she recommends, but for her excellent discussion of all the positive benefits of de-cluttering and setting your home in order, along with the many social and health benefits you wouldn’t imagine result from decluttering. I also really love her discussion of the deep respect we should show to things and inanimate objects. This is quite an uncommon perspective, but one I share, and I’m so happy she has brought it to a mass audience. My one reservation, which I’ve mentioned before, is that her book does not offer strategies for discarding things in an ecological way. She uses the word garbage bag way too many times for my liking. ‘Garbage bag’ is a dirty word, am I right?

Then there are others who advocate a longer de-cluttering process, taken in steps over a period of time that works for you. Maybe doing one room each day or each week, until you are done, is the best approach for you? What I think is important is for you to first assess your own personality, your own sources of motivation, and figure out what approach will keep you going to the end. Aristotle’s words on education are as relevant to that process as that of minimalism:

The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.

Some people need to see instant progress or have to finish a job quickly once they’ve started or else they know they’ll never finish it. These people are probably going to find success with the all-on-one go method. Are you someone who doesn’t a finish project unless you do it in a short period? If so, you should dedicate a full weekend to purging and de-cluttering and then the job is done. All you have to do is be a good gate keeper and not allow much new stuff to come into your home and you’ll maintain it easily. If you do a proper and thorough job you will love your new space and it will be easy to maintain because you’ll be careful about not disturbing the calm you achieved. Problems arise when you only half de-clutter…more on that later.

The reality is most of us don’t have the time, energy or resources to do it all in one go. That was the case for me. So here are the strategies and techniques I applied, choose one or both:

1)      The Smoking Jacket Approach

Start by making one room, your favourite room or the room you spend the most time in, fully decluttered. Make an oasis of calm, decluttered space in your home. Be thorough, don’t leave any corner of the room messy or cluttered, even if it’s out of sight. (Cluttered closets and drawers should not be left as is, in your mind you know they are there and the busy clutter will affect you subconsciously). Once you have one room that is just how you like it, you will likely be motivated to do the same in other rooms. If you don’t have the time right away, you at least have a space to retreat to that feels just right. Additionally, other people will likely be drawn to this space and enjoy the calm it offers and they may, in turn, be motivated to arrange their own spaces in the house similarly, and at the very least will be less resistant to you decluttering other rooms once they feel the benefits, physically and emotionally, of being in a peaceful, calm space. This was certainly true in the case of my family. Once I decluttered my bedroom thoroughly Ro was much more open to me doing the same to her room, while before this she had been very hesitant. She thought she felt a comfort in things, but learned through experience that she actually preferred a decluttered space.

Once you have one room just right what is likely to happen is what I call the smoking jacket phenomenon (it is also known as the Diderot effect). I didn’t invent this phrase. The smoking jacket phenomenon is a reference to a story of a man who lived in what he thought was a decently furnished apartment. He was then given a beautiful, luxury smoking jacket. It was so lovely that it made everything around seem shabby in comparison. He became sad and was then motivated, even driven, to one thing at a time replace everything he owned with something that measured up to that smoking jacket. By the time he replaced everything he owned the smoking jacket then didn’t seem beautiful enough to be among all his new things. The story is (as originally told) intended to convey the traps of consumerism, stuff, and class status – that you’ll never reach that point when your stuff is enough.

When it comes to decluttering you can apply a smoking jacket analogy, and interestingly it does the reverse of the original story. So, once you make one space in your home just exactly as you like it, calm, clear of clutter, the other rooms will look and feel poor in comparison, you’ll be motivated to declutter each one, until you have done it to all the rooms and the whole home matches the beauty and peace of the first room you started with. Turning the original problem of the smoking jacket on its head, you can use this approach to make less your more, to make less enough.

2)      The Baby Steps Approach

The other approach I recommend for those who think a whole room is just too much to accomplish right away, is identifying small contained units that you can declutter one at a time. A unit could be your bathroom cabinet, your utensil drawer, the bottom drawer in your dresser, your linen closet, etc. Make it whatever size, small or tiny, that you think is manageable. The important thing to ensure is that whatever you choose to declutter you finish the decluttering in one go. If you only half declutter you may not go back and finish or you might say “it’s good enough”. But let me tell you: when you haven’t fully decluttered it is very easy for it slip back into clutter. Furthermore other people may not notice the change and may re-clutter it. Whereas, if it is done fully and well, you will be motivated to maintain it and others will likely help keep it that way. Think of a counter with no dirty dishes, people are more likely to wash up their dish than start a pile, or will put the dish in the dishwasher. But once there is one dirty dish there on the counter everyone just piles things on. It’s like permission to make a mess! So, what I recommend is to make a small area clutter free and then build on that success.

The baby steps approach, by the way, is also my maintenance technique. I know that if I lived alone the clutter would not return. But I live with people that have other interests than tidying and less sensitivity to space. So things accumulate, not too much, but they do. So I usually spend a few minutes a day just going through a small zone and making sure to discard any clutter. When Sen is in the bath, I’m checking the bathroom vanity. When water is waiting to boil, I’m looking in the utensil drawer for stray elastics or twist ties, etc. Everytime laundry is returned from the dryer I take out anything that the kids don’t love to wear or don’t really need, and I ask Ro not to hang anything from her laundry that she doesn’t love, but instead to put it in our donation bag. Every week she’s assessing what she wants to keep. Doing this on an ongoing basis has made it very easy for her to part with things. Whereas just a few years ago Matt and I had a very serious conversation about how me might work with Ro on non-attachment since she seemed so obsessively attached to her things (like crying when we recycled a paper napkin she had used at a restaurant to doodle on). She has since outgrown this phase, mostly likely natural maturing, but she’s also gotten quite good at parting with her less loved things on a regular basis through practice.

So there you have it, two ways to get started with minimalism based on your personality assessment: all in one go or step by step process. Within the step by step process you can use the smoking jacket approach or the baby steps approach.

I’ll write another post on how to decide what to keep, but for now try to think about your own personality, what motivates you to finish a project. Understanding yourself better will help you decide if you are an all-in-one go person or not, and then how to proceed.

As an aside, I find that Erin Boyle’s book Simple Matters is great for the step by step, over time approach to decluttering. She also has a child so understands the challenges of having gifts and new things constantly coming into your home. You can find her book here. Another great book for families is Joshua Becker’s Clutter Free with Kids, which you can find here.

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments; I’m happy to answer. If you think you’d like to start with decluttering closets and clothing, this post here will really help with that. Another post, here, has tips for involving children in minimalism and decluttering (called “In the News”).

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11 thoughts on “How to Get Started with Minimalism: Assess Your Personality

  1. Misha says:

    Great tips. I would argue luxury is very relative though. For many in Canada and around the world, you are blessed to be in the top 1%! I can understand how within the 1% there are pressures to consume a lot and display a lot and you have done beautifully to live eco and minimalist in your situation. Having moved to a country rifled with poverty, I see minimalism as a necessity – we buy food in smaller quantities, repair and repair items until its on its last thread or sole, and make use of furniture in multiple ways. I no longer have beautiful danish modern antiques I once had in Canada (and not through the privelage of inheritance) but have chosen mostly bamboo furnishings here in India and hand blocked prints to be as sustainable as possible. Its all so relative. I make 10% of what I did in Canada and at times feel like I am struggling to “make ends meet” but again it is relative – I live in luxury compared to most of the world. Would love to share my observations on minimalism out of necessity/working poverty with you some time. I also agree with you that minimalism is not mainly material oriented – material and aesthetic minimalism is a by product of a lifestyle and conscious effort to live more simply for eco, and psychological reasons. The focus is often much too often on the design aspects of minimalism. I guess that is what I cynically find about first world problems. I would love to share some photos of Indian village homes living in minimalism sometime as well. Thanks for sharing Danielle and starting a dialogue on this! Love ya

    • :: danielle :: says:

      Dear Misha, Thanks for your considered comments!

      Yes, of course, the elephant in the room is that minimalism is a first world problem, a problem of the affluent. I tried to suggest that in my intro where I say that I know we live very well. At the same time, it has become quite clear to me that a subset of my readers and followers get the impression that we are wealthy or at least have “disposable” income, which is entirely not the case. We just barely get by each week and we have no frivolous expenses, none. We do reuse and repair things, way more than is normal, we do that because it’s eco but also out of economic necessity.

      To your point, luxury certainly is relative, and I’d like to think that luxury doesn’t have to mean material or financial luxury, but that a life that included people and the activities you love most is one of luxury. That is true wealth, true riches.

      To your other point about aesthetic minimalism, I agree. This is something I actually talked about in my first Interview with a Minimalist with “Alison”, back in July 2015. Minimalism in its most crude form is about aesthetics, style, design. But the minimalism I am interested in is not about beauty, it’s about sustainability, living in an environmentally conscious way (having less supports this, consuming less supports this), it’s also about putting your focus on something aside from stuff, putting your time and mental energy into adventure, art, friendships as opposed to shopping and cleaning. The former activities certainly contribute more to happiness, to putting positive energy into the world, and so on.

      When I first started reading about the “new” minimalism I felt very frustrated. I wanted to start my own term “ecominimalism” to mark a shift away from aesthetics and towards a more mindful, conscious minimalism that wasn’t about trends and style, but had a philosophy and substance behind it. In the end I found that there were people pursuing minimalism of this variety, they just weren’t as easy to find, which is why I wanted to start sharing their stories on my blog.

      Thanks again for the comment, and if you’d like to share your story of moving from Canada to India and the shift in perception of and experience with minimalism I’d love to work with you on a post. Xo, Danielle

  2. litterless blog says:

    I love the thought of ecominimalism – I hadn’t heard the term until you mentioned it, and it fits my philosophy perfectly. While I love having a simple home, Marie Kondo’s tips (put everything in a trash bag and just get rid of it) made me shudder. There are so much smarter ways to pass along extra, unneeded resources. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Alison says:

    I also noticed that Marie Kondo recommended “throwing away” lots of stuff. I kept waiting for her to elaborate, and explain that she really meant to donate it to a person or charity who could use it. I can’t recall seeing her say that, but surely that’s what she meant?! I certainly hope so anyway 🙂

  4. Glenn Queener says:

    My wife and I are exploring minimalism, and I am very intrigued by this idea. I love the idea of “less is more” and learning to focus on what really matters. She, by nature, is a de-clutter-er, and I, by nature, am the clutter-er (sorry for the made up words). I love my wife, and seek to bring peace, calm, and order to our home, not just for her, but for the whole family. We went through and purged my books tonight. I am a former pastor, and have collected a lot of books over the years. I could see the sense of peace and hope that came over her.

    A year and half ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and decided then to focus on what really matters. We decided to downsize our home (and planning another downsizing in a few months), and get rid of the stuff that invades our lives and often times becomes a barrier to real soul connections.

    But, as I stated before I am one that seems to acquire things that don’t matter. I guess the crux of my question is: What advice would you give a natural destroyer of clutter-free spaces, such as myself, to sustain this lifestyle?

    Thank you for your blog, interviews, and general help.

    Glenn

    • :: danielle :: says:

      Dear Glenn, thank you for your comment and questions (and made up words) — they are perfect! I think that in purging some books and seeing the effect this had on your wife’s mental state, her “sense of peace” that you understand why and have found incentive to continue. As you purge other spaces within your home you will likely, too, start to feel a lightness, and even if you don’t feel it from removing unnecessary things from your space, you will feel the lightness in response to your wife’s happiness and calm. The real benefits of minimalism come by way of mental clarity and mental health, by removing distractions and creating space for positive, productive, focused thought. You strike me as a deeply reflective person and likely a deep thinker having been a pastor, you will likely enjoy the mental clarity and ability to focus better that comes from simplicity. So, to your question: what should you do to sustain this lifestyle? I would recommend focusing on the small and incremental joys of less, the peace of mind you see in your wife’s face, the happiness it brings her and, in turn, to you. On a practical note, notice whether you ever miss or need anything you’ve parted with. You probably won’t miss a thing. But you will have gained from it. Please accept my best wishes to you and your wife, and thank you for joining this conversation.

  5. Katie Moeller says:

    I am very interested in creating a de-clutter home for my growing family. I have two young boys and by nature, neither my husband, nor myself, is minimalist. For example, my hubs is certain he needs 15 hoodies and trying to convince him to par down doesn’t work at all. So I know that we will never have a total minimalist philosophy but I hope this is a case where it’s not all or nothing. I would still like to work to de-clutter and rid our home of excess possessions. I would like to be able to have cleaner, more organized closets and a kitchen counter that stays clear! I would also like to be getting rid of toys as we get new ones, etc. Can you share tips with the actual de-cluttering process? What do you ask yourself in order to decide what to keep vs discard? I guess one argument that tends to complicate things for me is, “will I need this again?” For example, I think “perhaps I will need these baking ramikens I hardly ever use sometime in the future and then will I regret getting rid of them?” It’s even difficult with smaller, less expensive items because I feel like throwing away a pumpkin carving kit for example (from Halloween) is wasteful and I know I will need to purchase another in the next couple of years so my dilemma is should I pay $5 for another next year (preferred so I don’t have to store such a cheap and odd item for the next 365 days) or save this one (much more sustainable but creates more clutter)? Do you see what I mean? It can pertain to clothes, household items, toys, etc and really sets me back. So anyways just looking for some guidance in how to decide to keep vs donate/toss.
    Thanks so very much!!
    Katie

    • :: danielle :: says:

      Dear Katie, First, my apologies for missing this comment when you made it.
      So, I am working on a post about how to decide what to keep and what to discard. But I can tell you that you do not have to go all or nothing with decluttering and minimalism. You can do it in stages or just partially. You can start by focusing on your own things, and maybe later on your husband will warm up to the idea after seeing how it went for you. For me, getting to a clutter free point (which I still haven’t attained in my view) has been a many years process. I don’t have much spare time in my week so I have had to move slowly and champion myself for the small successes. I can tell you that I have never parted with something that I wanted back, and in most cases I couldn’t even remember what I gave away. With your ramikin example I can answer you by saying that I have given away many kitchen tools and pans etc, and what I’ve done is just been a little creative to multipurpose things. So for ramikins I would use a muffin tin for something served out of the rankin or a mug for something served in a ramekin. Think of how you can multipurpose things or come up with a creative alternative. I think that the vast majority of kitchen tools these days are simply created and produced to make sales not because they solve a real problem or make food presentation much improved. As to the pumpkin carving set, I would not recommend getting rid of something you will purchase again. That is wasteful of your money and of the earth’s resources. However, similar to the ramikin example think about how you could carve a pumpkin with an ordinary knife. Do you really need a set? If expert pumpkin carving is a passion for you maybe it is worth it to keep the set? Thank you for commenting and feel free to write again and I will get back to you more quickly.

  6. Amanda Rose says:

    Hi Danielle! I just wanted to write you a quick note and tell you (again) how much you inspire me. When I first began pursuing minimalism it was purely out of overwhelming exhaustion and I just wanted my home to be a peaceful calming place to be. My home is now my favorite place to be! haha so I definitely achieved that goal. But in the process I’ve learned so many other reasons and benefits of pursuing this lifestyle and a huge one you’ve opened my eyes to is the damaging affects of consumerism on this beautiful earth we inhabit. It’s yet another reason I want to teach my kids to be mindful of how they spend their money and bring things into their own homes someday.
    All that being said, it’s not only another reason to stop buying more but it’s also forced me to be more conscious of HOW I purge my home. How I dispose and donate matters.
    I’ve had a couple items of clothing that I mostly love. haha I say mostly because there were tiny things about them that weren’t my favorite (mostly in how they fit) but they were pretty expensive and quite lovely pieces so I kept them. Before minimalism it didn’t matter. It was just another article of clothing in my closet, but now that I only want to keep what I ABSOLUTELY love, those few pieces have really started to bother me. My wardrobe has been pared down to a quantity I feel good with so I didn’t want to get rid of more clothing and then buy pieces to replace them. So today I took them to a tailor to get them altered. The small things that didn’t fit right will be adjusted so that they are pieces I love everything about and although I had to spend some money to make the changes, I didn’t spend money on brand new clothes and didn’t put more clothes back out into the world or into a dump.
    I don’t normally encourage people to spend money to be minimalist but this is definitely one thing I feel was a worthy investment because I will have these articles of clothing for such a long time. Just wanted you to know you’ve totally made me appreciate another side of minimalism. And I’m so grateful to know you and gain knowledge and support in living a life avoiding the consumer mindset.
    sending lots of love! xx

    • :: danielle :: says:

      Dear Amanda, thank you so much, as always, for reading, sharing and commenting on the blog. You have been a huge inspiration to me and it really touches my heart that I have inspired you. As you suggest above, minimalism can start from a purely aesthetic or anxious place, but evolves if you stick with it into much more. For me, I’ve been strongly driven my whole life with regard to environmental protection and at the same time with calm organized space, it was a lovely surprise and evolution to see these naturally come together for me through minimalism. A big part of this is not only keeping very little, but more importantly acquiring very little, as opposed to cycling things out of our homes into the abyss of donation bins and garbage. Repairing (and altering or adapting or repurposing) things is an age old technique that we moderns in the first world have largely abandoned, but sorely need to recuperate. We need to shift our mindset for sure. Let’s work on this together. Much love, Danielle

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