Minimalism has been a buzzword in our culture for several years now, perhaps culminating in the huge success of Marie Kondo’s KonMari method and TV show. Untold numbers of people have found great benefits in applying minimalist principals to their homes, wardrobes, and lives.
I believe minimalism is especially beneficial to writers. When there is so much to distract and keep us from focusing on our work, minimalist principals can help us to find focus, and live happier, healthier and more productive lives.
The whole concept can be kind of daunting, though. When I talk about minimalism, I’m often met with shrugs or questions. “I like the idea of that,” people often say, “But I just don’t think I can do it.” The word brings up images of shelves with one plant, empty white walls and tea-drinking millennials smugly telling you about the evils of smart phones. But minimalism doesn’t have to look like that. Far from it. The way a person applies minimalism to their lives isn’t one-size-fits all. And trying it out doesn’t have to be complicated.
One of the best ways to explore minimalism and how it can specifically benefit writers is to read on the topic. These five books offer a great introduction to the philosophy of minimalism, and how you can use it to live a happier writing life.
Part memoir, part guidebook, Everything that Remains is written by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, better known as “The Minimalists,” and best known for their Netflix documentary, Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things. It chronicles how Joshua, in his mid-twenties and rocked by his mother’s death, started to pursue a more meaningful life–first by decluttering his house, then by deciding what mattered most and pursuing it and nothing else.
Ryan, seeing the quiet joy emanating from his best friend, asked him what had changed, and how he could change, too. Instead of a slow process, Ryan and Joshua boxed up all of Ryan’s possessions in a “packing party.” Ryan only kept what he unboxed over the next few weeks, and donated the rest. As they figured out and focused on what matters most, both young men found more meaningful, joyful lives, eventually quitting their corporate jobs to share this message of “less is more” with the world. They even moved to a cabin in Montana to write this book!
The minimalists also have a podcast, blog and youtube channel where they regularly discuss living by minimalist principles, and the benefits of doing so. If you’re looking for an introduction to minimalism as a philosophy coupled with a great story, Everything That Remains is an excellent choice.
Capsule wardrobes are considered a kind of minimalism gateway drug– building one is a way to try out minimalism without committing to de-cluttering your whole house and life. But the idea of a capsule wardrobe can be intimidating or off-putting– it often invokes images of a single rack of clothing, monochromatic shirts, strict clothes quotas. People think this means you have to have a certain number of pieces*, that it should all look like a minimalist pixie dream girl’s half-empty but still giant closet, and if it isn’t you’re doing it wrong.
Really, a capsule wardrobe can be whatever size you want and consist of whatever clothes you want. But it’s curated, to your taste, your style, your needs and your budget. The point of building a capsule wardrobe is not to fit it to someone else’s idea of what a capsule wardrobe should be–it’s to figure out what you want your wardrobe to look like, get rid of what no longer fits that ideal, and slowly–budget permitting–add in the pieces that will complete it. The idea is to be deliberate about what clothes you keep, donate and add.
I found Jessica Rose Williams, a minimalist writer, through her Instagram. This ebook is her first–one of a trio now. It guides you through the process of discerning your personal style, and then culling your wardrobe to only pieces you love and feel good in. It’s a gentle, guided approach that will leave you with a closet that makes you smile every time you open it. Often, this process of de-cluttering your wardrobe can lead people to want to de-clutter more, which brings me to my next book recommendation.
*This idea may come from minimalist challenges like Project 333 or the 10×10 Challenge, which challenge you to only use a certain number of pieces of clothing. The key difference here is that these challenges are only for a certain amount of time. If you do the 10×10 challenge, you only use ten pieces of clothing, but it’s only for ten days. You’re not throwing the rest out. Admittedly, I’ve not tried these, but they seem like another great way to dip your toe into minimalism, and connect with other minimalists.
This book was a runaway bestseller long before Marie Kondo’s Netflix show made her a household name. In it, Marie Kondo introduces readers to her “KonMari” method. It is a way of cleaning out your house, then re-ordering it so that every item has a place. Her promise? You’ll never have to do it again. This is a one-time cure-all for your mess.
I think the true wisdom of this method is that, rather than focusing on what you throw away (or donate or sell, ideally), you focus on what you keep. Starting with clothing, then working through books and papers, kimono (miscellany) and then things with sentimental value last, you put every item to a very simple test. Does it, in Kondo’s words, “Spark joy?” If not, it goes*.
This sounds almost impossible, but the more you work through this method, the more you’ll get a sense for what does, in fact, spark joy for you. Walking into a room filled only with things that you love and use regularly is a special kind of heaven. And having such a curated and calm environment is great for the creative process.
*It can be intimidating to give up items that don’t really spark joy, but that seem necessary, or that might be necessary in the future. The Minimalists have a rule that I apply in situations like this, called the “20/20 rule.” If you don’t want to keep an item, but think you might need it someday, ask yourself, “Can I replace this for less than twenty dollars, in less than twenty minutes?” If so, toss it. Of course, if we had to spend twenty dollars replacing every item we discard, this would be horrible advice. But, in reality, I’ve never replaced something I’ve thrown out after applying this test. We often keep things out of fear rather than actual necessity.
If you are inspired by stories of other minimalists, and have found a de-cluttering process beneficial, you’re probably wanting to apply minimalist principles to other areas of your life. To de-clutter your work, your schedule, and your social calendar, to home in on the things that matter. Minimalism, really, isn’t about getting rid of things. It’s not even about what you keep. It’s about deciding what is valuable to you, and prioritizing it. The clothes, the clutter, these are the physical manifestation of what will become a mental process.
Essentialism is a guide to getting there. Greg McKeown’s slim, clear and concise book is both to the point and expansive, covering both why a minimalist mindset is freeing and effective, and how to put one into practice. He calls Essentialism the “disciplined pursuit of less.” This is how he describes it:
“The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done. It is not a time management strategy, or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.”
I’ve read it twice and, during my Corona Virus Quarantine, am planning to read it again. I find it both informative and inspiring, and a perfect introduction to applying minimalist principals to the most important areas of my life–my relationships, my faith, and my work. There is something very freeing about deciding what matters to you and going after it. Doing so can have a profound impact on your mental health, your productivity, and your overall happiness. It can also help you make space and time for the most important things (that book you’ve wanted to write, that poetry class you’ve been meaning to attend).
Which brings me to my final book.
While not a minimalist book, per se, (although its author, Cal Newport, has gone on to write a book about Digital Minimalism), Deep Work uses minimalist principles to advocate for a practical method for getting more of the right things done.
As writers, two of our most valuable resources are under outright attack by the modern world. These resources aren’t talent, they’re not platform, they’re not skill or craft or knowledge. No, the most important things for a writer–and the things that are increasingly hard to get in the modern world–are time and focus.
While we might not have full control over our time, we do have control over what we focus on. If we only have an hour a day to write, and we spend ten minutes of it scrolling through Twitter, we’ve given Jack one of our most precious resources . . . for free. Deep Work shows the power of focusing on a single task for a set amount of time, and the extraordinary benefits to both our mental health and productivity. The message is simple but profound: focus on one thing, and only one thing, at a time. Do this several times a day. And just watch how much you get done.
I apply Deep Work principals to my writing day, breaking it up into forty five minute chunks, often with a thirty minute break in-between. This seemed crazy to me at first — why not work for the full hour and fifteen minutes? But in actuality, you cannot focus on one single task for massive amounts of time. But by doing one task for a shorter, set amount of time, and doing nothing else during that time, you’d be amazed at how much you can get done. It’s been absolute magic for my writing life, and especially beneficial now that I’m working from home and making my own schedule.
Applying minimalist principals further, I’ve tried to make my breaks from work more meaningful. I could scroll Twitter, but I find that when I do, I come back to the page feeling stressed, drained and unfocused. If, instead, I read a book, I come back to the page refreshed, calm and ready to work. With Corona Virus, the news is especially stressful, but also much more necessary. I wouldn’t want to not read the news right now, but I am being very careful about how much I read it. The result is that I’m able to focus during the workday, and I find my mental health much better for it.
Have you tried applying minimalism to your writing life? Let me know what worked, what didn’t, and if you have any recommendations!
Bess McAllister writes epic books in expansive worlds from a little house in the Midwest. For seven years, she lived in New York and worked as a fiction editor at Tor Books. Now, she spends her days telling stories and helping other writers tell theirs. Check out her editorial services and connect with her on Instagram.
Bess’s work is represented by Brooks Sherman at Janklow and Nesbit Associates.