Minimalism is part of a quest to focus on the essential, and is driven by a desire to unclutter the mind
At first look, I am a First World minimalist porn star—the equivalent of hippies from the mid-20th century seeking India out to find their spiritual selves and cheap pot.
—For close to a year now, I haven’t held a regular job and am on the entrepreneurial path. It allows me to do what I want to do at a time and place of my choosing.
—I’m a Mac fan boy. Yes, it is expensive when compared with Android powered tools. But minimalists appreciate good design and simplicity. To acquire both of these, we invest.
—I own less than 100 things. My wardrobe has fewer than 33 items and is dominated by grey, blue, black and white. I don’t know how these numbers were arrived at. But Zen practitioners like Leo Babauta (www.zenhabits.com) argue that these boundaries inhibit material consumption and free us to follow passion.
—As a corollary, I’m off most social media and must confess to feeling happier because there is less noise to contend with. I rarely watch television. Between my laptop, smartphone and e-book reader, there are only so many screens I can deal with.
—When I travel, all that I need fits into a backpack. I don’t shop for anything except technology. Most of my assets like books, music and information are consumed digitally. Convenient, cheaper and clutter free.
This list on what constitutes my lifestyle can expand to include every minimalist prescription. But a part of my mind argues that my minimalism and the reasons articulated above are specious. Instead, they are functions of compulsion, pragmatism and inertia. Because when I look closer, I see a conflicted soul on whom minimalism doesn’t sit easy. Think a poor boy growing in the poorer quarters of a city where only ragged people go. To him, minimalism is counter-intuitive. But as Art Garfunkel famously said in his prelude to Kathy’s Song at a live concert: “How nice poverty looks in retrospect."
Entrepreneurship was accidental. The walls in my home are white because I don’t have to invest researching what looks best—not Zen-inspired notions of stillness. I own less because I find walking through crowded shopping aisles claustrophobic. I’d much rather my wife did it for me. I’m training for a full marathon because alcohol-driven binges and incessant smoking has taken its toll on my 41-year-old body.
I find television loud and social media littered with rubbish. I invest in technology because I’m passionate about it.
So how did I get to be a poster child who fits every cliché of this 21st century trope?
The answer came to me—in an altogether different conversation and context—from Kuldeep Datay, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. He told me that all behaviour is a function of something simmering deeper. Much thinking later, I concluded all of my actions were driven by a desire to unclutter my mind. Minimalism is part of that quest to focus on the essential. Because as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince, “What is essential to the heart is invisible to the eye".
To seek reinforcement, I sought out Gourav Jaswal, one of my contemporaries. I respect him because I think of him as a person who puts thought into what he does. After various stints in television and print, he took a call to move out of Mumbai to Goa. There, he set up Synapse, a media consulting firm.
To my mind, he could have been part of the “mainstream". He chose to focus on a few things instead—like the quality of his life. Email and telephone interactions with him later, a few things emerged.
Lesson #1: Choose your boundary
Ours is a world where relevance (signals) is outstripped by irrelevance (noise). How measured I am when writing or conversing are things I have control over. But on television or social media, I am at the mercy of the medium or the sender. If irrelevant, this information is distracting. This is not to say all of television and social media is noise. The call I need to take is whether or not I have enough in me to wade through the noise. Much like Gourav, I don’t have it in me. Like him, I have to choose the boundaries I intend to operate within. That is one of the many reasons I quit Facebook.
As he puts it: “Can I walk into a rave club and search for a corner to have a quiet conversation? It is not just futile, but petulant to try and change the rules of an environment everyone seems to enjoy." But, as Datay would argue, it is equally petulant to live hermit-like. You cannot divorce yourself from the world you live in either. That is why I continue to remain on Twitter and maintain a limited profile on Linkedin.
Lesson #2: Choose your place
Gourav moved out of Mumbai because he thought commute times were awful. Everybody who works at Synapse can reach home within 4 to 8 minutes on foot.
“Not living in a big city leads to missed opportunities. Like that of having the spotlight on you, the amplification prominent people, media and platforms provide. However, Indian cities provide a very stark choice. Unlike San Diego, Munich or Singapore, they impose a very specific grid upon you. Only extraordinary money and effort allows you escape that imposition," says Gourav.
“Living as I do, there are far less things I miss than I would if I were living in Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore. I am a thousand miles away from the level of accomplishment I believe I should have," he adds.
Gourav isn’t complaining, because “…the fact that I live in Goa accounts for a ‘fraction’ of the limitations I work with", he says.
Lesson #3: Choose focus
Enjoyment goes hand-in-hand with intense focus. An orgasm, for instance, is unlikely to be an event people do not enjoy or during which they get distracted. This is true of a sportsperson in flow, a musician performing, or a writer absorbed in his work. To achieve the kind of focus where enjoyment is primary and everything peripheral is ignored, practice is essential. The question is, what kind of practice?
To start with, choose “attention-shifting" over “multitasking". The problem with multitasking, says an article on the theme in The New Yorker, is that it supports multiple desires within one person at the same time. “The Web calls us constantly, like a carnival barker, and the machines, instead of keeping us on task, make it easy to get drawn in—and even add their own distractions to the mix. In short: we have built a generation of ‘distraction machines’ that make great feats of concentrated effort harder instead of easier," says the article.
While there are various tools out there, my favourite is Rescue Time (www.rescuetime.com). While a free version is available, the premium edition costs $9 a month. Once downloaded, it works at the back-end. It allows you to define everything you need to achieve and the time you’re willing to allot. The tool allows you to block everything unnecessary. The more you let it run, the more detailed reports it generates of time spent—including reports on when you need downtime.
For instance, I now know I am most distracted mid-week on Thursdays. My attention span dips and I need downtime. Having taken that downtime, my productivity doubles on Fridays.
As the great Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations: “Is it not better to do what is necessary and no more, to limit yourself to what reason demands of a social animal and precisely in the manner reason dictates?... Most of what we say and do is unnecessary anyway; subtract all that lot, and look at the time and contentment you’ll gain."
Charles Assisi is a senior journalist at work on his first entrepreneurial venture that will debut later this year. In the past he has worked in leadership positions at Forbes India and The Times of India. He maintains a personal website at www.audaciter.net.