Robert Witham

Nomadic minimalist, writer, and videographer

Category: Simplicity (page 1 of 2)

The Forced Simplicity of Downsizing to a Smaller Space

I have been a minimalist for many years, but even so there is a constant process of decluttering. It seems that even with care to not acquire new and unneeded stuff, it is still necessary to occasionally purge. My recent move from a cargo trailer conversion (53 square feet) to a minivan (42 square feet and less height) has prompted a forced downsizing even though, by nearly all standards, I didn’t have a lot of stuff in the trailer.

As a full-time, digital nomad, I am able to travel the country and work from nearly anywhere. Full-time or long-term travel is an incredible opportunity that in the past was only available to the truly wealthy. Now, thanks to portable electronics, the Internet, solar and battery power, and wireless data access, it is possible for people who are in a variety of fields to work on the road.

As a writer and videographer (and sometimes web developer), I can do anything on the road that I could do in an office. Actually, my experience has been that I am more productive working in my mobile office than I am in a traditional office. In the past year, I have worked from a mobile office in a Toyota Camry, a converted trailer, and a minivan. Along the way I have also worked in libraries, coffee shops, motel rooms, and even an occasional house. All indications are that this trend of people working remotely will accelerate over the coming years.

Why declutter

The decluttering process is important to me for several reasons. It was important when I lived in a sticks-and-bricks residence and worked in an office, but it is especially important now that I live and work in a micro-RV.

First, less stuff makes it easier to organize things. Organization is essential when you live and work in a small space. Believe it or not, you really can lose things in a space as small as a minivan. Good organization – and a lack of clutter – allows me to quickly and easily find anything that I need.

Second, clutter is mentally taxing, though many people do not appreciate this fact. The more stuff that you need to keep track of and maintain, the more mental energy is required. Reducing clutter frees mental energy for things that matter most.

Third, a simple, minimalist living and working space allows me to be more productive. As a freelancer, I am paid to produce content rather than to log a certain number of hours each day. The faster and more efficiently that I can work, the more money that I can earn – or the fewer hours I need to work each week. Let’s face it, I am not a digital nomad so that I can work a ridiculous number of hours. I am a digital nomad so that I can enjoy nature and explore new and interesting places.

Forced simplicity

I love minimalism and simple living. These disciplines allow me to experience more freedom because I am not in bondage to stuff. Free from the costs and storage constraints that excess possessions impose on a person, I am able to pursue things that, to me, are more important that stuff. I am able instead to spend more time on experiences and relationships.

In this context, my current downsizing effort to better fit into a smaller space is not an unpleasant chore. It is, instead, a freeing experience. Moving into a smaller space merely provided the impetus to engage in some decluttering that I had already been wanting to do. Downsizing to a smaller space may impose a forced simplicity, but it is a welcome imposition.

Free as a Bird

Free as a bird. It’s a common expression in American English, but what exactly does it mean?

Human beings have an innate desire for freedom. We want to be free from oppression, free from financial enslavement, and free from excessive regulation or government control. We also, unfortunately, too often want to be free of moral and ethical constraints.

In our “civilized,” modern world, most people live cut off from nature. Many people have no idea where their food comes from (it is not a grocery store), where their water comes from (it is not the tap or a bottle), about the rhythms of the sun and moon, or about natural (and unnatural) weather patterns and trends. Why? It is because our modern world has insulated us from each of these natural experiences – and many more.

Thus it is, when we see a wild animal acting freely, that we sometimes feel a pang of envy. That pang reminds us that we have traded our birthrights as free men and women for the comforts and conveniences of modern life. We have exchanged our natural environment for an artificial one that insulates us from the real world, but this exchange comes at a steep cost.

To live as free as a bird is still possible, but achieving it requires trading many of the comforts to which we have become accustomed. Freedom, after all, is never really free. Freedom, whether spiritual, financial, or lifestyle, necessarily requires sacrifice. You can live as free as a wild animal, and as free as many humans have indeed lived throughout history, but not with a mortgage, utility bills, car payment, and most of the other enslavements of modern life. In other words, you will need to sacrifice many “comforts” in order to be free.

The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau understood this concept clearly. Consider his perspective on luxuries and comforts:

> “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor.”

There are countless examples of philosophers, saints, and mystics throughout the ages who discovered that the path toward freedom, enlightenment, and growth involved voluntarily simplicity. Setting aside the distractions and encumbrances that we have become accustomed to is often an essential step in the journey toward a more more intentional, meaningful, and enlightened life.

Conserving Natural Resources as a Nomad

Conserving natural resources can seem difficult or even feel like deprivation when you live in a house and are connected to the grid. As a nomad or perpetual traveler, conserving natural resources quickly becomes a natural part of life. This is true whether or not you are concerned about your environmental footprint.

Washing laundry a few days ago started me thinking about this difference in perspective on natural resource usage. As I was washing a few pieces of clothing in a bucket, I found myself feeling frustrated that I had to waste an entire gallon of water to wash the clothes. After all, I can only carry just so much water in my trailer, and refilling water requires a trip into town and costs 25 cents per gallon.

While 25 cents per gallon may be a bargain for good, clean water, it does make you aware that there is a cost associated with each gallon. Further, the drive into town will use about one gallon of gas round-trip, which is another $2.50 with current fuel prices. There is also the issue of not wanting to drive into the city for any reason as I much prefer being out in nature.

Washing machines, by contrast, can use up to 40 gallons of water to wash one load of laundry. According to SF Gate Home Guides, top-loading washers may use about 40 gallons, while energy-efficient, front-loading washers still use 15-30 gallons per load. Using one gallon of water to wash laundry seems a whole lot more reasonable when compared to the average machine usage, yet is still feels wasteful.

This automatic conservation of resources is multiplied out many times for nomads and perpetual travelers. When you carry everything that you own with you as you move about the world, you cannot help but become more aware of your usage of resources. This applies to water, electricity, propane, food, trash, and more.

Ask any full-time, boondocking RVer how long they can go before needing to empty holding tanks, and they can probably tell you to the day. They also will be able to readily tell you how much water they use for a shower or to wash dishes, and what steps they take to minimize water usage. Similarly, any traveler who needs to power electronics for work will also readily know how long devices can run on a charge, how to extend the battery life of electronic devices, and how long they can run different devices on a typical day. Those of us who rely on solar power are also acutely aware of the impact the sun has on available power each day.

My water is purchased one gallon at a time as needed, so I am very conservative with water usage and hate using it for anything besides drinking or cooking. I wash dishes using a spray bottle, so it requires only a few ounces of water instead of gallons when washing with running water (hat tip to Debra Dickinson for telling me about this trick). My electricity is generated by the sun and stored in batteries, so I monitor electric usage to be sure I do not run out of power or deplete and damage my batteries. My lighting is provided by a solar-powered lantern that is recharged each day by the sun. Cooking is powered by propane and is carefully planned to avoid wasting fuel. Similarly, when I do need heat to take the edge off, I use a small, propane heater, but only run it when necessary.

Nomads and perpetual travelers end up having a much smaller carbon footprint than the average American, regardless of whether or not they are consciously trying to be environmentally responsible. The nature of the lifestyle requires conserving natural resources, and this is a good thing for everyone and for the planet.

Whether you are a nomad or live in a house in the city, it is possible to conserve natural resources and use only a small fraction of the resources that are consumed by most people. This conservation of natural resources benefits the planet and future generations who will also need access to water and fuel. It also saves a lot of money, which is an essential ingredient in a life of freedom – wherever and however you may choose to live.

TBI Nomads

Brain injuries are a strange thing. In many cases, survivors of traumatic brain injuries look completely normal. In fact, one friend and TBI survivor recently referred to it as an “invisible disability” when talking about this situation. This is an apt description.

The brain is an amazingly complex organ that is still far from being completely understood. The brain controls life-sustaining functions, voluntary motor function, conscious awareness and thought, and even personality.

Brain injuries often alter some or all of these processes. Variations in injuries, treatment, and recovery mean that two people with relatively similar brain injuries may experience vastly different outcomes.

My own traumatic brain injury nearly 20 years ago included several distinct components, including a subdural hematoma, coup contrecoup injury, and diffuse axonal shearing. In short, I had bleeding inside my skull, my brain was bruised from bouncing against my skull, and the axons that allow neurons to send messages within the brain were damaged and torn.

The symptoms that followed my immediate recovery were varied and debilitating. I experienced petit mal (absence) seizures, vertigo, dyslexia, hearing loss, personality changes, difficulty with focus and concentration, and visual and auditory sensory overload.

Fortunately, the worst of my symptoms improved with time, but some of them persist to this day. The seizures eventually resolved, and the vertigo improved to where it rarely a problem. My focus and concentration improved slowly and with a lot of work to relearn things like being able to read and actually remember what I had read. The dyslexia continues to affect me with writing, but oddly enough poses minimal problems with typing while making it impossible to write in cursive or even to sign my own name without jumbling the letters. The hearing loss, personality changes, and sensory overload have all turned out to be permanent problems.

I have been thinking a lot about my own brain injury and the effects that it has had on my life over the past few days. That is why this post is being written now instead of years ago. A good friend, Debra Dickinson, is also a nomad who is dealing with the effects of a traumatic brain injury. Debra bravely shares her journey on her own blog. Debra was the catalyst for two things that led me to make some interesting realizations about myself. First, reading Debra’s blog led to many occasions where I could relate to what she was sharing. Second, as I spent some time reflecting on my own experiences dealing with TBI in the hopes of encouraging Debra I began to understand with new clarity some things about my own situation.

Personality changes

My personality and interests changed markedly following my injury, though it took time to become aware of these changes. Other annoyances like seizures confused the matter during the early weeks and months.

I spent two years in counseling attempting to deal with the changes in personality and interests. I did not know how to process that I was a different person than I had been previously. During these two years I never did come to terms with the changes, though it was not for lack of effort on the part of my psychologist. The truth is that I am not sure when I came to think of the new me as normal, but I did. I did not, however, manage to come to terms with the changes. I just sort of adjusted to a new normal.

Some of the more obvious leftovers from my brain injury are impossible to forget. The permanent hearing loss, for example, is a constant problem. The fact that I was a different person, with different interests, was somehow forgotten.

The trouble is that my new normal is far from what most people would consider normal.

It was nearly two years after my brain injury when my interest in minimalism and extensive travel began to develop. This is not a coincidence, but is part of the new personality and interests that emerged following the brain injury.

Simplicity and minimalism

Simplicity and minimalism, for me, are literally essential. I am compelled to reduce everything to its simplest form and to eliminate anything else. It is a compulsion, and my mind cannot rest in the midst of clutter. Even organized clutter is not tolerable because I am still thinking about the excess stuff in a box, drawer, or closet.

This compulsion for simplicity and minimalism is not limited to physical possessions. It also applies to digital clutter, workflow, lifestyle, and more. Everything must be as simple and minimal as possible or my brain just keeps on working trying to find ways to simplify.

Nomadism

Travel too has become essential. I just cannot stay in one place for more than a few weeks without experiencing increasing wanderlust. A few months is the absolute maximum that I can handle being in one place and that comes with increasing mental distraction. Spending more than a few weeks in one place results in my mental focus declining as I am increasingly distracted by thoughts of changing the view and pursuing a new experience.

Sensory overload

My inability to deal with visual or auditory stimulation has perplexed more than a few people, though likely Terri and my children dealt with this more than anyone. The human brain normally filters out the majority of sensory input so that only input the brain deems important is thought about consciously. My brain no longer filters everything properly, particularly auditory and visual input, so noise or visual activity completely overwhelm me. The result of this sensory overload is that I may shut down mentally or become increasingly agitated and anxious as the “fight or flight” response starts.

A perfect example of this is when I am a city. The noise and traffic completely overwhelm me and I quickly begin to panic as I try to find an escape. Depending on how rested I am and how calm my brain is, I may make it from a few minutes to a few hours before I start to become overwhelmed. It is never more than a few hours.

The sensory overload makes it impossible for me to spend any time in a city or in a noisy or busy group setting. I have to escape because the anxiety builds to the point where “fight or flight” are the only two options and one of them must happen immediately. As a consequence, I try to avoid cities and any necessary trips are planned for when I a not tired, traffic will be light, and I can get in and out in 1-2 hours at most.

TBI Nomad

I cannot change the effects of my brain injury, but can only learn the best ways to manage those effects. The reality is that I was fortunate to survive the injury so dealing with permanent issues like hearing loss, personality changes, and sensory overload is a small price to pay. This does not, however, mean that the effects can be ignored or wished away.

Minimalism and simplicity are essential for my sanity. My brain does not stop when there is clutter, excess, or disorganization. The mental distraction prevents me from focusing on more important things (like my work) and kills creativity. I have to live a simple life in order to function.

Nomadism is essential for my sanity. Staying in one place for more than a few weeks or months causes my brain to become hyperfocused on escaping. The more time that passes, the more the anxiety builds until it is not only mental but emotional as well. I have to be a nomad in order to function.

Spending extended amounts of time in quiet and peaceful environments is essential for my sanity. The sensory overload from auditory and visual stimulation makes it impossible for me to spend time in chaotic or distracting environments. I have to spend most of my time in quiet, peaceful environments in order to function.

I could write more, but I think this at least touches on the big issues that I still deal with from my brain injury. I was fortunate, not only to survive but to recover better than many people who suffer a similar mechanism of injury. The fact that I am fortunate, however, does not change the fact that it was a life-altering injury. I am not “normal” and I am not the same person that I was before my brain injury.

N.B. Visit my friend Debra’s blog for an excellent and bravely honest chronicle of living with the effects of brain injury and the ways that spending time in nature as a nomad can actually promote healing.

Busyness

Busyness seems to have become a hallmark of our time, a sort of unquestioned supposed virtue. We are applauded when we are “busy,” as if being busy were necessarily a good thing.

Tell someone that you are busy and you will almost certainly receive a favorable response. Tell someone that you are practicing the art of stillness, or that you are reserving large blocks of your time to cultivate creativity, and you will almost certainly be met with an uncomprehending or even hostile response.

Today I was free of the office, but had plenty of freelance work scheduled. And then I was faced with a choice: I could spend the entire day working or take a couple of hours away to play with my granddaughters at the park on a sunny afternoon. I chose the important thing over the urgent thing and did not regret my decision. The catch is that it is precisely because I was in control of my schedule today that I was free to choose that which was truly important.

The same principle applies with creativity. If I am a slave to busyness then the endless stream of urgent tasks will crowd out the important things like creativity (and grandchildren). The pursuit of creativity requires freeing oneself from busyness.

Death to creativity

I have been working towards a more location-independent lifestyle for some time. As a long-term minimalist, the challenge of location independence is not the baggage of possessions, but recurring income. In the absence of wealth adequate enough to maintain a simple lifestyle, location independence requires the ability to work from any location.

During a several-month nomadic period this winter I experienced a downturn in freelance work and ended up taking a full-time job to rebuild my bank account. Since location independence (and nomadic minimalism) is still the end goal, I am continuing to work on building a location-independent business at the same time. To say that I am busy would be an understatement.

My typical week now involves working 45+ hours at an office and another approximately 20 hours on my business. The business growth is limited by available time, so I am trying to grow it slow and steady with quality clients. Eventually though I will need to ramp up my business efforts in preparation for taking the business full-time. In addition to the challenges of building a business while working full-time, I have also found that busyness is the enemy of creativity.

There are several “passion projects” that I was working on while I was living as a nomadic minimalist that I struggle to find any time at all to work on now. These include volunteer work with a non-profit, book projects, photography, and several website projects that are in the pipeline. All of these projects are meaningful and important to me, and several are important to my long-term financial security. Yet as a result of busyness it is very difficult to find the time and summon the creative energy to work on these projects. Even when I can block off a bit of time I find that my best hours have already been spent doing work that does not matter (at least to me), leaving me only the scraps of time, energy, and attention for work that is meaningful to me.

Based on my unscientific survey of available literature on this topic and conversations with others, I am certain that this is the experience of most people.

Towards creativity

I reject busyness as a way of life. It is, unfortunately, something that I need to tolerate and manage as well as possible for a short time, but this is not something that I will allow to define my life. Life is too short to squander opportunities for creativity in exchange for the tyranny of busyness.

Anyone can do the majority of jobs. In many cases a robot or computer could do the job, and in some cases a monkey could do the job. Most people, working most jobs, are not creating and contributing something that is uniquely theirs. They are, instead, simply staying busy. This is built in to jobs because, for the most part, someone else has already decided what should be done. (One notable exception to this rule would be small startups where each person may play a key role in bringing creative ideas to the table.)

For my part, I value the opportunity to create something that only I can create, something that is uniquely mine, to do work that I alone can do. I value creativity too much to exist merely as a busy cog inside of a busy machine.

This experience of unplanned busyness has been instructive. It has allowed me to identify some things that are important to me, and to understand the environment in which those things can best be achieved. Creativity requires space and downtime, solitude and stillness. It requires rejecting and resisting busyness.

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