5 Universal Tips To Help Anyone Become A Minimalist

By Cary Fortin

A lot of us are guilty of filling space just for the sake of filling it. After all, it's pretty easy to be a minimalist when you live in cramped quarters with limited shelf space and little to no room for frivolities. In this case, your home practically does the work for you. Maintaining a simple lifestyle in a larger space that has more room to grow? Now that takes more work.

I learned this firsthand when my partner and I moved from a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco to Boise, Idaho, to be closer to loved ones. Truly, I love our home. I love our neighborhood: our kind and active neighbors, the dozens of miles of hiking trails right across the street, and our fabulous public school down the block. I love our land: the fruit trees, the garden, the hillside, and the bike path running past our backyard. But it has been really strange to go from an apartment with three closets (which felt downright luxurious at the time) to a home that seems to invite us to have too much.

I'm not going to lie, as the founder of a decluttering company, I had a lot of anxiety about moving into a larger space. Backsliding into consumerism and mindlessly holding on to unwanted and unloved things seemed unavoidable.

And yet here we are, two years later, in a large yet minimal home.

I thank our intentional design as the key to our success. By deciding exactly how we wanted our home to feel before we ever went shopping, we were able to set and stick to our boundaries. Here are a few tips to keep in mind to help you stay the course of your version of minimalism, regardless of the size of your space:

1. Don't add storage if you can help it.

When you have plenty of closets and other built-in storage space, don't bring in additional dressers or cabinets, drawers, or shelves. Allow the built-in storage to be enough. We, for example, have the same coffee table that we used in SF (a glorious Japanese tansu that was handed down to me). In San Francisco we used the spacious drawers to hold board games and candles and things we used when entertaining friends. Here in Boise, we ignore the drawers altogether. The drawers are not the easiest to open, nor is opening them conducive to the layout of the space. So we treat the tansu like a solid cube and enjoy its surfaces without utilizing its storage.

2. Go a step further and remove storage where you don't need it.

For us, this looked like removing an entire wall of upper and lower cabinets from our garage. While the millions of drawers and shelves might have been "organized" and labeled to each hold one item—camping sporks in this drawer, headlamps and lanterns on this shelf—we didn't want a complicated system and didn't need nearly the amount of storage provided. Instead we have two large open shelving units that hold a bin with all our small camping gear on a shelf alongside our tents, camping chairs, and sleeping bags. This makes packing and unpacking for car camping a breeze (Step 1: place bin in car; Step 2: camp; Step 3: remove bin from car and place back on shelf). This smaller, open storage also prevents us from hoarding unwanted and unneeded items out of sight.

"I let my internal compass rather than my external storage tell me what is the right amount." 

3. Redefine "full."

Sometimes cleaning up your space just comes down to adopting a different version of "full." For many of us, after years of overflowing drawers and cabinets that jussssst baaaarely close, it can feel strange to acknowledge that full is actually much less than capacity—it's an amount that allows for ease and optimal functionality. In a large house, we've taken this a step further even. "Full" in a linen closet might just be a spare pillow and seasonal throw or two. The idea is not to be austere but to let my internal compass rather than my external storage tell me what is the right amount.

4. Go slowly.​

When we moved, we had neither the finances nor the desire to rush to fill up our home with stuff. For example, in a bright extra bedroom that we hoped one day would become a nursery, we placed just one comfortable chair. A single chair was really all we needed to take work calls or sip coffee in this room's morning sunlight. Now that it is a nursery, I'm so glad we didn't rush to furnish the room unnecessarily.

 

The same goes for walls. We'd spent six years slowly decorating the three small rooms of our old San Francisco apartment. Here in Boise, I wanted to be just as thoughtful about adding décor rather than trying to rush around and appear "done" without getting to know the space and how we hope to feel in it. Two years in, we're continuing to slowly add layers and textures and colors to our home as it feels right. I know some people won't be able to stand the feeling of being "incomplete," but I suggest moving forward with decorating as intentionally and mindfully as you can.
 
5. When in doubt, add plants and lighting.​

 

I cannot tell you how many times I thought about how if I'd built this house I would have removed a bizarre nook here or an extra few feet there. But instead of turning my back on these off-putting areas, we embraced them by slowly filling each with lovely greenery and lighting. Plants and light sources give purpose and interest to these spaces without adding the weight or expense of furnishings.

Decor doesn't have to be all furniture and artwork. If you don't need another place to sit, don't just stick a loveseat somewhere. Instead, use greenery and task lighting to make a space feel alive without filling it up for the sake of filling it.

Cary Fortin

Cary Fortin, alongside Kyle Quilici, co-authored New Minimalism: Declutter and Design for Sustainable, Intentional Living (Penguin Random House)
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