What is minimalism? Finding a definition of minimalism.

A minimalist flatlay of things: pen, pencil, ebook reader, purse, wireless headphones

A good definition of minimalism can help you understand how to implement minimalism into your everyday life. I like definitions, they create clarity. So I googled »What is minimalism?«, and I was a bit disappointed…

The definition(s) of minimalism – a comprehensive analysis

Many different definitions of minimalism can be found on the Internet. The best-known one would probably be this:

Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.

The Minimalists »What is minimalism?«

This definition of minimalism ranks on the first Google page. It is very catchy. However, I do not agree with it, because of one fundamental problem:

Minimalism does not necessarily have to be just a tool to get you to a certain clutter-free state or point in life. It can also be an everyday practice. It can be just like mindfulness exercises or the practice of gratitude.

Some people also regard it as a lifestyle, which, in my opinion, is a more holistic approach. The above quote is rather a definition of decluttering than of minimalism. It focuses strongly on the psychological effects of a physical process, rather than acknowledging the process or practice itself.

Most »definitions« of minimalism are opinions

minimalism is intentionally living with only the things I really need—those items that support my purpose. I am removing the distraction of excess possessions so I can focus more on those things that matter most.

»What Is Minimalism?« by Joshua Becker

This is the wishy-washy definition of minimalism then, I guess. In comparison to the definition by The Minimalists, it puts emphasis on a positive interpretation, introducing purpose and need. But if you invert it, you can see, how ill-defined this actually is:

Most »average people« would probably not describe their »non-minimalist« lifestyle as living unintentionally with a lot of things they do not need and which do not add purpose, would they?

Minimalism is not a lack of something. It’s simply the perfect amount of something.

Nicholas Burroughs (I have no idea where he said this but it is all over the internet)

This definition of minimalism comes from the perspective of a designer. In terms of vagueness it does not fall short of the preceding statements. But I like how concise it is. That is also everything I have to say about it, and because I think the definitions of minimalism will not get better on the third Google page, I will leave it to that.

How to find a comprehensive definition of minimalism

So, let’s try to do this my way, which would be the scientific approach. For me (I’m a physicist), a definition needs to propose a useful description and distinguish a term from misinterpretations and from other terms with a similar scope.

All the above statements are correct in their own poetic way, but they are just describing opinions of aspects of minimalism and not minimalism itself. They are not trying to give a comprehensive description of the subject.

Scope or context

But what would that be? First, we need to define the scope of our definition of minimalism.

Minimalism as a word is not just used in terms of a lifestyle. It is used in architecture, art, music and design, in literature even. But we want to concentrate on minimalism as a lifestyle here.

This is still a very vague. So I think, it would be better to specify it even more. Is minimalism a technique? What kind of technique? Or is it a philosophy? In my opinion, philosophy goes a bit too far, because, come on, we probably should not put a lifestyle on the same level as the fundamental works from Hellenistic philosophy…

Minimalism as a practice or strategy

So, you could say that minimalism is a technique or strategy. I personally favor the descriptive term »behavioral strategy or practice«, because it is both theoretical and practical. And essentially, for most people, minimalism is a practice and not just a concept.

It does not matter whether you apply this practice to your everyday life, just to get to a certain state, or if you cultivate it, as the basis of you everyday decisions.

If you think about it, minimalism is much like a religion or an ethic. It comes with certain rules – either socially or personally defined, but a general understanding of it in society exists, so it is not completely ill-defined. Also, there are no sanctions, if you »fall from minimalism«. At least I hope so…


Now, the next step would be to describe the use or application of minimalism. What is it applied to and how?

The answer to that is given in various ways in the above definitions and many others you might find on the Internet: To get rid of unnecessary stuff, to make life easier, to reach some sort of balance.

These are all correct statements, but they lack the precision of a proper definition. Let’s try to fix this.

So, minimalism can be applied to life in general? Well, that would be way too… (pun intended) generalized, right? I mean: Can you apply minimalism to the way you take a shıt? Can you apply it to the way you hold your glass or how you speak? Possibly. But to how many people would these aspects be relevant? Probably not that many.

What does »minimalism« mean to most people?

A definition has to respect relevancy, otherwise it is too generalized and will also get too wordy.

So what can minimalism be applied to?

Minimalism can be applied to various aspects of life. Mostly it is applied to physical possessions, but apart from that also to immaterial possessions, processes or concepts.

In my opinion, processes in life usually include physical objects, and manifest as thoughts. Thoughts happen in the human brain (like thought processes or theories) and therefore are not less physical than any object you can touch – it is all just biochemistry.

But some might disagree, because in the non-scientific context, those are often distinguished, e.g. as in »physical« vs. »mental« clutter. So this would be another option to refine our definition of minimalism.

Furthermore, the idea of a theoretical concept to which minimalism as a principle can be applied, would also be a valid example of application here, since minimalism itself is a concept or includes concepts (however nit-picky you want to be here).

Therefore, let us put it this way:

Definition of minimalism

Minimalism is the concept and practice of reducing the amount|maintaining a significantly reduced amount of personal physical belongings|activities|processes (both physical and mental) that are associated with complications|clutter, in regard to one or more aspects of life.

The benefits of minimalism are often described as an increase of free time|reduction of stressors|improvement of well-being|improvement of mental capacity (vulgo »headspace«) and consequently an overall or partial increase of quality of life.

»|« is the logical »or« operator, vulgo »and/or«.

What is the definition of minimalism?

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  • Reply
    March 22, 2021 at 12:59 pm

    This is the most complete and well thought out definition of minimalism I have encountered.

    • Reply
      Undine Almani
      March 23, 2021 at 3:54 am

      Thank you so much! I really appreciate it. ♥

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