There are over 300,000 items in the average household, statistics cite. Dubai resident Gajanan Shelvankar grimaces when I quote that number to him. It’s a fitting reaction considering that the total number of items he owns is 42. Oh, 41 now — he sold his car just a while ago.
As counting challenges go, you can’t really beat that.
It’s been just a few years since the head of digital at an advertising firm in Dubai slowly chipped away at his share of thousands of items he had accumulated over decades, binning some, giving away a few. The result was ‘a deep clarity, a deeper focus, almost negligible stress, and so much time and money left over,’ he says.
Decluttering, simplifying, anti-hoarding… call it what you may but there’s no denying that minimalism is now all the rage. It’s a fairly simple concept at the heart of it; strip away the bark of life’s excesses and you get to the root of all that’s important – be it relationships, health, career, happiness or growth. In other words, possessions weigh you down, mentally and physically.
Marie Kondo may have brought the mandate on minimalism into razor-sharp focus, taking the world by storm more recently, but US-based Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, known as The Minimalists, have been professing this for some years, becoming lifestyle gurus to some 20 million with their minimalism website, books, podcasts and films.
Picking up the thread, more and more bloggers are showcasing a penchant for chronicling their less-is-more efforts. Suddenly, getting back to the basics never sounded so trendy. And no, minimal isn’t a term you can swap with boring any more.
But for all its newfound fame, minimalism is hardly a new practice. Years in the making, it only came into the mainstream recently. Discontented with the status quo, people worldwide are clearing out cabinets – and lives. More than just a decorating style, for its proponents it’s more than a trend that only rich people can buy into – and definitely more than an Instagram hashtag. Living with less means living a greener, sustainable lifestyle, say advocates. Even fashion has bought into the promise minimalism holds, with magazines espousing unfussy fabrics, colours and silhouettes. The mantra, it appears, is to remain uncomplicated in everything.
Minimalism might have started as an abstract expressionism, but it is now a way of life for many. And it’s a theme that has been resonating among UAE’s residents, too, who are increasingly choosing to free themselves from the shackles of ever-dominant consumerism.
Take Abu Dhabi’s Jana Xiolier. Aspiring minimalists might have a hard time getting their heads around this, but the empty-space junkie now keeps her closets and wardrobes empty. ‘Everything I have is in open storage on tables or shelves because I like to see what I have so that I don’t forget and end up buying more things,’ the 31-year-old mother of three from Trinidad and Tobago says. ‘We only use the cupboard to hide things from the kids.’
Unlike most minimalists who jump on the bandwagon as adults, Jana, a homemaker, says her journey into minimalism started at a very early age ‘in fragments. You get little glimpses that you are a minimalist all throughout your life,’ she says. ‘When I was a child I never understood the point of wall pictures or fake flowers, for example. The only empty room in our house was the prayer room and I used to sneak in there at night with pillows and sleep there. I never liked beds – sleeping on the floor always seemed more natural and comfortable.’
Having indulged in a minimalist lifestyle since then, albeit unknowingly, Jana says she discovered the word minimalism after moving to the UAE four years ago. ‘We hired a helper who used to move all of our furniture out of the living room and into the hallway and then mop the floors, before putting the furniture back. Back then I had a rug, a coffee table, a very light couch, fans and lots of kids’ things like a baby swing, bouncer, jumperoo, walker, play pen.... Whenever she moved the furniture and things, I remember looking at the empty room and thinking, this is so peaceful. This is perfect.’
Soon Jana, who is married to Matthias, a geologist, started hearing herself say things like: "Let’s not put this back, we don’t really use it anyway".
The first to go was the rug. Next went lots of kids’ toys, then more and more knick-knacks.
Quite like many inductees into minimalism, the family at first were reluctant to junk the stuff they did not want – including the cold-weather clothes they’d brought during their move from the Netherlands – preferring to store it all under the staircase. The clutter stayed there for a year.
But when her house help left, Jana decided to bring about a change in the way she lived, too. ‘I realised less things meant fewer items to clean. With less plates, you have more space in the kitchen; with less toys you have less to put away after the kids finish playing. So I downsized and became a minimalist. I got rid of everything under the staircase and all of the other little things that we tend to hold on to but never really use.’
The exercise seems to have paid off. ‘Today, we live in a home that is much easier to clean and so we are happier mentally,’ she says.
Unlike Jana, Gajanan Shelvankar entered minimalism not through sprucing up closets and cabinets but by decluttering his finances. Born and raised in the UAE, the 35-year-old had a clutch of credit cards and loans that he had signed up for since he started working in 2007 right after graduation.
‘I did some crazy things,’ admits the 35-year-old Indian. ‘I owned a lot of things – lots of phones, lots of small gadgets...’ At one point he had three laptops, a desktop, and three mobile phones. Shopping sprees at the China stall at Global Village were a much-loved pastime.
But it all came to a head in 2011 — when he found his debt stood at about
Gajanan decided that enough was enough. ‘I’d gone above the limits,’ he says, as we sit in an apartment in Bur Dubai where he has rented out a little corner in the living room – enough space to hold the 41 things he now owns. ‘I used to get more calls from banks than anyone else; I was in a cycle of late payments. So I slowly started cutting back on any expense I could, and started repaying my debts.’
He didn’t know it then, but he’d already set off on a journey that was less about short-term-debt-clearance and more long-term lifestyle, continuing much after he’d achieved financial stability again.
‘I’d been researching about snowballing debts. Everyone kept advising I need to reduce spending. But beyond cutting down on purchases of non-essential products, food and petrol, I couldn’t see how I could do anything more.’ That was, until he came across a video by Fumio Sasaki. ‘That changed everything,’ he says.
Fumio is the lesser-known Japanese counterpart of Marie Kondo — following through perfectly on the Zen Buddhist less-is-more philosophy. The key principles? ‘No attachments and a non-stressful life centred around family,’ Gajanan says. That led him to The Minimalists. ‘I was soon listening to their podcasts on minimalism.’ At just about that time he read about Jana and her minimalism efforts in the UAE. ‘It was great to know it wasn’t a lifestyle only being practised internationally!’
So Gajanan got a few small boxes – one each to hold his toiletries, kitchen equipments, bedroom stuff, and other mundane things of daily use. Whenever he needed something, he would fish it out from the dedicated box. ‘After a month I decided that what I didn’t use, I’d lose.’
For clothes, he used the hanger trick – turning around hangers so the hooks were pointing towards him. Clothes worn would go back with the hook the normal way. At the end of the month, clothes from hangers still facing the wrong way – all the untouched ones – had to go.
But instead of discarding unused or unnecessary stuff, Gajanan started giving away them away via Facebook group Freecycle Abu Dhabi, a group that operates on a strict no-money policy, thereby earning karma points. Over the next few weeks he gave away almost everything he was not using regularly.
He admits that the process wasn’t a walk in the park. ‘I gave away some good clothes, a fancy grinder, rare Japanese handcrafted knives... Giving my laptop away was I guess the hardest. But I gave it to a Filipino maid – and I felt great.’
In December last year he paid off the last of his debts. He sold his olive green Suzuki Swift: ‘there were only three of those made and I was sad to see it go, but I’d rather walk – less stress, no repairs, maintenance etc.’ His monthly spend is now Dh3,000, a huge feat considering his income is over Dh15,000. ‘I do my own laundry at a laundromat in JLT. I go to the farmers’ market to buy produce at wholesale rates. I eat less meat so leave a smaller carbon footprint. I even use the minimalism policy when it comes to friends – junking people who give you stress, keeping the ones you bond with and whose company you enjoy!’
Made co-admin of Facebook group ‘Minimalism UAE Minimalist lifestyle’, which Jana had started in 2016, Gajanan also started a group called Debt-Free UAE where he tries to help those struggling with debt along with recommending a shift to a minimalist lifestyle. ‘I don’t say what banks say, to pay off the minimum amount over many months – it’s a cycle. Get rid of consumerism first,’ he advises.
Stepping off the consumption treadmill can be child’s play — going by Jana’s experience, at least. She speaks of how her kids coped even better than her and her husband. ‘I had tried to get my oldest daughter to help me with cleaning, and she refused. So I told her I was going to give away or throw anything she didn’t clean. I was quite surprised when she asked me to go ahead. We often think kids are attached to stuff, when it is us who are attached. We are attached to the trouble we went through to buy them, and the money we spent.’
Like Jana, Dubai-based Indonesian lawyer Susy Aryani Singgih is another mother who disproves the narrative that minimalism is out of reach to those with children – especially as she started breaking away from consumerism when she was expecting her daughter Talia, who is now two. ‘There was a major shift in my priorities, she says. ‘Motherhood awakens the sense that happiness is not defined by your possessions.’
So she decided to dispose of items gradually — and responsibly. ‘I ended up either giving to charity and to those in need, or selling them.’ And she found that the more she let go, the more she wanted to let go.
But Susy says her lifestyle change was immediately met with surprise from friends and family. ‘There is a stigma, especially in Asian society, in selling or disposing of your belongings. It signifies hardship. For me it’s about getting rid of the things I simply DON’T need to make room for the things I DO need and cherish. When people understand my philosophy, they applaud the change. People often fill certain voids in their life with material things. Living a life with intention makes it more satisfying.’
The maxim that minimalism is more about freeing yourself mentally and less about bidding goodbye to possessions plays out in the case of American author Courtney Carver. The creator of bemorewithless.com and minimalist fashion challenge Project 333 started her simplicity journey after a multiple sclerosis diagnosis in 2006, when she had to ‘eliminate as much stress as possible from my life to live well with MS.’
As a minimalism maven now, Courtney says not noticing any of the problems caused by owning too much is actually the biggest problem. ‘Too much clutter can cause anxiety and other mental and physical health issues, damage our relationships, and stand in the way of knowing what we really want out of life. Unfortunately, clutter usually builds so slowly that we don’t notice the side effects. Eventually, even when things are out of control, it’s hard to tie it back to stuff/clutter because it feels normal. It becomes so distracting and overwhelming for some that it is impossible to see the connection of clutter to stress.’
Project 333 was Courtney’s response in 2010 to her cluttered closet – her plan was to dress with 33 items or less for 3 months, including clothes, jewellery, accessories and shoes. Nine years later, it’s a project that’s still going strong. It has since been featured in O magazine, on CNN, and the BBC among others. The benefits people experience have little to do with clothes or closets though – ‘as they try the challenge, and discover what "enough" means to them, they experience less decision fatigue, and they are motivated to simplify in other areas of their lives,’ Courtney says.
Does Courtney espouse one Marie Kondo style ‘big change’ event as your entry into minimalism? No, she believes a slow and steady approach is more sustainable. ‘Every big change is the result of hundreds of tiny steps. It makes for change that lasts.’
Susy, however, warns those who might be looking to embrace minimalism in the UAE to expect a tough ride. ‘It will not be easy for Dubai-ites to downsize their lives as the city allows you to live in excess. We have become a society of consumption. Instead of acquiring what we need, the focus is on what we want. Reality TV and the internet applauds those who live in excess. It has become a measurement of success. Minimalism is therefore a difficult philosophy to adopt, not only here, but globally.’
Gajanan is more optimistic. ‘Just dive in’ he recommends. ‘Do the 30-day exercise. Do a bit of research – minimalism has branches. Choose which part of your life you want minimalised – financials, family... Just keep an open mind. It’s not going to be easy, but the stress-free life is worth it all.’
It sure seems worth it. As Courtney puts it, living with less only means more of actual living.