From Retention to Intention: 5 things I learned during my January Minimalism Challenge

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

~ Robert Frost

At the start of this month, I wrote about my decision to take on a game suggested by The Minimalists.  I would look for stuff to jettison from my life on the basis of one thing for day one, two for day two etc, for 31 days – a total of 496 items.

What started off as a hunting and gathering exercise morphed into a discovery of a new mindset.

Moving across to the road less travelled

Initially, I was rather tentative about the prospect of finding as many as 496 items, particularly as I already saw myself as a pretty regular life-launderer.

I can also see now that I was approaching this project only from the perspective of looking for things that I don’t need any more.

Looking back, I have come to understand that this perspective changed in a number of ways:

  • it became more about actively deciding what I wanted to keep and why, rather than just about what to get rid of;
  • I felt that I had given myself permission to view differently the things around me, moving away from the notion of unconsciously meeting other people’s expectations (whoever ‘they’ were), to a position of conscious assessment about what is right for me;
  • I could see that I had acquired many things simply out of sheer habit, rather than as a result of well thought through choices.

Making a difference

Through the month, a huge sense of momentum built up.  I enjoyed surveying my stuff anew.  I was delighted to tackle drawers, cupboards and boxes to which I had never given much thought.  And yes, for days 23-31 (my last post took me to day 22) I found more than 243 items to sprint past that sub-500 target for the whole month.

Hub and I went through the entire contents of our kitchen, completely emptying the equivalent of a side-board.  I had yet another look at my yarn stash, this time with a view to making sure it takes up only the amount of room that I am prepared to devote to it.  I found yet more CDs, DVDs, books, clothes, craft materials, jewellery, linens and papers.

In a modification of The Minimalists’ rules for this game, for practical reasons, I did not eject things day by day.  Instead, The British Heart Foundation came yesterday to collect a van-load of boxes and bags.  I will shortly be taking another trip to see the lovely ladies at Treasure Trove; packing up jewellery for The Alzheimer’s Society; and tripping to our recycling bins.

Leaving the usual path

The thing is, minimalism is not really about giving up stuff.  It’s about looking afresh at all the things around you: identifying which of them add value in your life, and making sure they are able to fulfill that purpose.

Here’s what I learned in the space of just four weeks.

1.  Own your stuff:  don’t let it own you

This is something which Hub has always said. I have always understood it logically.  Now I also understand it emotionally.  Belongings can sometimes exert a tyrannical power over us, be it a sentimental memory, a feeling of guilt and/or shame about a purchase, or a sense of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.  Step back, though, and it is easy to see that stuff is just stuff, to be kept or not.  Once I made this mental shift, it became very straightforward to make decisions about how to free myself from the clutches of my possessions.

2.  Memories, not things, have meaning and value

This was one of the most striking messages I took from reading Essentials by The Minimalists. I came to understand that, when looking fondly at an item, it was not the thing itself that generated warm and happy memories.  In some cases, I found items which had been given to me as gifts but I had put them away, not really knowing what to do with them.  Initially, I put them out as ornaments.  But I quickly realised that it was not the items to which I was attached, but the memory of the giving.  The solution?  I took photos of anything in this category and gladly passed on the physical items for someone else to enjoy.

3.  I don’t need what I don’t need

When we were clearing out the kitchen we found all sorts of gadgets that had seemed utterly essential when we bought them, but which were now at the back of a cupboard because they were not of practical day to day use.  I’m not sure when I thought I would need to use a special metal flour sifter when a sieve and a spoon does just fine.  It was obvious that we have our favourite, go-to utensils, crockery, pans etc.  All the rest was superfluous.

4.  It’s ok to love things, and to keep them…..

I have lots of lovely things that make me very happy.  I am a tea addict and love to drink interesting blends out of beautiful cups and mugs – for me, it enhances the experience.  I adore having gorgeous pens and pencils with which to be creative.  I love my beautiful powder-blue suede shoes that Hub bought for me in Paris about 15 years ago, and which are pristine because I only ever wear them when the weather is 100% guaranteed to be dry (a rarity in Scotland).  Some of these things I use every day.  Some only once in a while.  That’s fine.  These things enrich my life.

5.  ……but I could live without them

I have come to understand the bottom line:  Everything I own is replaceable in some way.  If we had the proverbial fire, I would be concerned only about making sure Hub was safe.  There is nothing I would worry about grabbing to save.  Initially, I was rather concerned about this: don’t I like my home?  Is my environment pointless and lacking in meaning?

No, of course not.  We live in a fabulous apartment where we have a lovely life.  But the fact is, our life is fundamentally happy because of the way we live and love together.  We can achieve that wherever we are and regardless of what we own.

Next steps: a path of choice not habit

Reaching the last day of this challenge is not about the 496 items.  It’s not even about newly-empty drawers, shelves and cupboards, nice though these are.  It is instead the beginning of a new commitment to live with intention.  Not simply treading the familiar and habitual path of amassing things in line with societal expections, but consciously choosing a different approach.  Appreciating rather than acquiring.  Space not stuff.

Let me give the last word to The Minimalists, since it is they who have helped me make these changes:


14 thoughts on “From Retention to Intention: 5 things I learned during my January Minimalism Challenge

  1. A wonderful, wonderful benediction to a month well lived. I have enjoyed your thoughtful discussion of how we connect “things” with memories. The camera is an invaluable tool in a minimalistic journey. Bless those that gave us the gift of photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bravo! I am still toying with the idea of this challenge for February – yes, I realise I need to make a decision pretty fast now! Your wrap-up here has helped 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Sandra. I am sure you would it interesting to do, but don’t feel under pressure to start on any particular day. Use the concept of the month as a framework and shape the project to suit you. 🙂


  3. This is a very interesting read and going through with the challenge and keeping up with it is admirable. You have done amazingly well and I am different organisation are benefiting from it. Every time I put something away for the charity shop I am thinking of you. I keep thinking like Sandra, nothing is stopping me of doing the challenge in another month. Reading your summary , it really is worth it. Thank you Liz

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Ute, so pleased you found this to be interesting. It always feels good to be learning something new about ourselves and life, doesn’t it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Congratulations Liz! What changes you have made to your apartment, to your (and your husband’s) life and to the people who will benefit from your donations. You have convinced me that this is what I ought to do and so I will read it up and try to reduce my over-abundance of possessions this year. I don’t think I could cope with doing it over a month so will have to prolong the experience!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I am 100% with you on the things you learned. Even though I didn’t complete the challenge I was very pleased that I jettisoned 411 items. I would be very happy to do the challenge again, either for an entire month or for a shorter time frame. On the last day of the challenge, I didn’t throw out anything but I came upon a little cane basket woven for me by my great uncle. The inscription says Merry Xmas, from Uncle Nate, 1959, so the basket is almost as old as I am. I can’t throw it away but I have decided it will be used again, instead of living a lonely life in the dusty attic. And,lastly, here are 2 things I learned as well: I can’t sort when the heat is over 28; nor can I sort when I am in a state of rage/despair over Trump. 😦 So glad you introduced me to this excellent challenge.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How wonderful to have found your uncle’s basket – it is this kind of thing that makes such an enterprise worth it. I felt the same about finding those long-forgotten earrings from Hub. You are right too that one has to be in the right frame of mind, although I must admit to having found it to be a welcome distraction! 🙂 x

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I see a lot of number five in one of my jobs. Many people move into a sheltered housing flat with far, faaaar to much stuff, and it ends up in other people’s garages, rented storage, and finally rid of altogether when they realise a one-bedroom flat is not getting any bigger. And many of those people will later marvel how they thought it would break their heart to lose these things, but it’s not long before they’re over it.

    Every time I read on of your posts it puts me in the mood to clear things out, so I’m glad it’s nearly the weekend! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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