Minimalism Is A Viable Long Term Strategy


As I cruised through my morning news, I came across a contentious article by Vivek Haldar, “Minimalism Is Not A Long Term Viable Intellectual Strategy.” In it, he argues that Minimalism is not only a silly and smug movement, but that it’s ultimately self defeating. I’d like to provide a counterpoint to this: Minimalism, at its core, is the process of prioritizing your life and working towards concrete goals without giving in to distraction.

Vivek puts forth a number of arguments in his article. Specifically:

  1. Minimalism is about superficial signals and unconsumption as a doctrine.
  2. Great thinkers of the Renaissance era were the antithesis of minimalism (so clearly it does not work)
  3. Minimalism cuts down on experience and diversity, which creative professionals require to be successful.

As far as I can tell, Vivek fundamentally mistakes the goal of the Minimalism movement. He says the goal is to create an army of smug jerks “sitting in a bare room with a desk upon which sits only a MacBook Air, his backpack of possessions on one side, the broadband internet cable available but unplugged, fingers ready to type into the empty white screen of a minimalist editor.” But that is not the goal. In fact, he’s actually identified what minimalism is striving against.

So then, what is the Minimalist movement—before all the corruption from hangers on and marketers corrupts it—really about? At its core, Minimalism is about being aware that every decision you make is a value proposition, and that you need to judge how the consequences fit with your goals. Most commonly this reflects on one’s possessions; acquisition is not without cost. Corollary to this is time management: minimalists tend to be very deliberate in how they spend their time.

Like any school of thought with a certain critical mass, there is dissent and corruption among the ranks. Vivek’s sidebar about text editors is a prime example. Most of the serious Minimalists find products like OmmWriter to be utterly ridiculous (for example, Merlin Mann’s screed against this new generation of “concentration-aid” text editors). Many people trying to sell products or generate blog traffic have misunderstood the message or are deliberately distorting it to make a product. It shouldn’t be surprising to find examples of this, and they should be taken in the context of the larger community.

All of which sounds very serious, but it’s just a loose set of advice about how to achieve your goals and avoid distraction, not a policy for avoiding new experiences. It’s not like Minimalists are necessarily trying to be ascetic in their lifestyle. Indeed, most of the interesting minimalist blogs are people trying to reduce the cost of activities so they can do more of them. Be it writing or travel or programming or just raising children, the goal is prime and distractions are undesirable.

The only serious criticism that Vivek mounts is that minimalism is the “local maxima” of efficiency, but not necessarily a global one. I don’t think this supports his argument; our lives are just a group of disparate domains that we have to balance our time between. If we can manage those domains, then we’re better managing our life.