The modern world has given us much, but it has also set us many traps that require careful thought if we are to avoid them. Living a meaningful life in the 21st century is not a simple task. In a world that is exploding with the shiny allure of technology and consumerism, many people are surrendering their time and energy in ways that are not fulfilling. The solution is Minimalism, which I outline as follows:
Technological Minimalism: Eliminate all use of social media. The ultimate addictive drug of the 21st century, social media drains our time without any serious compensating benefits. Every second on social media comes at a cost – an opportunity cost, precious time that could be spent directing our attention elsewhere. A person will scroll through Facebook for an hour, and retain almost nothing. The social tidbits are mental cotton candy, conveying nothing of importance. The decision to eliminate social media will rescue literally thousands of hours over the course of your life that can be used in infinitely more fulfilling ways.
Informational Minimalism (coupled with Knowledge Maximalism): Do not follow day-to-day news. Although the day-to-day events in the world are significant, they are out of my control, and are not ultimately actionable. All that following the news offers is needless anxiety. Most importantly, news does not educate. The day’s news does not teach me how the world works. Virtually everything that happened yesterday will be forgotten in a week’s (or month’s) time. News is a distraction from understanding the world. If you want to understand the world, read big books about big ideas, in fields such as political science, economics, philosophy, history, etc. Here’s a helpful guideline: Never read anything that can be read in one sitting; on the contrary, try to read only books that exceed 300 pages.
Political Identity Minimalism: Actively cultivate skepticism toward all political identities. The moment you identify emotionally with a political tribe, your reason stops exploring new ideas and starts justifying the dogmas of your tribe. Intellectual curiosity and openness are never worth giving up, even for the warm embrace of a political tribe (and no, you can’t have both). When you feel yourself mentally slipping into a political tribe, immediately take action – go out and read the absolutely best arguments on the other side, so as to undermine your creeping political identity. When the process of identification begins again, undermine with a vengeance. Repeat often. Be vigilant. Nietzsche said that convictions are prisons – do not be taken prisoner. Freedom from political identity will give you two immeasurably important things: intellectual freedom and emotional calm.
Political Discussion Minimalism: Refuse to debate (or even discuss) controversial political (and also moral and religious) issues with anyone except in the rare circumstances in which both yourself and your interlocutor(s) have the time, mental/emotional disposition, and interest to be genuinely open to changing your minds. If you confront someone whose views on abortion (for example) are clearly unshakable, refuse to converse about it. It would be a waste of everyone’s time. If you confront someone whose views on abortion are open to possible revision in light of a good argument, but you don’t have the time, or the proper relationship, to be able to get analytically deep on the topic, refuse the conversation. When you embrace Political Discussion Miminalism, you will quickly find that the opportunity for fruitful dialog about important issues is extremely and distressingly rare. So be it – save your breath and your mental health.
Epistemic Minimalism: Embrace an honest agnosticism toward all issues on which you’re not an expert. You are not an expert in 99% of the domains of human inquiry, so withhold judgment on them and admit ignorance. Here’s a helpful guideline: Unless you have read multiple professional peer-reviewed journal articles reflecting various viewpoints on the topic at hand, plead agnosticism. Finally, take pride in your agnosticism. Laugh to yourself at the false certainty of others. Everywhere around us, people speak with complete certainty on topics that they clearly don’t understand. What such people show is simply how little they know of the limits of their knowledge. In contrast to them, you should see the Socratic knowledge of your own ignorance as the most precious kind of knowledge there is.
Religious Minimalism: The most honest and thoughtful response to religious questions is agnosticism. Neither reason nor evidence points strongly for or against the existence of God, the soul, or the afterlife. The religious person will say, “In the absence of evidence, make the leap of faith.” This isn’t convincing. Such an irrational leap is unjustified – not to mention that in the absence of evidence, it’s not clear which religion to leap into. So don’t leap. The strong atheist will say, “Many religious beliefs are contradicted by reason and evidence, so the proper stance is complete rejection.” While reason and evidence push against much of the crude literalism of the fundamentalist, an honest and humble reason is silent in front of the thoughtful theology of Aquinas and the genuine mystery of the universe. Resisting both demands, embrace agnosticism. If there is a judging and just God, surely he wouldn’t punish rational beings for being rational.
Aesthetic Minimalism: Eliminate all objects in your everyday visual field that do not offer clear aesthetic enjoyment – and learn to appreciate the calming effect of empty space. Our culture of endless consumerism bombards us with hundreds of unwanted aesthetic experiences each day in the form of advertisements. The goal should be a withdrawal from the aesthetics of consumerism, with a simple premise: the default position is empty space, and everything that is added to the empty space needs to be clearly (and continually) justified by the aesthetic pleasure that it gives you. See what you can do without. Never hold onto something because of “sentimental value” alone (take a picture of it and throw it out). Be extremely careful about what you put in “storage,” as storage is oftentimes a place we put things that we don’t need. Learn to enjoy throwing things away. Leave plenty of walls empty of pictures or artwork.
Economic Minimalism: Actively cultivate your tastes and preferences to be satisfied in the cheapest and simplest ways possible. Our tastes and preferences are highly malleable, and can be brought (to some extent) under the conscious discipline of our will. You can learn to love the taste of cheap coffee, in a mere few weeks. Do this in as many domains of life as possible. The modification of our preferences just takes a little time. After a while, you will be amazed by how much pleasure you can get from cheaper goods. This will help you exit the consumeristic hamster wheel of buying more and wanting more without end, a process that ultimately detracts from your happiness. It’ll also help you retire early.
Financial Minimalism: Do everything you can to avoid debt. Sadly we are living in a time when being indebted in the six figures is normal, but do not play this game. People often talk about how oppressive bosses can be to their workers – but at least workers can always walk away and find another job. The debt collector is much harder to escape. Follow some simple steps to avoid unnecessary and excessive debt. First, never charge more on a credit card then you can pay off each month. Credit card debt has the highest interest rates of all and it will eat you alive. Reject consumerism and the pervasive (and expensive) status competitions that dominate our lives. Second, be cost conscious about higher education. For most people who want a college degree, the best plan is to complete all general education requirements at a lower-cost community/technical college, and then transfer to an in-state university for the last two years. As a general rule, only go to graduate school if your program is fully funded. These steps will guarantee that if you have to take out some student loans, it will not be too oppressive. Third, reject our society’s obsession with homeownership. There are a lot of misconceptions in the renting vs. buying debate. The assumption that home values never go down is obviously false, as evidenced by the 2007 housing crisis. Any reasonable optimism that you have about the future of the housing market is already reflected in the current price of the home – that’s how markets work. And even if home values nationwide are likely to increase, local housing markets – the ones that matter for individual buyers – are volatile, subject to unpredictable local economic conditions, construction, zoning, tax and regulatory policy, and more. When people say that “renting is just throwing away your money,” they fail to mention that for the first half of a 30-year mortgage, the vast majority of each monthly payment is going to pay down interest, not the principal. Unless you plan to live in the same house for 30 years (which is less common these days because job changes are increasingly more common), your mortgage payments are, like rent, being “thrown away,” i.e. not building equity. Renters are more mobile, don’t have to pay for repairs and upkeep, and are not exposed to an unpredictable housing market. There are, obviously, cases where buying makes sense – but make sure that you have a large down payment, do a careful cost-benefit analysis, and be very attentive to the risks. Renting forever is okay! In all that you do and all that you buy, aspire to be free from all forms of debt.
Decision Minimalism: We live in a culture that praises choice as such – the more choices the better – and indeed many people assume that the more choices we make, the freer and happier we are. This is false. Choices impose a cognitive burden that drain precious time and mental energy, so needing to make a lot of trivial choices every day is undesirable. The solution to the problem of choices is habit. Hand over as many domains of life as you can to the smooth functioning and serene thoughtless of habit. Instead of agonizing over what to wear every morning, have maybe eight outfits that are on a strict rotation – choices eliminated. I prepare my meals for the week on weekends, thus never having to think about what I’ll eat tonight. I exercise at the gym on the same days at the same times each week, so I never experience going to the gym as a “choice,” it is just “what I do next.” This automation of basic life tasks relieves us from the constant bombardment of trivial choices, freeing up our minds for more important things.
Social Minimalism: Cultivate strong social ties with a small number of deep friendships, minimize the time and effort you spend cultivating weak social ties (acquaintances), and eliminate (from your life and your mental landscape) all social ties that do not clearly add value to your life. Some of this work is done by eliminating social media, which itself sucks us into hundreds of weak social ties that do not serve our happiness at all. In fact, social media often pollutes our mental landscape with negative social ties – we come to follow the lives and opinions of people who we do not even like. This results in nothing but negative effects on our mental health. After eliminating social media, there is still more work to be done. The only thing that really matters in life are those deep friendships that last decades. These friendships deserve all of our social time and attention. Everything else is extraneous and should be eliminated, as far as is possible (for example, some basic networking may be required for your career, but learn to mentally silo this and don’t waste much thought on it). Here’s a helpful guideline: Spend 95% of your social life with people who will someday speak at your funeral. Everyone else is comparatively unimportant and not worth much of your time.
Emotional Minimalism: Reflection on the philosophical topic of free will reveals (in my considered view) that free will is an illusion, and our lives and choices are governed by a deterministic chain of cause and effect. This realization reveals the irrationality of many negative and harmful emotions, all of which should be eliminated from your psyche. If my past mistakes had to happen (it couldn’t have been any other way), then regret is irrational – reflect on past mistakes for lessons they offer going forward, but do not dwell on them with regret. If other people’s actions are also deterministic, then they truly could not have done otherwise, and thus moralistic blame and hatred are not rational. These negative emotions, seen as irrational and unnecessary, should be removed from your psychic landscape, a process helped along by meditation or therapy. A thoroughgoing acceptance of determinism leads not to nihilism (as some people claim), but on the contrary will actually lead to an ethics very similar to that underlying all major religions – universal love, forgiveness, and compassion.
The goal of Minimalism is not to flatten and deaden one’s life, but the opposite – to liberate one’s life from the many things in the modern world that seek to surreptitiously steal our attention and time. It is the harsh application of cost/benefit analysis to our daily lives, which illuminates the many things that we do every day that come with high costs (to our time, energy, money) without sufficient compensating benefits. This is “addition through subtraction” – add to the richness of your life by eliminating everything that is insignificant. Less is more.