So You’re a Minimalist. What Does That Even Mean?

Minimalism is about intentionality. It’s about questioning all of the stuff in your life — the physical, mental, and emotional — and asking how would my life look differently if I removed that which is unnecessary, that which bogs me down mentally, emotionally, physically, and financially, so that I can pursue the hobbies, experiences, and relationships that bring joy and add value to my life.

In my last post, “I Am a Minimalist, and This Is the Story of When I Began to Question All of the Superfluous Stuff In My Life,” I wrote of the day that started my journey toward simplifying my life.

The day my dad died.

Death does that sometimes. It makes you examine life and ask questions you didn’t even realize you had. What’s important as well as what is insignificant in the grand scheme of it all? Why am I here and what is my purpose?

Some of you may have even wondered, what correlation is there between my dad dying and wanting to purge physical items from my life? The answer is that it’s not just superfluous physical items.

Minimalism is about living a more intentional life

Minimalism is about intentionality. It’s about questioning all of the stuff in your life — the physical, mental, and emotional — and asking how would my life look differently if I removed that which is unnecessary, that which bogs me down mentally, emotionally, physically, and financially, so that I can pursue the hobbies, experiences, and relationships that bring joy and add value to my life.

That could mean de-cluttering your house. It can also mean ending a toxic relationship, setting out to replace bad habits with good habits, calming the mental clutter, anxiety, and stress that mans the control station of your brain. Being present with your family. Calling up old friends and saying, “Hey, you want to go for a hike and talk about all of the stupid stuff we used to do as teenagers?” It entails many things.

Which brings me back to the quote from Joshua Becker that began my last post.

Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.

Think about that sentence for a minute. Now, let’s break it down into bite sized chunks and give it the old college try.

What is minimalism?

Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value.

When Joshua Becker says “the intentional promotion of the things we most value,” he isn’t speaking strictly, or even primarily, of physical possessions when he says “things we most value.” He’s not talking about your new phone, flat screen TV, purse, or dining room set. “Things” are your relationships, hobbies, and experiences.

Of course, “things” could, literally, mean a thing, such as a guitar if you’re a musician or a tent if you’re a backpacker, i.a, but these items are considered value adds because they accessorize a hobby or experience that brings joy to your life.

So what does Becker mean by “the intentional promotion of the things we most value”?

As an example, let’s start with our relationships.

Like Joshua, I’m a dad with two small children. Therefore, much of what Joshua writes resonates with me on that level.

When I first started reading his blog Becoming Minimalist, his story spoke to me on a level that I think many of us, particularly parents, can relate but that which is a perspective a number of us aren’t aware we even have, even though it’s right before our very eyes.

Joshua Becker’s Journey to Becoming Minimalist

Joshua’s journey to becoming a minimalist started simple enough. Like many Americans, one weekend he found himself cleaning out his garage which had turned more into a storage unit attached to his house and less a place where he parked his car.

While he made a day of cleaning out the contents in his garage, piling item after item into his driveway outside, and his wife inside cleaning the house, his young son, who wanted to play with his dad, sat alone in the backyard.

Raise your hand if this story sounds familiar. Maybe you’re the mom figure instead of the dad in this picture. You don’t even have to have a garage. Perhaps your closets are stuffed and the door barely shuts or your attic is a collapsed ceiling waiting to happen. Nor do your kids have to be outside, alone. He or she could be slumped over in front of the television or upstairs in their bedroom.

* * *

That’s when Becker’s neighbor, who was also outside at the same time gardening, remarked, “Ahh, the joys of home ownership.”

To which Becker responded, “The more stuff you own, the more your stuff owns you.”

Then, his neighbor said something that changed his life from that point forward: “That’s why my daughter is a minimalist. She keeps telling me that I don’t need all this stuff.”

Read the rest of “The Journey Begins” by Joshua Becker

* * *

Which brings me to the second half of Becker’s minimalism definition.

“Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.”

And the removal of everything that distracts us from it.

This is the kicker.

How can we intentionally promote the relationships we value, such as the time we spend with and the attention we give to our children and spouse (and other family and friends for that matter), if these relationships are hindered by internal and external distractions that are largely unnecessary?

Have you ever tried to compete with a television when your kids are watching it? That’s the culture of distraction you’re competing with.


How many of us have spent entire Saturday mornings cleaning? How many times have our kids thrown a fit because they are vying for our attention while we roam from the upstairs of the house to the downstairs with a vacuum cleaner when all they want to do is go to the pool, ride their bike, or dig the soil for an earthworm to examine? How many afternoons have our children not made it aware they want to spend time with us because us not paying attention to them has become and is routine?

The thing about stuff is this. Eventually, it begins to weigh you down. Not only does it cost you time worked and money spent, and oftentimes financial stress if you can’t really afford it, you then have to maintain it, dust it, update it, fix it, organize it, store it, contemplate trashing it, yes, no, it’s still in good condition, I think I’ll keep it, or sell it.

How can we intentionally promote the relationship we value with our spouse if, as soon as the kids are in bed, we stick our phone seven inches from our face and scroll down our Facebook newsfeed and poison our wells with disharmonious content, or turn on the television, instead of asking our spouse how their day was and be genuinely interested in their response? When was the last time you talked at length with your spouse about a book you were reading — or anything that necessitated the ability for deep, thoughtful discussion?

How many times have our kids collapsed in exhaustion because we’re overscheduling their lives when what they really need is a breather and some quality time with their parents or siblings, or simply some alone time to themselves to be creative or imaginative?

As a society, we aren’t intentionally promoting the things we most value. We’re promoting everything that distracts us from it.

Minimalism doesn’t mean you’ll never pick up a broom again. It doesn’t mean you can’t login to social media. It doesn’t mean your kids can’t play sports or take ballet lessons.

It means taking inventory of your life and removing that which is unnecessary, excessive, and inessential so that your time is curated in a healthy and responsible way that promotes joy, insight, and reflection as it relates to your relationships, hobbies, and experiences.

It means reprioritizing what is most important in your life.

It means, to quote Dave Ramsey, stop buying things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.

If you’re a math nerd, which I’m not, no! algebra, no!, it’s addition by subtraction.

* * *

I asked Joshua Becker what’s one thing he’d say to someone considering simplifying their life. That is, why should you consider minimalism. His answer: because your life is too valuable to waste chasing and accumulating material possessions.

What are the things in life you most value? Are you promoting what you most value or are you promoting the distractions?

* * *

When my dad died, I didn’t equate a single gift or material item he ever gave me to love. Not one. I saw some gifts he gave me sitting atop my shelf, but I equated an experience and the time we spent together with his love. I equate the time he spent talking to me and listening to me with his love. I equate the letter he wrote me that I will cherish forever with his love.

I thought then, the day after his death as I stared into my childhood bedroom closet, and still do now, of experiences, of the two of us strapped into our own separate go-karts at Nags Head while on family vacation. My dad had this thing about him—it was borderline maniacal—in which he enjoyed scaring the tar out of other beach going families who also were go-kart racing with their kids at the same time as us.

“I’ll hit them in the front on the inside,” he would say, “and you tap them on the bumper on the outside. Watch ‘em spin out.”

Then he’d laugh like a hyena and wipe his nose with a handkerchief from his back pocket. “Alright, now go pick out a car that looks solid.”

Then the two of us would enter the track, and he with his hat flipped around backwards so the wind wouldn’t take it and me abiding his request, would find the most helpless mother and son or father and son/daughter on the track and cause mayhem for a few laps until the operator of the go-kart track drew the caution flag.

“Bet they weren’t expecting that,” he’d say when we pulled the go-karts in and unbuckled. He’d turn his hat back around the right way and dab the tears of laughter from his eyes with his handkerchief. “Shit. Let’s go eat.”

* * *

I hear his voice say with a slight touch of fear “paddle through the rough, paddle through the rough” while we’re in a rough spot in the canoe on Staunton River when a fast approaching storm strikes lightning bolts down at us and the white tips of the water foaming as it crashes into rock.

* * *

I smell the pan-fried edges of a bologna burger and burnt rubber tires at South Boston Speedway and the body sweat of a race fan sitting next to me that’s akin in odor to a warm Budweiser spilled on cement seating.

* * *

Stuff has a magical quality that tricks you into thinking it is a vessel carrying your memories, when, in reality, all of your memories are exactly where you know them to truly be, in your head, waiting to speak to you if only you would listen.

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Photo: Kumar Gauraw. “Go Kart Track.” Licensed by CC BY 2.0

By Jeffrey Pillow

Jeffrey Pillow is an American short story writer, memoirist, and poet. He is the author of The Lady Next Door. His writing has been published in Urge Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, 16 Blocks, USA Today, Sports Illustrated,, New York Times, Washington Post, and Richmond Times-Dispatch.

He grew up in the small town of Phenix, Virginia, population: 200, and now lives in Charlottesville with his wife, two kids, and a dog named Mozzarella Cheese. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia where he was a Rainey Scholar. This is his blog.