8 Questions to Help Identify Your Personal Minimalist Essentials

Minimalism is all about essentials.  It's about keeping what's necessary and removing the rest.  It's about identifying what you care about so you can remove everything that distracts you from it.  It's about focusing on what matters and skipping the things that don't.

It's important to remember that what's essential for me might not be essential for you, and vice versa.  In fact, what's essential for me today isn't the same as what I found necessary 10 or 20 years ago, and I'm sure my essentials will change again as life goes on. 

So this isn't a once-and-done proposition.  Which is good, because it makes minimalism useful and adaptable for anyone at any time.  Minimalism is perfect for you.

essentials - egg, toast, coffee for breakfast

Here's the challenge.

We must be thoughtful, honest, and willing to change.  Sometimes those transitions are smooth, and sometimes they aren't.

I loved homeschooling my kids, and I got quite attached to the home library we amassed over the years.  But it was cumbersome and space-stealing, and it wasn't doing anyone any good just sitting there.  After a while, I asked my kids to take what they wanted.  I kept about a dozen favorite volumes, and I gave the rest (and the shelves they lived on) away.  It marked the end of an era for me, so the choice was bittersweet.  But life is so much lighter without the books, and nothing can take away the happy memories of those years.

Will you explore this concept with me?  My goal is to help you figure out your own essentials – what's adding value to your life and what you should let go of.

8 questions to help you uncover your essentials

As you declutter your space, you shouldn't blindly follow anyone's list of guidelines, because your essentials are as unique as you are.  Think of your belongings as tools you need to live comfortably and happily.  With that in mind, you want to ask the following questions.

1.  Have I used this item in the past year?

Your essentials are things you use on a regular basis, such as the plates and bowls that see daily use.  Or the knife and cutting board, skillet and spatula you reach for again and again.  Your preferred jacket, handbag, and comfortable, go-with-nearly-everything shoes.

The things you've stored in out-of-the-way spots probably don't get used regularly, if at all.  Now's the time to question whether they truly belong in your life.

2.  Does this item serve a valuable purpose in my current life?

Many of us hang on to things with plans to use them "someday," but that day never comes.  These items represent dreams and aspirations that for whatever reason we don't make the time or put in the effort to realize.  Simply owning the stuff doesn't fulfill our fantasies, but we don't let go.

When you remove these aspirational items, you make room and time to explore projects that actually excite you.  When I stopped trying to be a pianist and started working at being a singer, suddenly no one had to make me practice.  When I stopped tutoring English and started writing blog posts and books, I no longer yearned for days off.

You'll find that it's so much more satisfying to pursue and gain mastery in one area than it is to have six unexplored ideas hanging over your head.

3.  Is this item a duplicate?

Many times we keep extras "just in case," but never need to use them.  You probably wear sweaters or cardigans when the weather turns chilly, but do you use 20 of them?  Will you use all of the makeup you own before it starts separating and going bad?  Do you actually prepare all eight kinds of pasta in your pantry?

Setting a boundary will help you make decisions.  Decide to keep just 6 (or even 8 or 10) sweaters, choose your favorites, and declutter the rest.  Pick your favorite shade of lipstick and toss the others.  Use up the cavatappi, orecchiette, and radiatori that are cluttering your cabinet and decide to buy only one or two types of pasta at a time.

Which items do you tend to accumulate?  Whether it's an excess of vases, toss pillows, photo frames, or something else, see if you can set a limit, keep your Top Three (or 5 or 10), and let go of what's left.

essentials - yummy veggie plate

4.  How would I feel about living without this item?

I've lived without a washer and dryer, thinking I could manage.  After a year of doing laundry at friends' houses and going to the laundromat, I realized it wasn't sustainable for us.  Now we live where we can have an in-house washer and dryer, and it has made life so much easier.  I don't even mind doing the laundry.

On the other hand, we lived for over 5 years without a TV at all, and for the last 20 years we've only had one as a way to watch DVDs or Blu-ray discs – no cable, satellite, or streaming.  It just isn't important to us.

We live in an area that has long, hot, dry summers, so short-sleeve cotton shirts, sandals, and sunglasses are game-changers.  If you live where it snows, wool layering pieces, a super-warm coat or two, and waterproof boots are must-haves for you.  It might be impossible to live without them.

5.  Would I buy this item today if I didn't already own it?

Your essentials are things you would buy again (and again) in a heartbeat.  This could range from tools you need, such as a phone or laptop, to your just-right brand and cut of jeans.  It might be as necessary as your refrigerator or broom, or a simple preference like your ultimate classic mug.

Some items are irreplaceable, like the maple dresser I inherited from my parents.  It has just the right size and number of drawers for my husband and I, fits perfectly in our bedroom, and I've been dusting it since I was 8.  If it were somehow destroyed I couldn't just buy it again, but I'd want something similar.  It qualifies as "essential."

6.  Does this item align with my goals and values?

If it's your desire to be physically active, you'll need the clothes and gear that support your fitness goals.  If it's important to you to be environmentally conscious, a compost bin, reusable totes, and stainless steel water bottles my be essential for you.

Opera scores and a few items of stage-worthy jewelry and apparel used to be essential for me, but no longer are.  Make sure that when your goals change, what you own changes tooDecluttering doesn't undo your accomplishments.

By only owning items that align with your goals, you're not only simplifying your life but also getting closer the the life you want to lead.
Barefoot Minimalists

7.  Am I keeping this item purely out of guilt or obligation?

Was this item a gift or an inheritance, and even though you don't use it, like it, or even have a good place for it you feel obligated to keep it?  Remember that the donor's intention was probably to show love, kindness, thoughtfulness.  The act of giving already accomplished that, so it's not necessary to keep the item if it has no value for you.  And if it was passed to you with many strings and expectations attached, why should you hold yourself liable to honor them?  The intention wasn't loving, after all.

Sometimes our guilt stems from how much we paid for an object that we haven't used.  Trust me, keeping that item in your closet won't bring the money back.  Learn to recognize what prompts you to purchase what you don't need (aspirations, envy, boredom, insecurity, sale prices, or something else) so you can resist the impulse in the future.  Meanwhile, maybe you can sell the item and recoup some of what you paid.

8.  Can someone else use this item more than I do?

This question helped me give away most of our home library.  Knowing that those children's books would be read and enjoyed by many other kids at my husband's school and the public library made what I had spent to buy the books not a waste, but a gift to others.  The real waste was letting them sit on a shelf as some sort of monument to the past.

The camping equipment you haven't used since all the travel bans in 2020, the bike you never ride anymore, the guitar you never play – maybe someone else will give those things new life.  If they're just taking up space, then you already have enough.  You can let them go.

Not deprivation, but freedom and joy

There are a few things that everyone would find necessary for survival, but identifying your minimalist essentials is a personal journey – a journey toward self-understanding.  That's because the goal of decluttering is not to remove things you use and love, but to discover what adds value to your life and create the space and time for you to enjoy it.

My birthday's on the way.  Would you like to support my work and buy me a coffee?


  1. My husband just sold the digital keyboard he never plays to a 20 something who will get years of enjoyment from it. Yay for both of them.
    Linda Sand


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