The art of simplifying your life (by getting rid of stuff)

The art of simplifying your life (by getting rid of stuff)
The Minimalists — After giving up six-figure salaries in the corporate world, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus decided to get back to basics. Now, as the Minimalists, they help others make space for what's important in life.

As a telecom executive, Joshua Fields Millburn would wake up at 4.44 every morning and immediately check his phone for emails.

It was also the last thing he did at night. Staying constantly connected to work had landed him a six-figure salary, a big house and everything else he’d ever wanted. But in 2009, at the age of 27, Joshua lost his mother and his marriage within a month, forcing him to question everything.

“I forsook the people closest to me, which is the reason my marriage ended and the reason I didn’t spend enough time with my mother when she was dying,” he says. “All because I was so god-damned ‘busy’.”

Joshua realised that his life had been focused on accumulation: of possessions, of status, of debt.

Joshua Fields Millburn (left) and Ryan Nicodemus (right).

Joshua Fields Millburn (left) and Ryan Nicodemus (right).

Yet he was riddled with anxiety and unhappiness. Around the same time, he read about a guy called Colin Wright who was travelling the world with just 51 objects.

The average American has 300,000 items in their home and $16,000 in credit card debt, Joshua says, so the idea of pursuing a more deliberate, meaningful existence with less stuff seemed attractive.

Joshua decided to downsize, getting rid of one item a day – shirts and shoes, TV and DVDs, kitchenware and electronics – until he’d offloaded about 90 per cent of his possessions.

“At first it was financial,” he says. “But once I regained control of my finances, I realised I could regain control of my time, my health, my relationships, personal growth and all these other things that I didn’t anticipate.”

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At one point Joshua removed the three glowing screens in his life – phone, laptop and TV – only to be confronted with a particular kind of loneliness. “I realised that I had been using those things to basically distract myself,” he says.

“And without that distraction, I had to fill those spaces, to find a way to be comfortable with the stillness by either being contemplative or finding another use of my time.”

People around Joshua noticed a difference – he seemed happier, less stressed – and they wanted to know why.

One of them was Ryan Nicodemus, Joshua’s childhood friend, who had climbed the corporate ladder alongside him. Together they decided to quit their jobs in Dayton,Ohio and move to Montana in order to live a simpler life.

Calling themselves The Minimalists, they experiment in paring things back, sharing their insights as authors and speakers.

Doing so has connected them with millions of people who have grown discontent with the status quo – often burned-out lawyers, executives or entrepreneurs seeking to re-balance their lives.

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The Minimalists are not luddites. They don’t advocate deprivation or giving up technology for the sake of it. Instead they believe in jettisoning the superfluous and questioning the everyday tools we use.

After two months without a phone, for instance, Joshua decided to bring it back… though only for things like GPS or actually phoning people. Living without the internet at home forces him to get outdoors and spend time more wisely, he says, but it also helps him commit to less.

“Being focused doesn’t allow me to get as much ‘accomplished’ as being busy,” he says.

“But the significance of my undertakings has gone way up. I have created more in the last six years of my life than in all the previous years combined. It’s not like I’m perfect.

“Sometimes I slip back into the busy trap that has engulfed our culture. When I do, I just make an effort to notice my slip up and course correct. It’s a constant battle but it’s a battle worth fighting.”

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How can I declutter my life?

The 20/20 Rule

“Anything you need to pack just in case is something you usually don’t need. The same goes for stuff we keep at home – like cables and old phone chargers – for some hypothetical future.

“If it can be replaced for less than $20 in less than 20 minutes from wherever you are, get rid of it. Over the last six years, myself and Ryan have needed to replace five things between us.”

The 90/90 rule

“We’re often not honest with ourselves about the things we assume add value to our lives. I look at a shirt, for example, and say, ‘Have I worn this in the last 90 days? Am I going to wear it in the next 90 days?’

“If I say no to both of those, I give myself permission to let go of that item, freeing it up to add to someone else’s life instead.”

The 30-day game

“Find a friend or family member who wants to part with their excess stuff. For one month, each of you must get rid of one thing on the first day, two things on the second day, and so on.

“The momentum of it becomes fun but it also allows you to have some accountability by partnering up with someone else.”

The packing party

“If you’re really ready to let go, you can do what Ryan did. He boxed up everything in his 2,000 sq ft condo as if he were moving, even though he wasn’t. For three weeks, he only unpacked the items he needed.

“It made him realise that all the things he’d been working so hard for, all the things that were supposed to make him happy, weren’t doing their job. So he got rid of 80 per cent of his stuff overnight, basically, and felt rich for the first time in his life.”

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Find out more about the Minimalists.

This article appears in Huck 58 – The Offline Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop now or subscribe today to make sure you never miss another issue.

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