The Secret to Happiness? Simplify.
You're addicted to your phone. You're loaded down by useless stuff. And you eat like a teenager. No wonder you can't find the time to play outside, see the world, and get in shape. Fortunately, streamlining your life—and having more fun—is easy: just do less. Here's how.
For centuries, people leaned into the popular (and false) belief that possession—material wealth and stature—was synonymous with happiness. But now minimalism is on the rise, and for good reason: it works. With the popular Netflix film Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things and the massive bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up emphasizing the benefits of decluttering, it's no surprise that more and more people are cleaning out gear closets, streamlining their workouts, and buying less stuff. Because when you do, there's way more room for adventure.
The first piece of furniture I ever bought kept me up at night. I was 25 years old, and the offending item was a 60-pound oak armoire the color of whiskey and the size of a standard refrigerator. It wasn’t the price or the quality of its construction that triggered the angst. It was what it represented. I now owned something that couldn’t fit in my rooftop RocketBox. I saw my adult life beginning, along with a relentless accumulation of more stuff. That armoire was the loss of my freedom.
Looking around my house nearly 20 years later, my vision was prescient. I’ve collected more things than I want, and finding a place to put them all is a daily struggle. My twentysomething anxiety wasn’t unfounded, either. Research has revealed a troubling paradox: not only is clutter a cause of stress, but so is getting rid of things. For some people, the very act of shedding a possession triggers activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula, the same parts of the brain that register physical pain. Which explains why millions of Americans, including me, have plunked down $10 for yet another possession: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a bestseller by Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo. According to Kondo, dealing with your clutter can improve your well-being. “A dramatic reorganization of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective,” she writes. “It is life transforming.”
I bought my copy thinking it would be a needed catalyst for the garage-cleaning project I’d been putting off for two years. Inside is my gear stash, proof of a lifetime of adventure and the only possessions I’d truly mourn in a house fire. Crampons that have felt summits from the Cascades to the Himalayas. My first road bike. The BOB stroller that logged hundreds of miles as I trained for ultras and jogged my two small children to sleep. A lot of this stuff hasn’t been used in years, rendered obsolete by shinier new toys or my shifting passions. It was piling up. The issue came to a head when my fiancée moved in, along with her own stockpile. But any hopes that I would realize Kondo’s magic by confronting the mountains of sentiment in the garage were extinguished within the first few pages of her book. In rigid terms, she describes a “tidying marathon,” an all in, months-long project that will fail if not completed. If I didn’t address my entire household inventory—closets, drawers, cabinets, everything—I would return to a state of unwanted clutter.
The garage would have to wait. I started by moving through Kondo’s list of categories in the prescribed order: “Clothes first, then books, papers, miscellany, and lastly, mementos.” The process forced me to confront those myriad places that attract random junk. The kitchen counter always littered with mail and school announcements. Bathroom cabinets stocked with bottles and tinctures. And that damn armoire, in which I discovered an incongruous collection of candleholders, board games, place mats, two puzzles, an extension cord, a New Mexico atlas, and an ancient video camera that records on something called MiniDisc. I took on these hoarding stations armed with a garbage bag (trash it) and a box (give it away). I purged like I was at a peyote ceremony. Over several days, I made four trips to Goodwill, where the staff began to recognize me.
Clothes, books, paper—those were easy. My garage came last, for it was filled with the high-end sporting gear that we adventurous types classify as mementos. It was here that my trust in Kondo’s method was tested. Her advice for deciding on whether or not to keep something: touch it, be aware of the feeling it triggers, and ask yourself, “Does it spark joy?” When I thought of my prized quiver of skis, bikes, and camping stoves (six of them!), I pictured Kondo asking the question and me defiantly answering “Hell yes!” to all of it.
One Sunday morning, I clicked the garage-door opener and confronted nostalgia’s grip. I started with the camping equipment. After careful consideration, stoves one, two, and three registered no spark. Neither did way too many headlamps, stuff sacks, first-aid kits, and ground pads. My first real trial was the sleeping bag I took on multiple cross-country family road trips as a kid. It was in that bag that I slept soundly in the back of our station wagon as my parents drove all night from the north rim to the south rim of the Grand Canyon to catch the sunrise. Running my hands over its greasy seams, I felt a powerful sentimental joy. I also realized that the memories it evoked were inside my head, not its weathered nylon. I put it in the giveaway box. There were three pairs of cross-country skis, each having carried me through the 40-mile Elk Mountain Grand Traverse. I’ve always liked seeing them propped against the wall, proof of my feats. But joy? It wasn’t sparked. I tried to draw the line at my first pair of telemark skis. No matter that they’re comically skinny, I thought, these babies rip. But now I was on a roll. I threw them in with the sleeping bag.
I went on like this for several more weekends, pawing flat soccer balls, tired camp chairs, and outdated bike wheels. Eventually, I whittled down my treasures to my absolute favorites and began reorganizing the space according to Kondo’s strict instructions—no piles. Finally, one recent evening, preparing for my first skin up the local ski hill, I felt a little bit of the magic. The real evil of clutter, the one I’d feared at age 25, was its ability to bog you down. Do I want to go backcountry skiing at 6 a.m. when the process requires an hour of rounding up misplaced necessities? Nope. I’ll just sleep in. But that night I entered the newly overhauled space, and all the items I needed—poles, skins, helmet, gloves, skis—were in exactly the right place.
I’d be lying if I said my life has been transformed. I haven’t touched my office yet. And I’ve actually noticed an increase in angst over the places that I’ve yet to tackle. But if tidying is indeed a marathon, I have faith in Kondo’s metaphor. I know how shedding weight and completing a long-distance trial brings on a curious euphoria. Kondo estimates that her tidying marathons take clients around six months, and I will keep running. But she’ll have to pry my BOB stroller from my cold, dead hands. —Christopher Keyes, editor
#2. Put Down the Phone
"You don't need to tweet or post during your adventure unless you're a sponsored athlete whose livelihood depends on it. I promise you that no one really cares. I've grown to love it when an expedition starts and the bars on my my phone dwindle down to uselessness. That's a sure sign that I'm headed in the right direction." —Guide Dave Hahn, who has summited Mount Everest 15 times
#3. Make It a Liquid Lunch
“Soup is a nutrition life-hack,” says Nicole Centeno, author of the cookbook Splendid Spoon and CEO of the soup-delivery company of the same name. “It’s efficient and nourishing and keeps you fueled for hours outside without weighing you down.” It’s also a foolproof one-pot wonder. Buy a stack of plastic pint containers for single-serving storage in the fridge or freezer, and reheat for lunch as needed. Centeno’s favorite hearty soup, kale and lentil, is loaded with fiber and protein and made with ingredients you likely already have at home.
Kale and Lentil Soup (Serves 4)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 small onion, diced
- 2 large carrots, diced
- 1 rib celery, diced
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon Madras curry powder
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 pound dried red lentils, rinsed and drained
- 1/2 pound dried green lentils, rinsed and drained
- 2 quarts water
- 2 cups thinly sliced lacinato kale
- Sea salt to taste
- Warm the oil in a pot over medium heat. Cook the onion, carrots, and celery, stirring frequently, for ten minutes or until tender. Stir in the garlic, pepper, curry, and cinnamon, and cook for one minute.
- Increase the heat to high, add the lentils and water, and bring to a boil. Add the kale, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 30 minutes or until the mixture thickens, the lentils are tender, and the kale is wilted.
- Stir in the salt. Serve hot.
#4. Lighten Up
"I value celebration, possibly more than I should. You have to relish your accomplishments and take time off. I also have a terrible sweet tooth, and I don't care. I will continue to eat Sour Patch Kids. I usually have three two-pound bags in my room. There's a fine line between being anal retentive and being purposeful. Everything I do, I do with purpose." —Ultrarunner Clare Gallagher, who won the 2016 Leadville Trail 100 Women's Division by two hours.
#5. Choose a Uniform
Steve Jobs wore a black turtleneck and jeans every day. Mark Zuckerberg lives in a hoodie. Yes, they’re tech geeks—but not having to think about clothing frees up all kinds of mental energy for more important tasks. So what’s a style-conscious active person supposed to wear? Consider this foundational formula from Peter Buchanan-Smith, founder of Manhattan clothing and gear company Best Made.
- Chambray shirt: "Chambray is far more versatile than flannel—it can be worn with jeans or trousers. The material is timeless. Once you find the perfect shirt, buy five."
- Sweater jacket: "Best Made's shawl-collar sweater, with super-heavy, 100 percent western wool, is my armor. I wear it fly-fishing, as a winter jacket in the city, and under a rain shell.”
- Aviator sunglasses: “Randolph Engineering’s are classic. You can’t go wrong.”
- High-quality belt: “I wear Best Made’s Gfeller belt almost daily.”
- Dark-wash jeans: “Levi’s 501’s. You get so much for the price, and they only get better with age. ”
- Good socks: “Wool blend. Not too thick, not too thin.”
- Rugged boots: "I don’t think it’s overkill to have burly leather ankle boots as your daily staple, even in New York. I’d pick the Danner Rainforest. They’re like the Land Rover Defender of boots.”
#6. Skimp on Gym Time
One of the pillars of the modern approach to fitness is the belief that gym-based strength training is essential, even for endurance athletes. Problem is, many of us take things too far. Two-time Olympic skier turned strength coach Eva Twardokens is part of a growing chorus of fitness professionals who argue that amateur athletes don’t need to spend more than two hours a week working out between walls. The upshot: you can spend a lot more time playing outside. “The danger for a lot of people is overexercising,” says Twardokens.
She closely analyzed just how much gym work she needed to continue to perform at a high level. “I boiled it down to the essentials and created Minimum Dose, Maximum Effect,” she says. “The idea is to do the least amount of training that allows for good body composition and supports the activities in your life without wearing your joints down.” Twardokens, a National Masters Weightlifting champion, explains that her general workout philosophy is to “maintain strength and muscle mass through the basics, like squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and dips. And that includes you endurance athletes!”
The rest of the time? Get outside and enjoy the sports you love.
#7. Bring It Back to Life
In 2011, Patagonia launched its Worn Wear program, which allows customers to send in jackets and apparel to be mended. The company has since performed 170,000 repairs. Here’s a quick guide to fixing your own stuff—and taking better care of it in the first place.
- Keep it clean: Before storing technical layers at the end of the season, launder them in cold water with a revitalizing cleaner like Nikwax Tech Wash and hang them to dry, says Lindsey Stone of Seattle’s Rainy Pass Repair, which fixes, updates, and renews all manner of outdoor fabrics. “Once something like Gore-Tex is dry to touch, treat it with a DWR spray to revive waterproofing,” she adds. “Then stick it in the dryer on low for 10 to 20 minutes.”
- Avoid the common errors: “Wool is much more difficult to burn than synthetic fabrics, so consider a top layer of wool while you’re tending the campfire,” Stone says.
- Upgrade your field kit: “Tenacious Tape is just as strong as duct tape, but it doesn’t leave a sticky residue,” Stone says, “so later you can properly fix a tear without a mess.”
- Save your sole: Don’t toss out those worn-down hiking boots if the upper structure is still in good shape. Legendary boot wizard Dave Page in Seattle can resole just about anything. He has repaired a pair of 1960s boots six times. Their owner is now in his eighties.
#8. Go It Alone
"I always say, if I had to wait for a friend, I'd still be in my cubicle office. It's easier to travel alone and has become a lot more socially acceptable." —Matt Kepnes, author of the blog Nomadic Matt
#9. Just Say No
"Most people overestimate how efficient they are, so we say yes to everything that comes our way. The result is you end up feeling overwhelmed. Saying no makes space for the things that matter most to you. Saying no more often is actually more expansive." —Leo Babauta, author of The Power of Less
10. Buy Less, Live More
There’s a joke that we tell around the office: How can you spot an Outside editor at the trailhead? They’re the one removing tags from their stuff.
It hurts because it’s true. Some editors’ offices are so packed with gear that it’s tough to find a place to sit. I’m no exception. When I decided to take up mountain biking a couple of years ago, I bought two bikes: one hardtail and one full suspension, so I had the right ride for any situation. I currently own six fly rods—one for throwing dry flies on small streams, another for casting streamers on big rivers, yet another for windy days, and so on.
But when I read a recent story about Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard that noted how most of his gear was made in the previous century, I began to question my excessive ways. I suffer that disease so common among middle-class Americans: overconsumption. And I’m not joking when I call it a disease. We’ve long known that buying things releases dopamine in the brain—a 2012 study in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs suggested it’s even addictive. Partly to blame: the ease of the buy-now button.
It’s not just a biological pull, either. Magazines, catalogs, and websites—Outside’s included—assault your inbox, mailbox, and Facebook feed with new gear. I decided to fight back: for one month I would buy nothing but food. (OK, and beer.)
The first week, I felt like an alcoholic standing outside a liquor-store window. I had a strong urge to cheat, to buy something small like a book or a movie ticket. But midway through the month, the compulsive urge to consume relaxed. At home I realized that not only did I have a jacket that would get me through ski season, I actually had two, even if they didn’t breathe quite as well as I’d like. I began to look at things I previously considered at the end of their useful life—jeans with holes, a laptop that was a few years old—as perfectly functional.
I spent less time scrolling through gear blogs fantasizing about smartwatches or fishing reels, which meant that I had more time for things that really mattered: my wife, my friends, my colleagues—people, not things.
Late in the month, though, I caved. My wife and I recently bought a home, and we wanted to replace the old smoke detectors. “I’m not buying everything for the house this month,” my wife said, with a certain tone in her voice, suspecting that my pledge to swear off consumerism was a ploy to bankrupt her. I immediately went online and ordered two of them. Later that day I got her flowers, just to be safe.
The truth is, not buying stuff doesn’t feel as instantly good as hitting the buy-now button does, and I can’t say that I won’t purchase superfluous stuff in the future. But I realize that I don’t need it. In fact my life may be richer by not having as much of it. A few weeks after my experiment ended, I reached out to Trout Unlimited to see if it needed any packs or rods for its youth programs. I rounded up my extra winter hats, coats, and gloves to give to a local shelter. After years of being sick, I’m starting to feel better. —Jonah Ogles, articles editor
#11. Don’t Get All Epic
I’ve got a bit of Viking in me. Not the raiding and pillaging so much as the deep-seated urge to explore distant lands. For years my M.O. was: save up money, blow it on a far-flung adventure, return broke, repeat. It was fun, but I’ve since wised up. While I still try to pull off big trips whenever I can, I’ve learned that closer-to-home outings can be just as satisfying.
I grew up in southeast Wisconsin and couldn’t wait to set out for the mountains and rivers of the West, eventually landing in New Mexico. But when I go back to Wisconsin now, I’m discovering everything I overlooked. Within 20 miles of my childhood home in Sheboygan, there are sand dunes to explore, waterways to paddle, waves to surf (seriously, Google it), and glacially carved trails to wander.
Having kids has helped shift my perspective, too. In Santa Fe, a lifetime of family microadventures can be had right out the back door. This past fall, we spent a weekend rafting a section of the Rio Grande near town. It might not have been heroic by Instagram standards, but there were rapids, rattlesnakes, hot springs, and pictographs. The kids didn’t have to miss any school, and I swear I felt my inner Viking stir. —Sam Moulton, content marketing director
#12. Use Paper
“I’ve tried all the organizational apps, but I much prefer putting pen to paper,” says legendary alpinist Conrad Anker, known among fellow climbers for both his skill and his preparation. “I like using Moleskine notebooks, the lined five-by-eight ones. Every night I use a nice fountain pen to jot down my to-do list for the following day. Then I prioritize it, rewrite it to reflect that order, and think about it. On Sunday I do the same routine, but for the whole week ahead.”
Anker says that bulletproof organizational skills may be in his blood. “My sister is a professional organizer, with clients, so we joke that creating structure and having discipline runs in our family. I find myself flipping back though my journals and rereading them. Research shows that writing things down helps you process and remember them better, and I agree. I’ve been doing this since 1998.”