by Martin Yip
Life can be chaotic. It certainly has been in the past year, not least due to COVID-19. Students and workers alike have faced greater challenges to their mental health as they grapple with the new realities and rules that the virus has necessitated, in addition to their ordinary sources of stress and anxiety. In the face of these unprecedented and severe challenges, reducing the chaos in our lives has become immensely important. It will do us good not only when coronavirus looms large, as it has done throughout 2020, but also in the long run, when things will eventually return to ‘normal’. This is where minimalism comes in. It embodies a set of values and attitudes that manifest themselves in how we choose to go about our days. It helps reduce uncertainty, stress, and fatigue, and provides a sense of direction, regardless of how chaotic our environment might be.
Minimalism is first and foremost about intentionality. One popular act associated with minimalism is decluttering: reducing one’s material possessions, from books to clothes to electrical appliances and anything in between. The act itself is only the tip of the iceberg. The underlying attitude motivating it is that we have to be intentional about what to keep. There is a conscious act of judging what is valuable to us, and a determination to remove what is not valuable. What the minimalist has is what matters to them; no more, no less. Decluttering is merely one piece of the puzzle. The minimalist also watches their finances carefully, not buying anything just because those things look pleasing or might be of use some time in the future. This logic applies not just to physical objects, but to interpersonal connections and other commitments too. There will always be more demands for our time and attention than we can cater to, so we must choose to focus on what is important and say no to what is not. The act of choosing is intentional, and in choosing, we necessarily reflect on our values and priorities.
Minimalism is also grounded in the somewhat counterintuitive belief that more is not always better. It is not always better to own more clothes, have more friends, make more money, and so on. One problem with the pursuit of more, the pursuit of quantity, is that it detracts us from appreciating quality. For example, it is not particularly enviable to have lots of clothes if many are impulse purchases that don’t quite fit with each other. Nor would the prospect of having plenty of friends be attractive if it prevents one from establishing deep, meaningful connections. Quality, not quantity, should be the emphasis. To the minimalist, who seeks to combine high quality with low quantity, versatility is of the essence. The minimalist wardrobe might not have many items, but its contents are both durable and versatile. Every top will fit with every bottom, and a range of styles from casual to formal are possible.
Minimalism does not limit our freedom or our happiness. It does not prescribe that certain things should not be done or certain items should not be bought. Indeed, the minimalist will subject themselves to constraints, but these are constraints of their own choosing, in alignment with their values and interests. These constraints allow the minimalist to focus on what they treasure and reject what is irrelevant; from an economic perspective, they can use their time and resources more efficiently. That is why minimalism does not reduce freedom as much as it enhances freedom; it does not elicit frustration as much as it promotes fulfilment.
What does this have to do with chaos? One feature of chaos is that so much is uncertain and uncontrollable. It is almost as if we can do nothing but wait it out. Yet, minimalism tells us that there is more within our control than we may think. The world is messy, but our lives don’t have to be.