An essential minimalist is someone who prefers quality over quantity in every aspect of life—and just the essentials needed for a complete life. They want to own fewer things, but they want them to be durable. Essentialist minimalists want to do less, but their actions all have purpose, efficiency, and high value.
This post is the third in a series about the different types of minimalism. To see the first post, visit: What is an Aesthetic Minimalist? The second post is: What is an Experiential Minimalist?
Before we get started, I want to say that you don’t have to be one type of minimalist, nor do you have to follow all the tenets of a minimalist lifestyle to consider yourself minimalist. Heck, don’t even use the word “minimalist” if you don’t want to. This is a guide to help you pick and choose ideas that work for you. Don’t worry about whether you’re “doing it right” or not. We are humans, not archetypes.
Features of an essential minimalist
This type of minimalism is not to be confused with the philosophy of essentialism, and I want to make that very clear upfront. Philosophical essentialists tend to reduce everything to what they consider a basic essence which is universal among each person or group of people; for example, an essentialist might argue that all men are inherently more aggressive than all women due to their hormonal makeup, and this is an unchangeable fact. I don’t agree with or care for this type of stereotyping; if you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that about me. I encourage everyone to express their own individuality and follow their own set of rational guidelines.
In contrast, an essential minimalist believes in reducing their life to the absolute necessities. However, what one person considers essential will be different from another. This is where a lot of people can become judgemental about minimalism. I’ve seen some people get criticized for “not being minimalist enough” or people saying they “hate minimalism because it makes them give up all their stuff.”
But if you are giving away things you actually need to conduct your life, then by definition you are not adhering to the guidelines of an essential minimalist. This behavior would lead to inefficiency in how you conduct your daily living. Furthermore, being in a state where you are lamenting over the items you gave up will not lend to the focus and drive required to live a life where you excel in all actions you take.
The concept of essential minimalism requires you to create a balance by weeding out possessions you don’t have use for until you have exactly and only what you need. Similarly, in your schedule, you would remove all “fluff” from your life by streamlining any and all unnecessary tasks. You also want to hone your skills in any essential tasks so that you do them as well as possible.
Behind the scenes of an essential minimalist
Essential minimalists believe that possessions create stress, distractions, and financial ruin. The opposite of an essential minimalist would be a hoarder: someone who saves everything they have, regardless of its functional use (or lack thereof).
Essential minimalists don’t save anything “just in case;” they are willing to take the risk that if the time comes, they may be without what they need. The Minimalists (Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus) did an experiment in this realm and found that most of the time, acquiring what you need can be accomplished in 20 minutes or less and for under $20. An essential minimalist will use this belief to pare down their belongings to the bare minimum.
Over and over again, as I help people move through their minimalist journey, I hear the same thing: their story about what physical stuff means to them changes as they become more minimalist. There are things that they thought they needed; once gone, they realized this was untrue because months or years went by and they didn’t need to replace what they gave away. They also had items of sentimental value that they felt were essential to their emotional well-being and sense of self. Yet they were able to let them go. Once they did, they realized that the memories attached to the items were what was important; the keepsakes were not missed at all.
This shift doesn’t always happen immediately, or even all at once. There can be a lot of pain and resistance at first; part of a person wants to let go, but the other part doesn’t. But time after time, I see the same perspective change occur with every person. Once the resistance is in the past, they feel light and free without all that stuff they didn’t really need.
The same goes for a less hectic schedule. When any action you take is important, your life has a purpose. You feel fulfilled and strong and you get things done. Minimizing meaningless pursuits not only allows you to accomplish more, but it also gives you more time to rest. And a rested person is a focused, happy person.
An essential minimalist could also be nomadic. But unlike the experiential minimalist nomad who keeps a home base or stores items, the essential nomad would prefer living out of a backpack that holds just the necessities. They might work for short stints for portions of the year so they can be idle the rest of the year, or focus on ways to create passive income. No matter what they choose, they would likely take pride in doing the best job possible.
Aesthetically, they are less likely to be concerned with the decoration of their space or themselves. Their focus is on function over form. They might choose the comfortable piece of furniture over the one that is more pleasing to the eye, because a beautiful but uncomfortable chair is not useful.
They probably also won’t bother signing up for gym memberships they know they won’t use or associating with acquaintances who are fair-weather friends. They want everything and everyone in their lives to have value and meaning.
Ways to incorporate essential minimalism into your life
- For those who want to downsize in all areas of their lives, try the 100 things challenge, but instead of giving away the rest of your stuff, put it all in your garage, basement, or storage locker. Try to use only 100 items (total) for an entire month, while keeping the rest out of sight and out of use. But 100 is just a number someone came up with because it seemed catchy—the number that works for you could be lower or higher. It just should be less than what you use right now. After the month is up, challenge yourself to see if you even remember what it is that you stored away. Do you really need all of it?
- If paring down to 100 things in your entire home seems way too overwhelming and scary, consider doing a trial downsize in only one area of your life. For example, you could create a capsule wardrobe (see My Minimalist Closet for ideas). Or, have only one item per person in your kitchen for a month (one spoon, fork, knife, bowl, plate, and cup per person in your household).
- As stuff wears out, replace it with higher-quality items that last. For example, instead of having six pairs of cheap shoes that start to look bad after only a few months, buy a single pair of well-made shoes that you can keep on hand for years.
- Or when something breaks, let it go without replacing it. Don’t hold on to things you never use if they don’t function properly. Face the reality that their usefulness has passed, and find the best way to remove them from your life permanently.
- Decide to cut down to 50% of what you have in a certain area of your life. For a lot of women, cutting down their beauty products by 50% would still mean they have too much stuff. I see women with bags or drawers full of beauty supplies, and there is no possible way they could use every product each day--or even every week or month! Try a capsule set of items surrounding your normal beauty routine, and throw out or store away everything else in an unmarked box. After 30 days, if you can’t remember what you put away, you probably don’t need it.
- When you go grocery shopping, don’t buy things just because you’re running low. For example, if you realize you have a bag of flour in your pantry that expired, don’t buy a new one right now. See how long you can wait until you actually bake something. Don’t buy extras of items just because they’re on sale, and limit your impulse buying by having a meal before you go to the store. Try to work off of a list instead of buying whatever looks good, and keep your purchases to what you can eat in a week. Aim to empty your kitchen of food (including most dry, frozen, and canned goods) before you go out to buy more.
- Unsubscribe from all mailed advertisements, magazines, and emails that are trying to sell products. Not only do they represent the temptation to buy things you don’t need, but they are cluttering your home and your inbox. Not to mention the wasted time to sift through them to get to important things like bills and correspondence from friends.
- Create a budget that is reasonable and realistic for your income and stick to it. Focus on paying off any debt and putting money into savings and retirement accounts rather than spending it on filling up your space.
- For one week, cut out any social engagements or activities that are not essential. Essential might be your weekly yoga class, which helps reduce stress. Going to Happy Hour and spending $30 on drinks might not be as essential. Firmly say no to anything that does not fully align with your intentions for the week to get things done. At the end of the week, note how you feel. Did you feel less stress? Did you achieve more goals? Did you notice (and enjoy) having extra free time?
- On the action side of essential minimalism, take one area of your life where you want to do better, and start working on that. If it’s your finances, take a class about budgeting, getting rid of debt, or investing. If it’s your health, learn more about nutrition and how to cook balanced, tasty meals at home, or make an appointment with a doctor to help you get on track with your health goals. If you always wanted to learn photography, learn it! The point is, choose something that you do and improve how well you do it. Make space for it by putting aside activities that you don’t consider a priority.
- Give yourself space in your schedule to do nothing. You can even block out time on your calendar. Then, resist the temptation to mess with your phone, tidy up the house, or whatever other productive things you think you should be doing. Instead, daydream about what you want for your life. Sit outside and take in some nice views. Take a nap. Slow down and just be present. This may seem off-task for essential minimalism. But automotive mogul Henry Ford saw how the productivity of his factory workers went down after they worked too many hours in a row and started instituting a maximum 40-hour workweek. We've known for a long time that stopping to do nothing improves our ability to take action.
- Try using Zen techniques to improve your focus on what you are doing. Leo Babauta from Zen Habits discusses bringing more mindfulness into each day, and each activity done each day. The main concept is to do one thing at a time and focus fully on that task while you do it. When you eat a meal, just eat the food. Don’t also watch TV, or answer emails, or drive. When you take a walk, just walk. Don’t look for shots to Instagram, or keep one eye on what you’re texting. Over time, you will find yourself in a more meditative state and calmer overall.
This type of minimalism can seem daunting to many, but is a very useful tool for gaining focus and clarity in your life about what you want and need. If it seems overwhelming, go back to why you want to be more minimalist. Think about easy ways to incorporate more minimalism in your life, rather than trying to do it all at once.