Minimalism Isn’t Always the Answer
Minimalism Isn’t Always the Answer

By Mike Donghia

I’ve been writing about and thinking about minimalism for over 16 years. Ironically, one of my strongest conclusions is that minimalism isn’t always the answer.

There are many places and seasons where simplicity is a breath of fresh air. When you are overwhelmed with options, you should pare them down. When your house is cluttered and unrelaxing, it makes sense to begin reducing the number of your possessions.

Going further, I think focus is a rare universal skill that enhances almost everything you do. More and more, in this world of distractions, it pays huge dividends to be able to channel your efforts into a few carefully selected areas.

The Crutch of Superficial Minimalism

But minimalism isn’t always the answer. For one thing, pursuing minimalism can itself be a distraction from a deeper issue. If you can’t find a way to motivate yourself to do the important things in life, then no amount of reducing your to-do list or cleaning your desk is going to renew that spark inside of you.

I also worry that too many people pursue a superficial form of simplicity to feel that their lives are not in chaos when, in fact, there is no way forward but to wade into the messiness of reality. Most importantly, and from personal experience—the pursuit of minimalism can be a way to hide from complexity.

You see, real life is indeed messy. Sometimes, the clearest sign that you are living well is a house with a little clutter, a desk covered with notes, and a to-do list with far more on it than you could ever hope to accomplish. These things are not inherently wrong.

Minimalism—the intentional pursuit of less—is just another tool to keep in your tool belt. Here’s how I like to think about it: There are times when your life is so chaotic, messy, and overwhelming and one of the most helpful things you can do is adopt the mindset of simplicity and start reducing. Cut back, cut out, and remove things that no longer serve the purpose you originally had for them. The move from overwhelm to order in these scenarios will rejuvenate you. You’ll feel empowered to put more energy into the things you care most about.

The Messy, Lived-In Life

However, other seasons of life call for a different mindset. If you struggle with perfectionism or analysis paralysis, you may be tempted to remain in a place of artificial simplicity. You might be scared to enter unknown, uncertain, confusing places. If that’s you, then more simplicity won’t help.

What you need to do is roll up your sleeves and get messy. Jump right into the task and go deep. Embrace the discomfort of not having everything figured out or put precisely where it needs to be. Sometimes, relationships are messy. Some of life’s most incredible adventures and memories come from times when you go off script. A clean and orderly home is lovely, but I’ve also been in homes filled with just the right amount of keepsakes and heirlooms, creating a rich, textured, beautiful place to be.

Reflecting on Your Tendencies

Chances are that if you’re reading this article, you are the kind of person drawn towards seeking more order in life. And as I said before, that can be a great thing. I fell into the trap of trying to raise simplicity as the highest value in my life when the truth is that minimalism itself is not an end.

Here are five questions that might help you discern whether your current situation calls not for more simplicity but for the courage to walk into complexity:

  1. Do you find yourself avoiding important work and instead using that time to declutter your physical environment?
  2. Do you spend a lot of time lost in your thoughts, trying to bring order to the ideas in your head rather than applying your brain power to practical situations in life?
  3. Do you avoid starting things because you’re uncertain how the problem will end?
  4. Do you gravitate towards the easiest tasks that allow you to solve immediate problems or quickly check an item off your list?
  5. Do you feel discouraged and bad about yourself when you do things you’re not great at or face a situation where you’re unsure what to do?

If you said yes to several of these questions, then there’s a chance you are like me—someone who feels good when everything makes sense but can be fearful in the face of the unknown. If that’s you, then merely retreating to a place of simplicity can sometimes be avoiding the hard things that will help you to grow. As you begin to face these things head-on, you’ll learn that you can be the kind of person who struggles and succeeds in novel situations.

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