The simple life: how to become a messy minimalist

Minimalism Rosee Woodland blankets
Published: May 17, 2017 at 11:12 am

If you want to embrace mindfulness you can start with simple steps at home. We’re not talking Marie Kondo and keeping your sock drawer tidy, living a minimalist life is more about prioritisation; making room for the things that are truly important to you. Rosee Woodland suggests changing patterns in your daily routine or editing your environment to make a difference.


Messy minimalism explained…

“We were never meant to live life accumulating stuff. We were meant to live simply enjoying the experiences of life, the people of life, and the journey of life - not the things of life.” So says minimalist Joshua Becker in his best-seller Simplify, neatly summing up a philosophy that’s recently been popularised by the Insta-friendly cult of Konmari. Marie Kondo’s hugely successful book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2014) has launched a whole wave of new minimalists, but her quest for tidiness is not the be all and end all of minimalism.

In fact, you can be a messy minimalist if you want to, because at its heart minimalism is about more than perfectly folded t-shirts and paring back possessions. It’s about editing your life as a whole to make space for the experiences, the people, the journey. With our busy jobs, weekend commitments and online personas it can feel like there is never enough money or time to do the things we really want to do. Taking the minimalist path can give you what’s really missing. Because owning a big house to store all your stuff and driving a fancy car may be costing you way more than you think.

I first became interested in minimalism in 2010. My husband and I had moved from a cramped apartment to a two-bedroom house just before our daughter was born. We were so excited to have more room, but by her first birthday our new home was already packed to the rafters and I was starting to feel claustrophobic.

A lifelong neat freak, I seemed to spend all my spare time tidying, and yet the house was always a mess. Formerly an avid swimmer, I had no energy to exercise and had lost touch with pre-motherhood friends. I was also permanently skint. Then I read a rather sarcastic article about minimalism, that, despite its cynical tone, really struck a chord.

My husband is one of those guys who owns two pairs of shoes, a few books and not much else. If someone gives him a birthday present he doesn’t like he sells it without a second thought. By contrast, I owned 50 pairs of shoes and masses of clothes, books, CDs, make-up and jewellery. As a knitwear designer I was also the proud owner of a huge yarn stash. I examined my situation with new eyes and realised that nearly everything cluttering our little house was mine. I had created this problem.

Never one for half-measures, I declared myself a minimalist the same weekend and set about getting rid of anything that, to paraphrase designer William Morris, was neither beautiful nor useful. Room by room I went through the house, making piles to sell, donate, recycle and trash. Initially it was hard to let go of things I had paid for, but I found the more I got rid of the easier it became.

I was shocked by all the unwanted detritus I had accumulated. Make-up I never wore. Clothes that no longer fitted. Books I’d read already, or would never read. CDs I never played. A decade’s worth of paperwork. I couldn’t believe how much space it all took up. Sentimental stuff was harder to ditch. I didn’t bin everything, but made a rule that it all had to fit into one box.

By the time I’d done the first edit, so much was gone I was left with empty bookcases and chests of drawers - they went too. For a while, that was enough. My new life as a minimalist felt amazing. I no longer spent hours tidying. Getting dressed took no thought as I liked all my remaining clothes and they all fitted me. Our living room was no longer dominated by a giant bookcase, packed with books I had thought ‘said something’ about me. I felt like a new person. I could breathe.

The time I saved no longer tidying up or dusting stuff I didn’t need was new free time - time to spend knitting, sewing, baking, gardening, or, most importantly, playing with my little girl. It was brilliant! I became an evangelist for all things minimalism. Finally, I started swimming again.

Minimalism Rosee Woodland swimming

Create time for things you care about

I was now reading a few blogs about minimalism and delved deeper into the subject. Minimalism wasn’t just about possessions. It was about editing your whole life to create time for the things you cared about.

Reducing unnecessary decision-making was a subject that came up time and time again. Saatchi + Saatchi art director Mathilda Kahl ditched decision-making about work clothes in 2012. Frustrated by having to waste creative energy on what she was wearing to her New York office each morning, she decided to create a work uniform of white silk shirt, black cigarette pants and a black leather string tie.

Kahl, who has since left New York to return to her native Sweden, told Calm the benefits of a single work outfit were surprising. “First and foremost it freed up my mind. It wasn't until I didn't have to think about my outfit that I actually understood how much time and energy I had spent on it before. With the work outfit I have an easier time to fully dedicate myself to what I really care about, and it’s the best gift I have ever given myself.

“I haven't started my new job yet but I plan on wearing my work uniform, of course. I actually can't wait to wear it. It gives me that instant focus-mode and has become a natural part of my creative process.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is another fan of a self-imposed uniform, sporting a grey t-shirt, hoodie and jeans daily. And US President Barack Obama recently admitted to Vanity Fair that he only wears blue or grey suits, saying: "I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make." Happily, you don’t have to be the most powerful man in the world to benefit from this kind of life-editing.

I’m not a big TV watcher and have never liked soaps or quizzes, but since becoming a minimalist I have completely stopped watching reality shows and the news. I’ve unsubscribed from countless email newsletters and refuse free papers on my commute, reading novels instead. And if I start reading a book and can’t get into it, I just stop half way through, give it to charity and try a different one instead.

These changes in how I spend my waking hours are what really make me a minimalist. Being strict about what I let into my life keeps me in charge of my free time, and because I only do the things I really love, I feel like I’m getting much more out of every day.

Six years on I’m a very different person from that isolated new mum living in a rat-packed house. My possessions still accumulate if I’m not careful, so I have regular clear outs. If I think I ‘need’ something I ask myself how many hours of my precious life I’m willing to work to pay for it - often that’s enough to make me decide I don’t need it after all.

My clothes might not look minimalist as I love print and pattern, but they fit into a surprisingly small wardrobe. And I no longer put on make-up for work - I’d rather use the time to eat breakfast with my daughter. Instead of feeling depressed and too tired to exercise, I am training to be a swim coach, do yoga regularly and walk about 30 miles a week. I have two pairs of jeans and that feels like plenty. I haven’t watched the news more than a handful of times in six years.

But being a minimalist doesn’t mean I own nothing of anything or that I have no bad habits. Social media remains a big time suck that I battle to control. I got rid of two-thirds of my yarn in my initial clear out, but a third of a lot is still quite a lot! Having a kid means my house is often messy. I might not have a microwave or food processor any more, but I have a lot of cake tins, because I like baking rainbow cakes.

And that’s all OK because I’m not perfect, and I don’t need to be a minimalist in all aspects of my existence. Editing the bits of my life I care less about means I can give more physical space, thought and time to the things that matter to me.

Strangers who see me knitting in public, which I often do if I’m waiting for a bus or train, frequently say to me ‘I wish I had the time to learn’. I say, you have got that time. But you can’t have everything. So stop going shopping, switch off the TV, and go and do something less boring instead.

About the author

Rosee Woodland is a freelance journalist, knitwear designer and outdoor swimmer. She lives in Bristol with her husband, daughter and dog, in a small house that makes her very happy. You can read about her swimming adventures at and find more of her work at

Minimalism Rosee_Woodland

Five tips for fledgling minimalists

  1. Having a big clear out can seem really daunting, so take it slowly. Use sites like eBay and Gumtree to sell anything decent but accept you’ll almost never get back what you originally paid. It’s better to have £20 in your pocket rather than a £50 jacket you never wear. And it’s better to give something unwanted away than have it taking up physical and mental space.
  2. You don’t have to follow the herd. It’s OK to say no to the school bake sale, doing overtime, or taking your kids to endless extra-curricular activities - if there’s something more important to you and your family do that instead and don’t apologise for it.
  3. Mute TV and radio adverts. You don’t need to upgrade your phone/ TV/ car just because there’s something ‘better’ available. Try to cut work-related costs like take- away lunches, coffees and expensive work clothes - you may save enough to be able to work less or switch to a more rewarding, lower paid job.
  4. When you do buy, go for quality. Cheap throw-away products are bad for the planet and will drain your bank account without you even noticing. Ask for food, wine, tickets, or a day out if someone wants to buy you a present, or suggest they donate to charity instead.
  5. Practise gratitude and learn to enjoy having enough, rather than wanting more. Realising how lucky you are and how much you already have will help you appreciate a simpler, more fulfilling life.

Further reading about minimalism:

Becoming Minimalist

Arizona writer Joshua Becker had an epiphany about the excess in his all-American family life (busy job, two kids, a big house in the suburbs) while clearing out his garage one Sunday, when he really wanted to be playing ball with his son. He advocates a balanced approach to minimalism and travels the world speaking on the subject, charging only travel expenses. He recently launched charitable foundation The Hope Effect to help find families for orphans worldwide.

Zen Habits

Leo Babauta lives his California with his wife and their (not-so minimalist) six kids! His path to minimalism led to him giving up smoking, taking up running and meditation, losing 60lbs and becoming vegan, although not all at once! He is a big believer in working on adopting new habits gradually. He has a second, now archived blog.

Be More With Less

Mum-of-one Courtney Carver was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2006. Then a busy executive, she downsized after learning that stress could exacerbate her symptoms. Her life changes freed her from the debt and clutter constant shopping had brought. She later founded Project 333 which suggests sticking to a wardrobe of 33 items, for three months at a time, and has been featured in Oprah magazine.


Tidying Up

Marie Kondo is a Japanese organising consultant best known for her Konmari method and the book The Life-changing magic of tidying up - the Japanese art of decluttering and organising. She advocates only keeping things in your life which ‘spark joy’ and recently published an illustrated version of her original book.


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