On Minimalism and Desire

It turns out, in the end, the hardest thing to minimize is desire.

For a couple of years now, I’ve been trying to incorporate minimalist principles into my life. It’s been a slow process, but I’ve done the usual: I said goodbye to clothes I haven’t worn since high school; I donated shelves of books to the library; I held various inanimate objects in my hands and tried very hard to unironically thank them for their service. (Fortunately, personifying inanimate objects is one of my skills.) I visited my parents and recycled bins upon bins of my papers from grade school through college that had been sitting in their basement.

I plan to continue doing these things, and I hope to share some of that process here in the future. But when I first became interested in minimalism, it was all about trying to clear the clutter of objects around me. I felt claustrophobic from the weight of my possessions. It was easy to look around my home and identify areas of excess: things I didn’t like, things I hadn’t used in too many years to count, things I didn’t want, things that took up space, things that didn’t serve me.

It took much longer for me to recognize that filling garbage bags and recycling bins like a champ meant very little unless I was willing to do the much more difficult work of examining my patterns of acquisition.

It’s hard to think of a better example of this than the other hobby I started getting into around the same time my interest in decluttering was growing: writing Amazon reviews in exchange for free or discounted products. There was one month, about a year and a half ago, when I got a package or three in the mail almost every day. It got to the point where the guy who staffs my building’s package room would start gathering my boxes when he saw me approaching from out the window.

At the same time, I was going through my apartment getting rid of the things I felt were excessive. I know. I know. It was a special kind of cognitive dissonance.

But I’m also grateful, because this stark and unavoidable contrast brought some important points to light for me. First of all, and it’s important to acknowledge this, acquisition feels good. Getting a new item in the mail is exciting. Opening a package feels like a holiday. And when that small twinge of pleasure is cheap or free, it can be easy for the question to become, why not? What’s the harm?

The same thing happens when something is on sale. One of the patterns I’ve noticed in myself is the desire to take advantage of good deals. I was brought up in a household where, every Sunday, we religiously read through the stacks of coupons and advertisements that came inserted in the morning paper. To this day, I struggle with holding myself back from making a purchase just because I see a great discount.

For me, one of the biggest rewards of minimalism has been access to this new tool for challenging myself to make better choices. Instead of asking what’s the harm, I want to ask, what’s the benefit? Instead of buying something because it’s on sale, I want to ask myself, is this something I would want regardless?

So, yes, my closet actually contains clothing now instead of storage boxes, and I have this amazing new ability to go on vacation without feeling an irresistible desire to buy souvenirs. Those are certainly pluses. But most of all, I’m grateful that I’m becoming more attentive, more demanding, and a whole lot pickier about the objects I allow to enter my life. I’ve become increasingly conscientious about the quality, longevity, and recently, morality of my purchases. Now I spend time searching for my “holy grail” products in each category, and when I buy something, I try to make sure I’ll want to keep and use it for a long time.

Am I successful 100% of the time? Of course not. I’m in my early thirties, and I recently decided that it was time to learn how to apply makeup, a skill I somehow managed to avoid throughout my teens and twenties. That’s been a process where failed experiments have been hard to avoid. But for the first time in my life, I’m trying to be aware of whether my toiletries have been tested on animals and whether my clothing was sewn in a sweatshop. I’m trying to pause and wait and consider before acting on my still-frequent impulses to buy something new. And I realized that once I found and bought a pencil case and a backpack I loved, my inclination to shop for pencil cases and backpacks melted away.