Have you ever experienced the perfect bowel movement? Neatly coiling into the quintessential poop emoji shape, it could have been dispensed by Mr Whippy himself; a flawless four on the Bristol Stool Chart. After you abdicate the throne, you feel physically lighter and revitalised. There’s a new spring in your step, and you’re ready to take on the world.
Taking a big dreamy dump is the best way I can describe how it feels to get rid of your possessions.
See also: Rasping the dead skin off your feet, taking a tactical chunder during a big night out, or achieving inbox zero. It’s the same sense of deep satisfaction. The deadweight is gone, leaving you feeling all shiny and streamlined.
That’s why culling my entire life’s belongings down to the contents of a 22 litre day pack felt really fucking good.
A house of hoarders
First, a little background. My parents, literary magpies, never met an article they couldn’t cut out and add to a nest of yellowing papers. They also accumulated art and craft supplies, building materials, plants and seeds, bric-a-brac, and children. The offspring were slotted into free spaces amongst the clutter, where they soon started cultivating their own collections. Stuff sprawled from an already enormous house into garages, sheds and outbuildings. I’m pretty sure J.K. Rowling used my family home as the inspiration for The Burrow, but made them all redheads to protect our identity.
In my last couple of years at home I lived in an attached granny flat with my own kitchen and en suite. To be more accurate, I lived in one claustrophobic corner carved out of the chaos. The kitchen bench was piled so high that it had formed distinct layers from various hoarding epochs, complete with bones jutting out of the strata like the world’s weirdest archaeological dig. Cow skulls and papier-mâché demons grinned down at me as I elbowed my way to the microwave to nuke bowls of ramen. Mercifully, the en suite was free of grisly artifacts.
The borders of my little kingdom were constantly under assault, with new piles of debris appearing seemingly overnight. A creeping homeostasis overwhelmed any attempts to clear small spaces in the clutter; an exercise in futility to rival King Canute himself.
When I moved out, everything I owned fitted into my hatchback. Seeing the cardboard boxes stacked in hallways on visits home gave me a palpable feeling of dread. Clearly my early exposure had served as a sort of inoculation against the hoarding life.
One Last Glorious Purge
Over the next few years I still managed to accumulate a fairly impressive amount of crap, in the absent-minded way that most people do. Moving between flats was a good opportunity to fight back against the creep. As my overseas odyssey finally approached, there was still plenty to get rid of. It was time for one last glorious purge.
The first step was a trash-or-treasure triage, which turned up a few items of value to be auctioned off online, raising about a grand in the process. Most I would never miss; a pair of fins I’d been lugging around for years despite the fact they didn’t fit me, a silk smoking jacket I never wore. I filled two garbage sacks with clothes and items to be donated. Sadly, I filled another couple of sacks with actual garbage.
At the same time, I uploaded my life into the cloud. Emptying a concertina file of bulky paper documents, I snapped a photo of anything I might need later – receipts, warranties, notebooks – which my phone automatically uploaded. Sentimental stuff did not escape the purge. Throwing thoughtful cards and letters in the trash feels wrong on an instinctive level, like forcing yourself to pee your pants. At the same time, like peeing your pants, it’s a huge relief. Instead of having to lug all that stuff around until the end of time, it’s all tucked away safely in a string of ones and zeroes.
My purging criteria was simple: Everything I wanted to keep, I would literally have to carry around on my back. Well… more or less. I couldn’t bear to part with my home-made strongman log, my favourite guitar, and a cardboard box of personal bits and pieces.
These I left in the garage at my parents’ house, hypocritically making my own small contribution to the hoard. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have been stricter. I can barely remember what was in the box, and whatever it was, I haven’t missed it so far.
A fresh start
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
— William Morris
When I boarded the plane to Bangkok, the only weight on my shoulders was a barely noticeable 7kg, which is the carry-on limit for most airlines. Living out of a backpack has been the perfect opportunity to make a fresh start to my relationship with stuff. Every new item I introduce into my life has to be scrutinised before I commit to carrying it around with me. While I’m still experimenting with the optimal travel gear, I promise to do the obligatory ‘What’s in the bag?’ post once I’ve got it nailed down.
For anyone looking to purge without the constraints of a backpack, try the one-year-rule. Do a stocktake of every item, and ask yourself if you’ve used it in the past year. If not, out it goes. You can always buy it back if you really need it.
Think of eBay and Craigslist as enormous virtual storage warehouses, filled with millions of items you can hire on the cheap. When you need something, buy it second-hand. When you’re done with it, sell it. Chances are you’ll recover all or most of the original price. As long as it’s a generic item, you’ll always be able to find it again later. That means the only things you have to hold on to are those that are unique or have sentimental value, like a family heirloom (or a lovingly chain-sawed log).
Do you own your stuff, or does it own you?
“I have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
My parents are high-class hoarders, collecting the likes of education materials rather than boxes of their own toenail clippings or ‘as-seen-on-TV!’ contraptions. They have a benign relationship with stuff; most of which cost nothing to obtain and was stashed away for the sake of frugality. This makes my distaste very much an aesthetic objection (i.e, personal preference).
The word ‘minimalism’ makes most people think of design magazines filled with rusty vintage bicycles or fine Swedish furniture or whatever. Hipsters have a lot to answer for here. I have to confess I kind of like this sort of thing, but minimalism is much more than an aesthetic.
Unlike my parents, most people accumulate stuff through blind adherence to consumerism, manipulated by marketers who have convinced them that the key to being happy is to never let your credit card cool down. Refusing to be a part of this racket is not an aesthetic choice. There are solid practical reasons for owning less stuff, and they have nothing to do with using your severe white apartment to get loads of Instagram likes.
- Ongoing costs
Almost everything we own is constantly depreciating. The value of your new toy or trinket plummets the moment you leave the shop, and it’s all downhill from there. It also has to be maintained, which requires spending more money. Don’t forget storage (the US self-storage industry is so huge that every single American could comfortably stand under its canopy). Finally, the more stuff you have, the more it costs to schlep it around on moving day.
- Opportunity costs
A house filled with possessions is a house that could be smaller. The smaller your house, the smaller your mortgage or rent payments, heating bill, and maintenance costs. Insurance premiums are lower too. If you cleared a spare room of junk, you could also take on a boarder or list it on Airbnb. Of course, the biggest tragedy is that all that money spent on stuff could have been saved and invested instead.
The average American house contains something like 300,000 items. As Peter Diamandis points out in Abundance, if everyone on this planet wanted to live the lifestyle of the average North American, we’d need five planets’ worth of resources to pull it off. Even if we colonise Mars, I think we can all agree this is just not going to work out.
The minimalist lifestyle was already looking pretty compelling, so this is all gravy as far as I’m concerned. Not only are you happier and richer, you get to feel smug and self-righteous about it too!
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
Our default setting is to try and improve our lives by adding things to them; more possessions, more money, more Facebook friends, a nicer house, a trendy diet, a cool new hobby, an exciting romantic partner, the latest fitness fad. We’re all pounding away on the hedonic treadmill. As soon as we reach the object of our desires, panting with exertion, it cranks up to a steeper incline, shifting the goalposts further away. Happiness dangles tantalisingly in front of us as we run, forever just out of reach.
The trader-philosopher Nassim Taleb thinks true wealth is largely derived through the process of subtraction, or “via negativa”. Getting rid of bad habits, cutting out toxic relationships, repaying debt, relieving worries and concerns, or clearing a guilty conscience are all much more likely to enhance our lives. I would add ‘owning less stuff’ to that fine list.
I like to think I’ve stepped off the hedonic treadmill, but I’m conscious of the fact that maybe it’s just paused for the moment. I’m looking for deep, abiding satisfaction here, not a passing novelty. With that being said, I’m glad to report that my small experiments in living with less have brought me nothing but joy so far. At the time of writing, I’ve just passed the six month mark. After a couple of years of alternating between the same two pairs of undies in tropical heat, I’ll let you know whether I still feel the same way.
UPDATE: Check out One Year Traveling Asia with a 22 Litre Day Pack for my reflections on ultralight travel.
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “Enough.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
1 This concept comes from Jacob Fisker, a physicist/quant who helped popularise the early retirement movement and wrote a handbook on the subject (see below).
2 I’ve taken the liberty of changing ‘The knowledge that I’ve got enough’ to the punchier ‘Enough’, which is how I first heard this story told. Don’t blame me, minimalism made me do it.
Note: The public library will loan you these books for free. If you’d rather buy them, use the links below to send a few pennies to support this site, at no extra cost to you (read more here).
This is one of my favourite books of all time. Thoreau was the original minimalist, and kind of a punk rocker. His account of building a cabin at Walden Pond is beautifully poetic, bitingly funny at times, and always thought-provoking. My notebook runneth over with Walden quotes.
An incredibly analytical approach to frugality and minimalism, using mathematical models and engineering logic. It’s pretty hardcore stuff – Fisker lived in an RV, owned one spoon, sorta thing – but the principles can be scaled to any set of preferences.
Epictetus, born into slavery and crippled, became one of the greatest stoic philosophers. The Discourses is is my favourite stoic text. It’s tough going at times, but packed with wisdom on frugality, minimalism, death, and better living; as relevant today as it was almost 2000 years ago.
Taleb is an egomaniac and Antifragile is a mess to read, but it’s worth it. The core concept is that an antifragile system actually improves when exposed to stressors, shocks and failures. This has all sorts of fascinating implications in science, health, wealth and education, and practical applications for your own life.
An entrepreneur-engineer working at the cutting edge of human longevity, space exploration and asteroid mining, Diamandis’ thesis is that rapid technological innovation means the future is going to be better than we think. The evidence he presents is compelling. I love Abundance for its refreshing pushback against the grinding negativity of the news media, and for explaining the confluence of biases that make us global pessimists in the first place.