Optimize your life #2 – Go minimalist

As I move on from the inaugural tip, I feel I should mention that I write these tips from the context of what is right for me.  I do not claim to know you personally or know exactly what’s right for you.  Nevertheless, I have synthesized my opinions from a fairly large base of feedback over time, and they are, in my opinion, correct.  There is the off chance that one of the tips may, somehow, not work for your particular situation.  But, I strongly believe that you, the reader, will be far better off implementing all the tips and dealing with the few that don’t quite fit your situation than you will be doing nothing at all.

Now on to this tip.  I was inspired to choose the minimalist philosophy as the next topic after seeing Raymond Chen post about his office and a subsequent post about another minimalist office.  Great posts, please read them!

Being minimalist, to me, means that I’m constantly throwing away things that no longer add value to my life.  And that I strive to only purchase those things which will add ongoing, lasting value to myself.

I initially did not choose to be minimalist.  Rather, I chose to start a startup, and living in a minimalist fashion found its way to me after that.  The company needed money, not me.  And it would have seemed very strange for me to worry at all about myself while the team was sacrificing to get SnapStream off the ground.

Honestly, I probably could have spent more money if I wanted to.  I come from a middle class background and it would not have been difficult to spend a few more dollars a month.  But it would not have been right, nor would it have sent the right message.

Eventually, I came to realize something interesting.  I was still alive, and I was still pretty happy.  What was going on here?

Prior to my time starting SnapStream, I used to spend a lot of time and money shipping things back from college to home, and vice versa.  I most likely spent more money then than I do now, although I’ve never really been a huge spender.  It was quite unpleasant sending things back and forth, and after a while, I realized how much time and effort I was wasting doing it.

Afterwards, I did some consulting work and traveled a lot.  Again, you can’t take much with you.  But I was still pretty happy.  I got to hang out with friends and co-workers, and as long as I had an internet connection in the hotel room, I could chat with friends and play Starcraft at night.

People who travel a lot see ownership of material items in a different context.  That’s why the anecdote in Raymond’s “The simplified office” post is so funny.

I knew a guy once who claimed that you didn’t really
own anything that you couldn’t carry at a dead run
while firing an AK-47 over your shoulder.
This fellow was the only person I ever knew who lived that philosophy.

But you know, I don’t think you need to be in a wartime scenario to benefit from this observation.  Let’s put this another way.

If you only had a backpack’s worth of stuff to take with you…or a trunk, or a car’s worth…what would you take?

Having decided that, look at all the other stuff you own.  Why didn’t you choose those things?  Can you replace some of those things with better things that can make more of a difference in your life?

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell points out in rapid fire succession how too much information causes people to make the wrong decisions.  “Too much information” or “TMI” is a cardinal concept when you design for usability.  It’s hard to make the right decision when you’re presented with a bunch of wrong ones.

Look at search engines, for example.  Excite was one of the first engines on the web. Google came along some time after that.  Visit both pages for a second.  If you wanted to send your mom to one of these pages to search for something, which one would you choose?

Is it any wonder that Google won?

In fact, extra possessions are essentially extra variables in your life.  Extra things that have to be decided upon.  Stuff that you see in a room that causes you to think about totally irrelevant and unhelpful topics.

Does your life look like the Excite page? Or like Google’s?  How much time are you spending looking at possessions that have no bearing on where you want to be in five years?

In “Getting Things Done“, which is another topic of some importance in its own right, David Allen.talks about the concept of open loops.  Open loops are things in your life that haven’t been put in their natural place.  Things that still have to be dealt with.  While I won’t get into the entire justification here, David Allen makes a good case for why having open loops in your life causes stress and uncertainty.

Again, the analogy to possessions comes to mind.  That old computer? What am I going to do with that?  Oh well, not really sure.  Guess I’ll come back to it later.  That old book?  The information might be useful later.  That new gadget?  It would be really great to have.  Not really sure why, but I can think of a few reasons.

How many times will you make that decision in your head, every time you see the object, before you throw it out?  How many times will it pop back into your head, for no reason, before you take a final action that puts that object into its proper place?  How much time will your mind waste breaking flow while you think about such trivial things?  Again, an argument for taking final action on such items.

In the “The Millionaire Next Door“, the authors give repeated evidence of the counterintuitive ways in which millionaires live.  Namely, that millionaires spend money differently.  When we see people with expensive clothes, luxurious surroundings, or new gadgets every week, we are tempted to think that these people are very rich.  In fact, more often than not, the simple fact is that these people live a high consumption lifestyle…they cannot control how they spend their own money.

We naturally think that because someone can afford to spend money on such silly things like a new car every year, they must be very rich.  After all, we ourselves would never spend money like that unless we had a whole lot of it!  True for some people, but there is usually a simpler and more mundane story in play here…these people are actually just not very smart about money.

There are numerous stories in this book about generational effects of money as well.  For example, gifts of money from parent to child actually lower the earning potential of the child below his peers, even with that gift factored in.  Additionally, wealth and earning potential often dissipate from parent to child.  Most millionaires are self made, not old money. 

Amazing, isn’t it?  A well meaning parent cannot help but help his own child, and yet the truth is that he hurts him instead by unnaturally easing the pressure to succeed in the form of a free house and some extra spending money.  What would you do as a parent in a similar situation?

Enough about money…what does this have to do with minimalism?  The high consumption lifestyle is a very clear pattern followed by people who do not reach millionaire status.  I found it enlightening that the presence of money could literally enslave the way in which these people and even their children think.  I made a decision, after reading this particular book, that I would not allow myself to be consumed by money and material possessions as so many people are.

In summary, I hope I’ve made a good case to you as to why the minimalist philosophy works.  By constantly throwing things away, you are forced to remove all the distractions from your life which don’t add value.  In actuality, it’s not the act of removing things from your life that adds value.  Rather, the mental room that you create when you throw things away…that old computer, those ratty clothes, the out of date books and junk mail on your table…can now be filled with more of the things which truly enrich your existence…friends, new experiences, tools to enhance your productivity, and your time contributing to society.  To live minimally is to live a fuller, more purposeful life.

Thank you for reading.

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