A Professional Organizer’s Film Review: Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things

This week, I got to attend a premiere of the new documentary, “Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things.”  It was film created by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, known as “The Minimalists”, who share their stories through theminimalists.com, several books and on their podcasts.   I saw Ryan and Joshua speak last year at the NAPO (National Association for Professional Organizers) Annual Conference, and I was captivated.  I had low expectations, but walked away with questions and food for thought that still lingers.  

So, when I learned that, as part of the release of the documentary, Joshua and Ryan were hosting a 20 or so city tour, in attendance for the screening, and then recording a live version of their podcast afterwards from the Q&A the movie inspired, and that they were coming to Boston, I quickly got my ticket.  So did a thousand other people. In attendance were people who had completely embraced the movement towards minimalism, and people who had just heard of them this week for the first time, and everything in between.  I had a number of my NAPO colleagues there, too, and I loved that we all watched from a perspective of understanding more about this movement, and how we may assist our clients who are pursuing a similar goal.  Joshua and Ryan came out, and introduced the movie. Their aspiration in creating the film was clear:  “We want to show people that Minimalism isn’t a radical lifestyle; it’s a practical lifestyle.”  With that, the film began…. 

Minimalism Documentary

from http://minimalismfilm.com/trailer/

I went into the movie wondering if it was going to truly feel like a story just about Ryan and Joshua, and maybe just feeling like a bigger screen version of things I already knew.  I was very pleasantly surprised to see how well balanced the movie was overall; yes, it featured their story (often more focused on how they have been getting their story out, rather than the story itself), but it also prominently featured the voices and experiences of many others who have been down this path.  Some, you’d know if you’ve been poking around in this area:  Joshua Becker, of Becoming MInimalist, Colin Wright, of Exile Lifestyle,  Leo Babuata, who has famously been pursuing minimalism with his family, including 6 children (the data point most people cite when they are told Minimalism is just for bachelors).  

The movie also showcased other voices. There were architects, from Life Edited, who have been working to transform the way people live in small spaces. Many people who had left their homes behind in pursuit of Tiny House living. Dan Harris, journalist, spoke about his own experiences that led him to explore meditation and write, “10% Happier”. Economists and sociology experts who spoke about the global issues that face our society which impact this movement, and the many reasons the society has gotten to where it is already. Marketing, advertising, consumer positioning, manipulation, manufacturing quality. The film brought a panoramic view of this movement: what it is, why it is, and how it is all much bigger than just tossing all your stuff. 

In general, most people who touch this space will speak to the same core issue:  Compulsory consumerism has become a growing problem in our society, and many people have become absorbed in the act of consumption and “keeping up with the joneses”. The stories shared by people who have sought to break that chain for themselves had different reasons (physical health, depression, extreme financial debt with nothing to show for it, etc.), but they all came to the same conclusion:  “I believe my life could be better with less.”  The stuff they’d acquired and collected were not making them happy, even though they thought for sure it would… “Some day, just around the corner, I’ll be happy, healthy, content.”  It never came, and they knew they needed to approach life in a much more drastic way.

How people ended up shedding their lives of possessions varied in approach. Across the board, however, the message seemed consistent: “It’s not that things and owning things are bad, in principle. I’m not becoming a monk.  It’s that I now want to be mindful about what things I own and WHY I own them. It’s buying things of quality, not quantity. Everything should be purposeful or be something I truly love, and owning it serves the greater life I want to live.” It’s not just about not owning stuff; it’s about creating the life you want to live, with the relationships and values that mean the most to you, and not letting the stuff be a substitute for, or get in the way of, pursuing that life.  

During the film, and more deeply, in the Q&A after, the conversation shifted to a bigger picture:  HOW will a move to minimalism, or more intentional and mindful ownership, can work in our society going forward? Yes, how we’ve gotten here is a bit of a function of our global economic environment:  Fast Fashion (where styles are en vogue for about a week, and are made so cheaply overseas that clothes have become disposable just because they’re not in style), cheap labor costs, a disregard to the environmental impact of manufacturing and distribution, and a decrease in quality which has led to a commonplace understanding that most of what we own is easier to dispose and replace rather than repair.  A basic response is: “If we shift, all of those things can be positively impacted, too, we hope.”   

But there are actually shifts in our global economy that support this move, and not just “life will be better if that stuff stops.” There are ways in which our shifting world complements this lifestyle, more and more each day. The obvious and easy answer is being thoughtful about what you consume when it comes to understanding the impact on things like climate control and labor practices around the world.  We already know that.   What jumped out for me, though, is how this move actually fits in so well with what is already being discussed in terms of our workforce in the US:  a shift to a “gig” economy, where people engage more in services and freelance and flexible arrangements, rather than the traditional 9-5, “workin’ for the man” workforce we’ve had for the last century. These people carve out what they’re willing to offer the world and what they receive in return, on their own terms. I know I’m one of those people; abandoning the corporate path and deciding that I wanted to create my future of providing value through delivering the tailored services to my organizing clients, creating my own connection to people and their needs, has brought me overwhelming satisfaction in terms of my career.  It’s not for everyone, but for many, it’s exactly what they feel they need to have the life in balance they seek. 

The other part of the way in which society is changing, that was discussed at the premiere, is how we’re shifting from a society that relies on ownership to one that relies on *access*.  I don’t need to own a thing; I just need to be able to access it.  The easy example of this is your local public library, of course.  The internet allows you access to endless information and resources. The cloud allows you to put items elsewhere, so you can access it, whenever and wherever. Zip car and Uber allow you to get wherever you want. Air BnB allow you to travel and stay in home-like settings. The list goes on and on.  You don’t need to possess these things in your home or in your hand to fully benefit from their existence. You don’t need to prepare yourself for scenarios; you need to have access to solutions, if and when they arise.  

One of the questions I use often with clients when they’re considering getting rid of an item, especially an “occasional use” item like something you might use in entertaining, or some kind of sporting good, is “could you borrow this or rent this if you needed it?”  A question like this can help the person really think about (a) how likely is it that I’ll really need something like this and (b) do I have the resources or feel comfortable tapping into those resources to solve my problem?  This is exactly that “access society” concept. We can borrow. We can rent. 

Some will say, “Sure, but that costs money. Zip Car and Uber and Renting things isn’t free.” They’re not wrong. But what I hope they think about are two things:

1) What is the cost to you to carry ownership of those items every day, though you rarely use them? Financial cost, like car insurance, or the value of your storage and real estate (your most valuable investment) is real.

2) Could you do something BETTER for your life by redirecting that value elsewhere? Could NOT owning something actually bring you MORE value? Whether that is physical space you’ve freed up, or a reduction in headaches and stress it causes, could there be value to your life in letting go of the things that don’t provide you with daily value, and are easily accessed if you needed them? Are you willing to trade short term and occasional financial investment for these every-day, quality-of-life gains

It’s about goals for life, and the trade-offs that you’re willing to make.  

Some people hear these messages and feel an instant connection. “I’m In! Let’s get started!  Hand me that trash bag!”  Some say, “I hear you. I’m interested. I think you’re probably right. I just don’t know HOW.”  I am hopeful that people like that start to think about working with a professional organizer, either in person or virtually, to get they help they need on things like decision making and how to dispose and discard items.  We want to help you live your best life, and we want to bring what we’re good at to help you be great at what YOU’RE good at

If any of this piques your interest, think about catching this film if it comes to a city near you (info on their website as to where and when it is screening). You will likely walk away with many thoughts, not the least of which is, “Well, now I have to go home and get rid of some things RIGHT NOW.”  It was thought provoking without being preachy (the best kind of documentary), It is hard to believe that anyone who watches it won’t be inspired to think differently the next time they feel compelled to purchase a thing. 

At the end of the presentation the other night, Joshua shared one of his more well known sentiments, and it is one I think we all benefit from hearing from time to time: 

“Love People and Use Things, because the opposite never works.” 






  1. Janet Barclay

    Great review! You have definitely piqued my interest. It’s probably not a film I’d go see (and the tickets are sold out in any case) but I hope it will come out on DVD.

  2. Penny Catterall

    I am signed up to see this movie on May 25th when it comes to Washington DC and am very excited about it, especially after reading your review. Thanks!



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