A Simpler Life: Lessons From Living With 49 Items for 30 Days 

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One month ago, I started solo traveling through Northern Europe with nothing but a small hiking backpack. Inside: 49 of the most essential things I own. (More on the exact list of items later.) And so, for the next 30 days, my entire livelihood would literally sit on my shoulders.

During this trip, I worked less and lived more (or at least I tried). I caught up with European friends, explored Scandinavian lifestyles, and was lucky enough to connect with dozens of strangers. But most of all, I had plenty of time to think about a vital issue:

How to create a simpler life.

You see, minimalism has fascinated me for a long time now. But I still haven’t grasped how I actually want to implement this philosophy into my daily life. And so, a big part of my journey was field research:

  • What does a simpler life look like?
  • Is owning less really the key?
  • Is this the start of scarcity and existential dread?

Here’s my experience — and the unexpected lessons I learned about life and minimalism.

1. A Crucial Question for a Simpler Life

One of the items in my backpack turned out to be one the best books I’ve ever read about minimalism: Die Kunst des Lebens (“The Art of Living”) — a collection of essays by the German psychotherapist Erich Fromm.

The essence of Fromm’s philosophy is that humans have two modes of existence: having and being. The route of having brings out the worst in human nature: greed, jealousy, recklessness. Being, on the other hand, is to live with compassion, consideration, and kindness.

We all can choose either one of these modi operandi. The problem is just that modern culture infests us with the treacherous path — have more, be less. The result? We’ve developed into cogs inside a ravenous machine. We tend to treat relationships like transactions, become passive consumers of the world, and relentlessly strive for more.

So, the central question is: How can we have less and be more?

One of the solutions Fromm suggests is the idea of functional property. You see, humans need certain items to exist — always have and always will. But Fromm argues we must distinguish between things that are functional and non-functional. The difference?

  • Functional property: Tools we use in daily life to thrive and do good. This obviously includes clothes, shelter, and kitchenware. But also things that serve efficiency and spirituality — like a necklace or a bicycle.
  • Non-functional property: Dead, toxic, and passive stuff that’s suffocating us. This includes status symbols, excessive entertainment, and other things we mindlessly consume.

Now, here’s the beauty of this idea. If we manage to center our lives around functional property, we automatically have less. Why? Because the passive state of having turns into active engagement. Hoarding, clinging, boasting — these things become unnecessary when you’re focused on using and being.

And this is where confining my possessions to a trim backpack was a blessing in disguise. I had to comb through each item, asking myself, “Do I really need this? Is it really worth carrying the extra weight? Is this functional or non-functional?”

Constraints boost intentionality.

But the lesson here is not to downsize your life to a backpack. As Fromm points out, the cure for a mindset of having isn’t a frantic emphasis on not-having. Because that’d also be a form of having!

My big takeaway here is a question I ask myself almost daily: What items in your life do you own, and what are the ones that own you? In other words: Do you own “dead” things or “alive” things? Knowing the difference can kickstart a simpler life.

But this idea goes deeper.

2. The Physical Declutter Fallacy

So is it really that simple? Does your life magically improve once you get rid of non-functional items? Well, it’s a bit more complicated.

Let me explain.

98% of my stuff was highly functional. That means I used all the items in my backpack almost daily. Sure, there were some things I didn’t even use once — like medicine (thank God). But in a way, I used them mentally because carrying them carved out headspace, calm, and clarity.

And yet, I rarely experienced this state of pure being. In fact, it was quite the opposite: I felt miserable on a large chunk of my trip — irritated and uneasy.

Why might that be?

The deeper reality, I realized, is that we don’t just have physical items. We also shoulder a truckload of invisible weight: Netflix subscriptions, social media accounts, and to-do lists. Ideas, memories, emotions, relationships. Hobbies and jobs. And the biggest of all:

An ego.

That explains why I still felt so bleak and empty, even though I had discarded the non-essential physical stuff. The psychological weight remained. And so, I drowned in my toxic beliefs, complex relationships, unrealistic expectations, productivity guilt, addictions to YouTube and Netflix, and— 

The list goes on.

The harsh truth is that living with less doesn’t stop you from experiencing the full range of human emotions. In fact, letting go of your non-essential possessions can be a brutal shock because you lose so many forms of escapism. And honestly, I found this overwhelming. I wasn’t prepared.

The lesson is what I call the physical declutter fallacy:

Sorting out your worldly possessions is not the golden one-way ticket to a simpler life. That’s actually when the real work starts. Once you get rid of the physical excess, you need to be ready to tackle the bigger themes in life: relationships, mindsets, expectations, beliefs, emotions, etc.

Ultimately, all things we accumulate in life should be functional — especially the non-physical stuff. I know that “functional” sounds very surgical here, but it simply means that something helps you reach your full potential in life.

And just to be clear: I don’t claim we should be endlessly effective machines. Rather this is about finding meaning in life by avoiding mindless, passive consumption.

So, don’t buy into this physical declutter fallacy. Sure, owning less is a great start, but not the magic bullet. Be prepared to tackle the invisible clutter. Mindsets. Intentions. Relationships.

How? This takes us to the idea that ties everything together.

3. It’s Not Just What You Own — It’s How You Own

Freeing yourself of non-physical clutter is so challenging precisely because of its intangible nature. Think about it. Human relationships are like shiny bubbles — they’re beautiful but burst unexpectedly. And what about emotions and thoughts? They’re fickle. And yet, we tend to believe everything we feel and think.

So what can we do?

One solution I’ve found was to double down on things that fuse the mental and material world. This adds more depth to your functional possessions while softening the blow of the physical declutter fallacy. For example, here are three essentials I always kept in the top case of my backpack:

  • Fromm’s collection of essays — nourishes my mind with ideas and inspiration.
  • A deck of cards with 80 different emotions — helps me clarify my uncomfortable feelings and realize that every emotion is valid.
  • My journal — helps me arrange my mental chaos and pinpoint it on paper. 

These items were constant incentives for meaningful action. They made up less than 10% of the things I carried but 90% of my interactions with them.

The takeaway? It’s not just about what kind of things you own. It’s about how you own these things. Because no matter the number of your possessions, it’ll always be too high to use everything at once.

And so, you need a sort of priority list of essential items. At the tip of the pyramid: Stuff that’s mentally engaging. That helps you grasp the shadow of your existence. Know yourself.

Here are two ideas to apply this.

Environment design

How do you assemble the tools at your disposal?

Back home, my journal would sit in a drawer while my laptop would always throne my desk. As a result, I’d distract myself with work, games, or YouTube whenever I was bored or uncomfortable.

During my trip, however, I journaled four pages a day because — well, there were very few alternatives! After all, I’d left my TV, fridge, and Wifi connection at home. And my laptop was buried at the bottom of my bag. The result:

Journaling became my default habit whenever I was uneasy.

So, how you set up your surroundings matters. A lot. Rule of thumb: Your essentials should sit at the very top of your (metaphorical) backpack.

Depth of use

How deeply do you engage with the world around you?

Most interactions in modern life are superficial. We swipe through dating apps, avoid phone calls, and jet from place to place. Everything is quick, quick, quick. But our brains are actually much better at deep tasks.

Have you ever felt the impact of a night-long conversation, staring at a painting for three hours, or deep reading a book? Chances are, you’ll remember these profound experiences for weeks — or even a lifetime. Try it for yourself.

Bottom line:

We should embrace a sort of multi-dimensional ownership. Sometimes we get stuck in one dimension — the number of things we own. But the other two dimensions are far more important: 

  • Frequency — how often you use something.
  • Intensity — how deeply you use something.

So, forget about the number of possessions altogether. Think about depth instead. And once you’ve found your essentials, keep them close. When things fall apart, they’ll be your guiding light out of the darkness.

The Bitter Paradox of Pursuing a Simpler Life

Alrighty — so far we’ve seen that:

  • It’s crucial to center your life around functional property.
  • A simple life also includes the crucial task of decluttering invisible things.
  • Don’t just think about what you own. Focus on how deeply you use things to make sense of your fickle mind.

But let’s return to the initial question: What does a simpler life look like, and how do we get there? Well, here comes a curveball:

Life will never be truly simple.

Whatever you do, your mind will always come up with new problems to solve. It’s human nature to be discontent. And the bitter paradox? The more you try to simplify life, the more complex it becomes.

On the one hand, that sucks a little. But on the other, it’s a relief. See, we don’t always need to try so hard to control everything. Streamline everything. Optimize everything. (After all, that’s also a form of having, remember?)

Instead, we can let go. Exist. Be

Ultimately, I do believe that decluttering your possessions, making sense of your mind, and engaging deeply with the world are keys to emotional fulfillment. But a simpler life also blossoms when we ditch the paddle of control and raft down the currents of life.

Maybe simplicity and surrender are synonyms.

On the 49 items I carried: People kept asking me about “my secret” to traveling for so long with so few items. So I decided to create a Google Doc that contains all the info and also serves as a packing list! You can get it here — completely for free.