How to Design Your Best Morning (+9 Morning Routine Tips)

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Let me know if this sounds familiar:

Your alarm starts yelling at you. You press the snooze. Suddenly, it seems like it immediately starts yelling again…though that was 15 minutes ago. You hit snooze again and roll over. This time, your sleepy eyes shoot open as you remember that you unknowingly hit the snooze button for a second time. How much time has gone by now?! You look at the clock, do the mental math, and realize you have just enough time to shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, and still get to work on time. You do so, running out the door still sweaty from the hot shower, staggering because you’re not fully awake. You show up at work, nerves wired, mind in a fog. Everyone seems to thrust their problems and requests on you. Meanwhile, the only decision you’ve made for yourself so far that day was hitting that second snooze button. How do expect your day to go from there?

That was me for years. I was my wife’s ride to work, so it drove her crazy. Over time, it began to drive me crazy, too. Once I’d get to work, I’d find myself sitting in my car in the parking lot, wondering why I was already so worn out.

This lack of boot-up time ruffled my mood and turned my entire day into a hurried mess. Meanwhile, I remembered how clear-headed and peaceful my wife was when I had dropped her off at work. She had gotten up over an hour before me — reading a book on the couch, sipping a cup of coffee with our cat nestled in her lap.

I felt like I was losing control of my life. Really, I had just lost control of my morning.

It wasn’t until several years later that I realized just how important mornings could be in shaping the rest of my day. Getting this headstart could allow me to care for myself before anyone asked anything of me.

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

Why Many Morning Routines Are Destined For Failure

Most people’s first stop for morning routine inspiration are the morning routines of highly successful people. If you look at the morning routines of giants of thought or business, it looks like a well-oiled, yet obscure, machine.

  • Hop out of bed at 4 AM.
  • Do hot jujitsu.
  • Roll a tractor tire up a mountainside.
  • Practice Vipassana Meditation at the top of that mountain.
  • Choke down a smoothie made up of ingredients that resemble lawn clippings.
  • Play chess against a Russian Chessmaster.
  • Practice telekinesis.

Yes, that was an exaggeration. Still, attempting to emulate the morning routines of some of these highly successful people can seem just as realistic.

What is the main reason why these emulated morning routines rarely stick? Simply put, we don’t want to do them.

The Why of Morning Routines

We’re all told that we should have a solid morning routine. What we’re not told is the correct “why” we should have a morning routine. Common reasons given include, “Because this is what successful, well-put-together people do. We should emulate the people we want to be like.”

In my own experience, I haven’t found this to be reason enough to establish a solid morning routine. Emulation feels unnatural. Like the nicest designer suit, if it doesn’t fit, we don’t want to wear it.

The purpose of a morning routine is to set yourself up for a successful day. If that sounds cliche or basic, let me emphasize certain points.

The purpose of a morning routine is to set yourself up for a successful day.

There, that’s better.

Your Morning Routine Must Fit You

The success criteria that many leave out of a morning routine is personalization. While your goals can be fairly universal (physical fitness, mental clarity, spiritual alignment, etc.), the methods by which you seek to fulfill these goals must be custom-tailored. If these activities aren’t tailored to the dimensions of your personality, you won’t want to do them — no matter how beneficial they seem.

Start The Day With Your Favorite Activities

Recently, I’ve been trying to add physical exercise to my morning routine. The plan has been to roll out of bed into sneakers and workout clothes, stretch, and spend 10 minutes jumping rope in my driveway. While I was successful in doing this for almost a week, for the last two days, I have not. Why? Knowing that there’s a part of my morning routine I’d rather be doing means I’m starting my day with the tiniest bit of dread. That granule of dread has derailed a large portion of my morning routine for these past two days.

What would I rather be doing? It’s different for everyone, but I love reading books in the morning. Not just any books — something I’m passionate to consume. I need to almost lick my lips over imagining reading it. Because of this, prior to adding physical fitness to my morning routine, I would often roll out of bed and into a comfortable chair next to a lamp with a cup of coffee and a book that I consume as though its molten chocolate lava cake. While still in my pajamas, I would pour over the books for a good hour. The promise of being able to do so uninterrupted before the day began was enough to get me out of bed at 5:45 AM like a Christian child on Christmas morning.

Though I genuinely enjoy jumping rope, I don’t lick my lips about it first thing in the morning. Jumping rope is a jarring landing from dreamland. I’ve since tucked jumping rope back a few time slots in my morning routine.

Build Your Morning Routine Slowly

There’s a good chance you’ve tried to build a morning routine only to see it completely fall apart. Guilty. If I looked through my Google Docs, I bet I could find numerous “Morning Routine” documents that were only executed for a few days before unraveling.

Why do they fail? Because nobody wants a start their day with a chore list.

After several false starts, my morning routine began with one single activity — my morning prayers. Despite morning prayers being required for religious Jewish men, my own prayer ritual had been inconsistent at best — despite deriving benefit from it when I managed. Once I became motivated enough, I decided, “I am now a person who prays every morning.” From there on, I have prayed every single morning.

For months, prayer was the sole element of my morning routine. I would roll out of bed, sleepily get cleaned up and dressed, slap on my tallit and tefillin, find my siddur, and half-consciously mumble my morning prayers. I would only somewhat start to wake up around the time I was done, rendering my morning prayers nearly useless.

How My Morning Routine Slowly Developed

Sure, the development of the rest of my morning routine was solely to get more out of my morning prayers. Because I was barely conscious enough to remember that I had prayed, I saw the need for pre-prayer caffeine. Over time, I start added a cup of coffee before prayers. Because it takes about 30 minutes for coffee to kick in, I had to get up earlier to allow the coffee to take effect. While I was waiting for the caffeine to course through my veins, I started reading books. I now had a morning routine of coffee time with books followed by prayer. Still, I noticed that, even though my mind was now awake because of the coffee, it was still all over the place during prayer. In order to harness my focus, I started practicing mindfulness meditation before prayers. I later read that mindfulness meditation is enhanced by having engaged in physical exercise because you become more in tune with your body. Following this discovery, I added jumping rope to my morning routine. My routine was now coffee > reading > jump rope > meditation > prayer. All of these activities were simply to enhance my morning prayer experience, which in turn enhanced my day.

Each element of my morning routine was added individually. No element was added until the other elements of my morning routine were established. This process is what makes each element feel less like a chore and more like a part of the journey you want to take each morning.

It is crucial that each element is added one at a time. Adding multiple elements simultaneously can quickly derail your morning routine. Like stacking building blocks into a tower, if each block isn’t aligned with the one beneath it, the entire stack can become unstable.

Experiment To Optimize Your Morning Routine

I put off writing this article for a while because I didn’t feel like my own morning routine was established enough for me to write on the subject. After a while, I realized an important truth: It probably never will be…and that’s ok.

Have An Abridged Morning Routine Prepared Just In Case

If you need to shorten your morning routine one day because you weren’t able to get as much sleep the night before, you will need to temporarily do a revised, “bare bones” morning routine — one where only essential elements are executed. In my case, I usually drop jumping rope if I need to sleep in because it’s something I don’t have to do every day. Prayer, however, is an essential non-negotiable element. Know what is essential and what is a morning nicety for a smoother consolidation when necessary.

Kick The Tires Periodically

After you have stacked a few building blocks, do a periodic performance review on the elements of your morning routine. About every month-to-three months, assess the more non-essential elements of your morning routine and see how they can each be optimized, moved to a better time, or possibly replaced.   

All Morning Routines Start the Night Before

No matter how dedicated you may be to your morning routine, if you don’t get enough sleep the night before, the chances of success for your morning routine are slim. Even if you do get up and perform every element, your lack of sleep will make them worse versions of the building blocks you intended for them to be. This is why the first element in your morning routine is your evening routine. The first step in your evening routine should be establishing what time your head needs to hit the pillow in order for you to achieve the 7-8 hours of recommended sleep needed to be able to wake up refreshed and ready to enthusiastically tackle your morning routine.

If you need help figuring out when you should be going to bed, here is a good starting point:

  • Determine what time you would need to wake up in the morning in order to accomplish the first task in your morning routine.
  • Count back 8 hours from that established waking time.
  • Use a sleep-cycle tool such as Sleepy Time to determine when you should fall asleep in order to avoid your alarm going off in the middle of a sleep cycle. Waking up mid-REM cycle, for instance, can make getting up burdensome.
  • Account for the evening routine you need in order to wind down and prepare to sleep. Consider avoiding screens an hour before bed in order to settle your mind.

Making Time For Yourself

If you feel that you don’t have enough time for a morning routine, you’re precisely the type of person who needs one. This self-investment of time in the morning before the world begins will pay off in dividends over the years. When life goes from simply being busy to downright chaotic, your morning routine will allow you to face each problem, issue, or obstacle with a clear head, an able body, and a content spirit to reduce your likelihood of burning out. You will grow to depend on it as a way of outrunning your day. When maintained properly, you will start to look forward to your morning routine with joyful anticipation.

Tips For Morning Routine Success

  1. Write it down. Actually write out your morning routine, updating it as you add and remove elements. If you don’t have an established morning routine, your first write-out should only be one element. Even though it’s only one element, write it out anyways. You can add more elements as you’re ready for them.
  2. Keep your alarm out of reach. Place your alarm on the other side of the bedroom, forcing you to get up to turn it off in the morning. I found that moving my alarm five feet further away was often the difference between me sleeping in and starting my routine.
  3. Don’t decide whether or not to sleep in until you’re in the restroom. If you feel like you need to forgo some elements of your morning routine for additional sleep on some days, you can decide to do so, but don’t make that decision in the bedroom. Make that decision in the restroom upon waking up. You’ll find that the walk to the restroom is often enough to dissolve your desire to sleep in. This also doesn’t make waking up as burdensome because you know you have the option of sleeping in, but that you have to come to that decision with a clearer head.
  4. Use alarms to move from element to element. As you start to add elements to your morning routine, set repeating reminders on a smart-home device or alarms on your phone to tell you to move on to the next element. Doing so will keep you from having to look at your watch or phone in order to stay on track. Not wondering if you’re on track will allow you to concentrate on the task at hand.
  5. Use your phone’s Do Not Disturb feature. Most every smartphone has a “Do Not Disturb” mode that you can access from the quick menu. Few of us use it, but it is a tremendously helpful way to avoid distractions before you’re ready. Consider turning it on before you go to bed. Adjust the settings of the mode to allow for alarms and calls from numbers that may be a true emergency. Most people do not text emergencies and most Do Not Disturb features push calls through if a number calls repeatedly within a 15-minute time frame.
  6. Avoid screens as long as you can. Most of us have a habit of checking email or messages on our phones or computers first thing in the morning. This can completely derail your morning by making you face the requests of others before you’re ready. Even if you’re not acting on them till later, they will still occupy space in your mind. See how long you can go in the morning before using any screens outside of alarms or features essential to your morning routine.
  7. Practice habit batching. Rather than needing to keep a written record of your morning routine close at hand, you can practice “habit batching.” Habit batching is when one habit or element leads to another one. For instance, I remember to drink a glass of water once I turn on the coffee maker or remembering to meditate immediately after jumping rope. After a while, you only need to remember which element comes after the next in order to allow your entire morning routine to flow seamlessly.
  8. Use identity adjustments to reinforce morning habits. There’s only one difference between someone trying to quit smoking and a non-smoker — identity. Someone who once smoked turning down a cigarette at a party by saying “No, thanks — I’m trying to quit” is much more apt to eventually succumb than the person who says “No thanks — I don’t smoke.” It’s about how you see yourself. Are you a person who is trying to make the most of your mornings or are you a person who has a morning routine? Identifying as someone with a morning routine can greatly increase your chances of success.
  9. Optimize your success by adjusting your environment. If you want to make the most of your mornings, yet you turn on a television in your bedroom from a remote control that sits on your nightstand, your chances of success will be tremendously limited. Your environment should align to your goals. Put your workout clothes out on a bedroom chair for the next morning. Leave the book you want to read on the table by your reading chair. Leave healthy food out. Set up your environment to make success as easy as possible easy.

In Summary

Your morning routine should

  • Be tailor-fit to you
  • Allow you to start your day doing things you’re excited to do
  • Be built very slowly, one element at a time
  • Be flexible and updatable
  • Begin the night before
  • Increase your ability to face each day

Bonus: Ken’s Morning Routine

This is just an example of my current morning routine as of May of 2019. It may have changed since the publishing of this article. Most elements were added one at a time over the course of a few weeks per element.

  • Get ready for bed around 10 PM (the morning starts the evening before)
  • Sleep with Do Not Disturb mode on, allowing for self-set alarms
  • Wake up to alarm placed across the room
  • Use restroom
  • Start coffee pot
  • Consume a glass of water slowly while coffee is brewing
  • Read one chapter in a spiritual text, one in a non-spiritual text while consuming coffee
  • Put on workout clothes, stretch
  • Jump rope for 10 minutes
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Shower
  • Get dressed for the day
  • Morning prayers from siddur (prayer book)
  • Hitbodedut (unscripted prayers)
  • Make and eat breakfast
  • Pack lunch
  • Say goodbye to wife and son before leaving for work
  • Leave for work

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Technology Sabbath: Why To Take A Break From Devices & How

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Originally posted on LinkedIn on May 30, 2018.

We are techno-junkies. No, literally.

It’s what most of us wake up to and it’s the last thing we look at before we go to sleep. It’s how we communicate with the outside world, maybe how to determine what to wear that day, when to be in a certain place, and even what to buy. That’s right, it’s technology! Smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc. – a large portion of us are hopelessly addicted to our devices. No, seriously. According to the Pew Internet Project’s research, 29% of cell phone owners describe their cellular device as “something they can’t imagine living without.” Some of you are probably thinking, “Yikes” while the rest of you are probably thinking, “Yeah, that sounds like me.” If you feel yourself drawing closer to that second group, know that the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a “…primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” If the idea of going a couple of hours without the reward of a text message, a social media notification or the idea of letting an email go unanswered for more than a few hours begins to make you squirm, you may be addicted (as in, actually addicted) to your devices. If that’s the case or even if you feel just slightly uneasy about the idea, you may benefit greatly from a weekly break from all devices. Enter the technology sabbath.

Taking a Break From Technology

A technology sabbath is exactly what it sounds like – a 24-hour break from all media consumption devices. Yes, it sounds downright crazy, but keep in mind that this routine of being constantly plugged is a fairly recent occurrence in the history of mankind. Another detail to remember is that the world will not, in fact, come to a screeching halt if you do not reply to that email, “Like” that post or text your friend for 24 hours. What will happen is a deafening silence. No ringing phones, no text chimes, no email notifications. If you’re a Millennial, this silence will grow even louder. If you’re Generation Z, it may actually scream at you. No more social crutch and no distractions from finishing that physical book you’ve been reading (or the one you’ve been meaning to start…after you check your phone). No more checking your pocket while you’re spending time with your friends, family or even when you’re trying to enjoy some time alone. This can be time to enjoy nature or the company of the people right in front of you – not the people calling out to you via cellular phones and WiFi signals.

Working Up To a Full Break From Devices

Don’t expect to completely enjoy the experience the first time. According to a study conducted by the ICMPA and students of the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism in which a group of students took part in a break some all media for 24 hour periods, the first experiences were far from pleasant. One of the test subjects reported, “Although I started the day feeling good, I noticed my mood started to change around noon. I started to feel isolated and lonely.” Just like smoking or substance addiction, a behavioral habit can have the same effects on the mind. Just like these, attempting to kick a habit, even for just a day, can result in some of the same symptoms of withdrawal. Such a dependence on a technological device is not much different from other potentially addicting vices. If the idea of completely disconnecting for 24 hours makes you squeal, try letting go in increments – one device-free evening a week, perhaps. Over time, extend that into the next day. Soon, you’ll be on your way to a 24-hour technology sabbath.

An actual chat room.

You may be asking yourself, “If this is so hard and potentially unpleasant, why should I consider it?” According to another experiment conducted by Seattle Pacific University in which students voluntarily discontinued the use of technological devices for uses outside of coursework, students and observers noticed a considerable shift in their social interaction with one another. Oddly enough, what resulted following the experiment was a “live chat room” which was designed to function just like a typical online chat room, minus the online part. Students would come the old-fashioned way – face-to-face, discussing topics ranging from personal relationships to spiritual ideas.

Leaving the office at the office.

Other benefits include being able to truly leave work at work. According to a study conducted by the Department of Psychology of Bowling Green State University, workers have a serious problem disconnecting from work after hours. Why? The study revealed that the guilty party was the devices that helped make the office just a few clicks or taps away. By completely removing yourself from the devices that allow you to check in on what’s going on in the office, you can also begin to mentally distance yourself from the office and truly enjoy your downtime.

It’s not about what you can’t do, but rather what you don’t have to do.

I know what you’re still thinking – “I can’t unplug for just a little over 14% of my life – that’s crazy!” Though this practice of completely disconnecting from the world for a 24-hour period once a week may seem radical to most of us, this practice has been commonplace for observant Jews for thousands of years. Upon talking to those who keep a sabbath for spiritual reasons, most do not report feeling a burden of not being able to access their devices during this period. Just the opposite – instead of referring to these acts as “forbidden”, they talk about how this observance of a sabbath actually frees them from their weekly obligations for a day. When the devices are turned off, observers are free to spend time with their families without checking their email on their phones, get into a book without being distracted by a text message and even just take an afternoon nap without it being interrupted by a phone call. Over time, this time becomes a period that observers look forward to all week. Ask any observant Jewish person and they can usually tell you, with ecstatic anticipation, how many days are left this week until the Sabbath.

You don’t have to Jewish to keep a technology sabbath – just the desire to thoroughly look forward to and enjoy your downtime. You may be surprised by just how much you look forward to your technology sabbath.

Tips For Keeping a Technology Sabbath

  • Pick a day of the week that works best for you. While the Jewish Sabbath is sunset Friday to sundown Saturday, some may find that Sunday or some other day works better.
  • One of your concerns about taking a break from technology is that people will worry when you don’t respond. To remedy this, make it known that you’re doing this in your automatic out-message email response and mention it in your outgoing message on your voicemail.
  • Any sabbath requires planning, so set aside a time a few hours before your sabbath begins to send out all last necessary messages, social media posts, text messages and to make any phone calls you may need. In the same way, set aside time to get caught back up once the period is over.
  • To resist temptation, store your devices in a drawer or somewhere else out of sight.
  • If you absolutely must have your phone on due to emergency situations, still let people know you’re not taking calls. Screen calls like crazy. Don’t look at text messages (most people don’t text when it’s an emergency). With this being said, do not use this as an excuse to not disconnect.
  • Don’t worry. The point of disconnecting your devices is so you can disconnect your mind. Disconnecting does no good if you’re constantly worrying about all of the digital communication you’re missing. Remember – your messages and notifications will be there when you return.

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Why Pray for the Healing of Others?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In the Jewish tradition, much like other religions, there is a space in the prayer service where the names of those who need healing are called out. It’s not a general “and for everyone who needs healing, please send healing” message. No, usually their actual Hebrew names are called out. These are very intimate names — the names of their souls.

But why?

Surely, the Creator knows these people’s names. The Source of All knows their affliction. Even if no prayer for healing were uttered, their need for healing would be well documented in the higher realms and echoed to the furthest reaches of existence. So, what difference does it make that we carve out a section of our daily prayers to run through this roster of people needing healing? Does our uttering of their name speed up their recovery? If we don’t utter their name, will the Holy One ignore their distress?

As I’ve mentioned before, prayer is one of the most misunderstood aspects of spiritual life to those who don’t practice it. (Heck, I don’t even understand it sometimes.) Even for some who have belief in a Creator, prayer can seem like the utmost waste of time. Does the Creator know our heart or not? Why must we make these requests every day? Don’t we have faith that the Holy One already knows what we need?

The Creator does know. The problem is that we forget.

Before I became more acquainted with the Mi Sheberach prayer (the prayer for healing), I still prayed for the overall healing of those are suffering. I had a heart for those experiencing distress, though it was generic. It wasn’t actionable whatsoever. It didn’t require anything of me. As I took on the practice of mentioning the names of those people close to me who needed healing, I noticed something peculiar begin to happen inside.

If my wife tells me to go to the grocery store for five items, I still tell her to send me a message on my phone with the list or I’ll jot them down myself. Yes, I can’t keep five items in my mind. Still, as I began the practice of reciting a detailed Mi Sherberach, I found that I could rattle off a dozen names without hesitation. Some of these names I’ve just heard mentioned in my synagogue. They have no faces, ages, or specific ailments, but they exist as clearly in my mind as the Shema. Still, others are the names I’ve added — loved ones I care for deeply down to acquaintances I know are experiencing suffering. If you asked me for this list, you wouldn’t see a piece of paper come out of my pocket or a memo note open on my phone. Though a basic grocery list alludes me, I could rattle off their names without hesitation.

This memorization of the names of the people in my life who need healing is not just so that I can ask the Creator to change whatever cosmic plan was in store for these people. While I believe that my prayer echoes through the throne room of the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the one who needs to hear this prayer the most is me. Just as much as my laptop, my lunch bag, and whatever book I’m reading are a part of my day, so too are these people. This prayer forces me to carry them with me — to remember their affliction, to recall their faces, and to help them in their healing process however I can.

I was uttering the Mi Sheberach prayer the other day and, despite it being a whisper, a dear friend’s name echoed off the back wall of my living room like a ricocheting tennis ball. Her face flashed before my eyes and my heart filled with joy.

“I wonder how she’s doing. Where’s my phone…”


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Let My Soul Be Silent: Deflecting Insults With Contentment

Reading Time: 2 minutes

(2 min read)

Even though I was easily a head taller than most of my classmates, my lanky frame, red bushy hair, and freckles made me the target of many bullies. One attempt at replying to my “carrot top” insult was to reply that “carrot tops are green, genius” — which didn’t so much help me win the day as it just made me seem that much more interested in carrots. (Thanks for the suggestion, Dad, but it backfired.) I was at a loss for a clever comeback. So, I did what any 11-year-old would do when facing down a schoolyard bully — I asked my mother for advice.

“Whenever someone calls you a name, just say, ‘so?’ They’ll soon leave you alone.”

What? Just say ‘so?’?” Mom, that’s middle school social suicide. I would be essentially agreeing with my oppressor!

But I was out of options. So, I gave it a whirl.

“Man, you look like if Ronald McDonald and Gumby had a baby.” “So?”
“Haha, you admit it, you freckle-faced freak?”
“So?”
“You probably burst into flames from the refrigerator door light.”
“So?”
“Yeah, heh. If I tried to play ‘connect the dots’ with your freckles, I’d need a truckload of pens.”
“So?”
“Eh, uh, your hair looks like I could roast marshmallows over it.” “So?”
“Man, forget this. You’re not even worth it.”

And just like that, my willingness to endure this bully’s insults without letting them penetrate my, yes, extremely sensitive skin proved to be a strain greater than he could bear. Even more than his own disinterest in insulting the “uninsultable,” the idiocy and sad plight of his need to put others down became implanted in my 11-year-old psyche. For a brief moment, I started to pity this bully’s need for validation at the expense of losers like me.

I was reminded of these occurrences during my morning prayers. In the Amidah (Jewish standing prayer), there is a passage that follows my mother’s wisdom to a T.

“To those who curse me, let my soul be silent — let my soul be like dust to everyone.”

Insults can hurt, this is true. Words can damage. Still, when we take a step back from the situation and assume a third-party vantage point, we can begin to see that the true weakness lies with the offender. A sad emptiness exists within them. You may even notice them coveting your own contentment.

“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.”

Seneca

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Everything Is My Favorite: What Finally Made Minimalism Click For Me

Reading Time: 5 minutes

One of my best friends is a bit of slob. I’ve known the guy since high school, love him like a brother, and… he’s been this way the entire time I’ve known him. Visiting his apartment when I was in high school, I remember seeing what I thought was flour in his sink — it was mold. While attending college classes in the city, I moved in with him for $150 a month (not a bad deal for 2009), though I think part of my rent was tolerating his filth. The first week staying there, I got pink eye. Later, I would get in fights with him over him using my bowls for cereal and then leaving half-eaten batches out only for the milk to develop a personality. For the longest time, I thought the shower and tub were a tan color until I accidentally kicked up a patch of filth to expose the blinding white porcelain beneath. Needless to say, I showered with flip-flops on for the rest of my stay.

Despite all of his filth, there was something about his living habits of which I was envious — everything had its place. Despite not necessarily being poor (well, I mean, for a part-time college student), he didn’t have much stuff. He didn’t seem to want much stuff. I think he probably owned two or three pairs of pants, maybe two pairs of shorts, a handful of t-shirts, and probably one dress-casual outfit for buddies’ graduations and weddings. Nothing folded — everything was kept on hangers. He probably could have also rented out his walk-in closet for the amount of room left in it.

Looking back into my room, plastic tubs of random stuff lined the walls. Clothes I rarely wore, trinkets I rarely looked at or used — just…stuff. Every time I would move, which was pretty often for a self-supporting college student/bookstore employee, I’d either have to rent a truck or make a half dozen trips with my car just to shlep my stuff.

I kept carrying this stuff around for a solid decade — six apartments and finally into a house. In one of the apartments, my stuff nearly filled a room of its own. As long as I could shut the door, I thought I was escaping it. Still, the stuff still seemed to take up mental real estate, keeping it spinning like an overtaxed computer with too many systems running in the background.

Last year, my slob-yet-barebones buddy moved out of state for work. One of the perks of his job was a rent-free house with two bedrooms and two full bathrooms all to himself — quite the upgrade from a dinky-yet-acceptable one-bedroom apartment in the city.

I went to visit him in his new digs after he had been living there for a few months. Walking through the house, I recognized the same items from the apartment. A chair. A coffee table. A second-hand TV. A kayak…in the empty dining room. As we caught up, our voices echoed as though he hadn’t even moved in yet.

“Man, this place is empty. We need to get you some stuff,” I commented.

His response was simple, yet echoed in my mind as much as it did off the walls of his empty living room.

“Why?”

Exactly. Why would he need more stuff? Why would I feel that he needs more stuff?

The more I pondered it, the more I began to enjoy the spacious feel that his lack of unnecessary stuff provided. Every item in his house had a purpose — selected as though they were items on a campsite. Even the decorations had a unique significance. Drawings, framed ticket stubs, photographs, and artwork that doubled as history textbooks. Nothing mass-produced.

I became quite envious of the arrangement — not of his specific choices, but of the intentionality of his selections. All of his objects were only his favorite versions of whatever that thing was. For one reason or another, he had chosen only to be surrounded by his favorite stuff — most of which he used nearly every single day. As close friends, we’ve spoken about everything from the intricacies of civil rights to the meaning of life, relationships, divorce, jazz…but we’ve never spoken about his lack of unnecessary stuff. (He doesn’t even know I’m writing this.) My friend was the first minimalist I had ever met, yet he’s never uttered the word.

That trip and realization weren’t quite enough to get me to buy into minimalism. Hell, I didn’t even know that “minimalism” was a thing or the potential benefits of such a lifestyle. Not until I was flipping through Netflix and found a documentary that piqued my interest — Minimalism.

Minimalism is a documentary, directed by YouTube filmmaker Matt D’Avella, largely starring the duo-author pairing of Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, together known as The Minimalists. The premise of minimalism as a lifestyle is being hyper-intentional about the objects you choose to keep or acquire. The reason for this particularity is the idea that many of our possessions usually end up owning us — taking up mental and physical space while draining our emotions and bank accounts. A combination of keeping up with the Joneses and impulsively buying things that we think will enhance the quality of life has led to an existence packed to the gills with stuff and far less freedom — spatially, emotionally, and financially. At least, that’s what I know to be true now. As the minutes of the documentary ticked along, I still hadn’t fully bought it…until one sentence made it completely click for me.


“I don’t own a lot of clothes now, but all the clothes I do own are my favorite clothes.”

Joshua Fields Millburn

At that moment, I remembered rummaging through my sock drawer, casting aside substandard socks, looking for one of the four-or-so pairs of my favorite socks. I did the same thing with almost all of my clothes. Pants and shirts hung in my closet that I had either not worn in months or that I had worn reluctantly because all of my favorite versions were in the wash. When Joshua said that simple line, minimalism made complete sense for the first time. Everything I own could be my favorite. I suddenly felt like a kid who had just been told that they were now allowed to only eat ice cream for every meal — you know, before you actually attempted it.

Arguably, if you only own your favorite versions of each necessary item, you’re probably going to have significantly less stuff than the average person…and that’s actually great. This is because of what truth minimalism forces you to confront — that having or buying more stuff doesn’t make you happy. While it may be fun to open a new Amazon package, the appeal diminishes very soon after.

“The novelty, I think, of everything wears off, right? You get a new car and, ‘Ok, no one eats in here’ and two weeks later, there’s french fries in the seat. The whole novelty of it all, man, it wears off which is why happiness is a complete present state of being. That’s just what it is.”

Terrance Cunningham

Most of us, in some part of our minds, think that once we’ve attained a certain income, a certain size house in a certain neighborhood, that new car or that elevated status in the office that then we’ll be content. The truth is that contentment is a choice. For a minimalist, contentment isn’t achieved by stuff — it’s achieved by meaningful, intentional experiences.

“Happiness is the absence of desire. It’s what you feel when you no longer want to change your state.”

James Clear

Shortly after falling down the minimalist rabbit hole of books, videos, and podcasts, I downsized and decluttered substantially. After many loads to donation centers and downsizing objects that were just taking up space, I started to feel less burdened by my stuff. Even more powerfully, I began to realize that my happiness was not dependant on possessions, but on my relationships, on my own spiritual alignment, and seeking wonderful experiences. If anything, I could feel my happiness increase while my stress levels decreased with every load of stuff I gave away.

So, as a minimalist, do I still have stuff? Absolutely. The difference is that, like my friend, all of my stuff is my favorite.


And I’m happy to report that he keeps his new place much cleaner than his old place.


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