Churn: The Hidden Enemy of Minimalism

This simple rustic basket and chair have each been replaced five times.

Over the last few years since I discovered the idea of minimalism, I feel like I've done a pretty good job of getting my possessions under control. I've donated bags and bags of clothes to Goodwill. I went from a large bookcase of 200 or so books down to a stack of 5 (plus any current library books) which easily fit in the bottom of a nightstand. I traded in most of my DVDs back to Amazon and gave away the rest, preferring to watch TV and movies on Netflix (with the occasional cloud purchases from Amazon or rental from the library). My recent move showed me that I still have a lot of random one-off items, as we ended up packing way more boxes than we thought we would, I feel like most of the current things we currently own justify their existence.

What I've been struggling with lately isn't the amount of things I own, but the pace at which I replace or upgrade them. I've internalized the idea that it's more comfortable to live without clutter, but that doesn't mean I've paced my consumption. On the contrary, I buy as much as ever! I just have new reasons for buying things which are "minimalist" but still materialist/consumerist.

  • Upgrades. This is the biggest category, and it's why a rule like "one in, one out" doesn't help for me. Of course I'll discard my existing (coat, computer, backpack, water bottle, couch, coffee mug) when I get this NEW FANCY ONE. It will be better in every way! Sure, it's expensive, but it will last forever… Well, until I take a shine to an even newer, fancier one.
  • Ultralight/compact versions. This is a subcategory of upgrades that is particularly tempting to my minimalist aesthetic. It's very hard for me to resist desiring a version of something I already own, maybe something I'm not particularly excited about, which is super tiny or packs up super tiny while still performing the main function equally well. Usually this is totally unnecessary because I live in an apartment which is totally big enough for me and my stuff and, after all the work we've already done decluttering, it's not especially cluttered. And often the ultratiny version doesn't, actually, perform as well as the normal-sized one. So why am I so attracted to teensy things? I think I have this idea in my mind that I could or should aspire to living out of a suitcase, but if that's truly the case, most of these things wouldn't make the cut at all, no matter how tiny.
  • Seeking The One. While I've criticized the idea that you should have only One Item in each category as impractical, it's still an idea that appeals to me a lot. In those cases where I do have only One, I'm usually happy with it. I never have to make any decisions. It just works. At this point, categories where I have more than One are usually categories where it would be difficult or impractical to only have One, but that doesn't stop me from trying to "solve" them by trying out new and fancy items. (Usually this has the opposite result of me adding yet another item to the mix.)

Of course, it's not actually in the spirit of minimalism to do all this buying and churning. It completely counteracts some of the most important desired outcomes of minimalism.
  • I'm not saving money
  • I'm not reducing my environmental impact
  • I'm not thinking less about stuff and purchases; if anything, I think about them more
  • I'm still on the treadmill of consumerism and always thinking, "If I just had that one more thing, I'd finally be satisfied!"
Frugality and environmentalism are important to me in a global, long-term kind of way, but they are difficult principles to adhere to in the heat of the moment. I'd hoped minimalism would be a sort of backdoor into them, but with churn, there's an escape hatch. It's clear that I need something more than a minimalist apartment design aesthetic. Something more than a numbers-based approach to stuff ownership ("I'll only own 100 items!") I'm just not sure what that is yet.


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