“You show me your calendar and I’ll show you what your priorities are.”
Joshua Fields Millburn, one half of speaking and writing duo, The Minimalists, doesn’t think it’s tricky to work out what someone is allocating their energy to. We may profess that our health, friends or families are the most important things in our lives, but, a lot of the time, our actions don’t match up.
Clutter – both material and immaterial – is what Joshua and his professional partner, Ryan Nicodemus, have been fighting against since making dramatic changes in their own saturated lives – giving up high paying but soul destroying six-figure corporate jobs to pursue something different.
Their mission of helping their (now 20 million-wide) audience to live meaningful lives with less started out with a full-on rejection of the American Dream. This sparked a blog, and a book. And then another book. And then another, followed by a speaking tour and a Netflix documentary, bringing their mantra all the way from their Ohio home to mass market UK.
Their podcast – which covers every aspect of what it means to adopt a minimalist mindset – often takes the top slot for health on Apple podcasts and they’re currently shooting documentary number two.
We’re at the bleeding edge of a shift. James Wallman’s 2015 book, Stuffocation, preached the start of a change in how we live, with the age of too much of everything drawing to a close. Seventy seven per cent of adults in the developed world wish for a simpler life. For the majority of millennials, the new workplace draw is meaning, not money, while more of us are thinking of new ways of getting affordable housing – guardianships, housing co-ops – that offer a cheaper and less consumerist way of doing things.
Start with stuff. Chances are, you’ve got too much of it. Trinkets from trips that happened forever ago, scraps of paper inked with forgotten thoughts, chipped phone cases that stack up behind piles of old notebooks and receipts. Things that feel harmless, but are symptomatic of lifestyles that are littered with excess.
For Joshua, 36, the road to getting rid of 90 per cent of his stuff, leaving his job and embracing a pared back way was rooted in his mother’s death from cancer and the end of his marriage in 2009. Both happened within the same month. He began to “question everything”, blitzed his material possessions, started to work fewer hours and, while everything wasn’t perfect, felt happy.
This was noticed by Ryan (the pair have been friends since school) who, also locked in a high-paying but crushing role, asked what had happened. After getting on board the pair began their blog, and, before long, left the career climbing to focus on it full time. The result is a life that is mentally, financially emotionally and environmentally sustainable – when you don’t buy much, you don’t throw away much, either.
“I grew up poor,” Joshua says. “Food stamps and the lights going out poor. We were unhappy and I thought that we were unhappy because we had no money. So I got a corporate job at 18 and was chasing happiness with stuff: a big house in the suburbs, a luxury car. But every time I’d get a promotion, I’d spend like I’d gotten the following promotion. As such, I was in debt.”
So. Getting started. “In the beginning, the question I would keep asking myself was ‘How might my life be better with less?’” Joshua says. “I realised that, by simplifying, I’d have more time for my health, to contribute to my community, I could do what I wanted to do, without other people’s expectations getting in the way.”
When it came to material things, the question was: does this add value to my life? He continues: “It dawned on me that most of the stuff – stuff I had bought to make me happy – wasn’t doing its job. I had a walk-in closet of clothes, but so much of it was nice on the hanger, but, on me, fit awkwardly or I didn’t like the colour or whatever.” Now, Joshua has “maybe 10 or 11 t-shirts, a couple of button down shirts, a couple of pairs of shoes and a suit – but they’re all my favourite clothes and I love wearing them.”
If you’re trying to de-clutter, he advises that you “don’t start with the sentimental stuff. Start with the sweatshirt at the back of the drawer. Let go of the stuff you’re keeping for ‘just in case’. I use a 90:90 rule. If I haven’t used something for 90 days and I don’t think I’ll use it for the next 90, I give myself permission to let go.” Rather than holding onto something, Joshua says that you can give it away or donate it – and maybe add value to someone else’s life, rather than hoarding it.
(Playlist from The Minimalist’s 2016 tour)
But minimalising doesn’t end with getting rid of your tangible stuff. “Anyone can get a dumpster and throw away a load of their stuff and still be totally miserable,” says Joshua. “De-clutter your home and you’ll feel lighter, but that’s not going to be it.” Instead, “it” is the product of “aligning your short-term actions with your long-term values.” Said values, according to Joshua, can be broken into sets.
Foundational values, which are broadly the same for most people, include relationships, health, contribution and passion or creativity. Next come core values, which are likely to differ from personality to personality. For Joshua, those are things like mobility, integrity and morality and, as an introvert, solitude. After come minor values – stuff like reading, music, style – that aren’t strictly necessary, but make life more enjoyable. The fourth are imaginary values: things that we might pretend are valuable, like false scarcity (buying something in a “one day only” sale) or overuse of social media.
By living each day by the first three sets, an “intentional” life is achieved. Layer on top de-cluttering your finances, focusing on eliminating debt and finding a job that has meaning for you and you’re building up a minimalist life that can work as an alternative to the “work, consume, work” paradigm.For Joshua, taking control of his wellness was also key. (“I used to weigh about 80lbs more than I do now and I felt like crap”) and he’s evangelical about getting “seven hours sleep per night, minimum, but preferably eight or nine.”
As to how to escape the “success” parameters set by other people in your life? “I think setting your own definition of success is about asking questions,” says Joshua. “Do you spend your time doing things that you find meaningful or not? When I had my corporate job I had all of these external markers of success but I felt unfulfilled. I spent 90 per cent of my time with co-workers, executives and people I’d network with and not much with my family and friends.”
By assessing your own situation and interrogating what a successful life looks like in your mind – whether that’s one full of time outdoors and writing or one of travel and helping people in some capacity – you can break out of the box that’s been built up.
This isn’t a route to living in a permanent state of ecstasy, tinged with an in irrefutable sense of purpose. “My life isn’t perfect. It’s not an easy life – it’s a simple life and those two words aren’t synonyms,” Joshua insists. “I’m happier now than I was before, but, really, happiness isn’t the point, meaning is. And, when you live a meaningful life, happiness can be a beautiful by-product of that.”