Minimalist in DC

The Quest for Less "Stuff" & More Time

Month: January 2015 (page 1 of 2)

Three Good Minimalist TED Talks

“There are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation, where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.” – Nigel Marsh

Are you ready to be inspired? Have you fallen off the de-owning wagon and want to get back on? Here are a couple good, minimalist TED Talks that will inspire you to get going.

Graham Hill: Less Stuff, More Happiness

Graham Hill of gives us the essential pitch for minimalism with some cool ideas for editing your life.

Nigel Marsh: How to Make Work-Life Balance Work

Nigel’s very funny take on a simple way to change your life balance by changing how you spend some of your time.

Grant Blakeman: Minimalism – For a More Full Life

A very quick, rapid-fire reminder to curate our life and create more negative space.

Want more? Check out for more talks.

Rotate Toys (Quick Tip)

When my oldest daughter was still in utero, I picked up a book on babies’ brain development. It was called Bright from the Start: The Simple Science-Backed Way to Nuture Your Child’s Developing Mind from Birth to Age 3 by Dr. Jill Stamm. I highly recommend this book for new parents because it is filled with sound, actionable advice and a lot of it has stuck with me over the years. This was the first place I’d heard about this week’s tip.

Rotate children’s toys.

We’ve been doing this in our house since our kids were born.

Our Out-of-rotation Toys

Our Out-of-rotation Toys

The Problem with Too Many Toys

Have you ever planned a wedding and noticed that picking out a wedding dress is far more stressful than selecting the tuxedos for men? That’s because tuxedo rentals have narrowed the choices down to their essence. You can get in and out of those places in minutes flat because you only make a handful of decisions on a fairly narrow selection. Which cut would you like: A, B, or C? Two or three buttons? Cufflinks A or B? Shiny shoes or not?

It turns out that when it comes to choice, the human brain actually prefers fewer options. When choosing between chocolate and vanilla, the choice is easy — you know exactly which one you like best and you can make that choice instantaneously and move on with your life.  When given 32 flavors of ice cream, it takes a lot longer to decide and you always wonder if you’ve really chosen the best one.

Kids are the same way. When given too many choices in toys, they’ll either go for the same thing every time or play with a ton of toys for a short period without fully exploring each one. Creativity suffers. Too many toys actually hurt brain development.

Solution: Rotate Toys

That doesn’t mean that you have to get rid of all of your kid’s favorite belongings, just rotate toys! Leave a few of the classics out all the time (blocks, doctor’s kit, etc) and add a few others.  Put the rest in a bin and rotate the toys every couple of weeks. Do the same thing with books (or, get rid of your books and just rotate through the library’s).

In practice, you’ll notice an interesting phenomenon: kids play with their toys longer and with more interest. It really works. Put a toy your child has gotten sick of away for a couple months, then bring it back out. Usually, my daughters immediately think it’s the greatest toy in the world again.  It’s as if they were just given something brand new.

You can also use the rotation as a holding tank for de-owning. If your child hasn’t missed it and/or they don’t seem to care when it comes back out, you can de-own it without worrying about a crying, screaming mess. It’s also a great way to keep your main living spaces cleaner.

How to Start

To start, pick a time when your kids aren’t around and pick a subset of toys to leave out. Make sure you leave their favorites where they can find them. Put the rest in a bin out of sight. If they notice, you can explain what you’re doing, but you might be surprised because many kids don’t even notice.

Try it! It’s such a great way to both simplify your life and raise better kids.

Decluttering: Guidelines for Round Two

Sheep at Mount Vernon

Sheep at George Washington’s Home: Mount Vernon

Though we’ve made tremendous progress over the last four months, we definitely haven’t reduced our possessions down to the essentials. We haven’t even reduced them down to the things we actually like, let alone need. I was naïve to think the full de-owning process could take place all at once. Not only do I have so much more to get rid of, I want to keep going. We have momentum now! Here are some guidelines I’m adopting to help me shed as much as possible in my next round of decluttering.

Decluttering: Guidelines for Round Two

  1. One: Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist discusses the power of owning just one. Any duplicate items have got to go.
  2. One Year: If I haven’t used it in over a year, it’s going in a box with a date and I’m taping it closed. If I don’t use it in the next year, I’ll donate the box without looking inside.
  3. Joy: Does this item “spark joy”? Japanese decluttering sensation, Marie Kondo, uses this question when decluttering for herself and her clients. If I really don’t like something, I’ll get rid of it. If I need it, I’ll replace it with an item I love instead.
  4. Family: I don’t have any quotas or rules for the things my children and husband own. I just want to get them excited about de-owning so that they’ll start to do it on their own. If I can get them to sit down with me a few times and happily de-own, I’ll be happy too.

Have Fewer Meetings: Block Your Calendar (Quick Tip)

fewer meetingsSo much of minimalism is about choosing exactly where you want to spend your limited resources – including time. For most of us, we’d rather spend our time in fewer meetings. Even great meetings, if scheduled at the wrong times can render your day entirely useless. It takes the average person 25 minutes to get back into flow, our most productive state, after switching context, which means that if we have meetings every other hour, we’re basically spending our entire day jumping from one thing to the next without completing productive work.

There’s a simple fix that helps you regain productive work time: plan ahead and schedule it.

Look a couple months out on your calendar where it isn’t as packed and pick two solid hours of every day. Schedule a meeting with yourself, then defend that chunk of time with your life. Proactively move meetings out of that space. Proactively decline meetings that overlap your block. Explain to those that matter what you’re doing and if they don’t respect that time, show them you’re serious by not showing up.

In using this technique, I and others have discovered a few key things:

  1. If our time is blocked and we’ve explained why, most people will respect the block or come talk to us before scheduling a meeting. This allows us to work together on a solution and usually gets us a preview of the agenda. Suddenly, we’re meeting insiders.
  2. We’re better able to say no or delegate. Since we’ll open a dialogue with the meeting scheduler, we can find out ahead of time if we belong in the meeting. We start to attend fewer meetings.
  3. We’re far more productive. I like to block two hours in the morning when I have the most energy. Getting my most important task done right away gives me momentum for the rest of the day!
  4. People think twice before inviting you to useless meetings. You have to be OK with being the only one not there, but you’ll more than make up for the lack of facetime with your newfound productivity. Plus, since you’re already interested in minimalism, you’re probably not the type to blindly follow the crowd anyway.

One more thing, and this is key, you must guard this time jealously. If you start making exceptions, the whole system will spiral out of control and you’ll be back to where you started.

Be strong, schedule the time, and reap the rewards of fewer meetings and more productivity!

Clean the File Cabinet: What to Throw Away (Weekend Project)

Last weekend, I cleaned out our four-drawer file cabinet. I do this every year according to advice from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. It’s no fun to have drawers filled to the brim that won’t fit new files. With no room for more forms, papers pile up elsewhere.

Project: Clean the file cabinet

Time Needed: 2-4 hours (sometimes longer depending on your cabinet)

Prep: Get your shredder ready or find a place to drop off papers that should be shredded. Grab at least two bags: one for papers that must be shredded and one for recyclables. Read below for tips on what to throw out.

This year, I did some research on how long to keep certain household files, so I could maximize the cleaning. Here’s what I discovered.

 File Cabinets: What to Throw Away

There are a few great sites with lists for how long to keep records. Check out, Good Housekeeping, or Consumer Reports if you don’t find what you’re looking for below.

One Year or Less

In general, keep the following items one year or less.

Pay Stubs Throw away after reconciling with your W2
Credit Card Records/Statements Until paid, then shred (major source for stolen identities)
Credit Card Receipts One year
Bank statements One year, keep your annual statement with taxes
Home, Rental, & Car Insurance Policies Keep until you renew
Retirement Plan Statements One year, or keep your annual statement with taxes
Bills One year
Social Security Statements Shred the old one once you get a new one and have double-checked the math

Seven Years

Tax Returns Seven years – more information here


Birth/Death Certificates Forever
Marriage License Forever
Passports Forever
Household Inventory Forever – Many recommend taking a video of your possessions once a year for insurance purposes
Life Insurance Policies Forever
Roth IRA Statements Forever – To prove you’ve paid the taxes


Home Improvement Receipts As long as you own the property
Investment Statements Keep annual statements as long as you own the investment / shred monthly statements
Receipts for large purchases/warranties As long as your own the item
W2 Until you start claiming social security since this is the best estimate of your entitlements
Medical Insurance Papers / Explanation of Benefits If you’re healthy or for routine check-ups, you can discard these after they are paid and a year has gone by. If you have a serious medical condition, keep the papers as long as the condition persists.
Supporting Patent Documents Keep these for the life of the patent, which in most cases is 20 years

By the end of the weekend, I completely emptied 52 files.

clean the file cabinet

I sent a huge stack of papers to the shredder and another one to the recycling bin.

paper clutter

My horribly-crammed top drawer went from this:

clean the file cabinet

to this:

clean the file cabinet

and the whole process probably took 3-4 hours spread over three days. What are your tips for cleaning out the file cabinet?

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