Living with austerity and living by minimalism are not popular in today’s world.
Most people today want it all – or have it all – and aren’t willing to give that up.
I am no different.
In my early twenties, I moved to San Francisco and started a performance marketing company.
It was successful – my first tax bill was a nice multiple of most people’s annual salary.
You can imagine what followed.
First class flights. Five-star hotels. Putting up my friends in five-star hotels. Twelve trips to Vegas in as many months. More tech gear than I knew what to do with.
I remember sitting in my downtown apartment asking myself, “Hmmm, what else can I buy this week?”
It goes without saying that all the excessive consumption was not healthy for me on a financial or psychological level. Humans are made to produce, not to consume.
Over the years, a combination of observing friends who are much smarter than I and some common sense made me rethink how I was living and that has evolved into a sense of austerity and minimalism.
Here’s how I look at it now.
Austerity or Minimalism?
Austerity and minimalism are two sides of the same coin. The same thing, seen through different lens.
Austerity is the glass-half-empty version. When people think of austerity, they think of harsh economic conditions. It sound serious and a little scary.
It is also commonly linked to being ascetic,1i.e., abstention from all indulgence. but as you will see, it doesn’t have to be that extreme.
Minimalism is the glass-half-full version. It is cool to be minimalist, to have less stuff, to declutter. It’s about having and using what you need, and not worrying about the rest.
Austerity or minimalism – pick the term you prefer and live by that.
Why Be Austere or Minimalist?
The only real reason to live by minimalism (or austerity) is if you choose to.
For me, the trigger was the realisation that my life was becoming ridiculous with the accumulation of “stuff” that I didn’t use frequently. Extravagance is nice, but because of hedonic adaptation, it became old, fast.
Over the years I have developed some reasons to support the decision to live a more austere and minimalist lifestyle:2As with all reasons and rationalisations, take these with a grain of salt.
- Internal frame of reference. A little hardship and a little suffering is one of the ways to build a stronger internal frame of reference.
- Not wanting to be controlled by my stuff or the need for it.3This comes from Stoicism.
- Periodic discomfort.4Also from Stoicism. This serves as a reminder that things could be much worse… or much better.
- I believe that people are happier when they own less stuff, including other people. This also counters hedonic adaptation.
- Less psychological stimulation means fewer things to think about. This fits in nicely with living with simplicity, which is also a virtue.
Defining Austerity and Minimalism
Is this just about material stuff?
The terms austerity and minimalism usually refer to material possessions.
Money is one part of that, stuff is another, and psychological stimulation is yet another.
Any of the resources that make up our productivity stack are things that we have finite amounts of and that we spend on.
Being minimalist means being austere with all of those resources, not just money or attention. This ends up being expressed as self-discipline, plainness, simplicity and minimalist living.
Can’t I have nice things? 🙄
Yes, you can have nice things.
Being minimalist isn’t about forgoing possessions or living as an ascetic.
It’s about not accumulating unnecessary possessions.
My suggestion is to pick a couple of nice things and enjoy those. And for everything else, resist the urge to over-consume. Be minimalist about it.
One of the common traps of success is that people end up scaling their lifestyle, alongside their business or career success.
I believe that everyone has to go through this at least once to realise how silly it is,5As per my own example above. and then they adjust to practicing some form of austerity or minimalism.
Practicing Austerity and Minimalism Daily
Austerity and Minimalism are virtues, and they have to be practiced daily.
At the end of the day you simply ask:
- Did I spend a resource today that I didn’t need to, be it money, attention or otherwise?
- Was there some minor discomfort in my day as a result of my choice to be austere/minimalist?
You want to be able to answer “no” to the first, and “yes” to the second.
This allows us to appreciate the things we have more, and to temper things like indulgence and hedonism.
Some personal examples of practicing austerity and minimalism
I started this article with a personal story and here are some personal examples of how I choose to practice austerity/minimalism:
- Eat the same meals every day. This is some protein, some rice if bulking, some fruit and some vegetables. I enjoy eating out and fine dining as much as everyone else, but there is no need to do that every day.
- Tech upgrades have to be justified with substantially increased productivity. I used an old 2011-era MacBook Air for many years before jumping to a MacBook Pro.
- Not loading up Netflix just to find something to watch. For that matter, I don’t even have a Netflix subscription 🙂.
- Removing as much media-related psychological stimulation as possible. Less Reddit, less Twitter, less Facebook. At times I have deleted these apps if necessary.
- Elimination of as many forms of destructive snacking as I can find.
This doesn’t mean I don’t have nice things.
I read Reddit every now and then. I have a nice three-monitor setup for work. I have a Breville slow-cooker for cooking.
If I don’t need something or will not use it almost-daily, I typically will not purchase it.
How to Develop Austerity and Minimalism
As with all virtues, there are two sides to developing austerity and minimalism.
Inner game and mindset
The first is your inner game or mindset.
I mentioned earlier that living austere or minimalist is a choice. That’s where it starts.
You can choose to produce or to consume. I personally like to be so busy producing, that I don’t have time to consume.
You should have a decision-making process for buying things.
People usually buy things to display social status.6And to gain the secondary effects of social status, such as popularity or attracting members of the preferred sex. They define themselves by their consumption and displays of it, rather than by their production.
The truth is, if you gave a sea turtle some money, it could make those very same consumption choices. Defining yourself by your consumption doesn’t mean anything.
A better process would be to think about the real reason you are purchasing something:
- Is it for status?
- Is it because my brain needs dopamine?
- Is it because I really need this?
The second side to developing austerity and minimalism as virtues is to get practical – write an SOP for yourself about how you will do this.
For material possessions, pick three-to-five nice things that you really want to have.
These are usually things that you use daily or very frequently and that have a large positive impact on your life. Things like:
- Your bed and linen.
- Your computer.
- Your phone.
For the other things – if you don’t need it, don’t buy it.
Don’t buy it just because it’s on sale. Don’t even get it just because it’s free.
If you are feeling the urge to purchase something but are unsure, wait a week. Set a reminder in your task manager to remind you in a week to think about it again.
For your mental resources like attention and willpower, go on an attention diet.
Cut your social media feeds. Cut your normal media feeds. Feel zero obligation to reply to messages right away, or even at all. Spend less time in front of screens.
Ask yourself: do I really need to see this right now?
If yes, go ahead.
If no, then set it aside and come back to it later.
What To Do Next
Austerity and minimalism are virtues.
They fit nicely alongside other virtues like simplicity, self-discipline and clarity.
For more on virtues and how to live them, grab your 100% free copy of Significant Systems below. It introduces virtue as a system and shows how it can help you live a better life by your own standards and practicality.
- i.e., abstention from all indulgence.
- As with all reasons and rationalisations, take these with a grain of salt.
- This comes from Stoicism.
- Also from Stoicism.
- As per my own example above.
- And to gain the secondary effects of social status, such as popularity or attracting members of the preferred sex.
Photo by adrian.