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When Less Really Is More: How to Declutter Your Life with Intention

Beyond a buzzword, minimalism is a mindful, sustainable lifestyle practice that goes hand in hand with some of yoga’s core principles.

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Minimalism is having a moment. Maybe it’s because we were stuck inside our homes for most of 2020 and got sick of staring at our stuff, or maybe it’s that modern life just feels especially demanding, but the notion of paring down to the essentials has taken over our feeds lately. Marie Kondo—the Japanese consultant whose Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo demonstrates how to use her trademark method of organization—may have brought minimalism into the mainstream, but social media has taken it from there: Search the word “minimalist” on Instagram and you’ll be flooded with photos, mostly of interiors that feature clean lines, seemingly endless counter space, and immaculately organized closets.

This uptick in interest, though, has come with a backlash from those who view minimalism as a trendy ascetic practice to be achieved only by the super-privileged (see the number of sites offering exorbitantly-priced “capsule wardrobes,’’ a pared-down posh selection of a few staple clothing items you’ll need in order to toss everything else in your closet). And of course let’s not forget the wave of people ditching their homes in favor of renovated school buses and RVs in which they boast the nomadic, super-zen, super-simplistic #vanlife: Last year, when much of the economy took a nosedive, some camper van conversion businesses—companies that turn these vehicles into chic homes on wheels—saw a rise in sales of more than 100 percent from the previous year.

But minimalism is more than just a social media–friendly aspiration. According to Devin VonderHaar, a minimalist consultant and founder of the website The Modern Minimalist, it’s a philosophy and a lifestyle. “I think people have an idea of minimalism that it’s like a stark white room with nothing in it,” she says. But that’s not the point. “Minimalism is about authentic living. It isn’t about stuff; it’s about being somewhere where you’re happy.”

To that end, one 2010 study of women found that clutter in the home led to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Having less, then, can create a sense of control over our environments, decreasing stress and shifting our focus to more important aspects of our lives. In practice, that can look like getting rid of the stuff in your life that isn’t useful or happy-making, repurposing what you already have to maximize its use, or replacing needed items with more thoughtfully made versions.

Animated illustration of a woman in a tidy kitchen
Photo: Maria Grejc

According to Regina Wong, a minimalist consultant and author who runs the site Live Well with Less, minimalism is about maximizing the space you give to the things that make you happiest. “It’s about joy, not deprivation,” she explains. “We should focus on what we simply cannot live without rather than how little we can live with.” And if you’re mindfully going into minimalism, she warns, be careful not to get sucked into the trend traps. “It’s not about white walls, micro wardrobes, or only owning 100 things that’ll fit into a rucksack—though it can be if that’s your thing!”

For Wong, minimalism is somewhat of a misnomer. She prefers the phrase “intentional living” instead, putting the focus “on being conscious and mindful of who we are, what we want, and how we want to live.” VonderHaar agrees, adding that at its core, minimalism is simply about intentionality—clearing mental and physical space for the ventures and people that bring you peace and happiness.

But paring down your life for ultimate peace of mind doesn’t happen all at once. “These things take time,” VonderHaar says. Which is why it might feel overwhelming if you don’t know where to begin. To that, she says, “Start where you are. Start with whatever’s piquing your interest right now.” If that means cleaning out a spare bedroom to finally create that at-home practice space, begin there. Or if you’re feeling called to organize your garage, get to it!

Minimalism, like any practice, is deeply personal, and it’s more of a journey than a (clutter-free) destination. If redoing an entire space feels like too much of an undertaking, Wong says, first tackle something like cleaning out your purse: “It’s small and manageable, but once you experience the benefits of a lighter, neater wallet or handbag, you’ll be motivated to move onto bigger projects.” For you, the jumping-off point might be finally conquering a cluttered closet or addressing a time-sucking Twitter habit.

Animated illustration of a cat napping in a closet
Photo: Maria Grejc

Where screens are involved, digital minimalism means selecting time periods in which to limit exposure, then reassessing and editing out digital practices that negatively affect you. Unfollow accounts that make you anxious or full of self-doubt, and don’t tune in to channels, shows, or media outlets that make your heart pound. In all its incarnations, says VonderHaar, minimalism is just homing in on what you actually need and cutting out the clutter.

Viewed this way, minimalism mirrors the yogic practice of aparigraha (nongrasping), the fifth yama in Patanjali’s foundational yogic text the Yoga Sutra. “Aparigraha is the practice of nonpossession: not accumulating more than we need and not being attached to what we have,” says Julie Bernier, an Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga teacher who runs consultancy studio True Ayurveda in Los Angeles.

“So much of cultivating a yogic practice and an Ayurvedic lifestyle is about going inward and transforming our inner world, but we also require harmony with the world around us, including people and possessions.” That means considering what we need and love, and happily doing away with whatever doesn’t make the cut. “When we follow this yama, we don’t buy more than we need, and we get rid of excess stuff that we’ve accumulated,” Bernier says. “We naturally become minimalists!”

That doesn’t mean dragging everything you own to the dump. Bringing more mindfulness to our consumption habits should help us be more environmentally conscious, too. Part of the process is extending the life of what already exists and cutting back on nonrenewable materials and the entire pollution-heavy supply chains that brought them to your door in the first place. So whether you’re feeling divine pressure to adopt the #vanlife or just want to mentally declutter and help protect the planet, here’s our guide to simplifying your life, from paring down the spaces in your home to unlocking new possibilities for what you already have and gaining more time to spend on what you really love.

Read more:
The Mental Health Benefits of Minimalism
A Guide to Minimalism in the Kitchen
How to Create a Minimalist Wardrobe
Where to Mindfully Donate Your Once-Loved Items