Busyness & Overwhelm: The Unexpected Advantage of Having No Time

Do you feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day? You’re too busy for the important things in life: friends, family, hobbies, passions?

Funny how, even though we all get the same 24 hours a week, we can end up feeling like there’s no time!

Busyness can often be a trap – as we fill our schedules to the breaking point in order to avoid the truth that we haven’t found something meaningful to invest our time in. Overwhelm seems like a better alternative to facing reality.

But what if I told you that your lack of time – the thing that, right now, you may feel is suffocating you, is actually one of the greatest opportunities you’ll ever have to achieve more than you imagines was possible.

Sounds crazy right?

It’s not. It’s all about the adversity advantage – one of the mindsets I’ve used to learn languages, write a fast-growing advice blog, find my dream job despite no job experience, run a no-training marathon, and achieve the improbable.

The Adversity Advantage: Turning “No Time” Into Incredible Success

Not having enough time is one of the primary excuses we cite for not getting our big goals done and achieve those full HD, technicolor dreams we have.

And it is an excuse, pure and simple.

Starting with the fact that it’s ultimately up to us whether or not we take on a whole host of obligations that take away time from our goals.

It’s also up to us whether or not we let that stop us.

Lately, I’ve taken on way more than I can reasonably chew. My past self might have crumbled under the pressure. My present self sees it as one more opportunity to thrive and do the impossible.

I’m looking at 4 hours a day in university, studying Russian, another 8 hours working for an online company that makes more in a day than I have in my life doing search engine optimization and marketing strategization. This, for someone who, just over a year ago had trouble holding objects with his hands, let alone hours of potential repetitive-strain madness.

To top of the list, my commutes are north of 1 hour.

So I’m starting from a point of using 14 hours of my day, and that’s not including minutiae such as eating and washing – forget grocery shopping or laundry.

And I’m still finding a way to spend time with the two most important ladies in my life – Katia, my #1 gal – and this website.

I could find myself exhausted at the end of the day, completely unable to function or without the wherewithal to work on my own projects. I would be justified in doing so. People would understand.

They’d sympathize with my dilemma, “I just don’t have time for anything else!” I’d say, to responses of, “woah yeah you’re sooo busy.”

But I don’t, because that’s not going to get me where I want to go.
In fact, I find the time crunch invigorating.

It means I have to be fully engaged for as much of my day as possible if I want any chance of doing my writing.

I have to have impeccable posture and body mechanics at work, lest I end up back in the world of hurt that cost me 7-8 years the last time I had a repetitive strain injury.

I have to be incredibly focused with my Russian, as I don’t have extra study time and need to retain as much as possible. I also need to be fearless using it with the people I meet, instead of defaulting to English because it’s easy.

I have to use the commute to either totally unplug and recharge my mind, or to be fully engaged with some sort of language practice.

And then, when I finally get the chance to work on my website, I have to crush it, and only focus on the 1 or 2 tasks that will have an inordinate amount of impact.

There’s no time to procrastinate, check my traffic stats, make lists, organize, dawdle on email, or anything else.

I may have only 30 minutes in which to make my mark for the day, and in that place, only relentless execution counts.

Heck, even with my girlfriend I have to be more positive, upbeat, supportive, loving, romantic, thoughtful, because if we aren’t going to have a long time together, I’m sure as heck going to ensure it’s a glorious time. There’s no time to waste on petty bullshit that couples often get trapped in.

That’s why I call it the adversity advantage. Not adversity equality. Not “adversity sucks.” Not “how to overcome adversity.”

It’s an advantage. I’m able to get more done. And I’m able to do everything I do better. All because I have no time to waste.

How often in life are we put in a position where we have to absolutely thrive or be crushed by the pressure?

Possibly every day, if you’re like most hard-working folk.

But most of us don’t see this as an opportunity. It’s too much. It’s overload.

It all depends on how we look at the situation – and respond to it.

It’s like an Olympic sprinter: the key to going faster isn’t to tense up, as we tend to do naturally. It’s actually to relax, and to be more fluid and elegant with every movement, every act.

Slow, careful, deliberate action – spurred on by the power of strict deadlines, desire, and just possibly the thrill of making what for most people is impossible, easy.

Like Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson said:

You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood.
<<What mood is that?>>
Last-minute panic.”

The question then, is “How?”

How can we take our 60, 30, 15 minutes to spare when we wake or before bed, and turn it into something worthwhile?

In my mind, the key is isolating the single, most important thing we can do each day, and that’s it.

There’s simply no time for more.

But if we do the most important thing, and we do it every day, then in 1 year we’ve done 365 really important things, where most people – our past selves included – have done none, made victims by a lack of time.

Let me be clear, if we’re overwhelmingly busy, that’s a lifestyle choice. And probably one that we need to change before we burnout.

It’s generally not a great long-term, sustainable plan.

But if that’s where we are, we may as well get as much as possible out of the situation until we can or choose to change it.

So in addition to knocking off our most important task, I think the most important thing we can do is practice the skill of mindfulness, to be fully engaged in what we’re doing.

This, for whatever reason, takes the pressure off.

Things may be urgent, and they may move quickly, but by having this presence of mind we can feel like we’re riding a strong current with control and direction instead of just being slammed into the rocks by unforgiving torrents of roiling water.

Mindfulness – it doesn’t require any special trick or technique. Like a ton of people across time and culture have found, I like paying attention to my breathing, possibly taking deeper breaths and expanding my ribcage in all directions.

Another technique I like is to look myself straight in the eye in my mirror, and just focus.

5 minutes – when we wake, and before bed. 2 minutes: when we take a coffee break, bathroom break, are stopped in traffic or on the metro, or waiting in line.

That’s all it takes. That makes us the master instead of the victim of our business.

And in some ways, it’s exactly what we need to achieve more.

The Truth About Self Esteem (and 7 Ways to Build Rock Solid Confidence)

Hundreds of self-help books are published every year. If you check Amazon.com, you’ll find a whopping 5,000+ books under the sub-category of self-esteem.

The vast majority of these books will tell us why our self esteem & self confidence might be low and how to change it – particularly through the power of positive thinking and affirmations.

This, allegedly, is supposed to help us find more success in life.

Which in turn, is supposed to make us feel happy, confident, powerful, satisfied, effective and fulfilled.

Apparently, until recently, nobody bothered to check whether these ideas actually work. Because while the self-help movement brings in millions of dollars annually, it turns out their golden goose – self esteem, doesn’t lay golden success eggs the way we’ve long believed.

From Psychology Today:

High self-esteem does not predict better performance or greater success. And though people with high self-esteem do think they’re more successful, objectively, they are not.  High self-esteem does not make you a more effective leader, a more appealing lover, more likely to lead a healthy lifestyle, or more attractive and compelling in an interview.”

Ex-Greek oligarch and CTHC correspondent Sisyphus would agree, adding that his incredibly high self esteem landed him with a minimum wage, 168 hour-per-week job rolling a boulder up a cliff, and such a thing is not highly conducive to personal success.

Self Helpless

There is a whole wide world of useless and counterproductive advice when it comes to building self-esteem – as in a serious smoke-enema sort of bad.

For instance, you may have heard that you should buy nice clothes or lose weight in order to improve your self esteem.

At first this advice seems somewhat sensible – because it works, sort of. It can give us a bit of a boost and make us feel better about ourselves.

But we might feel better initially, it’s not going to last. If our clothes are like some sort of self-esteem shield, then we’ve only made the improvement so long as we’re fashionable. We haven’t changed our internal state or our base levels of self worth.

Add to that the fact that the hedonic treadmill, the adaptive mechanism that helps us adjust to new circumstances, will quickly return us to our initial state.

At which point we have two options, feed the beast and buy new clothes, to repeat the cycle in a way that Sisyphus would understand all too well, or give up and feel defeated by the fact that we couldn’t buy our one-way ticket to self-esteem land.

Similarly, losing weight can have a superficially positive effect since the achievement of goals improves our sense of self-efficacy.

However, creating a connection between a certain weight and being worthy of feeling good about ourselves is a dangerous proposition.

We already have more than enough neurosis about what foods we should be eating in our society, we don’t need to add a self-esteem neurosis to the world of nutrition, dieting, health and fitness.

We should use and enjoy our bodies because we are our bodies, regardless of their shape or size. Those activities are the things that will truly build solid, lasting self esteem, more than maintaining a target weight (something we could easily lose) ever could.

Ego Inflation

The whole premise of the self-esteem movement is essentially about ego inflation. It doesn’t matter whether the tactic is buying clothes, losing weight, or telling our mirror “I’m a rather swell guy/gal” 100 times every morning.

This is where the whole “power of positive thinking” thing runs headlong into a smiling brick wall.

If our happy mantras don’t correspond with reality, then all that ego massage disappears as soon as our rigid corpse lands on the tarmac.

From Dr. Randy Patterson:

If the happy thoughts happen to be true, I have no problem with them. But most of the affirmations I hear are happy lies:

•I have all the resources I need to accomplish all of my goals.
•I can achieve anything I set my mind to.
•I’m perfect, just as I am.
•Everyone loves me.

These might be nice thoughts, and we might tell ourselves such things (or any variations). But if reality doesn’t agree, we’ve just wasted a bunch of time and energy that we could have put into something useful.

I don’t know about you, but I find that I feel worse when I lie to myself.

For instance, right now I’m learning Russian. I am a reasonably functional beginner, most likely rather average for an amateur language learner.

I could tell myself, “I speak fluent Russian” 100 times in the mirror every morning or write it in my journal.

Then, I would get out into the world and receive an unforgiving reality check in the form of copious vocabulary, complex syntax, and fast speech that would shatter my illusions of perfection.

I know, because I’ve tried.

It makes far more sense, if I’m going to tell myself anything, that if I work on my Russian every day, I will continually improve. (The popular affirmation “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better is bullshit because we don’t improve in every area every day – only in the areas we apply conscious effort).

But I think it’s best of all not to bother with the pep talk at all and do the work.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re learning Russian, cello, cake decorating, trying to pick up lady-boys, become Pope, or anything else. Pumping up your head with “I’m the best there ever was” in all its wonderful and strange forms is a recipe for disappointment.

So then, if conventional self esteem techniques and ego inflation aren’t the key to an eternal romp through daisy fields on the backs of silver unicorns, what is?

And if we feel badly about the state of our lives, how can we make positive change?

The answer, I think, is quite elegant.

If you want to feel good about yourself, then do good for yourself.

Forget the posturing, the hot air, the preening and self aggrandizing behaviors.

Get down to the nitty-gritty. The actions of happy, confident people.

Exercise, forgive your mistakes, eat well, bring joy to others, create something beautiful, do meaningful work, relax. These are the things that will make us feel good – and feel good about ourselves.

So without further ado, here’s a bullshit free list of things we can do to build permanent and real self esteem – the confidence that we can do what we set out to, and feel good about who we are:

Cultivate Ruthless Integrity: The closest thing we will ever find to a self-esteem hack is this: Say what you’ll do and do what you say.

This starts with what you tell yourself. If you say you’re going to wake up at 6 tomorrow. Do it.

If you say you’re going to go shopping after work, do it.

If you tell a friend you’ll meet them at 9:30, be there and don’t be late.

When we keep our word to ourselves and to others, our self esteem builds like crazy.

On the other hand, if we don’t keep our word, we undercut our self-worth by showing ourselves that our word doesn’t mean anything – that we are incapable of following through on our desires.

And it doesn’t matter how big or small the act is. Our subconscious mind doesn’t know if we’re talking about marathons or making dinner.

This is, for most people, an ongoing learning process. There are two main things we can to do aid our progress:

It turns our Yoda was right, if you want good self-esteem, then “do or do not, there is no try.” We don’t want to use words like might, would, could, should, and try. Use “will” and “won’t” instead.

So “I’ll try to be there at 6” becomes either “I will be there at 6” or “I won’t be there at 6.”Then, more importantly, is make fewer promises.

We habitually say things like “I’ll be there at such and such a time” or “I’ll do this or that” without really thinking about the truth of these statements. They’re simple speech habits we use unconsciously.

It takes a mature and confident mind to be able to say “I don’t know” when pressed for details. When will you be there? What will you do? Stick to the facts, and don’t over-promise.

For instance, when asked about what time we’ll get home from work, we could factually state that “work ends at six, and I will be on the highway by 6:10 and head straight home, but I don’t know when I’ll get there.”

By ceasing to make offhand, unreliable remarks and becoming someone who has ruthless integrity – only making strong statements about things they definitely will or won’t do, we can cultivate unshakable self confidence – not to mention the respect and trust of our peers.

Brush & Floss: As it’s not what we’d normally think about when talking about self esteem, this suggestion might sound silly at first.

Looking a bit deeper though, it becomes apparent that self-care is really the core of self esteem. If we feel good about ourselves, we are worthy of our own love and our own care.

And if we provide ourselves with such care, it sends our mind the message “I am important, I deserve this” in a way no affirmation can – because the action is the most accurate reflection of reality we can ever have.

In this way, we are also acting with integrity. We don’t have to tell ourselves we’re taking good care of our health if we already are.

Brushing and flossing have been shown to correlate with increased life expectancy and even reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Make Decisive Decisions: Confident people make most of their decisions quickly and then follow through on their choices.

Of course, some decisions – such as what university program to go into, whether to have a child, or whether to start a new career, deserve more attention.

However, a lot of us spend too much emotional energy deliberating over minutia.

This saps our strength and erodes our confidence, as worrying about whether each little decision is “right” takes a toll on our minds.

Making decisive decisions has the opposite effect. It sends the signal that we’re confident and in control of things, that we are capable of making good choices and the best of the situations that end up being less-than-ideal.

Again, notice that no self-talk is necessary. The actions we take speak volumes.

Sleep: If you want to feel good about the world and good about yourself, then getting enough sleep should be near the top of your priority list.

Memory, attention span, alertness, reaction time, reasoning skills, and creative thinking all suffer when we don’t get enough sleep.

Sleep deprivation (even mild cases) also wrecks havoc with the hormones cortisol, leptin, and ghrelin, which can result in a loss of appetite control and increases the risk of type II diabetes

How are we supposed to cope with the stresses of life if we are putting ourselves in a compromised mental and physical state day after day?

How are we supposed to feel good about ourselves if we feel like crap all the time? No amount of positive thinking can overcome the chronic misuse of our bodies. We have to take care of our bodies if we want our mind to have a shot at a healthy, optimistic outlook.

Body Language: We’ve long known how the mind can shape the body and the power of positive thinking. But we’re just beginning to realize the depths of the power of the body to shape the mind.

I guess it should be kind of obvious, since our minds are a product of our bodies, and unable to function if our bodies aren’t performing well (like when we suffer from a lack of sleep)

Amy Cuddy goes into detail during her TED Talk:

Learn to Say No: Being able to turn down the demands and requests the world puts to us shows that we value our own priorities.

By saying no, we are giving ourselves the space to pursue the things that matter to us – which is one of the most important factors of building solid self esteem.

Healthy boundaries are equivalent to self-respect, and maintaining these boundaries will bolster our self esteem every time they are challenged and we resist.

That being said, we can’t say no to everything. It’s important to realize that when we do let something past our boundaries, it’s an experiment, not a failure. We still have the option to say no next time, and will be able to do so with more knowledge of the consequences of acquiescing.

Do What You Want: The first lesson Katia taught me and words I still hold dear (unlike most affirmations). Doing what we want most, making time for what matters, fulfilling those burning desires we have inside – those are the ultimate acts of integrity.

Achieving a goal we have is one of the best ways to build our sense of self-efficacy, confidence, and create joy.

This goes hand in hand with saying no – it’s the reason we bother to say no, because there are things we value that matter to us.

For instance, I love writing new material for this website, and that means that every day I say no to 5, 10, or 100 different opportunities to use my time.

Sometimes I do those other things, but every time I sacrifice what I want most for what the world expects of me, I feel badly.

On the other hand, every time I keep my integrity, I write, publish, connect with readers, and so on – I feel confident & powerful, as if the whole world is at my fingertips.

You might have to get back in touch with what it is you’re passionate about – because doing so will have the most invigorating effect on your self confidence.


While the self-help movement has made self-esteem out to be the foundation of personal success and then found an ass-backwards way to not achieving it, I think self-esteem has a more important purpose.

Or rather, self-esteem is more a reflection of our purpose.

Because we don’t build self-esteem in order to do great things or achieve success.

We build self esteem by doing great things – the things that make us feel good, happy, fulfilled.

By acting with integrity as it pertains to our innermost desires we can create all the self esteem, self confidence, and self efficacy we could ever ask for. And it will be in our power to build and control, not through affirming it, but by acting upon it – every day, so long as it takes.

The Start of Happiness

Where does happiness start?

For someone that isn’t experiencing the joy and majesty life has to offer, figuring out where to start making changes is an arduous task.

Not only do we have to overcome our negative habits and mindsets, we need to sift through a huge pile of information as we try to inform ourselves. And most of that pile is manure. Vapid rah-rah motivational material that fills seats at seminars, and the wallets of gurus with cash, but very few hearts and minds full of lasting satisfaction.

So it’s time to cut the crap. Inspired by my buddy Brendan’s blog “The Start of Happiness“, we’re going to find out where exactly happiness starts, and how we can get there.

The start of happiness is responsibility.

Responsibility is the single quality which takes our happiness out of the realm of random chance based on circumstances outside our control – such as whether it rains on our wedding, or the reckless driver who cuts us off in traffic, or the thrill of a surprise birthday party – and moves it into the sphere of life which we control.

Why Irresponsibility Reigns

Taking responsibility seems hard. It sounds like a pointless extra burden – not like empowerment. And we are conditioned against it.

Throughout the history of humankind, most people have been followers. Children follow parents and their teachers. Parents follow political or religious authorities. Only a select few people never had the directions of another to follow. And even most kings were able to learn from their forefathers.

We are used to follow, to react, to look outsides ourselves for the answers and actions we should take.

But this leaves us at the mercy of the outside world.

Even the most well meaning parent, teacher, coach, or other mentor can only do so much for us. Ultimately, their idea of a good life simply cannot be exactly the same as what we want for ourselves.

So while such experienced elders are important sources of wisdom and guidance, at some point we have to take responsibility for creating the life we desire. Nobody else can do it for us.


The great challenge of growing up in a rich, modern society is to overcome the sense of entitlement that goes hand in hand with being born into privilege.

Even if you are not rich, if you were born in a modern, industrialized country, you likely have access to clean water, TV, internet, transportation systems, and a wide range of other conveniences.

Sometimes, when times are tough, these things may not seem like much, but make no mistake, our societies have done a great job of giving us the sense that we are owed these things.

In fact, it’s this sense of entitlement that causes much of the stress we experience when we lose these things.

We have an expectation – that the world is going to take care of us, even if we don’t take care of ourselves.

We’re entitled to health care, welfare, work, fun, freedom, etc.

But it’s simply not true.

It’s important, crucial even, that modern societies have safety nets to help people when they’re down, and to look after those in need.

At the same time, it’s important that each and every one of us also take responsibility for ourselves.

Responsibility is where change begins.

Maybe we feel unhappy because we’re out of work, out of shape, or out of love.

Our first reaction is to blame and judge other people and the system.

And you know what?

Sometimes we are completely justified in doing so.

Sometimes we get totally screwed over.

But a lawsuit, or a grudge, or vengeance – these things aren’t going to make us happy with our lives.

Even if we are the victim of unfortunate circumstances – or outright treachery – the only way we can ever free ourselves from our discontent is by taking responsibility for the situation and our actions.

For all we might speak of valuing fairness and equality, we don’t actually care about these things. What we want is the opportunity to feel good about our lives, through a variety of means – good health, meaningful work, contribution to others, love, and so on.

Fairness and equality are valued because they help marginalized groups access the opportunities necessary to achieve these things, but it is their achievement that’s the goal.

Therefore if we have been slighted, the “eye for an eye” policy is a dead end. Making things fair by bringing someone else down doesn’t let anyone win.

Responsibility means doing what is best for ourselves, even if it means that the scales of justice are left out of balance.

And we can take solace in the fact that whomever has wronged us is experiencing their own, deep, internal suffering, or they wouldn’t have had the need to abuse our trust in the first place.

This skill, responsibility, is the foundation, the start of happiness.

How to be responsible

Whenever we feel the desire to judge, blame, or demand justice from the world, we need to take a step back and reorient.

We can ask ourselves the question: “What does this situation require?” Not for fairness, but for our own well being.

For instance, when Katia’s Canadian visa was rejected, it was easy to blame the world – stupid Canadian immigration laws, prejudice against Russian citizens, Kuala Lumpur’s visa agency, or whatever.

It was even easier to get mad at the powers that be due to the fact that we had purchased non-refundable plane tickets into and out-of the country.

Katia and I could have lamented our great misfortune, the great injustice of it all (after all, she most definitely wasn’t going to immigrate illegally – we’re traveling the world together), and ferment in the sour soup of our misery.

It would have been understandable to do so. Maybe even justifiable.

We would be prisoners to this misery forever – until either the world magically graced her with the visa (statistically unlikely by the way) or until we liberated ourselves.

So we did the latter.

We took responsibility for the situation we found ourselves in. Down several thousand bucks, out a couple months preparation, out several dreams related to our travels – but so what?

All it meant was that life was different than we expected.

Taking responsibility meant acknowledging the reality of the situation, and then acting appropriately based on this new information.

The crazy thing is, this is actually dead simple when we actually bother to do it.

That doesn’t necessarily make it easy, especially not the first time, when we’re holding on to all the unforgiven hurts, harms, and injustices of our past.

But that’s why the start of happiness is responsibility: because only by taking responsibility for our present circumstances can we overcome our pasts.

We’ve all been hurt, betrayed, let down, rejected. And you know what? We will be again.

That’s okay. It’s life. By learning to take responsibility when setbacks happen, we develop the fortitude to overcome life’s inevitable hardships and spend more time appreciating its wonders.

We can start with the small, simple, often innocuous things. When our lunch gets burned, we miss our bus, the neighbor’s car backfires loudly at 5am – all these are opportunities to take responsibility for ourselves.

Eventually, these little pricks and cuts will cease to faze us, and the things that could once have sent our days spiraling out of control and send our emotions into a full-on meltdown will wash over us – an innocuous breeze in a golden dawn of being alive and in control.

And naturally, we want to do this with all the negative experiences in our lives. All the big, unresolved pain points. Responsibility is the pill that will cure what ails us.

Do that, and we will start to be happier – every moment, every day, in every setting and situation.

Get Started

Right now, think of one area in your life where you haven’t been taking enough responsibility.  Then, think of what actions you can take to improve the situation. Write your answers down in your journal (you have one by now, right?).

Here’s mine: Lately I haven’t been getting enough sleep, which has been affecting my mood and performance throughout the day. I haven’t been taking responsibility for this, thinking it’s up to Katia to go to bed earlier, the fault of a heavy work schedule, or having too many chores to do.

I will change this by simplifying my schedule, setting a defined sleep/wake time, and rigorously adhering to it even if I feel there’s more that “needs” doing.

Now it’s your turn. Let me know in the comments below what that area is, and what you’re going to start doing differently from this point on. The public declaration will help you stay accountable.

Minimalist Madness: An Obsession With Possession

When a new client dissatisfied with the results they’re getting for all their time, effort, and cash starts working with me, one of the first things I do is introduce them to the concept of minimalism.

It’s a philosophy that’s broadly applicable, practical, and easy enough to digest that we don’t get all bloated and gassy.

A personal development breakfast – so to speak.

In fact, I could pretty much sum up my success philosophy on the back of Captain Crunch:

One of the most important aspects of leading a fulfilling life is putting ourselves in a position to succeed: Empowering ourselves to focus on the things that are most important to us.

That is why I’m a fan of the idea of minimalism:  Eliminating everything unnecessary, doing no more than is necessary, and giving ourselves the space to focus only on that which is most important to us.

In the 4-Hour Body, Tim Ferriss likens this to medicine’s “minimum effective dose.” We don’t take more medicine than we need to get better, lest we suffer from side effects. Nor do we need to increase the temperature of water past 100 degrees (212F) to boil it – it doesn’t become “more boiled.”

For ages I’ve embraced this idea of minimalism wholeheartedly.

And I took it as far as I could when, at the start of my travel adventure that’s now taken me across Europe, Asia, and now to Western Russia, I basically sold everything I could and started living out of my backpack with only what things I could carry.

So I was the consummate minimalist. Dave Bruno’s “100 Thing Challenge” had been conquered with the greatest of ease.

That must mean all the success, prestige and groupies that come with minimalist stardom, right?

Not quite. In reality, I had become the champion of a cliche. Boring, rigid, and of questionable utility. Perhaps even questionable morality. For minimalism, as it tends to be preached and practiced by the blogging elite, is broken.

Minimal madness and the obsession with possession.

Today there exists a huge body of research that shows “stuff” doesn’t make us happy. The psychological process of hedonistic adaptation (“we get used to things”) ensures that we quickly return to a sort of “base level” of happiness, and marketers everywhere rejoice from the fact that we have to go back for another hit of consumer-crack. The hedonist treadmill us in full flight.

So this gives the minimalist movement a lot of firepower to amp up their anti-consumption cannons. The 100 thing challenge exemplifies this. One of my favorite blogs, ZenHabits, focuses on simplicity and minimalism a LOT.

“So what’s the problem?” You ask.

Minimalism, like most philosophies, has a critical weakness: The human tendency to lose sight of why we’re adopting the philosophy in the first place and pursue it for its own sake.

It’s like focusing on the economy with such zeal that we forget that the reason the economy matters is because it can help improve our quality of life. In and of itself it’s a useless concept.

With minimalism, when things get taken – somewhat ironically – to extremes, this guiding principle of simple living can turn into a debilitating dogma that’s just as poisonous to our minds as the consumerist, maximalist mindsets we were attempting to replace when we championed it.

The problem with minimalism, as we tend to read about it online, is that it’s still focusing on stuff.

It might not be consuming as much, it might be liberating in terms of time spent organizing, caring for, repairing, and managing our stuff, but it’s still a fixation on things and not the things that matter.

It’s like a glutton and a bulimic and their relationships with food. One consumes as much as possible, the other purges as much as possible.

Both are dysfunctional psychological states to embody. Both are excessively focused on food, instead of something constructive such as using one’s body to interact with the world – think dance, sex, martial arts, sports.

Likewise, having no possessions, or 100, or 1,000 has no intrinsic bearing on the quality of your life. In my travels I’ve seen the delighted faces of children lighting up for having seen their own photograph for the first time, even while their families are too poor to afford shoes and I’ve met millionaires miserable with their inability to convert success in business or finance into satisfaction with the miracle of being alive, who are instead seeking escape through drugs and trophy wives.

Minimalism & (Money/) Wealth

Charlie Lloyd writes in a little essay:

Wealth is not a number of dollars. It is not a number of material possessions. It’s having options and the ability to take on risk.”

I would add to that by saying that happiness is having options: the ability to do meaningful work and spend time with important people; and the ability to take on risk – or cope with the inevitable challenges and barriers life will throw in our path.

Which brings me to an important moral problem modern, populist minimalism faces:

Modern minimalism is for the rich.

It’s devolved into an elitist technique for the rich to overcome their addiction to consumption, and with that lost its original impact and power as a general principle anybody can apply.

I was reading an interesting article about the Problem With Minimalism over at The Art of Manliness.

In the article, Brett and Kate McKay elaborate on Mr Lloyd’s statement about risk.

They say that the rich can afford to be minimalist, because if they end up in an emergency situation it’s easy for them to just buy their way out of trouble. That might mean replacing the fridge, calling the plumber, getting a new car, or a new pair of jeans.

Poor people don’t have this option available to them. In order to be safe, they have to have more stuff, because it’s their stuff that will allow them to solve the urgent and unforeseen problems in their lives.

I am a big believer that we can lead a good life even if we don’t have much money. But that largely comes down to our ability to handle risk in non-material and non-monetary ways – for instance through our skills and our relationships.

I am even more convinced that poverty should not be glorified. So the fact that a person can live a rich life without much stuff must not be [confounded] with the idea that we need to reduce our possessions to be happier.

It’s one thing for me – a healthy, happy, 26 year old, to write about 10 ways to get free food if you’re broke. I could do any of those things for months or years if I needed to. I would probably have fun once I adjusted to the shock – because I’m a positive, upbeat person who has worked hard at developing the skills to manage such a situation.

It’s a wholly different situation for a single mother of 3. The needs are different. The risks are different. The available options are different.

Both of us could be broke and possessionless and perfectly uphold the ideals of dogmatic minimalism. But our wealth is not equal, even if our possession count is.

When it comes to wealth and happiness, we have to look at the context. For one person, minimizing may be the exact thing needed to live happier, and in another case more stuff might be exactly what’s necessary.

More Extremism?

Of course, we have to address the group of people that probably comes to mind most suddenly when we talk of minimalism: The possessionless philosopher-bachelor.

Diogenes, the Greek philosopher often credited with founding Cynic philosophy, was one of the early “western” minimalists, making a barrel his home when he wasn’t out hounding the Athenian population for what he considered a lack of moral values.

He was, as most minimalist gurus we can look to today are (not the blogging type mind you), a single, childless male, and not at all someone after which we could model a functional, healthy society.

Doesn’t matter if our model is a Buddhist from Thailand, a Hindu on the banks of the Ganges, or a long-dead Greek dude – this model simply doesn’t scale to the level of a whole society.

And to that point, I think it’s incredibly irresponsible to tell poor people that they shouldn’t have “more” – they already have plenty, or maybe even too much – just because there are, in some sense, a lot of people doing it with peace in their hearts (I guess that’s where you put it when you have no shelves or cupboards).

That’s making minimalism into a dogma, the ideal we are to attain, instead of a tool that we can use if and when it is appropriate.

I apply minimalist ideas to my life, because I am rich enough to do so – and somewhat ironically – would be rich enough to do so even if I was broke.

But minimalism is not my goal. I don’t know how many things I own, nor do I care. I’ve used the tool of minimalism and developed the habit of minimalism in such a way that I pretty much only own things I use frequently or get great pleasure from having, and I buy very little.

Each of us has to determine for ourselves how much is enough to feel safe and to feel we’re adequately looking after the people who depend on us. We must remember that this quantity is not only different for everyone, but it will change for us over time too.

There is no ideal amount of stuff we can have to maximize our happiness all the time.

Additionally, we can develop certain mental skills and habits which will allow us feel safe in a wider variety of circumstances. Competencies that would help someone conditioned to supermarket shopping and living in a 2 story home in a gated community cope with the economic apocalypse both emotionally and practically.

Healthy Minimalism

We don’t want to be reduced to a curator of material goods. That is not a recipe for happiness pie. Having an internal conflict about what we own is no healthier than the common internal dilemma about what food to eat.

Minimalist in its purest an simplest form is the definition we started with today: The idea of eliminating everything unnecessary, doing no more than is necessary, and giving ourselves the space to focus only on that which is most important to us.

It’s not about possession at all. It’s about doing more of what matters.

Minimalism has helped me travel and experience planet Earth with a light bag and a lighter mind.

The key, I think, is to apply the concept of minimalism to minimalism itself: don’t be any more minimalist than you absolutely need.