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No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids

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.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
Chapters
Neither Averting Nor Craving in Each Moment
How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life
Tips for Traveling with Kids
My Grand Travel Experiment
The Parent I Aspire to Be
The Best & Less-than-Best Motivations for Learning
The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief
7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People
Finding Motivation on Important But Non-Urgent Tasks
Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges
The 30-Day Learning Challenge
The Place Where You Are
Feeling Determined to Change
Practicing Non-Judgment
Hold Your Own Feet to the Fire
Don’t Waste Your Opportunity
How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training
The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content
A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
Your Internet Habits Create Your Reality
The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
Leave Yourself Wanting More
Fail Faster at Habits
The Anti-Bucket List
Getting Started with the Discipline Habit
The Case for Caring About Your Work
Questions of Priority
The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More
Pare Down with the Declutter Habit
You’re Not Doing Life Wrong
Getting Lost in Just Doing
An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit
The Source of Contentment
Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves
What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It”
The Things That Get in the Way of Doing
The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
Unconditional Acceptance of Yourself
My Typical Day: How I Get People to Think I’m Productive
The Contentment Habit
The Delightfully Short Guide to Reading More Books
In Praise of Limits
The Art of Being My Dad
5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015
Essential Zen Habits of 2014
Karate Chop
Practicing Slowness & Being Present
Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
My 2014 Successes and Failures
Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life
When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
The Four Hidden Habit Skills
The Power of Delay
Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess
Writer as Coder: The Iterative Way to Write a Book
Please Support the Zen Habits Book
Are You a Lift or Drag Force?
When Resistance Smacks You in the Face
When Your Plate is Too Full
The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
A Quick Guide to Gaining Confidence When You Socialize
The Empty Container
The Realization
A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors
Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation
It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
My Most Effective Learning Tools
What I Do When I Fail
How to Put Your Writing in Public
The Productive Sprint
The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
Seized by the Thunderhold of Fear
What to Eat for Fat Loss
The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction
How to Breathe
7 Discipline-Mastering Practices
7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
How to Be Great
Making Yourself Work
Inhabit the Moment
How to Master the Art of Living
The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day
Living the Simple Life
How to Be Prepared for Anything
Turn Toward the Problem
The End of the Day Philosophy
The Painful Beauty of Impermanence
How to Change Other People
Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You
The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home
Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent
Looking for Love
How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed
Why We Have Regret
The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons
A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes
My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
Creating a Lovely Morning
A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
Turn Inspiration Into Action
Coming Back From a Setback
The Gift
A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life
No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
How to Make a Marriage Work
Love Notes
Flavorless: My Month of Food Boringness
The Letting Go Ebook, Free
The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit
How I Tackle a Big Writing Project
The Habit Action List
The Reality of This Moment
Confidence in Your Business
10 Ways to Do What You Don’t Want to Do
On Making It Through Tough Journeys
The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most
What to Think About During Exercise
You’ll Be OK
The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless
The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome
You’re Not Worse Than Other People
Being Mindful of Your Stress
What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself?
The Universe of a Single Task
Simplifying Is Painful
Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant
How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress
My Month Without a Smartphone
What I’ve Learned as a Writer
What the Exercise Habit Did For Me
Fear is the Root of Your Problems
This Moment
36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits
The 3 Do-What-You-Love Conundrums
How I Conduct My Business
Constant Task Switching
The Habits of Five Amazing Founders
The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
What Really Motivates Us to Stick to a Project?
I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
Zen Productivity
When You’re Feeling Self-Doubt & a Lack of Motivation
The Child That Holds Us Back
Stateless Mindset
My Month of (Almost) No Internet
12 Changes for 2014
Essential Zen Habits of 2013
The Fear of Being Alone
The Calm Approach
Things Every Man Should Own
Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled
A Method to Find Balance
16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon
The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
Surrender, Mindfulness & Entrepreneurship
How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go
Finding Focus
When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
Jealousy & Suffering
How Creativity Works, & How to Do It
Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences
Make It Your Job
Developing Selfless Compassion
Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong
A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
12 Indispensable Mindful Living Tools
Burn Down the Farm
My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet
The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
3 Little Tricks to Deal With People Who Offend You
My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet
Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities
My Pursuit of the Art of Living
A Month Without TV or Video
The Way of No Debt
Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One
The Way to Be
Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits
The Time to Shut Down
The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes
8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator
Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind
Overcoming the Social Costs of Being Different
Finding Quiet and Mindfulness Through Food
My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life
Liking Healthy Foods is a Choice
Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling
My Advice for Starting a Business
Creating Your Habit Environment
Travel Lessons with My Family
Easier Decision-Making: Conduct Experiments
Simplify: Let Go of Your Crutches
The Fear of Being Found a Fraud
The Flexible Mind
Declutter Your Life
A Month Without Coffee
The Healthful Vegan Diet
Living the Quiet Life
The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully
Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
The Habits of Happiness
How to Keep Habits Going During Travel
A Year of Living Without
The Key Habits of Organization
I Failed
Vegan Guide to San Francisco
The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Secret to Dad Greatness
Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything
The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now
6 Steps To Being More Creative
How I Finally Faced My Weight & Debt Problems
Working with the Obstacles in Your Path
9 Rules for a Simpler Day
The Little Book of Contentment
The Obstacle is the Path
5 Lessons in Contentment from Billionaires Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger
Smile in Each Moment
A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
Achieving Without Goals
Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else)
Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal
Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose
Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
Quitting Your Habits
The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart
Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For
Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation
Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years
Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
The 7 Habits of Calmness
The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
My 10 Essential Email Habits
The Daily Checklist
Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring
The Power of Habit Investments
Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe
The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early
Do Less: A Short Guide
How to Savor Life
What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World
Simplify the Internet
12 Rules to Live By
The New Rules of Fitness for 2013
52 Changes for 2013
The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
Essential Zen Habits of 2012
The Other Person is Never the Problem
The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do
28 Brilliant Tips for Living Life
The Clutter-free Holiday Guide
The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better
Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck
The Work You Love is Waiting For You
The 7-Step Method to Find Focus for Writing
The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide
Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013
How to Learn Anything
Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken
Untrack: Letting Go of the Stress of Measuring
15 Great Excuses Not to Form the Fitness Habit
How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet
Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan
The Willingness to Think Differently
Create a Superhealth Community
A Vegan Tour of NYC