How One Question Can Help You Get to Less

I have a friend who was recently inspired to start down the minimalist path.  She has two young children, and has lately been feeling overwhelmed by all of their toys, clothes, and equipment (you know... car seats, strollers, waterproof mattress protectors, high chairs, sippy cups, pacifiers, etc.), as well as by her own wardrobe, kitchen, and many possessions in a large house.

She's a busy lady, so she's been trying to find time to declutter during her children's naps.  But she admitted she's bogged down by the sheer number of things in every nook and cranny of her house and garage, and by the constant decisions about what to keep and what to remove. 

She's having a hard time getting to less.

two children at home

What minimalism is... and what it isn't.

It's easy to dismiss the possibility of minimalism because you don't want to live like a monk, or like a college student backpacking through Asia, or like an ultra-cool hipster in a mostly-empty all-white loft.

But minimalism is simply the realization that a life pared to the essentials leaves you with room, time, energy, and money for whatever you believe to be important, while freeing you from things that crowd and frustrate you, or leave you too busy or too tired for what you'd really like to do.  And minimalism on that basis will look different for me, a 60ish lady with grown children and a husband near retirement, than for my friend with her kids, career, and partner who travels for work.

The basic question

So I suggested that she start asking herself just one question:  "What do we need?"

Now, be thoughtful with your answer, because the question isn't "How much can I afford?"  It isn't "How much can I fit here?" or "If only I had a bigger closet/house/storage area!"  And it definitely isn't "How can I organize this stuff (or my life) better so I can keep (or keep doing) it all?"

  • Retailers and advertisers and every lifestyle magazine and Home and Garden TV show may tell you that you need tableware for every season, an artful gallery wall, and seven designer throw pillows on your sofa.  
  • Fashion mags and celebrity watchers may say you need to follow the trends and wear a different outfit every day of the month.  
  • Toy manufacturers and software designers may convince you your child needs all of their "stimulating" and "educational" products, and every other parent you know may be frantic to get their child the right clothes, classes, activities, tutors, and more.

But what do you need?

How many towels do you need?  How many sets of sheets?  (Parents of young children obviously need more than I do.)  How many spatulas or cooking spoons or clocks or coats or chairs?

You might decide your dishwasher only holds about eight plates, bowls, cups, mugs, and place settings of silverware, so you really don't need to own more than that.  You might decide that you love to bake and decorate cakes for all occasions, so you need all of the gear for doing that, but that you almost never cook with more than a medium-size saucepan, a larger soup/pasta pot, and a 12-inch skillet.  That's all you need.

You might notice that your children play with the same few toys very often, and that they get upset when those items are "lost" (that is, hard to find amidst all of the other toys crowding their play area).  Maybe you'll box up all of the generally-ignored toys, and only bring one back out if your child specifically asks.  After a month or two you may realize that what they have is what they need, and donate the rest.

Inspire a new mindset.

When you ask "What do I need?" you identify the minimum standard that's right for you.  Once you know your minimum standard, there may still be a few things that you want, even if they're not strictly necessary.  You may want a favorite piece of art, or a few special books, or your collection of vintage globes, even if you don't actually need them.  Of course it's your decision what to have in your own home.  But if you're longing for less clutter and more space, less mess and more peace, you'll be able to choose what you need plus what you enjoy and remove all the rest.

You'll keep what you want, but you'll have a different mindset.  Now you'll know that you have plenty, including a few things you don't absolutely need.  Instead of being constantly tempted to acquire more, you'll have good reason to believe that you already live with abundance.

In the end, you'll have a home and a schedule that have been transformed.  Instead of disorderly drawers, crammed closets, and cluttered corners, you'll have openness and room to breathe.  At the end of each day, you'll have more time to relax or to work on a passion project rather than frantically and hopelessly trying to manage all of your stuff.

Ask yourself this life-changing question, inserting anything you like (shirts, shampoos, or Sharpies; credit cards, volunteer commitments, etc.):

"How many _______ do I need?"

You'll find it easier to get to less.

Related article: How Many Tee Shirts Should a Minimalist Own?

Updated June 2023


  1. I really enjoy the aspect of what I need vs what I have room for. Thinking of my kitchen and my baking goods-pans, pie plates, bread pans, cookie sheet, you get the idea. You have me thinking about removing all and bring back what is used as I use it. Brilliant!
    Thank you for a new perspective. I’m enjoying your blog and have really enjoyed your books!!!

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad you're finding the blog and books useful!

  2. I have accomplished much in my minimalism journey, except, my children's art/school work when they were small. Any suggestions? Thank you for all you words of encouragement!🙂

    1. Hello, and thanks for reading and commenting! I personally displayed some of my children's art/school work on a bulletin board for a month or so, then maybe put one item from that month into a keepsake box. At the end of the school year, I'd look at the saved things once again and keep 2-3 really special, representative items. When my kids finished high school, I had a manageable, curated scrapbook of their creations to give to them (I think both of them have kept those scrapbooks). Today I might take more photos of their things and archive them that way, but in my experience most people look at those digital photos less often than they might dig out one scrapbook (say on a winter afternoon, snuggled with their own kids). If you're never going to look at it, it's not very special, is it? So then it just becomes clutter.


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