3 Questions to Help You Recover Your Minimalist Motivation

In the busyness of everyday life, in the middle of our consumerist culture, it's possible to get complacent and careless about our minimalist goals.  I've been practicing minimalism for almost 30 years, but sometimes I get off track too.  So how do we rediscover the conviction and enthusiasm we felt when we first started on the minimalist path?

The following questions have helped me stop and take a breath to consider what really matters to me, and remove the things that don't.

the path

3 back-to-basics questions

1.  What would I miss?

Blogger and podcaster Emily McDermott calls this question "the disaster exercise."

Imagine you're on vacation.  You have your purse, cell phone, wedding ring, medications, a useful capsule wardrobe, and a couple of personal items.  Your phone rings, and it's your neighbor telling you your house has burned down.

You have ten seconds to list the three most important things you would miss.  Go.

Look at your list.  What matters to you?  Are you surprised by the answers?  Consider all you wouldn't miss.  This exercise should enlighten you.

And now it's time for some action.  What are you doing to preserve those important items in case something happens to them?  Do you need to scan physical photos?  Make a video of yourself holding (or next to) an important item as you tell about the memories and events connected with it?  A 32G USB flash drive* doesn't cost much, holds a ton of data, is easy to update and share, and is super-portable.

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

One more thing to think about:  We know that clutter isn't neutral.  It's implicated in problems of stress, anxiety, overwhelm, waste, debt, obesity, depression, and more.  Does answering this question make it easier for you to let go of items that didn't make the list?

2.  How would I feel if this item simply blew up or disappeared?

This question comes from The Minimalists, and it's perfect for items you've inherited or been given that aren't meaningful to you.  If your answer is "I'm so relieved!" not only does that indicate that you might as well declutter the thing today, but it also helps you understand why you've hung on for so long.

  • You feel guilty.  It belonged to dear Aunt Faye, or your son bought it for you, or it's an old wedding favor.  News flash:  You've carried the guilt of not liking or using it for long enough.

  • You feel responsible.  It cost a lot, so you're obligated to get your money's-worth.  Alas, it sits at the back of a closet, unused.  Truth:  You've carried the responsibility to make good on your purchase for long enough. 

  • You feel fear.  "Maybe I'll need it someday" or "Grandpa wouldn't like it if I didn't take care of his favorite fishing tackle."  It hasn't been useful so far, and Grandpa wouldn't want you to be burdened by his old stuff.  (And if he would, you have even less reason to honor him.)  Remember:  You've carried the fear of being in need or not making everyone happy for long enough.

Letting go doesn't erase the memories inside you.  It doesn't erase the love displayed by the original gift experience.  Letting go simply allows you to move forward into a hopeful future.

3.  If I were to pass away today, what would my loved ones say at my funeral?

We don't like to think about the end of our lives, but doing so is a good way to assess whether we're living the way we want to live.

When we say that our spouse and kids are the most important things in our lives, is that what our everyday actions are showing?  What will your kids remember about you?

  • "Mom always said those three little words... 'Just a minute.'"
  • "Mom was always busy... on her phone."
  • "When we asked Mom how she was doing, her answer was usually... a complaint."

We say our faith matters.  Our health.  Our purpose.  But is this reflected in what we do every day?  Are we so busy with our stuff and our shopping, our committees and our side hustle and the news, that we can't be the person we really want to be?

And will our loved ones associate us most with our hobbies and collections, or with the ways we loved and listened and taught them?  I sure don't want my books or my English blue and white ironstone to be the main things people associate with me.

Now is the time to make decisions that will relieve our loved ones from having to deal with the burden of our stuff.  Keep what you use and enjoy, but start downsizing the rest.

Question the status quo.

Practicing minimalism means that we have to buck the trends and thoughtfully question what we buy, keep, and do.  Imagine what purpose you might find for your life if you removed everything that's holding you back!  That alone may help you rediscover your motivation on the the minimalist path.

Looking for more minimalist inspiration?  Seeking that just right point of "enough"?  My book Minimalism A to Z: Strategies for a Simpler, Joyful Life (part of my Minimalist Basics series) contains practical ideas and thoughtful questions to help you get there.  

Much more than tidying up, minimalism helps you find the life you want... with less to distract you from it.


  1. My computer, my TravelScoot, and my touch lamps. Except I would probably have the first two with me. I do like being able to turn on my lamps by just touching them without having to fumble for a switch, though. Those lamps are one of the few things I kept when we sold nearly everything we owned to move into a small motorhome back in 2008.
    Linda Sand

  2. I always learn something from every post of yours, Karen, and today's is no exception. I do appreciate your advice on not hanging on to THINGS. I've got to be real with myself about all the memories in the plastic boxes in my spare room closet. Oh, yes, they're neat enough, but there are still way too many letters, greeting cards, maps, brochures, school papers, clippings, etc., etc. And then there are the (perhaps thousands?) of photos in more boxes. I do have some kind of irrational fear that if I get rid of these items, that the memories will disappear along with them. I've asked my kids (all mid-40s and older) if they want their things from time to time, but they show little interest. I'm 75 years old and I have little mementos that my mom saved for me from my childhood, which I love and look at from time to time, but today's generation just doesn't seem to care about the past. It feels rather sad to me that there may be nothing left for my children and grandchildren to appreciate from the past. I guess I'm afraid I'll feel guilty if I throw out all the mementos. Already, the kids don't remember their growing-up years with the detail that I remember mine. How will they do it without any reminders? Maybe it's not up to me to be responsible for all that. Sigh.

    1. Kay, would you enjoy putting together a small (shoe-size) box of mementos for each of your children? Or perhaps make a small scrapbook for each (or a photo album -- you could upload photos to a service like Shutterfly and have them print and bind a book)? You said you look at your own childhood mementos from time to time -- how many are we talking about? "Thousands" (which you mention) may just be too overwhelming -- feel like a burden instead of something fun to look at every once in a while. On the other hand, a half dozen from each year until they moved out might be doable and very special.

      The other thing I find important about keeping memories alive is telling the stories. My kids know stories about my parents that I've told them -- some from their own childhoods that they told me and my siblings when we were growing up. Their father and I often tell our grandsons about things we did when we were younger, and experiences of their mom and uncle from when they were little. Their mom and uncle join in with what they remember (sometimes different from what I recall, LOL). The stories bring us together as a family, and keep memories stronger for everyone. They're almost more important than the pictures, etc.

      I admit I have three scrapbooks of pictures going back to before I was born. I also have a shoe-size box of letters and cards -- some my kids made, some my parents/grandparents/aunts and uncles wrote, some from my husband. Just a few things -- maybe 30-40 pieces. Easy to look through when I feel like it. When I die, my kids can do what they want with them. But I don't think I'm leaving them boxes and boxes of things they'll feel guilty about either going through and maybe keeping, or just tossing because it's all too much. It took my husband and his brothers 2 years to clean out their parents' home, and their mother took a bunch of boxes with her when she downsized and moved across the street from his older brother for her "twilight years." Those will still have to be sorted someday.

      Anyway, the "fear" you mention may be yours alone, though if you present your kids with a small, curated selection of keepsakes they may actually be happy to have them. Just a thought.


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