The Liberating Lessons of Less

By Kevin Meyer

My twenty plus year Lean journey has changed my life in many ways, but perhaps none as significant as a creating a pervasive recognition of and disdain for waste. Coupled with respect for people, this has changed my career, leadership style, and personal life. Observing waste has led to a life of increasing minimalism, which isn’t necessarily a bare bones existence but one where every activity and object creates value or joy.

Let’s take a look at some specific areas of impact.

In the home and office: I’ve long been 5S-ing my garage, desk, and so forth. Of course I should be asking myself why I have to do it multiple times – somehow I (or, ahem, others in my household) are not implementing the Sustain “S’ very well. Recently I’ve been devoting more time to this after reading Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo goes a bit nuts with her approach, but it works and is addictive. I thought I was pretty minimalist beforehand, but the twenty or so bags of clothes, unused boxed food, books, tchotchkes and so forth that have left the house over the past few weeks has been stunning. And very liberating. We are approaching the point where the house almost looks too empty, which leads me to my next point.

The home itself: For the last fifteen years my wife and I have lived in a very nice house.  Ocean view, unique architecture, close to the coast and wineries that surround us, and average size.  Like most people as they progress in their careers and become more successful, we occasionally think about a new house.  In the past that led us to almost move to larger, even nicer homes.  Luckily we never pulled the trigger as we have come to realize, especially after the last couple years of minimizing, that we need and want less space.  We want less storage space and less floor space.

But there’s a problem: as homes become nicer, they typically also become larger.  So, with the help of an architect friend of mine, we’ve been toying with new home designs.  How little space can we get by with?  How few doors, walls, angles, and other “blocks” to clean, usable space?  Just a simple focus on minimizing doors creates some incredible designs that feel very liberating, even just on paper.  I’m down to four interior doors in the latest design, with even those as pocket doors to avoid consuming space, and I’m obsessed with getting it down to three.  Now to find some land.  In California.  With the ocean view we love.

Physically: Like most folks entering their 50s, a few pounds have crept on here and there.  I’ve made the occasional effort to work it off, and have actually been fairly fit for a long time thanks to daily crossfit and strength training.  But the pounds remained.  Then my friend Paul Akers wrote a book about his journey to lose what is now over fifty pounds from a Lean perspective:  Lean Health.  The concept of me being the customer resonated, and I soon realized that my concept of portion size was way, way off.  Four months later I’m down twenty-five pounds, lower than I’ve been in thirty years, and have a lifestyle that can sustain it.  Liberating – and it liberated a bunch of old clothes out of my closet for others to use!

Travel: My wife and I love to travel, and have been to over sixty countries.  Travel widens your perspective, well beyond what sound-bite television will tell you about the world.  It’s scary how different reality is from commonly-held opinions.  Along the way we’ve become pretty good at it, perhaps because we like to plan a major part of our trip after we get to the destination and talk to locals, so we have to be flexible.

A couple years ago we spent a month bouncing around southeastern Africa with just a small carry-on bag each.  This was partly driven by the limitations of small bush planes, but also because we simply didn’t need much.  I can’t think of anything we wish we would have had – in fact, there were some items we dragged along that we didn’t use.  Not having to check bags and being able to quickly change the itinerary is liberating.

Projects: Up until a few years ago I chased every interesting project, every shiny ball, that came my way.  In addition to my job, I was juggling all kinds of side projects, personal and professional, and not doing a great job at very many of them.  Then I started to make a concerted, mindful effort to reduce projects to just those that I was truly excited about and could give me joy.

A catalyst happened two years ago when I read Gregory McKeown’s Essentialism, which described the power of saying “no.”  Politely and with respect for both your time and the requesting person.  Admittedly it’s still a struggle, but I’ve become pretty good at saying no.  Fewer projects has meant more time, and also more success on the ones I am engaged on, which is liberating.

Decisions: It’s always been very easy for me to make decisions, sometimes too much so.  I do trust my gut perhaps more than I should, but it has served me well in the past.  Of course (see above), there’s less gut now so perhaps I should be more careful!  But I realize I’m a bit unusual in that way, and my wife would say in many ways, which became very clear when I was helping my mother in-law in the final couple years of her life.  Decisions became increasingly difficult for her, to the eventual point where she couldn’t decide which episode of Oprah to watch on her TiVo.  Simple decisions completely paralyzed her.

I realized that decisions “take up space” in your head, so the more that are being juggled and contemplated without resolution, the more difficult making them becomes.  Therefore two approaches are needed.  First, make decisions, especially simple ones, as quickly as possible.  Be mindful of exactly what information is needed to make the decision, get it, and make it.  Also think about the potential downsides, and the fewer or less impactful they are, the more you can trust your gut and make the decision quickly. Second, minimize decisions in the first place. Allow or empower others do make them, or simply don’t get into situations requiring decisions – perhaps by saying “no” like I mentioned above.  A head free of decisions is liberating.

There are obviously many other areas.  I know someone who gets by with just one car for his family. It takes some initial work, but is liberating on many fronts.  The crossfit gym I go to is intentionally very small, with just the equipment necessary to create a holistic, simple fitness experience for a small number of clients (mostly surfers).

Liberate yourself with less!

3 Comments

  1. Jon Miller

    February 6, 2016 - 2:07 am

    Another question I’ve found useful on my journey is, “What else can I give away?”

  2. Tom Palmitesta

    February 6, 2016 - 1:01 pm

    I have been downsizing homes for many years, from a peak of 5,800 sq ft, to 1,800, 1,180 at the moment. I am now 78 and living alone with my wife, since our 2 “kids” left home, and thinking that another round of 5S is necessary. I am aiming at 540 fq ft or less. When you finishing designing your new home, could you share the general plan with me (and everybody else), if possible with why’s. I am sure I can learn a lot.

  3. Anthony Gomez

    February 8, 2016 - 1:18 pm

    Don’t get pocket doors. They are a maintenance nightmare. Have to rip apart your door casing if you ever have to fix it (which you will).