For the advanced minimalist: an interview with Leo Babauta

Leo Babauta is the founder of the Zen Habits website and books and (more pertinently to this post) the website, Mnmlist. His sites have thousands of readers. I caught up with Leo by email and asked him a few questions for the advanced minimalist:

Q: After minimalism, do you find yourself treasuring the things still in your possession or do they weigh upon you as stubborn things that wouldn’t wash away?

Leo: I don’t think about them much. The things in my possessions are just things. They are there because I need them, not because I love them. I have a T-shirt because otherwise I’d be cold, not because it’s beautiful and gives me joy. Going outside and playing with my kids gives me joy. Minimalism is a way for me to let go of thinking about things so much.

Q: Do you feel that digital entities (mp3s, eBooks etc) constitute clutter in the same way that physical objects do? Should we try to save virtual real estate as well as physical space?

Leo: A few years ago I moved from organizing all my files into folders, to forgetting about them and using search to find what I need — this includes mp3s, documents, emails. Search eliminates the need to organize, though you can purge if you’re using up too much space.

More important than worrying about digital files is being aware of digital buying. If you buy things mindlessly because it’s easy — apps, music, movies, ebooks — that’s mindless consumerism. That’s something you should become aware of.

Q: I converted to minimalism as a personal preference but I find myself thinking more and more about the green benefits of reduction. How relevant is the environmental issue to you?

Leo: It’s at the heart of minimalism. Environmental problems have become so overpowering because we have let corporate consumerism become more important than how we treat each other, how we live with nature … than living in general. Minimalism is striking back against that. When you let go of corporate consumerism, you let go of the need to overconsume, to buy horrible amounts of things and waste so many natural resources.

Q: You once wrote that society has to get properly on board with minimalism if we’re to have a significant environmental impact. Do you have any ideas on how we can market minimalism and spread the word?

Leo: I believe in becoming a living example. I’m learning to live that example now, but I don’t pretend to have all the answers for the rest of the world. By showing that such a life is possible, I can show others that there is an alternative. I hope this message, spread by me and others doing similar things, is powerful enough that people pay attention, but I realize that could take time.

Q: Do you ever worry that we’ve generated so much discourse (books, websites, courses) around minimalism that we’ve generated another flavour of clutter?

Leo: Yes. Sometimes I think I should just stop writing about it, but then I see others who haven’t heard the message yet and know that it’s important that I keep doing it. Ebooks and other products on minimalism can definitely become excessive, which of course is ironic, but then you’d never do minimalism if you were worried about irony — it’s inevitable that people will try to point out contradictions. I live with those contradictions, and I’m OK with them. In the end, every minimalist is still learning how to do this, and it may take awhile before we realize how to spread the minimalist message without creating so much clutter.

Q: Do you ever find that minimalism can actually be counter-productive?

Leo: Yes, if you become obsessive. That’s unhealthy. The idea is to let go, not to obsess. If you let go, it’s liberating.

Q: My very logical girlfriend has observed that some minimalists are rebelling against their previously excessive lives. We’re sometimes like alcoholics gone cold turkey. Do you mind my asking if you were prone to material excesses before you committed to minimalism?

Leo: Of course — most minimalists, myself included, have done excess and we’re absolutely striking back against that. I was deeply in debt because my spending on wasteful crap far exceeded my income. I had mounds of clutter, I had too much to do every day, and it was overwhelming. I didn’t have time for the things most important to me (my writiing, my family, my health) and I was stressed by all the stuff and all the debt payments. I’m so happy that I’ve let all that go.

Q: Oliver Burkeman recently wrote in The Guardian that minimalism might be indicative of an unhealthy obsession with stuff. (He said: “[purging] hardly constitutes freedom from concern with stuff any more than bulimia constitutes freedom from concern with food”). I have mixed feelings about this. What are your thoughts?

Leo: That’s the criticism of someone who hasn’t done minimalism. If you’ve done it, you know how liberating it is. Sure, it’s possible to become obsessive, but letting go is really so much healthier. Here’s the thing: minimalism is simply a way to learn what’s essential, and what isn’t. By letting go of the non-essentials, we are saying that we can live without the unnecessary, and we can spend our lives on what’s really important — creating, loving, living, not buying more useless crap.

Q: I’ve noticed that you don’t count furniture among your list of 50 things whereas furniture was the first thing I itemised and reduced. It’s so big and ungainly! Why did you decide not to include it? (This is not a criticism – I’ve just always been curious).

Leo: I reduced my furniture a long time ago (probably 4-5 years ago), and it’s not something I’m interested in anymore. If I reduced it any further, I’d be sleeping and sitting and eating on the floor, and while some would be OK with that (I’ve done it and it’s not bad), my wife and kids aren’t. So I’m down to the essentials there. What I decided to focus on was my personal stuff (things that are only mine and not my family’s), and honestly, I don’t even update that list anymore — I’ve gotten down to the essentials and I’m cool with where I’m at. Also, by focusing on only my stuff, I allow my family to have non-essential things — they’re not necessarily as minimalist as me, though my wife has actually become pretty good at it.

Q: If you could loudcast one minimalist message to the entire world, what would it be?

Leo: Let go of it all, and you realize that all you need to be happy, you already have: a loved one to talk to, nature to run around in, a good book to enjoy, simple food to nourish, a pen and paper to create.

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16 Responses to “For the advanced minimalist: an interview with Leo Babauta”

  1. Good interview. The last paragraph really sums it up for me. Thank you.
    Also, I’m going to use search instead of worrying about filing.

  2. Life Miner says:

    Great Q & A. The idea of minimalism becoming so mainstream that it becomes another form of clutter is very interesting. I imagine that every movement that starts small is in danger of turning into the very thing it seeks to educate people against.

    On the other hand, if everyone lived a minimalist lifestyle, then there might not be a need to promote the benefits. It would just be life.

  3. Sabbaka says:

    Great, really great.

  4. One day, hopefully, it will become one of those mainstream things that was once seen as eccentric. Like recycling.

  5. I think Gmail and Google Docs in particular are designed around that. It makes sense.

  6. kris says:

    Minimalism obviously has many benefits for the person practicing it. But if everyone drastically cut their consumption, the economy would fall apart (even more than it has already), the jobless rate would be even higher than it is now, and more people would be unable to buy food or pay the rent.

  7. It’s an oft-cited criticism but unfortunately for the economy, the environment has to take priority if we want to see another century.

  8. kris says:

    Minimalism is obviously a great thing for the person who is practicing it. But if everyone were to embrace minimalism and cut their spending drastically, then the economy would be in much worse shape than it already is, the unemployment rate would be much higher, any many more people would be unable to buy food or pay the rent.

  9. matt says:

    If everyone created but no one consumed… No one could create.

  10. jenny_smythe says:

    Good thought provoking question and answer!

  11. If everyone created but no one consumed… No one could create.

    Hello Matt. Absolutely! That is exactly what we’re aiming for: a decrease in production. We want to reduce consumption in order to minimise the impact upon the Earth.

    I think you are worried that artistic creativity will be reduced but I don’t think that is a problem either. Do creative projects of true worth often make it onto the consumer market?

  12. […] For the advanced minimalist: an interview with Leo Babauta 24 November 2010 | Interviews Originally published at New Escapologist […]

  13. mark says:

    a very interesting interview and responses. those arguing from the economic perspective are doing so on a very single-country basis. 80% of the world lives without running water or a roof and live involuntarily lives of poverty. It is up to us in the lucky 20% to now live differently and take some of those economic knocks on the chin – it’s our turn to suffer a bit if we care about a future for all humanity

  14. Nice website, Mark. Your point about the poorer majority of the world is spot on. I woulnd’t say we need to ‘suffer’ per se because minimalism actually improves a western life IMHO, but I see what you’re saying. Decadence or over-consumption only increases the disparity between rich and poor.

  15. […] than it is now, and more people would be unable to buy food or pay the rent. (a comment left at our recent interview with minimalist Leo […]

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