My Minimalism Story: How I turned my unhappy, hot mess of a life into one of peace + Productivity
I found Minimalism quite by accident. And it wasn't for any poignant reason, although I have always been a bit of a, ah, hippie when it comes to reduce/reuse/recycle and saving the planet. That was easy for plastic bottles. For my home and environment? Never occurred to me that it might be a good idea to only own certain things. No, my Minimalism beginning wasn't to save the rainforest, although I've definitely come to see how it promotes that in a wonderful way.
It was for a more aesthetic reason. And as I'm a Capricorn, all things aesthetic must also have practical value:
I just wanted to look nice and well put-together every day without having to think about it too much.
The Moment I Knew Things Had to Change
When I was 26-27, my feelings of Ugh! about my style reached the event horizon. I was living in Rochester, NY where it snows about 9 months a year, and I was constantly wrapped up in arctic-grade coats and boots. I felt frumpy. I was trying to look professional in an inhumane climate while at the same time realizing that I was completely failing at looking professional — only it had nothing to do with the coats and boots.
I was definitely kind of a mess in the work clothes department. I tried, I really did. But my sense of style evolved in high school to be very laid back bohemian (including Birkenstocks, bright wrap skirts, and long, stringy hair).
When I joined the workforce, I bought the standards, but I felt out of place in them. Navy trousers just... were not me. And it showed. In all the photos of me in workwear from my early twenties, I look like a kid playing dress up. I bet you've had that feeling once or twice, too.
Enter the French Girl Style Uniform
I’d been a big fan of French Girl Style for a while via Pinterest, Vogue, WhoWhatWear, and other online fashion mags. I loved the simplicity of style that many French women displayed. There are Clémence Poésy's tailored-casual looks. Emmanuelle Alt's undying and beautiful commitment to no purse, black and slim-fit pants. Inès de la Fressange's signature crops and flats. They were all so casual (exactly what the bohemian in me wanted), yet they looked so polished, tailored, and put-together.
How the hell do you get to that level? I asked myself.
I read a lot of articles like 9 Essentials Every Frenchwoman Has in Her Closet and Style Differences Between American and French-Girl Style and so on, trying to figure out the secret to looking effortlessly chic without actually having to put any effort in. (We all know that 'natural makeup' is anything but, and to a degree, the same goes for 'effortless style'.)
The French Style articles said I needed a white button-down shirt, a blazer, and some black pumps. I bought a few white button-down shirts. I bought some Banana Republic trousers. I got a blazer from H&M. I brought out the clunky black pumps I'd bought from DSW years ago and never wore. I tried to put them together like they did in J Crew catalogs. I paired them with yellow polyester tank tops from Express to 'add character' and snow boots because it was friggin cold.
I still looked like a hot mess. A cold mess, actually, since this was during the time I was living in Rochester, NY. This French Girl wardrobe wasn't quite working.
This needed more research. I studied Vogue a lot more, browsed Pinterest a lot more. I noticed that I tended to repin certain types of pictures — mainly autumn leaves, purple sunsets, rocky beaches, and castles. I didn't have a Pinterest strategy, I was just pinning what caught my eye. And magical autumns and sunsets caught my eye.
The Beginning of My Own Signature Style Curation Method
It occurred to me then that there was something deeply lacking in my failed attempts at French Girl style: a theme. These French women weren't buying the first navy blazer that fits them at H&M. They were all doing their own takes on the 'wardrobe essentials'. Clémence Poésy had casual-tailored; Lou Doillon had rockstar. They had a vibe.
I needed a vibe — a common theme to tie together everything I bought and wore. As someone with an art background, you'd think this would've come to me sooner. Afraid not.
Even creatives can have trouble figuring how out to dress when they have too many options.
Early on in my Parisian girl style uniform journey, I made bad decisions like golden blonde hair and orange dresses in an attempt to master the look of "Autumn". And apparently in an attempt at "Halloween," I paired that dress with black shoes.
It isn't enough to just say "Okay, I'm going to wear button-downs and blazers." You need to define your type of button-down; the fabric and fit of your blazers. Branch out all you want, but do it intentionally.
Put those intentional things together, and let go of the unintentional ones; that's what I was figuring out. Be intentional in your style choices and purchases. Build around a common thread.
My first attempt at this intentional styling was to choose a theme. I was sure this would give me my vibe, and help me along to that easy, quintessential French Girl style.
My first theme was "Autumn". I was totally going to build my wardrobe to evoke a feeling of autumn in everyone who knew me. Pretentious, I know. But give me some slack; I was young and I've always been bohemian that way.
I sorted my closet, separated out all the clothes that fit an autumn color palette, and donated the rest — which was about 90%.
I went to Forever 21, Gap, and the Banana Republic, and bought a yellow dress, some brown boots, goldenrod corduroys, and burnt orange tops, all inspired by pins like this one, this one, and this one.
Huge mistake. And not just because I was shopping at Forever 21.
Y’all, I cannot wear ocher.
Should we keep going? I cannot wear brown or russet or orange, or, or, or. Even red's iffy, depending on the hue. But I’d already thrown out all my clothes to make a uniform, and I looked AWFUL in that uniform.
I didn't understand why I still felt frumpy until I took a quiz to find 'my colors'. It turns out I have cooler-toned skin, so those warm colors were not doing me any favors.
I tried again with this new knowledge. This time, I wanted my theme to be "Gloaming", which is basically dawn/dusk. I was inspired by a website called Scotland in the Gloaming, which I'd followed for 5-6 years, and pins like this one, this one, and this one.
Here was my final color palette, which I felt pretty great about:
It’s so pretty and soothing, and best of all, it let me keep some yellow/orange in there so long as I used it as an accent (away from my face). That was another great thing I learned: If you can't wear a color you love, just wear it on your shoes or handbag.
I was really digging having a wardrobe that evoked Gloaming. Who wouldn’t want to remind people of such a pretty, quiet time? Well, how about people who aren’t happy wearing blue and purple all the damn time? And people who like bolder colors?
And frankly, my favorite color wasn't even represented here, and I missed wearing it.
This was a good palette for me in a vacuum. But I didn't live in a vacuum. I like wearing power colors, to be quite honest. I love red. And green's my favorite, so why was I basing my wardrobe on muted purples that I felt deeply indifferent about?
It was time for reevaluation. Again.
Back to the Drawing Board
I refined things even more and developed the concept of a signature silhouette — the idea behind this being that not only would all clothes match but pretty much every top would go with every bottom because I'd stuck to a proportion that always worked. Not long after that, I added in the concept of a motif — that of having a 'vibe'. It circled back to my original need to have a wardrobe that emoted something (autumn, gloaming) but it included it in a more matured fashion. It was subtle; less trying-so-hard. (My motif, by the way, is glam + gamine. I call it glamine because I like portmanteaus and that one is too easy.)
3 Keys of a Signature Styled Wardrobe
- Color Palette
Want More? Get an in-depth explanation of my method for actually effortless chic style, and how you can apply it to your own wardrobe, in my Skillshare class: Develop Your Signature Career Style.
You guys. It took me two years to settle myself down and find myself in my style, but when I hit the right one, I knew it immediately. Here's what I work with these days:
It has my favorite color (green), a set of neutrals I'm comfortable in (black is a mainstay + off-white looks so much better on me than pure white + I do love to get a bit glam, so I need some metallics!), and accents that inspire me: I love red, but it has to be a cool-toned red for me to pull off. My engagement ring is an opal, so I like to pair other accents to play off that.
This is a palette that works for both my skintone and my personality. Equally important, it has a built-in vibe: glam. When I combine it with my favored silhouettes, I get the gamine vibe I so love, and together, they make my signature style: glamine.
The Ah-ha! Moment
While it's cool to look at color palettes, there's more to this story than my clothes. About the time I was making really bad life choices with an autumn color palette, I was also realizing the true value of a curated closet: everything matched everything else.
Things were coming together for my closet and I was feeling pretty great about every outfit I put together. If having a curated closet meant that everything went with everything else and I didn't even have to be fully awake in order to get dressed for work, then what would happen if I curated other areas of my life?
A hallway of light bulbs lit up.
Minimalism: The Great Discovery
There was more to this French Girl style uniform than I was grasping. It wasn't just about looking good (although it did). It was about wearing only what you love and what loves your body in return. And if I applied that attitude to my whole life, then how much easier, fuller, and aesthetically pleasing it would be?
I did a purge. A huge one.
All over the house, I was taking stock of things I'd dragged from apartment to apartment, state to state, without ever really thinking about. I had Christmas ornaments despite the fact that I didn't decorate for Christmas. I had a mixer, despite the fact that I abhor baking. I had an entire bookshelf of books I was holding onto for no other reason than posterity.
I wasn't ever going to read most of them again. I just liked the idea of having a library. But that's the problem with how we live: We get too caught up in having things and forget all about having value.
My first project was sorting through all of my books and donating the ones I didn't need.
I was actually about to move again, and the thought of boxing up all those heavy books and trekking them over several state lines was not at all appealing. You can see the results from the first Great Book Purge in the two pics here.
I've since reduced my book numbers even more. It's not that I don't value having the beauty of physical books around me anymore. It's that I value not getting caught up in having things more. I won't read those books again. And if I suddenly decide I want to, there's both a library and Amazon in easy reach.
After the Great Book Purge, I tried purging other things. I went through our kitchen and donated many items from there. I cleaned packaged goods we'd never eat from the cabinets. I took old flyers and notices off the refrigerator, where we'd stuck them once and never bothered to move them again.
I was still being gentle in my purges at this point. I wanted to try Minimalism, but I was afraid of going too far, too soon. I didn't want to throw things out that I'd later need. But even with my gentle purging, I was getting rid of loads of things I'd never used, never would use, or had put in a box some years ago and completely forgotten about. In just a month or two, I reduced my possessions by at least half. And you know what?
I rarely missed anything. Which each successive pass I've made in reducing my belongings, I've felt richer. Not poorer.
(And if we're honest, I am richer. I made $500 just by selling gently used clothes on eBay alone. Not to mention the money I save buying 1 shirt I adore instead of 3 I sort of like.)
Mistakes I've Made
Despite best efforts, I have made mistakes with my Minimalism journey, and not just a few. I've thrown out things I thought I'd never wear again, only to miss them when I realized I couldn't get by wearing just orange, gold, and red.
I've left myself without a single cardigan. I've had an entire closet devoid of black because it wasn't autumn enough. I've had to learn how to do pour-overs half-awake because I donated my coffee maker and then sold my Keurig.
Some of these mistakes turned out to not be mistakes at all, like the coffee one. Having to actually make each cup of coffee makes me less likely to coffee-binge on weekends. And while I always used my own coffee grounds and the DIY cup for the Keurig (instead of the pods), I still hated what it represented: mindless waste.
But my Minimalism mistakes aren't part of the learning curve. They were just products of not knowing myself and being impatient. It didn't help that, at first, I had no idea what I really wanted or why I was doing it.
Why I Thought I Embraced Minimalism
If I was a Minimalist, then I'd always look great. My apartment would be attractive. I'd save some cash.
True. But if that's your only motivation then it's not going to work for you. You can't just buy a blazer, white shirt, and black pumps to master French style, and likewise, you can't just donate all your things to Goodwill to master Minimalism. Minimalism is a process, and it doesn't end. It's a conscious reaffirming to yourself every day to choose only what you need and love. It's not a state you reach once and exist in forever.
After all, if you throw out all your clothes, you're going to have to buy more. Without a foundation, a reason for starting over, you'll end up right back where you started.
I thought I was getting into Minimalism to look cooler when I got dressed. I didn't realize until some months later that I was getting something entirely different out of it.
And Why I Decided to Stick with Minimalism
The unpleasing aesthetics of clutter was a big motivator for me when I finally transitioned from only worrying about having a nice wardrobe to also thinking of having a nice life. It was my gateway drug into Minimalism.
I'd gotten rid of a bunch of crap and I was stoked on the white space it left behind. I'd grown up in a very cluttered house, and I hated to be around it, so my environment was never too cluttered, but I was amazed by how much better I felt when it was even less so.
Fewer things collecting dust. Fewer things to vacuum around. Not having to move boxes to find what I wanted. My closet not so jam-packed I couldn't stuff another hanger in. It was all so relieving.
And that, really, was why I stuck with Minimalism. I felt so much better. I wasn't worried as much. My anxiety was slowly decreasing. I came home and didn't immediately feel overwhelmed by all the shit I needed to clean.
Instead, I had the time and motivation to create. And that was something I hadn't felt in a long time. Adulting is not easy.
There were (are!) also areas that I've really struggled with.
Letting go of certain things has been really hard. Art supplies (even though I rarely paint or draw anymore). Sentimental things — trinkets and jewelry my grandmother owned but never really cared for and that even I didn't like. Paperwork/documents (that I was putting off digitizing).
It's hard to let go.
When you get started with Minimalism, you'll probably feel that, too. And when you've been a Minimalist for years, you'll probably still feel it. Our nature makes us want to hold onto things. Just in case, it tells us. We have to make the conscious decision (again and again) to rule our subconscious 'just in case' thoughts with our conscious mind.
Learning to Let Go
- Sentimental Things - Taking a picture of the item helps sometimes. Other times, all you need is to really ask yourself if that item has true significance for you, or if you're only holding onto it for a theme. My grandmother never wore jewelry, for example. It wasn't her. So why was/am I so attached to things I never saw her in, but knew she owned? I would rather keep things I knew she loved.
- Documents - Often, the hardest part with documents is just getting started. Dedicate a batch day to go through yours. Shred the ones you don't need and scan/shred the ones you do need (only for documents where electronic versions suffice, of course! Don't shred your birth certificate!)
- Clothes - Before you do anything here, find your style!
- Just in Case - General rule of thumb: If you don't use it, but you've saved it 'just in case,' decide whether or not you could theoretically borrow it or buy it again for $20 or less if you do end up needing it. If you can, let it go. Most of the time you won't ever need it again, or if you do, you can borrow it from a friend.
The bottom line with Minimalist living struggles is that they're expected and they're okay. Don't beat yourself up over it. Acknowledge the struggle, evaluate if it's real or subconscious, and decide to act one way or another.
How It Changed Me
My life has become so much easier, so much more productive, and so much more rewarding since I began. And I'm not even a complete Minimalist yet; there are still areas I struggle with.
The funny thing is, I love to shop.
Maybe not the actual spending money part, but the window shopping? The internet browsing? The fashion mag stalking? Definitely still part of me. It's another one of my struggles, but not because it adds to my stuff, but because it takes away from my productive time. This is part of who I am, and it's a way that I unwind, so I don't know if it will ever change.
But the thing about Minimalism is that you decide what your level will be.
My level is small wardrobe, few decorative objects, no paper clutter, a clear inbox, no 'saved to read later' bookmarks, and so on. But I choose to let myself 'waste time' with the occasional window shopping. And I choose to have a job, an iPhone, and 2 really annoy cats.
The most surprising part about this journey, to me, is that along the way, my life was upheaved half a dozen times and I was able to keep going without too much of a mental breakdown.
I ended a long-term relationship, I tried online dating with odd and often hilarious results, I started dating a friend and then immediately took a job across the country while he still had a year left in grad school (Nathan is so patient), and through a series of weird situations, had to move 3 times in half a year. I managed to keep it together, and to be so honest with you, I think Minimalism was a huge part of that.
It gave me something to focus on, a new goal to strive for when I didn't have time or energy to strive for anything else. I was so tired of moving crap. I was so tired of not having space in these new, tiny apartments.
The more I got rid of, the freer I felt. And the more I accomplished with what was really important to me — my own Magnum Opus, my novel.
In the end, what matters most to me will be what I was able to create, not what I was able to have.
How will your story start?
Thus began my journey into Minimalism. I haven't looked back since, and if you join me, I know you'll love it, too. Are you ready to give it a shot?
PS. If you're feeling the chaos and want some help getting started, grab my free email course, the 7 Day Refresh. Just click the banner to get started.