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 might 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.
But to get past this common misconception with minimalism, we must peel back the layers of our clutter. And to do that, we can turn to what I call the minimalism onion.
The Layers of Less
The minimalism onion has three layers: physical, personal and emotional. Let’s explore them in turn.
Layer 1: Physical
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. Like the skin of an onion, our physical environment is immediately visible on the surface.
This physical clutter matters because it 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 physical holes of space with more stuff doesn’t necessarily fill holes in our lives; it may even create or deepen them.
Addressing this physical clutter needn’t feel regressive. Minimalism isn’t about reducing our personal inventory 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 to make space for the things that do. The end result isn’t some predefined quantity of objects, but instead an optimised space that supports positive habits.
Layer 2: Personal
Your personal environment, on the other hand, isn’t immediately visible for our stranger. To understand your personal clutter, they’d need to know you, work with you, or at least communicate with you in some way. Stating the obvious, it’s personal.
There are six important components to this layer of the minimalism onion, summarised in brief below.
Money: Mismanaged finances take a significant mental toll. In fact, money is repeatedly identified as the leading cause of stress. Minimalists recognise that when we minimise burdensome debts and automate sensible financial decisions, we can reduce personal clutter while transforming our financial wellbeing.
Decisions: The decisions we take each day erode our cognitive energy and willpower. As we deplete cognitive resources, we undermine the quality of our work. Minimalists seek to focus their energy on decisions that add value, minimising choices that needlessly consume energy.
Communication: Optimal communication doesn’t take the form of scattered fragments of digital chat. Minimalists recognise that brevity speaks volumes. Communicating succinctly and listening intently not only improve productivity, but clear space for better thinking and better ideas.
Relationships: Our relationships can lift us or drain us. They influence every other aspect of the minimalism onion. Exempting relationships from minimalism is a contradiction in values. Minimalists are cognizant of the reality that some relationships are better ended than dragged by their knees.
Work: Our ways of working can also serve as personal clutter. Poor prioritisation, procrastination, and task switching can stunt performance and productivity, consuming unnecessary time and reducing overall 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. The buzz of emails, social media, instant messaging, and breaking news reel us in with addictive dopamine-releasing feedback loops. Digital minimalism is the antidote.
Layer 3: Emotional
As you’ve surely already deduced, 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 filling physical holes in our lives, we leave gaping emotional holes.
And the emotional costs of clutter inevitably 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 short, as our emotional well-being suffers, our physical well-being suffers.
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, outlining research that underpins these ideas.
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.