Rediscovering Minimalism

In early 2017, I watched a film called Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. It immediately struck a chord with me; here was a film that illustrated ways of living that I identified with, from the points of view of many different people from all walks of life, and in a way that highlighted our consumerist and information-overloaded society, our present-day situation, our right now.

Prior to watching the film—probably sometime around 2010 when I was in my mid-twenties—I’d already consciously adopted a lifestyle of intentionality. I was very much interested in ways to increase productivity, the concept of ‘deep work’, habit formation, meditation, creating a routine to maximise focus, and so on. What I discovered was that a lot of these practices are built upon an age-old foundation of intentionality and mindfulness; that is, being conscious of, and purposeful with, our actions (and by extension our thoughts, feelings, time, and so forth).

But there was always something missing for me. It was as though I had one foot in the door that lead to intentional living, but I’d taken a wrong turn along the way and skipped past something important. It wasn’t until I watched Minimalism last year that it all began to come together. But at the time, I was in my final year of my undergraduate degree and about to take an internship. For the most part, I was keeping a lid on things—I was successful in my studies and my work, and I was relatively happy—and so this thing called minimalism could wait until I could give it my full attention.

Then I graduated from uni and life got busy and I forgot all about it.

A month or so ago, after doing a bit of soul-searching, I rediscovered the documentary and it was as though a lightbulb turned on in my brain, sparking all the connections that had been dormant for so long. This can help me, I thought. No, this is me—I’d just forgotten who I am. I realised this is how I would confront the restlessness and lack of purpose I’d felt since graduating, since going from a hundred kilometres an hour, coming to a grinding halt, and launching into a sea of uncertainty about what I should do next.

Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, the duo that make up The Minimalists, suggest starting the process of minimalism by asking the question, ‘How might my life be better with less?’ This question helps us identify what we’re trying to achieve, and why. Somewhere along the way, I’d begun to live without intention, and as a result, I didn’t like the person I was becoming. Having less stuff, less debt, less stress, all seemed like good ways to find what I do want: more focus, more direction, more meaning, and especially to rediscover my passion for writing.

So, I started small. I started with the stuff. I don’t own a lot of stuff, and even collectively my partner, Steph, and I own less stuff than the majority of couples or families who share a household in suburban Perth, which has always been intentional on both our parts. But we still have plenty of stuff we don’t use or need, and the stuff we don’t need does nothing but weigh us down, so it was a good starting point. For everything I own, and everything I want to bring into our home, I now ask, ‘Does this serve a purpose? Does it provide value? Does it bring me joy?’ If the answer is no to these questions, I have to be OK with letting it go. Clearing away the stuff I don’t use will take a little while, but I’m finding I’m enjoying the process.

What I’m working on now is my health—being more intentional about diet and regular exercise—working towards paying off my debt and being more intentional about spending, and cultivating my passion: writing. Restarting this blog was an intentional first step towards forming a daily writing habit; something I’d kept up with for the five years of my degree and then let fall by the wayside after I graduated (I’m still not sure how that happened!).

Along the way, Steph has joined me on my minimalist journey. Through a combination of bite-sized conversations-in-passing and seeing the benefits (already!) of the small changes I’m making, she decided to board the minimalism train with me. It’s chugging along, slowly but surely, but most importantly is the fact that we get to decide where it goes. And that’s a great feeling.

Love for the Dash/Plus System

Bullet Journaling has become extremely popular in the last few years. Ryder Carroll, the guy who invented the bullet journal system, initially created a key or set of symbols that stand for particular types of items in the Bullet Journal. For example, a dot for a task and a circle for an event. However, if you take a look on YouTube or Instagram, it appears that a lot of people love to create their own symbols—anything from the ubiquitous checkbox for a task, to elaborate shapes that have special, personal meanings to some people and are completely meaningless to others.

I’ve always been fascinated by Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal system. I tried it for a a couple of months with great results. It was the closest I ever came to a fully analogue organisational system, and the only reason I strayed from it was to try out the new and shiny Things 3 app.

The thing is, the official Bullet Journal key doesn’t work for me, for two reasons:

  1. There are too many symbols to remember, and if I have to refer to a key, I’m much less interested and the system becomes less useful for me.
  2. At the time of entering data into the notebook, I have to think about which symbol I have to use, and that creates friction. For me, what Ryder calls ‘Rapid Logging’ must be completely and utterly frictionless to be effective.

So, I ended up adopting the Bullet Journal methodology (the calendar, the collections, etc) alongside a system I came across a few years ago that was created by Patrick Rhone of Minimal Mac and Enough fame. It’s called Dash/Plus, and its brilliance lies in its simplicity.

The foundation of the system is the dash: one simple horizontal line (-). Every single item that is noted down can be done so using just the dash, and can be built upon to turn each item into a different kind of item.

In Patrick’s own words:

The beauty of this system is that it is all built upon, and extensions of, the original dash. Therefore, it is easy to change items from one state to another (an undone action item to a done one, an undone action item to waiting or delegated) and in the case of an non-dashed item changing completely the item is circled to denote that.

This means that I can note down a bunch of tasks, events, and notes in one fell swoop and without paying any mind to what kinds of items they are, like this:

– write essay

– the Chinese restaurant is closed on Tuesdays

– lunch with Steph next Friday 12pm

These are three different kinds of items. The first is a task, something I need to do or take action on. The second is something I need to remember, reference for later, or note down somewhere else. The third is an event, something to add into my calendar for future reference. But when I wrote all of these things down, I did so using only the dash.

Once I’ve written the essay, I can mark that task off to indicate that it’s complete by adding a vertical line down the middle, creating a plus (+). When I come back to check my notes for the day (usually during the evening for me), I can turn the second item’s dash into a triangle to create a data point entry (something informational or to reference later if necessary). At the same time, I can add a lunch meeting at 12pm tomorrow to my calendar, and draw a circle around the dash for the third item to indicate that it has been carried forward to a new list (or in this case, a calendar entry).

The best part is that it’s all perfectly customisable and extendable. I’ve ended up creating a system that uses an asterisk as a note or data point instead of the triangle, which is still built from the original dash but much easier for me to draw repeatedly throughout the day.

Using this system with the official Bullet Journal system is a no-brainer, but I also recommend it to those who use pen and paper to jot things down throughout the day. It gives your random, haphazard notes a bit more structure and meaning (which is helpful when referencing them later) without spending any real time or energy learning a new system. Seriously, who has time for that these days?