Why striving for minimalism can be downright maddening

On the less-pretty downsides of decluttering.
(Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

If your sock drawer looked like a work of art, you had only two jackets and your storage unit didn't exist, would you be happier?




Maybe not.


With HGTV shows dedicated to tiny house-living, Marie Kondo books still flying off shelves and a documentary about minimalism having been a Netflix's "must-see", it's clear the living-with-less trend is here to stay. But while there are undisputed benefits to having a tidy home with fewer belongings, including that it's easier to find things and you might save money, critics argue living with less isn't for everyone — that an organized living room won't spark everlasting joy and you shouldn't feel shame for having "stuff" and "mess."

"I think it's buls—t," said Jennifer McCartney, author of The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All Over the Place: The Art of Being Messy, of the minimalism and decluttering movements. "My take is we've been conditioned, especially as women, to think that being neat is better and having a tidy home is … this goal everyone should strive for."

McCartney, a Brooklyn-based Canadian, believes trends like minimalism and decluttering can deepen a void between the perceived value of a neat person versus a messy one, and can heap shame on those who want to own lots of material possessions or live in untidy homes.

"There are people who are naturally neat … there are also messy people, and one isn't better than the other," she said.

She'd prefer people embrace the mess, reject the messaging.

"Letting go of that (expectation to be neat and own less) is the first step to, number one, giving yourself a lot more free time," McCartney said. "And, number two, letting go of any sort of weird guilt that society's imposed on us because our pie crusts aren't perfect or because we don't know how to do a perfect Instagram post."

There's nothing too extreme at the crux of either movement's ethos; minimalism is about owning fewer material possessions in an effort to free up more space for what you value in life, and decluttering is loosely about getting rid of possessions that "don't spark joy". But the most extreme examples — owning fewer than 100 possessions, folding all your clothes in a visually pleasing way — are what the Instagram and Pinterest crowds latch onto.

Proponents of the movements say these picture-perfect examples don't represent the whole of what they're about. The point isn't to shame people, they say, but to inspire them to shed excess possessions, keep only items with purpose and draw fulfillment from human interactions and whatever else makes them happy.

In the documentary Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things, which aired on Netflix, co-producers and self-described minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, share their message about the importance of loving people and using things — not the other way around. They reject the notion that happiness is attained by accumulating possessions and argue that a culture of compulsory consumption is distorting North Americans' understanding of what a fulfilled life involves.

"When I started letting go, I started feeling freer and happier and lighter," Millburn says in the documentary. "Everything that I look around at, I have to be able to justify … does this add value to my life? And if not, I have to be willing to let go."

But letting go can also backfire.

In a 2012 post titled, 'Why I am no longer a suburban minimalist,' on the Frugal Mama blog, New York-based writer and mom Rayna St. Pierre meditates on the downsides of minimalism.

"In one memorable zeal of bookcase decluttering, I (gave away) some beloved childhood books that I could have passed on to my new niece," St. Pierre wrote. "Another time, deciding that I'd eschew dieting but forgetting that my body changes with the seasons, I'd donated clothes that didn't fit that winter but would have glided on come the following summer."

Decluttering experts know there's always the risk people can take the movement too far. Calgary-based professional organizer Indianna McMechan advises new-to-decluttering clients to do a few rounds of purging — keeping a pile for "I'll think on it" items — to avoid tossing too many possessions too quickly.

Still, it's no surprise people are searching for order in their chaotic lives.

"In the last five to ten years, the world has just become ever more connected," said Sarah Knight, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck and Get Your Sh*t Together. "I think that has to have brought about a collective level of anxiety and fatigue that is really ameliorated by the decluttering movement. If everything else is going to chaos, at least my physical space can be calm."

And while she thinks it's great to be tidy and aware of your possessions, it's also important to recognize that an organized living room doesn't equal an organized life.

"You can sit there in your perfect, clean apartment as long as you want," said Knight, on a call from the Dominican Republic, where she lives full-time. "That doesn't mean your work calendar is getting any less full or your bank account is getting any less empty."

She advocates for a pragmatic approach to organization and living with less: suggesting people tackle the clutter that annoys them, then — recognizing that life organization is an ongoing process — reorganize their lives in a way that allows them to focus on their own passions and goals.

As for McCartney, she refuses to drink the minimalist Kool-Aid, but she too is working towards the same time-maximizing, life-enjoying goals as minimalists.

"I have more time to do what I want," she said of her non-interventionist approach to mess and rejection of picture-perfect living. "Instead of getting up in the morning and Instagramming my coffee, I can just go straight to the baby goat videos."

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. You can find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.