An old quote from Bruce Lee goes like this: “It is not daily increase but daily decrease, hack away the unessential.” Bruce Lee, to me, is a forefather of the current trend of minimalism – a philosophy that believes in living in a way that reduces your dependency on material possessions. In a word, to be a minimalist – to be minimal with the things you have in a world that pulls for us to be maximal in our consumption of goods and products and accumulation of material wealth (sidebar: minimalism in this case is not to be confused with the art and music movements starting around the 1950’s that similarly stripped things down to their essentials).
The 21st century spokesmen of minimalism are Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, two best friends who apparently quit their high-paying corporate jobs as salespeople after realizing these hamster wheels were not bringing them happiness and ended up becoming ‘The Minimalists.’ According to Mr. Millburn’s and Mr. Nicodemus’s website, “Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.” Essentially, minimalism teaches you to ask yourself whether your possessions bring you joy or serve a function, and if not, to realize that it may be time to let these things go.
I think many people can relate (especially right now during the pandemic) with the temptation to engage in “retail therapy” by buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have in order to get some instant gratification and quick relief from boredom, anxiety, or depression. This is a classic example of negative reinforcement. ‘Negative’ simply refers to something being removed rather than it being negative in a ‘bad’ way while ‘reinforcement’ refers to a behavior increasing in likelihood and frequency. In this case, our shopping behavior gets reinforced, or more likely to occur in the future, as our uncomfortable feelings of boredom, anxiety, or depression get removed when we click that “Buy now with 1-click” option. We inevitably feel bored, anxious, or depressed soon after we acclimate to the novelty of our impulsive purchase if the actual root cause of our feelings was never addressed, maybe add some additional guilt or regret from wasting our money the first time… and then we end up buying something again in order to get that quick relief which further negatively reinforces our shopping behavior.
Now, this can be a typical process by which we end up accumulating an excess of things, but what makes it so hard for us to donate, sell, or recycle the excess stuff that ends up cluttering our homes and our minds after we’ve already bought it? We humans tend to be influenced by two cognitive phenomena: 1) Sunk cost fallacy , and 2) loss aversion. The sunk cost fallacy refers to our tendency to continue certain behaviors because of the time or resources we’ve already invested in it even though the continuation of these behaviors may actually be worse than just stopping. For example, if you have been on the phone for 3 hours waiting for customer service and were to continue waiting for another 3 hours instead of just hanging up because you already waited so long, you might be engaging in the sunk cost fallacy. The way sunk cost fallacy makes us cling to our stuff is that we may believe it would be a “waste” to get rid of things we have bought, even though we have already spent the money and may never get it back even though we might just feel happier with less stuff and more space. Loss aversion is related to sunk cost fallacy. This term refers to the tendency for most people to be more averse to or bothered by losing something than they are happy by gaining that exact thing. For example, most people would be more upset and distraught to lose a 20 dollar bill than they are happy to get 20 dollars. Once we own something, it pains us more to imagine losing it than it feels good to gain something, like more space. time, or money.
So what can we do?
Here are some ways you can apply your knowledge of your mind’s psychology to remove obstacles from becoming a minimalist:
1) Think of behaviors you want to change in terms of losses so that you can use loss aversion to your advantage. You can, for example, focus more on how you are losing $12.99 instead of thinking you are getting a good deal on a shirt you will forget you bought later.
2) If you are thinking about de-cluttering your home and having trouble letting go of things because it feels like a “waste” – remind yourself that you have already spent the money and are never getting it back. Don’t let the sunk cost fallacy keep you from changing course.
3) Slow things down so that you notice where your behavior is getting negatively reinforced. Do you typically find yourself meandering to Amazon or Facebook marketplace in moments of unoccupied time or after an anxious or depressing thought shows up? Remind yourself that the quick relief of purchasing a material good will wear off quickly, leaving you more emotionally and financially depleted. Instead, perhaps taking action toward the thought itself and what life asks of you can lead to a daily decrease of stress and a hacking away at unessential actions in our lives.
You can check out more ideas around minimalism in the 2021 documentary “The Minimalists: Less is Now” on Netflix or the 2015 prequel “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.”