The father of two realized he’d have more time for his family if he spent less time with his stuff.
Joshua Becker, a former pastor and a current AAA Member, created the blog Becoming Minimalist, which draws more than 1 million readers per month. He has also written three best-selling books about simplifying your life, with a fourth, The Minimalist Home, out at the end of 2018. In addition, he heads a charity for orphans called the Hope Effect.
Q: What inspired you to become a minimalist?
A: It was the realization that everything I owned wasn’t making me happy. But even worse, everything I owned was taking me away from the things that make me happy. One day, I spent hours cleaning my garage, and noticed my then-5-year-old son swinging in the backyard by himself. He’d been asking me to play with him all day. I realized that I could be a better dad if I owned less. I’d be more available for my family.
Q: You travel a lot. How does minimalism affect travel?
A: Minimalism makes traveling much easier. Because I spend less money buying things, I have more available for travel. As I told a friend whose house is twice the size of mine but who doesn’t take as many trips, “I don’t think our incomes are different. It’s just that I spend half as much on my mortgage because I’d prefer to spend the rest on travel.” When people downsize, they have more budget available for fun.
Q: Any tips for packing like a minimalist?
A: I’ll start with the mindset. Most people actually wear 20 percent of their clothes 80 percent of the time. We have a closet full of other stuff because we think we wear more than we do. It’s the same thing when we travel: People bring a lot of clothes because they think they’ll wear more than they do. I own 35 to 40 articles of clothing. When I’m traveling, that’s what goes with me.
Some people think that travel will be more convenient if they bring everything. In reality, doing so makes traveling more inconvenient. If you realize you need something that you haven’t brought, you can always buy it when you get there. I always have that mind frame, but I almost never end up buying anything, because I never end up needing anything I didn’t bring.
Q: Why is it hard for some people to let go of things?
A: There are a lot of reasons. Some personality types tend to be more sentimental. There can also be economic reasons; my grandfather grew up during the Great Depression, and a lot of people still have that “waste not, want not” mentality. There are “image” reasons that folks hold onto such things as a big house, cars they don’t need, and lots of clothes. Finally, for a lot of people it’s just hard work: If you have 40 years’ worth of stuff, you can’t get rid of it in a weekend.
Q: How did you go about getting rid of all your stuff?
A: We moved through our home room by room, tackling spaces, easiest to hardest. Our specific order went: car, living room, bedroom, bathroom, closet, kitchen, home office, basement, garage. My new book details what we did in each space, what we learned, and how others can apply our method to their own homes.
I also advocate a three-week experiment. You get 33 articles of clothing. Everything else has to be put aside, and you can’t wear anything else for three weeks. After doing this, people realize that they don’t need nearly as much as they have in their closet. They’ve just never stopped to consider if that’s true.
Q: How does minimalism play into your writing process?
A: Minimalism has freed me up to do more writing. I have less stuff to take care of, so I have more time to write. Minimalism has taught me the importance of removing distractions. I watch less TV, which I was spending way too many hours doing. It was keeping me from accomplishing the things I wanted to accomplish in my life.
I keep my office minimalist, too. I remove physical distractions from my work space so I can focus more on writing and developing thoughts.
As for my schedule, I write on Sunday evenings, Wednesday mornings, and a little on Friday afternoons (though I’m not always as focused then). I’m very motivated by deadlines. I publish on certain days of the week: Monday, Thursday, and every other Saturday. I’m accountable to the people who read my blog. They’re expecting something, so I find motivation in that. When I am writing a book, I keep more of a schedule. I spend much more of my week focused then.
Q; What was your childhood like?
A: I grew up in the Upper Midwest: Aberdeen, South Dakota. My family’s still there. We moved around to different states. I also lived in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont, and Nebraska. (I graduated high school in Omaha and stayed to go the University of Nebraska.)
Q: Did moving a lot influence your minimalism?
A: I was certainly less attached to homes because I didn’t grow up in the same one for all 18 years of my childhood. Home was where my family was, where I was loved and accepted. Even now, I have no particular attachment to our house.
Q: You live in Arizona now. How does where you live influence what you do?
A: I live in Peoria, a suburb of Phoenix. We moved here from Vermont because my friend was planting a church and we came to help. The climate here means that I don’t have to have a lot of winter clothes. I can wear the same thing in every season.
Q: How does your faith inform your minimalism?
A: Pretty significantly. Though I didn’t find minimalism through my faith—there was nothing spiritual about that moment—my faith has influenced my view of minimalism and vice versa. They complement each other.
Almost every respected religious leader has talked about not being worldly and materialistic, not being attached to things in this world. I saw that minimalism aligned with scripture. I believe there’s more to this world than the things we see, our possessions. Things like faith, hope, and love are more important.
Q: How have your two kids taken to minimalism?
A: My son Salem is 16 and my daughter Alexa is 12. My son’s a little more naturally minimalist than my daughter. He doesn’t need or want a lot of stuff. My daughter’s more the artsy-craftsy collecting type. We look for compromises with her. I didn’t find minimalism until I was 33, so part of me thinks it’s unfair of me to expect her to accept what took me that long to figure out.
For our kids, we set boundaries by saying, “This is your space, and you can decide what fits.” It’s just a wall or a closet, and as long as their clothes or toys fit in that physical space, they can keep them. This method is helpful for kids of any age because it empowers them to make decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of, which is an important and healthy skill to learn—that all of life is about what to put inside boundaries. We all have limited time and space, and it’s best for them to learn that now.
Q: Do you think men and women have different approaches to minimalism?
A: In any relationship, you find different people drawn to different things. I had a husband tell me, “I’m into minimalism, but my wife isn’t.” Then his wife came to me and said that she’s into minimalism, but her husband isn’t. Same couple. It’s always easier to see everyone else’s clutter except our own. Whoever takes care of the home primarily is more likely to be drawn to minimalism.
Q: Which generation seems to be most interested in minimalism?
A: I find that the message of minimalism really resonates across all generations. Millennials certainly are much less consumerist than the generations that came before: They’re drawn to mobility, freedom, and sharing rather than owning. But minimalism isn’t just for twentysomethings who want to live out of a backpack. Whenever I speak, there are more older people who attend. There’s a whole generation of people who are downsizing, who want to travel, who don’t want to be burdened by stuff anymore. I also speak to a ton of young parents who have a lot of stuff in their homes because their Baby Boomer parents give them things.
Q: What advice do you give people who get gifts that turn into clutter?
You won’t have much success telling people not to give gifts. Instead, steer people toward the right types of gifts—that is, needs over wants. Growing kids will always need clothes a size up. Kids get into new hobbies. Provide wish lists whenever possible, emphasizing experiences over things and quality over quantity. Tell people that you’d prefer to receive one $50 gift that’s an experience rather than five $10 things that are possessions. Zoo memberships, season passes for amusement parks, and museum tickets are so much better than more plastic toys.
Keep in mind, though, that when you tell people you want less stuff, they won’t get it the first time. They won’t believe you. You’ll have to go back over it with them.
And remember, if someone gives you a gift, you’re under no obligation to keep it. You can do whatever you want with a gift. If it’s not improving your life, give it to someone else who would use it.
Q: What is digital minimalism?
A: Minimalism is about removing distractions so I can live the life I want, a life of fulfillment and purpose. The principle applies digitally as well. On one hand, technology makes minimalism more possible than ever before. Books, movies, maps, and so on are all online now. I have so much power in my pocket that I don’t need boxes full of those things anymore. Technology also makes the sharing economy possible.
But technology can also become a distraction, whether it’s the constant pursuit of the latest and greatest device or the way we use our devices and how much distraction phones create. It’s also what we keep on our devices. If our phone has too many apps, we can never find the one we want. That distracts us.
Q: How can people incorporate minimalism into their digital lives?
A: Number one, get rid of any old technology that you’re not using anymore. Recycle old phones and computers. I think because we spent a lot of money on them, it’s hard for us to get rid of them, but do it. Even the old cords that go with them.
Then, delete things that you don’t use anymore. This is what decluttering our homes is about—getting rid of things we don’t use anymore. It’s the same online. Removing a lot of those unused things, like files and folders, is an important step. Because we can’t see them and because there’s unlimited storage, we think we should keep everything, but we shouldn’t. When we try to keep everything, there’s no file system that works. I use very few folders and give my files long names with a lot of keywords so I can easily search for them.
Q: What impact does minimalism have on charity and the environment?
Certainly, minimalism has an environmental significance. When I’m buying less, I’m using less on the front end and disposing of less on the back end. But I didn’t find minimalism because of environmental reasons. It was purely the realization that minimalism would benefit my own life. Then I eventually realized that it benefits the world around me as well.
As for the charity aspect, generosity is both the byproduct of minimalism and the lifeblood of it. Our excess can become a blessing to so many people. The things piled up in our closet can bless and enrich the lives of those who truly need it. Find a local charity that you believe in, because when people start becoming generous, giving away their things and recognizing the needs around them, it motivates them to give away even more stuff. The more they get to doing it, the more addictive it is.
This article was originally published in March 2019. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to confirm information.