Deborah Hardy has turned travelling light into an art form. She and her husband Ken, Canadians who, since retiring, have explored the world extensively, only ever carry hand luggage.
“We do it because it simplifies every-thing,” Hardy says, explaining that it makes no difference whether they are visiting cold climates, going on tropical cruises or exploring Third World countries, even though some of their trips last for up to three months.
“Since we don’t check bags, we are free to alter our travel plans and will never lose our luggage,” says Hardy.
The couple’s minimalistic rationale is one thing but the practicalities are quite another. Packing everything required for three months into carry-on bags, which have strict size limits and an average weight allowance of just seven kilograms, means each item has to be carefully selected.
“I have to love every article of clothing because it will get worn over and over,” Hardy says, outlining her disciplined packing rules. Everything must match and clothing must be lightweight, compressible and quick drying because it will get washed frequently.
Shoes are a ‘space killer’ so the couple travel wearing their walking shoes and pack one pair of dress shoes and one pair of flip-flops.
At the end of long trips, Hardy admits that her love for much of what she has carried with her is well and truly over: “I am ready to burn my clothes.”
This ‘less is more’ approach to travelling represents the thin end of an ever-thickening wedge. So-called ‘lifestyle minimalism’ is on the rise as more people shun consumerism in the hope of finding meaning through simplifying their lives.
The ‘tiny house’ movement is an extreme example of such downsizing. Growing in popularity over the last decade or so, tiny houses are popping up around the world as more people decide to downsize their lives.
Fred Schultz, a Melbourne innovator, builder, artist and father, became so impassioned by the notion of living in a small, transportable space that he started designing tiny homes and launched a business Fred’s Tiny Houses to enable other people to do the same.
“It’s a game of millimetres and kilograms,” he told filmmaker Jordan Osmond as he showed him around the tiny, towable house on wheels that Schultz built for himself, his wife Shannon and their young daughter Olina.
Casa Schultz is just 10 m2 in size internally: 5.4 m long, 2.5 m wide and 4.3 m high, allowing space in the wall cavities as insulation. Schultz was driven by finding an answer to soaring house prices and also by ethical concerns about fossil fuel use, as well as his desire to live in a sustainable way, he explained.
His minuscule family home, built from wood and steel, cost him just $45,000 in materials, of which around $12,000 was spent on solar power. Despite its size, the house boasts a wood heater, a serviceable kitchen, a loft bedroom, and a bathroom with a surprisingly deep bath.
Not a square centimetre is wasted. Tabletops pop down from walls and every item has its place. Space is so limited that Schultz has considered every object in his home.
But even for those who have reduced their living quarters so drastically the question of just how much stuff we need has never seemed more pressing particularly as mess seems intrinsically linked to stress.
Drowning in Stuff
Forty per cent of those quizzed for a survey conducted by The Australia Institute reported feeling guilty, anxious or depressed about how much clutter was in their homes. The survey also found that 88 per cent of Australian homes have at least one cluttered room, and the average home has three or more cluttered rooms.
A study from Princeton University in the US suggests that when your environment is cluttered, the chaos and clutter restrict your ability to focus and also limit your brain’s ability to process information.
Although it is not a new concept, decluttering and a minimalist lifestyle are gaining traction in many parts of the world. UK finance expert Jasmine Birtles launched the UK’s first Clear Your Clutter Day last year, urging people to sell, swap and donate their unwanted possessions.
“Are you drowning in stuff?” Birtles asked Britons via a video recorded from a crowded cupboard. “Well, you’re not the only one because households across the country are hoarding hundreds of pounds worth of stuff they don’t know what to do with.”
Danielle Atkins, a Sydney-based professional organiser, aims to help such people out. Atkins decided to launch a business, Declutter Life, after assisting her parents to pack up their five-bedroom family home when they decided to move somewhere smaller.
The process of shedding unneeded items can be painful but it enables people to reflect on their core priorities as they move through different stages of life, according to Atkins.
“It is not just about tidying up, it’s more holistic than that,” she says. “I’m not just talking about physical things. Decluttering is almost a by-product to me. I get excited by helping people figure out what is important.”
For hardcore minimalists the answer to that question is: as little as possible.
Be More with Less
Fumio Sasaki, a trendy 36-year-old Tokyo resident, owns only three shirts, four pairs of trousers, four pairs of socks and a few other household objects. Once a passionate collector of CDs, DVDs and books, he became tired of trying to keep up with trends and accumulating stuff.
“I kept thinking about what I did not own, what was missing,” he told The Guardian. Spending less time on shopping and cleaning enables him to spend more time with friends and travelling, he says.
Californian author Dave Bruno wrote about the process of whittling his life down to just 100 possessions in his book The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul.
Fashion blogger Courtney Carver took the idea one stage further with Project 333, calling upon people to dress using only 33 items of clothing for three months.
Carver decided to simplify her life after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006 and has since seen thousands worldwide taking up her challenge.
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, two former corporate executives now known as ‘The Minimalists’, catapulted themselves into the ‘less is more’ mindset after experiencing what they describe on their website as ‘a lingering discontent’.
As they approached the age of 30, they realised that they had achieved everything that was supposed to make them happy: “great six-figure jobs, luxury cars, huge oversized houses, and all the stuff to clutter every corner of our consumer-driven lifestyles.”
Yet, despite the money and the possessions, they weren’t happy.
“There was a gaping void and working 7080 hours a week just to buy more stuff didn’t fill the void.” Instead, it only brought Millburn and Nicodemus more debt, stress, anxiety and less control over their lives and what they did with their time, they say.
The pair, who has published several books and released a documentary called Minimalism, argues that minimalism is not about focusing on having less but “on making room for more more time, more passion, more experiences, more growth, more contribution, more contentment.”
By clearing the clutter from life’s path, Millburn and Nicodemus argue, “we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth and contribution.”
But many objects are useful, even if like camping equipment, carpet cleaners or DIY tools you might only need them a couple of times a year. If you don’t own them, what do you do?
One solution is ‘The Library of Things’ movement emerging in communities around the world. These non-profit spaces enable people to borrow tools, toys, kitchen appliances, clothing and tents.
Brooke McAlary, a 34-year-old mother of two, decided to declutter her home after a bout of severe post-natal depression in 2011. She immersed herself in the Slow Living philosophy, spent two years getting rid of around 25,000 objects, and discovered what she describes as “the beautiful benefits of living with less”.
She writes a blog about her life and has a podcast, which attracts over a million listeners from 45 countries.
“I talk about simplicity, which for me is about not tying our self-worth up in things that we own,” she says.
“I didn’t realise how heavy our stuff was until we didn’t have it any more. It was a genuine physical lightness with letting go and even now every six months or so we have a clean-out. It is freedom. I thought it would be fraught but it’s the opposite.”
The only thing McAlary regrets having thrown away is a school assignment she wrote in Year 7 that involved turning The Hobbit into a poem. Beyond that, “there is not one single thing,” she says, adding that simplifying their lives has given her and her family the time, energy and money to do things they otherwise would not have done.
Their relationships are stronger, they are fitter, and they travel more, she says. “Stuff is pretty boring really. I’d rather have experiences any day.”