How This Year Finally Made Me a Minimalist

published Jan 15, 2015
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(Image credit: Diana Liang)

All of my adult life I’ve been waging a sort of small-scale war: a war against The Encroachment of the Stuff. I think, though, that when I look back on the history of this conflict I will see 2014 as the year that marked the turning of the tide. 2014 is the year that finally made me a minimalist.

In 2014 I lived in four different places: one in Paris, two in Houston, and one in New York. All that moving has been an ever-present reminder of the inconvenience of having a lot of things: putting them in boxes, in suitcases, carrying them around, unpacking them, finding places to put them in a succession of drawers and closets.

With each move I’ve pared down a little bit more. At first it was easy to get rid of stuff: out of closets and into the giveaway pile went things like old college textbooks, mismatched glassware, clothes I hadn’t worn in five years. But by moves two and three, even as I was getting more and more serious about traveling light, giving things away also got more agonizing. I had already trimmed the fat, and now the things I was considering tossing weren’t just gimmes. They were the I-might-want-this and I-might-wear-that and so-and-so-gave-me-this things.

I was stuck. I’m deeply nostalgic and sort of indecisive, and have always been really, really terrible at giving things away. I would debate over two shirts for ten minutes, decide to keep them both (but I loved that shirt in college!) and then quit, mired in self-loathing.

The big breakthrough came more or less by accident. When I moved to New York, I sorted everything into two piles: one of Will Need Eventually, things like kitchenware that I would want when I finally found an apartment, and one of Need Right Now, stuff I figured I would need in New York and could cram into my tiny bedroom in my sublet. Of the second pile, the most urgent things went into my two suitcases, and the slightly-less urgent things went into four boxes for my mom to mail to me (thanks, mom!).

The first box contained my winter clothes. I was glad to have that one. But after that my mom wanted to know which box to ship next, and something weird happened: I couldn’t remember what was in any of the other boxes. Box number two arrived, full of forgotten sweaters and such, and then I put a stop to the boxes. The next time I came home I combined boxes three and four into a single box in about five minutes. How could I have thought that I needed all this stuff?

The whole time I was getting rid of things I had been thinking: what don’t I need? But moving to New York forced me to turn that on its head and ask a better question: what DO I need? And the answer was: not much. People always say that when you’re considering things to give away, you should ask yourself: which of these things would I buy again? Putting everything into boxes and stowing it away gave me a kind of distance from the things I had surrounded myself with for years, so when I unboxed them, it was a lot easier to decide which ones I wanted to ‘buy’ (basically, the things I remembered I owned in the first place).

Moving halfway across the country probably isn’t a feasible way for you to pare down, but you can try an intentional version of my accidental strategy on for size: put all the things you’re thinking about getting rid of in a box. Stow the box away for several months. At the end of the chosen period, see if you can remember anything that’s in the box. Keep those things. Give everything else away.

You are now a minimalist.