How to Simplify Your Life (Part 5)

 

After discussing the benefits and challenges of simple living we finally ask the most practical question: “How do I simplify my life?”  Mostly I’ll point you to others which much more experience than I have, but we’ll discuss three areas: 1. Your clothes 2. Your kitchen 3. And everything else.

 

Clothes
There is something called The Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule.  Originally described by Vilfredo Pareto (for whom it is named) in reference to economics, it has now been applied in various fields.  In business, for example, they might say that 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers.  And when it comes to clothes you’ll find that you wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time.  The other clothes you use the other 20% of the time are likely seasonal items like rain boots or a heavy jacket.  In the end, we tend to wear the same clothes over and over again.  So why not get rid of the ones that you don’t?  Here’s how:

The Reverse-Reverse.  Go into your closet and turn all of your hangers around the wrong way.  Through out the year turn the hanger around the right way whenever you wear a piece of clothing.  At the end of the year take the clothes you didn’t wear and donate them.  If you haven’t worn it in a year is it likely that you’re going to wear it any time soon?  Chances are if you didn’t wear it you probably forgot it even exists.  Benefit someone else by giving them to a charitable organization.  I’ve done this several times in my life and I’m in the process of doing it again.  It always feels like a weight off of my shoulders.

Consider a Capsule Wardrobe/Uniform.  Nobody knows capsule wardrobes like Courtney Carver.  Her Project 333 is increasingly popular.  A number of minimalists have simple wardrobes as well as men like Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama.  You can read about their wardrobes and reasons here.  But why would you want to wear the same things over and over?  Well, Joshua Becker gives you 8 reasons here.  So, how do you do it?  In addition to Courtney Carver’s website, Jessica Dang‘s article is also helpful.  Neutral colors, layers, and multi-functionality are your friends.  And if a capsule wardrobe seems too stressful you could always consider a uniform.  Aja Nicole Edmond offers great advice, and Ryan Nicodemus of theminimalists.com can almost always be found in a black t-shirt and jeans.  Don’t knock it til you try it.

 

Kitchen
My way of simplifying my kitchen is very similar to the Reverse-Reverse mentioned above.  I took everything–and I mean everything–out of my kitchen and stored it my pantry.  Every bowl.  Every fork.  Every pot.  Every pan.  Everything.  Then I took it out of the pantry as I needed it.  After a year about 80% of it was still in my pantry.  The Pareto Principle strikes again.  How did I end up with that many glasses?  Where did I get 15 spatulas?  Who knows?  They can be successfully regifted or donated to the less fortunate.  Again, if you haven’t used it within a year are you likely to use it next year?  Probably not.  Chances are you need a lot less gadgetry than you think.  Take a look at Jessica Dang’s minimalist kitchen here.

Everything Else
So far I’ve mentioned our closets and kitchens.  I mention those because they so easily get overcrowded.  But once you’ve experienced the freedom of paring down you’ll likely want to extend the practice to everything else.  Here are two things to consider once you’re ready to do that:

Reverse-Reverse EVERYTHING.  Remember the backwards hanger trick?  It can be modified to apply to everything.  I did it with my kitchen.  You can do it with your bathroom.  Or your office.  Or, if you’re super-human, you can do it with your entire house.  That’s what Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus did.  They literally packed up their entire house and only unpacked what they needed as they needed it.  They recorded their 21 day journey into minimalism.  I highly recommend giving it a read.  Maybe you’re not ready to go all out, and that’s fine.  You can do one room at a time.  Or even one room a year.  First you closet, then your kitchen, then your office, and so on.  The most important thing is that you start.

The Joy Test.  It’s been called different things but the bottom line is the same.  If something–it doesn’t matter what it is–doesn’t spark joy in your life then chances are you don’t need it.  If it doesn’t make you say “Wow”, if you don’t put on a shirt and think, “I LOVE this shirt!”, if instead you look at it and say, “Eh“,  then chances are it’s just cluttering up your life.  In the end, when everything else has gone, you will be surrounded by only your favorite things.  Could you imagine living in a house where you love everything you see and everything you wear?  That’s a fantastic life.  And think of all the people that you get to help by donating the excess stuff you no longer need.  Just because it doesn’t make you say “Wow” doesn’t mean that it can’t do that for someone else.

Remember, 80/20.  We don’t need most of our stuff.  And with all the poverty in the world, can we really afford to hold on to things that we don’t need?  With all of the stress related illnesses, can we really afford to worry over things that don’t really matter?  Less.  That’s the greatest secret to productivity that no one is talking about.  It will help you put first things first.  And we need little reminder as to how important that is.  “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you” (Mat. 6:33).

 

©M. Benfield 2017

Simplicity and Virtue (Part 4)

Here I separate virtue from ethics in this way: I have used ethics to refer to the good simplicity does “outside” (in the world), whereas virtue refers to the good that simplicity does “inside” (in the heart of the one who practices it).  More than any other article I have written about simplicity this depends almost 100% on my personal experience throughout the past 6-7 years.

Work Ethic
One of the things I’ve learned on my minimalist journey is how much laziness is responsible for our profligate living.  There was a time where I bought more clothes simply because I didn’t like having to do laundry so often.  There was also a time where I appreciated owning a lot of dishes because that meant I rarely had to wash the dirty ones.  As sad as it is I would rather have bought new things than spend the time washing/maintaining what I already had.  When you have few things, however, you are forced to keep them clean.  While I was single and living simply I lived with one plate, one bowl, one cup, one fork, one spoon, one butter knife, and one paring knife.  I had two pots (one small and one large), one skillet, one dutch-oven, one casserole dish, and one pan for baking.  This forced me to wash my dishes immediately after they were used or else I had nothing on which to eat the next meal.  It helped me overcome the laziness that once ran my life.  Now that I’m married we have a few more dishes but I learned the lesson.  It is better to wash what is dirty than to multiply dishes/clothes for the sake of convenience.

Self-Control
When you commit to living with less you begin to notice how much shopping has ceased to be a decision.  Rather, it has become an impulse.  A habit.  You are constantly compelled to buy this or that and you do so without thinking about it.  Even after I committed to living with less I found that the impulse continued, just in a different way.  Whereas before I bought all sorts of things I now saw “the error of my ways.”  I began to ask myself what was important.  I asked myself what I was called to do.  When I knew that I was called to be a teacher of some sort I stopped buying things that did not support that calling.  Practically that meant that I only bought books.  But here’s what I mean when I said the impulse continued: I bought books faster than I could read them.  If I found a valuable insight as I read I would check the footnote to discover from whence the quote came and I would immediately buy the book.  I had a huge fear of missing out.  I always felt like this next book would be “the one,” the key to wisdom, the answer to all of my questions.  I averaged between $800-$1,000 a year on books alone.  It seemed like I was buying books at least every two weeks, sometimes more often than that.  And what happened?  I still have unread books on my shelf.  So this year I’m making a change.  At the end of last year (2016) I took stock of about how many books I read in the year and I realized that I have more than that many books left unread at home.  I quite literally have over a year’s worth of unread books.  So I decided that this year I am not buying any books for myself.  In fact, after I committed to buying no books for myself I thought, “Why stop there?”  I decided that I would not buy anything for myself this year (bills and groceries excepted, of course).  Not even a coffee at Starbucks, which I always count a luxury.  And I’m learning about self-control.  I’m learning how often the impulse to buy still rises up.  But simplicity is changing me.  It’s helping me learn to say “no” and over come the fear of missing out.

Courage
It may seem odd to think that it takes courage to live a simple life but it’s true.  And I don’t think you can appreciate how much courage it takes until you’ve tried it.  Because as often as people applaud the idea of living simply it turns out that most people don’t like it very much.  For some reason they feel judged just being around you.  If you decide to live differently they feel that you are somehow implying that you are better or more enlightened.  And (in my experience) they usually respond in at least one of two ways, and usually both.  1. They try to convince you not to live simply.  They come up with every reason why you need a television, why you need two cars, why you need more dishes, why you need knick-knacks on your walls and on your shelves, and why you need more clothes.  2. They ridicule you.  Words like “naive” and “impractical” are often used.  They can’t imagine living with less, not to mention how someone could possibly be happier living that way.  So, in the face of all of this, courage is necessary.  In the face of ridicule and the many arguments trying to convince you that you need more you will have to be able to stand your ground and say no.  And the pressure is incredible.  I never realized how much it matters to other people that I be “like them” until I decided that I didn’t want to be.  People have even gone so far as to offer to buy things for me.  Whether that was because they thought simple living was just a mask for involuntary poverty or because they can’t stand the existence of something different, I don’t know.  Either way, people often try to force you to assimilate and they are offended when you resist.  If living simply has taught me about work-ethic and self-control it has taught me ten times more about courage.

Conclusion
Though I have only focused upon these three virtues I’m sure that others could be named.  And whereas people applaud work-ethic, self-control, and courage they often live lives which mitigate against the development of those virtues.  They choose the convenient way, even if it means spending more money.  They give in to the impulse to buy-buy-buy because it feels good.  And they are often afraid to stand out.  By no means is minimalism the only way to develop these virtues but our rituals make us who we are.  And the discipline of simplicity certainly helps develop the virtues necessary to be simply human.

 

©M. Benfield 2017

Simplicity and Ethics (Part 3)

 

Minimalism is more than just a selfish endeavor to help make my life better.  It also helps the wider world.  Two areas where simplicity makes a big difference are ecology and human rights.  And the two simplicity principles which will guide this conversation are: 1. Buy less.  2. Pay more.

Ecology
Annie Leonard, in her now famous 20 minute video “The Story of Stuff,”1 discusses the impact the materials economy (extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal) has on our environment.  Recycling is good and she praises its virtues.  But she also points out that recycling is not enough.  Partly because some things are just non-recyclable, or at least very difficult to recycle (K-Cups for example).2 The answer to the problem?  Buy less.  Pay more (if necessary).

First, buy less.   “The Story of Stuff” discusses “perceived obsolescence.”  This means that certain things are designed so that they will be perceived as obsolete, even though they are not.  When the world around us changes so quickly it doesn’t take long before the stuff we buy easily becomes dated.  But dated doesn’t mean worthless.  Our clothes, our computers, our phones may work just fine but we often get rid of them because they don’t look like every one else’s.  This is no accident.  It was engineered that way.  In fact, it was engineered over 60 years ago.  In the 1955 Journal of Retailing Victor Lebow (mentioned in “The Story of Stuff”) wrote, “The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to … accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats, his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.”3 The point is, we often buy stuff when we don’t need to. We buy stuff to “fit in.” But is fitting in worth neglecting our moral obligation to care for God’s good creation (cf. Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15)? Of course not.  So what do we do?  The equation is simple: Less Stuff=Less Waste. Therefore, buy less.

Second, pay more (if necessary). I say “if necessary” because sometimes wasting less is cheaper. Sometimes we pay high prices for convenience, not quality. If we are willing to put in a tad more work then we can get the same effect for less money. E.g. the refillable K-Cup is actually more cost efficient than the convenient single use cups which are difficult to recycle. But sometimes, paying more is necessary. Just like perceived obsolescence, there is also planned obsolescence. Manufacturers sometimes actually make things which are intended to break/wear out easily so that you’ll be required to buy more. “But,” we think, “it’s cheap.” Is it? See, you may get a shirt for $5, but how long will it last? And do you really want it?  Cheap prices encourage us to “take a change” on buying something that we don’t really want because if we getting rid of it then we’re only out a few bucks, so no big deal.  In fact, according to Annie Leonard’s findings, we only keep 1% of the things we buy longer than six months. But lets assume that you do keep it until it wears out. How long will that be? Sometimes cheap things are cheap both economically and qualitatively.  So before long you return to buy another $5 shirt. Granted, that’s not much. But eventually it all adds up. If you buy 7 shirts at $5 each that’s $35. Not so cheap any more is it? So instead of buying 7 cheap shirts why not take the exact same amount of money and buy something durable, sustainable, and eco-friendly?4 This creates less waste (those shirts you toss out have to go somewhere) and it decreases the likelihood that you’ll get tired of the shirt. If you are going to spend $35 on a shirt you are more likely to think of it as an investment and less like to buy it on impulse. Since you can’t drop big bucks on an expensive piece of clothing every time you need one you are more likely to consider whether or not this is something that you want to wear over and over again. You are making a commitment up front not to toss it out. Who has the money to constantly replace expensive clothing? Paying more lowers the likelihood of impulse buys that end up in the trash, or worse, never worn at all.

We’ve only focused upon “stuff”, and mainly clothes.  But living simply helps the environment in other ways.  If you have less stuff you need less space and if you need less space that means you can live in a smaller house (much smaller than you think)5 and if you live in a smaller house that means you use less energy heating, cooling, and lighting it.  The gains of living simply compound, especially in regard to protecting our environment.

Economy and Human Rights
Have you ever walked into a mega-store to buy something and asked yourself, “How in the world is this so cheap?”  If you haven’t then maybe you should.  And if you have then chances are we should ask that question more often (myself included).  In the end there is only one way we get things so cheap on our end: someone must be paying for it on their end.  This creates a human rights dilemma.  So, what’s the solution?  It’s too complex an issue to offer the solution but we can at least do this: Buy less, pay more.

First, buy less.  If we buy a lot we either earn more or pay less.  Most of us are not earning more which means that in order to buy more we must pay less.  So buying a lot means getting it cheap.  But if our stuff is cheap we need to ask, “Why is it so cheap?”  Chances are the people who make our stuff are not getting paid fair wages.

Eighty percent of the workers in the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh were women between 18-20.  The common working shift was 13-14.5 hours per day.  That’s 90-100 hours a week with only 2 days off per month.  Entry level earned 12 cents an hour, second tier workers earned  22 cents an hour, and the seniors workers earned 24 cents per hour.  This plaza housed a factory responsible for making clothing for the US, Canada, and Europe.  So, how did we get such cheap things on our end?  Because they paid for it on their end.  But on this occasion, they paid not just with their cheap labor.  They paid with their lives.  On April 24, 2013 about 3,639 workers refused to go to work because of the threatening cracks which had appeared in the walls.  The owner of the plaza then hired professional thugs to beat the people in order to force them back to work.  Just 45 minutes later the building collapsed.  There were 1,137 confirmed dead and 200 remain missing to this day.6  You do not have to have a degree in economy to understand supply and demand.  If we don’t want the stuff companies don’t make the stuff.  We created the demand that created Rana Plaza.  Somewhere someone (maybe even me) is wearing a shirt that was sewn in that factory.  How would you feel if you knew of an absolute certainty that the shirt you bought today would contribute to someone’s death tomorrow?  We asked how we get things so cheap.  This is the answer.

Second, pay more.  If we have done the first  (bought less) then we retain more money.  This allows us to pay more for what we buy and ensure that those making our clothes are getting paid a fair wage for their work.  But how do we ensure that happens?  Someone may say, “Make sure it is made in the US.”  And I say, that’s a good idea.  It’s true that US companies often move business off shore so that they can pay their workers less there and sell it for less here.7  But the label “Made in the US” doesn’t solve this problem.  As Heather Franzese points out in her TED Talk, “Changing How You Think About Clothes,”8 being made in the USA only means that “substantial transformation happened here in the USA.”  But, she asks, “Where did they come before that?”  Where did the fabric and dye come from?  We have worded our definition of “Made in the USA” in such a way that it is possible to have a pair of jeans “Made in the USA” using “cotton grown with forced child labor in Uzbekistan and yarn dyed in China … The country of origin doesn’t always tell you what the conditions were like in the manufacturing.”  Franzese suggests that we ask questions where we shop.  She insists that we have a right to know where and how our clothes are being made.  She challenges us to “vote with our dollars and ask for fair and sustainable clothing.”

She also challenges us to investigate our priorities.  Is it most important to us that our clothes be made in the US or that the workers are being treated well and paid fairly regardless of where the clothes were made (including the US).  As much as I would love to see more business done in the US most of our clothes are currently made overseas.  So what do we do?  We can look for the labels (which, admittedly, often do not exist) that indicate it has complied with fair trade standards.  “Fair trade is a third party certification and membership process that assures a business is meeting strict labor, environmental, and developmental standards,” as Benjamin Conard discusses in his talk, “Fair Trade: A Just World Starts with You.”9

I have mostly focused on clothes here but much of what was said can apply to other goods: appliances, produce, coffee, chocolate etc.10 Now buying fair trade goods means paying more because it is the only way to ensure that the farmers, harvesters, manufacturers, and other workers get paid what is just. But the alternative is fueling tragedies like the Rana Plaza. So ask yourself, “Is my cheap shirt/banana/chocolate/coffee worth the enslavement/poverty/death of another person?” I think the answer is obvious.

Conclusion:
Simplicity helps because one of the characteristics of simple living is buying/having less which runs counter to “American” living.  The guiding principles of much American living are “Buy more, pay less.”  These principles are related because the only way we can buy so much is if we buy what is cheap.  But cheap ruins the environment and enslaves people across the world.  This is the “high cost” of being cheap.  And it is not worth paying.  So we invert the principles.  Instead of “Buy more, pay less” we say, “Buy less, pay more.”  This minimizes our environmental foot-print and maximizes the quality of life for those on whose backs our nation is founded.  Being human means being created in God’s image and our original vocation as his image is taking care of God’s good world through love and creativity.  This way of life encourages both.  So, buy less, pay more.  It’s human because it’s humane.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Annie Leonard, “The Story of Stuff.” Available at http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/ ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
2. K-Cup creator, John Sylvan, expresses some regret for creating the single-serve pods. You can read about it here: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/03/the-abominable-k-cup-coffee-pod-environment-problem/386501/ ; While the cups are now recyclable it is unlikely that consumers will do so because of the special device required to separate the plastic, aluminium, paper, and organic material. You can find information about this device, the Recycle A Cup© cutter, here: https://www.recycleacup.com/faqs/ ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017. Also, reusable K-Cups, which I use, are available online and through certain retailers, e.g. Bed Bath & Beyond.
3. Victor Lebow, “Price Competition in 1955”, Journal of Retailing, Spring 1955. Available at http://www.gcafh.org/edlab/Lebow.pdf ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
4. Linen, wool, and cotton are all sustainable and eco-friendly. These are exceptionally important because, as Maxine Bédat points out in her talk “The High Cost of Our Cheap Fashion”, apparel is now the second leading polluting industry. Her talk is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r8V4QWwxf0 ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
5. Among the Tiny House Movement there is not an agreed upon definition as to what constitutes a Tiny House but one blog considers Tiny Houses to be under 500 square feet. Available at http://www.tinyhousetown.net/p/about-blog.html ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
6. “Rana Plaza: A Look Back and Forward”, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. Available at: http://www.globallabourrights.org/campaigns/factory-collapse-in-bangladesh ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
7. Ted Fishman, “Why the Jobs Are Going Over There”, USA Today. Available at: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-05-17-Multinationals-send-jobs-overseas_n.htm ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017; Alex Lach, “5 Facts About Overseas Outsourcing”, Center for American Progress. Available at: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/news/2012/07/09/11898/5-facts-about-overseas-outsourcing/ ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
8. Heather Franzese, “Changing How You Think About Clothes.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rbUQj81dFY; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
9. Benjamin Conard, “Fair Trade: A Just World Starts with You.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xT6TQSxlDOY ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
10. Jason Garman, “Ethical Consumerism and the Power of Having a Choice/Voice.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAG-t-kXcqE ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.