Between homes and temporarily limited to an iPad, so I’m passing the baton to a journo whose essay I liked. Titled “Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter”.
William Morris was a 19th Century English textile designer, artist, writer, socialist, and Marxist. I imagine him as a calmer, more serene Bernie Sanders.
Among other memorable quotes, Morris said, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Same goes for cars, work offices, garages.
Wonderful goal, but most of what’s stored in our residences was helpful once, but isn’t anymore (ethernet cables, college texts, the golf shag bag). Or we think it may be helpful at some point in the future even though it hasn’t been for a long time (a gazillion screws, nuts and bolts; a road atlas, the golf shag bag). When it comes to our possessions, we mostly live in the past and future.
Similarly, we’re surrounded by stuff we found beautiful at one time. If we’re honest, a small subset of what we’re surrounded by is beautiful or particularly useful with any regularity (the Gal Pal just suggested I look in the mirror). What purposes then, do the majority of our things serve?
Like historical landmarks, they create order and bred familiarity. Like old photos or friends, subconsciously, they remind us of the past. Often, they are the product of nostalgia mixed with inertia. A sedentary sentimentality confounds efforts at genuine minimalism.
Knowing that, we can be much more selective about what we save as links to our past, scanning and digitizing much of what makes the final cut. Doing that, our living spaces will grow and we’ll enjoy them more.
Because lots of other people will. Might be in two months, years, or decades, but you’ll succumb to the spell Jonathan Ive’s team has cast on our culture.
The early reviewers say what’s most remarkable about the iWatch is they hardly ever take their iPhones out of their pockets anymore. So if having to regularly remove your phone from your pocket is wreaking havoc on your life, you’re in luck. Nevermind that you’ll have to charge it overnight and shouldn’t swim with it. There are less expensive ways to improve your social standing, but not many faster ones.
I recently read a long New Yorker story on Apple’s design guru, Jonathan Ive. I was amazed to learn that Apple employs three people whose only job is to find and hire the best designers in the world. They typically hire one person a year. Also mind boggling, one part of the soon-to-be-opened new Apple headquarters in Mountain View, CA is a $5b “walled garden”. If it wasn’t the New Yorker, I would assume that’s a typo. Five thousand million dollars on plants?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two things—a different form of design, residential architecture, and Marie Kondo’s fame. Kondo is the best selling author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” Kondo says you should only have things in your home that “spark joy”.
What about whole houses, a residential architecture, that sparks joy?! Very, very few homes in my corner of the country spark joy, probably because architects are focused much more narrowly on profit margins. Instead of asking, does this spark joy, they ask, how much will it cost to build per square foot and what can we reasonably expect to sell it for.
The end result of this calculus is terribly uninteresting neighborhood after terribly uninteresting neighborhood. It’s not the designers’ and builders’ fault, it’s ours for settling for uninspiring designs.
What will it take for us to challenge residential architects to design and build homes that spark joy, and dare I dream, neighborhoods that enrich people’s spirits for centuries to come? Neighborhoods filled with small to medium-sized, eclectic, energy efficient homes? Neighborhoods where art and sound economics co-exist? It will take a new resolve to stop settling for mindless designs.
There are small design and build firms out there doing beautiful work, like this one, but until buyers insist on joy, don’t expect them to scale-up their impressive work anytime soon.
I love that about a quarter of PressingPause’s readers are from outside the United States. Hard to know of course if they’re ex patriot readers, or as I assume, genuine article foreign nationals. The contents of this post will most likely strike them as odd. Especially those with no firsthand experience of living in the United States.
Americans are unusually productive and wasteful. We work hard Monday through Friday and then buy lots of things on Saturday and Sunday that we don’t need. Yin and Yang. Over and over. As a result, our homes, no matter the size, get filled up with all sorts of ridiculous stuff. By which I mean The Magic Bullet. The technical term is clutter.
Given this national characteristic, many moons ago, a tradition was born in the U.S. The garage sale. A garage sale is when a family spreads out all of their leftover, unused stuff in front of their home and offers it for sale to anyone that’s interested. Our neighborhood designates the first Saturday in June to be a “neighborhood garage sale”. Too bad you missed ours or you could have bought a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory DVD; some unused, unopened 10w-30 motor oil; or an outdoor umbrella real cheap. Since my family is more frugal than most, we don’t normally participate. But this year I decided it was time to do some “thinning” of our worldly possessions since it’s been a long time and the youngest is getting ready to depart for college. It was especially fun to partner with her.
American wastefulness is often stomach turning, but Saturday during our garage sale, I realized it also provides opportunities. The sociologist in me loved the garage sale. For four hours I talked to a cross-section of society that I almost never get to. Many were first generation Americans smartly taking advantage of multi-generational American waste. For many it was a weekend ritual that they took very seriously.
Rule one, show up early. If the newspaper advert and signs say 8:00 a.m., start cruising the hood at 7:30 a.m. That way you might just luck into a free wheelbarrow or a nice $20 edger. Remember, the good stuff goes fast. My favorite part of the morning was foreign speaking customers who appeared to be just getting going in the U.S. using their smart phones to research prices.
If you have the time, join the garage sale masses. There are excellent bargains all around. Just make a list of things you need first or you’ll soon find yourself on the selling end.
In the U.S., people routinely fill up their garages so that they have to park their cars elsewhere. And sometimes, the garage isn’t nearly big enough for all of their stuff, let alone their cars. When that happens, people rent a second garage in a storage facility. Thus, if you have a lot more capital than time, invest in a storage facility.
A shiny new one recently opened near us and every time I drive by it I think to myself, “Damn. That’s the perfect investment.” Americans’ waste knows no bounds. You can bet on it. And invest in it. And profit from it. Especially where there’s population growth. Simple to build, storage facilities require little overhead. Unlike a rented house, no one is every going to call you at 1 a.m. to complain that the toilet is clogged again. There may be downsides to the investment, but I don’t want to know them. My ignorance makes me blissful.
Do not try to talk me out of it. I’m taking the $160 I made this weekend, embracing the waste, and going all in on another storage facility. I probably need other investors to buy the needed land. Care to join me?
I’m easily distracted. In church on Sunday, I couldn’t help but think about minimalism. As one part of “Scout Sunday” the pastor asked past and present scouts to recite the scouts’ values. They did okay until about the ninth value. Twelve?! That’s about nine too many. And when I should have been concentrating on the sermon, I was thinking about this quote from a minimalist Londoner who just built a home.
People do comment on our tidiness, but I find it fascinating that they find it fascinating. If you have a thing of beauty, like a piece of architecture, and then you fill it up with things, then you somehow diminish it and you cannot really appreciate the space you live in. We have exposed the things we really love, like the photography and the books.
One group unnecessarily complicating things, one homeowner purposely and thoughtfully stripping things down to their bare minimum.
People associate minimalism with life simplifying projects, whether recycling old clothes, shredding unnecessary office papers, or decluttering a garage, but it can be a helpful organizing principle for all of one’s life.
Minimalism is about embracing limits that others mostly ignore. The starting point is the ultimate limit, one’s mortality. Minimalists are more mindful than most that their time is limited; as a result, they tend to be more interested in the quality of their life experiences than accumulating lots of money and possessions.
Minimalists believe stripping things down is liberating—whether electronic data, personal commitments, and friendships. Consider each.
Electronic minimalism. This one’s tough because digital clutter can be neatly contained within a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer. If you’re like one of my offspring, your desktop may be proof of that. To practice electronic minimalism, create folders for loose documents, and use folders within folders. But first, delete as many unnecessary, out-of-date documents, bookmarks, and email messages as possible. I DIG that electronic wadding up and shredding of paper sound my MacBook Pro makes whenever I empty the trash. Like a Pavlov dog, I’m motivated to trash things just to hear the sound.
“Zero email inbox” is a futile, overly perfectionist goal, but if you typically have more than 20-40 messages in your inbox, delete more often and create and use more folders. Same with website bookmarks. Delete those you haven’t used in a long time and put the the remaining ones into folders. This makes it easier to avoid mindless web surfing. Same with applications. Some people have over a hundred apps. I find that odd because the fewer you use, the easier it is to quickly and easily access them. Maybe some mega app users would say they use folders and don’t have a problem, but most people probably use 10% of their apps 90% of the time. Why not just remove most of the 90%?
Electronic minimalism is based on the premise that fewer docs, email messages, website bookmarks, and applications makes it easier to find things, get one’s work done, and then enjoy life off-line.
Scheduling minimalism. As an introvert, and often to the GalPal’s regret, this one comes relatively easily for me. This is the countercultural practice of not committing to many activities—whether one’s own, or a partner’s, or one’s children’s. It’s saying to oneself, “I’d like to attend that event, participate in that weekly activity, or go on that trip, but I’m okay missing out on that fun because the busyness trade-off isn’t worth it.” Obviously, “too busy” is a subjective concept. The key is to know your particular physical and social limits and to intentionally err on the side of underscheduling.
Interpersonal minimalism. This is the related, countercultural practice of purposely focusing on a limited number of close friendships. I’ve written about the quality versus quantity of friendships conundrum before here. Young people’s embrace of social media has made this type of minimalism especially rare. Many high school and college aged young adults have a thousand plus Facebook “friends”. Interpersonal minimalism means focusing most of your friendship activity on people who you interact with face-to-face on a weekly basis.
Stripping down activities creates momentum which leads to additional ideas for simplifying not just one’s garage, but one’s life. In what other aspects of your life has less proven more?
[My favorite book on minimalism—Francine Jay’s The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide]
I wish I had written this insightful post on decluttering not just our closets and garages, but our lives.
Here’s an example of the ideas in action via John Gruber and Kottke:
I like this as a basic theory for understanding Apple’s exceptional success. Steve Jobs was famous for his pride in saying “no”. At All Things D in 2004, asked about an Apple PDA: “I’m as proud of the products that we have not done as I am of the products we have done.” (Other examples here and here.)
We can put all of our products on the table you’re sitting at. Those products together sell $40 billion per year. No other company can make that claim except perhaps an oil company. We are the most focused company that I know of, or have read of, or have any knowledge of.
We say no to good ideas every day; we say no to great ideas; to keep the number of things we focus on small in number.
I recommend Roman Krznaric’s “The Wonderbox“. From the book flap:
There are many ways to improve our lives: we can turn to the wisdom of philosophers, the teachings of religion, or the latest experiments of psychologists. But we rarely look to history for inspiration—and when we do it can be surprisingly powerful. Uncovering the lessons that can be learned from the past, cultural historian Roman Krznaric explores twelve universal topics from work and love to money and creativity, and reveals the wisdom we’ve been missing. There is much to be learned from Ancient Greece on the different varieties of love; from the industrialising British on job satisfaction; and ancient Japanese pilgrims on the art of travel.
I just finished Chapter Five titled “Time”. I appreciate your making the time to “read me,” but my guess is you won’t follow the book link, let alone read the book because you don’t have the time. Here’s one pgraph from Chapter Five to give you the flavor flav of the book:
My adventures with time are not simply a rejection of the clock, but an embrace of absorbing the world at a more gentle pace. When I got to an art gallery, I try to visit only two or three paintings. Each morning I walk in the garden and search for something that has changed—perhaps a bud that has opened or a new spiderweb—which helps bring a stillness to the beginning of the day. I attempt to eat slowly, savouring the flavours. Almost everybody laughs at my tiny diary, which give each day a space half the length of my little finger. As it is so easily filled, it helps keep down my number of appointments. Artificial? Absolutely. But it works for me. The best way I know to have more time, to feel less rushed, and appreciate life to the fullest, is to plan fewer activities.
Krznaric doesn’t wear a watch, programs his phone and other gadgets so the time doesn’t show, and covers the built-in clocks on his kitchen appliances in an effort to resist modern society’s all encompassing artificial demarcations of time.
You may do the same a few days or weeks a year when on vacation. There’s nothing much more liberating than, temporarily at least, disconnecting from time.
Most people equate minimalism with decluttering and that’s an integral part, but planning fewer activities may be even more essential to living more slowly and simply. My North American, upper middle-class suburban peers are particularly susceptible to over planning because they fear their children will be disadvantaged if they don’t participate in nearly every extracurricular activity including sports, music, theater, religious youth or service groups, and family travel.
Chock-full family calendars, found in most suburban kitchens, are testaments to hyper-activity. Consequently, most children really don’t know what to do with “free time”. Especially, screen-free free time.
An insight worth repeating. “The best way I know to have more time, to feel less rushed, and appreciate life to the fullest, is to plan fewer activities.”
The audacity. Slate’s Rachel Larimore disagrees with Krznaric and myself. In Defense of Busyness.
How ’bout you?
By decluttering of course.
Jane E. Brody reviews a new book by Robin Zasio titled “The Hoarder in You: How To Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life.” Brody says it’s the best self-help work she’s read in her 46 years as a health and science writer. That should help sales.
After that endorsement, I was disappointed by Zasio’s advice, which I’d describe as decluttering orthodoxy based on Brody’s highlights.
Here’s the gist of it. If you’re familiar with the decluttering literature skip ahead a paragraph. 1A) Tackle just one project at a time—a closet, garage, room, dresser drawer, file cabinet—and stick with it until it’s done. 1B) To create positive momentum, work from the easiest project to the most challenging. 2) Schedule time for decluttering—an hour a weekday or weekend day for example—until done. 3A) Use three containers labelled “Keep,” “Donate,” and “Discard”. 3B) Brody adds her own advice here. To force yourself to decide among the three, be careful not to add a fourth “Undecided” container.
Simple, huh? So why do I predict, six months after finishing Zasio’s book, that the majority of her readers will still live clutter-riddled lives? Because no matter how faithfully one implements that logical plan, there’s still a cultural, even spiritual element to our tendency to buy far more than we need.
Every day, all day, we’re subjected to a one-two punch of extremely sophisticated and ubiquitous advertising that plays on our insecurities and to what sociologists refer to as “relative deprivation” or wanting what others wealthier (or more in debt) than us have. Regardless of whether we have the three containers labelled correctly, we want what we see advertised and and we want what our next-door neighbors have. Until we figure out how to resist those two things, our “stuff” will continue to overwhelm us.
I’m not immune to the one-two punch. I owned a Porsche once, an incredible machine, but I sold it (at a loss of course) because I felt self-conscious in it. Weird, I know. Most Porsche owners want you looking at them at the light or getting out of it at the restaurant. I was the opposite. I didn’t like pulling into the church or school parking lot. Insufficient swagger I guess. But then after reading Irvine, and getting fired up about Stoicism, I learned Stoics aren’t supposed to care about what others think of them. There’s something to work on. With that in mind, maybe I should give it another shot. The new 2012 911 looks damn nice. An exercise in applied Stoicism?