Meaning

Last night Vicki and I had the privilege of viewing Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things (see the trailer here) at our local Indy Cinema. The theatre was packed with many like-minded and curious people who laughed, clapped and gasped together in all the right places.minimaldoco

This doco is a well-crafted work and follows, loosely, one of The Minimalists’ (Joshua Fields-Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus) book tours, inserting commentary and analysis from a wide range of folk, from Neuroscientists to Culture-watchers and Media personalities. Through the story were inter-woven ‘chapters’ on topics such as fashion, tiny houses (one of my current favourites), advertising, meditation, and how to minimalise in a family setting.

All in all, this documentary perfectly captures the minimalist movement and the philosophy behind this growing phenomenon.

I have been immersed in the minimalist culture for a while now. I have read most of the books mentioned in the documentary and regularly listen to several podcasts featuring some of the major players. What I took away from the film is this idea of meaning.

Everything I own, must bring some meaning into my life. Everything must serve a useful purpose or bring joy. It’s not the number of things I have, but the fact that the things I have are my favourites and are put to good use in my life. Sometimes minimalism can bring meaning to my life in a different way than I expect. I appreciated the story of one couple who decided to pare down the number of possessions and found that, in doing this, it opened up opportunities to borrow from and to share with others, thus building relationships in community with like-minded people.

Vicki hasn’t had the same exposure to minimalism that I have and what she took away from the film was a greater awareness of the effect of modern life and culture—especially advertising and fashion—on our lives. What all those featured in this production had in common was a determination to make a new path for themselves in saying ‘No’ to the expectations of culture and say ‘Yes’ to what brings joy and meaning into their life. It wasn’t simply a philosophy of having less stuff, but having more time, more quality relationships, more freedom, and more focus.

The film is still playing a few Australian venues (not in Adelaide again, unfortunately) and I hope it achieves good success. (It is also available to pre-order online for under AUD$30 including 6 hours of bonus content.) Its message speaks to a great need in the lives of most of us who share this planet: a need for meaning, for an awareness of the cultural pond in which we swim and how we can respond to this in a purposeful and responsible manner.

Gadgets

I am a gadget geek.

I genuinely look forward to the new iPhone being released, the latest edition of TechLife magazine, a newer and more compact lens for my DSLR camera, or the latest advancement in earbud technology.

I appreciate sleek design, the minimalist styling of any Apple product and the powerhouse of boards, chips and processors ‘under the hood’ of a laptop, phone or SmartTV.

But, the fact is, most gadgets and technology-rich products come with a sense of novelty and are challenging and fun to use for a while. . . . Then they lose their lustre, are not all that the reviewers promised, or don’t make me as happy as I thought they would.

Since jumping into minimalism, I have had a major cleanout and rethink of the gadgets I use and the gear I buy. Here are a few tips that I’ve come up with based on my own rationalisation experience.

Clean out those drawers of cables, spare parts and adaptors. When we first started going through our home and decluttering, this is one of the first problem areas I attacked. I found drawers and boxes full of copper-cored ‘spaghetti’ of various lengths and types that rarely saw the light of day. Most of it fell into the ‘just in case’ category. It took a while but I matched up all adaptors with their relevant tech products and realised I had 3 or 4 of some when I only needed one. I also found a handful of transformers from old gadgets which I had disposed of years ago—out the door. I had 5 HDMI cables and only really used one. I had a box of old VGA, RCA, ¼” and headphone adaptors of various configurations—out they went. I had covers and cases galore which I used for a few weeks and fell out of love with just as quickly. Gone. I realised after I had finished, that I used the greater part of my Saturday on this one area—it clearly had been a problem.

Sell or give away unused or outdated Gear. I had an old iPad (victim of an upgrade) which we thought we could use as a media server attached to our TV. We didn’t use it. Chances are, we would never use it—just maintaining it would take time we didn’t really need, or want, to spend. I sold it. We had several old mobile phones so we erased their data and dropped them in a Mobile Muster bin at a local phone shop. We had an old laminator, a CD collection that was never utilised, numerous USB devices and hard drives. These too were sold. Reclaiming cupboard space never felt so good.

Refuse to buy into the ‘Newest is best’ mindset. Now that the clutter is gone, it’s still a temptation to trade-up, buy new, or give in to the advertising that bombards me every day with the latest and best gadgetry. But ‘new’ isn’t always ‘best.’ My son just traded his old mobile phone for (wait for it!) an iPhone 5s. He did his research and juxtaposed that against his needs as a gardener and chose a tough, well-made phone with just the amount of technology he needed to make his life easier. He gets that rationality from his mum. Unlike him, I am far too easily drawn into new technology and I know this will continue to be a problem for me, so I unsubscribed from Gadget Geek, TechLife, and a raft of other magazines and email lists whose sole purpose was to create a need in my life where there was none. I try to avoid ad-driven websites when I do my work. I stay away from big brand retailers and, when I venture in to the Apple Store, I hum under my breath the theme from The Minimalists podcast:

Every little thing you think that you need . . .
I bet that you’d be fine without it.

When faced with a decision now to buy or upgrade, I do three things:

I ask, “Will this bring me genuine joy?” Being aware of how the feeling of happiness when purchasing a new product passes quicker with every new product I buy, I know better than to mistake that consumer excitedness with lasting joy. The truth is gadgets never bring joy. What you choose to do with them has the potential to bring joy. We need to see these products as tools, not an end in themselves.

I ask, “Will this add value to my life?” Having given away most of my library, my Kindle for iPad bring immense value into my life. My photo collection, scanned from my family’s photo albums can be viewed on my TV, my iPad, or my phone. The value is beyond measure. With my camera, I record beauty which brings me incredible joy. The list isn’t long, but every piece of technology I now own has a purpose and a measurable value attached to its use.

I wait. I usually give such decisions a good week, sometimes more, to settle in my mind. During that time, I read reviews of this and similar products, looking particularly for evidence of value added to the reviewer’s life. I research to see if this is the best use of my money or if there is something that is of better quality—something that does the job I need it to do in a better or more efficient way.

I am currently looking to upgrade my Blitz-n-Go smoothie maker since it is nearing its last ‘blitz.’ I’m now up to this stage, but I have put the decision on hold because I have determined that the best value item isn’t cheap and I need some time to save for what will be the best use of my cash. I’m not willing to splash out for another cheap item that will, like its predecessor, last less than a year.

I continue to look out for confirmation bias in my mind—where my mind find ways to justify why I should have this new item—and rationally think through occurrences of this. A ‘Pro’ and ‘Con’ list often helps as well. If at the end of the predetermined time, I still see this purchase as a good idea, and I have the funds to do so, I go ahead and commit.

Once I buy it, I remove from my life the old version of it or the unit it is replacing by either throwing it in the garbage, selling it, or donating it to someone who can use it.

In the end, I am left with a handful of really useful gadgets that continue to bring joy or add value to my life. I’ll share in a later post those items I have, use and, in some cases, wouldn’t be without.

Explore Further

Best Travel Gadgets from the Man who Owns 70 Things (Forbes Magazine)

Our 21-day Journey into Minimalism (The Minimalists)

How to Recycle Your Electronics and Gadgets (CNET)

Bargains

“We might need it someday.”

“It’s too good a deal to pass up.”

“At that price, I’d better get two.”

How many times have we caught ourselves saying these or similar things? I must admit that I have made such declarations many times, usually at the bargain shop or in the throes of end-of-season sales.

If that’s not enough, we receive reams of unsolicited sales paraphernalia in our letterbox or in the mail, urging us to “Buy now,” and telling us “This offer is for a limited time.” Bring on the mind-insulting rug, furniture or car ads to TV that tell us that these are “never-to-be-repeated prices,” and we can’t believe how quickly the money has flown from our wallet or bank account.

File 1-06-2016, 1 19 40 PMAnd this is how we use our free time. Shopping is the new religion. Malls are the new places of worship. Sales are the worship services. Bargains are the gods. We are fanatics, addicted to the feeling of completeness a full shopping bag seems to bring. As Michelle Castillo writes, “There’s nothing as addicting as a cheap buy.”

Correct that to a “perceived cheap buy,” because, as we are all aware, very few places ever sell everything at Recommended Retail Price (RRP). That’s simply a stated figure that retailers use to show how great a discount they will offer to secure your custom. And we fall for it, spending billions  in shopping centres and mega-malls every year. Then there are online retailers, local and international. Then there are the increasing number of social shopping sites such as Groupon, Zazz, Catch of the Day and Daily Deal and it’s all the easier to be tempted to exchange your hard-earned dollars for things to clutter your home and life.

Someone once told me, “A bargain is only a bargain if you need it.”

But how often do we buy something we think we “need” when, in fact, it’s not necessary and adds no value whatever to our life?

Like the bike I’ve ridden once.

Like the new tool I had to have and used it for the first time in the three years since its purchase.

Like that dozen Krispy Kreme® donuts (I really needed those? All of them?)

It’s time we learn how to say “No” when confronted with the purpose-written advertisements and dazzling billboards. We must learn to question our purchases and to abstain from the “just in case” mentality.

If it doesn’t add real value to your life, regardless of how cheap it is, it’s not a bargain—it’s an unnecessary expense.

Explore Further

Social Buying Motivated by Psychology, Not a Great Deal (Time.com)

Shop ‘til You Drop: Battling Compulsive Shopping (Australian Psychological Society)

Anti-consumerism is the New Democracy (abc.net.au)

Assembly Required (Is shopping the new religion?) (The Guardian)

Minimalism

I’ve been attracted, lately, to the concept-movement of Minimalism. This began about 9 months ago when I came across, quite accidentally, the website theminimalists.com curated by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus. I was drawn in by their story and their journey together from the dog-eat-dog corporate world to a simple, minimalist life. I immediately bought their book Everything That Remains and devoured their story. What attracted me to the lifestyle they presented was the freedom of owning less and the contentment that came from needing less.

Now it’s not all about living in a house where the Living Room consists of a rug, a lamp and a chair and your refrigerator’s contents would fit in a handbag. It’s about being intentional in your possession of things: only owning what you need and what brings you joy (and these can be the same things).

I have been studying this phenomenon for several months now through books, podcasts, blogs, and videos. My curiosity has taken me into the Tiny House movement which sprang up in opposition to the bigger-is-better mentality that pervades the real estate industry. I have been bemused by the journeys of Colin Wright who asks readers of his blog where he should travel next, and then makes his home there for three months before, once again, moving on to another democratically-decided destination. I really enjoy reading the Zen Habits blog which is not just about minimalism, but about simplifying life in every aspect.  Joshua Becker is another who has written and spoken extensively about minimalism, through the lens of his family’s ‘conversion’ to this life and his most recent book The More of Less is on my current reading list.

I’d have to say that choosing to live as a minimalist forces a person to be incredibly intentional regarding possessions and the use of money.

In his post 10 Reasons to Escape Excessive Consumerism, Becker lists several reasons I find compelling:

Less time spent caring for possessions. “The never-ending need to care for the things we own is draining our time and energy. Whether we are maintaining property, fixing vehicles, replacing goods, or cleaning things made of plastic, metal, or glass, our life is being emotionally and physically drained by the care of things that we don’t need—and in most cases, don’t enjoy either. We are far better off owning less.”

Less need to keep up with evolving trends. “A culture built on consumption must produce an ever-changing target to keep its participants spending money. And our culture has nearly perfected that practice. As a result, nearly every year, a new line of fashion is released as the newest trend. And the only way to keep up is to purchase the latest fashions and trends when they are released… or remove yourself from the pursuit altogether.”

More contentment. As Fields-Millburn and Nicodemus often say, releasing one’s grip on possessions is like dumping a heavy load of anxiety, clutter and wasted energy. We enjoy what we have more when we actually have less.

More generosity. “Rejecting excessive consumerism always frees up energy, time, and finances. Those resources can then be brought back into alignment with our deepest heart values.”

Greater ability to see through empty claims. “Fulfilment is not on sale at your local department store—neither is happiness. It never has been. And never will be. We all know this to be true. We all know that more things won’t make us happier. It’s just that we’ve bought into the subtle message of millions upon millions of advertisements that have told us otherwise. Intentionally stepping back for an extended period of time helps us get a broader view of their empty claims.”

As Joshua Becker concludes, “Escaping excessive consumption is not an easy battle. If it were, it would be done more often… myself included. But it is a battle worth fighting because it robs us of life far more than we realise.”

I’m not a minimalist in the sense that I haven’t arrived at a place where I could say my life is now lived in its simplest, most pure form. Yet I am becoming more intentional about this area of my life each day and am happy to say, in small ways, I have proven true the vast majority of what are preached to be the benefits of Minimalism (and, in this space, I hope you’ll see how this develops over the next few weeks and months.) What I have enjoyed so far makes me want less. Sounds wrong, doesn’t it? But it is true.