life in a tiny apartment.

February 7, 2019
less and good enough | reading my tea leaves

Tip #180: Less and good enough.

The famous Dieter Rams quote, and title of his 1995 book, “Less, but better,” gets used a lot in minimalist circles. (Full disclosure, I used it myself in my book.) Like so many pithy quotes, it’s often taken out of context, or construed to mean something different than originally intended. A designer, Rams was no doubt referring to his own pared down design aesthetic, but also referencing the impact of that design and the notion that simpler design allows, in some measure at least, for simpler lives. In recent interpretations, I often see the phrase used as a kind of consumer mantra—a guiding principle for how one might shop. Choosing the one hand-hewn stool, for instance, instead of three mass-produced ones, is to choose less, but better.

The folks at Portland, Oregon-based, Schoolhouse Electric, produce a poster designed by Anthony Burrill with a more overtly covetous message: “Want Better, Not More.” In their words, the poster is meant to convey a “new spin on the age-old adage ‘quality over quantity.'” In a world filled to brimming with mass-produced, cheap, and easily discarded goods, it’s no doubt a healthy habit for wallet and planet and mind to rein in some of that consumption and halt the frenzied, impulse buying. I’d contend we’d all benefit from a slower, more deliberate approach to furnishing our homes or dressing ourselves or giving gifts.

In my line of work, I’m often asked for my opinions on stuff. It’s why I started my Simple Stuff series, an homage to the hardworking items that help make my home tick. And it’s why I began to write my series on Growing a Minimalist Wardrobe, too. In all kinds of ways, my work attempts to answer the question: What’s better? What’s best?

It can make for a whole lot of consternation. Whether I’m pondering t-shirts or couches or humidifiers, I’m presented with a hundred competing options and asked to make a value judgement. What makes something better? How it’s made? Where it’s made? With what it’s made? Who made it? How well it functions? How beautiful it looks? All of the above? It’s a lot of pressure to put on a pepper grinder, or a pillow, or a pair of socks. No wonder folks come asking for help.

I’m currently writing a post about tea strainers, of all things, and my quest to replace my two insufficient and damaged strainers with something, well, better. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for one strainer that will adequately do its job of keeping leaves from floating in my tea. And yet, of course, what’s so wrong with a few stray tea leaves?

I sometimes wonder how well these superlatives, and our quest for the best of something, end up serving us. What about the possibility of replacing better or best with good enough? The reality of my own day-to-day life is that living simply and keeping a pared down collection of well-loved items often isn’t about having the best. It’s about making the best of what I already have.

In yesterday’s post, Rose Pearlman showed us how to use takeout restaurant chopsticks as knitting needles. Her point in using chopsticks is not to say that chopsticks are the same as a pair of lovingly handmade or precision machine-made knitting needles. Her point is that in a pinch, or, if needed, forever, they can serve just as well.

Likewise, a cot is not a couch, but it can stand in for one. A handmade baby gym is a little quirky and certainly less stable than one that’s professionally made. A bed in the middle of the apartment does not a sanctuary of a bedroom make, and yet there we sleep, soundly.

Less and good enough.

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59 Comments

  • Reply Julie February 7, 2019 at 1:19 pm

    My family mantra? “Good enough is good enough.” Right there with ya.

  • Reply Sally February 7, 2019 at 1:25 pm

    This is probably one of my favorite blog posts yet. Thank you for this. I sometimes (ha, a lot of times) get so consumed in finding the “perfect” version of anything and everything. I go down the rabbit hole of “tea strainers” I suppose until I look at the clock in the corner of my screen and realize I’ve mindlessly believed for an hour that somehow, the one I have that I’ve used for years, doesn’t serve me anymore because it isn’t a stainless steel one from Williams Sonoma…to which my husband replies, “don’t we already have one that works?” I see a pair of jeans (looking at you, ribcage Levi’s) and suddenly my dark rinse high rise straight leg jeans I ALREADY own and wear three times a week don’t serve me.

    Less and good enough and still serving my needs. Gonna go get that tattooed on my forehead now.

    • Reply Alix February 7, 2019 at 5:30 pm

      I can completely relate to this! I’m in consulting, so my skill set lies in helping my clients improve/optimize/refine their business, and I sometimes allow this tendency to creep too much into my own life. That recent Buzzfeed article on Millennial burnout mentions the constant need to optimize things, although I also think the pressure to “upgrade” one’s possessions (e.g. from IKEA to West Elm, from drugstore products to organic products, from plastic to sustainable materials, etc.) weighs heavily on this generation. Good enough is good enough!

      • Reply Helen February 8, 2019 at 9:14 am

        ugh, I really feel this. Although I’m on the edge, generationally-speaking, I still have this desire, especially when I see other people wearing/using things that I want [sidenote: when I type that, it feels so ridiculous!]. I justify too many purchases along the lines of needing to buy the best version of something or needing to find the bespoke version of something. The truth is, there’s no finishing that process, so you can’t just spend a bunch of money and magically achieve consumer nirvana in which you never have to buy again. There’s always going to be a lovelier, better-crafted version of something you already own. The one area that I feel less guilty was in terms of my kids, as I bought minimally and with care, and the things I purchased have lasted and been great pieces (and will be passed on). I really have to thank Erin for this.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE February 8, 2019 at 1:11 pm

      Ha, yes. In lots of ways that’s part of the reason that I compile these kinds of research posts—so that other folks can avoid the kind of time suck that seeking out the best of the something can be. But then, paradoxically, I realize that all of this sleuthing and presenting of new! better! more beautiful! options can also feel oppressive, or tempting, or what have you. Hoping always to strike a balance here!

  • Reply Sarah February 7, 2019 at 1:48 pm

    I was thinking about this recently, as I was having conversations about personal finance and some conveniences around the house. Certainly we have a boatload of privilege in our lives, but our personal approach to spending has also impacted our day -to-day financial lives a bunch. When it comes to new stuff, we just. . .don’t buy it that much. A couple friends lauded their bluetooth speakers for being convenient and affordable and a great way to listen to tunes while cooking (which I was lamenting doing less of in a kitchen I don’t like). And while the cost isn’t a huge obstacle, I still just don’t want another gadget. Playing music on our desktops, or my recently recovered stack stereo from high school suit us fine and do the job. We’re starting to think about buying a TV, and fortuitously a colleague is getting rid of one that we might buy. $50 for a TV that’s not exactly the size/kind we were considering is way better that $600 for a bigger, newer, whatever TV.

    In furnishing our house, in considering buying a new home to furnish as well, we get along by not diving into new things all the time. Things don’t match, or aren’t the color we’d like, or the space still needs something. And we do way better and appreciate so much more when we wait.

    To be honest, that was one of the takeaways I really appreciated from your book, and from your blog– affirming something I already knew– if it’s not the right thing, the best thing, hold off. Wait a while on it, see what other solution presents itself, see if it’s really even necessary at all, see if the right thing comes along. I don’t mind walking vicariously through your internet rabbit holes on tea strainers and the like because it reminds me to take my time, think more carefully about what will really work, how much I’m really willing to spend, what’s really important about the form/function of whatever I’m considering.

    Continuing the adage train (from wartime scarcity I think?): Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE February 8, 2019 at 1:12 pm

      yes, yes, to all of this. and thanks especially for your kindness! glad to have you reading.

  • Reply Kari February 7, 2019 at 2:00 pm

    Less and good enough. Yes!

  • Reply Erika February 7, 2019 at 2:20 pm

    I’m impressed by your dedication to reusing objects, but I wouldn’t say chopsticks can serve as well as knitting needles. Maybe for something small that doesn’t need to have very precise and even stitching, such as the pot holder showed in the tutorial. I can’t imagine using finer or higher quality yarns and achieving good results. I think they’re obviously passably functional but certainly not as good as.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE February 7, 2019 at 2:22 pm

      Good enough, my friend. Good enough.

    • Reply Anna Gerard February 7, 2019 at 3:06 pm

      For some, chopsticks may serve as well as knitting needles.

      • Reply Jay February 7, 2019 at 9:49 pm

        I wonder if knitting needles can be used as chopsticks? 🙂

  • Reply Alison February 7, 2019 at 2:47 pm

    Love everything about this. One of my favorite WWII posters quoted is “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” That’s what I try to live by instead of the more/better mantra. There are exceptions when a need arises, but it definitely makes me question what a “need” is to start.

  • Reply Sam February 7, 2019 at 3:11 pm

    I use a small French press for loose leaf teas. Works like a charm

    • Reply Marion February 8, 2019 at 10:41 am

      Same here! Every time I start drinking loose leaf tea again it takes a couple of cups full of floating leaves before I stop making mental notes to ‘buy a proper tea pot/strainer’ and remember that I can just use the French press I already have.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE February 8, 2019 at 1:13 pm

      {runs to wash coffee grounds out of french press…}

  • Reply T. February 7, 2019 at 3:23 pm

    Yes! Minimalism is often an middle class white persons game. But it started for as low income, student to low income non profit worker. Sometimes what you have has to be good enough.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE February 7, 2019 at 3:35 pm

      Yes, not to mention Jesus and all those saints and millennia of people who decided for ethical or moral or just plain practical reasons not too consume more than their share!

      • Reply Jules February 7, 2019 at 10:16 pm

        YES! THIS! lets live simply so others may simply live.

  • Reply Kate February 7, 2019 at 3:27 pm

    Such a great post! Thanks for sharing

  • Reply Anna February 7, 2019 at 3:32 pm

    I think about this a lot when I’m tempted to replace stuff like ugly plastic brooms with more attractive versions. I wish I hadn’t bought the plastic one in the first place but I did and it’s lasted 10+ years, and still has a lot of life left in it. It’s better for the environment to hang on to it, than to get trash and replace it.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE February 7, 2019 at 3:37 pm

      I hear that. I try to balance this with my fervent hope that no one is hanging on to stuff in their lives that doesn’t serve them or doesn’t make them happy.

  • Reply Alissa February 7, 2019 at 3:44 pm

    I love this post and the comments. I recently learned there’s a term for making decisions this way–satisficing–aiming for a good-enough solution rather than the optimal solution. That idea has helped me so much with my natural tendency to fall down rabbit holes of the tea-strainer-research variety. And, like you say, it makes life a lot simpler and keeps me from spending money on stuff I don’t really need.

  • Reply Cindy February 7, 2019 at 4:23 pm

    Reading this post and the comments feels a bit like meditating. What a lovely thing.

  • Reply Lauren February 7, 2019 at 6:04 pm

    Such fabulous writing. Hoping there is another book in the works!

  • Reply Kristen February 7, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    Lovely post, Erin.

    I’m taking courses toward a graduate certificate in marketing and during this week’s class, discussion turned to stuff and the ways in which we make shopping decisions. Almost everyone chose “emotion” over “logic” (I was one of the few who chose “logic”) and one woman even admitted that she buys things she knows she doesn’t need just because she sees one of her friends with the item. So many people agreed with her and—I’ll admit—it really bothered me.

    I think about this a lot. I’m newly part of a Buy Nothing group and have been trading items with others through it. So often, the most sustainable choice is not to buy, but to either barter/trade or get creative with what you have.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE February 8, 2019 at 1:15 pm

      Love that and agreed entirely.

  • Reply Deborah February 7, 2019 at 6:22 pm

    A quote I heard long ago that resonated with me is: “this will see me out” (It may have been Erma Bombeck). It is a little dark, maybe, but it is true: some day, an item you buy will be the last one you need. At some point the need to get new things or replace what you already have for something better, and so on, will be the least important thing. I believe good enough really IS good enough.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE February 8, 2019 at 1:15 pm

      True enough!

  • Reply Lanen February 7, 2019 at 6:48 pm

    I’m an herbalist and a drink a couple pots of tea a day. I’ve had a ForLife brand tea strainer for five years and it’s the best one I’ve ever used. Highly recommend it.

  • Reply Anna February 7, 2019 at 8:57 pm

    Mmmmm yes. The stress of getting the best is tough. I agree that good enough feels just fine, even a relief.

  • Reply Erin Matthews February 7, 2019 at 9:11 pm

    What a lovely post, Erin. I noticed you mentioned that you are researching tea strainers. About three months ago I wrapped up similar research and I thought I would just mention what I settled on (you probably have already looked into this strainer, but just in case . . . ) I ended up with this one from August Tea:
    https://august.la/products/one-cup-infuser

    It’s super good at filtering, it’s beautiful and reasonably priced. I bought two, one for each adult. Anyway, just thought I’d mention it in case you hadn’t looked into it.

    Oh, and also at the same time I was also researching organic loose leaf tea and stumbled across this company and love them and their tea:

    https://www.davidsonstea.com/
    I buy their English Breakfast and Camomile. The Camomile is literally just the flowers and it’s so beautiful and delicious.

    Happy hunting!

    • Reply Shea Cordell February 8, 2019 at 9:45 am

      Love this post!
      Erin, that is a great price for that tea infuser. I have a similar one from Teavana that I bought a handful of years ago that I LOVE, but probably paid twice as much for it. Another thing I love about this type of tea infuser is that it can be used in mason jars of just about any size when you want to make more than just one cup of tea. 🙂
      Thanks for posting about the loose leaf company. I’ve been searching for good tea since my previous local supplier went on to other things in life.

      • Reply Erin Matthews February 8, 2019 at 10:12 am

        Shea, I’m so pleased my comment on Davidson’s Tea may help you find a replacement supplier. If you research them a bit I think you’ll fall in love with their business practices and philosophies (and by the way ALL of their teas are organic). I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I’ve found it’s tricky to find companies with a balance of ethical practices, good/solid product and well priced and they hit all those notes. Which I sure appreciate.

  • Reply Candace February 7, 2019 at 9:46 pm

    Wonderful post! Thank you.

  • Reply Jules February 7, 2019 at 10:17 pm

    I from Nebraska and really resonated with the good enough mantra. you might liek this Garrison Keilor essay
    https://www.tulsaworld.com/opinion/garrisonkeillor/garrison-keillor-refugees-in-the-land-of-good-enough/article_0ff24cf3-5da9-5bec-931b-941715b0391b.html

  • Reply Bri Totman February 7, 2019 at 11:13 pm

    Loved the rhythm of this writing and especially the message. Less is good has been a mandate and mindset of mine, but what a difference just adding the word “enough” makes to the end of that statement! Trying to fill our lives with stuff and/or the best stuff will never bring contentment and gratitude, but recognizing what we have is a starting point towards gratefulness, and it’s truly better all around.

  • Reply Huma February 8, 2019 at 1:54 am

    I love this. I also find that the concept of striving for the one, single thing to be perfect actually flies in the face of the notion of simplicity too. There is a tendency to overthink the, well, simplest of stuff when really the “good enough” adage will get you through. Thank you as ever for a beautiful piece.

  • Reply MelD February 8, 2019 at 2:16 am

    Sometimes we just look too far. Recently, while digging through 50 yr old toys while clearing my MIL‘s house, there was an antique te strainer! Delighted, I cleaned it up and brought it home. Where I remembered I had another antique tea strainer I had bought cheaply at a thrift store years ago – so now I inadvertently have two… They are at least 100 yrs old, so I guess I‘m switching from teabags to loose leaf soon!

    A keen knitter, I was interested in your chop-sticks-cum-knitting needles – why not, in a pinch?! Admittedly, I brought my disposable wooden chopsticks from yesterday‘s meal out home with me to see what sort of result I get… I actually have cutlery (silverware) whose handles are chopsticks if you reverse them 😮

  • Reply Marie February 8, 2019 at 4:19 am

    I now make tea without a tea strainer. I just put the tea leaves directly into my cup, pour the water on top, and wait for them to get to the bottom before drinking. That’s what the polish family of my husband does and it works. And no more tea strainer to wash (I hate washing tea strainers). And less clutter.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE February 8, 2019 at 1:19 pm

      Ha, yes. Joked with a friend just last week that our teeth do a mighty fine job straining 😉

  • Reply Ashley February 8, 2019 at 5:37 am

    Yes! This mantra, “less and good enough” will help me conceptualize this conundrum I’ve been grappling with– do I get rid of things that are practical and still working for me, even if I purchased them before I was concerned about ethically sourced goods? Whew. Does that sound like a first-world dilemma, or what?

    • Reply Mo August 5, 2019 at 6:57 am

      Generally keeping what you already have that is practical and working for you is better for the environment than replacing it with something that is ethically sourced. My brurnt yellow hand mixer is older than me and not pretty (unless yo’re into the 70’s esthetic), but it’s practical and works for me. The plastic flooring in my hallway is also older than me and not pretty, but bugs me every time I see it. It’s still doing it’s job and I cover it with a rug so that I don’t have to see most of it, but blimey, the moment I have the money and time to replace it, I will!

      • Reply Candace Welsh August 5, 2019 at 1:33 pm

        I was also having to deal with that dilemma but also seeing lately they recommend keeping something usable rather than replacing even with ethical make the decisions easier.
        It’s great knowing this. Very sweet indeed when I replace worn out with ethical : )

  • Reply Jane February 8, 2019 at 7:23 am

    Hear, hear!

  • Reply Liz February 8, 2019 at 10:08 am

    I guess it’s understandable that in a consumerist society, the idea of Less But Better is still a way to sell stuff. Magazine spreads on which reusable cup to buy, what essential pieces you need for your capsule wardrobe, an heirloom piece of furniture (that’ll go out of style next season). In the same way that Experiences Not Things can become Experiences *and* Things, so that companies can sell you the essential outdoors gear you’ll need for camping out under the stars, or seeing the wonders of the world. The idea of just…doing without is quietly radical.

    One thing I’ve really noticed since I started reading your blog is it’s got me thinking more about what’s really necessary. Sure I might like something, but can I last without it another week? Another month? Maybe I don’t need it at all, maybe what I have is just fine. Giving myself permission to pause before I bring something new into my life, and see just how important it is to me. Most of the time, what I have is good enough, and that’s just fine.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE February 8, 2019 at 1:20 pm

      I’m so glad to hear that.

  • Reply Archana February 8, 2019 at 11:44 am

    What a gem of a post. I adore you for writing this one.

  • Reply Anna B February 8, 2019 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you.

  • Reply Kim February 8, 2019 at 12:25 pm

    I totally understand the sentiment here. But I think I settle for “good enough” too often mostly out of convenience and then regret it later because the item really doesn’t tick some important boxes. I’ve become more willing to accept the sunk cost of some of these items and to replace them when I come across something better (enough). One of my goals this year is to “make do” and to be more discerning. Something I feel like I’ve learned from you Erin!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE February 8, 2019 at 1:09 pm

      ah, interesting, and yes, i definitely meant it more along the lines of embracing what you have as good enough rather than settling for good enough when buying something new! that’s why i’m still writing my simple stuff column…less as a directive to go out and buy something that i already have, but as a guide for buying thoughtfully when there’s something i might need.

  • Reply Elizabeth February 8, 2019 at 3:56 pm

    I happened upon The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life by Cecile Andrews about seven years ago and it really changed the way I approach life. She definitely espouses the good enough philosophy. Erin, thank you for your thoughtful posts! I so enjoy your blog. 🙂

  • Reply auberie February 9, 2019 at 5:28 am

    Dear Erin,
    I love this article. It resonates a lot. I am currently trying to furnish my new flat (first one on my own!) and I noticed that everytime I managed to buy an essential, I needed a week pause before tackling something else.
    I am enjoying the process (most of the time… let’s keep it real, sometimes it is really annoying!) and I’m fine with not rushing anything.
    Right now, I am trying to decided if I *really* need a couch or if I don’t. The negative side is because it is just so much organising and thinking to do beforehand. The positive side would be that I could finally invite friends and that they would have somewhere to sit. We’ll see what the next weeks are bringing.

    Have a nice weekend 🙂

  • Reply Anne February 9, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    I’m covet the aesthetics of this tea strainer https://www.amazon.com/dp/B008XRQC4K/?coliid=I3NT9XFKW0OBOF&colid=2DFTFZSRS9SBD&psc=0&ref_=lv_ov_lig_dp_it
    But I prefer ones that sit on top of my cup and made of fine mesh. The fine mesh does double duty making yogurt cheese.

  • Reply Noelle February 10, 2019 at 6:16 am

    A few months ago a bought this ( https://www.debijenkorf.nl/pip-studio-spring-to-life-thee-ei-4-5-cm-9851090299 ) tea strainer, after debating it for ages. I really thought paying E. 10,- for a stupid tea strainer would be a waste of my money. I bought it mainly because it was on sale (aand because ot looked cute), 40% off so yay go me… But this stupid little thing prooves paying a bit more pays off. It’s so much better and the bunny serves as a counter weight, which I had never even thought of. So yes, lately I’ve been trying to spend more money on things that will last longer, are better made and made with thought. Even though I still hate spending a lot of money on things that aren’t shoes. But thankfully there is Ebay and things like secondhand shopping. I’ve decided my next coat will be Margaret Howell, but since she is way out of my budget, Ebay is the way to go.

  • Reply Genevieve February 12, 2019 at 10:05 am

    I second the FORLIFE tea strainer. It’s the first tea strainer I’ve had that I’ve been completely happy with. I use a French press for bigger pots, but the FORLIFE is my go-to for a single cup of tea. And it fits over all my odd-shaped mugs.

  • Reply Anna February 19, 2019 at 11:36 pm

    I prefer to brew in a teapot, so I just use the standard fine mesh stainless steel strainer that fit on top of the cup. I think I bought it on clearance from the grocery store, over five years ago.

  • Reply Erin (Boyle) S. February 23, 2019 at 12:36 pm

    It’s funny, I found this site a little randomly– we share a name (at least we did before I got married) and yet I also live in 510 square feet with two kids. Boston though, not New York! I’m always looking for new ideas to maximize the space, especially as my two girls get older. It’s not easy considering there isn’t a straight line in this place and the tiny kitchen alone has four doors and a window! Glad to have found this blog and great name 😉

  • Reply E March 3, 2019 at 3:11 pm

    Yes! For me, looking for perfect is often the enemy of being at peace with good enough. I have to be careful/mindful with minimalism because perfectionism makes me feel miserable.

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