Encouraging Lifelong Learning Through a Minimalist Mindset

Minimalism has become in vouge as of late. Hearing the phrase invokes clean lines, white walls, and a sterile lack of knickknacks. While these descriptions portray a minimalist aesthetic, practical minimalism addresses broader attitudes toward personal values. Practical minimalism fosters self-betterment. In fact, it was not until I embraced a personal commitment to minimalism that I was able to become a more committed lifelong learner.

As an individual in academia, much like anyone in law, education, psychology, or many other fields, my career rests on the necessity of being a lifelong learner. I am expected to keep up with the latest developments of my field and be able to make links between the ‘cannon’ of my discipline and new developments.

For any career field it can be challenging to stay committed to lifelong learning. This is where minimalism comes in. At its heart, minimalism is about identifying which personal values are most important to you and using these values to guide your focus. This in turn affects time management, the projects you work on, and the learning opportunities you pursue. Ultimately, seeking minimalism is a process of value clarification, editing out the unnecessary, and refining.

Step One: Identify Your Values

The first step in cutting away the excess is to identify your core values. Some of my values are ecological conscientiousness, justice, self-betterment, and contribution. I want my career to contribute in some way to advancing these values; indeed, my work broadly focuses on environmental policy in the Arctic. From there, I know on which subjects I should dedicate most of my time to keeping up on. Studying certain topics may be helpful, but are often tangential to my main focus.

Similarly, by identifying your core values you become more aware of what pursuits are worth your time and effort. Yes, life is full of tasks you don’t like but must complete, but you still have tremendous freedom to make your choices matter.

Step Two: Prioritize Your Projects

First, prioritization affects what you consume. Valuing justice means I seek out works on environmental, indigenous, and human rights. I also seek out opportunities to develop my connections in communities that emphasize these values.

Additionally, this affects what work I focus on. Because I only focus on what is most important, I will seek out literature written by minorities, particularly those posing critical analyses of the dominant theories. I make sure I consume minority and revisionist perspectives that challenge my status quo rather than reaffirming it.

Second, prioritization affects what you create. I value contribution: we all exist in communities and have opportunities to influence others. Where can you make the most difference? There are two ways I contribute to my field. First, I write, contributing to the academic community. I also value teaching, as my role as an instructor fulfills my values of self-betterment and contribution. Therefore, I attend seminars and keep up to date on pedagogical practices. Creation can be a difficult, lengthy, and reflective practice. Use minimalist principles to hone in on the projects most worthwhile.

Step Three: Pursuing Relevant Learning Opportunities

As others on this blog have written, once you start pursuing productivity, efficiency-killers are the first to go: TV, social media, and mindless consumption. Beyond these activities there are further ways you can practice prioritization in your lifelong learning:

  • Know what you have a true passion for. Many of us are guilty of bouncing across hobbies which takes time away from activities we are truly good at or passionate about. This is not meant as discouraging exploration, but as encouraging passion.
  • Connect your activities to your core values. I spent some time in a tutoring position in an upper-middle class area, all while knowing that there was a volunteer opportunity I wanted to pursue. It was unpaid, but it aligned with my values by working with at-risk groups in college prep. I ended up working with the at-risk students, which ended up being a learning experience through working with this age group.
  • Let your learning spark joy. I’ve always been a fan of Marie Kondo’s philosophy of letting things in your life ‘spark joy’; I believe this holds true to activities as well. Examining what brings you joy often reveals that these activities connect to core values. I love hiking, and it was recently that I realized how this activity contributes to my appreciation for the environment, consequently making me more passionate about environmental writing projects.

Final Thoughts

Lifelong learning occurs along passion projects as well as part of a natural career progression. By adopting a minimalist mindset, it becomes easier to find joy in your ongoing education. Minimalism is a process (indeed, it is a lifelong pursuit unto itself!), but a worthwhile one.

Ellen Ahlness is an academic who has extensive teaching experience working with students of varying ages, nationalities, ability, and educational background. She writes on eco-capitalism issues and minimialism on her blog, which also hosts links to her journal publications and guest posts.



Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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