Updated on 09.28.17

Some Thoughts on Project 333

Trent Hamm

In the last week, a good half-dozen readers and a few personal friends alerted me to an interesting event going on in Ankeny, Iowa (which is a suburb of Des Moines, less than an hour from where I live). The event is a speech/Q&A session from Courtney Carver, the person behind the Project 333 movement – you can find out the details here).

Project 333 is something that’s been on my radar for a while, along with the whole “capsule wardrobe” mini-movement that’s been developing, so I’m interested in attending (though it’s competing with literally three other events that evening on my calendar).

So, what is Project 333 (and what is “capsule wardrobe,” for that matter)? The “capsule wardrobe” concept is an effort to be more minimalist in one’s wardrobe. It’s a community of mostly women, though there are men involved as well, who focus on finding ways to dress nicely and professionally with a minimum number of garments, which saves money and closet space.

Project 333 is merely a specific implementation of that concept, a way of turning it into a challenge. The challenge is simple: simply live with a wardrobe of 33 items (or less) for 3 months. How exactly you limit that is up to the reader, but Courtney offers up these guidelines: shoes, accessories, jewelry, and outerwear count toward those 33, but she excludes a wedding ring (if you never remove it) and underwear as well as casual clothes solely used around the house or at the gym.

I like the concept a lot, though I’m pretty confident that I do this already by default. Although I haven’t counted, I’m pretty sure I wear fewer than 33 articles of clothing outside the house and gym in a given three month period – that would include different shoes, shirts, and pants (I don’t wear jewelry or accessories besides my wedding ring or a tie on special occasions).

Here’s why this project really stands out to me.

One, it provides a challenge that’s long enough to become a habit. Depending on the specific routine, it takes between 30 and 120 days for a routine to transform into a personal habit. 90 days is a good target, one that pushes a person to make it through the difficult part of changing their clothing habits and adopt some new habits, but not so long that it seems like forever and drives people away from the start.

Two, it sets a challenging but achievable goal for most people. 33 items including shoes is a pretty strict limit for many people.

I have a pretty limited wardrobe, but even I have more items than that, counting all of my various shirts and pants. I started counting this up and, for me, it looked like this:
– 1 suit jacket
– 1 tie
– 1 belt
– 3 dress pants
– 4 denim jeans
– 2 shorts
– 6 shoes – one pair dressy, one pair very casual, one pair for hiking
– 3 dressy long sleeved shirts
– 2 reasonably dressy short sleeved shirts
– 1 long sleeved polo
– 2 short sleeved polos
– 7 t-shirts

That’s essentially what I would set aside for my 33 items. During the fall, I could easily live off of those if I kept my laundry up. It would be a bit of a challenge, but it would be achievable.

Three, achieving the goal pretty much forces you to rethink how many clothes you own and how much is really necessary. When I made that list above, I had to really think about what I needed in terms of clothing in my life. How often do I wear something simple and casual to the grocery store? How often do I go out in the community dressed nicely? How much clothing do I really need to cover those things?

When you start asking yourself questions like this in a serious fashion, what you begin to notice is the excess. If you’re considering whether 10 shirts is enough, having 40 in your closet seems like complete overkill. When something begins to seem like complete overkill, you find yourself far less interested in spending more money on it.

Four, it’s a strong push toward minimalism – and considering it in your life. When I look at that above wardrobe, I recognize that, if I needed to, I could probably cut the list down to about 15 or so. I’d cut the t-shirts in half, drop the suit, drop the casual shoes and either wear my hiking shoes or dressy shoes, and drop about one or two items in every other category.

If I cut it down that much, I start reaching a point where I could live entirely out of a duffel bag. This is something I would probably consider doing for a while if I were single again. It would be very tempting to load up a duffel bag and spend a spring, summer, and fall on the road visiting national parks and visiting friends, writing along the way.

Finally, it creates an opportunity to “box up” your excess clothes and use them for a “wardrobe refresh” in the future. After those three months, you can simply refresh your wardrobe by opening up your boxed clothes and completely changing everything up by using what you have in storage.

Let’s say I have eight short sleeved polo shirts and I include only two of them in doing this type of challenge. At the end of those three months, I can put the two polo shirts in storage (provided they’re still in good shape), pull two other shirts out of storage, and it’ll look like I just refreshed my wardrobe at no cost whatsoever.

Projects like these expose the excess in one’s life. A person who might consider it completely beyond reason to live out of a duffel bag for an extended period of time might be willing to take on a project like this, and then come to realize that their current wardrobe is quite excessive and that they can, in fact, enjoy and appreciate a much smaller wardrobe.

The thing is, this kind of project template doesn’t have to be just about clothes. You can create challenges like this for all kinds of things. Such challenges push you to recognize how much excess you have in your life.

Here are a few challenges inspired by Project 333 that go a long way toward showing yourself how you can have a great life with a small number of things.

Challenge yourself to using just ten kitchen tools to make meals for a month. Try to make a different dinner each day using just a chef’s knife, a cutting board, a paring knife, a saucepan, a large pot, a spatula, a baking sheet, a casserole dish, a measuring cup, and a strainer, along with your stove and a slow cooker. See how many things you can make. Also, see how adept you get with those tools and how truly flexible they can be in your kitchen. It’ll probably inspire you to avoid buying more kitchen tools for a long time – and probably inspire you to get rid of some stuff.

Challenge yourself to use just one paid entertainment service for the next month. Use just your cable service, or just Netflix, or just Amazon Prime. Really dig into what’s available. Make yourself a nice big list of shows that are prerecorded or that you want to binge watch – a huge list – and then start digging into them. You may just find that this one service has so much good entertainment that you won’t need the others for a very long while, so you can safely cancel them.

Challenge yourself to cut a collection size down to a small cap, and then use a “buy one, get rid of one” philosophy for the next six months. Let’s say you have an enormous book collection. Your goal is to pare that collection down to a size that will fit on a particular bookshelf or set of shelves, and then if you buy a book, it has to fit on that shelf or you have to get rid of a book to make room for it. A challenge like this makes you look seriously at why you have so many books, whether or not you’ll honestly ever read these books again, and how good it feels to put those books in the hands of someone who will actually read them. Not only is it about reassessing what you own, it’s about what the value of a book is – it doesn’t mean much if it just sits there unread, gathering dust.

Project 333 is a great personal challenge to take on if you have a large wardrobe. It forces you to reconsider the sheer quantity of clothes that you own and instead makes you think of them in terms of individual quality and flexibility and usefulness. That’s a valuable change in perspective, one that can save you a lot of money. You can encourage similar perspective shifts by trying similar challenges in other areas of your life.

Good luck!