Guest Post: Minimalism Is Not The Answer – Zac Doege

[Zac Doege is a software developer that likes crunching the numbers for optimal lifestyle design. He lives in Los Angeles, California.]

When I was in high school circa 2008, I stumbled on an interesting subculture: minimalism. I would watch YouTube videos posted by people who sold, donated, or otherwise got rid of the vast majority of their belongings. Their apartments were largely bare, but not messy. They could easily pack up what they owned and travel without missing much. The appeal to me was the simplicity and elegance of having only a select few items that were absolutely necessary. The minimalists claimed that it completely changed their lifestyle and mindset. They were no longer stressed and lived a much more care-free, exuberant lifestyle. Who wouldn’t want that?

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In high school my attempts at minimalism were mostly futile, as my family insisted on using my bedroom closet as storage and I was not able to get rid of any of their belongings (that they never used). When I went to college, I had complete independence of my dorm, and naturally it was much more minimal. Something strange happened though, when I went ultra-minimal, my life actually got harder. My mind was clearer, but certain simple tasks were now more difficult. Instead of buying a dedicated laundry bag, I just used my backpack. This made it difficult to do large loads of laundry as you can imagine. Instead of buying multiple pairs of shoes for various occasions, I wore the same pair everyday (through summer and winter). These shoes fell apart quickly and I was rarely prepared for inclement weather. I also had trouble giving up all my hygiene products, which is something that I get a lot of value out of. I came to realize that I didn’t want less possessions, I wanted the right ones.

Since I made this realization, I’ve been refining my relationship with my possessions ever since. A large breakthrough was when I first read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. This book is one of my all-time favorites. The summary: get rid of all your possessions that do not spark joy. There’s more to it of course, but that’s the gist. The difficult part is that we typically have a lot of psychological resistance to this one rule. For example, want to get rid of that old bike, but it’s so useful! Or clothes you don’t even like. Someday you might wear them! What about the card that your friend wrote for you on your birthday? Does it really spark joy? Often the answer is no, but you feel obliged to be practical, economical, or sentimental. None of these equate to joy. Sometimes, something of no traditional value can bring joy: an old t-shirt with holes. If you can surround yourself with only items that bring you joy, you can create your own little Utopia.

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What is so absolutely critical about understanding the joy-value of products, is that you are able to assign them lifestyle value – the most valuable metric for assessing things in your life. If a possession no longer offers up any lifestyle value (or joy), then no matter what the cost, it is not earning its keep. This is especially true for items which have actual upkeep costs (like memberships), but also true for things that just take up space (another form of cost that could equate to negative lifestyle value). This style of assessment of belongings is minimalist in spirit, but the goal is not to reduce the total number of items, but maximize the total lifestyle value of your items. You may have three sticks of deodorant. Is this minimal? Nope. Does it make your life better because you have one in the bathroom, one in your gym bag, and one in your work bag? Yes. You may have three iPhone chargers. One for your bed, one for work, and one for your car. So while minimalism has some overlap with lifestyle value, they are not the same.

Frugalism, a related movement that overlaps with minimalism is also not the same as what I am suggesting here. With frugalism, the goal is to minimize the financial cost. Using a single deodorant and single iPhone charger are par for the course. In fact, frugalists probably won’t have an iPhone. “Android can do just as much and its cheaper”. This is also not our goal. The goal is to get the most lifestyle value for your money. If you don’t care about iPhones, then fine. However, I personally think iPhones are the best phones and am willing to pay a premium because it is something I use constantly and am 100% reliant on for life and business. It would be silly for me to make my life harder by getting a non-smart phone. I could get an Android, but I like the look and functionality of iPhones more.

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So how do you decide what items to keep / purchase, and which to get rid of?

Enter time analysis.

Go through every day of the week and write down the exact items that you interact with day by day (in the general case). Don’t worry about one-off experiences like traveling just yet. Focus on the 90% of your time, which for many of us is a 9-5 job Monday through Friday, but some of you may have slightly different schedules.

Here’s mine:

Mon-Thursday

  • Wake, phone and coffee, tv and coffee
  • Shower and dress (hygiene products, towels and clothes)
  • Drive to work (car, music, podcasts or educational material, gas)
  • At work. Headphones, clothes, notebooks, pens, backpack
  • Eat lunch (wallet, credit card or cash)
  • Work more.
  • Drive to gym (car, music, podcasts, gas)
  • At gym: gym membership, gym headphones, gym clothes, phone for music, gym bag
  • Drive home.
  • Eat (groceries or order-in),
  • Work on my Business (laptop, charger).
  • Relax. TV, laptop, phone, books.
  • Sleep. Bed, pillows, blanket, pajamas.

Weekends:

  • Friday night. Go out or stay in and chill / order food with gf. TV. Couch or Clothes \ Phone, Jacket, credit card.
  • Saturday. Work out, go out to eat, shopping, walk by the beach. Clothes, phone, credit card.
  • Sunday: same as Saturday

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It can be a very rough outline as you see above. Many things will repeat. The repetition is very useful to understand. This is how you can gain a strong understanding of your own time, which is absolutely vital, but also of your possessions.

Create a list of the possessions you interact with. Here is mine:

  • Phone and chargers
  • Laptop and charger
  • Car
  • Headphones
  • Clothes
  • Pillows
  • Blankets
  • Bed
  • Couch
  • Coffee maker
  • Food
  • Spotify
  • Hygiene products
  • Notebooks and pens
  • Backpack

I am sure I missed a few. But 90% of the time, these are the things I use most. Why is this important? This helps me determine where I can derive more value from my life by spending a bit more. For example, I once made a bad purchase. A bike. A bike is not on this list. It is not something I interact with 90% of the time. In my own defense, I thought I would be biking to work everyday, but after I tried it I didn’t like it. There are no showers at my work, so if you get sweaty on the ride in then you have to sit like that all day. As I already mentioned, hygiene is important to me. So I spent money on a lifestyle experiment and it didn’t work out. That’s okay! Especially if you already have some disposable income, it makes sense to try things and then stop if you don’t like it. I am currently trying to sell that bike, likely for less than half of the cost, but better than zero and that is okay! It’s the cost of experimenting with the puzzle pieces of life. Another huge purchase I made that did not work out was a gaming PC. I simply did not play it enough, and I ended up selling it on Ebay. The funny thing is, a few years later, I made the exact same mistake again and bought a gaming laptop. I played it for a few weeks and then tapered off again. I then sold that laptop on Amazon. I lost money both times, but in the end the experimentation is worth it. This level of experimenting sounds crazy, but most people just buy things and then don’t audit whether they actually bring joy or not. They are essentially hoarders of items that they do not use and do not like. And they don’t even bother to sell them. I consider it a win if I experiment, and then sell something for less value. Of course over time, as I learn more about myself and my habits, I make less mistake purchases.

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Going back to the list above, these are all items I would consider spending a lot on. Take headphones for example. I have 4 pairs. One for the gym (wireless bluetooth that wrap around the ear), one for my iPhone (weird adapter that only works on iPhone X), a pair of expensive Bose noise-cancelling headphones for working and traveling (but not for meetings), and a pair of ordinary apple headphones for my MacBook that I use for meetings. I am not investigating whether I should buy Apple AirPods in order to consolidate to 3 pairs (losing the other apples headphones). It sounds ridiculous, but this is something I use every single day, unlike a bike or an Xbox. Another huge investment I made is into my bed. I bought a Tuft and Needle mattress, a bed platform, and a down pillow. I probably spent more on my bed than most twenty-somethings. Why? I use it every single night and sleep is very important to me. You spend 1/3 of your life asleep, at least. You can get outsized returns by investing in your sleep. It’s foundational.

Just because an item is on the list doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot on it though. An example of this is notebooks and pens. I used to use Moleskines for my work notes, but I burn through notebooks way too fast. I later decided that using Moleskines isn’t bringing much more value than using the free legal pads from the work supply closet. So I don’t really spend money here. Another case is my coffee maker. It’s nothing fancy. It’s a simple drip coffee maker. It has a timer so that I can set it to be ready at 8am which is absolutely critical, but the device only costs $20. The takeaway is that for each of these items, you don’t have to spend a lot, but if you can improve the lifestyle value output then it’s probably worth it.

Minimalism isn’t the answer. The answer is to evaluate all your belongings to find if they bring you joy. I recommend reading The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up for more on this. Likewise, frugalism is not the answer either. It is important to save money, but trying to save the maximum amount possible will be a detriment to your lifestyle. What’s the point of money other than to improve your life? In many ways, your belongings _are_ you. So invest in things that bring you joy.

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