Excess defines modern society in the United States. We’ve become so rich that we will soon spend $30 billion a year on storage. That’s $30 billion spent on hoarding. On tucking away our late grandma’s doilies. On letting mildew grow on our homework from 6th grade. On keeping our stacks of photo albums that we never look at. We spend an insane amount of money to keep everything around (just in case* we need it.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we carry around piles of junk every time we move, only to tuck them away in our bedroom closet or a storage unit across town?
Because it’s comforting. Holding on to everything is all we’ve ever known. Growing up in a nation that glorifies excess, we are scared to let things go.
But it’s okay to let go. Removing the clutter from our lives is liberating. Simplifying what we own can reduce stress, improve happiness, and even keep money in your pocket. There is actually an entire movement dedicated to ditching your stuff: Minimalism.
Minimalism is a mindfulness practice that focuses on simplifying one’s life and possessions with the purpose of increasing one’s happiness. The premise is simple. In reality, it’s a bit more difficult to do. My own journey started a few years ago when I was in college and continues to this day.
I first stumbled across minimalism in 2013 when I found the writings of Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus — known as The Minimalists. Those two opened my eyes to a whole new world of happiness and meaning. After reading the first few articles on their site, I was hooked. I knew this was something I needed to try, so I started becoming a minimalist by participating in their 30 day minimalism challenge:
My tweet announcing the challenge: Two likes and a retweet! I’m basically a social media master.
The challenge is simple. On the first day of the month, get rid of one item. On the second, ditch two things. The third? You guessed it. Send three items out the door. Continue until the last day of the month and you’ll have removed almost 500 things from your home!
While 500 may seem like a hefty chunk of your possessions, keep in mind that the average American household has 300,000 things. Surely we all can afford to get rid of 0.0016% of the stuff in our homes, right?
For me, the challenge started easily enough. I donated a few pieces of clothing, appliances, and other odds and ends I never used. It hurt, but I knew other people would find more use for the items than I would. Then during the last week of the game, it got tough.
I avoided donating my digital piano during the first few weeks. I told myself I’d eventually start playing again. But as the items in my home dwindled, that piano sat there. Mocking me. I hadn’t touched it in months. I realized that no matter how much I wished I would play, I knew I wouldn’t.
It had to go.
I had the same experience with books and video games and old calculus cheat sheets. One by one, I got rid of them all.
When I finished the month, I was still left with a house full of stuff. The minimalism game is just the start of a journey, not the end.
Practicing deliberate ownership for a single month changed how I saw the world. Cutting out the crap allowed the truly valuable things to be a focus in my life. Since then, minimalism has become the single most overarching philosophy running through my life. It guides my choices in food, clothes, friends, family, hobbies, and work.
My journey to minimalism has been a slow process. But by plodding along intentionally and experimenting with what works best, I’ve learned a great deal about myself. That knowledge and experience has allowed me to maximize what matters and discard the distractions.
To help you find and remove clutter in your life, this article presents a few simple rules I follow that could help you do the same. By sticking to them I’ve become the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever been, but your mileage may vary. Feel free to run your own experiments to see what works best for you.
How to Be a Minimalist
Each of these four rules have been instrumental in keeping my life simple, focused, and happy. However, these rules are the way I run my personal version of minimalism. The rules may not be ideal for your life, so adjust them to find whatever works for you.
1. Scrutinize All New Purchases and Media
Without question, the easiest way to reduce clutter is to never gather it in the first place.
Borrow or rent equipment when trying a new hobby. I used to collect expensive hobbies. Every few months I’d find a new activity to try, throwing myself completely into it. This led to gobs of money being spent on things like rock climbing, airsoft, lacrosse, cycling, homebrewing, PC gaming, painting, and wood burning supplies. Some of those hobbies have stuck with me through the years.
Now I do everything I can to delay purchasing hobby materials. I borrow or rent the equipment so I can try it out before making a major purchase. I try the activity a few times. If it isn’t something I love, I have no skin in the game. It becomes a fun experience to remember and not a drag on my finances or added clutter in the house.
Every time you are about to buy something, ask yourself if you actually need it. Hold it in your hand or let it sit in your online shopping cart for at least 30 seconds, thinking of every reason why you don’t need it. Those few seconds are often enough time to talk yourself out of the purchase.
For those digital purchases, don’t stay signed in to your favorite shopping sites. Having to login every time you visit can serve as a reminder to ask yourself if buying the new thing is worthwhile.
Keep a shopping list and only buy things that are on it. Most of my junk seems to come from impulse purchases, so I only buy what’s on my shopping list. Every few weeks my wife and I review our joint shopping list and remove the things we don’t actually want or need.
Once we’ve gone through the list, whatever remains is ranked. We limit ourselves to a few things each month, only purchasing the highest priority items.
Curate your digital life. The same precautions taken with physical media apply to digital media as well. In the digital age, books, movies, games, TV shows, and music take up almost no space. Media collections become trivially easy to build, making it inevitable that you’ll eventually save so much content that it becomes overwhelming to manage.
So before I add any new media to my life I ask myself the same questions I do with physical items. I look for every reason not to add it to my life. I also periodically review the media I’m consuming and when a podcast or TV show loses its value, I say “buh bye”.
2. Play the Minimalism Game at Least Twice a Year
It’s not enough to play the game once and be done with it. Minimalism is a way of life, not a single event that turns you into a minimalist forever.
No matter what you do, stuff will inevitably begin piling up. Free swag from work events will be tucked away in the closet. Drunken Amazon purchases show up on your doorstep, and you’ll wonder why you ever thought you needed five pounds of gummy bears. Things you once used regularly will fall into disrepair.
Even when I do my best to live a simple, meaningful life I collect more things than I should. Between new hobbies, replacing old items, and lifestyle inflation, I make purchases that in hindsight do nothing more than clutter my life.
By playing the Minimalism Game twice a year, you remind yourself of why being a minimalist is so great. While I try to scrutinize everything I buy (see rule number 1), I know that I’ll fail at some point. You will too, but that’s okay. Regularly playing the Minimalism Game will help you sort through the new things that came into your life. Each time you play, you’re given the opportunity to reevaluate your priorities and start a fresh outlook on life.
3. Quality > Quantity
When I decide to actually purchase something, I weigh the cost versus the quality. Sometimes it’s more financially sound to purchase an expensive, long-lasting item once rather than to periodically replace the cheaper alternatives.
Purchasing multi-functional items is also a great way to cut the clutter. This is especially relevant in the kitchen. For example, my wife and I use a cast iron skillet for almost every single meal we cook. It’s a single tool that can serve a variety of functions, allowing our kitchen to have fewer supplies.
A smaller number of high quality items is superior to a plethora of cheap items with regards to the space they take up, their utility, and their true cost.
4. Try Big Experiments
Human psychology shows that people ultimately return to a baseline level of happiness regardless of their situation. My wife and I have tried to take advantage of that fact by trying new ways of minimalist living.
Our first big experiment was downsizing from a two-bedroom apartment to a one-bedroom in 2014. We did it again ten months ago when we moved to Seattle and cut off another 150 square feet. Now we’re in a 509 square foot apartment, but it feels pretty much the same as our old place. We’ve realized that we don’t need all the space we used to have to be happy.
Slowly downsizing helped us to adapt to each change. Just a few months after our initial discomfort with a smaller apartment, life began to feel just as happy as before. If anything, we are happier due to the extra cash in our pockets from renting a smaller place.
The next big experiment we tried was to get rid of the television. While my wife and I tend to watch a decent amount of Netflix, that was pretty much the only time the TV got used. Sitting on the couch glued to a screen is not a productive habit, so by ditching the TV we slashed our TV watching in half. It also freed up some room in our tiny apartment to make it feel even more spacious!
Take a close look at your life and identify something you could experiment with. You don’t have to ditch your TV or live in a closet to be a minimalist. There are other ways you can experiment. Maybe it’s getting rid of a storage unit by tossing out old furniture or selling one of your cars because you could walk to work instead.
Whatever you want to experiment with, you don’t have to ditch it immediately. Instead, cover it with a blanket or put it away for a few weeks and see how you feel. If life continues normally, it’s likely something you could do without!
The hardest part of becoming a minimalist is going against the grain. American culture is dripping with consumerism. Millions of people are in heaps of debt in an effort to keep up with the Joneses, but the things they purchase aren’t making them any happier.
Be brave. Go against the grain. Minimize your life.
I promise, it’s absolutely worth it.
Give it a shot and you’ll see what I mean. A palpable weight will lift off your shoulders as you clear the clutter. By clearing the junk that has been burying you for years, you’ll discover the real you. Minimizing your life can bring happiness, financial stability, and a greater sense of purpose as it helps you identify what truly matters.
So give minimalizm a shot. You have nothing to lose. After all, you are just tossing junk.