Minimalism and Zero-Waste Living

Between the ability to have anything and everything delivered, social media overload and nonstop news cycles, it’s easy to get caught up and overrun with “stuff.” We live in a consumer-driven economy and a society where more things equates to more joy and happiness.

But that model is showing cracks. Increasing levels of stress, depression, debt and anxiety are pushing people to different ways of living. The counter-consumer movements of minimalism and zero waste are gaining traction as ways to streamline both mental and physical environments for more satisfying and productive living.

The Cost of Clutter

One doesn’t have to be a hoarder to feel the physical and psychological effects of clutter or excess. Papers, knickknacks, stacked closets and unused items that fill up space can be a breeding ground for bacteria and dust, which can trigger allergies and asthma. They can also disrupt a safe, calm environment. We have a strong identity with our home environment as a refuge from the chaos of the world. Instead of being a safe space, that refuge of home can easily become a source of anxiety and stress.

When one’s environment is compromised, life satisfaction can be greatly impacted—often at a subconscious level, contributing to depression, stress and anxiety. It can also show up as binge-watching television, oversleeping, unhealthy eating choices, a lower sense of well-being and less-efficient visual processing, just to name a few. Clear, open spaces and clean counters can contribute to a more tranquil, peaceful environment, both physically and psychologically.

Mental Clutter

The pervasiveness of social media, data overload, multitasking, overbooked calendars and overscheduled days creates a busyness that contributes to mental clutter. We are designed for downtime, quiet time, space to recharge—not incessant stimulation. For children and young adults, the times they’re allowed to be “bored” are often the most critical times in developing their creativity and imagination, as well as the executive function in the brain that includes judgment, emotional self-regulation, planning and reasoning. Overscheduling and excessive structure can increase anxiety in children and adults. For adults, that downtime is critical in decompressing and allowing for critical thinking, organizing and integrating thoughts as well as cultivating better relationships. Without it, productivity is actually lower, and mental clutter is now being associated with age-related memory loss.

Minimalism and zero-waste living are two lifestyle movements that can overlap with the idea that “less is more.” The principle of minimalism is consciously paring down in varied aspects of life to allow space and time to focus on what matters. It can manifest in paring down activities to allow for greater quality time with loved ones, and ridding one’s environment of excess and underutilized items, leaving only what you truly enjoy in your surroundings.

Zero-waste living is similar, but the focus is on working towards living choices, habits and purchases that ultimately do not contribute to landfill. Its emphasis is on conscientious purchasing that has a low- or zero-carbon footprint. In this lifestyle choice, pleasure and satisfaction can be gained by helping improve the environment in which we live.

Steps Toward Simplifying

1. Accept that it’s a process

Simplifying isn’t a once and done, but rather a process. Tackling parts of your home or office space, one room or even one drawer at a time, can make the task less daunting. You can also approach it in layers. The first time through, when asking whether to keep or purge items, it may help to leave some items on the fence. Rather than spending time mulling it over, take care of the items that are clearly keep or purge items. Once you have identified items that are in question, it may be easier to purge those questionable items when repeating the process later on, as you realize you didn’t use or need them after all.

2. Begin with a question

In streamlining and moving towards more minimalism, it begins with the question: What is truly important to me and what do I want my life to look like? Experiences and relationships often give more lasting returns for a fulfilling, meaningful life. Answering those questions can begin to establish what and how much stuff you wish to have in your life.

3. Create a clutter-free zone

Try committing to keeping a room or zone in your house free from clutter. Keeping that area clean can provide a safe space and a launching area to expand.

4. Develop healthy shopping habits

Checking in with yourself before clicking the “buy now” button is a critical step in developing healthy shopping habits. Pause for a moment and ask, is it truly needed? Is this purchase an emotional pick-me-up rather than a need? Depending on the purchase amount, will you still be getting the same joy from the product in a month, six months or a year? And then, what is the environmental impact of purchasing that item?

5. Feel good about helping others

It is often difficult to let go of items that you aren’t using because of the worry that you might use them sometime in the future. You also spent money on them, so it may feel like you wasted money. Instead of sitting in the closet, not being utilized, recognize that there is someone out there in need that could be putting it to use immediately and be getting tremendous joy from the item. If it is a larger-ticket item, sitting in the box doesn’t make you feel any better about the money spent and gives no monetary return. With so many online options, reselling can be incredibly easy and put cash in your pocket.

6. Schedule downtime

Taking conscious breaks from media and technology is a critical discipline. Reducing email checks to designated times of the day and putting strict time parameters on social media exposure can help limit the negative multitasking impact on the brain. Stepping away from all technology at some point during the day is vital to everyone’s health. Having a meal with no technology on or near the table can help guarantee 30 to 60 minutes of downtime and may even help relationships.

The question becomes: How much stuff do you really need and are you supplanting stuff as a source of pleasure versus meaningful relations and experiences?

One does not need to go to the extremes as seen in popular shows like Tiny House, Big Living, but beginning to question what is truly necessary can lead to more meaningful and stress-free living.