So much stuff, so little time! Trend tracker Annabel McAleer uncovers the cult of less
With our photo albums, CDs and DVD collections gathering dust in favour of Flickr, iTunes and MySky, we should be amassing less stuff. But how far would you take it? Kelly Sutton’s Cult of Less website (www.cultofless.com) lists everything he owns: 107 items at last count, fitting in just two bags and two boxes. Colin Wright has him beat, with just one small bag of worldly goods – a mere 51 items. (www.exilelifestyle.com/51)
You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple of years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. T hen the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.
- Chuck Palahnuik, Fight Club
These young Americans are leading the vanguard of ‘extreme declutterers’, a growing group of mainly Gen Yers whose important possessions are digitised, who work online, move whenever they feel like a change, and hire or borrow anything they don’t use on a near-daily basis.
New Zealanders have more experience with this kind of minimalism than most. Every Kiwi who has taken off on their OE has edited their possessions down to a crammed canvas pack and as many boxes as Mum and Dad could fit in the roof space. But we’ve also learned how quickly new things take their place, most of us arriving home a few years later with half a shipping crate of new belongings in slow pursuit.
It seems the trick to minimal living’s not in getting rid of your possessions, but in stopping yourself from filling the space they leave. And it’s more realistic for an itinerant 20-something than people with homes and kids.
Surprisingly, the guy who started the trend, Dave Bruno, is married with three children. In 2008 he began the 100 Thing Challenge (www.guynameddave.com), a commitment to reducing his possessions to 100 items and living that way for a full year. How can a family man get by on so little? He limited the challenge to his personal possessions, which meant that household items like crockery and furniture didn’t count. And bending the rules a tad, he grouped items he couldn’t bear to count individually, so he lists one ‘library’ rather than 300 individual books; ‘underwear’ (10 pairs) rather than suffer with just a couple of pairs on fast rotate. Two years on, Dave still has only 94 personal possessions – and a new book, The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul, is due for release in December.
The monastic belief that purging your possessions can help cleanse your soul is as old as religion, but today’s ascetics augment their Spartan surroundings with a rich digital life. A laptop counts as one ‘thing’, yet it can be filled with thousands of albums, movies, TV and radio stations. It makes for lighter luggage than the physical equivalents, but does it lighten the mental weight of too many possessions?
Over the 30 years since IBM released the first home computer, the amount of information we ‘consume’ per year has almost tripled, according to a study by the Global Information Industry Center at the University of California, San Diego. That’s a huge increase in the amount of data we’re processing, but it’s not necessarily making us any smarter.
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, argues that the way we use today’s technology is taking a big psychological toll. The average worker changes web browser windows or programs (from Word to email, say) nearly 37 times an hour, according to new research reported in The New York Times. This constant multitasking is associated with shallower thinking, weakened concentration, reduced creativity and greater stress.
If you’re tempted by the mental, physical and spiritual space promised by the extreme minimalist life, you might want to try a digital diet before you winnow your worldly possessions down to double-digits. The extreme declutterers may not be buying new products, but they’re still consuming.
Annabel McAleer is a former editor of Good. After spending the last three years writing about the good life, she’s out there living it— starting with her own home office decluttering project.