When I was fifteen years old, I was tired of waiting around for my Dad to find the right weekend. During Spring half term, I rolled up my sleeves, tore down the pages of the NME that adorned my walls, and painted my earnestly floral bedroom chalk white. The gig tickets and photos that were plastered everywhere were carefully tucked away in scrapbooks and wood drawers, and I arranged my clothes into colour order, and band t-shirts into order of preference, with AFI first. AFI were always first. Though this was procrastination at its purest (which I’ve never really grown out of), as I inhaled the fresh air through my curtains, I knew I could handle my looming GCSEs from this place of newfound clutter-free serenity. And I did.
Ten years later, I’ve been somewhat seduced by the minimalist movement again. There’s something about all those white, peaceful, Scandinavian Instagram feeds that has really captured my imagination; those tiny squares on my phone somehow conveying that glorious sense of space. While so many of us may fall in love with the minimalist aesthetic, however, it can be a little hard to live it. Who are we, if nothing else, without our stuff?
For a PhD student, one might argue that the constant budgeting and moving from overpriced London bedroom to overpriced London bedroom prepares us for the minimalist lifestyle rather beautifully. One doesn’t, however, tend to factor in the inextricable clutter of the Arts & Humanities researcher: books. Though my books have recently undergone a 3am colour-ordering session to fit in with my rejuvenated bedroom, they are still everywhere, and will likely remain so. I leave a paper trail wherever I go; so far, not so minimal. But minimalism isn’t merely an aesthetic; it’s an approach, and an approach us new researchers might benefit from.
In William Strunk Jr.’s classic treatise on minimalism, The Elements of Style, he offers young writers his golden rule: ‘Omit needless words’. This is not that all sentences are short and mundane, but that ‘every word tell’; we all apply this rule in our feverish editing of essays that have found themselves miles past the word count. But perhaps we might swap ‘words’ for ‘things’, and widen the realm of possibility for this principle, taking the unnecessary clutter out of our lives and away from our research. If we keep what is necessary to our work and our happiness, and omit those drains on our energy that are not, surely our research can only improve. Minimalism, to the PhD student, isn’t only a neat, tidy and white workspace; it’s learning to say no to seven conferences and three undergraduate classes. It’s identifying where your time needs to be spent, uncurling those shoulders from eight hours of solid work to have a look around you. It’s also having a good clear-out, seeing what you can sell on eBay to bump up that funding packet, because every little helps.
Minimalism is not having or doing as little as possible; it’s knowing that everything you have or do counts. So I’m striking a couple of things off of my ever-growing ‘to do’ list, paring back on my aims for the week to focus on my writing and give myself space to breathe. Time to dream and sit quietly with a hot drink fall under the category of ‘necessary’ to me; the dangerous glorification of ‘busy’ is everywhere, especially in this strange world of academia. By omitting what is needless, our work can become clearer and more purposeful, and our sense of wellbeing might even defy all the horror-stories of PhDs past.
I’m keeping my books, though. They will remain necessary in their white bookcases, bathed in natural light and the perfect Instagram filter.
Sinéad Kennedy Krebs is a first year PhD student in the Department of English at King’s College London. Her research examines the cultural legacies of the Great War in Ireland. Follow her @sineadkk, or head to sageolympia.blogspot.com