The typical U.S. household has tripled in size over the past 50 years, now large enough to hold the 300,000 items the average family owns. Back in 2007, Joshua Fields Millburn was living out this norm, with a lucrative corporate job that afforded him luxuries like a nice car, a house with more toilets than people, and plenty of "stuff" to fill it with. He was epitomizing the American dream—until he realized it wasn't his dream at all.
A bout of introspection after his marriage ended and his mother died in the same month left Millburn wondering when he'd become so consumed in this chase for more. More wealth, more possessions, more power.
"Those events forced me to question what had become my life's focus. I realized I was so focused on so-called success and achievement, especially what achievement meant in our society, which was the accumulation of stuff, that I forsook the things that were most important," he tells mindbodygreen. "I was fat, I was out of shape, I ignored the people who were closest to me, and I wasn't really focused on what I wanted to do creatively. I wasn't growing. I wasn't contributing."
His search for meaning led him to a community of thought leaders like Leo Babauta and Colin Wright, who were parting with their material belongings to make way for nonmaterial wealth. This introduction to minimalism, a relatively untouched trend back then, led him to gradually clear the clutter out of his own life over the next few months, emerging with a happier, calmer demeanor. The benefits of minimalism Millburn so prominently wore ultimately caught the attention of family and friends, including Ryan Nicodemus, a buddy since fifth grade who was looking to find the same sense of clarity, quickly.
The two then embarked on the ultimate "packing party," spending nine hours packing every single one of Nicodemus' belongings—from toiletries to furniture—into boxes. Over the next three weeks, he removed items as needed, donating whatever was left.
"At the end of those three weeks, I had 80 percent of my stuff left in boxes just sitting there," Nicodemus says. "It was this really crazy light-bulb moment where I was looking at all those boxes thinking, 'Here are all these things I brought into my life to make me happy, but none of them are really doing their job.'"
From there, The Minimalists was born as a space for the two lifelong friends to share their musings on the ever-evolving world of minimalist living. Today, the blog has amassed millions of readers and inspired three books, a documentary, and speaking events around the country. Nicodemus and Millburn have branded a fresh iteration of minimalism—one less focused on how you choose to pare down, and more about why. The two serve as guides toward the deliberate, meaningful, purchase-driven lives that emerge when we're less encumbered with possessions.
And you don't need a packing party or total home overhaul to get on board with their philosophy. Here are a few top tips on how to use decluttering to achieve a powerful mental shift, straight from the Minimalists.
Make the internal change first.
According to Nicodemus and Millburn, the shift toward minimalism starts with a single question: "How might my life be better with less?" Are you looking to drop deadweight possessions to reclaim control of your finances? Find some more free time? Gain the clarity to make a career shift? Once you visualize the future you're after, it becomes easier to stay motivated through the less glamorous moments of the process.
"Decluttering by itself is kind of boring for most of us—we don't stay motivated to perpetually organize our houses," says Millburn. "Besides, that's not the point. Minimalism is about the benefits that come once we're on the other side of the process, and they're different for all of us."
Once you nail down your motivation and get on the road to simplicity, you'll want to look for someone else to take the journey alongside. Reach out to a friend or family member, tell them what you're doing and why, and ask them to check up on your progress from time to time. Accountability is a powerful motivator. If your support system is looking to cut down on his or her possessions, too, try out this friendly competition to amplify the process.
Let the physical changes follow suit.
With an established support system and intention to guide you, it's time to get started clearing your clutter. In order to keep this process efficient without becoming clinical, the Minimalists suggest the following rules and exercises.
The 10-10 Exercise
Diving into this one before you begin decluttering will really give you some perspective. Take a sheet of paper and write down the 10 things you spent the most money on in the last decade on the front. Flip the sheet over, and write the 10 most meaningful experiences you've had over the last decade. Then, see how the two sides relate to each other. According to The Minimalists, more often than not, they don't overlap more than once. "This helps you realize that things you thought were adding value really don't have much meaning at all," explains Millburn.
The 90-90 Rule
With every possession you rifle through, ask yourself if you've used it in the last 90 days or will use it in the next 90 days. This is an easy way to see if this object has a use during any season of the year. If it doesn't, trash it or donate it.
The 20-20 Rule
This is also called the just in case rule, as in, "I'm going to hold onto this old phone charger or instruction manual or (insert old widget here), just in case I need it someday." Give yourself permission to let these items go. Realistically, in today's fast-paced, consumeristic world, you can probably replace them for less than $20 in less than 20 minutes.
"This rule has worked 100 percent of the time for me and Ryan," explains Millburn, though it's not like they've had to use it often. "Over the last six years, we've used that rule five times between the two of us. The truth is, most of the things we think we'll need just in case, we're most likely not going to need at all."
The Perspective Rule
"Being a minimalist does not make you a monk."
So said Nicodemus when asked about the biggest misconception people have about his lifestyle. Minimalism shouldn't be about deprivation, so don't beat yourself up if you veer off track and start taking in more than you'd planned. With the holidays approaching, this rings especially true. Don't hesitate to embrace the giving spirit of the holiday—just make sure you're gifting something the other person really needs.