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Have you ever looked around your house, and all the things in it, and wondered,  how in the heck did all of this get here?

I’ve been having this conversation with myself a lot lately, ever since I talked with Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists (more on that in a minute).

Granted, I’ve come a long way from the school-age girl who hoarded binders, notebooks and homework in the closet because she thought she might “need it later.” Preparing to live in tiny college dorms — and hauling my stuff to and from said dorms — was all I needed to learn to live more simply.

Having moved 11 times in 10 years and never living in more than about 900 square feet,  I admittedly am mindful of my possessions. Still, even though I’ve sold more than $700 worth of stuff in the past year, I think I own too much.

And this is why: When we become more mindful of our thoughts, that awareness creeps in to what we choose to possess. And when your 8 lb papillon can make do with a bowl of water, some food and a yoga mat, it makes you rethink how much you actually need.

It’s not so different, this physical and mental clutter. They share the same root — the very basic human desire to hold on to what we possess, contrasted with the belief that possessing less is our key to happiness.

Unfortunately, possessions often win. We surround ourselves with stuff, or we let old beliefs and negativity remain in our minds even though the situations that caused the feelings are over. Because who are we if we don’t attach meaning to the stuff of our lives?

Who You are

Take a moment to look around your room, or the possessions you’re carrying if you’re not at home. Focus on one object and try to find “you” in it.

Even your artwork, your words or anything you’ve created is not you. It can never be You.

Now, how about that belief that you’re not good enough? That you’re not flexible enough to do all the yoga poses you admire? That you can never truly be happy because you’re just born with bad genes?

If you ask yourself these or similar questions, you probably think these are what make you, You. I belonged to this school of thought until I started doing yoga. Yoga awoke me to the knowledge that mental possessions aren’t that different from tchochtkes on a book shelf. In order words,

Just as you are not your stuff, your thoughts are not You.

There’s Divinity and purpose and a reason you are here beyond making money and buying stuff. Although sometimes it feels like we didn’t ask for all this tangible stuff — such as when we inherit possessions or are given gifts — we do have a choice: to keep the stuff or let it go.

You face the same decision with every intangible thought of every day.

I spoke with Joshua of The Minimalists for advice on to clear your mind clutter through owning less stuff. If you don’t know their story, Joshua and his friend Ryan Nicodemus both left their corporate careers in pursuit of becoming full-time authors and speakers, and in doing so pared down their possessions, attracting 100,000 readers to their blog in nine months. (Proof positive that less is more.)

Read on for a fresh perspective on what’s important in life, plus how learning to let go of things can help you let go of thoughts, and ultimately lead a happier life.

Caren: Does owning fewer things make us happier?

Joshua Fields Millburn, The MinimalistsJoshua: When we talk to people about minimalism they ask, “I kind of get this minimalism thing. I think it would be freeing to declutter, but how is that going to make me happy?” The answer is, it’s not. In fact, you can get rid of all your stuff and even be more miserable.

The idea behind minimalism for me was never to just get rid of my things. It allowed me to get rid of the things that weren’t important to me. When I was about 28, I had sort of the ideal 28-year-old life, heck even 40-year-old life. I climbed the corporate ladder for a decade. I had a really great six-figure job. A huge house, two luxury cars. All these things that were going to make me happy instead made me depressed and stressed.

Caren: What did owning fewer things do for your mind clutter?

Joshua: Once I figured out that the stuff wasn’t important, it allowed me to live more intentionally or mindfully, and live more deliberately. The bigger thing is it allowed me to focus.

The analogy I use is you can try to drive down a road and if there’s a bunch of stuff in the way, it’s going to be pretty hard to drive down the road. Minimalism allowed me to clear the path and move forward. When I wasn’t focused on things, I found out what was truly important.

Caren: What is truly important?

Joshua: Five things:

1. Health. I was able to radically improve my health. I used to be 70 lbs overweight and now at 31 I’m in the best shape of my life.

2. Relationships. For the longest time, I didn’t give enough attention to the relationships that were most important to me. We often give out time to the people we work with, acquaintances or those relationships that don’t amount to much. I’ve refocused my life on relationships and bring value to them instead of taking something from them like a parasite.

3. What you’re passionate about. You can define your happiness by what you do for a living, or by what you call what you do.

4. Career. I had a really great career, but for me a career is one of the most dangerous things to have.

5. Your mission. There are dozens of things that many of us can do well, but I think it’s important to pick one that aligns with your values and beliefs and do it.

Caren: What has been the most surprising change to your mood after becoming a minimalist?

Joshua: I’ve never been happier. It’s not a hyperbole; it’s the honest truth. In our society we relate happiness to either success or achievement or money. All three are tied together. There’s nothing wrong with earning money. I’m not allergic to earning money, but it’s not my primary focus anymore. I had to redefine what I defined as success.

Success is now a simple equation:

A. Am I happy?
B. Am I growing?
C. Am I contributing beyond myself in a meaningful way?

I make less money now than when I was 19. I know for a fact that money doesn’t bring happiness.

Caren: Why do you think it’s so challenging to declutter our spaces and our minds?

Joshua: One, we’ve been told our whole lives that it’s one way when it’s really the other way.

The other thing is our possessions are hypothetical in a way. We’re not worried about what our possessions mean to us. We’re worried about what they mean in some distant hypothetical future. We think we can somehow find value somewhere later in the future.

One of my biggest surprises is that I’ve never gotten rid of anything that I’ve regretted giving up. I thought there would be something by now, but there hasn’t.

Caren: Do you believe that a mind can be “too full?”

Joshua: For me I’d have to define full—as in overactive? Within the moment it could be. I don’t think there’s such a thing as learning or growing too much, but there is doing too much, including too much thinking or processing or analyzing.

I’m an analytical guy and I can get neurotic. One of the things I say is, “If you get rid of worry you have nothing to worry about.” [click to tweet it!] We hold on to a lot of thoughts in our mind. The average human experiences 500,000 unique inputs of which 400,000 are not important.

Caren: What are some techniques for letting go of mind clutter?

Joshua: For me, my mind is most cluttered when I’m stressed out. When I get stressed, all of these bad thoughts are creeping in: “I’ll never get this done; this is overwhelming.”

For me, what I do is I’ll go do pull ups or pushups. It changes how I feel and it forces the stuff out of my mind. Other people, like you, have found it through yoga and meditation. I just do something really quick; it takes barely no time at all (I exercise for 18 minutes a day!). By the time that’s done, those thoughts are gone and then I can change my focus because no longer do I have several hundred inputs.

Caren: In your “Learning to Let Go” essay you and Ryan write: “Not everything that adds value today will add value tomorrow.” This certainly relates to things; how can you use this knowledge for letting go of thoughts?

Joshua: As I think back to when I was an adolescent, a lot of things that excited me then certainly won’t excite me now. But if I were to stay in the same mindset and chase the same things that I was chasing as a teenager, I wouldn’t find the same value in it.

“Wherever focus goes energy flows.” I truly believe that. A big part of it is focus. Getting rid of the stuff allowed me to focus better and focus on one thing at a time. If you’re focusing on one [negative] thing and you’re trying to get rid of it, the best thing to do is to focus on something else.

Whenever I want to make a change, I change what I focus on and what I believe about it. If you really want to change something in the short term, you should change your physiology, as well.

It’s like what Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” If you focus on what’s great, what opportunities are there, then you can change direction. Ultimately, you have to change what you believe.

Your turn: What have you cleared, physically or mentally, that has helped you to live happier? Share your wisdom below.