Zero-Based Minimalism: Rethinking Clutter, Bottom-Up

Conventional advice on minimalism is reductive and implicitly tied with privilege. Here’s how zero-based minimalism moves the starting blocks.

One of the biggest challenges with the branding of minimalism is the idea it’s exclusively relevant for the affluent and privileged.

Many would argue that if you have reached a point at which you feel overwhelmed by the stuff in your life, your starting point is by default a position of privilege. After all, some could only dream of having all those possessions, relationships, and distractions.

The truth is, I empathise with this view. Bangle-bestrewn hipsters-cum-minimalists travelling the world on a suitcase of just 30 items, with seemingly no upward limit on expenditure. Corporate escapees that turned their back on most of their stuff and now live in bright, spacious white rooms with ample space to write on their MacBooks and sleep on their roll-out double mattresses.

It’s easy with these images – and less crude characterisations – to arrive at the conclusion that minimalism and privilege are inextricable, especially if you see them from a personal position that is distanced from privilege.

But it’s a conclusion that’s wrong for three important reasons.

Why We’re Wrong About Minimalism

First, it’s accentuated by extremes. When we think of minimalism, if we always default to the person who has the most stuff to shed, or the person who has shed the most stuff, we miss the point. We don’t celebrate the benefits for the people in between.

Second, clutter doesn’t discriminate anywhere near as much as people think. While it is true that some of the most economically developed countries in the world have higher numbers of possessions per capita, this diverts from the reality that clutter is both personal and multi-layered.

Clutter isn’t limited to the physical. Just as important is the mental clutter which takes a long-term toll on our well-being. Regardless of differences in income and standards of living, we can all benefit from bringing this clutter under control.

And yet at the heart of this conclusion is the idea that minimalism is reserved for those who have accumulated truly staggering amounts of possessions. This implicitly suggests there is some kind of threshold at which only then we can consider minimalism a worthy goal.

Of course, there is no such mystical threshold to cross, but there is some truth to this point. Once basic needs are met, filling a physical space in your life is unlikely to fill a mental void in your life. But the reality is that most people like to discover that for themselves.

That leads nicely to the third and perhaps most important case: tying up privilege and minimalism is based on a line of thinking that starts from the wrong place.

To see that minimalism is a worthy cause no matter your background, we must flip the logic. And to do that, we must start from zero.

What Is Zero-Based Minimalism?

The broad perspective on minimalism is simple. We should look around our homes and our lives, think about the objects and distractions that don’t bring us value, and eliminate them. Gradually, as we cleanse our lives of all those possessions we don’t need, we’ll start to feel lighter and clearer. Our creativity will improve, and our stress levels will reduce. We’ll be better off for it.

Trouble is, it’s hard to navigate this perspective away from its starting point: somebody who is well off enough to confront the dilemma of throwing stuff away. The perception therefore turns to all the stereotypes I set out earlier. And further, it risks presenting minimalism as reductive rather than additive.

What we really need to do is flip the logic. Instead of focusing on reducing what we don’t need, we should focus on building what we do need.

Step forward zero-based minimalism (ZBM).

Zero-based minimalism is the idea that we should imagine our lives without any stuff whatsoever, before mentally reintroducing the things that we explicitly identify to bring us value and eliminating the rest.

This may sound a subtle rewording of the same thing, but the difference is important. Because ZBM mentally starts from scratch, it’s not only more accessible regardless of background, but it’s also a more effective way of combatting against our own psychological resistance (e.g. the endowment effect and sunk-cost fallacy).

The Steps of Zero-Based Minimalism (ZBM)

The steps of ZBM are simple:

  1. Take a blank piece of paper.
  2. Write down the things that bring you value. This list needn’t be limited to your physical environment. It can extend to money, people and distractions in your life, but you may wish to cover these layers of minimalism in a separate exercise. Spend a few days preparing the list, thinking honestly about what really brings you value.
  3. Review your list and get rid of the difference. This, of course, is the most challenging aspect of minimalism for those who have accumulated the most.

If you’re feeling more courageous than that, the next level of this approach is to physically strip things back to zero. One popular approach is to put everything you own minus the big furniture in boxes. Whatever doesn’t get taken out of the boxes and used within 30 days is eliminated.

Don’t Run a Race You Don’t Need To

When I decided that minimalism would be one of the main pillars of Hustle Escape, I did so while acutely aware that most of the people who talk about it tend to do so because they themselves have reached a tipping point with their stuff.

But here’s the bottom line: you don’t need to reach that tipping point to reassess your relationship with clutter. Years of accumulation are much harder to shift. Don’t run a race you don’t need to.

Instead, conduct a regular zero-based minimalism audit and keep your clutter under control. The benefits of doing so can act as a springboard for clearer thinking and better decision making. All that excess physical and mental noise is ultimately a distraction from the work that matters.

Instead of dismissing minimalism as a reductive reaction of the privileged, think of it as additive organisation. Push the reset button and rethink your clutter from the ground up.

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