Living Well: Minimalism for Absolute Beginners (like me)

I became interested in minimalism as a lifestyle after I picked up Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I discovered it back in 2018, a few months before her Netflix show aired. Kondo insists that she isn’t a minimalist and her methods are not minimalism, but it does share some of the same principles.

The backbone of what Kondo teaches in her book, on her show, and in her seminars, is a simple but effective rule. Rather than getting rid of stuff you don’t need, start with keeping what brings you joy instead. Then discard from there. Her practice is meant to surround you in the end only with the things that bring some kind of joy to your life.

As a first introduction to the concept of the “less is more” mentality in a practical way, it was persuasive and appealing. Who doesn’t want to be surrounding just by things that bring them happiness?

I research a lot when I’m interested in a particular topic. So when I started looking up stuff about the KonMari method, I saw it pop up on numerous “Top Decluttering Techniques for Minimalists” lists around the internet. I’d been vaguely aware of minimalism as a concept, but then I started reading about it in earnest. (Like I said, research.)

Keep in mind that I was approaching this from the “love what you have” mindset. The more I found out about minimalism, the more it just seemed like a race to the bottom in terms of owning stuff. A kind of “she who owns the fewest clothes/furniture/forks wins” sort of thing. And for some people it seems that’s what it is. An opportunity to be superior because of how empty their apartments are. Even the books I found on the topic were all focused on decluttering and getting rid of things.

It wasn’t until I started looking at YouTube that I started to get a clearer picture of what minimalism looked like from an emotional and spiritual standpoint. In spite of the discouragement of finding nothing but books on how to get rid of things, I still hung on to the idea that what you own should bring joy to your life.

I found Matt D’Avella incidentally on YouTube via another lifestyle youtuber I followed. One of the first videos of his that I saw was “When Minimalism Goes Too Far.” One of the things he said that stood out to me immediately was

“When you strip away so much that you’re depriving yourself of things that you love, you’ve missed the point. Put another way, if you think you’ve taken minimalism too far, you’re doing minimalism wrong.”

The video goes on to talk about living with intention, being thoughtful in the choices of what you own, buy, and do. That was what I’d been looking for. Someone to get at the why of having less.

Through D’Avella, I found Anthony Ongaro. another minimalist youtuber. He called his Channel ‘Break the Twitch,’ which confused me for a while until I actually went to his website. The ‘Twitch’ he refers to is the impulse to pick up our phone the moment we get bored, or even when there’s just a pause in what we’re doing. It’s hitting the buy now button without stopping to think about the full life cycle of the product we’re about to have delivered.  It’s “an impulsive, unproductive response to different types of discomfort.”

Ongaro is the one who introduced me to minimalism’s identical twin, Intentional Living. Here was the missing piece. I learned over the course of watching his videos (and reading a book, Digital Minimalism), minimalism means far more than “she who has the least stuff wins.” It’s about intentionality, about aligning the life you live and the things you have with the values you hold dearest. It’s about owning your attention when everything in the world wants to distract you.

So it finally clicked: Minimalism is about creating an environment that supports you, and in turn supporting your environment with intentional living. It took almost a year and a half of on-and-off research for me to get there, but by god I made it eventually.

It reflects Marie Kondo’s strategy of keeping what you love and letting go of what you don’t need. But the intentional component takes it a step further and asks you to think ‘What is the full life cycle of this product I want to buy? Where is it going to end up when it breaks, or is no longer useful to me?’ Minimalism and intentional living are about connecting to the world in a more real and fundamental way. Thinking about the consequences of consumption as well as the benefits of keeping less.

There’s a spectrum along which minimalism exists, according to both the better books I’ve read and the better youtubers I follow. It’s not one size fits all. What minimalism looks like from household to household changes depending on what’s needed. A minimalist family of four isn’t going to have the same living room as a minimalist living alone. I’m not about to give up my copies of my favorite books, which means I have a ton more books than a minimalist “should,” according to the generally accepted meaning of the term. But that’s the kind of minimalism that fits me. It involved distilling an extensive library of books I’d never read down to the ones that really mattered to me, books that I couldn’t replace with electronic copies, and ones I just liked the heft and look of. I ended up with four bookshelves after starting with twelve.

In one of his videos, Anthony Ongaro recalls asking himself “Am I a minimalist yet?” as he and his wife started discarding belongings and decluttering their house. I relate to that question a lot. One of the things I’ve come to understand is that, like so many other things, minimalism isn’t a single state of being. There’s no threshold to step across, no guidelines to be met one time. It’s a practice. Ongaro calls it “the practice of removing distractions in your life.” I also think of it as “the practice of aligning your actions and ownership with your values.”

I’m just figuring things out still, just beginning to declutter in earnest (RIP books, next stop clothes), but I’m trying to remove distractions, be honest with myself about what I need to own, and to be mindful of the things I consume. So in answer to that question–Am I a minimalism yet?–I think I’d say yes, I am.


Living Well: Beginning

I am not a healthy person, on a number of levels.

I’m 290lbs at 5’11” (for the sake of context, 6’3″ Gwendoline Christie is 185), I’m in a constant battle with depression, I sleep too much, eat too much, and my apartment is an absolute disaster. I’m talking depression nest levels of messy.

And on the mental health side of things, it’s hard for me to even write that where others can see it, because I don’t tell people these things. I don’t like admitting to being overwhelmed, imperfect, anxious, or unsure.

I constantly say yes to others at the expense of myself and my own personal time, even when I know that I won’t be able to do my best for someone because I have too many other commitments. Commitments that end up falling by the wayside, or being forgotten, or getting delayed, and I berate myself for being a failure and a flake.

I don’t write enough. I always tell myself that. I’m never writing fast enough to meet my own unreasonable goals.

I had a rough end to 2019. I was visiting my parents. My mom has early onset Alzheimer’s. She’s was diagnosed in her late 50s, is now 62, and can no longer hold a coherent conversation. She needs assistance in the bathroom at times and help changing her clothes. My mom was one of the brightest, funniest, most independent people I knew. I spent two weeks at home, extending my trip so I could give my dad a break from looking after her. Constantly anxious and sad, I turned to food as a comfort, as I so often do.

It was depressing.

When I got home, I spent almost a week wallowing on my couch after work, unmotivated, not wanting to do anything. Think about 2020? About goals and desires for the New Year? No way. Normally New Year’s Eve/Day are my two favorite days of the year, but this time I couldn’t be asked to care.

My friend C was the one who snapped me out of it. Or at least half-snapped me out of it. We’d both spent the past year wanting but only half-trying to lose weight. She only has about 20lbs to go to reach her goal weight, but my healthy is still 135lbs away. I hadn’t put real effort into self-care in 2019. I’d done it in half-assed spurts–started getting my nails done, started taking care of my skin intermittently. Definitely did not eat well or exercise at all.

She’s the one who said we should think about our goals and plans for the year. I immediately listed writing goals–finish book, send out short stories, write X, Y, and Z scripts–and ended with a “yeah, that sounds good.” She was quiet for a second and then said, “Okay, but that’s all writing stuff. What about self-care?”

It hit me then that I was doing what I always do. Putting work before my health. Prioritizing accomplishment over the path it takes to get there. Placing writing at the center of my identity.

As we were talking, I made some vague health goals, like “lose 100lbs” and “start keto.” Things I thought would make her happy to hear. (Putting others before myself…)

Then I started thinking about it. I started thinking about where I am (about to be 32), my physical health, my future. The fact that I’m diabetic, and the influence that my terrible eating habits has on that aspect of my life. The fact that I probably have sleep apnea because of my weight, which contributes to oversleeping and constant tiredness, and also damages heart and brain health.

What was going to influence those writing goals? What was going to influence every other thing I wanted to do in my life?

In the book The One Thing, authors Gary Keller and Jay Papasan direct us to ask a single question: “What’s the One Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

What would make my life, overall, better and easier? What’s the one thing I can do to make all my other desires more possible?

Be a healthy person.

I called C up and started talking to her again. Told her I was cutting my writing goals back to one of those scripts and the book, told her I was going to start keto, get an exercise game called Ringfit, and start using the neglected treadmill in my house twice a week. I even went one step further and resolved to use my tax return to hire a personal trainer for the following six months.

In terms of my mental health, I decided to stop reading about minimalism and start living it, which begins with a Konmari sweep of my apartment in advance of moving. Marie Kondo’s philosophy is one I love and her method is one that works for me. I have to pare down anyway–I’m going from three bedrooms to a one bedroom, which means chopping out two rooms worth of useless clutter. I want my move to mean a genuinely fresh start.

All this to say, my goal for the year has changed: I want a clean space, a clear heart, and a healthy body.

Yes, this means a year of not producing writing at the same level I typically demand of myself, but frankly, demanding I produce at that level wasn’t working anyway. It was the same old cycle. Spurt of effort >> spurt of progress >> lose motivation >> berate myself >> wallow >> spurt of effort.

Mary Robinette Kowal says that when things were hardest for her in terms of depression or life in general, her writing goal became ‘write three sentences, every day’.

It echoes a sentiment from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, in which he compares a 1% improvement every day over the course of a year to a 1% decline every day over the same period:

“Here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1% better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1% worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero.”

Graphic representation of quote from ATOMIC HABITS.

I would rather write three sentences every day and have three sentences worth of progress every day than have one big burst and then nothing at all. I would rather dedicate my primary energy to changing my habits this year than have another year of waffling and wallowing and not getting anywhere.

Moreover, as a healthy lifestyle becomes habit in and of itself, it will take less energy to maintain it. As I get into the rhythm of meal prep, exercise, and regular cleaning, those actions will become more automatic, freeing up mental space to write more in the long term.

A year taken “off” from my pie-in-the-sky writing goals might make them more attainable in 2021.

I’ve finally decided what this blog is going to be about, over the next year at least. I’m going to dedicate myself to myself, and see where it takes me. Hopefully it’ll be somewhere interesting, and you’ll like to come along.

what even are titles

I’ve done a lot of reading on how a person “should” go about the whole blogging process. Narrow your focus! Envision your audience! Know them! Their favorite things! Imagine which stores they shop at! Get granular and build your perfect reader!

The truth is, as far as audiences go, I kinda just want to chat with my peers about what’s going on in life and how hard this whole writing thing is. I also want to stop feeling guilty for having such a nice site and never using it for anything, but that’s a secondary motive.

I was just at Viable Paradise (VP23 AW YEAH), which is at least half of the impetus for cleaning the dust from my digital desk. It shook a lot of things loose in my brain, in a good way. A lot of things that I’m still unpacking, and probably will be for a while.

For example: I realized, before VP, I wasn’t really taking this writing thing seriously. It was something I did, yes, it was in fact something I’d built part of my identity around. But I had never looked at it as more than an identity marker. If that makes any kind of sense. It was something I did because I’ve always done it, something I was good at doing. I wrote, therefore I was a writer.

But the truth is that over the past few years I haven’t been writing all that much. I’d been wrestling with the whole idea that I had to write in order to be who I was, though I’ve only realized that in retrospect. I had to write because I had opportunities to publish that other people might not get. I had to write because who would I be if I didn’t?

There were in fact a few times where I looked at myself in the mirror and went “What if I just stopped?” I couldn’t answer the question. I didn’t want to answer the question. I knew no one would disown me if I stopped writing. I knew some people who would be disappointed, but there was no real risk to not doing anything. It would free up a lot of time I spent in self-flagellation with no word count to show for it.

That started to change when I picked up a few books by Mary Robinette Kowal, joined her Patreon, and started taking her online classes. I started to learn again, improve again, have something to engage with other than putting words on the page. It gave me back a little sliver of the identity I was afraid of losing, but it didn’t get me to produce. I was still firmly in the realm of You have to do this. Moreover, I was in the realm of You have to do this perfectly. Which meant I wasn’t really doing anything at all.

I came out of one of her weekend classes, a Short Story Intensive (totally worth taking, highly recommend) with a half-finished short story and two new writing partners. One of them knew about this thing called Viable Paradise, and suggested that the three of us apply together. For something like three months, we worked together preparing our applications, our writing samples, our cover letters. We all submitted together, and I got in.

At first I was kind of dismayed. Both my writing partners were incredibly encouraging, celebrating with me and for me when I wasn’t quite sure how to celebrate myself. But I felt like a fraud. I still didn’t write much, no matter how much I told myself I had to do it because otherwise why was I even going to VP?

Then I actually went, and it was one of the most amazing writing-related experiences I’ve had in my life. It was utterly intense, with daily lectures, homework assignments, one-on-ones with teachers and critiques with authors and peers.

There was also a talk on writing and mental health. One thing specifically hit me right between the eyes. Paraphrasing, but the essence is there: “You don’t have to do this. You want to do this, because you love to do this.”

VP gave me a lot of things, but probably one of the most important things it gave me was that.

So when I say I wasn’t taking writing seriously before VP, I guess I mean two things. The first: Writer was my identity, not my profession. I had pretty much lost the joy that brought me to the craft in the first place. Going through a week-long writing bootcamp forced me to evaluate what I was there for, and what I wanted to do with it. I was surrounded by people who had or hadn’t gotten publishing credits. People who all had more or less the same goal: improve and publish. It’s the and publish part that finally got through to me. Where did I want to be in a year, two years, five? Did I want to be a writer still dreaming about the book that would never be written, or did I want to be the writer in the trenches, working hard on something I loved because the work itself was worth it? That’s one of the other things VP gave me. The reminder that imperfection is still worth the effort.

The second thing it showed me, I should have spotted for myself. I was in a learning-based stasis. I was hiding from progress with my writing by taking lessons without applying them. Learning without practicing. Spinning my wheels. VP packed so much into me so fast that the options were improve or implode. It gave learning a purpose again. It gave a lot of things a purpose again.

This isn’t particularly well-organized. It’s also not where I thought this post was going to go. Probably I’ll be unpacking the shift in my mind from identity to profession for a while, sorting out my feelings and… well, a lot of things.

Really, this amounts to Part One of ???? “thank you VP” posts. My brain is still very, very full.