A while back, my friend Mike Hrostoski turned me on to the minimalism trend that’s happening these days. No, not the architectural or musical or whatever-the-fuck definition of minimalism. Just the philosophy of dealing with less.
I had to admit, it was an attractive idea. So I started looking at my stuff and thinking “What can I get rid of?”
I’ve lived in a dozen places over the past 10 years. And because of that, I’m a man
of few possessions. Or so I thought until I started going through all the unnecessary junk I’ve managed to collect.
Clothes I don’t wear. Racquetball gear that hasn’t been touched since the Clinton administration. A TV I swear that I’ll find a place for, one of these days.
And the books. Oh, God. The books. A metric ton of paperbacks, hardbacks, fiction, nonfiction. I read them once or twice, then schlepped them around for years. Because, for some reason, I needed to have a library.
Or the DVDs! Years of movie watching had turned me into a cinematic pack rat. And it’s not like I actually NEEDED to own the damn things. How often can you watch the same movie, anyway? Even the Godfather films, my favorite—I’ve probably only seen them a few times. (Well, except Godfather III. That I could only watch once.)
So why did I hang on to these bulky, annoying possessions? I could only come up with one answer:
Because I want people to know that I am smart and interesting.
That’s it. That’s the only reason. We all make snap judgments about people, whether we want to or not. So when you go to somebody’s house and the only visible book is that
awful Mormon vampire book Twilight, you have an opinion. You can’t help it.
So my bookshelf (and DVD selection) is the person I want you to think that I am. So if you see a Thomas Merton book, the autobiography of Lenny Bruce, and Casablanca—you might think “Hey, this person is spiritual, with a love of comedy and an appreciation of classic film.” (And I’d hope that you ignored the sci-fi novels, comic books, and 5 seasons of Highlander DVDs*.)
And don’t get me wrong—I like all of those things. That’s why I bought them. But keeping them was definitely part of the subconscious narrative I was writing. Which is pretty fucking ridiculous, when you think about it.
So I started going through my stuff and asking these questions:
- Have I used this in the last 3 months? Do I plan to use this soon?
- Is it sentimental, beautiful, or useful?
If the answer was no, then it had to go. And so the Great Decluttering began. Old clothes, books, and other crap disappeared in droves. What I couldn’t sell, I gave away. And it was an incredible feeling.
After pruning my physical possessions, I turned to my brain and searched for a way to calm it down.
My problem is that I think a lot. And I don’t mean it in some braniac, “I’m pondering existence” type of way. I mean that random, irritating half-thoughts flood my brain constantly. A script I want to work on, an appointment to make, a conversation from five years ago.
If every one of those thoughts went away, I’d be no poorer. In any sense of the word.
So I got David Allen’s Getting Things Done. (From the library, of course) And it was pretty damn eye opening. The whole thing is about creating a system of information so that you can actually, you know, get things done.
It took a couple of days, but I wrote down every single thing that was nagging me. From my autistic lesbian zombie screenplay to the water filter I kept forgetting to buy. It was all there, on paper, so that I didn’t need to think about anything unless I was planning to DO something about it right then.
And something crazy happened. After a few days, the noise in my brain lowered.
After that, I started looking at things that were causing unnecessary mental chatter. My phone was a big one. Why did I have Facebook or Twitter on my phone? I couldn’t think of a reason, other than occasionally posting a joke or having something to do while waiting in line.
Then I thought about Facebook in general. (Twitter didn’t bother me as much, since I barely use it.)
What did I get from this? The few useful interactions were overshadowed by endless event invitations, dumb political discussions, and boring updates from people I barely knew.
So I deleted it.
I swear to God, I had more people call or text me about deleting Facebook than when my grandmother died. “Why? Why did you do that?” some people asked. “Why do you have to quit cold turkey?” They just couldn’t believe that anyone would just choose to unplug from all that.
But suddenly I had all this free time. Those little 5 to 10 minute “breaks” throughout the day mashed up into a couple hours of uninterrupted time. I had more time to work, more time to relax, and didn’t feel like I was being bombarded by useless minutiae.
More than any time in history, we have choices upon choices. What to eat, what to wear, what type of entertainment to consume. We can live anywhere we want, do anything we want. It’s amazing, but it’s also overwhelming.
The only sane way to live is to cut out as much as possible, only keeping what you really love and need. Ultimately, there’s even a spiritual/emotional minimalism, trying to get away from envy and pride and resentments.
Like Bruce Lee said: “The height of cultivation runs to simplicity. Halfway cultivation runs to ornamentation.”
*—But not season 6 of Highlander. Because fuck them for killing off Richie. And all the weird witchcraft stuff? Come on.