3 Simple Ways to Become a Minimalist (Without Selling All Your Stuff)

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Stacked moving boxes

One of the biggest misconceptions about minimalism is that you should basically own nothing. The strange vibe I often get from articles, videos, or pictures boils down to this:

  • “If you own more than 100 items, you’re not a minimalist.”
  • “If you wear more than one outfit, you’re not a minimalist.”
  • “If you cling to stuff in your basement, you’ll never be a minimalist.”

All this pressure over-complicates minimalism. Which is ironic because the chief task of minimalism is to simplify your life.

Being a minimalist should never feel like a competition, exclusive VIP club, or tough grind. Quite the opposite. It should be rewarding, effortless, and accessible to everyone.

So before we get into three simple ways to become a minimalist, we first need to answer a critical question: What the hell is minimalism actually about?

What Minimalism Is Actually About

Here’s how I define minimalism:

The intentional practice of focusing on the things that matter most.

To get there, you don’t always need less (although that can help). What you actually need is to spotlight the most essential components of your life.

The keyword here is “intentional.” Once you’re truly intentional about your actions, everything will fall into place. So the real goal of minimalism is to stop mindlessly floating through life — and to start making conscious decisions.

  • Is this relationship draining me?
  • Does that task actually matter to me?
  • Do I really need to buy a new smartphone?

Now, here’s the thing: This is an internal practice, not an external one. If you decluttered your entire life today, you’d probably feel an inner void because the external circumstances would change too drastically. Internally, you wouldn’t be ready for it.

That’s why the real work for becoming a minimalist starts from within.

Here are three simple ways to do that inner work. (And no, selling your stuff is not one of them.)

1. Don’t Try to Be a Minimalist

I love this quote by the Dalai Lama:

“Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.”

I like to think of minimalism as a toolbox. You see, having a bunch of tools at your disposal doesn’t mean you have to use them all. Instead, look at whatever problem you need to fix in your life and grab the tools that get the job done.

For instance, you might find that a minimalistic desk setup skyrockets your focus while a capsule wardrobe drains your self-expression. And that’s fine — one doesn’t exclude the other. So, steal the tools you need and leave the rest in the box. Simple.

But the most important lesson from this analogy is this: Using a toolbox doesn’t make you a mechanic. And here’s what I mean by that:

Minimalism isn’t a pursuit of titles. It’s a practice. Or, to paraphrase Austin Kleon, it’s not a noun — it’s a verb.

And so, when you only chase after the noun (minimalist), you might waste your time proving that you are one: Rambling about your desk setup, bragging about your capsule wardrobe, and cluttering your Instagram feed with snapshots of your minimalist apartment.

It’s as if you propagated toolboxes were invented exclusively for mechanics. The problem is, of course, that they’re also made for plumbers, stonemasons, woodworkers, artists, home decorators, and really anyone who wants to swing a hammer.

In other words, the noun confines you to a tight box of expectations. Which is not very minimalist. Instead, you could, you know… actually use the tools.

I love how Austin Kleon puts it in Keep Going:

“Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb).

Doing the verb will take you someplace further and far more interesting than just wanting the noun.”

So, don’t try to call yourself a minimalist. It’s a flashy mask that keeps you from doing the work. Instead, practice minimalism. Embody the verb.

2. Get to Know Your True Needs

There was a time in my life when I was a “maximalist.” I had just moved out from home and worked a student job with a reasonable salary. Well, as reasonable as it can get for an 18-year-old.

And so, I gobbled down everything I wanted. TV shows, cheap white toasts, instant soups. I ordered stuff online on impulse. Watches, pizzas, coffee machines, furniture, and backpacks — lots of backpacks. It was mindless consumption.

Soon, I learned this lesson: Too much is always too much.

And as a result, my life radically changed.

I was desperate to get rid of everything in my life except the things that serve my most basic needs. So I cleared out my entire apartment and moved to Portugal with only one backpack.

Surprisingly, though, I neither became enlightened nor a happy minimalist. Quite the opposite. I felt the same, just with fewer items. Sure, it was cool to be mobile and fit my life inside a backpack. But that was it.

And I learned another crucial lesson: Less isn’t always more.

Let me explain that by highlighting the difference between needs and wants.

How to distinguish needs and wants

People often say that needs are necessary for survival, while wants are the extra stuff we desire. The conclusion is that we shouldn’t own expensive things, avoid nice restaurants, and abstain from vacations in tropical countries.

This is a lie.

Your needs go far beyond food and shelter. They extend to esteem and self-actualization. In fact, your true needs are everything you need to survive, plus everything you need to reach your full potential.

The problem? We’re deeply confused about our true needs. Status symbols and unrealistic lifestyles taunt us on social media. Advertisements trick us into buying dust collectors. And we don’t even get a chance to know ourselves because we’re constantly bombarded with irrelevant inputs and opinions.

So how can we identify our true needs in the age of distractions? This question has helped me the most:

Is this thing essential to becoming the best version of myself?

“This thing” doesn’t only refer to physical items — it could also be a relationship, job, or goal. Again, it’s all about intentionality. Investing your time and money in the things that matter most.

For example, if a passionate piano player saves up for grand piano that deepens and enriches his practice, that’s a highly minimalistic purchase. In fact, it’s much more powerful than going for the cheaper e-piano and buying a bunch of forgettable stuff that doesn’t help this person thrive.

Thus, practicing minimalism shouldn’t make you more modest. It should simply make you more sensitive to things that help you prosper.

Eliminate fake wants. Double down on true needs.

3. Appreciate Value, Not Prices

A few years ago, I biked to my local train station for a weekend getaway. When I came back three days later, my bike was gone. I just stood there for a while, staring at the now lonely lantern post to which I had chained my bike.

Slowly my emotions started boiling up. Not only because cycling was my favorite way to get around but also — and more importantly — because I paid a lot of money for that bike. And now that money was gone.

A few days later, I discovered a second-hand racing bike for sale. It was manufactured in the late 80s, the gear shift was mounted at the frame (not at the handlebar), and it felt a bit too small for height. But then again: it was cheap, and I was short on money.

So I bought it.

Surprisingly, it was one of the best investments I’d ever made. Not in terms of returned money but returned joy. I fell in love with the simple design. The smooth mechanical click when a gear shifts. The weight, the retro style, the timelessness.

That bike was only half the price of my previous one but tenfold the value. And this is where it gets interesting.

How to focus on value, not prices

Value is something very personal, something you can affect. Prices, on the other hand, are determined by markets, demands, and supplies. And thus, they’re completely out of your control.

That’s why one of the most minimalistic habits is to appreciate the most valuable things in your life — and to eliminate the ones that are pricey but not valuable.

It’s a simple two-step process:

  1. Identify valuable possessions, relationships, and tasks. What are signs of value? It’s everything you use frequently, has stress-free maintenance, leaves you feeling energized, sparks joy, is long-lasting, and helps you flourish. If something in your life doesn’t show any of these signs, eliminate it — especially when it’s pricey.
  2. Practice gratitude. I know this can sound woo-woo, but it’s simply acknowledging the value of a certain item, relationship, or moment. You can do this by asking yourself a few questions: What am I thankful for? What’s the positive about this? What can I learn from this?

In this sense, I’m grateful that someone stole my bike. It became useful for another person while I finally started appreciating the hidden value of a (much cheaper) bike.

Three Simple Ways to Become a Minimalist

There’s nothing wrong with decluttering your life, wearing only one shirt, or living in a minimalist apartment. I adore these things. But that’s not all minimalism is about. In fact, if you start by becoming an internal minimalist, the external appeal will follow effortlessly.

To recap:

  1. Don’t try to use minimalism to become a minimalist. Use it to be a better whatever-you-already are.
  2. Pursue your true needs and eliminate fake wants. Double down on the things that help you reach your full potential in life.
  3. Identify the most valuable things in your life, regardless of price. Make it a habit to practice and express gratitude for them.