Living with less
I am not a minimalist. But I have minimalist aspirations; on a good day, even minimalist tendencies.
I know that I feel happier when my space and my mind aren’t so encumbered by stuff, and I have built up my mental muscles to recognise when I’m hanging on to an object but not getting value from it.
I can declutter ruthlessly when the mood strikes me, and I’ve learned to dodge the old temptations of sentimental attachment, ‘just in case’ hoarding, and sheer laziness. It’s not just my pen tray: my ‘box of wires’ (we’ve all got one, right?) and bookshelves have never been emptier.
But that doesn’t mean I’m sitting smug with my 99 possessions and my capsule wardrobe. Regular readers will know I’m very much prone to an impulse purchase. And you’ll have heard about the constant battle I’m fighting in my brain between the need for acquisition and exploration on the one hand, and refinement and consolidation on the other.
The obsession cycle
When my mind turns its focus to an aspect of my life, or a hobby — whether it’s jeans or wristwatches, camera lenses or bags, headphones or torches, mechanical keyboards or multitools, or indeed pens — I go through a familiar cycle of obsession, research, acquisition, then purge. Rarely do I identify a need, buy one ‘good enough’ product to fill it, and get on with my day. No, I need to be sure I’ve made the best decision.
Sometimes, as with pens, the binge cycle repeats over and over (and generally, the more interested I am in a hobby or type of product, the more that’s likely to happen). Eventually, if I’m lucky, I’ll reach a stable state where I hit a plateau of improvement, and my obsession will move elsewhere.
“Less, but better” is only half the story
When I go through these acquisition cycles, of course I set out looking for products that are better than I currently have, or ideally perfect — I believe that I’m learning from my experiences, making better choices, and ultimately that I can replace my previous inferior purchases with something just right: either an objectively superior product, or one that aligns more closely to the preferences I’ve developed during my exploration.
But I’m not just looking for better; I’m also looking for different. When I care about a category of product enough to think about it, research it, and explore the available options, I find myself becoming aware of the variety out there in the market, and I start to appreciate that variety, and the choice and flexibility it gives me. I learn that one size does not fit all. In other words, I want more than one.
In my pen tray, it’s being able to open the drawer and choose from different nib grades, ink colours, and pen sizes, as well as aesthetic options. But the same degree of variety is available in almost every product category, from kitchen knives to headphones.
I’m not a “one watch guy”. But I’d like to be.
I know I’m not unique in wanting variety, or feeling uncomfortable about this desire. There’s a Hodinkee article from 2013 titled “fantasies about being a one-watch guy“. Yes, believe it or not, some people have just one wristwatch they use to tell the time. They get up in the morning, strap it on, and go to work. That’s my brother: he has worn the same Omega Aqua Terra every day for a decade. I envy that simplicity, the freedom to just go about your day without having to choose! But I know it doesn’t work for me. I want different dial colours to match my mood, and the ability to choose a chronograph, a GMT, a diver, a dress watch to suit what I’m doing that day. I get bored.
I’ve been down this road often enough, across enough categories of product, and for enough years, that I’ve started noticing some trends emerging.
Most importantly, I’ve noticed that my desire to increase variety balances against the other forces — the need to free up space and money, the inconvenience of maintenance, obvious overlap between options.
In a surprising number of product categories, I find a point of equilibrium at around four or five products. This seems to be the optimum set size for me.
Just as in my pen collection, thinking about the things I own as sets, rather than individual products, lets me better understand their value to me and where I have gaps or opportunities for consolidation and optimisation.
And if you’re currently saying wow, he’s really overthinking this… yes, yes I am.
Let’s just look at a few examples.
I have settled on four fragrances: Old Spice, Laboratory Perfumes Tonka, Bvlgari Wood Essence, Dior Eau Sauvage.
Old Spice may be a naff fragrance, but it was my dad’s daily wear when I was growing up, and I find it a comforting scent; I sometimes put it on just before bed. Eau Sauvage is light and fresh; it hardly lasts but it’s my summer and dress-up scent, and I get to pretend I’m Steve McQueen. Bvlgari is heavier, smokier; it’s for evenings. And Tonka is my distinctive day-wear for the office from an unusual UK-based house.
Five: Tudor Black Bay GMT, Farer Lander Chrono, Seiko SARB-035, Junghans handwound, G-shock.
I’m not quite settled with my watches yet, and if I had a sudden huge disposable income I would make some investments resulting in a lot of change. But you can see the sketched lines of a planned collection emerging, built around different styles, and functions, and based to some extent on some fuzzy rules: watches should have date windows. They should have water resistance. Steel cases. Automatic movements. Ideally sapphire crystals.
The Tudor ticks all those boxes. It’s a GMT, on a bracelet, with sober classic styling. It would be my ‘one watch’, and it’s my homage to my dad’s long-gone Rolex; it is practical, beautiful, and my first choice.
The Farer has style, panache and a gorgeous dial. It also ticks all my boxes. It’s my chrono on a strap and my second choice. But I have several other chronos I fancy…
The SARB has my favourite hands on any watch; really I’d like a Grand Seiko instead, but funds say otherwise. Anyway, the SARB ticks almost all my boxes and I can’t fault it. It’s not quite a dress watch or a field watch, but it’s a good everyday three-hander.
The Junghans has an acrylic crystal, handwound movement and no water resistance, as well as a tiny 34mm size. Although I love its typography and Bauhaus minimalism, I have to admit that my brain says to sell it.
Every collection needs a G-shock, in my opinion, for DIY, sport, garden work. Which brings me to 5.
Four: Muyshondt Aeon Mk3, EagTac D25C, Zebralight H32C, Astrolux S41.
I am never without a pocket torch. You always need light. And I have learned over dozens of purchases what I need in my pocket. With the exception of the tiny Muyshondt, all my EDC lights now use CR123 batteries and they all have high-CRI neutral emitters. They all start in low, resist accidental activation, and have relatively simple interfaces I know well. And I can fit them all in the coin pocket of my jeans.
Four: Jabra 65t, Jabra 85h, Nuraphones, Hifiman 400
My set of headphones covers the spectrum between size and sound quality. The 65t earbuds are most portable; the 85h is my noise-cancelling set for work; Nuraphones sound great and have excellent isolation and, while large, are still wireless. The Hifiman are huge, open-back and wired, so they are for pure sound quality at my desk. I’m happy, but may upgrade the 65t to the new 85t.
Five: Alpha One-Niner Chio, Rickshaw Bento Bag, Topo Quick Pack, 5.11 Rush 12, Stuart & Lau Cary
I’m pretty settled here. I use the Cary for work. The 5.11 when I need a non-hiking rucksack. The other three are small messenger-style bags that I can rotate if the mood takes me or if I need different size or organisation. Shout out to my long-retired Domke f3x, which sits in my wardrobe as camera equipment storage.
Well, if you’ve got to the end of this post, congratulations and thank you. This turned from a passing observation into an exhaustive list. But I wonder if you too also conceive of the things you own as miniature collections, designed to complement each other, and optimise to a certain number that balances choice against efficiency?