Minimalism doesn’t mean giving up everything you own.

It means measuring the utility and acknowledging the opportunity cost of owning those things.

I recently went on a trip where all I had with me was a few days’ change of clothing, my phone, a few books, a notebook, and a laptop. It was glorious. No stuff in the way. No stuff not in the way to think about. Everything I needed and nothing more. Then immediately afterward, the holidays happened, and a new wave of stuff came our way. (This is not to say that there’s no place for gift-giving, just that maybe we’re focusing on the wrong things, and that contemporaneously suspending our standard buying habits in the name of tradition in order to trade items of limited utility in an attempt to brighten our lives isn’t necessarily the right way to go about it.)

Stuff in the way stresses me out. Cleaning up stuff in the way stresses me out. The root of both of these things that stress me out is the stuff in the way. When stuff is organized and out of the way, I’m less stressed out. But stuff doesn’t stay organized and out of the way without effort. Especially if there are other beings in your space interacting with the stuff that may not feel the same way about stuff in the way, or that think someone else will take care of it so they don’t have to. They want the benefit of using the stuff without the cost of cleaning up and organizing the stuff, but don’t realize that not cleaning up and organizing have costs of their own, including serenity, domestic harmony, patience, tolerance. Stuff equals energy demand, even at rest.

Not all of the stuff is in the way, either. In the basement, I have boxes full of old electronic bits and pieces. Computers, routers, cables, connectors, gamepads, other gaming peripherals. Some oscilloscope I picked up from my first job that I never turned on and only looked at when we moved. They take mental energy to think about, physical energy to organize and move around. They reduce the amount of overall space for activities. They’re future work if we decide to finish the basement. And it’s not just electronics. It’s old school papers, all the way from grade school through college. Accessories and tools and toys and clothes from raising children. My own boxes of memories from my childhood. Piles and piles of coloring books and crayons and other arts and crafts and board games we don’t use because they’re in an unfinished basement that’s dusty and drafty. Racks of gardening tools for use in the garden we don’t have. None of this is really in the way, and it’s not wholly unorganized, it’s just not utilized and represents past and future energy expenditure that historically has proven mostly unnecessary.

We are sentimental creatures

Objects are powerful memory triggers. The sight, smell, touch, or sound of an object can transport us back in time through associative memory. When it comes time to decide whether to get rid of something, the thought of losing that connection can be scary. We think losing it might cause us pain or cost us time or money, so we hang onto it instead. We get another shelf, another box. Yet at the same time, we have problems with organization. We complain about how we spend all our time cleaning and have no time for the things we actually want to do. Or we don’t clean and the mess gets bigger and we get more irritable and our mood and outlook both get a little darker.

What’s the solution here?

Get rid of the stuff? I say these things while at the same time continuing to collect books. How to reconcile that? I justify it through the idea that books enhance my life. They make me content, give me hope, help me grow. They give me a reason to sit and reflect and wonder and daydream. Some things are definitely worth the cost of owning. Unread books represent a reminder that I have more to learn; an opportunity for knowledge. They signal depth and vulnerability to others; that it’s OK to read, and have ideas, and admit ignorance.

If it doesn’t enhance your life, get rid of it. If you are hanging onto something that you think you might need, try assigning values (cost in time, emotional stress, relationship stress) to housing, organizing, cleaning, thinking about that something. Is that value greater than the cost it would take to replace or borrow it in the event you actually need it? Consider that when you finally do need it, if you didn’t have it, what your alternatives might be. You might find you didn’t need it as much as you thought.

Live for experiences, not things.

Experiences can never be destroyed or stolen or broken, and your brain automatically creates more room when you need it. You don’t have to turn around and go back home because you realize you forgot to grab that experience you wanted to bring with you. You won’t need constant external stimulation when you have a stock of internal material. People will find you interesting and want to hear about your experiences. You’ll have endless gifts to give in the from of stories. Giving them away costs you nothing but time and compassion, but they pay you back tenfold with human connection and a sense of belonging, of worth. Nobody wants to know about all that time you spent organizing or not organizing your stuff.