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Minimalist Lifestyle: The Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide [2020]

When I first heard about Minimalism, I thought it was just about deprivation, getting rid of stuff, and living on a skateboard with everything I owned in a tiny backpack. What I came to find out is that it's so much deeper than that.
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Today, I’m going to show you how to start living a minimalist lifestyle. 

When I first heard about Minimalism, I thought it was just about deprivation, getting rid of stuff, and living on a skateboard with everything I owned in a tiny backpack. What I came to find out is that it’s so much deeper than that.

I’ve spent hours digging into habits of the most successful minimalists. Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus of The Minimalists, Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and Mnmlist, Colin Wright of Exile Lifestyle, and Courtney Carver of Be More With Less.

The techniques they’ve pioneered have changed my life by allowing me to escape from the excess of today’s consumerism culture and focus on what is truly valuable to me.

In this guide, I’ll shed light on what’s most essential and how you can start to live a minimalist lifestyle.

Let’s jump right into it.

The Philosophy of Minimalism
Step 1: List Your Priorities, Values, and Why You Want to Live a Minimalist Lifestyle
Step 2: Take Inventory
Step 3: Declutter the Discretionary
Step 4: Declutter Your Clothes
Step 5: Declutter Your House
Step 6: Declutter Your Digital Life
Step 7: Maintaining a Minimalist Lifestyle

The Philosophy of Minimalism

In short, Minimalism is a philosophy of less as a means of finding freedom.

Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.

The life you’ve lived up to this point is marked with accumulation, both physically, mentally, and digitally. You’ve accumulated possessions, debt, stress, clutter, relationships, and desires.

While some of those accumulations are essential in your life, many more are not. It is a matter of finding what is truly essential and removing what is not.

To become a minimalist requires a shift in your mindset. It’s not difficult, but it’s not easy. You genuinely need to be willing to let go

Minimalism takes its form differently in every person who embraces it.

For example, Colin Wright travels, writes, and speaks for a living. The things he considers essential in his life have been reduced to where almost everything can fit in a backpack. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Leo Babauta, who has 6 kids, a house, and isn’t afraid to admit when he gives in to his impulses.     

I’m most similar to Leo. I live in a small house, about 600 square feet with my fiance, and continuously have impulses to buy new things. I’ve learned to reshape my mindset through Minimalism, and as a result, have been able to find out how to save money, live sustainably, reduce stress, free up time, shed the nonessential, and live happier. 

It’s about optimization. It’s about finding what is truly important in your life and shedding the burden of everything else that distracts you from the essential things.

Your version of Minimalism will be completely different from mine or anyone else’s.

It really clicked for me when I read this from Colin Wright’s blog:

It’s important to understand that the reduction of physical possessions is often a result of Minimalism, not Minimalism itself.

So, if you’re still reading and are intrigued, let’s take a step-by-step approach on how to live a minimalist lifestyle.

Step 1: List Your Priorities, Values, and Why You Want to Live a Minimalist Lifestyle

Let’s figure out why you want to live a minimalist lifestyle. Since you’re here, maybe you already have some idea but haven’t narrowed it down to specifics.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

Do you want to live with less stress?
Do you want to get rid of your debt and save money?
Do you want to live sustainably?
Do you want more free time?
Do you want to be more productive?
Do you just want to be happier?
Do you want to work on things you love doing?
Do you want to sleep better?
Do you want to escape from the rat race?
Do you want to become self-sufficient?
Minimalism can help you find your truth to all of these things. 

Your Turn

Get a notepad. Write down 5-10 things you care most about.

As an example, here was my list:

  1. Spending quality time with friends & family
  2. Freedom from money
  3. Living sustainably
  4. Meaningful work
  5. Spending time outdoors, hiking, enjoying nature
  6. Traveling
  7. Good health / Exercise
  8. Free time
  9. Bread baking
  10. Delicious coffee

Notice that nothing on my list was material except for the coffee and bread baking. 

Yours might be different, and that’s okay! You are allowed to value material things, it’s just a matter of knowing what is truly important to you.

Step 2: Take Inventory

Let’s take a closer look now and start to figure out what you actually need for a minimalist lifestyle.

Now, before we jump into this, I want to point out that we are not including your basic survival needs (house, clothing, toilet paper, towels, etc.). Those will be covered separately.

For now, let’s focus on discretionary things.

Your Turn

Go through each item on your list and expand it to include the possessions that are essential for each one. 

Here was mine:

  1. Spending quality time with friends & family
    1. Time
    2. Phone (for communication)
  2. Freedom from money
    1. Spend tracking tool
    2. Credit card / Money / Bank accounts
  3. Living sustainably
    1. None
  4. Meaningful work
    1. Laptop
    2. Phone
    3. Headphones
    4. Time
  5. Spending time outdoors, hiking, enjoying nature
    1. Hiking Shoes / Boots
    2. Workout/hiking outfit (shirts, shorts, socks)
    3. Backpack
  6. Traveling
    1. Backpack
    2. Headphones
    3. Phone
    4. Shoes
  7. Good health
    1. Healthy food
    2. Kitchen supplies
  8. Free time
    1. Time
  9. Bread baking
    1. Flour
    2. Water
    3. Large bowl
    4. Dough scraper
  10. Delicious coffee
    1. Coffee
    2. French press

There are plenty of doubles on my list, which may be typical for you as well. That’s great! Having more than one purpose for an item makes it all the more useful to you in focusing on your values.

So, now that you have your essentials list, you’ve narrowed down what you need to live a minimalist lifestyle. Now you know what the essential things are to have. 

From here, let’s start to pare down.

Step 3: Declutter the Discretionary

Let me quickly address the elephant in the room.

Your clothes and house are essential to address if you want to live a minimalist lifestyle. But, we need to start with baby steps.

The reason we’re starting with the smaller discretionary things is that it’s much easier to start small. You have a much better chance of success when you take it in bite-sized chunks. 

Now that’s out of the way, let’s move onto the decluttering step.

But understand that merely getting rid of your things without a purpose will not help you. The decluttering process is a tool to help you focus on your values by getting rid of the distractions.

Your Turn

With the values list in hand, go around to each room in your living space and start to gather all the obvious nonessential items that aren’t on your list.

We won’t go into house-level detail just yet. Just start small.

Pick a spot close to your front door. This is where you’ll gather all the nonessentials.

This is the hard part, so here’s a quick yay or nay guide to help:

If you haven’t used it in the last 12 months, toss it.
If you forgot you had it, toss it.
If it’s getting in your way (and it’s yours), toss it.
If you need to move it to get to something else, toss it.
If you get stressed when you see it, toss it.
If you wouldn’t take with you if you were moving, toss it.
If it’s broken and can’t be fixed (or you’ve been neglecting to fix it), toss it.

Use this handy minimalist lifestyle decision tree to simplify the process of decluttering.

minimalist lifestyle decluttering decision tree

By now, you should have a decent size pile of stuff sitting by your front door.

Start sorting through this pile into 3 smaller piles. Keep, maybe, or toss. The ‘maybe’ pile will be set aside for 6 months. After that time, if you haven’t used it, that’s how you know you can toss it.

Decide what you can sell, donate, or toss. Ideally, you can get some money out of it. You can use an app like Decluttr, Facebook Marketplace, or Craigslist to sell stuff.

Otherwise, if it’s good enough quality and you don’t want to sell it, donate it. For all others, recycle or toss it.

This step should be repeated regularly to maintain a minimalist lifestyle. The first time will be the most difficult. 

For me, I find myself getting into “new hobbies” quite frequently, but never end up following through on them. The problem is that I buy all the stuff I “need” for that hobby.

So I find that this step is necessary as a check on my hobbies. The ones that I’m still doing 6 months later are things that I keep around, and if it’s a seasonal hobby, I give it 12 months.

By now you should be feeling pretty good! Now you have fewer things to worry about, fewer things to clean up, fewer things to fix, and more space to breathe.

Now that you’re warmed up to Minimalism and gotten some quick wins under your belt, let’s move onto everyone’s favorite part of the minimalist lifestyle: 

Clothing.

Step 4: Declutter Your Clothes

I love this quote by Leo Babauta:

Organizing is only necessary when you have too many things to easily find what you’re looking for.

You are not going to be organizing your closet. 

If you had 100 shirts, you would need to organize.  

If you had 5 shirts, they would organize themselves. You would only need to put them in your closet.

Envision, for a second, if you only had 5 outfits, and they were all your favorite outfits.  

You would have less decision fatigue in deciding what to wear each day.
Your laundry would be easier and faster.
Cleaning your closet would be easier and faster.
You would save time and energy.
You would save money.
You would find things easier.
Packing for trips would be easier. 
All your favorite clothes would be on display.
You would waste less.

That’s what we’re trying to achieve here.

For example, Steve Jobs only had one outfit. A black turtle neck, jeans, and white New Balance shoes.

Why? 

The real question is… why not?

It removed all of the decision fatigue from his wardrobe. It was his favorite outfit. So why not wear it every day?

With that being said, it’s your turn.

Your Turn

Start to declutter your closet. 

Take everything out and put it into a pile. Starting off simply, just put everything into a pile on your bed or on the floor.

Divide into three piles: keep, maybe, toss. Similar to before, the maybes will be held for 6 months before revisiting them (12 months for seasonal clothes and shoes). If you haven’t used them over that time, you will toss. 

A note on the maybe pile:
You should be very strict when you add to the maybes. Add if you have a tough time deciding whether to keep or toss.

The most difficult items will be the ones you have an emotional attachment to. 

That’s why it’s vital to focus only on the present

Thinking about the past does us no good right now. Getting stuck in the past means we are missing the opportunities of the present. Don’t hold onto those jeans that you wore when you were popular in high school. 

On the other side, the future is uncertain. Planning for an infinite number of wardrobe scenarios is a futile endeavor. Don’t plan on fitting into something 2 sizes smaller for some random event that might happen in the future.

Here are a few more guidelines as to what you should keep vs. toss.

If you haven’t worn it in the last 12 months, toss it.
If it gives you stress, toss it. 
If you forgot you had it, toss it.
If it no longer fits and you’re trying to lose weight to fit into it again, toss it.

If you can envision a time when you would wear it, but haven’t worn it in the last 6 months, toss it.

Do a second pass at the keep and maybe pile. If the pile seems big, then divide and conquer again. If you can’t narrow it down any further, that’s okay.

Put the keep pile back in your closet. Arrange the keeps back in your closet neatly. Hang them up, make sure nothing is on the floor. The floor should be completely empty.

Put the maybe pile into a box, out of sight. As I said before, we’re not getting rid of this pile just yet. You’re going to see if you can live off your keeps for now. 

Over the next 6 months, if you actively decide that you want to wear a maybe item, you’ll need to dig it out of the box to get it. That’s how you know you should keep it.

Donate or sell the toss pile. Decide if it’s good enough quality that someone would want it. Either sell it or donate it, don’t send it to a landfill.

By now, you should be feeling a little bit lighter, maybe have a bit more clarity of mind.

There are several other methods for decluttering your wardrobe. The process I wrote above is what worked for me, but different things work for different people!

If you want an alternate approach, check out Courtney Carver’s Project 333. She started a wildly popular challenge to wear only 33 items for 3 months.

Next, we’ll tackle the other big part of a minimalist lifestyle, your house!

Step 5: Declutter Your House

In general, this will follow the same process as the steps before. But you’ve already gotten a head start with Minimalism by decluttering the obvious nonessentials and your clothing.

Plus, you have some momentum after decluttering your closet.

Your Turn

Declutter your house, start with the smallest room and work your way up.

I’d recommend the bathroom(s), laundry room, or mudroom, whichever is the smallest. From there, go from room to room.  

Using the three pile method, divide and conquer. Keep, maybe, toss. 

For books, if you don’t plan on reading it in the next 6 months, toss it.
For papers, if you have a digital copy, toss it.
If you haven’t used it in the last 12 months, toss it.
If it causes you stress, toss it. 
If you don’t know where it will live, toss it. 
If you need to move it to get to something else, toss it.

I recommend checking out this list of items in your home that could be reduced.

Clear flat surfaces first. These are the most visible spaces in the room, and the easiest to clean. So start to declutter there first.

Clear the floors. Nothing belongs on the floor, except if it’s a rug or furniture. 

If it doesn’t belong in that room, relocate it. Pretty self-explanatory. If somehow your kitchen scissors ended up in the bathroom, bring them back home.

Declutter the spaces most commonly used. You want to maximize your living space with the area you have available, and not fill it with unnecessary things. 

Declutter storage spaces. Don’t forget about these. The contents might be out of sight, but there’s probably plenty of clutter in there that you don’t use. Keep only the essential.

Nice work! Putting the work in to declutter your house is a big step towards living a minimalist lifestyle.

If you want an alternate approach, Joshua Becker has an excellent course on decluttering your home. He’s also got a new app to try out, called Clutterfree. I haven’t tried it myself, but I might be giving it a whirl soon!

Speaking of apps, let’s talk about your digital life, an essential part of Minimalism.

Step 6: Declutter Your Digital Life

Digital clutter works in the same way as physical clutter, it distracts you from focusing on your values. So let’s bring it into your minimalist lifestyle.

I’m sure you’ve been in the same boat as me before.

I can’t count how many times I’ve needed to take care of something on my phone, so I pick it up, and I immediately get distracted. 10 minutes later, I put my phone down, feeling like I forgot to do something.

30 minutes later, I remembered what it was that I needed to take care of. So I pick up my phone and get distracted again. It’s an endless cycle… and nothing gets done!

Your devices are amazing at multitasking, but humans are not. 

You have some great tools at your disposal, but you need to optimize them to help you focus on your values, rather than letting them control you.

Having control over your digital life is an essential part of living a simple minimalist lifestyle.

Your Turn

Refer back to the list you made from Steps 1 and 2. Go through your devices and get rid of anything that does not help you focus on your values. Be strict.

Clean the home screen(s). What apps can you delete? 

You want to make sure that you’re only keeping apps that help you focus on your values. Arrange the apps that you regularly use on the first page. 

Make any guilty pleasures hard to access.

Delete your social media accounts (if you’re feeling bold) or pick only one. You’ve lived without social media before, you can do it again. 

Social media wants you to fear that you’re missing out on something. 

If you don’t see that blue Facebook button on your phone, there’s less of a chance for you to get sucked into mindless consumption mode.

I’ve just gotten rid of my last social media account. If anyone needs to contact me, they have my number, and they know that’s the best way to reach me. 

Turn off or prioritize notifications. Again, taking advantage of the fear of missing out. Notifications are just mental clutter. They beg you to open them immediately.

Guess what… you don’t have to!

Turn all the notifications off except for the ones that help you focus on your values. 

For example, I allow notifications only from text and direct email. I keep the text notifications because I want my friends and family to be able to contact me. 

The email notifications are for work. But I only allow those that have been addressed to me directly.

All other notifications are turned off.

Keep your phone on silent mode. Even though you’ve turned off most notifications, you still don’t want to let the constant buzzing and sounds disturb you.

Turn it on silent mode and keep it there.

That notification sound from your phone triggers the FOMO and stops whatever focus you had dead in its tracks.

Keep it out of sight when working. Merely having your phone nearby reduces your focus. The impulse to check it is always going to be there if it’s in your field of vision.

Spend less time in email. A cluttered inbox is one of my biggest weaknesses when it comes to digital Minimalism. I’m a constant offender of the 1000+ unopened email inbox. 

I know, I’m working on it.

A few tips that I’ve found helpful are:

Don’t leave the email client open on a tab. 
Process emails once or twice a day. Most emails aren’t urgent.
Immediately decide what to do with an email; don’t let it sit there.
If it takes less than a minute to answer, then answer.
Otherwise, move it to a “response required” folder.
Use incoming mail filters.

Enjoy the space. 

For further reading, I recommend Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

Getting to this point was difficult. But maintaining a simple minimalist lifestyle is even harder!

Let’s talk about it.

Step 7: Maintaining a Minimalist Lifestyle

Just take a few minutes to reflect on what you’ve accomplished. 

You’ve gotten rid of so much distraction, so much clutter, and created the space for things that matter most to you. 

Enjoy the benefits of Minimalism. 

Do you feel less stressed?
Do you feel lighter?
Can you think more clearly?
Does the air seem fresher?

You’ve decoupled yourself from most of your possessions, you might feel a sense of independence.

Now that you’ve optimized your life to focus on the essential let’s keep it that way. 

Your Turn

Keep it up. 

Don’t add unnecessary things back into your life. Since you’ve cleared all this space, just try to avoid shopping in general. 

If you need a framework for this, here are a few ideas:

When I need to buy something new, I usually try and remove something else from our house. 

In trying to change my mindset about purchasing decisions, here are my tips on how to save money and the environment.

Don’t buy into the ‘living with 100 things’ fad. I know you’ve seen these around. People are trying to live this ideal minimalist life, and trying to make a competition out of it. 

White walls, one tiny little plant on a white dresser, one white shirt hanging up. This is not realistic for most people, and what works for them, probably won’t work for you.

Find someone to hold you accountable. This could be your spouse, significant other, a sibling, a best friend, or maybe it’s just yourself.

Even better, ask that person to join you in your quest to live a minimalist lifestyle. Hold each other accountable.

Establish a routine. To maintain a minimalist lifestyle, you need to have regular check-ups with yourself.

What have you added to your life recently? Is it helping you focus on your list of values? If not, maybe you should get rid of it.

It’s a good idea to do this once a month.

Learn to be content. You don’t need new minimalist clothing, or a modern minimalist nightstand, or a new sleeker phone.

You can stop the endless desire for more because you have everything you need already. 

Conclusion

Hopefully, this guide provided you with a ton of value on how to find freedom and space in your life through Minimalism.

Are you going to start living a minimalist lifestyle?

What minimalist lifestyle tips do you have?

How has Minimalism changed your life?

Make sure to leave a quick comment and let me know!

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