Essentialism: Scarier Than KonMari

The post title isn’t accurate; KonMari could be considered to be a form of Essentialism. Certainly David McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, is a fan. But having read an interview with him (after reading this article by Margaret Everton) I found that while yes, I have jumped on the Essentialist bandwagon, there is also a kind of Essentialist Cliff.

Unintended Side Effects

Let me explain how this KonMari technique has side effects: Natasha and I are almost done with our process. Really, only three categories remain: the grandsons’ toybox, the stuff under the bed, and the storage locker in the basement.

After that we’ll be done. Really, truly, literally done with applying this philosophy to every physical possession we own.

The results have been great. I started this process after a particular phrase in the book resonated: unhurried spaciousness. While we live in a small apartment (relative to most of our peers) there is a feeling of open focus, a relaxation of the noise and a lessening of the micro-aggravation of clutter. I don’t worry about tripping over my shoes, and going into my closet is a pleasure instead of a reminder of where I stash all the stuff when I want the place to look tidy.

In fact, it’s such a pleasure that I’m reluctant to tackle those last three areas. Like a book with characters that you love so much that you read it more slowly to prolong the pleasure of their company, a part of me wonders: what do I do when I’m done? What will life look like when there’s not always that “y’know, someday I need to go through that drawer…” hovering in the back of my brain?

Natasha has solved that problem: she’s already made plans with a friend of ours to “KonMari” the kitchen. It’s also funny how “KonMari” has become a verb meaning “ruthlessly discard.” I threw away a malfunctioning-but-pretty charging cable with a triumphant shout of “KON-MARI’D!” while on a road trip. So there are ways that the philosophy will stay in our lives to some extent.

Essentialism vs. Minimalism

At the same time there is a need for restraint. For example, in her book Marie Kondo recommends taking everything out of the shower – even the soap – and putting it in a cabinet so that you can take it out when you need it. She brings up the issues of hygiene (seriously, is it any fun to clean a soap dish? Especially when you put the soap back and it’s instantly dirty again?) but really I think it’s just a level of enjoying taking things out from where they belong and putting them back again – perhaps another way to prolong the joy of tidying up.

I wanted to do that when we KonMari’d the bathroom. Natasha, wisely, suggested that it would get annoying to take things out and put them back every time – and it wasn’t like we had a lot of unmanageable bottles and such anyway.

That was when I realized that I’d crossed a line, where I was KonMari-ing for KonMari’s sake, rather than because it made my life more effective. In fact, it wasn’t even productive – I was creating busy work for myself, much like Gollum pulling out the One Ring and muttering “Oh, precious, yessssss, spark of joyyyy, yesssss…

Which brings us to the way Essentialism is different than Minimalism and certainly different than Productivity. To quote Mr. McKeown, “It’s not just less—it’s less, but better.” It’s not about having only five shirts – it’s about having the seven shirts that each means something to you that is exquisite. Margaret Everton touches on it as well:

As we follow those internal pulls and sometimes irrational desires, the superfluity disappears and leaves us each with our own messy and eccentric authenticity…Our personal relationship to items gives them significance, an essence that goes beyond their physical properties.

Which brings you to the question: how much significance do you want to give your items? Really, things only have as much existence as you give them; I happen to be using this collection of connected wood pieces to write, so it becomes a “desk” – but if it were covered with plants, it might be a garden, and if it were in the woods, it would likely be an aviary (come to think of it, our cat doesn’t think it’s a desk at all; it’s “resting place number three”).

One thing that Essentialism encourages is for you to look at not just what things mean to you – but what you let them mean to you. For example, do you fall into that group of people who, when they lose their phone, act as though they’ve just been through a breakup? There’s even a beautifully onomatopoetic name for it: nomophobia.

The Scariest Lifehack I’ve Ever Read

Even Spider Games are Less Scary.
Even Spider Games are Less Scary.

Which brings me to why I’m frightened to listen to David McKeown’s book (available on ScribD, as it turns out). The interviewer asked “How can adults learn to play more?” That’s a question I’ve been working on for a while, especially while listening to Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken book and realizing that I don’t play nearly enough. I would expect to hear some recommendations for games, or maybe some kind of triggering habit change hack. No, instead Mr. McKeown just said five words of terror:

Take email off your phone.

He and the interviewer have a good chuckle about how that suggestions leaves a pit in the stomach and an instant litany of reasons why that’s fine for some people but entirely out of the question for me. He doesn’t spend a lot of time rebutting, but he makes the telling point that if email access actually made us more productive, we wouldn’t keep saying you should turn it off when you want to actually get things done.

I’m tempted to try it, if just for a week. Not having no email at all, just not having it on my phone. Even as I type it, my muscle memory has the urge to reach out and check the little black mirror sitting on my desk. Of course, I could do it with some cheats – leaving things like twitter and instagram on there, or a page in my mobile browser open to my email account. But just as KonMari requires you to be ruthless, this kind of Attention Essentialism would require both the physical act of removing apps as well as the mental discipline of saying “no” to checking mail on my phone at all.

Honestly? I’m really writing this post because it’s not that I don’t want to try it – but because I don’t want to try it alone.

Anyone else with me? Starting tomorrow, going until next Monday, no email on the phone. Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you on the other side!

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