Leo Babauta on Minimalism

Mindfulness · Volume I, Issue 3

All of these selections were originally published on Leo’s mnmlist blog. You can also find lots of great ideas about finding focus in life and cultivating mindfulness by reading Leo’s Zen Habits blog.

On not knowing everything

These days, nearly everything we want to know is a few keystrokes away, almost instantly gratifying our desire to know something.

What’s the weather like outside? Do a quick check of your weather app. Who the heck is Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Ask Wikipedia. Who is the lead boy actor in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom? Search IMDB.com. Google, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, et al will tell you anything you want to know, right now.

Isn’t that incredible? Just 20 years ago, that was unthinkable. If you wanted to know something, you might turn on the TV and hope to get lucky, or look in your encyclopedias (if you had them) and hope to get lucky, or go to the library and hope to get lucky. Most of the time, you had to settle on not knowing.

One of the things I’ve noticed from turning off my computer periodically throughout the day (I work in 30-minute chunks), is that when the computer is off, I often think of a question I want answered — and my first instinct is to go to the computer and search. I’d know in like 4 seconds!

But then I pause, and examine that urge. Is it a true need, to know right now? Can I not wait 30 minutes, or even a few hours, or a day? Of course I can. It’s not a matter of life or death, or national security, or anything important really.

Not knowing something means I am walking around blind, without a direct path, and I must live with that, work with that. It’s interesting. It’s a different way of living. How our ancestors must have lived! (Or, you know, me in the early 90s.)

Not knowing isn’t bad. It’s just different. And really, I think there’s something minimalist about it. Let’s let go of the need to know, every second of the day, and let our minds wander around in the dark for a bit.

On “traveling the world with nothing”

I read a post recently where a blogger and commenters were talking about how minimalism sucks, because owning nothing and traveling the world with nothing but a small suitcase means you’d never have savings or a safe home for your kids.

Well. The kind of minimalism they’re referring to is only one way to do it. Sure, lots of minimalists are bachelors who can easily work anywhere and travel the world with a backpack, or perhaps families who travel and work and live all over the place with almost no possessions. But that’s just one way.

Another way is to live in a home that’s big enough (but not overly huge) for your family’s needs, and to only have what you need and not too much more, and to not focus so much on consumption but more on doing the things you love with the people you love.

And yes, you can travel the world from time to time, with just a small backpack each. But that’s just one part of your life. At least, that’s how we do it.

So minimalism isn’t just one way of life. It’s figuring out what works best for you (and your family if you have one) but being more mindful of what you own and do. Not obsessing over possessions, but being mindful. It’s about finding contentment.

On walking away

In any kind of negotiation, your ability to walk away is your strongest tool.

Those who can walk away from the negotiation — legitimately walk away, not just make a show of it — are in the strongest position. Those who are convinced they need to make the deal are in the weakest position.

This is true of negotiating when you’re buying a car, closing the sale of your new home, haggling in a foreign flea market, or trying to get a raise.

It’s also true of anything in life.

Know that there’s almost nothing you can’t walk away from.

If you are convinced you need a nice house with a walk-in closet and hardwood floors and a huge kitchen, you now have a weakness. You will give away precious life hours and savings to get it. Someone else who knows that those things aren’t absolutely necessary can walk away, and not need to spend so much money (and thus work hours) on that kind of house.

If you are convinced that you need Starbucks grande lattes every day, or an iPhone or iPad, or an SUV or Cooper Mini or BMW … you are in the weak position, because you can’t give it up. Someone else might know that those aren’t essential to happiness, and can walk away.

If you know that there’s almost nothing you can’t walk away from, you can save yourself tons of money. Years of time. Mountains of headaches and heartaches. Boatloads of suffering.

You don’t need to walk away from everything, but you should know that you can. And when the cost of the deal is too great, too dear … walk away.

On the downsides of minimalism

It’s true that I might too often make minimalism seem like it’s all roses, all upside. But there is a downside to everything, including minimalism.

In order to better prepare you, my lovely and good-hearted reader, for minimalism, it’s my duty to point out some of the downsides. Consider this post my due diligence.

Some downsides to minimalism:

  • You get to know Craigslist, Goodwill and other charities all too well as you clean out your clutter.

  • You have to figure out other things to do with yourself besides shopping and browsing shopping sites.

  • People will tease you about which of your two shirts you’re wearing today. I don’t mind this — there are worse things to be teased about.

  • Family will harass you about not buying gifts. They will live. So will you.

  • You don’t get as good a workout walking around with a light bag instead of one laden with lots of stuff. I put weight plates in my backpack if I want to compensate for this.

  • When you go to other people’s houses, you might start mentally fantasizing about getting rid of their stuff for them.

  • People will ask you, almost non-stop, how you can be a minimalist with so many kids. If you don’t have any kids, they’ll roll your eyes and say, “Of course you’re a minimalist — you’re a bachelor!”

  • You will get weird looks when you turn down free “schwag” at sporting events, conferences, parties. Who doesn’t want a bunch of free promotional junk?

  • If you don’t have a car, people will think you’re poor, even if you are wealthier for not having the car. And healthier, and time rich.

  • People online will accuse you of being “trendy” because you’re a minimalist. People who aren’t online as much will wonder what the hell a minimalist is.

On pairing down

As minimalists, we often talk about paring down possessions, and sometimes paring down what we do. But what about what we think?

Is there any use in paring down thinking? I’ve found myself doing this over time, in many areas.

When we start out with something, we usually will try everything. But as we learn, we can pare down ideas that we find out don’t matter. We’re left with the essentials.

Leo Babauta Leo Babauta writes for several popular blogs on mindfulness and lifestyle topics and is the creator of a number of online video courses. Find out more at leobabauta.com.