My problem with the 20/20 rule as a minimalist

The Minimalists are known to have established the 20/20 rule as a motivation to get rid of »just-in-case items«. Or at least I have never heard of anyone else claiming it. (If there was, they are probably buried underneath two metric tons of The Minimalists merch.)

Anything we get rid of that we truly need, we can replace for less than $20 in less than 20 minutes from our current location.

The Minimalists · »Just-In-Case Items«

What is the 20/20 rule?

The 20/20 rule, by their definition, emphasizes on the fact that you don’t have to keep »maybe-items«. That is, things you just hold on to because you might need them some day. The rule tries to tackle issues such as

(a) the fear of needing something you rarely use later being highly irrational, and

(b) in a lot of cases, it is all just a logistic issue anyway.

So, what is weighted against each other here are the time and space clutter costs you on a daily basis, and the time and money it actually costs you to get an item back, in case you really need it.

And it is analyzed w.r.t. the fact that most of us never really need any of those items that we are so afraid of losing. The rule is supposed to help you get over that hurdle of opting to declutter of something. It’s meant to help you understand that nothing in life is ever 100%. You can never be sure that you won’t need something later on. But that should not stop you from decluttering.

Flaws of the 20/20 rule

Essentially, I agree with the concept of the 20/20-rule. It is basically a good idea. But it is coming from a place of privilege, and in my opinion, it needs adaptation. Here are two examples as to why:

  1. For a single mom working two jobs, wasting 20 minutes on getting back some decluttered item she really needs is a lot of time.
  2. Similarly, for someone living below the poverty line, $20 might be a lot of money. For me, in my student days, that was two weeks of food.

So it is not always that simple or black-and-white. And The Minimalists afaik do not pick up on that issue. But I think it should be added to the rule as an important annotation: You do not need to get rid of everything that you can replace in under 20 minutes for $20, just because you hypothetically could.

It’s not very sustainable

This rule is also not very sustainable. After all, since 2020, more than ever, we live in an age of just ordering anything online. People even get upset when it’s not being delivered the next day. On the amazon return form, it is an option to answer »Why do you want to return the item?« by it having been delivered »too late«.

If this startles you because you think that sounds like a valid reason to return something, I urge you to think again. It’s not like people order their wedding dresses there. On average, people order tech, everyday items and sports gear. Nothing that pops into my head as very time-sensitive (just have a look at their best sellers page—you tell me). People are sensitive, not delivery dates. They are sensitive to every little mundane problem. Because they are used to instant gratification.

And I think that minimalism as a movement should simply not add to that. Instead, minimalism should make people become aware of what they need and stick to those reduced needs as a sustainable and mental heath nurturing lifestyle.

But if we advise people to get rid of everything that could be ordered in less than 20 minutes for under $20, then we advise them to be wasteful. And even if the rule is explicitly about local purchases, I believe this is what it will come down to in real-life anyway.

Improving and adapting the 20/20 rule

Therefore, let’s update the 20/20 rule, so that it fits modern standards of sustainability and also becomes more inclusive to those who might not have a lot of time or money (like Joshua and Ryan, lol, sorry, couldn’t keep that one inside).

How much money is »peanuts« to you?

To me, $20 (a bit less than 20€) isn’t peanuts. It’s peanuts compared to my wage, but it’s not peanuts measured by what I, as a minimalist, spend on everyday items. My kid’s jacket was cheaper than $20. Almost all of her toys were. That neither determines their worth nor the effort I need to put in to get those things.

I would say, my peanuts offset is probably somewhere between 5€ and 10€.

What does 20 minutes mean?

Yes, it might only take me 20 minutes to get something back that I decluttered. But does it involve having to deal with humans? Do I need to make an unpleasant phone call? And is the 20 minutes the whole process or does that mean 19 minutes of searching and ordering it and 1 minute to receive the parcel? Because that one minute can easily expand into one hour if the package is delivered to that central Munich post office, oh f*ck no, no thank you!

I mean, if you’re an introvert, maybe going to the post office is such a delight to you as it is to me…? ;^) Just saying… 20 minutes might not reflect the level of discomfort you are willing to tolerate just to get something back you already had at some point.

Applying the rule to your benefit

Decluttering should be about making things easier and not over-thinking everything to the tiniest detail. So it is important that you understand the 20/20 rule not as a set-in-stone principle of minimalism, but a self-motivation hack.

It is meant to help you decide in situations where you are unsure whether or not to declutter something. And that especially applies to items that are easily and fast replaced. What that means is for you to determine.

I personally think that the 20/20 rule is not good as a standalone exercise. Not if it means to go through all your stuff and check each object, whether or not it is a »maybe-item«. Because usually, with those things, you just know »who they are«, don’t you? Those are the tiny little annoying objects you internally roll your eyes upon whenever you open that one drawer…

So rather than going on a scavenger hunt to find every single little useless thing you have, just do the Marie Kondo method—or declutter room-by-room. There are so many good options. I’d even go as far as saying: There are no experts on decluttering and you don’t need any method. Just start, and only stop when you are done. But that’s heresy in the minimalism bubble, so I better shut up now…

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