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  • Caitrin McElroy

Intangible Minimalism | A Practice in Presence

My first bite of the intangible minimalism apple came about because of a conversation with my brother. Max had recently started documenting all of his time and was surprised by the amount of free time he had gained in the process. That’s all it took to hook me.

So for 30 days, I challenged myself to document how all of my time was spent. Every minute. Every day.

I thought the idea was fascinating, especially after becoming aware of how entwined my mind and my physical space are. I did a great job of throwing caution to the wind with my tangible junk; I got rid of most things without a second thought, and loved the feeling of letting go. But I still binged on Netflix and then complained about how little time I had to do productive things. I knew I needed a change, but felt overwhelmed by the possibilities. Where do I start? How do I start? Why do I start?

This conversation with my brother coincided with the start of my third Whole30 as well as my second Minimalist Game, so I figured I’d take on a third challenge to keep January 2017 busy. I agreed that I would plan out blocks of my day (30 minute blocks or more), from the time I woke up until the time I went to sleep at night. January 3rd I sat down with my Google Calendar and I did this:

That month was the most productive month of my life. Hands down. I worked out more, read more, wrote more, cleaned more, and learned more than I ever had in a month. That being said, it wasn’t a perfect practice in presence. Here are a few things I discovered during that 30 days:


1. Understand why you're here

If I had begun the challenge of documenting my time without understanding why I was doing it, I would’ve failed early on. However, having cleared out all of the physical clutter in my life, I’d also eliminated all the time that I typically spent consuming excess. Target runs, Starbucks runs, Bath & Body Works runs, more Target runs….they were all gone now that I realized I didn’t need that stuff. I woke up one Saturday morning and realized I had nowhere to go because I had nothing to consume. And that’s when I was faced with this incredibly painful question: “What am I doing with my time?” When I realized I was hard-pressed for answers that I was proud of, I could almost see my life slipping away from me.

I did this practice to hold up the mirror—to help me grow from a person who wasted their time on the frivolous to spending their time on learning and experiences. Why are you here?

2. Start simple

When I jumped into this practice, I chose a fairly rigid path for myself. I pre-planned all of my time, and expected myself to stick to the plan within reason. I personally enjoyed the experience—mostly because I really enjoy planning. But throughout the month I found myself shifting from a “time plan” to more of a “time audit;” my plans sometimes changed too much to be so rigid. But I still recorded everything.

The benefits of doing this are universal to all personality types. Just the simple act of recording how I spent my time kept me mindful, and still helped me choose how to spend my time in a way that served me and my needs.

Commit to recording your time and let the planning happen naturally.

3. Welcome the "now what?"

My first couple days of this challenge went off without a hitch; the structure of my days invigorated me, and I loved the purpose that I felt in having all of my time accounted for. And then Days 4-5 hit, and I never could’ve been prepared for the overwhelming silence that hit me. See, Days 4-5 were my weekend days—days where I only loosely scheduled time to work out and cook in lieu of having some much-needed free time. I woke up Saturday feeling good; I went for a hike, did my grocery shopping for the coming week, showered, went out to breakfast, came home, and sat down on my bed only to have this big, ugly, looming “now what?” in my head. Caitrin five days ago would’ve laid back, pulled up Netflix, and played The Office in the background while mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and Instagram. But with this practice came a renewed sense of responsibility in my presence. Instead of falling back on the mindless junk that I was used to giving my precious, limited time to, I challenged myself to do something that the old Caitrin would’ve argued she didn’t have time for.

I wish I could say that this “now what?” moment was a one-time occurrence that ended with an epiphany about how to be mindful...but it wasn’t. It happened again, and it happened often. But I walked away each time having asked myself these questions and knowing the answers: “What value will you get from what you’re about to do? What is it that you want out of your time? Will you be proud of yourself at the end of today?”

I’m still struggling today, a year and a half later, with staying present and being mindful of my time—but that’s okay. What matters is that you don’t stop trying.

4. Free time is your friend

I spent the bulk of those 30 days doing productive things that I’m proud to say I worked on. I read poetry, I worked on my creative writing, I meditated, I did yoga, I hiked, I cooked, I danced, I visited with friends, I road-tripped...and a time or two, yes, I did absolutely nothing but lay in bed and watch Netflix.

It would be unreasonable to think that going-going-going your entire life is sustainable, but sloth-ing around isn’t the right move either. There’s a healthy balance between doing and rest; all you need to do is ask yourself what you need. I know it sounds obvious, but sometimes my internal dialogue looked a little like this:

What value will you get from what you’re about to do? REST.

What is it that you want out of your time? REST.

Will you be proud of yourself at the end of today? Yes, BECAUSE I NEED REST.

The purpose of the time audit exercise isn’t to keep you on your feet every waking moment, or to make you feel guilty for the time that you spent doing nothing. Rather, we do it to understand where our time is going, and to be aware and mindful about how we spend our time moving forward. And sometimes, the mindful choice is laying in bed and doing absolutely nothing.

5. Be flexible, but mindful

I’m a big fan of spontaneity, so it goes without saying that my time plan changed—often. That being said, my time plan was a great tool in reminding myself to be...well...mindful. Having already laid out my plan, and making sure every task had a purpose, it made me keenly aware of what value new or spontaneous plans would bring me. Any time someone asked if I wanted to do this or that, I was forced to ask myself: “Is this thing worth my time? Will it bring me value?”

Even writing it now sounds harsh, and maybe it is to some extent. But if I was going to achieve all that I wanted to in that month, I couldn’t compromise my needs. That doesn’t mean those last minute movies or picnics didn’t sound fun, (and sometimes the invitations came at a time when I felt comfortable saying yes), but I had learned to prioritize my health, my pursuit of knowledge, and my comfort with being alone with myself over all else that month. If a shiny new plan didn’t serve my purpose, I learned how to say no.


Maybe you don’t have to go as far as planning out every minute of your day, but before you say yes to an activity or task this week, I challenge you to be present. Ask yourself, “what value is this bringing to me?”

Let us know how it goes this week, and be on the lookout for a special post later this week about our July 2018 Minimalism Game!

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