Minimalism: The Myths and the Life-Changing Benefits

guest_post_03_updatedI recently did an interview with Joshua Becker who is a former pastor and a widely respected thought-leader in the minimalist movement.

He has a great blog and has written several books teaching his theory of practical minimalism.

Below are just a few things that we cover in this interview so check out the video and/or transcript below.

  • How a possession-filled American can make a major transition and begin to live a simpler life.
  • Why minimalism doesn’t have to be scary and you can own more than 15 possessions.
  • What is the best way to approach what to keep and get rid of.
  • What references have been found in the Bible to help stay motivated on this path.
  • Practical first steps for someone who wants to test the waters and see if minimalism is for them.

If you can’t view the video, check out the interview transcript below!

Bob Lotich (BL):

Hey guys I am excited to have Joshua Becker on the show today – he is kind of my hero when it comes to minimalism. He’s written a handful of books, he’s got a killer blog which has a huge engaged audience over there, and he’s become a pretty good friend of mine. I’m just really excited to have him on because I think he has a lot of really good insight to offer as far as this idea of minimalism, and I hope we can kind of dispel some of the myths or at least some of the things that I thought, maybe the negative connotations I had going into it. Anyway, without any further ado, Joshua, glad to have you here.

Joshua Becker (JB):

Yeah, it’s good to be here, I look forward to the conversation. It’s weird having the video on, I don’t know how to react when you’re giving the introduction. Am I supposed to act flattered, or roll my eyes like you’re making it all up, I don’t know. This will be fun.

BL:

Ha, I think you did fine, I think you did good.

JB:

Okay, good.

BL:

Anyway, let’s start with where you normally start. Tell people your story and kind of how you got roped into this. I assume at some point in your life you were living this clutter filled, possession filled American life that many of us do. How you went from there to kind of where you are now.

JB:

Yeah, I grew up and have always lived very middle class, right smack dab in the middle. Never missed a meal, you know was never in need that way, but never living extravagant. Always just pretty, I don’t know, suburban American lifestyle is probably the best way to say it. Despite having all my needs met I usually just say that there were these two kind of streams of discontent. I was always a little discontented with my money, not just I was always living paycheck to paycheck despite getting pay increases, like it’s just shocking how we make more money but it just never seems to be there at the end of the month, right? Paycheck to paycheck, and then where I was spending my money … or better, who I was spending my money on. I think I always had a desire for generosity, I grew up, even pastored for years. Always grew up kind of having this mindset that I’d love to help people but could never just find the margin, or the space to do it.

Always discontented with my money, and then I was also discontented with, I just say the focus of my life’s energy is probably the best way to say it. This came out on a Saturday morning.  We were doing what most Americans do on the weekend which was to clean the house, run some errands, do some shopping. We were living in Vermont and I went out to clean the garage with my five year old son thinking we’d just pull everything out, pile it up in the driveway, hose it all down, and then get on with our lives, right? Like we do, as Americans. My five year old obviously didn’t want to help me with the garage, so he went to the backyard to play. He’s asking me like every twenty to thirty minutes to come play with him, and I’m always pushing him off, “I can’t, I can’t, I gotta do my project, this is what we do.”

My neighbor kind of notices this whole thing taking place and we have a short conversation just about owning homes, and how much time and effort goes into it, and she returned with the sentence where she said, “You know that’s why my daughter is a minimalist, she keeps telling me I don’t need to own all this stuff.” I never heard the term minimalist before but I just remember looking back at this pile of dirty, dusty stuff piled up in my driveway that I spent all morning take care of and knowing full well that my possessions weren’t bringing happiness to my life. We all admit that of course, but beyond that as I noticed this pile of things, I noticed my five year old son who had been alone in the backyard all morning, just this realization that everything we own was not only NOT making me happy, but it was actually distracting me from the very things that do bring happiness, and joy, and purpose, and fulfillment into our lives.

Which is a very different realization, and it was the one that just spurred me to say, “I don’t know why I own all this stuff, why have I spent my whole life chasing and accumulating this stuff that’s actually probably just taking me away from the things that really make me happy.”

BL:

I think most people can resonate with that and can understand that. There was something that kind of scared me when I read my first book on minimalism but as I read a few more I started getting a better understanding of it. Particularly you and your approach with it, it’s less scary than what I always thought it was which was every house is like a museum and there’s literally one fork, and one knife, and one plate. Just all of this stuff where it’s like, who wants to live like that? I don’t want to do that. Anyway, I say all of that because your approach, what you call rational minimalism, right?

JB:

Yeah.

BL:

Can you explain a little bit of that and kind of how maybe it makes it less scary than some people think it should be?

JB:

Yeah, sure. The first thing I did was I went to the computer and searched what is minimalism? Up pops all of these people online who were living a minimalist life they called it, and I met a guy named Collin who lived out of a backpack and moved every four months to a different country, and I met Dave Bruno in San Diego who owned just one hundred things, and that was his number, he wasn’t owning any more or any less. I met Tammy and Logan Stroble in Portland who moved into like a 250 square foot home. It was very interesting because I could see how my possessions were weighing me down, distracting me from bigger and better things than my life could be about, but I didn’t want to move every four months, I didn’t want to live in a 200 square foot home, we had groups meeting in our house, two or three groups a week. I didn’t want a sheet of paper with everything I had listed on it, I think we just realized very early on that minimalism for us was going to look different than minimalism for anyone else. It should, because I have different values than any of them. Traveling the world isn’t an important value to me, but being hospitable is.

Eventually we just defined it like this, minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value, and the removal of anything that distracts us from it. In that way it’s what do I want to accomplish with my life, what tools and possessions do I need to help me do that, and then what is all the other stuff that I’ve just unintentionally held onto, that are just sucking time and energy away from doing the things that really bring fulfillment into my life. In that way it’s very freeing to people. I didn’t use the word rational minimalism but someone left a comment on the blog one time and said, “I really like your minimalism, it sounds so rational.” I’m like, that’s probably a pretty good term. It’s a very thoughtful approach to what do I want my life to be about, so what do I need to keep, and what can I get rid of so I can do more of that.

BL:

Yeah, that just feels good to me. You know as we were going through this process, Linda and I, and for everybody watching or listening, we, I don’t know, probably about nine months ago or a year ago, we kind of dove in head long with this and really made a purge and got rid of a whole lot of stuff. I was floored at how much clearer my head was – I think that was one of the big things for me. Honestly the simplicity of my closet, so I went from probably thirty something pairs of shoes, I like shoes, but there’s no reason for me to have that many pairs of shoes, and cut that down probably 70, 80%. I did the same thing with my shirts and pants, and just really simplified everything I had going on. It just feels so good, it’s like I only have things I love now. It really, really feels good.

As we were going through this process of just getting rid of our stuff, there’s those inevitable kind of forks in the road where you have this object and it’s like, “But I don’t want to get rid of it.” You have to ask yourself, “Well why are you keeping it? Can you replace it if you need to?” I found that we had a lot of those little forks in the road, but even if … I don’t know, I’m trying to think. I guess you should answer this, but what do you think the best way to approach those things are? When you have those objects where it’s like you can’t really decide if you should get rid of it.

JB:

Yeah, obviously it’s case by case on some of those things. You know, stuff that, to lump anything into one big deal. There’s a number of factors I think, Dave Bruno who ended up writing a book about the one hundred thing challenge, the list, he had an interesting subtext in his book, The One Hundred Thing Challenge. Reduce, reuse, rejigger. He talked about when he got down to one hundred things that one of the surprising things that he discovered was that he could actually get by pretty well with the things he had. He discovered new ways to solve problems, he discovered that he really could get by with less stuff than he ever thought. Mi Angelo says it so well, she says, “We need so much less than we think we need.”

We’re just never forced to kind of solve those problems on our own when we keep holding onto things, and like the other thought that I try to help people think through is that we don’t usually realize the emotional anxiety maybe, the physical distraction that all of these things are in our home. We think, oh gosh it would cost me so much money to go replace whatever it might be. We don’t even realize how we walk past that item a thousand times sitting on our work bench, I’m thinking of some tool. It distracts us every single time we walk by it and just rarely count the cost of what it is to actually hold onto something.

Someone sent me an email one time and she’s like, “Okay so what’s the big deal if I have an extra set of China in my basement?” I said, “Hmm, that’s a good question.” I wrote back and I said, “If you just had one extra set of China in your basement then it probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal. The problem is no one just has one extra set of China in their basement, we have boxes, and boxes of things. We’ve held onto this, and we’ve held onto that, and it just becomes very cumbersome and very distracting for anything else that we want to do and can accomplish with our lives.”

BL:

You know, being a pastor, I’m curious what you have found in the bible, I mean there’s a few obvious kind of references to this type of living. How have you reconciled everything, or how is what you found in the bible kind of motivated you one way or another with all of this?

JB:

You know what it’s done, probably, and I can list some of the specific examples that mean a lot to me if you want to. More than that you know what it’s done is it’s totally changed my view of everything that Jesus said about money and possessions. I used to read anything that Jesus would say about possessions, you know. If you have two tunics give one to the poor. Don’t stock pile treasures here on earth, woe to you who are rich. The rich hand ruler walks away. All of these things and I would read them, and you know what I thought? I would say, “Man Jesus wants me to live a really crummy life. Jesus is calling me to give up everything that is fun, and just live this boring, destitute life so that I can help the poor. Maybe I’ll get rewards in heaven at the end, and that’s the trade off.”

As we started owning less stuff on purpose, and as we got rid of things we didn’t need, and stopped buying new things, and suddenly found out that we had more time, we had more energy, we had more freedom, we had less stress, less worry, we were a better example for our kids, we found greater contentment, and generosity, and gratitude. We found all of these life giving benefits of owning less, and suddenly everything that Jesus said wasn’t about calling me to sacrifice now for the sake of him but it was just an invitation to a better way to live. He knew what he was talking about, go figure right? I guess is like everything else he says, “Don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t be dishonest.” Well how come? Those are pretty miserable ways to live your life when you get down to it, so he says, “Don’t stock pile treasures here on earth.” How come? Well because there’s actually better ways to live.

It’s not the American dream – it’s like it’s Jesus’ dream and we kind of confused the two. I referenced some of them but suddenly it was, hey he was actually just giving me instruction on a better way to live life than the world tells me I should live it.”

BL:

Yeah that’s really good. I feel like I’ve done the same thing, I haven’t seen it in that light. It’s like the deeper you go into the bible and the more you learn about any principle, it seems like there’s always these positive side effects that God has for the things that he does. I feel like that’s just a perfect example, regardless of what the main motivation was. If the main motivation is to give more so you can help the poor, well then the side effect is you benefit from this. Or if the focus is here, I want to help you by getting rid of your stuff, then the benefit is you’re helping other people, or giving it away. Regardless of what it is, it’s just like, I love that when you see those things, when you follow those biblical kind of principles and guidelines, and just to get to see all of these wonderful side effects.

Most things, they have negative side effects, you know what I mean?

JB:

Yeah. Just like, Luke Chapter 3 is this very fascinating passage where John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus, and the Israelites come to him and they say, “Okay what should we do to get ready for this Messiah that you’re promising? What do we have to do to get ready for the kingdom of heaven?” John the Baptist tells the people, “If you have two coats, give one to the man who has none. If you have food do the same.” He tells the tax collectors, “Don’t collect anymore money than you’re required to,” and he tells the soldiers, “Be content with your pay, don’t accuse people falsely, and don’t extort money.” It’s very interesting as you mentioned what the side effects are for us personally of some of these things because I would read that and I would think, number one that would be pretty hard. Number two, okay I see how the poor would benefit from me sharing with them, but this wasn’t about how do I help the poor. This was how do I prepare my heart for Christ.

BL:

Yeah, that’s good.

JB:

John says, “Get rid of the stuff that you don’t need.” How come? Number one we find out that it’s pretty hard to get rid of the stuff that we don’t need. That it actually is very difficult and we suddenly we discover that maybe we are a little more tied to the world than we ever thought, maybe we do love the world a little bit more than we would have ever said that we did. Then we start to realize, I just think all the lies that we’ve bought into. Why do we have more TV’s in our house than people living in it, right? Why do we have basements full of things, and garages full of stuff? Why did we buy a bunch of things that we didn’t need in the first place? Then I think we started to realize we’re a little more susceptible to the world’s lies, and we actually believe that far more than we ever realize we did.

BL:

Yeah. The thing that stands out from what you just said about preparing your hearts for Jesus to come then. It’s like, you know, we’re getting closer and closer to a second coming and I feel like the church as a whole is becoming more and more distracted. Even if it’s not from things per say, which it surely is, there’s just so many distractions. That kind of leads maybe into this whole other idea of information diets, thinking a little more minimalistically as far as what we’re consuming, and the constant entertaining of ourselves that I think so many of us naturally tend to with Facebook, and Pinterest, and whatever. Hulu and Netflix, it’s like just watch stuff and be entertained, and non-stop wanting, never have a minute to sit and to think, or let alone get alone and pray. Anyway, that’s pretty intriguing.

JB:

Solitude is very difficult, it is hard to be quiet. Not just because we’re so stimulated and so used to being stimulated, it’s just difficult because we were forced to sit in who we are a little bit. I had a college class and part of the assignment was we had to spend two one hour blocks each week in total silence. We couldn’t bring a bible to read, we couldn’t bring a prayer list, or worship music. You just had to sit quietly for an hour, and then we had to record our thoughts. It ended up being one of the most heightened seasons of spiritual growth in my life, but it was incredibly difficult because when you do that you start to realize I think the depravity of our hearts, right? You start to look at your life and some of the things that have motivated you, and some of the things that you said, and why you said them, and what some of these things are that number one that we need Jesus for, but you know, just, I think that it’s just far easier to put on a television show when things get hard rather than being forced to sit in why do I feel this way, and what is motivating me in most of my life.

BL:

Yeah, you kind of, wrestling through and going through some of those things that maybe need to be gone through rather than just burying them.

JB:

Yeah.

BL:

We’re getting pretty deep here.

JB:

Anyway, yeah I’ll say, sorry.

BL:

We’re going to be, well I don’t know, psychiatrists when we’re done with all of this.

JB:

Yeah, sorry bud.

BL:

No, I lead us down there. It’s not a bad thing, I mean this is important stuff. These are just really important things, so I’m glad we’re chatting about it.

JB:

It is related to this conversation, it is related to minimalism. As we began getting rid of things I remember commenting to my friend one time, just how emotionally difficult that it was. Not that was I attached to things, but just the thought process of that thing that you talk about, that do I keep it, do I get rid of it and why is this so difficult. He wrote back, he made a comment, very wisely he said, “It seems to me that minimalism would force questions of value on your life. As you’re going through your house you’re forced to ask, okay, what do I want my life to be about? What is it going to be?” This process just spurs intentionality in all areas of life that I just don’t think we discover anyway else.

BL:

Yeah, very well said. I agree. Here’s the thing, this is intimidating to a lot of people. I mean, I know it was a little bit for me, it really was for Linda my wife. People I talked to, in a little bit of a way I’m becoming a little bit of an evangelist for minimalism as a whole. Some of my friends who have seen what we’re doing are like, “What’s the deal? Why are you doing this?” It’s forcing me to have to have a little bit of an explanation of why, and defend it to an extent. Anyway, all of that to say, what are some good kind of practical first steps that you typically recommend for somebody who just wants to test the waters and see?

JB:

Yeah, that’s good. Most people when we have this conversation, most … well number one, very few people disagree with me. When they first hear minimalism they’re like, “Oh I don’t want any of that.” When you get into the description of what I’m talking about, and how it benefits, most people think, “Oh yeah, you’re right, I need to do something.” The problem is most minds rush to like the hardest thing in their life that they’d ever have to get rid of. Oh I love books, I could never get rid of my books. I could never get rid of my yarn. I love shoes, I could never get rid of shoes. They always rush to the hardest thing. I always say, “You don’t start at the hardest thing in your house to get rid of. Start with the very easy things.” Literally I started in my car. We had pulled the cars out of the garage to clean them and as I pulled the car in I’m just looking around and there’s a whole bunch of stuff in the car that didn’t need to be there. Happy meal toys, CD’s that no one listened to, and Ketchup packets, sunglasses and maps. All of these that just didn’t even need to be there.

I just grabbed it all and I put it to the side. The next morning I sat in my car and it felt so freeing, like just so refreshing that there wasn’t all this clutter around me. I say if you want to get started start in an easy livable area, grab a lived in area, grab a bag, grab a box, and just grab everything that you don’t even want there, that you don’t even want in your house anymore. Then just sit in that for a little while and see if you like it better, I think most people will. Then you try another area of the house, you try the bedroom, the closet, you try to get rid of some clothes, you know you try to get rid of some old souvenir cups in the cupboard that don’t need to be there. I think as you gain momentum you’re kind of noticing how this is improving your life. It gives you momentum so when you get to the books, or when you get to the yarn, when you get to the shoes you have a little momentum behind you.

I mean literally I would just say go in your living room and just grab everything that you don’t even want in your living room anymore and see how it feels, then go try another room that would be easy to tackle.

BL:

Yeah that’s what we did, we just went room by room. The really surprising thing for me was that I still almost nine months. a year in, I don’t remember exactly what it is, I still get a thrill whenever I realize, oh, I don’t need that, I can get rid of that. It gets me excited, and especially because you know … a lot of the stuff we’ve given to Goodwill, but a lot of it we have sold on Craigslist or Ebay. I wrote that post six months ago or whenever, I made over two thousand dollars in a month just selling a lot of the stuff on Craigslist. You can actually put some money back into your pocket if you need it, or you can bless the heck out of your neighbors, or people at Goodwill or other charities.

Anyway, obviously I’m sold. I want to, for people who want to get a little bit more kind of motivation to do this, and maybe find out a little bit more information … and this is what worked for Linda. I read a couple books, and then I kind of explained it to her and she’s like, “Eh.” I’m like, “Just read this book.” Then she read, I don’t remember if she read one of your books first or somebody else’s, I don’t recall. As soon as she read that book she was sold. Then she kind of started wading a little bit after a few months, then she read another book and she was committed. There’s something about I think reading and diving deeper into the subject a little bit, and thankfully you have a whole bunch of books. Is there one that you would point a beginner to at this point?

JB:

Yeah, I would send them to the book Simplify, which is just digital, $2.99, Kindle, Nook, they’re available there. The PDF is available, it’s very short and it reads very quickly, I think you can read it in forty five, sixty minutes. It just makes the case for minimalism. It’s not going to say, “Here’s what socks to keep, and here’s what socks to get rid of,” right? It gives the overall idea of it and I think people find it very motivating. If you have kids, Clutter Free with Kids is a good overlap. If you have kids and are worried about that part I’d read Clutter Free with Kids. If you don’t have kids I’d just read the book Simplify. I don’t think anyone needs to read both of them, there’s a lot of overlap between them. That’s where I would send people, and I would agree that I don’t think I would be where I am today if I wasn’t writing about this all the time. I was always thinking about it, and always noticing kind of consumerism around me, and how it was effecting me. That’s what propelled me forward.

For becoming a minimalist, I write a lot just about owning less and just the benefits of it, and I just keep going back to it, like we just need to hear that. We see like five thousand advertisements a day that tell us to buy more, and buy whatever they’re selling. We just need the, like we bought into that in the first place, we need a voice somewhere. There’s other people writing about it if a different blog resonates better with someone than they should be reading that. Just to be constantly kind of rechecking and reevaluating what we’re doing.

BL:

Yeah, yeah, that’s good. All right man well it was good chatting, thanks for coming on. I appreciate all your wisdom and insight.

JB:

Well, words anyway, hope there’s some wisdom in there.

BL:

Oh definitely, definitely.

JB:

This was fun, it was a good conversation.

BL:

All right, take care.

JB:

You bet.

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10 Comments
  1. Jean

    That was powerful and timely.
    In 2012 we downsized some, but recently I have had a desire to go deeper. We have been married almost 31 years, so I have quite a bit to go through still. I literally laughed out loud when Josh mentioned books & yarn. That totally speaks to my husband and me.
    My first step will be to define minimalism for myself, as of yet my husband isn’t on board – but to be fair he has only heard me talk about it with little action.
    I am going to forward this post to him and continue to focus on my part.

    Thanks again this answered several questions I have had and was so timely for me.

    • Bob

      Awesome Jean, glad you found it helpful!

  2. Ryan

    Great interview, Bob and Joshua! My wife and I have recently started going down the minimalist road. We’re both excited about it. But it’s taking a little longer than I expected, primarily because I am the type of person who wants to optimize everything. For example, selling some things as opposed to donating/giving away. And selling things takes time, which creates a backlog for progress in other areas. The results have been good so far – in the last few months we’ve sold over $3,000 worth of items we don’t need (double bonus – feeling good about clearing out things, and about adding cash to our savings!). But I can’t help but think that I need to put the items to sell aside so we can focus on clearing out other areas more quickly. Then later return to the items to sell. So in my situation, it’s probably a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

    But other than that specific roadblock, we’re both on board with minimalizing our possessions. We already gone through multiple boxes in our basement, cleared out a lot of clothing from our closets, donated several boxes of things to Goodwill, and given away many other items to family and friends. Clearing out boxes of clutter is liberating and it feels great. I love it. Thanks for the interview. Very helpful indeed!

    • Bob

      Ryan, yep I get it – same way here! As I write this I am planning on another round of goodwill/ebay/craigslist unloading and trying to figure out which will be best for each. But as you will discover, if you haven’t already, getting rid of stuff is a pretty good feeling!

  3. Bethany

    Great blog guys, thought provoking.

    I admit, I love reading all the decluttering and minimalising books. My own research on the subject on Garage Sales estimated that one household consisting of two adults with two adolescent children can make an average of $800 AUD, .with the sale of never or hardly used items. The most popular items to sell includeds CD’s, DVD’s, Videos, book and gym equipment, and anything with ‘limited edition’ in the title.

    I like to think of it as ‘Spiritualising Our Homes’.

    As more people in Australia are choosing apartment living, and those apartments are getting smaller, more and more people are opting for commercial storage solutions that cost money!

  4. steve

    There are dozens of books with the title “simplify” which one is referenced in the interview?

  5. Imani

    Awesome to hear about this from a biblical perspective! Thank you! My birthday is at the end of March and I recently said my present to myself will be a de-cluttered home, but after reading this (SO glad you had the transcript), I think I’m going to get rid of stuff as a gift to myself! Hopefully, I’ll be starting 24 a little bit lighter 🙂

    • Bob

      Awesome! Go for it Imani!

  6. Kim Guzzardo

    At first, years ago, I felt that life was too fast. Then I just started to purge. I was making weekly drop offs to Goodwill. Then came minimalism. The articles or you tube videos made me feel like a fraud by minimalistic standards. So I am so so glad to find this. I have found my people!!!!! Lol. Bob, the reason I was poking around your blog is to get pointed in the right direction with a money issue. This was just a special treat. I have finally admitted to myself that I have an issue with money. I know what to do but I can’t seem to implement it like I’m a rebellious teenager or something. I have started to pray specifically for wisdom in this area but I was wondering if you have written anything on this topic. Can’t seem to save, money burns a hole in my pocket and I’m desperate to change. PS love managing money God’s way