The Minimalism Onion: An Introduction to Less

Minimalism is about much more than our stuff. Breaking down this common perception requires a deeper look at the layers of less.

If you stopped 100 random people on a street and asked them to define minimalism, I’d bet a majority would describe houses stripped to their bare minimum. Some would mention those who proudly count their possessions, living with less than 43 items (or whatever the number may be). Some would mention Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. And some would draw a blank. Few, and perhaps none, would venture beyond our stuff.

And yet, minimalism is about so much more than our stuff.

Our clutter isn’t limited to the physical objects we see in front of us each day. It’s in our day-to-day working patterns, our finances, our relationships, our thoughts. It follows that to experience the fully-fledged benefits of minimalism, we must address the clutter that extends beyond our stuff.

To get past this common perception, we must peel back the layers of our clutter. And to illustrate these layers, we can turn to what I call the minimalism onion.

The Layers of Less

The minimalism onion has three layers: physical, personal and emotional.

Layer 1: Physical

Our physical environment is immediately visible on the surface. Imagine for a moment the disconcerting idea that a stranger enters your home and takes a tour without a word between you. They don’t need to know you or converse with you to see your physical clutter. It’s there to be seen (and yes, the tour includes your attic and garage).

The physical clutter in our lives can slow us down and even undermine our happiness. Wide-ranging research from the field of positive psychology shows that once basic needs are met, experiential purchases tend to make us happier than physical purchases. Put another way, filling up our physical holes of space with more stuff doesn’t fill a hole in your life; it may even widen it.

But minimalism shouldn’t feel regressive. It’s not about reducing your life to a suitcase of objects, as some may lead you to believe. Rather, it’s about getting rid of the things that don’t bring you value so you can make space for the non-physical things that do. The end result is seldom one suitcase of stuff, but instead an optimised space that supports our positive habits.

Layer 2: Personal

Our personal environment, on the other hand, isn’t immediately visible for our stranger. They need to know you, work with you, or at least communicate with you in order to see some of it.

There are six important components to the personal layer. Each is worth touching on in a little more detail.

Money: Mismanaged finances can take a mental toll. When we minimise burdensome debts and automate sensible financial decisions, we can alleviate some of this personal clutter while transforming our financial wellbeing.

Decisions: The number of decisions we take each day can erode our cognitive energy and willpower. As we deplete our cognitive resources, we risk undermining the quality of our decision making. A minimalist addresses this clutter by focusing on decisions that add value.

Communication: Over-communication hammers our most valuable resource: our time. Optimal communication avoids scattered fragments of digital chat across the day and recognises that brevity speaks volumes. Communicating succinctly and listening intently can not only improve productivity, but clear space for better thinking and better ideas.

Relationships: Our relationships can be value enhancers and/or value drainers. Getting our relationships right can influence almost every other aspect of the minimalism onion. That’s why an honest relationship audit is critical to getting the most from minimalism. People are not disposable, but toxic relationships are.

Work: Our ways of working can also thicken the personal layer of the minimalism onion. Poor prioritisation, procrastination, and task switching can hinder our work performance and productivity, eating up more time than needed and reducing overall work satisfaction. When we minimise unhelpful working habits and maximise productive tools, we can transform our work lives.

Distractions: We live in the most distraction-abundant period in human history. The rise of the attention economy is testing our ability to think clearly in personalised distraction. The buzz of emails, social media, instant messaging, and breaking news reel us in with addictive dopamine-releasing feedback loops. Getting control of these distractions is imperative if we want to feel better about our lives.

Layer 3: Emotional

All of these component parts influence the core of the minimalism onion: our emotional state.

When bogged down by debts, we worry away our focus and contentment, and increase our financial dependence. When confronted by a daily mass of pointless decisions, we erode our cognitive space for creative thought. When stuck in a toxic relationship, we become emotionally dependent. When bombarded by digital notifications, we reduce our capacity to think clearly and creatively. When relentlessly prioritising filling physical holes in our lives, we leave leaking emotional holes.

And the emotional costs of clutter can translate into physical costs. When the layers of the minimalism onion become too thick, as with plaque building up in our coronary arteries, eventually we can’t pump sufficient life to its centre. In other words, as our emotional wellbeing suffers, our physical wellbeing suffers too. This link is well-established by medical science.

The punchline, of course, is that all of these things can be inverted. Our contentment, focus, creativity and independence can all be enhanced by addressing our layers of clutter.

And don’t just take my word for it. Many of the links in this article will take you to more detailed perspectives on each of the components, illustrating the science that underpins them.

What Is Minimalism?

By now I hope you get it. Minimalism isn’t about millennial grandstanding or fighting back against capitalism. It isn’t even about tidying up. Minimalism is the process of making physical and personal space for the meaningful.

Whatever your age, education, wealth, and background, that is a pursuit worthy of serious thought. Because as we peel back the layers of the minimalism onion, we begin to reveal an enhanced emotional state and an improved value system. In short, we begin to reveal a life where we put what matters most first.

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