Minimalism 101: How to Own Less and Live More

march blog

You know in The Little Mermaid when Ariel was like, “I’ve got all these gadgets and gizmos, but it doesn’t matter because I’m still not happy”? Well, I think perhaps she was trying to teach us a lesson about minimalism. Things don’t make you happy. People make you happy. Maybe I should have learned this lesson when I watched The Little Mermaid for the first time as a kid, but I was probably too busy trying to convince my mom that I needed that Little Mermaid lunchbox. Now, 20-something years later, I’ve still got whosits and whatsits galore. I wouldn’t say that I’m unhappy exactly, but I could certainly be happier. And I could definitely reduce my attachment to material things, both as a way to simplify my life and to reduce my environmental impact.

Looking back, I think Ariel was ahead of her time. The concept of minimalism has exploded over the last few years. There is a seemingly infinite number of books, blogs, podcasts, and documentaries devoted to the subject. But what is minimalism, anyway? Why should we care about it? And what does it have to do with sustainability and making the world a better place? Well, I did some research on minimalism, and here’s what I found.

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What is minimalism, anyway?

Here are some ways that people who know a lot more about minimalism than me have described it:

  • In Goodbye, Things, Fumio Sasaki writes, “minimalism is a lifestyle in which you reduce your possessions to the absolute minimum you need.” This is perhaps the most extreme definition I found among popular books about minimalism.
  • In The More of Less, Joshua Becker defines minimalism as “the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from them.”
  • In Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus explain that “minimalism is simply about stripping away the unnecessary things in your life so you can focus on what’s important.”
  • In The Joy of Less, Francine Jay encourages readers to think about minimalism in terms of the word “space,” rather than in terms of the word “empty.” She says that minimalism provides “space in our closets, space in our garages, space in our schedules, space to think, play, create, and have fun with our families.”
  • Finally, Cary Tilander Fortin and Kyle Louise Quilici write about the concept of “new minimalism” in their book by the same name. They state, “new minimalism is a middle path between traditional minimalism and over-the-top consumerism.” They go on to say that it is a “mindful, intentional way of living, prioritizing relationships and experiences above material things.”

Isn’t minimalism just another form of privilege?

Before we go any further, I would just like to acknowledge the inherent privilege that is associated with minimalism. If you are going to throw out all your stuff in the name of minimalism, you first have to have a bunch of stuff to throw out, right? If you have excess stuff in your home, if you have a home at all, you have some degree of privilege. Additionally, having the ability to cultivate a minimalist lifestyle and the freedom to choose certain items over others is also a form of privilege. Not everyone can afford to buy “fewer, better things.” But as someone who has the privilege required to make ethical choices, I feel I have an obligation to make the choices that are better for people and the planet. But that doesn’t make me better than anyone who does not have that privilege, nor does it give me the right to judge people who don’t make the same decisions that I do. So, I believe that people should adopt minimalism to the extent that it works for them. Take the aspects that serve you, leave the ones that don’t.

Why should I care about minimalism?

Advertisements constantly bombard us with the message that buying stuff will make us happier. Having lots of money and lots of stuff is a sign of success. And success breeds happiness, right? You probably know by now that none of these things are true, but finding an alternative way of being is easier said than done. That’s where minimalism comes in. It teaches you to focus on experiences over things; people over possession. Minimalists claim that this mindset will reduce stress, and therefore improve your mental and even physical health; save you time and money; provide you with a sense of purpose; and improve your relationships. But above all, minimalism will give you freedom. Freedom from clutter, from debt, from distractions, and expectations.

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How do I become a minimalist?

Based on my research, I’ve distilled minimalism into five distinct steps. Feel free to disagree with this approach, but from what I’ve read, these are the key components to becoming a minimalist.

1. Adopt a minimalist mindset. Consider why the idea of minimalism appeals to you. Do you spend too much time thinking about material things? Are you constantly tempted to buy the newest, coolest gadgets? Are you unhappy despite having accumulated a house full of stuff? Do you feel like you never have time to relax and slow down? Take stock of your life and consider how minimizing your possessions, your activities, and even your toxic friends could make you happier. Remind yourself that happiness comes from experiences, not things. Consider what really matters in life. Stop comparing yourself to others. This process won’t happen overnight; changing your mindset is a gradual process.

2. Clear your home of clutter. Whittle down your possession to the things you really need, love, and use. Give away the clothes you don’t love, recycle the papers you don’t need, sell the furniture you don’t use. Although I disagree with the notion that minimalism is just about getting rid of stuff, and I shutter to think about people sending all their junk off to a landfill, I do think it’s important to start with a clean slate. Just try to minimize your belongings in a responsible way.

3. Act as a gatekeeper to prevent future clutter. Don’t allow anything to come into your home that you do not value. Don’t buy things just because they are on sale. Don’t accept things just because they are free. This step is absolutely essential, otherwise, all the clutter you just cleared out will return in no time.

4. Clear your life of clutter. Don’t stop with clearing out stuff. Minimalism is also about clearing out your life. Be more intentional with the way you spend your time. Say no to commitments that don’t align with your values. Avoid overcommitting in general. Slow down, and give yourself time to appreciate the little things in life. Also, clear your mind of negative thoughts. Again, this takes practice.

5. Practice mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness and meditation are basically minimalism for your brain. Focus on staying present and centered to bring more space and calm into your life. Live with intention. Adopt a regular meditation practice.

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What does minimalism have to do with sustainability?

Because this is a blog about sustainable living and conscious consumerism, I would be remiss if we didn’t talk about how minimalism relates to those things. In New Minimalism, Cary and Kyle state, “minimalism is essentially a form of environmental activism…when you spend less time at shopping malls and online, when you redefine your consumption habits to support your pure needs and selected wants, you are, in a small but significant way, decreasing demand for the manufacture of new items. As a result, you are treading far more gently on the earth while graciously sharing its resources with your greater community.” I couldn’t agree more. I chose minimalism for this month’s theme because of its inherent sustainability. While others may turn to minimalism for different reasons, the result is similar. Minimalism is an exceptional way to build a better world.

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