My journey to minimalism began in one of the least romantic ways possible: I was broke.
I’d love to say that I woke up one day and decided that I wanted to live a more conscious life, but that’s not the case. Nope, what I really wanted was to get the hell out of my cubicle and corporate law office. I wanted to leave so badly that I decided to forsake my generous salary and all the free meals and perks that came with my steady gig. Oh, and I did all of this in the heart of the recession in 2010.
In order to make ends meet, I knew that I would need to drastically reduce my spending and likely sell of some of my possessions. Like, immediately. I fully expected the experience to be a sacrifice—likely a painful one—but I thought that it would end as soon as my next stream of corporate paychecks came in.
Imagine my surprise, then, when about three months into my self-imposed, ultra- frugal experiment, I realized I was really really happy. I didn’t feel restricted at all by not buying shoes and iPods (this was 2010 folks!) on my lunch breaks. In fact, I felt the exact opposite. I felt light, liberated, confident and free.
I was astonished that I’d ever lived with overflowing closets and crazy high credit card bills. I was also hooked: removing all of the extra stuff I didn’t really need from my life and donating it to people in my community felt amazing. For the first time I felt like the me I wanted to be: generous, thoughtful, and at ease.
Several years into my minimalist journey, though, I felt I’d hit a plateau. I was hungry for the hit of dopamine that decluttering inspired—the personal growth that had come from simplifying in the past. As luck would have it, it wasn't long before I stumbled across a book by a man named Dave Bruno titled The 100 Thing Challenge. It was about, go figure, a guy lived with exactly 100 personal items for a year. And he didn’t just keep his other stuff in storage—he donated or tossed anything that didn’t make the cut.
“This is it!” I thought to myself. “This is how I can get that feeling back; this is how I can get even more clear, even more free, even more generous.”
If you can already sense that this was a bad idea, or at least poor reasoning for an iffy idea, then you would be several steps ahead of me. While I eschewed the greedy consumerist mindset of “more is always better,” I didn’t pause for a second to consider that “less is always better” might also be untrue.
Instead I charged ahead, creating all kinds of rules. I decided that I wouldn't count household items like plates, furniture, and the like, in my 100. I would count any of my personal possessions including pens, journals, shoes, jewelry, clothing, etc. As far as how I would count them, a pair of socks was one thing, a bikini was one thing, and a "library" of 25 books counted as one thing. (What can I say, I love books!). Here's how the challenge panned out.
As I went from around 300 to 175 things, I felt sleeker and lighter. Letting go of so much felt a little bit risky, but in an exhilarating way. Everything I let go of was replaceable, and yet I didn't end up replacing any of it.
175 to 135 things. In hindsight, this was probably sweet spot of the challenge for me. It was hard, don’t get me wrong, and more than a little uncomfortable. But it also helped me reach new levels of self-awareness. It helped me break a number of long-held stories and beliefs about stuff I’d never realized I held. Parting with these items was challenging but liberating. Had I not been so stubborn and so proud (and more than a little bit holier-than-thou) I would have declared the experiment a success and complete right here.
When it was time to whittle 135 things down to 100, sanity left me and obsession took its place. I simultaneously hated and obsessed over every. single. thing. I. owned. I counted and compared value and prayed for holes so that I could force myself to let go of things that I really loved. Getting to 100 things required me to totally override my internal sense of what felt good, and in doing so I ventured into a hollow, controlling emotional space.
The end of the experiment re-ignited a piece of my brain that I’d not felt since I was an early teen who struggled with food issues. It became about proving a point, imagining that by contorting myself to fit a made up standard, I would suddenly feel the way l craved. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t.)
Instead, I ended up getting back into the habit that I turned to minimalism to relieve in the first place: I became obsessed with my stuff. Which is why you might be surprised that I would nonetheless recommend everyone try out the 100 Things Challenge. Just with one crucial caveat: do NOT count your stuff. I believe this challenge is fatally flawed because it rewards rigid, obsessive behavior.
Counting is a form of keeping score. It’s how we get competitive; it roots us ego; and it removes us from the bigger picture of why we’re simplifying in the first place. Life is all about fluidity and flexibility. Philosophies and values keep your actions aligned with what matters to you, while rules keep you penned in. There is a crucial difference.
Instead, I would encourage you to take on this challenge basing your “success” on how it feels. Note that if this is the first time you’re deeply decluttering, it might feel a bit uncomfortable. A mild or even medium amount of discomfort is a good thing: like our muscles feeling sore after a challenging workout, intellectual discomfort is how we know we’re growing. So stretch a toe outside of your comfort zone and hangout there for a moment.
Are you actually ok? Does this maybe even feel better? Then keep moving forward and testing your limits, but please do so more mindfully than I did. Push yourself until you hit your real limit (which might be a good amount further than you thought it was!) where tension is growing and the benefits of further decluttering falter, then honor yourself and stop there. That is how you really succeed in decluttering.