How Less Helps You Do More — Minimalism And Your Brain

Richard Reis
May 16, 2017 · 11 min read
By Richard Reis

Hello dear,

By the end of this letter, you’ll know something that’ll make you wealthier, but also think better.

This knowledge changed my life. I’m excited to share it with you.

Many of my friends know this, but minimalism is something I have been a big fan of for quite some time.

Now, I hate calling it “minimalism” because the word comes loaded with whatever past meaning you attached to it.

So from here on, whenever I say “minimalism” I want you to think “no clutter” or “no sh*t lying around”. Whichever you prefer.

With that big, fat, elephant out of the way, we can begin.

Why minimalism?

Two reasons:

  1. I believe it’s an amazing “brain-enhancing” technique.

I think #2 is self explanatory. Let’s dig deeper into #1, it’s very important.

Why is minimalism an amazing brain-enhancing technique?

“A messy room equals a messy mind”.

As it turns out, that’s true.

Psychologist (check out the insane CV) Dr. Jordan Peterson’s favorite advice is “clean your room”.

In fact, Dr. Peterson gets letters from people telling him how cleaning their room changed their life!

I’ve experienced the benefits personally, and it works.

Here’s a direct quote from Peterson:

“My sense is that if you want to change the world you start from yourself and work outward because you build your confidence that way.

I don’t know how you can go out and protest the structure of the entire economic system if you can’t keep your room organized. […]

The world presents itself as a series of puzzles, some of which you’re capable of solving and some of which you’re not. You have many puzzles in front of you that you could solve but you choose not to. Those really are the things that weight on your consciousness, knowing ‘oh I should do this’, but you don’t.[…]

It’s like, don’t be fixing up the economy, 18 year-olds. You don’t know anything about the economy. It’s a massive complex machine beyond anyone’s understanding and you mess with it at your own peril. Can you even clean up your own room? No. Well, you should think about that.

Because if you can’t even clean up your own room, who the hell are you to give advice to the world?” — Dr. Jordan B Peterson

I couldn’t agree more.

Sidenote: This may seem odd, but I have a hypothesis as to why minimalism/ cleaning your room is effective for better thinking.

This insight came to me from meditation. I know that when someone meditates effectively, the brain regions known as Default Mode Network’s (DMN) activity diminishes. These regions are what make you ‘daydream’ (aka not focus): “I shouldn’t have said that to Bob this morning”, “I regret not asking that girl for her number”, “that a**hole who cut me in the freeway last week could have killed me”. Meditating (basically) shuts down those voices and allows you to focus on the present (which makes you more effective).

Soooo doesn’t the same brain activity increase when your place is messy? “oh I should vacuum this floor”, “those dishes look dirty”, “damn, my closet is a mess”.

My hypothesis: A messy place increases activity in the DMN, which doesn’t allow you to focus 100% (making you less effective). This could explain why when you ‘go minimal’, you focus better (and most people say it’s life-changing).

If everyone had a clean room/ apartment/ house, the world would be a better place 🙂 (I just gave a great PhD thesis for some neuroscience student out there).

Do you understand the importance of minimalism now?

If you’re home, perfect! Look around you, is there something you’ve been meaning to clean? Does opening your closet stress you out?

This physical clutter is probably also cluttering your brain. Hence why you can’t focus.

If so, what follows is tactical advice that will help you clean in record time.

When should you “go minimal”?

Many bloggers will tell you to start slow and gain momentum.

This… may work.

Unfortunately it didn’t work for me. And I believe it won’t work for you either.

Why? Most people are lazy when it comes to tidying (come on, how long have you been thinking about organizing your mess?)

Therefore, the best solution I found came from the ginormously popular book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondō.

In case you don’t know Marie, here’s a nice summary from Tim Ferriss’ awesome (recent) interview with her:

“Her books have sold more than seven million copies and have been published in more than forty countries.

Kondo’s methods have become so famous that her last name has become a verb, ‘Kondo-ing,’ and people who share her specific values are referred to as ‘Konverts.’ She has been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.”

Yeah, wow.

Marie’s philosophy is much closer to mine. If you want to declutter your life, pick one day and do it all at once.

“When you tidy your space completely, you transform the scenery. The change is so profound that you feel as if you are living in a totally different world. This deeply affects your mind and inspires a strong aversion to reverting to your previously cluttered state. The key is to make the change so sudden that you experience a complete change of heart. The same impact can never be achieved if the process is gradual.” — Marie Kondō

How to declutter

1. Pick a day

Pick a day, any day. And start early in the morning (this will energize you).

“But I’m too busy.”

I think that most people who are “too busy” miraculously have enough time for other things like cable TV or Netflix.

Unless you have 5 kids, work 3 jobs, and are a single parent, you’re not “too busy”.

“Too busy” is also a polite way of saying “this isn’t a priority for me”. But if you weren’t convinced from the intro that cleaning IS a priority, chances are you’re just being lazy.

2. Put it all on the floor

If this sounds like a song title, it’s because it’s the fun part.

“Where do I start?”

Marie Kondō recommends going by categories, not rooms.

“Don’t start selecting and discarding by location. Don’t think “I’ll tidy the bedroom first and then move on to the living room” or “I’ll go through my drawers one by one starting from the top down.” This approach is fatal. Why? Because most people don’t bother to store similar items in the same place.” — Marie Kondō

The correct sequence she recommends is this: clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous items, and mementos.

Go around your house looking for everything that fits in each category (and put it all together at once on the floor).

Don’t touch items in a category unless you’re done with the previous category. There are many reasons for this (though too long to include here), if you really want the details get Marie’s book. If not, just trust me.


3. Discard

“Now I have every item in a category on the floor, what do I do?”

This is what makes Marie so special. She talks about the concept of “sparking joy”.

Grab each item one by one, and ask yourself “does this spark joy?” If it doesn’t, it goes in a trash bag.

“Why does this work?”

Because (this might blow your mind), people own things they don’t really like! *gasp*

I know right? People actually have clothes, shoes, books and/or other items in their homes that they don’t really like all that much.

This is why I like minimalism; everything you own is something you love.

I love my “uniform” (I wear the same clothes every day), I love my whiteboard, I love my yoga mat, heck I even love my blender!

I don’t understand why people keep their closets full of clothes they “kinda” like, their kitchen full of ugly utensils they dislike, and their bookshelves full of books they’ll never read.

This is why you have to look at each item and ask yourself, “do I love this?” (or, even cuter, Marie Kondō’s “does this spark joy?”) and if the answer is “kinda” or “no”, in the trash bag it goes.

By the end of this, some people end up with 10+ full trash bags (I’ve been there).

Getting rid of them is an AMAZING feeling. You’ll see.

4. Store

I don’t mean in a storage unit (how dare you).

I mean now that you only kept things you love, find a place for them and organize them well.

Here’s an example with clothes.

That’s it. That’s my entire wardrobe (year-long baby).

I just picked what I like best, and stuck with it.

Going to a high-school where we all wore uniforms taught me it’s soooo much more convenient than having to worry about what to wear every day. This is why I wear a “uniform” to this day. Besides, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Obama made it cool (so I’m not “weird” anymore I’m “avant-garde”).

Sidenote: Wondering where I got those sweet folding skills? Learn how Marie Kondō does it here (t-shirts and tank tops), here (pants), here (sweaters and hoodies), and here (socks and stockings). Hell has a special place for people who occupy space hanging clothes than can be neatly folded.

Common But’s

But what if I want to buy something new?

The idea should be for you to only own things you love (what a concept).

Stop accumulating, surround yourself only with your favorite stuff.

I’m sure most people wear 20% of their wardrobe 80% of the time.

Therefore, why not keep the 20% you love and get rid of the rest?? You’re not really using it anyways and it’s cluttering your space and mind.

The end result is for you to only be surrounded by the things you love (or… spark joy).

This also means most of your items will be high quality.

Now I’m not saying own as little as possible (we can’t all be enlightened like the Buddha, or Jesus).

What I am saying is a lot of your purchases were impulsive, kinda like stress eating. Except instead of accumulating fat, you accumulated clutter.

The clutter is stressing you out. Get rid of it, and see what I mean.

But I’m a girl

Sidenote: This is a common “but” I’ve heard very often from different friends who all happen to be female. So, I have to include it.

Until further DNA evidence, being a girl doesn’t mean you have to have lots of clothes. To prove it, here’s the awesome YouTuber, LightByCoco, showing the concept of a capsule wardrobe.

You might “enjoy” shopping. But re-read the intro and see why it’s never a good idea to surround yourself with clutter.

I’ve found that guys and girls tend to wear their same favorite clothes over, and over, and over again.

So, get rid of all that other stuff you never really wear! Your mind (and closet) will thank you.

But I don’t have enough space for all my stuff, I live in a small apartment

So do I. Living in a small apartment doesn’t mean anything.

It just means you have way more crap than you need. And that’s a bad, bad habit.

It simply means that even if your house looked like this (look at that space! And no clutter! Wow):

You’d still find a way to make it look like this:

Messy people are messy independently of where they live.

Most people see empty rooms and feel the need to fill, “oh some flowers would look nice here”, “maybe I need a lamp”, “I wonder if I need paintings on the wall”.


That’s how you end up with a ton of items you don’t like that much. Stop the madness.

But I have kids

The “I have a partner and kids” is a bad excuse.

Joshua Becker is a minimalism blogger who’s married and has two kids. He’ll prove anyone who uses the “I don’t live alone” excuse is wrong.

But my roommates are messy

I’m a big fan of leading by example.

Begin with yourself. Clean your mess. Others will follow.

I shared a 3 bedroom house with 18 people. I found that when I tried to keep things clean, others would follow.

It wasn’t always perfect, but it’s better than blaming others.

But can’t I store most of it in a storage unit?

Stop trolling me.

Kidding, but what about a rebound?

I’ll let Marie Kondō answer this one.

“Rebound occurs because people mistakenly believe they have tidied thoroughly, when in fact they have only sorted and stored things halfway. If you put your house in order properly, you’ll be able to keep your room tidy, even if you are lazy or sloppy by nature.” — Marie Kondō

Sometimes (I mean once or twice a year), I may end up with a little more stuff than I need. Recently, after losing 35lbs I kept large clothes that are too big now, for no good reason!

No one’s perfect.

The key is to simply grab your trash bags and get to work 🙂

But, trash-bags?? Does that mean I should throw everything away?

Of course not, here’s what I do:

Try to sell it on eBay. If no one wants it after 30 days I:

  • Give it to Goodwill if it’s clothes.

But never, never, ever just leave stuff lying around.

And that’s it for today!

Today, we learned:

  • The amazing psychological benefits of a clean space.

See you next week (follow the series here to be notified).

Be well.


P.S.: It turns out decluttering doesn’t only help the individual, it can benefit entire cities! A friend of mine recently shared with me the Broken Windows theory.

Before 1985 New York City was as violent and dangerous as Gotham. By 2001, crime had dropped significantly (and kept dropping for the following ten years!). What led to this huge crime drop? They cleaned the city (no graffitis, no people demanding payment after car window cleaning, and no public urination… among other things).

A clean, clutter-free environment does indeed make the world a better place🙂

Your mother was right, clean your room!

Thanks for reading! 😊If you enjoyed it, test how many times can you hit 👏 in 5 seconds. It’s great cardio for your fingers AND will help other people see the story.You can follow me on Twitter at @richardreeze to find out whenever others just like it come out.📚 Do you like books? If so you might enjoy my latest obsession: 
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Since I write about finance, legal jargon is obligatory (because the guys in suits made me). Before following any of my advice, read this disclaimer.

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