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10 Ways Minimalism Can Change Your Life in the Best Possible Way

Minimalism goes way beyond de-cluttering your closet. Get ready to "live a more meaningful life with less," with eye-opening advice from minimalism experts Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus.

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Understand that minimalism isn’t just about materialism

Most people think minimalism means getting rid of stuff. “While that’s a good first step and the most visible step, minimalism really has to do with the benefits we experience once we’re on the other side of de-cluttering,” says Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists. Those benefits, he says, extend to many unexpected areas of life, from health and finances to relationships and emotions. Millburn’s books, documentary film, and podcast, all produced with partner Ryan Nicodemus, include loads of tips related to those various areas. But, he says, they all tie back to this underlying philosophy: “Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things, so we can make room for life’s most important things, which actually aren’t things at all.”

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Figure out your finances with a “Need-Want-Like List”

Before minimalism, Millburn had a six-figure salary, a big house, luxury cars, and expensive clothes—as well as six-figure debt. “Money wasn’t inherently bad,” he says. “The problem was the decisions I was making with the resources I had. So for me, minimalism was a way to regain control of how I use those resources.” Millburn discoverd a strategy that could work for others. Wanting to understand where his money was going, he sat down and listed every single expense from his mortgage to his morning coffee. He then put all those expenses into three categories: Needs (necessities like shelter and food), Wants (things you enjoy that add value to your life), and Likes (impulse buys, like another new pair of shoes). “Then I took action. In the first month I got rid of 100 percent of my Likes, which wasn’t as difficult as it seemed. In the second month I got rid of 100 percent of my Wants. The third month I reduced my Needs by moving to a smaller place and trying other cost-saving measures like using less electricity, which saved me another 50 percent per month.” Once Millburn succeeded in getting out of debt, he allowed himself to re-incorporate the Wants that meant the most to him back into his life. “I got far more value from those things because I knew if I was adding something back in, I was doing so with intention.” These are the habits of people who are great at saving money.

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Rethink your relationships

Millburn’s minimalist approach to relationships may at first sound harsh, but he encourages people to hear him out: “Almost everything I bring into my life, whether it’s a possession or a relationship, I have to be able to walk away from at a moment’s notice.” Many people stay in relationships with friends, spouses, and business partners out of a sense of complacency or fear of change, he explains. But a willingness to walk away from what’s familiar means you only retain the relationships that truly bring value to your life. “It sounds like a paradox, but my willingness to walk away has strengthened the bonds I have with the closest people in my life because we’re not chained by obligation. If we’re in a relationship it’s because we want to be, and we make the best of our time together.” He adds a kind of motto to help keep relationships in perspective (though it takes a minute to sink in): “You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.” Here’s how to know if a friend is actually a frenemy.

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Try 18-minute exercises

In addition to eliminating processed foods from his diet in favor of “real” foods, Millburn has found a streamlined exercise regimen that works for him. “I realized I kept putting off exercise because I didn’t want to spend two hours going to the gym, so now I do something called 18-minute daily exercises,” he says. His regimen is an alternating series of pull-ups, push-ups, and squats that can be done anywhere from a living room to a park. “Everyone has 20 minutes a day to focus on their health,” he points out.

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Overcome technology overload

“We can use a chainsaw to cut down a rotting tree so it doesn’t fall on our neighbor’s house, or we can use that same chainsaw to chop our neighbor into tiny pieces, and I think the same goes for technology,” says Millburn, explaining that social media can be a great tool used to enrich our lives or we can get stuck in the meaningless glow of the screen. “Before I send a Tweet, before I respond to an email, before I turn on the TV, I’ll constantly ask, ‘Does this add value to my life? Am I going to serve the greater good?’ And if not, I need to put it down and walk away.” Learn more about how to manage your social media habits.

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Conquer sentimental clutter

When Millburn found himself having to organize his mother’s possessions after her death, he discovered all the nostalgic items she had crammed into her apartment. “A lot of the boxes had been un-accessed for decades,” he says. “And it made me realize that our memories are not inside our things; our memories are inside us. My mom didn’t need to hold onto all those boxes to hold onto a piece of me, or a piece of herself, or a piece of the past. I was not in those boxes.” He’d started gathering her things in order to put them in a storage unit but realized they would hold greater value for others, so he gave many of the items to his mother’s friends and local charities. But he added a step. “Even though our memories are not inside our things, our things can trigger the memories inside us. So before I left mom’s little apartment, I took photos of many of her possessions. Now I still have those triggers without holding onto the big antique cabinet I was never going to use.” When all was said and done, Millburn says the few actual objects he kept held far more value than if he would have hoarded hundreds of trinkets. Here are 10 things you can toss guiltlessly right now.

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Harness your mental health

If there’s a lot of external clutter around your house, Millburn has found from personal experience that it’s a reflection of what’s going on inside of you. “Physical clutter is a manifestation of emotional clutter, of mental clutter, of internal clutter, of spiritual clutter,” he told listeners in a recent podcast episode. “By dealing with the stuff around me, I was able to finally start to deal with what was going on inside.” He explained that over the course of eight months he got rid of about 90 percent of his material possessions, and as he did he felt lighter and happier. By getting rid of the stuff he’d previously infused with so much meaning, he was free to look for meaning inside himself and ask some big, important questions, like what was the purpose of his life, where would he find meaning now, and what kind of person did he want to be. “By asking these questions, we’re able to start de-cluttering on the inside,” he said.

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Give up obligatory gift-giving

The practice of exchanging gifts—especially at the holidays—often becomes an overwhelming series of transactions involving giving someone a bunch of trinkets and expecting bunch of trinkets back. But Millburn likes to find ways to make things less obligatory and more loving. “If gift giving is expected, I try to gift an experience as opposed to a material item. If I have to gift a material thing I make it a consumable, like a nice bag of coffee or bottle of wine.” But he prefers to avoid holiday giving, where possible. “I give gifts on non-obligatory days, so if I give you something on January 12, you’ll be far more surprised than on December 25.” Give the gift of a good mood with one of these little compliments that mean a lot.

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Make your own minimalism

There’s no one way to go minimal, says Millburn, who cites examples of extreme minimalist lifestyles, including a single guy who owns 52 items and travels the world with two bags; a husband and wife with six kids; and a single woman living in a tiny house. “What adds value to my life is different from what adds value to someone else’s life,” he says. “There are all these different flavors of minimalism, so I have to create my own recipe for living more deliberately.”

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Remember the bottom line

To sum up his minimalist approach to life, Millburn likes to share a line that seems to hit home with his audiences: “Love people and use things because the opposite never works.”