(Note: This is the fourth post in a short series on minimalism. The first, second, and third posts are available in the archive.)
So far, I’ve been working on implementing minimalism from the top down in my own life. But while I was working on this series, I had a thought — what if I approached minimalism from the opposite direction? Instead of getting rid of things I have and whittling down my stuff collection to a manageable size, what if I approached it from the opposite direction? I could start from scratch, make a list of everything I need, and then get rid of everything that’s not on the list. This would reduce ambiguity over whether or not to keep things, allow more insight into the value and purpose of everything on the list, and could result in an even lighter load of “stuff”. I haven’t tried this yet, but am beginning the process now, starting with this post.
Foundations of the Bottom-Up Method
To make the list, we start out with a blank sheet of paper (or electronic document). The default in top-down minimalism is to keep everything you don’t consciously decide to get rid of, whereas the bottom-up method defaults to getting rid of everything not on the list. This method is more extreme, but pays greater dividends in terms of minimizing the burden of ownership. Imagine you were moving abruptly to a new country and could take almost nothing with you to start with, and had limited funds with which to re-establish yourself — what would your priorities be? Mine would be something like this:
- Survival necessities:
- Medical supplies
- Important Documents:
- ID (card, passport, birth certificate)
- Access to whatever money I have (cash, debit/credit cards, checks, etc.)
- Computer with Internet access and programming environment (gotta make a living somehow)
- Transportation (bus pass)
That’s actually a pretty good start — I could survive for a pretty long time with just those things, particularly if I had access to use things I didn’t own. I’m sure your list of your top priorities will be different from mine, so take some time to sit down and think about what you truly need to get by — what would be first on your list if you suddenly found you had to replace all your stuff?
Even if bottom-up minimalism is too drastic for you, it may be enlightening to sit down and write out a list like this — it can provide perspective on what’s really important and what isn’t.
Fleshing It Out
Once you’ve got the basics down, it’s time to break it down a little and cast a wider net. Now that you know what’s absolutely necessary, take a look at things that would make life easier, though they’re not strictly necessary. Add things to your list, keeping in mind the costs (both concrete and abstract) of each item before deciding on it. Here are some other things that may help make your list more useful:
Be specific. You should know what you need, but you should also know how much. Try breaking down what you’ve already written into more detailed lists. For instance, looking at my list above, I’d break clothing down into categories: I need shirts, pants, underwear, socks, shoes, etc. But even that level of detail still leaves wiggle-room for overindulgence. I think almost everyone would agree that shoes should be on the list, but most of us would agree that Imelda Marcos is overdoing it. Much better to say something like “one pair sneakers, one pair sandals, one pair hiking boots, one pair dress shoes”. The more specific you can be, the more honest you can be with yourself about what you really need.
Be honest. While you’re expanding your list, I’m sure you’ll think of things that aren’t particularly useful, but have sentimental value. There’s no reason not to use this as a reason to put something on the list — so long as you’re not trying to claim that all your stuff and clutter has sentimental value. 😉 Think seriously about how important any given object is to you before putting it on the list for emotional reasons. You’re not doing yourself any favors by getting rid of something that holds deep meaning for you, but neither do you benefit from fooling yourself into thinking that’s the case if it really isn’t.
Go room by room. I find that it’s helpful to think about what I’d like to have in each room of my house. What do I want in the bedroom? What do I want in the kitchen? What do I want in the bathroom? This helps me think of things that I might otherwise miss. Be sure to include everything — furniture, lighting, the works. It’s a little like playing The Sims, but with your real life. 😉
Don’t be afraid to add things if there’s a good reason. You may realize that there are things that you should have that you don’t, or even that you could simplify by adding or upgrading something. For instance, I currently have a small computer table, a chair that my printer sits on, and my computer books are in a box nearby. By buying a proper corner computer desk, I can eliminate the table, chair, and box, and even have extra desk space for the few DVDs and CDs and such that I’ve decided are worth keeping. That computer desk is on my list instead of the things I have now.
Have fun! Although starting from scratch may seem daunting, this method can actually be more fun than top-down, because you get a chance to design your holdings from the ground up. Instead of thinking about giving things up or what’s too much trouble to keep, you can approach it from a perspective of thinking about what’s worth having, what you want in your life, what is more beneficial to you than it is costly. It’s more of a positive approach.
Putting It Into Practice
There’s not too much to be said here that I haven’t already said in Minimalism from the Top Down. The practical implementation of bottom-up minimalism is mostly the same as with top-down minimalism — get rid of stuff! — it’s just that bottom-up minimalism gives you something to shoot for. If you approach things top-down, how do you know when you’re done? With bottom-up, you know that when your list of things you should own and the actual things that you do own match each other, you’re finished and it’s time to celebrate — and keep an eye out for stuff creep, of course!
There’ll be one more installment in this series, in which I will share my story of how I came to appreciate minimalism and where I am in my quest to apply it to my own life. I may even share my own bottom-up list. In the mean time, I’m interested to see your list, and hear any experiences you may have had while making it and while applying and practicing minimalism — if you have a story to tell, leave it in the comments below. 🙂