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From the idea of slicing your wardrobe down to a uniform to Marie Kondo’s take-no-prisoners (unless they give you joy) M.O., minimalism has been going strong for a few years now. The advantages are easy to see in an instant: A purge leaves you with a fresher feeling home that’s organized in function and modern in look. There are more pluses, though, that reach much deeper and last much longer, according to Joshua Fields Millburn and Rebecca “Bex” Shern.
Joshua Fields is one of The Minimalists along with Ryan Nicodemus; the pair has garnered a following with their books, podcast, documentary film, and website. His partner, Bex, is a registered dietitian, cook, and blogger. Their path is less of an abrupt, one-size-fits-all clean-out, and more about finding the right lifestyle for you. This can lead to an entirely more fulfilled life, thanks to more time in your schedule (hello, less cleaning!) to focus on family, friends, hobbies, and adventures; more success because of that extra time to devote to productivity and creativity and less distractions from “stuff”; and less financial concerns as you’re buying and maintaining less. Since Joshua and Bex have been walking the walk in their own Missoula, Montana home with their 4-year-old daughter and experiencing the rewards, we talked to them about how they apply minimalism in different ways and different rooms, how it works, and how we can all follow suit.
COURTNEY ISEMAN: You’ve made the point that the kind and degree of minimalism you apply in your home may not be for everyone. What is your advice for someone in figuring out what will make him or her happy at home?
REBECCA “BEX” SHERN: As with anything in life, we develop a better understanding of things with time. It was important to me to evolve into minimalism, and it's been a several-year journey that doesn’t have an end point. Our shared home looks dramatically different from what my home looked like before embarking on this path, but I didn't have a big turning point; I've just worked to make incremental changes over time. In our home we have consistently asked, "What makes this space feel ideal and function optimally for us?" Then we've removed (or not brought in) the things that don't serve that vision. The result is a home that's curated to our needs, preferences, and style.
JOSHUA FIELDS MILLBURN: As for being happy, I know I'm happiest when I'm not distracted, so I strive to have a distraction-free home: no television in the bedroom, no trinkets strewn from wall to wall, and nothing I might trip on—everything has its place. Without those distractions, my life is more focused.
CI: How does your home reflect who you are?
BEX: Both Josh and I have modern and minimalist style preferences; our home's architecture and furnishings reflect that aesthetic. We share similar personality traits (we're both INTJs)—we both need a lot of alone time and do best in quiet, uncluttered spaces, so that's evident in our home.
JFM: Our material possessions are a physical manifestation of what's going on inside us. Thus, a cluttered home is often a reflection of different internal clutter: emotional clutter, spiritual clutter, financial clutter, mental clutter. When we clear the excess, we're able to deal with what's going on inside us.
CI: How does this approach contribute to you and your family living a more fulfilled life?
BEX: Having a home that feels good facilitates positive energy and creativity. It allows us to better focus on our priorities and minimizes distractions. I've noticed that as a mother, it's helped our daughter seem more calm and centered to live in a space that isn't full of clutter, electronics, and noise-making toys. As a high-energy kid that is easily distracted and flustered, this lifestyle seems to suit her needs well.
JFM: As a minimalist family, every possession serves a purpose or brings us joy. Everything else is out of the way. It took me 30 years to figure out what things add value to my life; I'm glad Ella's learning at age four.
CI: What benefits do you think a more minimalist approach (whatever that might look like from person to person) has in any home, that you would recommend to anyone?
BEX: Having a clutter-free home is an enormous time-saver. Prior to living more simply, I recall spending several hours each week picking crap up in my home, and that's what it felt like: picking up crap. When you have hundreds of thousands of items in your home, most of it ends up just taking space and making demands on your time. Without all the stuff, I have more time to devote to my passions.
JFM: According to the Los Angeles Times, the average American household contains more than 300,000 items, and over the course of our lifetime, we will spend a total of 3,680 hours, or 153 days, searching for misplaced items. We lose up to nine items every day—or 198,743 in a lifetime. Phones, keys, sunglasses, and paperwork, all missing because we're inundated with stuff. So I agree with Rebecca: Being able to clean the entire house in less than 30 minutes is a great benefit.
But for me, the biggest initial benefit was regaining control of my finances. The average American has more than $16,000 dollars in credit card debt and four active credit cards in his or her wallet. I was no different: I had six figures worth of debt—half a million if you count the mortgage on the oversized house I used to own. Minimalism helped me live within my means for the first time, develop a plan to pay off my debt, start saving for the future, and contribute beyond myself.
CI: For someone who wants to downsize and/or pare back, do you have any tips for where to begin?
BEX: Honestly, anywhere. I started with my closet (and have revisited my closet/wardrobe many times since). Then I moved on to our kitchen, our living room, and our daughter's room. The key is to start and commit to making progress.
JFM: Yes, start your process by asking the most important question: “How might my life be better with less?” By answering this question, you will identify the benefits of letting go—not just the how-to, but the more important why-to. Of course, the benefits are different for each of us: for some people, they involve improved health or relationships; for others, the benefits are financial freedom or more time to create. Understanding the purpose of decluttering will grant you the leverage you need to keep going. Then, once you understand why you’re decluttering, you want to start small so that you can get the momentum you need. I recommend starting with the 30-Day Minimalism Game, which will make decluttering more fun by injecting some friendly competition into the mix.
CI: And/or any tips for the task of decluttering, in particular?
BEX: We keep a donation bin in the house and bring it to the donation center once a month. The bin rarely has much in it now, but it helps keep our habits sharp.
CI: Are there any sort of DIY tips or unique ideas you found when settling into your home that people could apply to a less cluttered, more organized home?
BEX: The less you have, the easier it is to organize and manage.
JFM: Moving into a home is the best time to simplify your life because you're forced to deal with all of your stuff twice—you have to pack it and then unpack it. If you're brave, a packing party is the most effective way to simplify your life during a move.
CI: Within this minimalist approach to the home, what do you think are true essentials that no home can do without? And what do you think a lot of homes have that they don’t really need?
BEX: I think the essentials of a home are a comfortable bed (sleep is so important) and a dining table with chairs (or a counter in the kitchen with chairs). A place to eat and a place to sleep. Everything else seems like it could go depending on your preferences and lifestyle. I think a lot of homes have an excessive amount of space. When we have too much space we tend to fill it with stuff, which obviously can lead to having lots of stuff that we don't really need. Too much space is also a drain on our time, our finances, and our environment.
JFM: It's important to realize that minimalism is not deprivation. In many ways it's the opposite: Rebecca and I get far more value from the few possessions we own than if we were to water them down with hundreds—or even thousands—of trinkets. It's also important to remember that just because you have the space, that doesn't mean you have to fill it. Perhaps a full house isn’t “full”—it’s noisy. And an empty space isn’t “empty”—it’s full of opportunity. And when we make room for the silence, we’re able to clean up the emotional, mental, and spiritual clutter that drives us mad.
CI: You’ve written that it was sort of a lucky thing that you both favor a minimalist approach; setting up a home together was easy in that sense. What advice would you give a couple, friends/roommates, etc. moving in together that might not be quite so in tune? How can a minimalist and a not-so-minimalist compromise?
BEX: Josh and I have an immense amount of respect and appreciation for each other, which is the main reason living together is easy for us. I don't mean to downplay the importance of our similar preferences, but the mutual respect and appreciation is what makes it work.
JFM: I wouldn't say it was "easy," but it was simple. Although both words seem similar, easy and simple are not synonyms. In fact, if anything, they are antonyms. Something is easy when it’s achieved without great effort. Simplicity, on the other hand, involves plenty of deliberate effort, intention, rigor, attention to detail. A disastrous forest fire is easy; elegant fireworks are simple. You see, easy just happens, but simple is planned, carefully curated, well executed.
CI: Bex, being a dietitian, cook, blogger, mom, and more, you’ve said the kitchen is your second favorite room in the house. How do you make that a space that makes you happy and also encourages productivity and inspires?
BEX: The only requirements I have for a kitchen are adequate counter space and a good stove. Of course, it helps having a space you enjoy. I'm grateful that our current home has an amazing open kitchen and dining room with tons of natural light, functional storage, a great gas stove, a huge basin sink, a big dining room table with comfortable chairs—it's a great workspace. It's also south-facing and opens to our backyard, patio, and outdoor dining space, which I love. In terms of keeping it ideal for productivity, I work hard to keep our refrigerator and pantry pared down to the essentials. Nothing I cook is very complex, but that's the point. Simple, fresh, whole foods are almost always the most nourishing and delicious.
CI: Joshua, is there a room in the house you consider a sort of domain for productivity, and if so, how and why?
JFM: I've written four books, and over the years I've learned that I can write from anywhere, but I prefer to write at the kitchen table early in the morning. I don't need a fancy office, desk, or accoutrements—only something to type on and an open mind.
CI: Some specific approaches to minimalism come and go, almost more like trends. How is your approach different and how/why is a total and sustainable lifestyle?
BEX: I'm sure Josh will have a killer answer for this, but for me the difference between Josh's work and other approaches is that he and Ryan are super clear about it not being about the stuff—it's about ensuring our habits, routines, and actions align with our values. Minimalism is a way to help us prioritize what's actually important in life.
JFM: Minimalism is not a new idea: The concept itself dates back to the Stoics, to every major religion, and, more recently, to Emerson and Thoreau and Tyler Durden. What’s new is the problem: Never before have we been more seduced by material possessions. Since the Industrial Revolution, consumerism has allowed us unprecedented access to stuff—we are steeped in a culture of consumption. Ergo, the problem is a new one, but the solutions are thousands of years old. Rebecca, Ryan, and I aren't trying to convert anyone to minimalism; we're simply sharing a solution that has worked for us, and we hope that other people find value in it, too.
What are your thoughts on minimalism? Have you ever tried living a minimalist lifestyle or adapting some of its principles? Please share your experiences with us below.