Bird by Bird: The Slow Guide to Minimalism.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Brooke McAlary of Slow Your Home.

“Be not afraid of going slowly; be only afraid of standing still.” – Chinese Proverb

I am a writer. I am a wife. I am a mother. I am an inappropriate laugher.

I am also a passionate advocate of simple living, rational minimalism, living with less – whatever you want to call this movement we are part of.

I came to both minimalism and writing in my darkest times, and I don’t think that is a coincidence. I was lost and despairing. Taking control of my life and rediscovering my creative passions have helped me carve out a life of intention, happiness and purpose. And it’s freaking awesome.

There is a book on writing I love. It’s called ‘Bird by Bird’ by Anne Lamott. It’s filled with writing advice, huge belly laughs and incredible insights into the particular breed of weird that is a creative author.

My copy is well-thumbed and lives on my desk, next to where I currently sit.

The title comes from a story Anne Lamott tells of her older brother. He is ten years old and struggling to start, let alone finish, a paper on birds. He has had three months to complete it, and the paper is due the next day.

“He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilised by the hugeness of the task ahead.”

Despairing, he pleads with his father for advice on how to start – and finish.

“Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

In other words: Don’t think about the whole paper. Just start with one bird. Finish that bird. Then move on.

“And son? Do it now.”

As a writer, I loved the simplicity of the advice – just get it down bit by bit, word by word. One thought at a time.

As a minimalist, I was inspired – start with one thing, work it through, then move on. Bit by bit, piece by piece.

Bird By Bird: The Slow Guide to Minimalism

Honestly, creating a life of simplicity is easy. You simply begin.

The hard part is not looking too far ahead. Focusing on the bird in front of you, not the flock above. That’s when we falter, when it seems too much, too hard, too long, too sad, too emotional.

First, Take One Step.

Every journey begins with just one step. Simplifying your life, becoming a minimalist, living with less – this journey is no different. It begins with one step, one decision, one action.

It may be that you:

  • Toss out the pair of favorite sneakers that are falling apart.
  • Clear out the junk drawer in your kitchen.
  • Say no to a commitment that has been draining you for too long.
  • Clear out under the couch.
  • Tidy your desk.

Then, Bird by Bird

As you finish with that first step, the next one will become apparent. Just trust the process and resist temptation to look too far ahead.

  • Once the sneakers are gone, you will see the clothes you no longer wear.
  • When the junk drawer is empty, you will move on to the utensils.
  • Once you’ve cancelled your draining commitment, you will notice the time you waste on Facebook.
  • When the floor under the couch is clear, you will notice the overflowing bookshelf.
  • After your desk is orderly, you will see the piles of paperwork that need filing.

Bird by bird.

It all starts with one decision. A decision to forge a better life. A decision to say no. A decision to value people over things. A decision to let go.

That particular decision is yours. The important part is that you make one, follow it through, then move forward.

Bird by bird.


Brooke McAlary helps families live more simple and mindful lives at Slow Your Home. She is also a fantastic follow on on Twitter.

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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  1. Ginny says

    I am also a creative writer and the book by Anne Lamont has long been a staple on my reference shelf, one I reach for more often than others. Another chord you struck is one of coming to minimialism and writing during the darkest of times. Through a series of circumstances that I was sure would break me emotionally and financially, I found simplicity. I now seek to de-clutter any area in my life that causes chaos or leads to pain. I am learning to let go of those painful memories that, for years haunted me yet drug me back into their grip like an addiction. By letting go of that mind clutter we make room for joy and happiness. I am glad I found your site. Thank you for all you share.

  2. Ashley says

    This is a great article – taking things “bird by bird” applies to so many areas of my life right now, and not just simplicity. Thank you for the heartening message.

  3. ODW says

    This is so true. I have recently started ‘clearing the clutter’. I find I always fall off the wagon when I start looking too broad and then I bog down. Thank you for this reminder.

  4. says

    I read articles on simplicity all the time, but for some reason, when you connected it with one of my favorite books, it clicked for me.

    Not to mention the suggestions you made (sneakers, junk drawer, etc..) were so doable.

    living simply doesn’t have to be a major transition or event. You can do it “bird by bird.”

    Thanks, Brooke!

  5. says

    This is a great post, Brooke. I loved it!

    I adopted my minimalist mindset at a time when I was overwhelmed. I wanted a drastic change to the clutter and over-consumption I felt surrounded by. I tried to wrangle a whole bunch of “birds” at once and wound up feeling exhausted. I think your “bird by bird” approach is similar to taking baby steps. You’ll still reach your goal, one step at a time.

    For me, the hardest part about minimalism is realizing living with less is a continuous process. It’s kind of like running laps….you’ll wiz by that finish line more than once. So that’s another great reason to take it slow. That you way can maintain your commitment and energy for making those daily choices.

  6. says

    Great advice. Bird by bird or step by step, it’s all the same. Looking at the big picture can be overwhelming but taking small steps can make all the difference.

  7. says

    I’m in the process of de-cluttering my home and although I’m proud of the progress I’ve made, I look around sometimes and it feels overwhelming. Thanks, Brooke. This was just what I needed to take my next baby step!

  8. says

    A beautiful analogy. I began my minimalist journey two years ago and can’t believe the difference in my life now. Decluttering one’s life is a huge task but when broken down into small steps is achievable. I need constant advice and inspiration, though, so thanks for this post :)

  9. Patrick says

    Brooke: This is a great article and I love your Bird by Bird analogy to simplifying. On a writing note: check out James Altucher’s blog and his 33 tips to becoming a better writer. I think you’d enjoy his quirkiness.

  10. says

    Thank you, Brooke. I needed this today. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” is now a graphic on the wall in my office. And it will generate a lovely conversation once my 10 year-old sees it.

  11. says

    Thank you for the post today, Brooke. I had been so overwhelmed by the stuff in our house. It wasn’t horrible because I’m organized but I had felt for a long time that I needed to minimize and declutter. Josh’s book, Simplicity, got me started. Last week I started and since I work at home I had more time. I am almost done with the whole house, minus a few areas my husband needs to do. I gave so much away and sold 10 tote bags of books. What you wrote about noticing another area after cleaning one, is so true. Now I walk around and ask myself: “What else can I get rid of?” I feel so free and content. One of my friends said I look happier and she can tell that a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders!

  12. Lisa Aherne says

    Fantastic post. I really love your work Brooke. It is making an amazing difference to how I look at my home and I am taking the steps bird by bird as suggested. My favourite sneakers are gone, my kitchen is getting better, and I have already cancelled some commitments which were robbing me of essential time at home. I feel happier in my world, even though I have a long way to go before I could dream of calling myself uncluttered.

  13. says

    Solid advice, and a funny anecdote from Anne Lamott’s book (we’ve all suffered through a bout of priority paralysis at one point or another).

    “Bird by bird” is a good start, but sometimes you have to step back and see that the sneakers and the untidy desk are just symptoms of a larger problem that calls for a more radical solution.

    By all means, pick the low-hanging fruit. But also be prepared to chop the tree down…or even change orchards altogether.

  14. says

    So perfect! I start out so often with a bird by bird attitude but then get impatient and discouraged. Back to the small tasks tomorrow.

  15. Mary says

    Nice article with lots of great ideas. However, how does this all tie in with not
    wasting earth’s resources. If we just fill landfills so we can feel good about the
    inside of our home, how helpful is that? i.e. If we throw away the junky sneakers,
    then next time we have to do a really grubby job will we just trash our nice ones
    and need to go buy another new pair? Not to say we should all keep 9 pairs
    of old sneakers, but I think using up and letting things wear out is much better
    than going totally minimalist and filling up a landfill with manufactured items that
    still have lots of use left in them. Just a thought……

    • John says

      You don’t need to landfill everything if it has a use, you can bring a few carloads at a time to the Goodwill or a donation organization of your choice. Minimizing doesn’t equate putting it all in the trash.

  16. says

    Thanks for that beautiful post Brooke! I will share it for sure! I love the bird by bird analogy but wven more the writing link! It is right. As I get rid of one thing at the time, I can write 1 post at the time, 1 word at the time. Thanks!

  17. says

    Thanks for reminding us its a slow process with no real rules other than to go slowly. I often think minimalism is not part of a “movement” of a certain era, generation, or politic – but a timeless, personal, spiritual awakening :)

  18. says

    The principle BIRD BY BIRD is REALLY powerful in every sphere of life. I ran into it several years ago reading a book by Henry Cloud. The essence is the same, with the only difference – he is talking about ANTS who build their huge ant hills GRAIN BY GRAIN.

    Thank you for remindimg me this I would say ONE OF THE MOST IMPOSTANT PRINCIPLES OF LIFE! =)

  19. Rania Fouad says

    Step by Step u achieve ur dream …, and believer nothing is impossible …
    Even the hardest things can be achieved by starting with the first step .

  20. says

    Excellent post. I also love the book and see the value of Lamott’s advice for simple living folk and minimalists.

    Just one thing, though. Anne’s Dad doesn’t say, “Do it now, son.” The passage ends with, “Just take it bird by bird.” I think it’s stronger that way.


  21. Sylvia says

    I have always been a minimalist, I think even as a child when I look back. I have had very busy jobs in accounting and then as a real busy real estate agent. One tip I have always used is to never handle something twice. When the mail comes and you are opening it up, open putting envelopes and unwanted mail in one pile as you open. Then take the unwanted and envelopes to recycling bag whwn finished. It always amazes me when I visit people and I see a pile of mail all mixed in with envelopes, etc on tables and cabinets, Why handle it twice when you can handle it once.

  22. Jeannie says

    WOW Brooke!! I felt like you were writing this just for me… ha ha!! Yes one little “Bird by Bird”… it makes so much sense as I start this journey and looking forward and not backwards!! Yes it does get overwhelming but I am now learning that is not just about ‘decluttering’ my home but many other things in life. I have learned so much from Joshua’s posts and reading your post has really encouraged me!! I will look forward to checking your Blogs.. thanks for all your Tips!! :)

  23. ralf says

    Since I have a boyfriend I don’t find things at home. He likes a tidy room. So he clears things away. I call it hiding. So I forget about tasks. Forget where things are. This way every drawer and cabinet clutters up with unrelated things. The house looks tidy. But behind thr doors its a mess. Getting worse with every move.
    One by one I go through dtawers to clean them up un clutter them. The only solution is see now is selling stuff. And gifting and donating. Christmas is a good time for gifts.

  24. Debbie says

    Perfect. I needed this reminder today. I usually say baby steps but since I’m a fan of Anne, I like this much better. Thank you for the wonderful post!

Sites That Link to this Post

  1. Bird by Bird | Slow Your Home | November 25, 2012

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