When my friends Joshua and Ryan took their new book on minimalism on a huge tour, one of the most frequent things they heard was, “I could never be a minimalist because I have kids.”

To which they’d respond, “Our friend Leo is a minimalist … and he has six kids.”

And it’s funny, because before I started simplifying my life and experimenting with minimalism, I had the same thinking — that there was no way to change because of my kids, or my wife’s preferences perhaps.

Boy was I wrong.

I set off on a journey of exploring minimalism, trying some extreme experiments, doing fun challenges with my family … and that journey has taught me to never again let myself use my family as an excuse not to make a change I’d like to make. Instead, I bring them along for the ride, and we have an amazing time together.

Here’s what I learned.

  1. It starts with me. You really can’t push your family to change unless they want to. So what I do is change myself, and be a living example that there’s a different way, and that it might be interesting and maybe better. I talk to them about the change so they know why I’m doing it, what made me consider it, what steps I’m taking, whether it’s hard or not, whether I like the change. In seeing my change, they might consider trying the change, or they might just think dad’s crazy, but either way they see a different possibility. So for example I might start decluttering my closet and drawers, or scanning all my paperwork so I can go digital, or clear out a storage shed. This is a great thing for them to see, but at the same time I’m letting them be themselves with no expectations that they’ll join me.
  2. Minimalism is a conversation. Minimalism isn’t about getting rid of all your stuff and living with barely anything. In a family, minimalism is really a conversation about what’s important. What’s necessary. Why we own things and do things. A lot of times, a family never really has this conversation — it’s all just implied in the way we live. But minimalism is about bringing this out in the open and talking about it. The result of the discussion will be very different for each family — some will keep doing what they’ve been doing, because they like that best, but others will decide to try various changes, and there’s no single right way. The important thing is to start the conversation, and to keep it going basically for the rest of your lives.
  3. Enjoy the simple pleasures. Eva and I started doing fewer things with the kids that costs a lot of money (though we still do some of that), and instead focus on playing outside together, playing games together inside, cooking together. I’m not saying we do these things every single day (we don’t always have the time or energy) but we started showing them that the simple pleasures are amazing, and you don’t need to spend a lot of money to enjoy life.
  4. See setbacks as learning opportunities. If you start decluttering as a family, you’ll be really happy with the changes … but sometimes there are setbacks. Your daughter might all of a sudden want a thousand Littlest Pet Shop dolls because she saw some cool videos online. You might all of a sudden have a bunch of stuff given to you by family members. These can be seen as setbacks and can be frustrating … or you can use them as ways to learn about how to deal with these kinds of issues, which are after all part of reality. You have to learn to deal with them, or you’ll struggle. There’s a lot to be learned when a grandparent doesn’t understand why you don’t have very much stuff.
  5. Challenges are incredibly fun. I love family challenges. We’ve done a pushup challenge to see if we could all stick to a tough physical routine as a family. But some of my favorite challenges are seeing if we can do without stuff. See below for more on the challenges we’ve done. But basically, a challenge is a really fun way for a family to tackle an experiment.
  6. Change traditions in a positive way. There are lots of things we do simply because it’s the way we’ve always done that. But these traditions can be challenged — why do we need to buy so many Christmas gifts? It’s tough to change traditions, though, because people are loathe to let go of what they’re used to. So present the change in tradition as an opportunity to do something awesome. In the case of Christmas gifts, we were going to save the money we would have spent on useless things they didn’t need … and use it for really fun experiences. We’ve gone to water parks or taken family vacations, as our holiday gift to the kids, instead of buying toys. The kids might miss the toys, but they love the experiences.
  7. Talk to other family members. When you start making any kind of big changes, other family members (aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, friends etc.) might question what you’re doing. This is because you’re doing something outside the norm, and not everyone agrees with that. However, this is a great opportunity to talk to these family members about what you’re doing, educate them, widen the conversation from your immediate family to your wider family. And again, you’re setting an example for these people, and showing them there’s a different way — sometimes they even get inspired to make changes themselves!
  8. Find new ways to replace stuff. Lots of times we think we can’t go without things, but if you get creative, it turns out you don’t really need them. For example, we got rid of photo albums by digitizing photos and using them as screensavers — instead of never opening a dusty photo album, we see the great photos on our computer every day! I digitize all papers, including artwork and school papers (when they were going to school) and little notes from them to me.
  9. Be present with each step. The most important thing isn’t the changes you make — if you focus on the outcomes, you’ll get frustrated, because you don’t completely control your family members. You might influence and inspire them, but you can’t force change, you can’t force opinions to be different. Instead, you can be present each step along the way, learn from each step, enjoy that step, and be the mindful example of change for your family.

Some of Our Family Challenges

We’ve done a series of family challenges that have been incredibly fun. Here are some of them:

  • Move to San Francisco to Guam with one backpack & one box. When we left Guam and moved to San Francisco in 2010, we decided to start with a clean slate and sell or give away all our stuff. We talked to the kids about this, and they were hesitant at first but went along with the challenge. So we packed one box each to ship to SF, and got on a plane with just a backpack of stuff. It made the move so much easier, and I loved reinventing our lives with the move.
  • Go car-free. Moving to SF allowed us to go car-free, walking and using public transportation and car-sharing. This was one of our greatest experiments, and I’ve loved it. Unfortunately we’re getting a car as we move from SF to Davis this month (we’ll try to bike as much as we can), but it’s been a great four years of walking.
  • Travel with a small backpack each. When we go on family trips (Europe in 2012, for example), we go with one small backpack each. At first they were reluctant, but they’ve seen how much lighter and easier it is to travel that way. It’s really such a big difference, being easily able to hop on trains, go into subways, run through airports, and walk around a new city without flinching. Even Eva has embraced it, which I didn’t think she would at first, but she’s amazing.
  • No Christmas gifts. As mentioned above, we’ve gone 4-5 years without giving gifts except experiences and maybe a few small stocking stuffers (usually things we can play together). Read more.
  • No cable TV. We gave up our cable TV as a cost-saving measure but actually I love that we don’t watch commercials or have the TV on all day (we watch some commercial-free shows at night). Advertisements are one of the biggest enemies of minimalism, so reducing or eliminating exposure to advertising is a huge step.

Everything That Remains

If you’re interested in minimalism, I highly recommend Josh and Ryan’s new book, Everything That Remains. They’re on a massive tour of the U.S. and other countries, so check out the tour dates that remain if you’d like to meet them in person and get a free dose of minimalism and a free hug.

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