Joshua and his young family were introduced to minimalism ten years ago during a short conversation with their neighbour. Since then, Joshua’s story and writing have inspired millions around the world to find more life by owning fewer possessions. Today, based on his thoughtful and intentional approach to minimalism, he is one of the leading voices in the modern simplicity movement reaching over 1 million readers every month. In this conversation, we pick Joshua’s brain about his take on minimalism, misconceptions about decluttering and his relationship with money.
What does minimalism mean to you?
I define minimalism as the intentional promotion of the things we most value by removing anything that distracts us from it.
This is not a definition that I came into minimalism with. I realised that all the stuff I had accumulated over the years was keeping me from the things that were most important to me.
But as I began trying to own less, I felt like I was forced to answer a lot of questions about values. What was important in my life?
As I became clearer on some of those things, that in turn fed into minimalism, first in the things I owned and then into other areas of life as well.
Would you be able to shed some light on what minimalism means in other areas of life, outside of those tangible physical items?
I read a lot of stories of how people got into minimalism and I think intentionality is the keyword here. Again like my definition, it’s the intentional of promotion of what you most value.
Some people find intentionality in one thing which leads to different things.
For example, Courtney Carver first became intentional about the food she was eating, which then led her into questioning her schedule and then eventually her possessions.
I came at it from the opposite side. For me, at first, it was about physical possessions. But as I began becoming intentional about the things I owned, I also started questioning how I was spending my time and what things I had loaded into my schedule.
I became more intentional about my health, which then led to being more intentional about the food I was eating. There are so many ways minimalism can impact your life.
I know some people talk about intentionality in relationships—which is important if you need to cut out people in your life for any specific reason. But I never felt like that was an area that I wrestled with. I didn’t have many if any unhealthy relationships leading into minimalism. Everyone’s journey is different.
What do you think holds people back on embarking on this journey towards intentionality?
I think that the main thing that keeps most people embarking on the mindset is that they’ve never even been introduced to the idea of intentionality. Or they’ve never really considered the full weight of how it would impact their lives.
We live in a culture where we’re continually being told to accumulate more and more. And the idea of purposefully owning less is pretty foreign to most people.
When I go speak on the topic to a room full of people, there are very few that disagree with me when it comes to minimalism. When you lay it out to them, most people can see the benefit of it and agree with it. It comes down to how a lot of people haven’t considered how intentionality and minimalism could benefit their lives.
Then there’s another level where there are people who hear about minimalism and want to embrace it, but there are many obstacles that prevent them from getting started.
There are different personality types including those who are incredibly sentimental or those who tend to worry a lot. Some of these personality types may struggle to apply minimalism to their life, as there could be some factors in their upbringing and environment that come into play. For example, if the world that they grew up in was very unstable and always changing, then there’s a grasping for security in the things that they own.
In a recent post, you mentioned that the question of, “Does this item spark joy?”, is the wrong question to be asking when decluttering. Would you mind elaborating on your stance?
I understand that the question, “Does it spark joy?” wasn’t entirely Marie’s mindset. It wasn’t the only question that she raised in the book. But it became such a tagline, which people thought they understood it without reading the book.
Beyond that, the problem I have with the surface of the question is that I don’t believe any possession can spark true joy in your life. I don’t think there’s any product that can at least bring lasting joy in life.
Where we find our joy in life is when we’re walking in-line with our values and fulfilling our purpose. I would contend that the most fulfilling purposes in life are the ones that are selfless, and those that are benefiting other people and those that are helping society.
I wanted to refrain from the question a little bit. I don’t think the filter we should have concerning our possessions is, “Does it spark personal joy or happiness inside of me?” but the question we should be asking is “Does this item help me fulfil my purpose in life?” It’s a deeper question, and it’s a harder question.
People can use minimalism to pursue whatever they want. And really it’s up to them to decide where they’re going to look for happiness and joy. I think that the longest lasting fulfilment in life is when we can serve others and benefit the people around us. And I think that’s the question we should be asking more.
As you have taken on more projects professionally in the pursuit to serve others, how have you balanced and managed your commitments while maintaining a minimalist mindset?
I think that we find management in getting very focused and intentional about our mission and what we want to do.
I sometimes have to laugh when people make comments saying that it’s not very minimalist of me to have so many readers on my blog, or it’s not minimalist of me to have that many people in my Facebook group.
My response is always the same. I’m minimising my possessions and commitments so that I can maximise somewhere else. Minimalism isn’t just about subtraction. In fact, it’s more about addition than it is about subtraction. It’s about adding more of the important pursuits in life by removing any of the things that are distracting me from that.
When you look at the things that I’m doing including the blogging, the books, course and magazine, they’re all centred around the same mission of helping people simplify their lives so that they can reach their highest potential.
I would be the first to say that I wouldn’t be doing half this stuff that I’m able to be doing now If I hadn’t minimised my possessions and distractions.
So how do I manage that? It’s always a question of, does this align with my mission? Does it align with how I can move minimalism forward? And if it does and I can do it, because I’ve minimised elsewhere, then I’m all for it.
Has minimalism changed your relationship with money?
Yes, definitely. Minimalism changed my view of how much money I needed. We lived pay cheque to pay cheque despite significant pay increases over our married life. We were never able to get ahead financially, and I could never figure out why. Until I started pursuing minimalism and figured out, it’s because I just keep on buying things. Whatever I’d make, I’d spend it.
Once you become content with desiring less, you realise how much money you were wasting on other things.
At that point, minimalism begins to open up options for generosity. Capacity for generosity where there wasn’t before. I’m convinced that most people want to be generous or at least they want to be known as generous. But when you’re spending all of your money on yourself, you don’t give yourself the capacity to be generous.
I had spent a lot of time in developing nations helping communities build schools and churches where they previously had nothing. Very interestingly, this was all while I began questioning possessions and happiness. And seeing how possessions don’t always coincide with happiness. I started noticing that many of these people who had nothing were just as happy, or even happier so it seemed than your average American.
They seemed to have a tighter relationship with each other and were more dependent on each other. They found happiness outside of possessions. So is owning more stuff really making us happy? Which led to the question of, does money make us happier? What are some of the drawbacks of wealth in our lives?
Certain temptations come along with having means, isolation and loneliness to name a few. When we’re living in 2200 square foot homes, we have a different relationship with other people compared to living next to people in developing counties residing under shared shelter.
The more money we have, the more we seem to separate ourselves from those who don’t have any. And we’re less likely to put ourselves in their shoes. So I think we lose a bit of compassion and empathy. There’s also a bit of pride and arrogance that comes with having means.
All of that to say that yes, minimalism has helped me to recognise that money comes with certain temptations and drawbacks that I don’t think a lot of people talk about.
I remember reading that over 70% of Americans have related financial stress. I’m always amazed by that number considering America is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Why are 7/10 of us unhappy with our financial situation? It’s not because we don’t have enough money. We all have homes, food and clothes. We’re not stressed about money because we don’t have enough. We’re stressed about money because we keep looking for it to provide something that it was not intended for it to provide. We keep looking for money to provide more happiness and security. Then when we do get more money, and it doesn’t feel that way, we think the answer is to get even more money! We keep moving the goal post and I think that’s what is causing the stress.