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Minimalists make the most of living with very little

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Updated: January 14, 2013 7:22AM

When Cole Stevens relocated to Chicago from Breckenridge, Colo., two years ago, it didn’t bother him to leave lot of his stuff behind.

“When you’re packing up a house to leave, you’re paring down and finding what fits within your happiness,” he said. “I took a lot of pleasure throwing out the crap.”

Marla Sarris could relate. After living out of a backpack for 22 days during trip to Europe, Sarris and her husband Jeff returned to their home in Elmhurst and felt the house was cluttered.

“Immediately we got the urge to go through everything again,” she said.

It’s not that Stevens and the Sarrises are hoarders or have too much stuff and too small of a space. Rather they ascribe to philosophy and practice a lifestyle known as minimalism that discourages collecting — be it objects, relationships, or feelings — when it doesn’t serve one well.

“I don’t have too many personal effects and what I do I consider it to be an extension of myself,” said Stevens.

Added Sarris, “Without having something that needs to be picked up or organized, it’s freed up our time.”

Her home fitness room, for example, is only filled with multi-purpose equipment that gets used daily. The pantry contains only fresh ingredients — nothing is boxed, canned or stored “for later.”

Just last week Sarris scoured the house again in anticipation of hosting two guests: Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, better known in the blogosphere as the Minimalists.

Two years ago this month, Millburn and Nicodemus launched a website to document and share their search for more meaningful, minimalist lives and instantly attracted a loyal following.

They also co-authored the self-published book “Live A Meaningful Life,” and have recently taken to the road to meet their readers in person.

On Thursday they host a free meet-up event at The Book Cellar, where they’ll talk and answer questions about their own experiences with living more simply. Like, how and why do two upwardly mobile thirtysomethings making six figures a year decide one day to leave it all behind and pursue a different direction?

“I didn’t feel in control,” is how Nicodemus put it. He had been working 60 to 80 hours a week climbing the corporate ladder, going to grad school for another degree, and paying a mortgage on a big house with two living rooms — and, yet, something was still missing.

He soon noticed that Millburn, his best friend, had started applying minimalist principles to his life that left him less stressed and happier.

Nicodemus did the research and attempted to follow suit, beginning with a “packing party,” in which he boxed up every belonging in his house — from clothing and bed sheets to books and electronics — to see what he needed day by day.

After three weeks, three quarters of boxes stacked ceiling high in his living room went unopened.

“That was the revelation moment for me,” he said. “At 28 years old, I worked so hard to acquire all this stuff that was supposed to make me happy, and it wasn’t doing the job.”

The experience helped Nicodemus gain a different perspective on life, one that he felt others may also benefit.

“I didn’t feel crazy. I felt very normal,” he said. “I thought, some people would connect with this story. They would get this.”

Nicodemus today spends his time writing and mentoring others, which he finds to be a more fulfilling use of his time. After all, minimalism involves more than donating a bag of unused clothes to Goodwill.

“It’s about living deliberately and getting all the superfluous stuff out of the way so you can see what’s important,” he said.

Nicodemus recognizes that can be easy to say coming from an Ohioan transplant living in a mountainside cabin with picturesque views of Big Sky Country. He’s not as easily tempted by the plethora of shopping or “going out” opportunities that are only a cab ride away in a big metropolitan area.

It takes a lot of discipline, Nicodemus admitted.

“There’s a hundred different things to do,” he said. “The question is, is this adding value? Is this making my life better in some way?”

Stevens, who lives on Chicago’s North Side near the lake, said city folk must value their time as a gift and be honest with what they want.

Learning to sometimes say “no” while keeping the important things, people and activities close help make life less complicated, and thus, more enjoyable.

“There’s always going to be that influx of information and want to do things,” Stevens said, “but you’ll find the party is always there.”

Believe it or not, he added, “The road map is clearer than you’d expect.”

Natasha Wasinski is a local free-lance writer.

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