An Interview with an Ultralight, Minimalist, Cross-Country Bikepacker

Today, I am extra excited to present to you my first interview with a real-life Active Minimalist, Sarah. Not long after she obtained her PhD, she packed her bags, put what few possessions she had into storage, and biked solo(!) for three-thousand miles from California to Florida.

Let that sink in for a minute.

The magnitude of her 55-day journey and inspiring stories touched me so deeply I just couldn’t resist asking her if she’d allow me to feature her story on this blog. I felt like a million bucks when she accepted!

A few weeks ago on a lovely Friday afternoon, I was doing as most office bees do – happily wrapping up work for the week, excitedly anticipating the sunny spring weekend in which I – in true minimalist fashion – planned absolutely nothing, which happens so rarely that I cannot remember the last time I didn’t have an obligation of some sort. In between emails and reports and phone calls, I fantasized about the books I would read, the food I would cook, the friends I would catch up with, and so on. Then, in the early afternoon shortly after lunch, a message popped up on my phone. She mentioned that she was in town and asked if I was interested in playing board games.

I hadn’t seen Sarah at all since she graduated and gleefully whisked her tiny self off to California, so I was super psyched that she was going to be in town during the one weekend I was available to host her. Back when she was still in the area, we often got together with friends to play board games and hang out. After a few back-and-forth texts, I found out that she was arriving the next day and would only be around for the weekend and didn’t yet have a place to stay, so I offered her my couch and an extra blanket. She spent the days catching up with other friends in the area, and I was lucky enough to hear about her most memorable moments and thoughts about her remarkable journey. As it turned out, she was on her way back to California and staggering Amtrak train trips. She burst through the front door with a glowing smile and I had never seen her happier. At that moment, I didn’t even know that she had been on the road for so long.

Credit goes to MMM for the interview format.

Trip Overview

Me: Thank you so much for letting me interview you! I am so lucky to have such cool people in my life. So, how did you decide that you wanted to take this journey?

Sarah: It was just a fun thing I wanted to do.

Me (aside): Ahh, spontaneity – one of the joys of a minimalist lifestyle. The freedom to pack your bags and journey wherever your heart desires – that is bliss.

Me: And that is the only reason you need! How did you decide the route? How many miles did you bike and how long did it take?

Sarah: I started in San Diego near UCSD, biked to the coast, and then mostly followed the Southern Tier route which ends in St. Augustine. It was about 3000 miles and took about 55 days. I started on March 1st and got to Jacksonville on April 26th.

If you’re ever interested in bike touring, I can recommend two websites – the Adventure Cycling Association which has lots of route maps and indicates where all the rest stops, campsites, grocery stores, bike shops, motels, convenience stores – and Warmshowers, the biker hosting website which also has an app.

There are also lots of bike touring blogs out there.

Me: About how many miles did you bike each day? Did you ever stop or did you bike straight from start to finish?

Sarah: I didn’t train for this, so it was difficult at first.  The first day, I only went 15 miles – it was all uphill and into a headwind. But I did get faster – about 2/3 through, there was one hill I went on, when I crested the hill, that I felt the weightless feeling.

I averaged about 50 miles a day – more miles in flat states and fewer in the mountainy ones. The most I biked in one day was 104 miles. I had forgotten my Kindle at the last place I slept.

And I got faster – the second day, I only went 15 miles! It was all uphill and into a headwind. I remember one moment when I was going up a large hill, and when I crested the hill, I got that weightless feeling – the kind you get when you’re on a roller coaster – and that’s how I knew I had gotten faster.

I did take breaks – I also took a couple days off.

Me (aside)The awesomeness of discovering how your body just adapts to the demands you place on it is a superb confidence booster. We talk about working out as though it was some annoying thing we have to do – but really, it’s just a celebration of the body’s miraculous capability of doing amazing things.

Gear

Me: (eyeing her bike – there was a rack in the back with 2 panniers…and that was about it): Is that really all you brought?!

Sarah: Yep (proudly pointing at her things) – that’s my entire life! I saw a lot of other bikers on the same route and I always had the least amount of stuff. Usually people had bags in the front of their bikes and along the frame. People like to pack a lot of stuff.

Me: Haha yes – people like to be prepared, and no one wants to be stranded in the middle of rural America. What clothing did you bring?

Sarah: 2 pairs of bike shorts, 1 pair of bike pants, 2 pairs of normal shorts, 1 pair of jeans, though I would have brought something else because jeans are heavy and not very comfortable to sleep in. A few shirts…1 biking jersey, but mostly t-shirts. A few tank tops. I didn’t bring gloves…that surprised people. A hat.

Me: What about sunglasses?

Sarah: I had safety glasses.

Me (aside): Sarah didn’t wear biking shoes – made sense – she then only needed one pair of shoes. She was also riding a normal commuter bike. Almost everyone else had clippy shoes. Also, if I were to do a trip like this, I would most certainly bring sunglasses to avoid damaging my eyes!

Me: Is your phone the only thing you brought? Did you also bring a backpack? How did you pack your things?

Sarah: Yes. I did also have my backpack. I had my phone and toilet paper in here.

Usually, I’d strap my sleeping bag to the top. When it rained, I wrapped it with a black garbage bag.

(pointing at the right pannier) In here, I had clothes and supplies.

(pointing at the left pannier): Food went in here.

Me (aside): She brought so little stuff that there was really no need to balance the weight.

Me: How and where did you sleep? Did you usually get up early?

Sarah: I mostly camped in my 20 degree sleeping bag and single-person tent (North Face Stormbreak tent). I didn’t bring all the guylines and stakes so the tent was only about 3 pounds. I usually woke up before sunrise, ate breakfast in my tent, went to the bathroom, and then got on the road. I often liked to get on the road before the sun rose so I could finish biking before the hottest part of the day.

Me: Did you bring any bike supplies?

Sarah: A pump, one extra tube (if I got a flat I would buy one at the next town), tire levers, a patch kit, a multitool, chain lube, and extra screws for my rack. It’s a good thing I had those screws because one screw did fall out.

Me: Did you get any flats?

Sarah: Yes – 2 flats – both in Texas. There were a lot of thorns – goathead thorns – and random debris like tire bits. It was like going through a minefield. Texas is very wide so it ends up being a third of the trip, so it’s not surprising.

Me (aside): I’d categorize Sarah’s setup unquestionably in the ultralight category. Ultralight is often thrown around as a marketing term in the outdoor gear industry and there aren’t any well defined “weight limits” for lightweight vs ultralight. But looking at her gear, I consider Sarah’s setup to be ultralight-minimalist. She didn’t splurge on anything very expensive and only brought what she really needed. She didn’t even bring a sleeping pad! She told me her puffy jacket was enough and that she didn’t feel the rocks underneath. I’m sure being young helped too.

Me: Let’s talk about food. Did you bring a stove? What did you eat?

Sarah: I ate normal food – vegetables, fruit. I mostly ate food that didn’t need cooking – trail mix, peanut butter, protein bars, avocado, cheese/salami/tortilla to go with the tortilla. I stopped at grocery stores a lot and also fast food places and restaurants. I averaged about 2 tacos a day. Sometimes 14, sometimes 0, but averaged 2.

Food tastes better when you’re biking, somehow! There was one day when I ate a liter and a half of ice cream. It was hard at first for my body to get used to, because – no exaggeration – I needed three times the amount of food I normally ate, which is only 1000-some calories. I was burning about 3000 calories a day.

That reminds me – there was one time when I saw these berries on the side of the road, so at the next convenience store I asked what type of berries they were. And they were blackberries! So the next time I saw them, I spent like 2 hours picking them. It was like winning the lottery.

Me: Did you drink anything besides water?

Sarah: I only drank water, but it was important, especially in the desert, to have enough water, so sometimes I strapped a gallon of water to my rack with a bungee cord.

Me (aside): She did make a full list of her things:

  • Shoes
  • 2 1-liter Nalgene bottles
  • 1 Camelbak bottle
  • Hat
  • Red and blue bags for clothes that double as pillows
  • Light jacket
  • Soft shell rain jacket (doubles as sleeping mat)
  • 20F sleeping bag
  • 1 person tent
  • Dish towel
  • Clothes (2 bike shorts and 1 bike pants, 2 normal shorts, 1 normal pants – jeans, ~6 tops, couple handfuls of socks/underwear)
  • Bag of food w/a few sandwich bags and a plastic spoon
  • Helmet with mirror
  • Safety glasses
  • Daypack
  • Kindle
  • Pen/paper
  • Wallet/extra cash
  • Smartphone/headphones
  • Extra batteries
  • Headlamp
  • Toiletries (toilet paper, pads, toothbrush/paste, deodorant, comb, shampoo/conditioner, soap, razor, tweezers, nail clippers, scissors, hair ties)
  • Bungee cords/panniers on back wheel rack
  • Bike tools (pump, tire levers, extra tube, patch kit, multitool, chain lube, zipties)
  • Trash bags
  • Reflectors
  • Sunscreen
  • Bike lock

Trip Details

Me: What kinds of people did you meet? Did you ever feel alone?

Sarah: Mostly retired people, and they were from all around the world. They usually tried to figure out what I’m doing. Everyone asked my age. Then they’d ask if I was alone. Then they’d ask if I was afraid of this, this, and this. They were always telling me what I needed to be scared of.

People are very, very nice. They offered to drive me to the next town, the next campsite, the grocery store. They would invite me to sit with them at their campsites and share stories by the campfire. There were a couple bikers that I met at the beginning of the trip, and then didn’t see them for about 1,000 miles, and then I saw them again.

It’s promising to see people in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, even a woman in her 90’s – still staying active and getting out there. I heard a lot about the legendary 90-year old biker. She would stop anywhere – even at the bottom of a big hill after losing all her momentum – and stop, just to take a photo. People would fondly tell stories about her, including one where they saw her bike lying on the side of the road, and, worrying that she was hurt, looked all around for her…and she had simply gone to lay down in a big field of flowers with a big smile on her face!

My goal is to be a cool old person.

I never really felt lonely. You meet a lot of people along the way – at rest stops, at campsites. I met new friends – people I would stay in touch with. Plus, I had my communication machine smartphone with me.

Me: Were there a lot of people doing the same route?

Sarah: Yes – a few hundred per year do this route.

Me: Were you ever scared?

Sarah: Not really. The people I encountered – when they caught onto what I was doing, they were like, “you’re alone? Aren’t you scared?” and proceeded to tell me all the things I should be scared of – the standard three.

I always felt safe at campsites.

There were a couple times when I was afraid that I was going to get run over…people not paying attention. The only time I was scared was when I got bitten by a dog. I got chased by dogs all the time but this one was waiting for me, and then as I passed, it ran up next to me and attacked.

There was one stretch near the sand dunes where there the road would go up and down, but you couldn’t see what was on the other side of the hill, and there was no shoulder. When I saw a car, I stopped and pulled over.

Me (aside): Fear is something that I struggle with more than I like to admit. We talk about biking being dangerous, and if you constantly put yourself in careless situations, it can be. Sarah assured me that people she met were very, very nice. I was tempted to do the finger wag of disapproval myself! Bad things can happen anywhere, wherever you are, even close to home, or even at home. All you can really be is as vigilant as you can and exercise good judgment. Bikepacking has its risks, as does careening down a highway at 70+ mph during rush hour.

Me: Did you have a favorite state?

Sarah: Arizona. I really like the rocky landscape – moreso than trees.

Me: What about least favorite?

Sarah: Louisiana…but not just because of the dog. The people, the love of guns. They had margarita drive-thru’s there! I once saw one that was attached to an ammunition store and a post office.

Me: What was your favorite day?

Sarah: It’s really hard to pick just one – there were so many good days! The prettiest day was when I visited the Tonto Forest in Arizona by the salt river. I also like the first day – the first day was nice because I got to see a couple friends in SD that I hadn’t seen in 5 years. I also took a short ferry on the day I made it to Florida and there were birds that followed the boat’s draft, occasionally diving into the water to catch fish.

Me: It was your birthday recently right? Happy belated! Did you do anything special on your birthday?

Sarah: Yes – I ate a lot of ice cream, went to a really cool aviation museum, and saw an air show. The planes flew super close!

Me: Did you take any days off?

Sarah: I took two days off – one after getting bitten by the dog, and once in Tallahassee. It was going to rain that day.

Me (aside): Pretty amazing – she had all the time in the world, yet she only felt compelled to take a couple days off. 

Me: Did you get a lot of sunburns?

Sarah: I got a light one and a few inches on my back because I missed a spot. Putting on sunscreen was part of my routine – I usually put it on in the morning. I became a connoisseur of sunscreen because I went through 4 bottles of sunscreen! I recommend Neutrogena’s SPF 70 sunscreen that comes in the yellow bottle which doesn’t smell as bad and isn’t as icky as other sunscreens.

I never had to reapply it throughout the day – they always tell you to reapply it on the back of the bottles, but not because the sunscreen degrades – sunscreen technology is advanced enough that that doesn’t really happen – it’s because people don’t apply enough and everywhere the first time. Also, some people sweat like crazy, but I do not.

Me (aside): I guess I get to stop stressing about reapplying sunscreen!

Me: What would you do differently next time?

Sarah: I would not bring jeans. They’re heavy and not comfortable to sleep in. I probably also wouldn’t bring my u-lock. Most people had cable locks.

Next time, I’d also like to bike tour with somebody. Being by yourself gives you freedom – but it’d be nice to be able to share gear and have someone to talk to.

Me: Are you looking forward to being back home? What do you miss?

Sarah: Yes. I miss my computer. I miss having a bathroom I can use at any time. I even miss cooking! I always thought of cooking as a chore, but I miss it!

Me (aside): Sarah has always been a minimalist in just about every way, but she didn’t realize there was a word for it. Back when she was still working on her PhD, she had explained to me why she liked Soylent, and her explanation told me right then and there that we were on the same wavelength, though I am not such a fan of Soylent. 

When she left, she left some bananas and a small bottle of Nutella on my counter with a note telling me that bananas and Nutella were an excellent alternative to energy gels. I told her that I would love to accompany her on her travels, but that 2 months was more vacation time than I had available to me at the current moment, and our trip would need to be shorter than that (unless I staggered it in December-January).

It’s easy to be swept up into the dreary monotony of routine and spend off-hours vegging on the couch or some picturesque beach. For many people, adventuring doesn’t really come to mind when we think about vacation and decompressing.

Sometimes, we look at people like Sarah and cast our net of judgment on them. She’s crazy! Who would ever do a thing like that? Think about what could have happened! How…cavalier! But the truth is, we need people like that. We need people to show us what we’re capable of. We need people to try crazy things. Otherwise, Everest would never have been climbed, planes would never have been invented, skydiving wouldn’t be a thing, and how on earth would we ever have gotten to the moon?

We need more people like Sarah to show us that there is more to our lives than routines, that we might as well be bold, explore the world, and show everyone else just how beautiful the world can be if we give it a chance.

Let’s Talk Jewelry: The Oxymoron that is Minimalist Jewelry

via Pexels

I know, I know. We need to talk about jewelry. I am a young professional woman and a so-called self-proclaimed  minimalist. And yes, we are going to have the jewelry talk. Before you come at me with your pitchforks and cries of heirloom problems and diversification of assets and judgmentality – just relax for a second and just know that I do indeed own and wear jewelry. I’m not here to tell you to throw it all away – what a scary thought!

Yes – fundamentally, there is never a need for jewelry. There is no reason why anyone would need jewelry to survive. Nobody climbing icefalls on Everest would ever decide to take a pearl necklace because it would help him or her safely ascend the mountain, and animals certainly don’t care to wear jewelry. The value and meaning of jewelry is assigned by culture or religion for symbolic reasons only – traditions, memories, class, aesthetics – all of which don’t really require material things. Historically, silversmiths and goldsmiths hammered away at crafting fine crown jewels and intricate adornments for members of the upper class. It was rare to see a peasant wearing a gold necklace.

Today, jewelry is still used frequently as a marker of social class. This is where my vexation starts. We tell prospective husbands that a wedding ring should cost three months of salary, but we don’t tell them that the cost of the ring correlates with their chance of divorce. To think that financing a rock is a thing. Just like how we ask questions like “How much house can I afford” rather than “How much house can I buy to maximize my LIFE EFFICIENCY?!” Life efficiency defined partially as: less time spent sitting in traffic and more time enjoying the immediate community without requiring a trek. These days, loans have made it ridiculously easy for most people to purchase things they cannot really afford. They’re essentially the opposite of sale prices. Instead of 10% off, a loan is really a way of saying, “pay 20% of the price, then another 10% on top for every month that you haven’t paid the remainder of the price!” In a country like America, uninformed people get sucked into predatory lending contracts all the time and end up in financial disasters when they realize that perhaps they didn’t get the whole picture of what they were getting themselves into.

I realize that I went off on a tangent – but the point I’m making is, fine jewelry is generally a poor investment – diamonds are not actually rare – and at least in this country, because we can easily take out a loan and buy one, mean nothing in the realm of social class. The appearance of social class is becoming meaningless anyway. These days, when I see someone’s fancy car, I wouldn’t automatically assume that that person is well off. That person could be in crippling debt, or just be willing to toil away at the office a bunch of extra years to afford it. Moreover, after having spent enough time in the corporate world and paying a lot more attention to people’s conduct and professionalism than the jewelry they are wearing, I’ve become numb to the presence of jewelry. I’ve only really paid attention to it if it was particularly distracting, like clinking bracelets, oversized necklaces, or baubly earrings. My mom has told me stories of people cutting off strangers’ fingers in China to steal rings for money. I’m sure they’re mostly freak situations, but nonetheless – just like with expensive bags, I prefer the peace of mind of not having “STEAL ME” posters all over me than the “pride” of walking around with a thousand dollar necklace. Lighter, freer, more peace of mind. No need to remove jewelry at the airport security line and no need to worry about someone stealing fine jewelry.

But that doesn’t mean I go to my nearest Claire’s and try to get the sophisticated look with fake pearls and cubic zirconia. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sterling silver tarnishes and gold wears down. My favorite material of choice…happens to be stainless steel.

Yes, surgical stainless steel. The kind they use in dental implants and other medical devices. It’s durable, hypoallergenic, easy to clean without nasty chemicals, and doesn’t stain easily like sterling silver does. Best of all, it’s not expensive. Yet, it’s so hard to find places that make jewelry made of stainless steel (my favorite vendor is from the Netherlands). As far as jewelry, I am partial to studs because I can put them on and forget about them. Rings, necklaces and bracelets usually get in the way of athletic pursuits, not to mention the danger of snagging on delicate materials. Studs are a simple way to adorn myself without much fuss. And isn’t that the point of minimalism? To reduce the amount of fuss you have to make so you can focus on what’s truly important to you?

Crafting a Minimalist Holiday Season

christmas-cookies-553457_1920

Historically, I have not been good at reining in my spending during the holidays.

It all starts with a Black Friday shopping spree, which for many retailers, starts on Thanksgiving day, a day in which we’re supposed to be thankful for what we already have. I accumulate a “Future Purchases” list which becomes a time suck during precious holiday time as I research the Best Deal for each item, which eventually makes it to my front doorstep after mulling over countless sellers and options. As you can guess, getting whatever was on my Future Purchases list was not the end of it. Anytime you visit the website of a smart retailer, you’re bound to be suckered into all the other Great Deals plastered all over each page, and you’re reminded of it constantly. Let’s say you’re browsing REI.com and you’re checking out a Patagonia rain jacket. You then move on to Facebook to catch up on your friends’ newsfeeds, and a wha? A box appears on it with that same jacket you were just looking at. This is a tactic called remarketing, and it’s scarily effective. What happens is, when you visited REI.com, a pixel fire tags you by setting up a cookie in your browser that will trigger a real-time ad exchange. Because the ads are personalized based on your browsing history, the more you browse, the more often you are reminded of what you were shopping for, and the more likely you will make a purchase. $$$$!

No one knows my browsing history better than than the retailers.

My holiday spending habits were a natural response to temptation. Who could blame retailers? We all want a fresh start and shiny new things are an easy way to achieve that. $100 for a new coat here, $50 for a new game there, it adds up quickly and before you know it, you’ve spent a good chunk of your paycheck. With tinsel and cheer and sparkling holiday-themed decor around, how could we not join in the fun? But you can! You can enjoy the efforts of your community and neighbors without breaking the bank. If you live in a populous enough neighborhood, chances are, you’ll have friends and neighbors putting up their own decorations. You can join enthusiastic relatives on their Christmas shopping adventures. You can use scraps of paper to handmake Christmas cards. You can make candied pecans, caramel popcorn, and hearty beef stew.

I don’t want to rant about the consumerist focus of the holidays because enough has been written on the subject. I’d rather spend my time sharing actionable activities you can do with friends and family.

Instead of blowing a few grand on a trip to waiting in long lines at Disney or sitting on a cruise ship, why not make some slow cooker hot chocolate and making snow forts?

Instead of browsing the clearance rack at Macy’s for an afternoon, why not spend thirty minutes catching up with an old friend?

Instead of blowing a few grand on Christmas gifts, why not invest it in some mutual funds?

Shiny new things can temporarily seem refreshing, but I’d say a great workout session with a shower afterward is even better.

Yesterday, I spent $0. For someone who had no qualms dropping a couple hundred on random stuff in the past, I think it is a baby step in the right direction.

Minimalist Fitness: You Can’t Buy a Fit Body

via PixaBay

I had a FitBit once. The Flex, to be exact. It is the basic model that tracks how many steps you’re taking a day, and sets a 10,000 step goal, which on average should burn about 500 calories a day. Over one week, 500 calories translates to 3,500 calories, or one pound. For someone just starting out, it can be a significant change, and after all, humans were designed to walk. Walking is the simplest form of exercise we could be doing for ourselves, yet instead, we whine about far away parking spots, spending a little time outside in bad weather, and walking a bit further to get to a meeting. Really, for how busy my life already is, I’m always happy to get a little more walking time.

But I digress. I’ve tried the whole shebang of fitness equipment and wasted hundreds, probably thousands, on classes, memberships, equipment, programs…the whole nine yards, in the name of getting in shape. It kills me to see people spending thousands on stationary bikes, fancy treadmills and machines, and “diet shakes,” but get so little in return. The machines usually end up abandoned after maybe a few weeks of regular use. The subscriptions to specially formulated (read: expensive) powders and auto deductions for gym memberships continue draining bank accounts.

Getting a decent workout requires no equipment, really. Push-ups, planks, walking…there are so many aerobics and strength exercises out there that we could be doing with just our body weight and perhaps a YouTube video to follow. The fitness industry puts so much emphasis on buying success and getting it quickly with little effort, when the reality is, when our own hard work leads to results with little dependency on some external program or item, the reward is so much sweeter. We rely on the success of others who follow the same path, when the reality is that doing the same one hour routine as someone else can be easily upset by 5 minutes of bad eating habits (it’s scary how quickly we can hit our caloric limit with just a bag of chips or bowl of Cheesecake Factory pasta). The acting of buying our way into better health causes us to prematurely feel the reward of improving our health and in no way guarantees that we’ll actually get there. It makes no sense to spend more time buying and researching fitness products (clothes, electronics, etc.) than actually using them.

The truth is, we don’t really even need stuff to work out. Bodyweight fitness can get you strong. If you have to buy something, a gym membership gets you access to everything you need. In the end, it’s the discipline of committing to a fitness routine that will get you places. That FitBit may have told me I walked x number of steps a day, but it didn’t make me any stronger or lose any weight. Perhaps it encouraged me to compete against my peers, but that got old quickly and I didn’t notice any miracles. In the end, it was just a fancy pedometer, and I sold it on eBay for half the price I paid for it.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all about tracking results – but that is easily done as you put on your clothes in the morning in find out that they fit differently, or realizing an exercise is easier than before. Fitness doesn’t have to be so complicated. We can get fit with minimal equipment, but of course, put in maximum effort. More to come on the art of putting in maximum effort!

10 Simple Living Starters for Aspiring Minimalists

via PixabayI used to be a millennial with extra-fancy (read: expensive) tastes. I had an eye for the ornate, which was fueled by a trip to Versailles and the antique treasure troves of Buffalo, New York. I was dazzled by porcelain with gold trim and expensive leather goods. I bought expensive food at Whole Foods and regularly ate froyo. I dumped money left and right on short term pleasures. Wanderlust was eating at me, but I was so bogged down by expensive, unfulfilling habits that my travel dreams could not be realized.

Being an unmarried, single millennial is a really good time to learn minimalist habits. Not owning a home, not owning a car, and not being a parent frees you from many “normal” adult responsibilities. Some of us may as well adopt minimalism for the sake of our financial situations, especially if we’re in student loan and credit card debt. We can establish habits that will expand our life skill kit and self-sustainability – critical keys to minimalist lives.

Before anxiously diving into assuming “normal” adult responsibilities, like taking out a mortgage or auto loan, why don’t we simplify our lives first and see if we can possibly reduce our footprints first? The less we need to worry about, the more clarity we have in our lives. Here are some starters for those of you who aren’t sure how to tackle this whole minimalism thing, or just want to see if it’s right for your situation.

1. Break free from your past. Confront your emotional baggage from the past, and find a way to break free from it. Making peace with your past will help you focus on the present. You can even make your own personal ritual as a way to represent letting go. For example, you can set it as your intention when you do yoga, or declutter one thing a day related to a painful past.

2. Start to get rid of your crap – especially the stuff that is tied to a past version of yourself. Yes, I do mean all the useless memorabilia and random things that have followed you into the present day without you noticing. Decluttering is hard, and that is why it took me several years to do and numerous trips to Goodwill. But it will also help you break free from worrying about your stuff, which we do too much anyhow. Don’t underestimate the cumulative effect of slow, consistent decluttering. It’s very un-KonMari, but it worked very well for me.

3. Make a list, on paper, of loose-ends that need to be tied. Schedule that doctor’s appointment. Pay off that loan. Open that bank account. Close that credit card. Buy that thing you need. Get that thing fixed. Then, set aside one day to tackle all of them (realistically of course). At the end, celebrate with ice cream.

4. Clean out your refrigerator. All the sauces you never use, the expired stuff, the moldy stuff – toss it out. Wipe down the surfaces and start anew.

5. Cook all your meals for a week. If a friend wants to go out, invite that person over to cook with you instead. Cooking with someone is a wonderful way to spend quality time together.

6. Start to read simple living books (see my reading list) to give yourself a mental boost.

7. Go for a run or a bike ride. 30 minutes is only a small percentage of your day – you can afford 30 minutes to devote to your body.

8. Trim your online presence. Employers do look you up. Assume that nothing you have online is private. Delete subscriptions from mailing lists, hide or delete photos (that one time you were drunk out of your mind? Who needs to see that, really?). Rewrite your short bios. Update your LinkedIn. You’re better than you were yesterday, and make sure all the channels you’re on reflect that.

9. Have an electronics clean-out session. Unless you’re a tech junkie, chances are, you’ll have spare cables and connectors lying around. You can organize them by using gear ties and labels or simply declutter them. Unplug all the things that you rarely use, save power, grow money mustache.

10. Reduce your commitments. At the risk of looking like a commitment-phobe, I’m certain that a lot of us have a hard time saying “no” to events that we really don’t feel like going to. I really don’t feel sad, for example, if somebody doesn’t attend my graduation. I find formal ceremonies to be incredibly boring, and while some of them have excellent speakers, I went to a high school where I had to sit through 1,100 names on the stage, and the three-hour ordeal was (mostly) a waste of time. I wouldn’t expect friends and family to be willing to sit through that. We’d find another way to celebrate that is less boring and time consuming.

Becoming a Minimalist Millennial: Finding Yourself Through Decluttering

Blizzard

Blizzard

Millennials love to “find themselves” and talk about “self discovery” and take time to “figure out what they want.” Some millennials achieve this through extended solo travel. Some millennials find themselves through dedicated yoga practice. Some find themselves by starting a business. Or going back to school. Or a fulfilling relationship. Or having a child. Or buying a house. Or changing jobs. Or quitting a job. People talk about “finding their calling,” but that isn’t what this post is about.” When I talk about “finding myself,” I mean it on a more personal level. I mean it in a peeling-back-the-layers-that-make-up-a-person way. We don’t like to think of ourselves as complex, yet we are, thanks to our brains.

As crazy as it sounds, I started to find myself when I began to declutter.

Changes happen so suddenly. One day I was studying for my last final and the next I was completely free. I had already accepted a full time position at my first employer, so all that was left was to move all my stuff back to my parents’ house before hauling it all to Buffalo. Despite the graduation ceremony where we were repeatedly told that the world was beckoning us to make meaningful contributions, I was completely clueless in my protective little university bubble. I had no idea what I wanted my life to look like. Everyone tells you to pursue happiness, but for millennials, they want more than happiness – we want to lead fulfilling lives. The problem arises when everyone around us presents a different picture of what fulfillment looks like.

I spend too much time on social media, but I have learned a thing or two about my generation. A select few seem to know exactly how they want to run their lives after college, and they jump at it from day one. These people are most visible when they eagerly announce via social media when they achieve classic hallmarks of success – advanced degrees, dream jobs, weddings, marriages, relationships, buying their own houses, having babies, and achieving career milestones, soaking up the flood of “likes” and niceties and compliments from friends and family. They usually accompany these announcements with photographic evidence. For fellow millennials who witness the celebrations of these fast trackers, angst tends  to creep up and render us uncertain and unsatisfied, manifested in our tendency to move from place to place, job to job, relationship to relationship, not always certain of where our path will lead, but somehow certain that things will work themselves out. When we feel inadequate as we benchmark our progress against our peers, we feel compelled to justify our lives through less conventional ways, explaining ourselves by displaying other means of living a purposeful or enjoyable life. We travel, volunteer, cook, buy cool stuff, dress up, go out, eat fancy food, and show off our athletic accomplishments. And in so doing, we frantically tell the world that these are perfectly valid things to pursue, even if they are outside the realm of “normal adulthood.” We want to prove to the world that we are proudly unconventional. And if we aren’t doing that, then some of us swiftly criticize the rest of the world for “settling,” or vent our insecurities and injustices to the world in an attempt to say, hey, there is an important problem affecting us (though perhaps not me directly) and something needs to be done.

We outwardly and swiftly fault the world for its shortcomings, but procrastinate taking action to work on ourselves.

Our lives are not necessarily going to look like status quo, but we still want to feel accepted and validated by our peers. It’s a perfectly normal human desire. Anyone who states otherwise is probably in denial. The reality is, there will always be naysayers and there will always be supporters, no matter what path we choose.

Whenever I began to question my path in life, I first turn to my stuff because it is the most visible evidence of choices I’ve made. Items chronicle lives as physical representations of moments, however insignificant. They conjure up memories, like pressing play on a videotape filed away in the depths of our subconscious. I had, for example, a little white teddy bear that I won in third grade. The class had had a naming contest, and whoever’s name was one of the most creative would win the bear. I named the bear Blizzard, and a few weeks after submitting my entry, a lady called me and left me a voicemail (this was a huge deal for third grade me), telling me they loved the name Blizzard and that I could pick up my bear at a local store. Many years later, I found myself looking at this bear, wondering why I held onto it for so long. The memory played in my head so clearly, but it would be so silly for an adult woman to be cuddling a teddy bear from her childhood. No one cares about such a moment in my life, and winning a stuffed animal in third grade isn’t something that I need to broadcast the world. I never quite found a good place to stash it other than my desk or closet. I struggled to get rid of it, because gosh darn it, I named the thing, and it was mine and no one else’s. I concluded that that was a silly reason to keep something.

These collective confrontations with my belongings are a huge part of how I live as a minimalist. Interrogating the physical clutter forces me to confront my mental clutter – the two are intimately tied.

I invite my fellow millennials to do the same, because when we let go of relics of the past, we remind ourselves that our present selves can move forward without anything holding us back. Blizzard probably was not holding me back in a way that an ex-lover’s letter or an oversized antique chair that I despise would. We can live with utmost intention. We ought to thank the past for what it has taught us, then cut the baggage and move on.

Active Minimalist Decluttering: 5 Questions

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Decluttering is different when you’re decluttering as an active minimalist. Whether or not I still love an item and when I last used the item are still important questions, but there is more to  consider if you live an active minimalist philosophy. Below are 5 questions you can ask yourself as you declutter or consider a purchase.

  1. Is this item weighing me down? Item weight for someone who is always moving around becomes more significant. I am a huge fan of minimalist travel and ultralight packing for this reason, as getting from place to place is not just a breeze, but with your speed, you can even create a breeze!
  2. Does this item restrict my movement? Similar to 1, but instead of focusing on weight, we are focusing on size. Every “thing” takes up space, and it’s up to you whether or not the real estate it is occupying is worth the expense of not being able to move, dance, do cartwheels, or whatever your heart desires. A decluttered space or home also gives me room to breathe, just as a boyfriend fit shirt allows my body to move freely with no inhibitions.
  3. Is this item representative of my active philosophy and does it enable me to stick to it? Being active can mean something different for everyone. On this blog, I refer to active in a physical/fitness sense. Thus, it would not make sense for me to keep a comprehensive collection of pencil skirts, but it would make sense for me to keep an ample quantity of workout clothes so I am not always doing laundry.
  4. Is this item “aspirational clutter?” In other words, is this something I keep around just in case I pick up an old hobby again? This recently happened to me with arts and crafts. I used to make clay miniatures, draw anime characters, and scrapbook. Since my interests shifted to circus, fitness, and cycling, I retired those hobbies and the materials that went with them. It was really, really difficult to let go of things I used to be so passionate about, but I’m glad I did it, because it freed me from the angst I felt every time I looked at unused supplies and unfinished projects, wondering when I would pick up a former hobby again. Ultimately, letting go helped me accept and appreciate my new interests – I ended up becoming more passionate about them too.
  5. Is this item hard or time-consuming to maintain? I talked this topic to death already, but it is hard to do things when your stuff is demanding your time. Anything you own is a demand on your time or your mind in some way, so we ought to choose carefully – will a thing truly make my life easier, as its creator claims?

Now, go forth, and declutter with ease.

Minimalist Hair Care Routine

sunset-hair

What is “minimalist hair?” For some, it may mean shaving it all off, getting a buzzcut, or letting it do its thing. For me, it means creating a routine that makes taking care of your hair in an easy, quick, and healthy way while still looking neat and put together. Hair care for a minimalist is simple and does not have to involve cutting all of it off.

(of course, if hair styling is one of your favorite hobbies and brings you rich pleasure and fulfillment…have at it!)

I used to fuss endlessly over my hair. Growing up, I would wash my hair every day with Pantene Pro V, Nexxus, Matrix…you name it. I would blow dry it on high heat, spray it with heat protectant, iron it with a straightener or curler, spray some oil on it, and go about my day. I permed it stick straight every 2-3 years, each perm costing $100-$300. Straight perms reduce the need to style hair – my hair was so straight that it hardly needed brushing. Yet I continued to trim it, bathe it in expensive shampoos that stripped my hair of its natural oils, and blow dry it. I was so versed in hair care that when I was in college, I was the resident hair-stylist among my closest friends when formal events came around. I even knew how to create ringlets with a BaByliss Pro straightener.

When I graduated college and had fewer reasons to dress formally, occasions that prompted me to style my hair and transform my look were greatly reduced. I now realize that overprocessing my hair was a sign that I was never satisfied with my hair – there were too many things I had to do to make it look “nice” to me. Never mind what other people thought – I doubt anyone notices it from one day to the next, and as long as I’m presentable, who really cares?

I stumbled upon Alex Raye’s “Almost Exactly Blog” while researching homemade hair solutions and started following her advice on how to treat my hair like royalty. It has been over a year since I stopped blow-drying my hair, brushing my hair with nylon bristles, straightening/curling my hair with hot irons, perming my hair, layering my hair, and using silicone- and sulfate-based hair products (shampoos, conditioners, hairsprays, gels, etc.). Simplifying my hair routine has saved me a lot of time and money, but more importantly, it saved my hair from a lifetime of distress. When I stopped overprocessing my hair, some magical things happened:

  • It now takes several days for my hair to get noticeably greasy. It definitely got very greasy for a few weeks of not washing as often, but my scalp adjusted its oil production accordingly
  • I don’t have to buy shampoo as often – $$$ saved!
  • My hair is softer, shinier, and less frizzy
  • I’m not losing as many hairs
  • I don’t worry about my hair as much – I’ve accepted its naturally wavy look and I’ve grown to appreciate it in its natural state
  • It takes me less time to get ready in the mornings

I now own only a few things for my hair:

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  • A small hair wrap to pull my hair back when I’m washing my face (Muji hair turban)
  • “low ‘poo” shampoo (I use Shea Moisture– can be found at Target, CVS, Walgreens…)
  • “low ‘poo” conditioner (I use Shea Moisture – can be found at Target, CVS, Walgreens…or you can even use coconut oil!)
  • Boar bristle brush (I splurged on a Mason Pearson pocket boar bristle brush, but an authentic Bass 100% boar bristle brush from Whole Foods does the job too)
  • Plastic wide-tooth comb (any drugstore brand will do; avoid bamboo combs because they don’t hold up well)
  • Hair ties

I trim my hair at my favorite budget barber every few months to clean up the split ends, brush it gently when the oil needs to be redistributed, and wash it every 3-4 days, letting it air dry every time – in fact, I recently decluttered my hair dryer because I hadn’t touched it in over a year. I keep my hair long, but not too long or it will take forever to dry. I don’t layer it so that braiding my hair will be easy and lengths don’t stick out everywhere.

As a result, my hair has never looked or felt healthier than it does today. It feels light because it is not coated in residues from hair product. It has become one less thing for me to worry about. Fancy that!