The core premise of minimalism is that we get the most out of life when we focus only on the essential. Whatever is most important to us, most reflective of our values and preferences, should get the most attention. We should spend time with the people we love the most. Anything else can safely be cut away. This leaves us the time and space we need to live our purpose. Radical exclusion is key to this process. This means making a formal decision to stop doing anything that is a waste of time, stop spending time with people who pull us away from our focus, and get rid of anything that clutters up our living space.
Radical exclusion makes life much simpler. That’s the point. The word ‘priority’ originally came in the singular; it did not have a plural form because it means “something more important than other things that should be dealt with first.” Multiple things cannot be done “first.” It’s our prime job in life to find our purpose and make a unique contribution to the world. Anything else is just a distraction.
I’m fortunate that I understand my purpose, and I’m good at something I enjoy that is also valuable to other people. In fact, it’s hard for me to believe that something so fun and inspiring can actually turn a profit. I’m a life coach. I get direct feedback every day that I am improving the lives of specific people whom I find endearing and fascinating. I also write, because I am continually bubbling over with words that need to be bailed out before they sink my boat. My workday is conducted digitally. I can work from my phone or any computer. I think I could even do most of it from my watch, though so far I use it only for notifications. I don’t particularly need an office, a file cabinet, or even a desk. This is by design; it enables me to travel as much as I like without disrupting my work routine. What did I exclude? I excluded a standard M-F/8-5 schedule, the need to sit in a specific chair all day, a commute, ownership of my own automobile, timecards, vacation requests, meetings, most email, and most importantly, a boss. I work but I don’t have a job. The only drawback to this is that I work more or less from the moment I wake up to shortly before bedtime. On the other hand, it’s because my work is what I enjoy the most.
I’ve excluded stuff. Stuff in general. My husband and I were forced to relocate a few times in quick succession, and this began a strategic plan around relocation and career growth over the long term. We understood that I needed to find something location-independent, because we couldn’t afford to pass up opportunities in his field and neither of us wanted to be supported solely by my secretarial income. While we have been offered the (decidedly mixed) blessing of professional movers, movers don’t unpack, and it’s a lot of work to turn a stack of boxes into a home. We agreed to conduct most of our life digitally, and to treat our furniture and housewares as expendable. We have a running thought experiment of imagining which things we would take with us if we relocated to another continent. (None of the furniture or appliances; mostly just our pets, some of the electronics, a few personal items, and some select textbooks).
We’ve excluded debt. I paid off my consumer debt before we started dating. We had a few years of financial transition after his divorce, which happened only a little over a year before we met. We both feel extremely uncomfortable with a credit card balance or a savings cushion below a specific dollar amount. Most of the year, we stay at home, doing things that don’t cost money. When we go on vacation, we know we can splurge, because we’re so frugal the majority of the time. We also keep a weather eye on our finances and discuss our account balances every week.
Both of us have struggled with our weight, and I have overcome a lengthy, boring list of chronic health problems. As a result, we have excluded entire categories of foods and restaurants. It’s easier to abstain than to moderate. Many things we used to eat now look, sound, and smell disgusting, and we can’t believe we used to eat them. I have never eaten a meal at the Cheesecake Factory, Outback Steakhouse, Claim Jumper, or a long list of others. We don’t eat fast food. We don’t drink soda, alcohol, or coffee. Neither of us eat dairy products. We don’t eat junk food and we don’t keep chips, crackers, cookies, or desserts in the house. It isn’t worth it. Nothing tastes as good as not getting migraines. We’ve lost 100 pounds between us, and neither of us wants any of it back.
We’ve excluded a lot of media and entertainment. This is mostly because we both default to work mode, and there is no point trying to concentrate on passive media consumption when we’re fixated on finishing a project. There is also a procrastination hazard built into certain forms of entertainment. For instance, my laptop came loaded with a mah jongg game. It was a great game. It was so great that I deleted it. We haven’t had pay cable through our entire marriage, and we don’t get TV reception. We both limit our social media use, because we both find that more than a certain amount guarantees something will seriously annoy us. We don’t go to bars because we don’t drink; we rarely go out late because we prefer sleeping. (We’re getting older. *shrug*) Entertainment is best when you can lean back and fully appreciate it. So much of it is disappointing and does not live up to the hype. We have found ourselves saying, “Well, that was two hours of my life I’ll never get back.” Rather than passive entertainment, we prefer recreation and peak experiences, like travel and camping.
The toughest thing for me is excluding reading material. I’ve been focusing on reframing my reading for two years, with the goal of reading every unread book in the house and then starting from zero. I have not come anywhere near reaching this goal. The problem is that I don’t want to accept the finite limit of material I can read in a day or week. I want it to be at least 500% higher. In my mind, everything on my list is highly important, informational, and of the best quality, so how can I let it go? One step I have taken is to be aware of bookmarking articles, and try not to select more than I can finish that day. This, however, has done nothing to make a dent in my backlog. I’ve also taken to writing down the title of any book I want to read, rather than immediately putting it on hold at the library or downloading it on my phone. That list stood at 297 last year, and it should probably be higher because I cheated several months back and transferred a bunch of titles to a separate list. It indicates that I’ve been in the habit of committing myself to read two or three years’ worth of books each year, meaning I will never catch up unless I grow another couple of heads.
Radical exclusion of people is extremely controversial and highly personal. What I mean by it is not to spend time with casual acquaintances, strangers, or Internet trolls that would be better spent with close friends or family members. Every minute I spend in “Someone Is Wrong on the Internet” Land is a minute taken from, say, my grandma. Filter, curate, use privacy settings, and stop feeling obligated to engage with belligerent people, no matter how long you’ve known them. One suggestion is to make a list of the people in your life to whom you would volunteer to donate an organ, and make sure you are in contact with them as often as possible, even if just to say hello and ask about their day. There are over seven billion people living in the world today, and we can’t be equally available to all of them, nor would they want us to be.
The foundation of radical exclusion is to get back to first principles. What do we absolutely need? Who is on our zombie apocalypse squad? What do we need to be healthy, happy, and productive? What would we take if we found out we were moving to another continent next month? If we knew we had only five years to live, what would we do with our time each day? What legacy do we want to leave when our time is gone? Will we wish we had spent more time staring at a screen?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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