Productivity Interview: Joshua Fields Millburn from The Minimalists

One year ago, Joshua Fields Millburn and his friend of 20 years, Ryan Nicodemus, got to talking about happiness.

They realized that now that they have “made it” and got what society told them would make them happy – they weren’t. So, they embarked upon a journey of shedding excess, living more meaningfully and in the process found themselves, their health and their passion.

To chronicle this transition, they start the website The Minimalists, where they share how to live more meaningful lives with less stuff. In this short time frame, they established an audience of more than 100,000 monthly readers, which allowed them to leave our corporate jobs. They’ve been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, their essays have been featured on Zen Habits (one of TIME Magazine’s Top 25 Blogs in the World), and many other popular sites. They’ve written three books, all three of which have climbed onto Amazon’s Top 10 Bestsellers lists in their respective categories. Their latest, Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life is available for download for the Kindle or your PC from their website.

It was truly a pleasure to chat with Joshua about his journey, how minimalism scares the shit out of most of us, how to get started if you wanted to shed some of life’s excess, Inbox minimalism, and the five most important dimensions of life.

Questions asked:

  • Q: What’s minimalism all about, really? (1:43)
  • Q: We buy the concept of simplifying fundamentally, but how do we reconcile our need for ownership? (5:46)
  • Q: Is there hope for item-clingers like me?  (9:22)
  • Q: Email Inboxes: How do we go minimalist here? (12:59)
  • Q: Is there any sort of tool that can help us with Inbox Minimalism, or is that counter to the philosophy? (18:49)
  • Q: When do tools and conveniences go from simplifying life to complicating life? (20:24)
  • Q: Where does someone start? Getting rid of stuff or asking the fundamental “why?” question?  (24:53)
  • Q: How did you get through the tredpidation when you started? (26:39)
  • Q: How do we retool our basic perception about growth as “accumulation”? (35:43)
  • Q: What you advice do you give to people who worry what other people will think? (38:42)
  • Q: Where can some get info and resources to get started? (40:13)

Distilled wisdom from Joshua Fields Millburn:

  • Tip #1: Start small and get momentum when adopting a minimalist lifestyle.
  • Tip #2: 20/20 Theory: You can replace anything you got rid of for less than $20, less than 20 minutes from your home.
  • Tip #3: If it’s not adding value to you life, find a way to get rid of it.
  • Tip #4: Always ask “Why do I need it?” and always ask “Will it add value to my life?”
  • Tip #5: Again ask: “What’s the purpose of what I’m doing? And, is it meaningful?”
  • Tip #6: You can throw everything away sit in an empty apartment and still be miserable. Rather, it’s about getting rid of life’s excess.
  • Tip #7: When you make the subtle changes in your life, you don’t have to tell anyone else about it. They will catch on eventually.

Interview Transcript:

Peter: Hello everyone this is Peter Vogopoulos from FirepoleMarketing.com and this is part of our Productive Marketing Interview Series. Today I am very pleased to interview Joshua Fields Millburn, one of the founders of the site The Minimalists with his partner Ryan Nicodemus. And in that site they show people how to live more meaningful lives with less stuff. And obviously they’ve struck a chord with a lot of people because they have over one hundred thousand monthly readers who visit their site and read their essays. And they’re a pleasure to read let me say so. They’ve got essays on getting rid of stuff, how must of its useless and how minimalism can solve your money problems and help you lose weight and give you more time and just simplify your life. Hey that’s a good book title actually.  How minimalism can solve your money problems, help you lose weight, give you more time and simplify your life. You should write one – but you have a book already – or three actually! And that’s it –they have been interviewed by the WSJ about their essays and their essays have been featured on a lot of popular blogs including Zen Habits and they’ve authored three books all three of which, have climbed onto Amazon’s top ten best seller lists in their respective categories. And the latest book: Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life and you can download that for Kindle or your PC, and we’ll talk about that a little later. Welcome. Welcome Joshua, how are you?

Joshua: Outstanding. Thanks for having me, Peter.

Peter: Oh it’s my pleasure. You know I’d like to really start off with just a little bit of a discussion about minimalism because we’ve, I think people have heard about it and sort of understand it a little bit conceptually, but a lot of times it seems to get confused with a hobo or a penniless vagabond or a monk and I deny myself modern day pleasures and conveniences like owning a microwave. Can you clarify and set that record straight for us. What’s it all about?

Joshua: Absolutely, you know I started this journey, sort of accidentally about two years ago. My mother had passed away, and it was really traumatic event in my life and I started looking at everything in my live and just realizing that while I had what was considered by many the American dream, it wasn’t necessarily making me happy. You know, all the things that my culture told me were supposed to make me happy, didn’t actually bring me happiness. It brought me debt and anxiety and stress and guilt and all these things that were just really overwhelming. And by age 28, 29 I figured out, you know what? There has to be something else. I didn’t’ know exactly what it was, and I stumbled across this concept called minimalism, there was this guy, his name is Colin Wright, actually, he runs a website called Exile Lifestyle – we’ve become good friends in the last couple of years – but, he had this idea of minimalism and he said he was a minimalist, and I said: “You know what – I don’t know what that is – but I think I’m in.”

And so I, I started really questioning all my stuff, all the stuff I had, why do we accumulate all of these things, because It got to the point where I have so much stuff, accumulating things, I didn’t really know what was important in my life. I didn’t know what to focus on to live a happier, more content life and so for me, getting rid of the stuff allowed me to focus on, on what is important. Things like my health, my relationships, I mean, if you think about it, we forsake our relationships every day, you know? We spend 60, 70, 80 hours a week at work and, and the people we love, the people who are closest to us, we don’t necessarily spend the time with them that they deserve. Things like our health. I was, I weighed 70 pounds more than I do now, at thirty, I’m in the best shape of my life and that feels great, but before, I didn’t have time to focus on my health. I set it on the back burner. Things like pursuing what I’m passionate about. I didn’t hate my job, and in fact I was really good at it, but I wasn’t really passionate about it either, so I sort of found an exit plan over time.

A few other things – growing as an individual is something that’s really important to me and I felt like I wasn’t really growing when I was accumulating all those things. In fact, “stuff” was preventing me from growing. And one of the most important things that we tend to talk a lot about is contributing beyond ourselves. You know – there are so many ways to give back to other people –but when there’s so much stuff in the way, you don’t feel like you have the time, or maybe even then means to help other people out, to give back to other people. So, minimalism for me, was pretty much a tool to prioritize my life so I could focus on those things, those important things as opposed to focusing on stuff.

Peter: You know, I think fundamentally, no one can argue with the idea of focusing on the important things, which you’re advocating, I guess, or what you’re espousing with minimalism is okay –  I’m going to simplify my life so that I have time to focus on the important things or that I focus on the important things and I don’t let all those other things become distractions and detract my attention from all these important things. What about the hardest part, which comes with, with the concept of minimalism which is, I guess, possessions and stuff and things. Ownership. You know, which is really what I think everybody seems to worry about when they say: “yeah, minimalism it’s a really interesting concept, I’d love to simplify my life, but you know I do need my this and I do need my that, and, and I do identify..” and this exact topic was discussed at your colleague Ryan’s blog post, which I encourage everybody to read, and lots of other great essays that you guys have on your site. Minimalism is – I think you sad it best. Minimalism scares the shit out of us. So for those of us who are, for whom minimalism scares the shit out of, how do we reconcile all that? How can we see, how can we reconcile the stuff part and the simplify stuff, which fundamentally we agree with.

Joshua: You know it’s funny because I was kind of the same way when I took this on. I think we tie a lot of our identity to our stuff, right? We become our stuff. And so, the big house, having more bedrooms than inhabitants. We tend to do that, you know? Why do I have a three bedroom house and two people living there? Or why do I have, you know, two cars, when I need one, or maybe need none, because we don’t tend to question our things, so it’s really scary at first, it’s our identities tied up in it. You know I always told people there’s three ways that they can approach minimalism, you know, because there is a suitable way to do it for just about anyone.

The most radical way is, you know what, you can rent a gigantic dumpster and throw as much stuff in there as you can fit right, just get rid of your stuff and move on with your life. While that sounds great, I know with me that wouldn’t have worked, because I just had too much tied up emotionally in much of the stuff – especially when it comes to sentimental items, which sometimes are the hardest to get rid of. I wrote a fairly long essay about getting rid of mother’s stuff after she died, and for me, that was really difficult, getting rid of some of the sentimental items, so I don’t think everyone would just take all their stuff and throw it into a dumpster. Then there’s the other side of the spectrum, for people who are really trepidatious about this thing, you know the best thing I usually recommend is start, but start somewhere small. You can start in one room, a small room – a bathroom. Start anywhere that – they key component though is getting some momentum, right? So you want to start somewhere whether that’s your guest room, your kitchen, wherever, and start with that in mind, and then move forward to the bigger tasks as you get momentum.

The third way, is sort of somewhere in between it’s what we did with Ryan’s condo actually. We packed up all his stuff, we did what we called a “packing party”, and we wrote about it on the site and did this whole 21 day journey thing. But, basically with Ryan, we just packed up all the stuff and pretended he was moving, even though he wasn’t right, and so he had this entire living room floor to ceiling filled with boxes and, we packed up literally everything. The tooth brush, all his silverware, everything was packed up. His furniture – we packed everything, and then as he used stuff he unpacked it. Only as he needed it did he unpack it. And after about three weeks, 21 days, it’s amazing to see how much stuff he still had left, about 80% of his stuff was still sitting there. And we didn’t even know what it was – there were boxes marked “Miscellaneous #7″ or number 2 and there’s all this stuff and, you just start to wonder: “hmm, why, why did I accumulate all this stuff?” And then two: “why am I holding on to it?” So, that was sort of a middle of the road way to do it, but, I think any of the three ways will work, as long as you start to take action.

Peter: You know, Joshua, it’s funny you say that, it really struck a chord with me. I have I’d say about 5 or 6 maybe a few more, maybe I’m being conservative about that number,  5 or 6 boxes at my parent’s basement which I left there like a long time ago when I was between places, way before I got married. I’ve been married for over five years now. So I think whatever’s in those boxes, I really don’t need and I’ve been thinking about going to get them and my wife is like: “why don’t you just go and put them straight in the garbage, because whatever’s in there, your really don’t need. You haven’t needed them in five years.” But I find that hard, and I really do. So is there hope for somebody like me?

Joshua: I think so. One rule that tend to go by, and it was something we tested out this year, because we’ve been on this book tour, been doing a 33 city book tour that’s really amazing. But a theory that we tested out is that we didn’t pack any “just in case” items. Like, I didn’t pack anything just in case I need it, right? And I think it applies to holding stuff like this too, right. I think you’re holding on to this stuff just in case you want it later because you’re not using it now you’re not saying “it’s in my parent’s basement because I’m using it every day”. Now, it’s there just in case, and I think we do that with a lot of our stuff. So there’s this theory that we tested and it’s worked 99% of the time, we called it to 20 / 20 theory. Anything you get rid of 99% of the time you’ll be able to replace it for less than 20$ less than 20 minutes from where you live. And we’ve only had to do it a couple of times. Most of the stuff we got rid of we never really realize it, you know. But occasionally if you have to replace something, it’s not really going to cost you that much money, and it’s going to be out of the way and life gets a lot easier when the stuff’s out of the way.

Peter: I love your 20 / 20 rule, that’s really cool. I probably, I could, I really honestly, if I look around, my house, there’s probably nothing that I could not replace in less than 20 minutes.

Joshua: Right.

Peter: Cool rule. You know, let’s talk about something more, a little bit more towards something that will tie into what we’re doing this month here at Firepole Marketing, which is Productive Marketing month, and we’re approaching, sort of like the whole discussion about productive marketing is: how can we be more productive in doing the stuff we need to do for our business. Which I think ties great with the idea of simplifying and just making sure that we don’t get overwhelmed by our stuff. And if I were to point to one spot, I think, which causes a lot of concern and a lot of headache for people, I’d say it’s the ever present, and overflowing email inbox.

Joshua: Sure. You know what, actually, I used to work a corporate job for twelve years, same company. I was director of operations for a really large corporation and I can tell you it’s one of the things that I struggled with for the longest time, was focusing on something besides my inbox. Because that’s where you become trapped right? You get trapped because its constant flow, a barrage of information and your Blackberry is supposed to make you more productive, or your iPhone or whatever, and what it just happens it becomes an appendage, and it’s a really troublesome topic, so yeah, I’m definitely glad to talk to you about it.

Peter: I’m glad too, because I actually call my Blackberry “the leash”. Which is apt, and probably pretty sad. I mean, like you said, you, what you were working at your job, you lived out of your inbox. I think a lot of people live out of their inbox, it’s their central point of attention and it’s a horrible point of attention because it just keeps on filling up and you know we keep on using our cup to try to empty it and the thing keeps on filling up and the, it’s causing us stress and it’s causing us a whole bunch of headache and there seems to be no way out of it, yet if we could somehow maybe, apply the concept of minimalism to this, maybe we could find some solutions here. And I know you, have written a great essay on your, on your website called Inbox Minimalism, and I thought we’d talk about this topic a little bit so where does someone start –they’re getting 200 messages a day and they don’t see an end to this, you know – what do they do?

Joshua: Sure, you know, again, I’d take the same approach and just took earlier when I say broaching minimalism, and I think you can do that for, for your inbox as well. There’s a really drastic solution that I’ve actually done, but I don’t I don’t think this is necessarily for everyone, so we’ll talk bout some other things as well. I think the most drastic thing you can do – and at least try it out and see if it works for you, test it out, because if it doesn’t you can always go back to the hideous inbox you have right now – is  get a new email address, and ignore the old one. Contact the people who you really need to contact, and it’s going to be a pain in the butt. It’s going to take you, you know, three or four hours to change your subscriptions, it’s all this and that and whatever, but if you get a new email address, instantly it’s going to eliminate a ton of email.

Now some people that are with corporations, that necessarily, they can’t necessarily do that, then there are some other things that I’m going to recommend. First off get rid of anything that doesn’t add value to your life. So – if you’re getting subscriptions to particular things, get rid of them, mark them spam, unsubscribe – do whatever you need to do to get rid of it. If it’s not adding value to your life, find out a way to get rid of it. To me that was the biggest thing that I was ever do back in the corporate world was determine what was value-adding and what was essentially junk, because as you mention, 200 emails a day- that was pretty standard. But, how much of them contain important information? Maybe 20, 40 on a really good day. And the rest of it was stuff that I didn’t need to suck my attention, but it did, because even the junk, I had to at last look at it and determine what to do with it, right? So that killed my creativity, it killed a lot of time to be productive. And so, at once I figured out what was not valuable, I found ways to get rid of it.

Now sometimes, that meant: well some people were sending me stuff that’s not valuable – it’s not that I’m getting spam necessarily, but it may be: Peter keeps sending me this weekly newsletter that’s really not adding value. Or he’s sending all these emails for clarification. Let’s set up a different thing between Peter and I, so that we can find something that is a lot more valuable for us and doesn’t eat away at us constantly sending back correspondence through email. And really, what I think that takes, that takes, for me at least, it took a few conversations with some people to say: “here’s my new expectation.” And that’s not always easy, you know? It takes sitting down with someone over a cup of coffee or lunch and saying: “hey, you know what, here’s what I’m trying to do with my life I’d like for you to help me out, because, ultimately, I want to be more productive, I want to be happier, I want more time for this, this and this. You think you can help me? I would only like to send emails this way, or for this reason.” and I found that if you approach people like that, and show them how it will also add value to their life, I think their willingness to hop on board because there’s they’re probably stuck in the same rut that you are, in terms of your inbox, so big thing if you had to, I would say change your email address. That’s starting from zero, and it’s so much easier to start from zero, right? And then, going forward, make sure you set the right expectations with people. Because more than anything else, the people that are communicating with you, I don’t think they’re trying to bog you down, but unfortunately they are bogging you down, and they don’t necessarily realize it.

Peter: You know, the, there’s two things that came to mind when you were saying all that. One of them was it seemed to me that the emails you’re describing – the ones that are just extraneous, and unnecessary, they were kind of like what you were talking about earlier – they’re the “just in case” emails aren’t they? They’re people you communicate just in case, you  you’re getting it just in case you need to know this later on, or getting this email just in case there’s information in it that I need. The second thing I wanted to ask you is, is that always a win-win for, for people I mean you talked about asking somebody to sort of reconfigure the way that they’re communicating with you, which, you know, I suppose if you, as long as that’s valuable to them to and it saves them time it will probably work out. Is that usually the way it works out or is it more of a selfish thing: “Hey I need you to talk to me this way because I need to be more productive, I don’t know if it will make your life any easier.” Does it usually work out this way, or is it really a win-win.

Joshua: Well again, I think it’s a win-win because instead of approaching it this way, what I usually would approach it would be: “let’s figure out a situation that works for both of us, here is what I’m trying to do, let’s find a way that we can both communicate and it adds value to both of our lives still. Because right now the way that you’re communicating with me, may be completely appropriate for you, but for me it doesn’t work.” It’s just like if you’re in a relationship and one person yells all the time, the other person’s quiet, I don’t think that’s necessarily going to work, most of the time. And so coming to some sort of common ground is something that you want to do as soon as possible because, really, it’s about how valuable is the communication between the two of you and if both of you aren’t finding value then it’s not very valuable communication anyway.

Peter: Okay. Aside from paring it down, you know, just really putting every single email you receive through the lens of: is this is adding value or putting every communication with important people through the lens of: is this the most effective and efficient communication we could do? Is there anything else that we would need to do in order to try our hand at Inbox Minimalism? Is there any sort of tool or app or filter or rule or anything of that sort that you think will help us, or is that just counter to the whole philosophy of minimalism?

Joshua: No I don’t think its counter to the idea. I can tell you about some of the things that I do. I use Gmail now, and I’ve found that a lot of the filters that are built into Gmail – filters and folders can help you out, so it really depends on your individual needs and I’ve got some stuff on our website that you’re welcome to look at that talks a little but more about that in-depth. But the other thing is, I’ve found that I set up rules for myself. Like, I won’t carbon copy in anyone. Because I don’t want to add to the clutter, right? I won’t send out you know, group emails, unless you’re like subscribed to our website and you get our essays once or twice a week. Other than that I’m not going to send out just a mass email. Unless it’s truly appropriate. I can count on one hand in the last year that I’ve send out a, a mass email to people. But, generally, I don’t want to add to the clutter, so, I say, set up some rules that are appropriate to you, because you can only expect that from others if you expect it from yourself first.

Peter: That’s great rule to live by. But in general do you apply the concept of minimalism when it comes to all these tools and apps and systems and stuff. I’ve got more tools and more apps than I can count, I use a zillion of them for my business, which I’ve always thought makes things easier for me-

Joshua: Sure.

Peter: When does it go from simplifying life to complicating life?

Joshua: sure. You know, it’s interesting because we’ve been taught for the longest time that more equals more, but then you get too much of more and it becomes a really big problem right? So I know for me, that some apps are really, really useful, but you’ll hear me talk about these two words: “adding value” a lot because that was the thing that was one of the things that helped me really embrace minimalism was finding what was valuable and meaningful in my life, but the, the apps that we have I think some of them can be great, they’re great tools if we get caught up in them and they’re not really adding value to what we’re doing, then that’s where it becomes problematic.

It becomes problematic when we don’t question it, we don’t ask the question: is this adding value to what I’m doing? Or is there a better way to do what I’m doing? Because we get stuck in that routing, that pattern and that’s easy, because sometimes we don’t want to sit back and be aware that maybe there’s a better solution because it takes some real conscious thought to analyze what you’re doing whether it’s in the work environment or the home or whatever, it becomes really difficult to think about that stuff when you can just stay in the pattern. The problem with staying in the pattern is that you’re not able to change anything, if you’re not changing anything you’re probably; not growing, if you’re not growing you’re dying.

Peter: Well said. In another one of the interviews that I did for Productive Marketing month, I actually interviewed someone, who I won’t let out of the bag just yet, because your interview is probably going to go up before I interview that person and it’s going to be a bit of a surprise. But we talked about the concept of satisficers and maximizers, and we talked about the concept in the context of seeking out stuff. So, you know there’s a whole lot of people who will spend a whole lot of time trying to find a great app, or the best app or maximizing the app, or let’s find another app and let’s find another app or its find another system, so we’re wasting a lot of mental energy, you know, expending, doing the research, when really we should be just, you know, getting on with it. So a satisficer is the sort of person who says: “okay, I’ve found something that suits my needs and I’m going for it.” A maximize is the one who says: “I’m gonna really seek out everything and all the options and then they choose the best one.” And that could be applied to any kind of purchase we make from buying a TV to choosing and app to do our invoicing. How do you reconcile those two – who do you, what are your thoughts about those two, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of them before, but how do you relate to those in terms of the philosophy of minimalism.

Joshua: I think it’s interesting, I think minimalism is maybe a third, a third option inside of that. To me, I go back and look at, I look at the why, instead of, it seems like we’re talking about the what here, and I’ll use a really generic example that you just talked about, like buying a TV, right? So, instead of figuring out which TV to buy,

Peter: Why do I need a TV?

Joshua: Yeah, why do I need the TV? Why do I want it? How much value is it going to add to my life? Is there a way I can add value in a different way that is actually going to be a lot more fulfilling that I’m going to feel more satisfied with afterwards. And if the answer is yes, then I’m going to do that, if the answer is no, the TV is the way to go because of x, y, and z, then great, I’m not demonizing TV, I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with it, but I like to ask the question why. What’s the purpose behind this before I even thing about what the tool is, because, I think that we, we always think about minimalism as this de-cluttering thing, and I think that’s the initial bite of the apple, but really, what I think minimalism does is it gets down to the core and it asks you “why?”. What’s the purpose of what I’m doing? And, is it meaningful? And then, you can look at the tool, and sure, whether you’re maximizing it, or you’re just happy with the tool that you have and you keep moving forward, I think either one of those can be ok options, as long as you know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Peter: More high level now. Suppose somebody who is listening to this video, says: “you know what, I’d like to give this minimalism thing a try, and you know, my life is too complex, I would love to simplify things.” How do they take that first bite of the apple as you say? What should be their first step? Should it be figuring out this why, or should it be, ask the fundamentals the fundamental why’s of life or should it be something else. Where do they start?

Joshua: I think, I see, I think getting rid of the stuff helped me ask those why’s. Because at first, if you have a million inputs, it’s hard to discern which ones of those are, are important, right? Because if there’s half a million discrete bits of information coming at you each day, as statistics show, and maybe 25 of those are really important. How the hell do you know what 25 are important when you’ve got all the stuff? It’s the same thing with all the stuff around you, right, because, we get bogged down with everything.

And the three things I talked about earlier, I think the easiest way is to really just start with yourself because, we often put the blame on other people, right? I can’t become a minimalist, or I can’t make this change in my life, or whatever because of this spouse or my kids or my family or my friends, or whatever, but really, it’s about starting with yourself. I’m not asking you to– you should never try to change anyone else. Make the changes within yourself and that means if you’re talking about paring down your own things, you can start small. You can start in one room of your house and, and see how it really affects you, and see by getting some of the stuff out of the way, you know, I always recommend there’s three things you can do, you can donate, sell, or throw it away. But take action. And for me that minimalism scared the shit out of me too, until I took action. And once I took action I was like: “huh. This is actually pretty easy.” Because once you get rid of the stuff, you don’t care! It’s just stuff.

Peter: And did you feel, sure everybody’s going to be curious about this. The first few rooms that you tackled – did you feel that sort of “ohhh, what am I doing here?” the trepidation? And how did you get through that?

Joshua: I did, when I was giving the stuff away, I mean when you look at it, at your stuff, it’s yours and you’ve associated it with you, right? And it’s a part of you. And for me, I did a few interesting things, after we started the website, I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t giving too much meaning to stuff. I gave away some of my favourite stuff, so instead of, and then anything after that was really easy. Like, I had a favourite pair of shoes I had for awhile, I have a favourite shirt, a favourite pair of jeans and then I got to thinking, it’s just stuff like anything else. And guess what happened? As soon as I got rid of those,  another shirt or another pair of shoes stepped up and became my favourite pair. And you know, I don’t have a whole lot of stuff, I probably got rid of 90, 95% of my stuff, and while that might be drastic for some people, I don’t live like a nomad. I have an apartment with furniture and everything else, I just don’t have a lot of excess. And the stuff I do have, I enjoy. And what’s nice is the stuff that have now is really good stuff, and I really, really like it, I enjoy it, I like the clothes I have, I like the car I drive, I like the house that I live in, I just don’t, I don’t have this excess stuff that’s in the way, so you get rid of the junk, the stuff that you don’t need you get to enjoy the stuff that you love every day.

Peter: Wonderful. That’s sounds really nice, actually.

Joshua: Peter, this is not hyperbole, I’m being dead honest with you. At age thirty I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

Peter: That’s wonderful I’m really happy for you, Joshua. Let’s talk about your new book. You and Ryan have a new book called Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, and it starts off, and the blurb for this starts off asking some really poignant questions. Do you jump out of bed every morning saying about the day in front of you? Do you live a live defined by deep meaning, endless passion, excellent health, empowering relationships and constant growth? And, you conclude that by saying, “you can!” And that just such a wonderful state is within our reach. So tell me about this book and how it can help us achieve all that, because I don’t think there’s anybody on the planet who doesn’t want what you’re talking about here? How does the structure of the book work this?

Joshua: Well the book itself is foreword plus 7 chapters and it was structured very intentionally actually, we spent about a year writing it. Actually we wrote a different book and decided not to publish it. It was a good book, it was called Minimalism in 21 days, it was sort of  how-to-ish guide and it was three hundred pages. Now, can you taste the irony there? A minimalism book that’s three hundred pages?

This one, it’s a lot shorter. It’s about 125, 130 pages, but it’s filled with really meaningful content. We spent about a year writing it and we first document our journey, so in the very first chapter we talk about: here is where everything, here’s how everything happened for us, and we talk about some pretty troubling pasts, you know whether it’s drug use or divorce, a bunch of different things because, you know, we didn’t have ideal pasts. We grew up in relatively poor homes, we didn’t have great childhoods, but we were able to at a very young age, sort of work our way up in the corporate world and then get everything that society told us was supposed to make us happy, but it didn’t make us happy. So by age 28 we were approaching thirty and wondering: “Well what do I need now?” And we see a lot of senior executives at the company who were working for and they weren’t necessarily any happier than we were, in fact, some of them were miserable, and -

Peter: That didn’t look too good, did it?

Joshua: No! And I looked at it and said, if I worked really hard for fifteen more years…

Pete: That’s what I’m gonna get.

Joshua: And that’s not what I wanted, that’s not where I wanted to be, so, and you know, it took my mother dying to really start questioning all the stuff in my life and so we, in the book, we talk about our journey there, and right after my mother passed away, I just started to get rid of stuff, and, I, got with Ryan and said: “hey Ryan, I’ve been doing this whole minimalism simplifying thing, and it’s been great, I’ve been reading some of these websites, and you’ve got a lot of shit. Would you like to jump on board with me?” And he was like: “yeah, we’ve been talking about this happiness thing for awhile and we just haven’t been that happy.”

And so then we decided to document it online and we got really lucky, I mean, we’ve got about 100,000 people a month who come to the site now, and you know, within a, it’s only been about a year and it just took off, really, it’s gone really well, and it’s allowed me to do something that I’ve never been able to do was pursue my passion, and that’s one of the chapters in the book actually, so I’ll run through those really quick. We go through our back story, that’s the first chapter. The next five chapters are the five dimensions the five most important areas of life and really, it took us getting rid of our stuff to sort of figure these five areas out, and we talk about you know, getting rid of all of our anchors and how we got rid of the stuff and then we identified these fie areas.

The first one being health. That’s a perfect foundation because like I mentioned before, I was overweight, I was not healthy, I was eating like crap and that translated into everything else I did, so we talk about, we don’t want it to sound like a health book, but we give you some pretty practical tips. We don’t advocate any one particular style of living but we give you, point you in a direction and allow you to at least explore that. And show you what has actually worked for us physically, what we have been able to do to change our lives.

The second of the five areas are relationships, we sort of talked about the relationships a moment ago, but we tend to forsake those relationships and we, we just discovered that if you’re not focusing on the people that are important to you then they’re not going to focus on you long term, either. It’s one of the most meaningful parts of your life that we tend to just skip right over.

And the third area is pursuing your passion and for me that was writing fiction. I’ve always been, wanted to write literary fiction. It’s what I’ve, what I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I was finally able to this last year, I published a short story collection. So that’s something I’ve been really passionate about, we’re out doing this book tour now, which has been great, so it’s allowed me to pursue that passion that for the longest time, I wasn’t able to, to do that. And the last two areas I think go hand in hand, we talk about Growth and we talk about Contribution. Growing as an individual – constant small improvements every single day and we talk about ways that people can grow. And then we talk about contributing beyond yourself in a meaningful way, and that’s really important, I think. We just get stuck and we don’t even know how to contribute, what we should do to contribute most of the time and there’s some real simple things you can do locally or even on the web now, which allows you to contribute to other people who really need your help.

Peter: So, these five dimensions that you’re talking about, after much introspection, much de-cluttering, much thinking, you’ve distilled it down to these five, and I mean, fundamentally they sound like they are really the foundations. Let’s go over them again, health, relationships, passions, growth and contribution. I have this in my life, and I these dimensions are in order then I am focusing on what’s important and I’m probably going to be a fulfilled, happy person, is what you’re saying.

Joshua: That’s exactly it. That’s why I say it’s not just about getting rid of your stuff. I think you can get rid of all your stuff, you’ve thrown out all of your shit, and you can sit in an empty apartment and still be miserable. So that’s not what it’s about. It’s about getting rid of life’s excess and a lot of that especially in our culture has to do with stuff. Getting rid of that excess so you can focus on what really is important, and those were the things that we found after a lot of introspection made us happy, as individuals. And after really talking to other people and figuring out what made them tick, what made them excited those were the things as well, and it was, those were, once we identified that, it was like aha! We’ve got this answer that works really, really well for us.

Peter: How do we retool? Let’s take growth for a second. For some people growth is, okay, career advancement.

Joshua: Sure.

Peter: I want career advancement and you went though that and it means I can now get stuff which sort of signals my career advancement, the stuff that you so aptly said is what society will tell you will make you happy. So how, how, I mean, how does somebody, in starting this journey, sort of retool the very basic thinking that, that probably exists in their mindset and which is, okay, it’s about growth, it’s about advancing my career, increasing my salary, getting more stuff, you know, being able to take a longer, more luxurious vacation, driving a more expensive car. I mean, what does that, how does that retooling start so that you could start down this path that you’re, towards happiness that you’re describing.

Joshua:  It’s interesting, you know, I don’t want to demonize the corporate world, some people are very happy with having a regular corporate job, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. So growing, in that respect, I think that’s fine, if I think you’re key objective is solely based around monetary gain, then I don’t really think that’s growth. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not, I’m not allergic to money, but at the same time, I also realize that that is not the key to my happiness. And I was very fortunate to have a six figure salary at one point in time, and I did really well for myself in my twenties but it didn’t bring me happiness, and I could tell you that, that is not growth, that is perusing something that is never going to fulfill you.

So, growth is about… you know, Tony Robbins has a really interesting analogy, or an acronym actually, CANI, “constant and never-ending improvement”, and it’s interesting, it’s an interesting acronym in a philosophy that I tend to live by because it’s really about the small incremental changes. When I look at my life, I look back at the last two years of my life, I’ve made a lot of really subtle changes over the last two years since my mother passed away. Stuff that didn’t seem consequential at the time, but all these small little changes day after day after day have added up to a lot, and I can look at life’s rear view mirror now, I can look up and say: “oh wow! Everything back there two years ago is so much different than it is today.” But it’s because of those constant changes, the little small incremental changes, it, I mean, there are a few things that I’ve done that are large changes, but to be quite honest with you the small stuff is really what adds up.

People ask me all the time, you know: “how can I, how can I do what you’re doing and be really happy?” And they want a quick, a quick fix and answer, and there is not a quick fix and answer. The, the answer is it’s a lot of really subtle changes over a longer period of time. And when you think about it in the grand scheme of things a year to two years really isn’t that long of a time span, but, for some of us it seems like its really difficult and insurmountable right up front, but if you make some small changes over a short period of time, you’ll start to feel that momentum.

Peter: When somebody decides that they want to do this you said so, you said earlier, you start with yourself and you start small, start with one room. You touched upon this a little bit, the whole “what will other people think?” sort of topic, right? So I’m going to go down this route, and  I think to myself well, you know, let’s say: “what’s my wife going to think?” or “what are my coworkers going to think?” what are my neighbours going to think. They’ll say “Peter, should we get you some help?” What’s your advice, what’s your advice to that, to those people?

Joshua: Ryan and I kind of went a silly way of doing it, you know, we started a website called The Minimalists, so everyone pretty much knew about us pretty quickly. We’re two best friends, we’ve known each other for twenty years and we just wanted to do this thing together, but, um, I think, what most people, I generally say, you don’t have to tell anyone about it at first. Make some changes in your life and by the time people notice, you’re already gotten so far, they don’t even bring it up. They start making the changes in their lives as well.

And I’ve seen it over and over and over, and I still have people that call me know from the old corporate job that we used to work at and they call me now and they say: “hey you know, it looks like you’re contributing to Habitat for Humanity this weekend or something like that, can we join you?” And when you make the subtle changes in your life, you don’t have to tell anyone else about it. They will catch on eventually, and they’ll notice what it’s doing for you and the happiness it’s providing to you, and they’ll want a piece of that as well, and they’ll be coming to you for advice instead of judging you. Because, to be honest, you’re putting yourself out there, some people will really say: that’s great, I’m all for it, and other people, well they’re going to judge you. So you don’t necessarily have to put it all out there.

Peter: Final word of wisdom, somebody who wants to start of like embracing this topic, resources support, where can they go?

Joshua: Sure! Just come over to our website, we’ve got a ton, ton, of free content, theminimalists.com, and like you mentioned we have three books out there as well, but you can come to our website, everything is one there and we’re happy to help you out.

Peter: Some great essays. I recommend you guys visit theminimalists.com there’s a little area there: “Start here”, and it gives you good area for you to get started in the concept. Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, the book is available exclusively on Kindle where you can download that as well from theminimalists.com. Joshua I can’t thank you enough for doing this with me, it was really a pleasure to speak with you, really a pleasure to talk about minimalism and get all this clarifying wisdom out of you, it was a wonderful, wonderful time and I want to thank you.

Joshua: Thanks a lot Peter, it’s been great.

Peter: Thank you again, and everyone this was Joshua Millburn and his partner Ryan Nicodemus from the website “the minimalists”, and this is Peter Vogopoulos signing off for FirepoleMarketing.com, this is one of the interviews for Productive Marketing Month, see you on the blog. Thanks.

Peter Vogopoulos is the proud co-Founder of Firepole Marketing, and even prouder father of Baby Thomas. Special thanks to Merlin Mann for inspiring this post with his awesome essay. I clearly don't write like Merlin, but wish I did.

Comments

  1. says

    At first glance it seems that reducing one’s life to the bare essentials is hard work. It’s also (to borrow from Eben Pagan) “counter-intuitive” in that it totally goes the consumerist culture we’re all immersed in. It takes a fair amount of life experience and higher than average insight to even come to grips with the idea that a lot of what we have in our lives is actually unessential to our well being and happiness. The end is totally liberating, of course, but not so many people would readily agree and actually take action. I don’t see another “Age of Aquarius” looming in the horizon.

  2. Tom Hudson says

    I totally agree. I think our societal miasm promotes thing constipation and we’ve all become so bloated with over indulging we wouldn’t know our hearts desire if it manifested right in front of us. Getting rid of stuff is like going on a juice fast; great idea. It’s been a while since I did one of those and this article has prompted me to go for it again. Thanks.

  3. says

    Peter/Joshua,

    “If it’s not adding value to you life, find a way to get rid of it”

    So true!

    This is a great rule to live by. Too many times we are just accepting things as is and we don’t question our habits/possessions in any way.

    Asking the “why” and recognizing the true value in things starts the real mindset shift inside you (for the better).

    Cheers,
    Timo

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