Organizing

Want to Be a Minimalist? Here’s What No One Tells You.

"Forget about how many things you should own and what your space has to look like"—lessons on living with less, courtesy the Afrominimalist.

June  5, 2021
Photo by Meredith Jensen

Simply Living is a new column by Christine Platt, aka the Afrominimalist. Each month, Christine shares her refreshing approach to living with less, with clever tips for decluttering, making eco-friendly swaps, and creating a more mindful living space that's all you.


I remember the day I began my journey towards minimalism. I had considered the lifestyle for quite a while—each time I had the nagging feeling that I owned too much stuff. To prepare myself, I’d look for inspiration online, and although I was mesmerized by the beautiful, serene spaces I was seeing, I had real concerns about how I’d whittle down my belongings to a hundred items or less. Still, one day in June 2016, I decided the time had come for me to do more than just acknowledge my overconsumption, and actually do something about it.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning, but instead of enjoying the blue skies and sunshine, I was preparing to spend yet another weekend trying to “get the house in order.” At the time, decluttering seemed like another neverending challenge in my life, which also was in the early throes of marital turmoil (that would soon lead to divorce). Those weren’t the only changes. I’d recently resigned from a lucrative career to pursue my dream of being a novelist, and had discovered quickly that creativity didn’t conform to my (former) structured work life—I couldn’t just schedule a time to write and expect the words to show up. Despite having the freedom to “write all day,” I’d barely made a dent in my manuscript. Realizing that I probably wouldn’t become the next great American novelist, it seemed getting our home under control was the least I could do.

Photo by Christine Platt

Yet, as anyone who has embarked on a journey to live with less knows, looking at images of minimalist homes is easier than trying to curate your own. For a family of three, we had so much stuff! My closet was filled with too many clothes and shoes; every room had too many knickknacks; and our preteen had more toys, books, and whatnots than any child needed. Sadly, the internet offered little guidance on where to start. The more I pulled things out of their respective hiding places, the more frustrated I got. Soon, I was standing in front of sorted piles of our belongings—labeled “keep,” “trash,” and “donate”—and very soon after, I was in tears.

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Top Comment:
“Fantastic article. Minimalism isn't a one size fits all. Everyone needs to customise it to fit their own life. I loved your mention of books. That was the line in the sand moment for me. I need my loved and much read books around me, organised and tidy on the bookcases, but physically there. And I remember in a minimalist FB group once being told I wasn't a true minimalist because I have an 8 piece setting dinner set. I having friends and family over and cooking for them so don't see having enough crockery to serve them as in any way non minimalist. She informed me that she and her husband had two bowls, two plates, and two mugs and that was it. When I asked what she did when visitors came she told me she took them across the street to a cafe! I don't want to ever be so minimalist that I can't host the people in my life. I've since decided that I aspire to the concept of lagom, which means neither too much or too little but just right. 😊”
— Ellie B.
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No one warned me of the guilt, shame, and anger that came with pursuing a minimalist lifestyle, so I was unprepared. As morning transitioned to afternoon and early evening, I realized the only thing I could do was forgive myself, and replace my frustration with determination. The days, months, and years that followed taught me many valuable lessons, and I came to understand that minimalism is a journey of self-discovery.

My closet was filled with too many clothes and shoes; every room had too many knickknacks; and our preteen had more toys, books, and whatnots than any child needed. Sadly, the internet offered little guidance on where to start. The more things I pulled out of their respective hiding places, the more I found myself getting frustrated. Soon, I was standing in front of sorted piles of our belongings—labeled “keep,” “trash,” and “donate”—and very soon after, I was in tears.

I learned one of the main reasons behind my overconsumption was a penchant for bargain shopping with my mother that started in my childhood. I learned about my attachments to things that I didn’t need and use—the dozens of candles I owned with unlit wicks, the home goods that were hidden in drawers instead of being on display, and too many pairs of heels that remained unworn. I learned to let go of things that no longer served me as well and to be intentional with what remained. Because although I admired the way minimalism lived in beautifully curated photos, I learned it just didn’t work for me. After trying to conform to a neutral, slightly barren decor, I learned that my version of minimalism wouldn’t look like anyone else’s.

Although I never did finish that novel I hoped would lead to literary success, I did end up writing about the life-altering experience that led me to live with less. My upcoming book, The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living with Less is equal parts memoir and manual. Here are the most valuable lessons I’ve learned through my journey, that I hope will be useful to you:

Reimagine Minimalism

After trying (and failing) to replicate enviable (and often expensive!) minimalist decor, I realized that I was more focused on mirroring what I believed my home and wardrobe should look like rather than committing to the practice. I thought I had to paint my walls white (I did, but I didn’t have to). I thought I could only have a neutral color palette—also, not true because I’m not the only minimalist who loves colors, prints, and patterns. The pillows on my bed might not be Pinterest-worthy but they support my back when I write in bed. And there’s no way I could live without my beloved book collection.

Minimalism is less about the unofficial rules we often encounter in mainstream media, of trying to make our homes more hygge or challenging ourselves to live with one fork, one knife, and one spoon. Rather, it is more about choosing authenticity over aesthetics, of learning to live more simply on our own terms. As I like to say, “Take a little, keep a little.” There’s no color palette one has to adopt or Scandinavian furniture one has to acquire. Reimagine what minimalism should look like—and more specifically, reimagine and redefine what it should look and feel like to you.

For me, living with less means having a home and wardrobe that reflect the core of my life’s work and what I value most: the history and beauty of the African diaspora. For example, I nixed the neutrals on linens and pillows in favor of mud cloths and wax print fabric from my first homegoing to West Africa. Although I have a capsule wardrobe, it’s full of bright colorful pieces including my favorite orange jumpsuit that I wore to give my first TEDx Talk. And instead of having trinkets and home goods on display, one of my favorite keepsakes takes center stage: a jar of raw cotton that reminds me of my ancestors’ strength and resiliency. All of these elements are authentic representations of me.

Choose Authenticity Over Aesthetics

Learning to choose authenticity over aesthetics takes the idea of reimaging minimalism a step further. Embracing authenticity means that sometimes, actually most times, you’ll be going against the status quo. It means that some people might question whether you are a "real" minimalist. Which is all the more reason why you have to define and embrace your personal practice with reckless abandon.

Instead of trying to conform to the beautiful simplicity that we so often covet, consider taking a moment to reflect on what aspects of your home decor and wardrobe are working for you. Usually, after a good decluttering or tidying up session, what remains are those things that are most meaningful to you. Don’t lose sight of their significance and value. Allow others’ minimalist spaces to serve as inspiration but remember to stay true to you.

It’s Not a Race, So Don’t Rush

I often reflect on that summer’s day when I foolishly thought that I could declutter our entire house in one weekend. I mean, that’s how smoothly the process went on television, right? Of course, it is natural to want to reach your destination of minimalist nirvana sooner rather than later. Except, it is unrealistic and there is no destination. So, take your time. Because you will need time. To honor the feelings that come with acknowledging your overconsumption. To forgive yourself. To understand why you have more than you need and why it’s so hard to let go. To decide what no longer serves you and how to pay it forward.

Consider starting small, say working through your pantry or spices (hello, hardened lumps in nearly empty jars!) Or, if you feel incredibly overwhelmed, consider joining a daily or monthly decluttering challenge. I started the #1thing1day1year challenge in response to so many people saying they didn’t know where to start. Each month is themed (bathroom, kitchen, etc.) and the rules are simple: you must commit to letting go of at least one thing per day in that respective area. Of course, if you feel inspired to let go of more, you absolutely can (and most people do!) But at a minimum, you know you’ll at least let go of 365 things by the year’s end. My words of encouragement are: Start with just one thing a day and see where it leads you.

Have you recently embarked on a journey of living with less? Share what you've learned with us.

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Christine Platt

Written by: Christine Platt

Author of The Afrominimalist's Guide to Living with Less

25 Comments

M June 14, 2021
I will never be a minimalist -- my lifestyle and interests make that impossible -- but the idea of intention is always so helpful. If you're surrounded by things that mean nothing to you, you should explore minimalism. If you're surrounded by things that mean everything, always revisit now and then to make sure they still do. Serve yourself, not the latest trend.
 
Author Comment
Christine P. June 18, 2021
When we ignore the aesthetics of mainstream minimalism and instead, focus on being intentional about everything that we have, more people will understand that they can embrace a minimalist lifestyle. Sometimes, intentional living looks like being a maximalist... and that's okay too! Everyone has to do what's in the best interest for themselves and their loved ones. :-) Thank you for sharing your perspective!
 
Kslevin June 8, 2021
wow this resonated with me in so many ways! I am brand new to minimalism and still figuring out what it could look like for me. I am a bit of a perfectionist and struggling with “doing it right.” And i’m moving soon from a small apartment to a a house and everyone is trying to give me their stuff! I am going to take it one step at a time, be kind to myself, and remember “minimalism is a journey of self-discovery.”
 
Author Comment
Christine P. June 8, 2021
It really is! Also, one of the most powerful tools in your practice will be the word, "no." (I mean, 'no, thank you' is much nicer but you know what I'm saying lol) It is not being mean -- it is setting boundaries. You have to be very intentional about what you welcome into your life, especially because once you do, you have to make space for it, feel responsible for it, etc. There is no rush! Live in your space for awhile and you will be better to determine what you actually need, use, and love. Enjoy the journey! :-)
 
Amy W. June 7, 2021
Thank you--this feels much more real and realistic! Yes declutter, no to meaningless stuff, but also, no to bland and boring!
 
Author Comment
Christine P. June 7, 2021
You are so welcome! I mean, I am sure it works for some people but it most certainly didn't work for me. Minimalism seemed unachievable... until I did it my way. :-)
 
Lisa P. June 7, 2021
So great to meet you! And now following. I love your "intentionality" vs. following some generalized "rules" for what minimalism is. I relate! I inherited a maximalist's dream: all the possessions of my parents, his parents (including his childhood home, now ours for the past 23 years), both our grandmothers' and even his great-grandma's stuff. These were not wealthy people by any means, but they were ALL collectors/scavengers, amassing TONS of tools, house stuff, handmade stuff, beautiful stuff, useless stuff, super useful stuff, broken stuff, much of which had a story attached.
As a sentimental empath, it's been a huge psychic weight on me all these years. Marie Kondo finally made me see that giving away Grandma's (ugly, to me) hand-mirror does not mean I'm giving away or dishonoring her memory. I can thank it for those memories of her, and let it go to someone who will actually use it. Instead of sitting on my dresser and letting myself feel guilted into keeping it!
But oh dear, all this time, in my heart, I am a minimalist. Yet living with all this stuff. Years of weeding things out, little by little, slowly, and often being resentful of all the days it's taken out of my life, to deal with other people's stuff. It's emotional, a burden and one that I am determined not to pass on to my kids. People think they are leaving you with treasures, but in reality, 99% of it is a ball and chain. It feels so good to purge!!!
I look forward to more from you, you inspire me! Thank you.
 
Author Comment
Christine P. June 7, 2021
Oh! My heart goes out to you just reading this! Inherited clutter is SO HARD! As a Mom, it's one of the reasons why I am so committed to this lifestyle -- I don't want to leave my daughter with inherited clutter that will be hard for to part with simply because it was 'Mommy's.' I am in the 40+ club and it's been heartbreaking to watch so many of my friends go through this. Because it's so hard to let go of things that you inherit or welcome into your life from people that you love. I am so so proud of you, especially knowing the strength it must have taken to work through those attachments. Kudos to you and I wish you well as you continue your journey to less! I hope I can continue to provide some inspiration and encouragement. As you know, the process isn't always easy but it's definitely worth it. ((hugs))
 
Lisa P. June 8, 2021
Oh Christine, you are so kind. Thank you for getting it!
"Inherited clutter", I love that, and now know how to describe it! Many people come here and think it's just so marvelous for us to have all these paintings (not my taste) and "antique" furniture (no, just old) and all the quirky things that remind them of these various ancestors, but it is the opposite. I continue to carve out space for me and my husband, and love leaving it mostly empty -- no need to fill up every space! So much easier to breathe! Thank you for sharing your wisdom and kindness with me. xo
 
Author Comment
Christine P. June 8, 2021
You are so very welcome. :-)
 
Oh my goodness yes to all of it! Our stories share a similar thread being what I thought minimalism must look like to be versus the truth, my truth about what my minimalist life would look like as well as dealing with the why. Also enjoying the journey and lessons learned along the way versus rushing to a destination.
 
Author Comment
Christine P. June 7, 2021
Right? It's such a journey and process of self-discovery, isn't it?! I have learned so much about myself -- my triggers, motivations, spending habits, attachments. And all of these truths have helped me be more intentional with what I welcome into my life. I love my authentic approach to minimalism (which I call Afrominimalism simply because it incorporates aspects of my history/heritage). And I always tell people they are more than welcome to incorporate Afrominimalism into their aesthetic but at the end of the day, still take great care to make your practice your own. Because we are all different people with different needs, likes, etc. There is no way a one-sized approach to minimalism will work for everyone! :-)
 
I love your story about the jar of cotton to remind yourself you come from strength and resilience and well as hardship. I have in my curio a perfectly ugly foot and a half of old radio wire, picked up in the woods outside Bastogne. My dad was a radio man in World War II and the wire is my reminder of his hardship and strength as a very young man.
 
Author Comment
Christine P. June 6, 2021
Awww, this is beautiful! I love this so much! Isn't it nice to have those specially curated reminders? It just adds a meaningful touch to your décor. :-)
 
😘
 
MargeRoberts June 6, 2021
My husband and I have lived in our 35 ft. RV for 10 years; you would think we are minimalists. A resounding no! We have always known we are full to the seams but have ignored it for nearly three years. Then, kaboom! We had to leave our jobs so packing up became a nightmare.
I paint, knit and crochet. Sorted the yarn and gave away pounds of it to fellow crocheters.
My husband bought huge containers; we sorted and labeled. Everything minus the pounds of yarn fit neatly into the underneath storage section.
Did we minimalize? Again, a resounding no! I guess we are as minimalist as we can be.
(And exactly what is stored underneath? My painting equipment, knitting/ crocheting stuff, husband's tools, everything RVing, etc!)
 
Author Comment
Christine P. June 6, 2021
I mean, as long as you have what you need, use, and love, you are doing what best for YOU! Again, I think the term 'minimalist' evokes a certain type of aesthetic or the belief that you have to have a certain number of belongings. Living in a 35 ft. RV means you have less of an environmental footprint than most minimalists who might judge. For me, living with less means living with intention as authentically as possible. And it sounds like you and the Mr. are doing just that! :-)
 
Ellie B. June 6, 2021
Fantastic article. Minimalism isn't a one size fits all. Everyone needs to customise it to fit their own life. I loved your mention of books. That was the line in the sand moment for me. I need my loved and much read books around me, organised and tidy on the bookcases, but physically there. And I remember in a minimalist FB group once being told I wasn't a true minimalist because I have an 8 piece setting dinner set. I having friends and family over and cooking for them so don't see having enough crockery to serve them as in any way non minimalist. She informed me that she and her husband had two bowls, two plates, and two mugs and that was it. When I asked what she did when visitors came she told me she took them across the street to a cafe! I don't want to ever be so minimalist that I can't host the people in my life.
I've since decided that I aspire to the concept of lagom, which means neither too much or too little but just right. 😊
 
Author Comment
Christine P. June 6, 2021
Oh my goodness! Laughing so hard about the judgmental minimalist! The irony that such people are engaging in a form of conspicuous consumption by having to “show and tell” just how minimalist they are. Oy! I actually talked about it (okay, joked about it lol) in my TED Talk, “I am not a minimalist with one fork, one knife, and one spoon. I have a full set, thank you very much!” The audience howled because it’s so relatable. Our lives are not one size fits all. So, why should our approach to living with less be any different? Authenticity over aesthetics, you know. Minimalism can be a beautiful thing when you do your way! :-)
 
Sharon R. June 6, 2021
Totally agree with you. People who try to set arbitrary rules aren't really embracing minimalism -- maybe it's more like totalitarianism! I'm not a minimalist, but am trying to be more intentional. From what I've seen it's about having the amount of things that are right for you.
 
Author Comment
Christine P. June 6, 2021
Intentionalism! Living and consuming with intention! I hate the rules so much because they limit how people can reimagine their living spaces and often leads people to believe they cannot live a minimalist lifestyle. As a mother of one, my minimalism is going to look very different than say, a family of five or someone without children. Your last sentence hits the nail on the head: it's about being intentional to have the amount of things that are right for you/your family's needs.
 
Cici03 June 5, 2021
Excited to read the monthly article! Congratulations!!!
 
Liz S. June 5, 2021
Me, too!! I think I am an "almost-minimalist" ... I don't actually need a label. But, I am not happy with too much stuff and often I find myself being at odds with a cupboard or closet and that starts a small purge. Food/pantry is my worst at the moment. I live rurally and tend to keep a full pantry, but COVID had me keeping even more and I go between struggling with the extras and being happy that I do not "NEED" to go out. Additionally, I have a motorhome. I have lived in it for up to 7 months between houses. I may do that again. It is 300 square feet vs my 1100 square foot house ... neither really large, but I will say that paring down for living in the motorhome is actually enjoyable for me. We'll see what happens in the next months :)
 
Author Comment
Christine P. June 6, 2021
Thank you so much! We’re going to have a lot of fun here. There’s so much we can learn from one another. :-)
 
Author Comment
Christine P. June 6, 2021
I think so many of us had to grapple with how the pandemic changed and/or influenced our consumption habits. I realized that I was reading way too many “survival” articles and after most reads, I would purchase supplies as if I were planning for a zombie apocalypse. Like, should I invest in a bunker? Hahaha I had to stop! Fear is usually the root cause of our overconsumption and I had to recognize what my triggers were. For you, it’s a full cupboard. For me, it’s more cleaning supplies and disinfectants than I could ever use. I’m donating the majority of them to community organizations in my city. (And by the way, I think ‘intentionalist’ is a much more accurate description of this lifestyle than ‘minimalist.’ I completely understand your sentiments!)