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The average American household has more than 3,000 items in it—“which would be fine if they were making us happier or if they aided our lives in some way,” says minimalism expert Joshua Fields Millburn. “But quite often, the objects of our desire, once they are acquired, become the objects of our discontent.”
Millburn came by this knowledge firsthand. While growing up poor in Dayton, Ohio, he attributed his family’s lack of happiness to a lack of money and all the stuff it can buy. But in early adulthood, after realizing that a rapid ascent up the corporate ladder and a six-figure income gave him everything but happiness, he began to suspect that his things = fulfillment hypothesis was flawed. So, he started getting rid of things—today he estimates that he owns fewer than 300 items—and friends started noticing that he was happier, kinder, lighter.
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One of those friends, Ryan Nicodemus, was so inspired that he decided to become a minimalist right then and there. He packed up his belongings and vowed to only unpack those items that he’d need in the next three weeks. Twenty-one days later, 80 percent of the stuff was still boxed, and Nicodemus gave it all away.
Just over a decade later, Millburn and Nicodemus—now known as the Minimalists—have built a movement out of minimalism, sharing their stories with tens of millions via the Netflix documentaries Minimalism (2016) and Less Is Now (2020), The Minimalists podcast, books, TV appearances, and nationwide speaking tours. This Wednesday, September 22, the duo will appear at Comedy Works Downtown as part of their “Love People Use Things” tour, giving audience members fresh insights, a reading from their new book, Love People, Use Things: Because The Opposite Never Works, and an opportunity to ask questions on the spot.
We have questions, too, so we sat down with Millburn to learn more about living well with less at home.
5280 Home: If we’re going to suggest that homeowners pare down their possessions from several thousand items to several hundred, I think we need to start by explaining why.
Joshua Fields Millburn: What we’re doing is clearing the excess so we can make room for what’s truly important to us. For me, the process always starts with a question: How might your life be better with less?
The answer is highly individual. For some people, like Ryan, it was, “I’ll regain control of my finances because I’ve got tons of debt, and I don’t want to be tethered to this lifestyle anymore.” For other people, it’s about reclaiming their creativity or improving relationships because they have all this internal or relational clutter. The benefits might be having an uncluttered house and not having to deal with all the organizing and tidying. Or it can be about freeing up resources. Money is one of those resources, but there are other resources that are far more precious: time, attention, energy, skills—these are resources that we rarely think about because we’re so focused on earning money to buy things that aren’t going to make us happy.
There’s a whole industry devoted to wrangling clutter, but to be clear, we aren’t talking about mere organizing, are we?
Organizing is just well-planned hoarding. And it doesn’t work because what we’re doing is hiding a problem. If you’re struggling with a cluttered closet, I could give you 7 or 17 decluttering tips and you could completely organize the closet, but then a week or month or year from now, it will be recluttered with new purchases because we never got to the why behind the clutter.
What’s the problem we’re ignoring?
We’re constantly searching for happiness through physical things—cars and houses and clothes. We’re constantly asking, How do I improve my life? How do I make myself more complete? And that’s why consumerism is so insidious. Consumerism is just the ideology that if I buy a certain thing, I will be either happier or more complete. And of course, that never works. We all know intellectually that it doesn’t work, but we don’t really understand it in our viscera.
What I’ve found out over the years is that our material possessions are a physical manifestation of what’s going on inside us. If we have a bunch of external clutter, it’s because we have mental clutter, emotional clutter, relationship clutter, career clutter, calendar clutter. And we try to deal with that chaos by heaping on more material possessions.
How do we break this cycle?
In the new book, we present 16 rules for living with less, and one of those rules is the No Junk Rule. Here’s how it works: Anything you own, you can place into one of three piles: It’s either essential, it’s nonessential, or it’s junk.
Everyone has the same or similar essentials. We all need food, shelter, clothing, transportation, vocation, and education.
The next category is the nonessentials. These are things that add value to our lives. For example, I don’t need my kitchen table, but I work at it, my family has great dinners at it, it really enhances my experience of life. And minimalism isn’t about deprivation. It’s about identifying that which adds value to our lives and then letting go of that which doesn’t. And that’s the third category: junk.
Junk masquerades as something that adds value. These are often aspirational purchases, like the orange sweatshirt that looked great on the mannequin but doesn’t look great on me, so it’s going to sit in the back of the closet because I can’t let go of it. But if we get rid of the junk, we experience the paradox of minimalism: As a minimalist, I get far more value from the few items I own because everything serves a purpose or brings me joy.
But parting with possessions can be so difficult!
The difficulties we have often have to do with the stories we tell ourselves, and the disempowering language we use, like, I could never let go of this. Or we say things like, I love this toaster. But if I tell you that I love my toaster, and I also love my wife, what does that mean? When we use the same language to describe very different things, no wonder we get so confused. No wonder it’s so difficult to let go when I’m treating my toaster like I treat my wife.
What about choosing to live with something simply because it’s beautiful?
I think beauty is essential. Having beautiful things is really useful in a home because it provides calm and serenity, and it aids in the function of a home. But think about when you visit a museum. Isn’t there this beautiful sense of calm and serenity? You experience that because they don’t have any excess in there. Now imagine how you’d feel if all the archives were stacked in the galleries. That’s what we’re doing to our homes, so no wonder it feels like chaos. We’ve intermingled all the junk with the essential and value-adding things. In fact, the junk is getting in the way of those things that could add value.
How do we keep the junk out?
One way is by using the “Wait For It Rule.” If something costs more than $30, then I am going to wait at least 30 hours before purchasing it. We’ve also created the following five questions to ask before buying something:
- Who am I buying this for? We often let our possessions shape our identity, and one of the ways in which we do this is by showcasing our favorite brands to signify our individuality. Like, See this logo? This is who I am as a person. If you say that out loud, you realize how absurd the notion is. Brands themselves aren’t the problem. We all need some stuff, and we rely on companies to create the things we need. The problem arises when we feel external pressure to acquire. But external pressure isn’t a sign to consume. If anything, it’s a sign to pause and question, who am I buying this for? Is it for me, or am I buying it to project an image to others?
- Will this add value to my life? As a minimalist, I don’t own many things, but everything I own adds value to my life. So, I ask this question of any item I’m going to purchase: Does this serve a function or increase my wellbeing in a meaningful way? If not, it’s not worth buying.
- Can I afford it? There are two questions here: The first is, can I actually afford the item? If you have to finance a new purchase, you literally can’t afford it. The other question is, what’s the actual cost of the thing? We rarely stop to consider the costs of storing, maintaining, cleaning, watering, charging, refueling, fixing, accessorizing, and worrying about the thing.
- Is this the best use of this money? Money is a limited resource, so what are the alternative uses for it? I might be able to afford the pricey jeans, but would that money serve me better in a retirement savings account, or spent on a family vacation, or used to pay my rent?
- Would the best version of me buy this? If he or she wouldn’t buy the item, then you know what to do.
How should we expect to feel after getting intentional about our possessions?
Quite often, when you start letting go of the excess, you do feel a weight lifted, but you don’t experience perpetual bliss by simply letting go of your things. That’s not how minimalism works. People often think that addressing the stuff is the end result, but it’s merely the first step.
Next comes asking questions like What is truly important in my life? Who is the person I want to become? How am I going to define my own success? These are tough questions that often have some difficult answers, but for me, they’ve proven to be so much more important than just trashing the excess stuff. We’re not dealing with the clutter to make us happier or more complete. We’re simply uncovering the happiness that’s already there.