I started stress-cleaning my closet in middle school. Whenever I felt dissatisfied or out of control, I would sort through my belongings: tossing the ones I no longer needed and organizing the ones I kept. For over a decade, from tiny dorm rooms to sharing a fridge with 11 roommates, I have found solace in paring down and cleansing my physical space as well as my mental space. At 13 years old, I didn’t yet know that I was engaging in what would become a nationwide phenomenon: minimalism.
For those who have yet to be exposed to Instagram feeds of white walls and singular green plants, minimalism may spark images of ascetic living and mountain-dwelling monks. In reality, the current trend in minimalism is a more secular calling. Contemporary minimalism, which empowers people to define excess for themselves, addresses the overwhelming amount of content and number of possessions we experience at the hands of rampant consumerism. It assumes that people are burdened, distracted, and emotionally consumed by the sheer number of objects we own.
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According to minimalists today, paring down unnecessary physical excess creates space for things that truly matter. When a minimalist asks, “Why do I own this piece of clothing, live in this size home, or spend my time organizing drawers full of broken pens and old chapstick?,” they start to eliminate the things they have no good answer for, and invest more time and attention in the things they can justify.
In 2014, Japanese tidying consultant Marie Kondo released her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”; it rocked the New York Times Best Seller list for 99 weeks, popularizing contemporary minimalism in America. Her decluttering system—the KonMari Method—is best known for its method of holding an object in your hands and asking if it ‘sparks joy.’ The book has sold more than seven million copies worldwide, and she will soon have her own Netflix show, inspiring Americans to “minimize” every object in their home that serves no purpose or sparks no joy.
People of means are flocking to minimalism in both philosophy and lifestyle. In an era of two-day shipping and Facebook feeds filled with hyperbolic headlines, we’ve become numb to consumption culture. Minimalism tells us it’s okay to delete a few social media apps and ignore the newest trend of high-waisted, double-cuffed, slightly distressed overalls that you saw on Instagram. It offers permission to detach yourself from rampant consumerism simply for the sake of being on-trend. Over time, minimalism encourages you to think more critically about how you consume and to thoughtfully fill your life with less wasteful belongings and activities.
Anthony Ongaro, Minneapolitan and minimalist blogger, chose to minimize when he realized the “One Click Purchase” button on Amazon put a serious dent in his bank account. The process of consumption was too simple: he’d see an item he wanted to own, and with only a second’s thought, he could own it in two days’ time. The consumption became nearly mindless, and Ongaro realized he needed a wake-up call.
Ongaro calls Americans’ modern obsession with screens and objects “the twitch,” which gave rise to his blog and YouTube channel, “Break The Twitch.” Ongaro now lives in a 1,250-square-foot home with his wife and dog in southeast Minneapolis. The couple shares a car, opting to bike and walk when they can.
Ongaro believes that “breaking the twitch” and practicing a detachment from physical objects, or at least mindfully consuming that which you consume, is good and necessary. He explains that minimalism is about getting rid of things you don’t need and “filling that space with good habits that will eventually build your life. It’s writing for 15 minutes a day that makes you a writer; it’s running for 15 minutes a day that makes you a runner.”
Minimalism forces you to ask what defines you as a person: Am I a clothes sorter? Am I a Snapchat story watcher? If not, then why am I spending half an hour every day on this task?
“A dramatic reorganization of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective.”
– Marie Kondo, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”
Most minimalists loosely follow Ongaro’s philosophy: removing excess creates space for more of what matters. While some minimalists take this to the extreme in the physical sense—like touting the headcount of items they own—the heart of minimalism lies not with quantity as the end goal, but quality.
Minimalism may begin with a method like KonMari, but the end goal is a decluttering of the mind. Even Kondo, the physical tidying queen herself, says in her book, “A dramatic reorganization of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective.”
In 2016, 30-somethings Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus released a documentary called “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.” They detailed the lifestyles of tiny house occupants, “homeless” world travelers, and regular practicing minimalists. The pair, known as The Minimalists, also have a blog, books, and a podcast that have reached a self-reported 20 million people.
“I really think that our material possessions are a physical manifestation of what’s going on inside us,” Millburn expounds in a BuzzFeed interview. “Once I started dealing with that external clutter, I was able to deal with what was going on inside of me. The mental clutter, the emotional clutter, the spiritual clutter, the financial clutter, this internal clutter.”
So what does a minimalist life look like? The answer is personal. Usually it involves downsizing the sheer number of material possessions and clutter, maybe starting in the closet and or even an email inbox. Eventually it can move to minimizing degrees of excess: fancy cars, oversized homes, and even indulgent food. Any good minimalist will tell you, though, that where one draws the line of excess in their life is up to the individual. If a record collection gives your life meaning and fills you with positive emotions and social connections, then it is not in excess.
You can discover your sense of minimalism by beginning to ask one question: Why? Why am I purchasing this scarf when I already have three at home, and why am I in this store to begin with? Why am I holding on to a college textbook or a jar of night cream that I haven’t touched in months? Questions like this make us, as consumers, uncomfortable; they force us to consider how strongly our identities are tied up in the physical objects we own—even the objects we know are vain or excessive.
But minimalism is more than a source of consumer guilt. It is a reality check to stop putting off all the good things we want to fill our life and time with. The mindset of conscious consumption (of objects, events, media) is a reminder to turn down that PTA social on Saturday afternoon and take your kids camping instead. Unless meetings give you joy, in which case the KonMari method says you’re allowed to eat store-bought cookies and network.
I first practiced minimalism by cleaning closets and obsessively donating to Goodwill. As the years passed, my minimalism has transitioned to more intentional consumption than continual decluttering. I choose to accrue possessions at a decreasing rate, investing my money and attention into experiences. Mindful consumerism requires me to ask who made my clothes and what their working conditions are like, where my coffee cup will end up when I am through with it, and why I assign value to objects over experiences. Now, I’m more likely to spend $25 on cocktails at a local distillery or a campsite reservation than I am in the home goods aisle at Target; I would rather take my friends to yoga or a concert than shopping.
As it turns out, minimalism is less a practice of decluttering than it is one of filling up.