The Perks of Becoming a Minimalist

I’ve always been a restless person. Easily excited, curious about life and very eager to learn – in my good moments. Unsettled, chaotic and fidgety, a lot of other times. Always wondering, always looking, always dreaming of and striving for more. My friends used to tease me with this: “If you’re still searching your soul, Peanut (my nickname), you may want to try the last place you still had it.”

Still, a lot of great things came from my wandering mind. I attained degrees in different fields, travelled around the world, lived in different countries. I met a bunch of wonderful and strange people I would have never encountered otherwise. I worked at different companies, found out what makes me happy (and miserable) at work, and devoured books that opened my mind to new ideas. I did a LOT, took in a lot.

Under all the excitement and curiosity however, there was a slight but recurrent sense of discontent. With myself, with everything I was always not achieving or getting done. This undercurrent influenced a lot of my experiences and decisions, and probably more than any single activity caused the burn out I experienced in 2015.

It’s not just me, though, I can see that. Our whole economic model is based on continuous growth, and the obsession with constant progress, expansion and (self)improvement is driving us to the point of exhaustion. It’s in everything around us. It’s in pursuing that promotion in a job you don’t even like. It’s in filling our houses with stuff, in needing to achieve something new always (You just ran a marathon? Why not go for a triathlon!), in filling our heads with news and information. Even on my travels I meet so many people that speak of an inner push to keep moving on, to keep pursuing that ultimate place or experience. We get so scared to become bored or useless (a FOM0- fear of meaning 0), that we fill up every moment with goals, impulse, people, noise, with stuff. With that one more thing that will finally be it, and make us content.

Not to sound too paranoid, but I found out it’s a trap. Or at least it’s a loop we trap ourselves in, going something like this.

loop of discontent

The irony is of course that the solution we use, to try and solve the discontent, only confirms and feeds back to it. As long as you think you always need something more to be content, it’s impossible to ever actually reach that state.

We’re probably designed as human beings to permanently be slightly dissatisfied: there’s a clear evolutionary benefit to it. One can imagine our worried and overactive ancestors, with a inconsumable focus on collecting more berries and hunting more game, had a better chance of survival and feeding their offspring than those happily living in the moment – chilling out under a tree, taking long siestas… and probably eaten by a lion before sunset.

Good thinking, ancestors. However, we’re using this constant pursuit not as a tool for survival, but for getting something else: happiness, and a fulfilled life. That’s not working, it’s not working at all. We now have more stuff than previous generations could even dream of, more freedom to purchase whatever ‘more’ we want, and still numbers of depression are rising –the WHO indicates that by 2030 depression will be the leading cause of disease burden globally. The catch with evolutionary benefits is that they were designed to make us live, no to make us happy – they couldn’t care less about our wellbeing. That’s our job to settle here, in our own time, safely and comfortably at the top of Maslows pyramid.

So, how to get out of that loop of discontent? The simple answer is to revert the equation: we actually don’t need anything more to be happy. We need less.

It makes sense: a lot of moments we are supposedly happiest in life – like our holidays, or our college years – are defined by a certain simplicity and absence of excessive stuff. The promise of that simplicity is so alluring that Marie Kondo sold millions of copies last year of her book The life changing magic of tidying up in which she basically tells you to get rid of everything in your house that doesn’t spark joy. Instagram and magazines are filled with ‘lifestyle porn’ pictures of nearly empty lofts with white walls and floors and just a bed in it, and one stylish piece of decoration: a tree, maybe. We dream away at a fantasy life that’s clear, serene and uncluttered.

Of course it’s not the absence of stuff in itself that will make us happy – and trying to create a life that resembles Instagram perfection is a recipe for the exact opposite, I would say. It’s the space you can create by taking away (or simply not adding) the non-essential. The space for the essential to be prominently present in your life, instead of buried in stuff and business. What is essential, is up to you – I’d assume it’s those things that give you joy, that make you feel fulfilled and proud.

To me, that means time to be reflective and creative. To really be there with, and for, somebody else. And quietness at times – to recharge, get new ideas. That, to me, turns out to be essential. Ironically, these were exactly the things I was not giving myself before; with my constant rush forward, my quest for more and better.

It’s mental as well as physical space I’m talking about. My journey to becoming more minimalist is still in full swing, but I can share some of my experiences and goals with you. This is how I put minimalism into practice (and it’s still practice).

  • An important step for me was to not bring a TV into my new house and to put away my phone as much as possible. To not fill the silence at night, after work, with a steady inflow of information and entertainment, but to embrace it. Stare into the fire for a while, read, drink a cup of tea. See what happens if I actually give myself the chance to maybe get bored. I do still have internet and watch Netflix occasionally, but all in all it feels more intentional.
  • My new mantra is: I already have everything I need. Truly believing that, and feeling it in your bones, is an empowering and relaxing experience in itself. Practically it means I’ve gotten quite strict about things entering my house and life. This doesn’t just apply to big things like a car, fancy furniture or gadgets (not really interested in any of those). My focus is on clothes and books, because those are the most tempting to me.
    > I got rid of all books that weren’t either favourites or still on my wish list to read. Then I stopped buying books. I go to the library now – very oldskool -, read a book, then bring it back. I don’t have to own it or keep it around.
    > As I have enough clothes in my closet to last me the better part of a decade, I really don’t have to buy anything.  I’m no saint though, and sometimes I really want to. So I have two rules: I pause before I buy (and then I often don’t): do I really want this? Is this worth more to me than (X amount of freedom)? And, I fixed the amount of clothing I can own: so when I do decide to get something new, another thing has to go.
  • Last on the list is taking it slow: being as frugal with spending my time as with spending my money. It’s the most valuable thing I have. Unlike with money, you can never make any more, you can only choose to spend it differently. I used to say YES to anything that seemed fun, or with people I liked. Or things I felt I couldn’t say no to. Now I savour weekends with a blanco agenda, when I can just see what happens – if I want to go out or curl up on the couch. Doing nothing now and then, I think is highly underrated.

The amount of time and space (and money, to be honest) those simple measures freed up was substantial. On top of that, it made me appreciate the things I dó choose to have in my life much more. A cup of strong coffee in the morning, reading the entire newspaper on Saturday, going out for a walk. By tuning it down a bit, I allowed myself to feel the luxury of the present moment again – and realize it already holds everything I need.

I’m writing this on the shores of Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake in Nicaragua. I made time (well, I chose time) and am living out of a backpack once again. No stuff, just me, some old shorts and the laptop I’m writing this on. The decision I finally made to quit my job – to spend my time on things that feel more valuable to me- , is starting to sink in (more on that later). Looking out on the waves rolling onto the black sand, on the immensity of the nature around me, it’s hard to imagine that space was once something that needed to be made. It’s omnipresent here, and I am breathing it in: trying to store some in my cells for when I get home. I am still that same curious and chaotic person as I was before. But here I am, not making plans – a more peaceful and spacious version of myself. And that’s as happy as I can get.

The sunny day that changed my life

It was a bright and beautiful August morning when I felt myself undeniably freeze up. The sun was already high in the sky, warming the streets. I had just finished an early business meeting in town and was ready to get on my bike, rush to the office. Get on with stuff.

But I wasn’t ready. I was staring at my bike lock in an intense, blind panic: suddenly having absolutely no idea how I was ever going to do all those things I was supposed to. Because, in that moment, I didn’t even know how to open the lock. My mind was completely blank. And the idea of having to cycle anywhere through the busy Amsterdam traffic made me want to burst out in tears. Everything made me want to do just that, because I felt too tired to come up with anything else.

I didn’t know what was happening to me. All I knew is that I had never felt more raw, and weak, and scared. Like that secret suspicion I had had all along, the little voice whispering “You can’t do all this. You’re not as good as they think” was finally catching up with me.

That was the day that forced me to change. It took the company doctor about 10 minutes to diagnose me as burned out. My first urge was to prove him wrong but I didn’t have the energy. I soon learned that burned out meant I couldn’t just go back to where I was a few weeks before; quickly recharge, pick up my life and choose differently. This was it for now, and I had to deal with it. Even if I really didn’t know how to. How do you deal with a complete feeling of standstill in life, when all you’ve been doing for years is trying to speed things up, be better, do more? When the whole world around you is still moving fast, and you can’t go along anymore?

Luckily, the standstill was only external – like in winter when everything seems cold and dead, but underneath life’s still simmering, repairing and preparing for a new season.

So, what changed?

Just before that break down, I was on top of the world. I could do anything. You could find me either working my full time corporate job where I’d just started at a new department, at my full time study in Applied Psychology, my side project for the University of Amsterdam, house hunting in a very stressed market, actively socializing with friends or colleagues, or working out in a personalized fitness program.

Or, more and more, you could find me lying in bed directly after work. Completely exhausted, guiltily skipping a yoga class – but that wasn’t a picture of myself I wanted to really look at.

Of course I was tired, but I didn’t want it to affect me. Actually, I found myself in essence to be quite lazy, so I did a lot to avoid giving in to that nature.  I did not want my laziness to lead to ‘not amounting to anything’, and so I pushed myself.

I used fear of failure as motivation.

I felt shame about feeling tired, lazy or sick.

This may sound quite depressing, but these mechanisms were so ingrained into my system that I barely noticed them. And I felt I needed them to stay motivated, thinking that without these psychological ‘whips’ I would just lay on the couch all day and do nothing.

I think the core of it was I desperately wanted to feel meaningful – and gravely feared the opposite. If only I made enough of an impact, if I would just do enough, it would matter I was here. I would live up to something. The problem was, it was never enough. I wasn’t suffering from the FOMO* us millennials are so often accused of, but of a deep FOM0: Fear of Meaning 0 [nothing].

And there was a nasty catch to this fear: it completely blocked my creativity and ability to follow my heart, thus setting me up for even bigger failure: in life. I so franticly needed to succeed, to ease that feeling of slumbering discontent, that I only felt free doing things I already knew I could succeed in. But everything worth doing, you can fail at.

The thought of truly committing, to take a risk and do something real and exciting, scared the hell out of me. That’s not a recipe for inspiration, I can tell you. I would start things that inspired me, like writing, and stop again – feeling blocked. Then resent myself for being such a coward and push to work harder. But will power does not make for creativity and passion, and I was getting exhausted and fed up with myself.

I think to a certain extent I even used my avid traveling as a way to sustain this pattern: by stepping out of ‘real life’ for a while, I could finally live in the moment and accept myself while not being productive. I could still feel like I was doing something deeply personal and adventurous. I felt happier and more in sync when traveling. But I never found a way to translate this into everyday life.

So I was failing anyway I could look at it, despite all my efforts. Despite the superficial success.

I think I needed the break down to break out of the cycle. With energy, it would just have been too tempting to keep running and numb the fear. Then, burned out at home, I was forced to look it in the eye: I was finally where I was always trying to get away from: on the couch all day (watching Netflix, yes), not amounting to anything. I finally, officially, failed. But I didn’t disappear, and people still loved me. Apparently, being meaningful didn’t require that much work and achievement after all, but was something that was just given to me.

Also, in that break down, I felt that the pain of not listening to my own voice, of constantly giving into fear, had become so much bigger than the pain of failing at something could possibly be. It had probably always been irrational, but now this system of motivation was not even working anymore. That meant I had to come up with a new way of motivating myself. This was new territory. For months I handled my burn out the same way I had handled other projects: with ambition and dedication. I would slowly recover, then try to get more active, and feel my energy implode again. It was very frustrating.

So I had to start believing that there was another way of creating things in the world: a more natural way that doesn’t depend so much on pushing but on a natural flow of inspiration and growth. Like how a fetus grows into a baby, or a seed turns into a plant. They just do, without trying hard of forcing anything, because it’s what they’re meant to do. There is an incredible creative energy in the universe and I felt if I could tap into that, I would be ok. I could do and create things without losing all my energy. And if I could lean back a bit more, I would find a way to do it. I needed trust for that, as it felt very unnatural to try less instead of more: feelings of guilt for not working hard enough would reappear often. But somehow I kept getting back to it. Undeniably because the idea of feeling inspired and working from flow had a grand appeal after all that struggle. And because I knew I could not get back to my old ways.

I wish I could conclude by saying I found the magic key and am now in a constant state of flow and divine inspiration. I didn’t, and I still struggle with some of my old thought patterns at times. But something, in my core, has changed. I now trust that some things happen in their own time. I trust my own voice a lot more, even when I feel insecure or vulnerable. And I’m taking steps to align myself more with what’s in my heart. That is, in fact, how this article came into being: I wrote it from a deep desire to put some of this experience onto paper and share it with others. Truly honest and thus quite scary. But I know now that’s the only way to make something. So that’s OK.

I look back on that sunny August day in gratitude. I wish I could tell my terrified self then that I would be fine even if things were falling apart. How much I’d learn about myself, how much courage I’d find to do things differently in the end. Today I look outside – it’s bright light and sunny yet again. Almost a year has passed (winter is over) and a new season has started.

*  FOMO = Fear of Missing Out