Can Having Less Possessions Help You Focus On What’s Important?
I have a guilty confession: figuring out what to do with all my stuff was one of the hardest obstacles to overcome when I decided to quit my life in New York City to couch-surf around the world. Silly, isn’t it? I was about to take the boldest, most drastic decision of my life, yet the first questions that plagued me were along the nature of: where would I store my things? Would I miss them? More importantly, how could I live off the same clothes for months on end?
It’s been three months since I left most of my material comforts behind. I’ve been living out of a carry-on since then, and I must confess, it’s made me a free woman.
It took me 25+ years of accumulating material goods to grasp just how much they can weigh me down when it comes to the pursuit of my dreams. Having my possessions constrained to nothing more than a small suitcase in the past few months has taught me two fundamental lessons: 1. We need so much less than we think we need, and 2. When we loosen our attachment towards stuff, we liberate time and energy to focus on what really matters.
I’ve realized that in the U.S. (as well as many other industrialized countries), we spend the vast majority of our lives gorging ourselves on materialism. We buy clothes, furniture, and goods to fill up our homes, only to upgrade those homes so we can fill them up with even more. Similarly, we increasingly commit ourselves to more monthly bills such as subscriptions, student debts, car loans, and so on. Our lives and careers become an endless race of working hard to make money, so that we can spend that money on things we like and think that we need, only to have to work more for the sake of making enough money to sustain that lifestyle.
When we are bogged down by stuff, we have less flexibility to take risks or do what we want because there is simply too much to take care of: there are bills to pay, subscriptions to cancel, or homes to rent out. Just the mental exercise of figuring out what to do with all of that is exhausting.
By becoming overly attached to the things that we like but don’t necessarily need, we become their slaves. Maintaining, replacing, and upgrading all of this stuff consumes a ridiculous amount of our time, and as a result, we become distracted from thinking about and pursuing our real goals.
When I was living in New York City, I would spend countless time picking outfits to wear to work, stressing out about how to move my belongings from one apartment to the other, and mindlessly signing up for subscriptions after another. My work was not rooted in passion: it was for the sake of generating enough income to pay for my life while doing something I kind of liked but didn’t love. Materialism and hunger for more drove my career. I’ve come to realize that the time I spent focused on “stuff” not only adds up, it is a huge opportunity cost that could have been redirected towards activities that I’m passionate about and experiences that give me the fulfillment that material goods never could, such as my writing, travel, or growing my blog, The Nomad’s Oasis.
Only having a handful of outfits to pick from, being able to carry everything that I need, and not owning anything extra to distract me has liberated a significant amount of time to focus on my project to travel the world through my social network. I don’t waste time picking outfits, watching Netflix, or daydreaming about a bigger apartment. Every day is mine to explore my surroundings, focus on my work and, well, live. I’ve never felt so inspired: I’ve eliminated so many material distractions from my life, and that gives me time and mental energy to direct towards producing high-quality work in half the time. For example, it used to take me days to write an article – now, I feel so in the zone that I can produce the same content in less than a day.
I’m not saying that it’s bad to own a lot of things – the key is not to allow them to become part of our identity or to influence the important decisions we make in our lives. It’s boggling how much of our identity is constructed by our “stuff”: the clothes we wear, the furniture we own, and the debts we have all shape how we label ourselves. We aren’t our things; we are a culmination of the experiences that we live and the value we produce for this world. When you take all of your belongings away, do you know who you are? Will you know how to fill that empty space with what you really wanted from life?
I’m living my dream to travel full-time as a digital nomad with six outfits, three shoes, and a couple of knick-knacks, and I couldn’t be happier. Sure, I have a closet waiting for me in a storage bin back in New York. I won’t deny that. I like having more, but now I’ve also learned to live with a lot less. It has helped me tremendously with improving both the quality of my life and work. I don’t ever want to feel enslaved by my things again – a fulfilling life, in my opinion, is one that you can leave all your “stuff” behind for.