The Minimalists' New Documentary Is a Decluttering Pep Talk

'Less Is Now' has few new insights, but it will motivate you to start purging.

woman holding baskets with clothes

Getty Images/Kostikova

The Minimalists have released a second documentary that is now available on Netflix. It's called "Less Is Now," a nod to the motto "less is more," popularized by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who used it to guide his minimalist aesthetic. On their blog, the Minimalists write, "His tactic was one of arranging the necessary components of a building to create an impression of extreme simplicity. [We] have reworked this phrase to create a sense of urgency for today’s consumer culture: now is the time for less."

For those unfamiliar with the Minimalists, they are a duo of writers, bloggers, speakers, and podcasters who have achieved significant recognition for their anti-consumerist message over the past decade. Their names are Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Milburn, and their personal stories of childhood poverty and the subsequent drive to acquire material goods as a way of coping with that rocky start before giving it all up for greater simplicity are a key component of this film.

The two men reflect on how, despite their early poverty, their homes were cluttered and filled with stuff because, "when you're poor, you take everything you're offered." Milburn describes clearing out his deceased mother's home, packed with three households' worth of stuff that had accumulated over decades and none of which held any value or meaning for him. The realization that memories exist within us, rather than external to us, was profound.

While much of the film is dedicated to retelling their personal stories (which Minimalists fans have likely heard before), it mixes in interviews with people who have embraced minimalism and found it transformed their lives in a profound way. Previous shopping addicts have seen the light, so to speak, and realized that consumerism never fills the void they feel in their lives; only relationships and community can do that.

Perhaps most interesting to me were the interviews with various experts, including Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA and creator of The Story of Stuff; money-management expert Dave Ramsey; pastor and futurist Erwin McManus of the non-denominational church Mosaic; and T.K. Coleman, director of the Foundation for Economic Education. 

They come from different backgrounds and offer distinct perspectives, but all believe that Americans are filling their homes with material goods (and working to pay for it) to a point that's impeding their ability to enjoy life fully. Put another way, "Stuff is contributing to our discontent in so many different ways because it's taking the place of the things that actually do give us more happiness."

Less Is Now cover

via YouTube

It's not entirely our fault. We're part of a system that's designed to attack us relentlessly and repeatedly, hitting us in the most vulnerable spots. As Ramsey said, "We live in the most advertised-to culture in the history of the world. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent telling us we need this, and that has an effect." Leonard explains that corporations' need for unrelenting, constant growth fuels this.

Leonard's insights were most helpful. She describes the concept of deficit advertising, which is a type of advertising that makes viewers feel they are inadequate if they do not buy a particular item. She talks about the mental challenges of living in a globalized economy, where we know so much more about what goes on in the lives of friends, neighbors, and even strangers than ever before.

"Once your basic needs are met, the way we as humans determine what is enough is relative to the people around us. And so that's where this saying 'keeping up the Joneses' came up. We judge our furniture, our clothes, and our car based on the people around us. And it used to be that the people around us were of similar socioeconomic background. But now, with the onslaught of television and social media, [there is] what's called the 'vertical expansion of our reference group'. Now I'm comparing my hair to Jennifer Aniston's; now I'm comparing my house to Kim Kardashian's."

The film jumps back and forth between the Minimalists' personal stories, the sometimes emotional, anecdotal accounts of shoppers-turned-minimalists, and brief expert analyses of the evils of consumerism. The parts do not always flow easily into each other and the film feels disjointed in places. I would've liked to hear more from the experts and less from the Minimalists themselves.

What the film did give me, however, was an infusion of enthusiasm for needing to tackle my own stuff yet again – and there is value in that. Decluttering is a bit like housecleaning. You may know how to do it, but there's something about watching a how-to video or seeing some beautiful before-and-after photos that give you new motivation. We all need that once in a while. 

I didn't come away from "Less Is Now" with any staggering new insights (apart from Leonard's interview segments, which gave me something to mull over), but I do know what I'll be doing after work today and it will involve cardboard boxes and cleaning out cluttered drawers and bookshelves.