The Minimalist’s Secret: Waste is Everywhere

Sometimes life teaches us its most crucial lessons in peculiar ways. Like for instance, the time I learned about minimalism after someone broke in and robbed my apartment.

One day while my roommates and I were out, someone broke into the apartment and stole thousands of dollars worth of our belongings. It was a challenging and humbling experience, especially after the police came, looked around, shrugged their shoulders, and left.

As a broke college student, I didn’t own much of any value. Even so, someone stole most of my electronics, appliances, and even a bottle of cologne. I was heartbroken.

But here’s the weird thing. 

When it came time to rebuild what I had lost, I realized there was a lot of it I didn’t miss. In the face of losing so many of my things and facing the decision whether to rebuy them, I decided in a surprising number of cases that I was all set.

It took this unpleasant experience for me to reset and start reevaluating the role of material things in my life.

There’s Waste in Everything

Controversially enough, I wouldn’t recommend experiencing burglary. Even so, this unfortunate experience gave me a rare opportunity to change my perspective.

Where there’s adversity, there’s usually an opportunity to learn, adapt, and grow. Through this particular adversity, I learned something about myself and the objects in my life. I realized I had things all around me that weren’t meaningfully contributing to my life. These things served no functional purpose, brought no meaningful joy, nor did they earn their place in any other way.

This trend went far beyond the physical things in my apartment. There were appointments in my day, expenses in my budget, relationships in my life — all of them consistently taking more from me than they gave in return.

Losing most of the possessions I owned and deciding what to replace forced me to think like a minimalist. To think like a minimalist is to realize that every resource we have — our time, money, physical space, and mental and physical energy — is limited. From there, it became a personal mission to use these resources more meaningfully.

Waste: The Omnipresent Opportunity

Pretend everything in your life — your possessions, activities, and relationships – exists inside a tote bag. Now, if someone flipped that tote bag over and shook everything out, what would you fight to get back?

Likely, the clarity of that problematic situation would highlight the small number of elements that radiate with immense significance to you. At the same time, most everything else would readily fall by the wayside.

Clutter doesn’t just happen with physical stuff; it’s everywhere. So much in life continues to take up space solely on the merit of its always having been there. The scarcity mindset points us all to a life that is too full for a peaceful and prosperous existence.

I wouldn’t have chosen to get rid of the things I lost. I would have said that they were all essential to me. But the harsh experience made it clear that wasn’t the case. Instead, it highlighted that I was surrounded by waste, and by extension, opportunity.

Where there’s waste, there is an opportunity to swap it out for something better: 

  • Remove clutter in favor of something cherished > minimalism
  • Recycle or re-use materials instead of wasting them > sustainability 
  • Make intentional choices with our time instead of wasting it > productivity
  • Save money to build wealth instead of wasting it > frugality

And remember that something else doesn’t always have to be something else. Free space/time/money/energy, just for its own sake, is massively underrated.

There’s waste everywhere, and that is excellent news. But I didn’t notice much of my clutter until someone swiped it from under my nose. So, what can we do to identify waste in our lives?

Looking to the Lean Methodology

Remember that life can teach you lessons in the weirdest ways if you know how to listen. For example, the manufacturing world might have a crucial lesson or two for us when it comes to reducing waste.

Manufacturing organizations utilize every resource available to them. They create massive input-output asymmetry through constant innovation, and they continually optimize their approach. And recently, much of the industry has done so using a methodology known as lean manufacturing. 

In essence, lean is a culture and a mindset in which workers constantly seek out waste. They see waste, not as an enemy or a problem per se. They acknowledge that it is inherent in everything, and as such, everything has the opportunity for improvement.

Companies that adopt lean principles almost unilaterally experience massive results, from improved productivity and rising profits to increased worker satisfaction.

Fighting Waste in the Wild

Fortunately for us, the value of lean principles doesn’t end at the doorstep of the manufacturing floor. It has evolved into new forms as more industries realize the importance of cutting out waste. Software development and startup culture, for instance.

It’s easy to see the value of a particular methodology on the massive scale of an established corporation, but lean is no less effective on an individual level. You can think with a lean mindset throughout your life and reap the ongoing rewards.

Adopting the Lean Perspective

The most basic lean principle is that there is inherent waste in everything and that waste is always an opportunity for improvement.

You can quickly and easily adopt this thinking into your own life by stopping yourself periodically, wherever you may be, and asking, “where is the waste here?” What is going on right now, that is wasting your time, money, or space? And would you feel happier or be more successful by exchanging that waste for something else?

As with so many personal growth efforts, it always helps to start by asking yourself critical questions. Soon, you may find that looking for waste feels exciting, or you get a jolt of delight when you identify another clutter point. With this, you reinforce the questioning habit and strengthen your ability to capitalize on the abundant waste opportunity.

Whatever you’re looking for more of — be that time, money, space, freedom, or joy — you already have the resources you need. All it takes is to start looking around and questioning more. With that, you’ll be able to cut out waste more effectively with time and bring back more of what you have to attract more of what you really want and need.

You can even treat it like a game. It’s an easter egg hunt; inside every little plastic egg is a bit more of you — your time, your space, your money, your life.

Turning Waste Into Possibilities

Waste is everywhere, and that’s okay. 

If you treat waste as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, you’ll be able to capitalize on it. The excess all around creates countless chances to reclaim more of your life and resources for yourself and what you deem most important. 

Approaching this effort with a lean mindset will help you to build this practice up as a habit and have fun watching yourself grow through it.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

14 thoughts on “The Minimalist’s Secret: Waste is Everywhere”

  1. Good approach towards minimalism. Every issue or problem is not a stop sign. It can be a starting point for something better. The transition you did towards minimalistic life is wonderful.

  2. Excellent read! Great way to understand minimalism – a helpful way to look at all the “stuff” around me. So true that “too much” can be overwhelming and now you give a way to look at the “too much” and see what could be removed.

  3. Oh wow, what an opener! lol, I like the way you write, it is very inviting, informative and funny! This article is definitely a wake-up call for me and how much I care about my possessions. While in college, I used to spend so much money on shoes and clothes, and this just made me think what if I didn’t have all of those things tomorrow or what if I had no use for them now. What then? It makes you think and really analyze your situation.

    • Thanks for the feedback Josie, I’m glad you liked it! I think it’s hard for all of us to answer the question “what do I want to get rid of?” But when the scenario is flipped and it’s more about what we want to put back, it gives a new sort of clarity.

  4. You’ve indirectly touched on the principle of reframing here as well, which has been a great tool for me. The less we see things as obstacles and problems, ie waste and clutter, and instead think ‘how can I make this better?’, the more streamlined life tends to be. Great piece!

    • Yes, that’s exactly what I was going for! That waste is everywhere, but that’s only a problem if we treat waste as a bad word. If we instead treat it as something positive, as an opportunity, then we can embrace the idea that we’re surrounded with opportunity!

  5. This is such a tragic event. But, I love to hear how you turned this experience into a positive one.

    Material items can be replaced but often times its items that we don’t need or really just don’t hold enough value.

    This makes me appreciate the things that matter the most. For me, it’s pictures, old blankets, my teapots that have been passed down to me. Definitely family items with sentimental values.

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. We all should minimalize and rethink the value of the items surrounding us.

    xo Erica

    • Thank you! And don’t worry – it sucked, but I’m okay with it now.

      It’s great that you even know which types of things matter to you the most. This is always a huge step in understanding our own form of minimalism. And old blankets and teapots are so interesting, I’m glad you love them so much!


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