For over three years, I lived out of a single backpack.
I want to preface this by saying one thing: this was NOT intentional.
I had set out with the idea to backpack Europe and Southeast Asia for a few months, then settle down in a city for a year or two. Then, midway through my travels, COVID-19 hit.
I was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, when it happened and couldn’t return to my home country (for many reasons that I won’t bore you with). Naively, I thought I’d wait it out until the borders reopened…
…and a year and a half later, I was still living in Vietnam.
During that time, I refrained from buying things I didn’t really need. I was mindful of every purchase I made, weighing the pros and cons and whether I really needed that item. After all, it wasn’t my permanent home, and any purchases I made were most likely short-term—or I’d have to swap it with something else in my backpack.
When I eventually made it home, everything returned to business as usual.
I rented an apartment, bought furniture, and went about my life. Then one day, I had brought my gym gear to work in a backpack when a colleague said to me, “My goodness, that’s a big bag.”
Then I realized: it WAS a big bag.
It was the backpack that I used to travel the world.
I’ll repeat that one more time.
The backpack I had lived out of for three years—the backpack that held ALL of my personal possessions that I needed to survive—could now only fit my gym gear.
I had majorly overcorrected and gone from having less to having more than I needed.
This realization ☝️ was more than enough to make me pause, reflect on the lessons I learned from my backpacking days, and make a conscious effort to be more deliberate about what I brought into my life.
If you’re trying to do the same (or even considering it), here are eight lessons from my experience that may help you bring more minimalism into your life.
Lesson #1: Do an audit of what you have
All of us have possessions in our lives that we love. However, one thing that living out of a backpack taught me is that what we own and what we use are two very different things.
For example, I own plenty of clothes that I had put in storage. But when I was traveling, I needed to be very selective about the clothes I brought along.
When I went home and saw my wardrobe, I had forgotten about half the stuff in there—and I didn’t miss it at all.
Take stock of what you have, and note how often you actually use it. If the answer is “years,” “I can’t remember,” or “never,” it may be time to let it go.
Lesson #2: Be deliberate with what you bring into your life
Buying things on impulse is something we all do, particularly with how many products are available at our fingertips now (thanks, online shopping). The tough part is that this little habit of buying things on impulse leads to just that: a lot of things that aren’t necessary.
While we all need a good splurge now and then, the more you can keep this in check, the better. One of the best ways to do this is to ask yourself the following questions before you type in your credit card number or hit “buy now:”
If you had a finite number of possessions and had to swap it for another item you already own, would you do it?
Do you actually need this, or do you just want it?
I also have a rule for shopping: I give myself a cooling-off period. I typically wait before making a purchase, whether it’s overnight, several days, or even weeks. If I still want the item at the end of it, I know that at least I’ve given myself enough time to think it through.
Lesson #3: Minimalism is about much more than owning less
The cheaper your pleasures, the richer you’ll be.
—Henry David Thoreau
At the heart of it, minimalist living is about having less stuff. But there are so many other benefits that go beyond simply having few possessions.
Let’s start with the most basic one: when you own less, you have less clutter lying around. An uncluttered home often translates to an uncluttered mind because your space becomes more tranquil, peaceful, and relaxing.
Minimalist living was also a godsend for my wallet. Being deliberate about the items I brought into my life meant I inadvertently spent less. Interestingly, what I did buy tended to be high-quality too, which, while costing more, ended up lasting much longer than cheaper counterparts.
When I really dug into it, I found that there are so many more benefits:
It’s better for the environment. When you buy less, you throw away less—supporting a more sustainable way of living.
It’s easier to clean. Not having a lot of stuff speeds up the cleaning process significantly. I found that when I wasn’t moving a bajillion items off a table to wipe it down or shuffling stuff around my living room, it was far easier to keep things tidy (or at least give the illusion of tidiness).
It allows you to focus on other things. Freeing your mind from wanting more means having mental real estate for your hobbies or side hustle.
Lesson #4: Minimalism gives items purpose
Does this item spark joy?
I’m no Marie Kondo, nor do I claim to follow her principles. But one thing she did inspire me to do was ask myself if every item in my home had a purpose.
Let me be clear: the purpose of something can purely be because it looks nice and makes you feel better in your home. It doesn’t have to be any more than this. However, asking yourself whether an item serves a purpose is a great way to distinguish between what you do and don’t need in the home.
Lesson #5: Recognize you need a lot less than you think
What do you do on a daily basis?
If you’re like the average person, your routine probably goes a little like this: wake up, go to work or to study, come home, exercise, and hang out with friends and family. And when you reflect on what you actually need to have in your daily life to facilitate that, you’ll probably discover that it’s just not that much.
When you start thinking about the essentials in your life, it quickly becomes evident that we can all survive on much less than we’d like to believe. Knowing this can be liberating: when so much is unnecessary, it’s a lot easier to adopt the “less is more” approach.
Lesson #6: Double down on efficiency
One of the first things I did when living out of a backpack was think about how I could get the most use out of an item.
For example, rather than lug around books and magazines, I brought a Kindle for reading on long journeys. I bought a flask that I could use as both a portable coffee cup and a water bottle, and a microfiber towel that doubled down as a bath towel and a gym towel.
Having limited space for my possessions forced me to be efficient with every purchase—and this way of thinking has continued with me to this day.
Lesson #7: Start small
Not everyone will (or should) jump into living out of a backpack like I did.
That level of change is drastic and, if I’m completely honest, unnecessary. Instead, if you want to live more simply, you can start with the basics. These include things like:
clearing clutter out of one room every month
digitizing any certificates or photos you have lying around
resisting the urge to buy one thing a week
writing a list of the necessities in your life
It may not feel like a lot to begin with. However, these incremental changes will stack up, and you’ll be living the minimalist lifestyle before you know it.
Lesson #8: It’s not just about objects
Culling down what you own is an important part of minimalist living, but it’s far from the only one. Over time, I learned that minimalism is as much about what’s in your mind and your day as it is about what’s in your home.
I spent the longest time free of possessions, but I’d jam-pack my week with activities (often back-to-back). This wouldn’t allow me the breathing room I needed to enjoy a more simple way of life.
Likewise, I’d have a million things going through my head every day and never take time to do a mental audit to see which thoughts were serving me well and which were adding noise to the mix.
Once you feel like you’ve got the hang of decluttering and simplifying your space, you can start looking for ways to apply this in other areas of your life:
Cut down your daily screen time. If there’s one thing that drains us mentally, it’s spending too much time staring at screens. Experiment with different ways to reduce screen time, such as setting a time limit on your apps or having a screen-free hour before bed.
Find five minutes to meditate. I’m terrible at meditation, but it’s something I desperately wish I could do. Meditation is the mental equivalent of minimalist living because it clears all the clutter from your brain. Plus, it helps you focus and gain clarity. Experiment with an app like headspace or Calm, or try a guided meditation on YouTube.
Practice mindfulness. Take some time in the day to observe your thoughts and actions and be present in the moment. Try not to think about what’s coming up next or when your next project is due; instead, focus on what your body is doing, pay attention to your breathing, and observe your surroundings. Doing this for 10-15 minutes makes a world of difference, particularly if you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
Less is absolutely more
Whether it’s in your home, your work, or your mind, living a minimalist lifestyle has shown me that less is absolutely more. And while I’m not an advocate of going to extremes, like owning less than 15 items, I think that everyone can benefit from some degree of minimalism in their life.
Lastly, remember: this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy owning items or buying new things. It just helps you become more deliberate about what you bring into your spaces, so you’re actively creating the type of life you want to live.