Ep 54: Making Room for More with Minimalism

Episode Summary

Christine Koh, author of Minimalist Parenting, reveals how to get more out of your family life by doing LESS. She says “minimalism” isn’t about getting rid of apps and toilet paper, it’s about making room for the stuff that helps your family thrive while cutting back on everything else.

Show NotesWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Does your life reflect your strongest values?

You can value travel, and still spend 50 weeks of the year in your own county. You can value the outdoors, and still get no closer to fresh air than your car window five days of the week. You might value time with your kids, and still encourage them to take on a ton of extracurriculars. This is all fine, right?

We make sacrifices for our family all the time, even if we’re sacrificing what we value most. We can still be comfortable and not do what’s most important to us. Why make changes that aren’t necessary?

As we go through life, it’s easy to get stuck in our ways, even if our ways don’t reflect our strongest values. This might not sound like the biggest problem in the world, but think about it…

If our way of living doesn’t reflect our strongest values, what does that teach our kids?

Values are one of the most effective ways you can influence a teenager. Once your child gets into the teenage years, it becomes extremely difficult to influence their daily activities. But if you impart strong values that your teen can live by, you can keep the door open to conversations about values later into their adult lives.

Reshaping our lives to reflect our most important values is a lot easier said than done. However, the woman I speak with in this episode insists that with a minimalist family life, making room for what’s important is totally possible!

Before I introduce her, though, let me just say:

A minimalist family life is NOT what it sounds like.

Christine Koh runs FIVE businesses! (And yes, she’s here to talk about minimalism.) She is the founder and editor of the award-winning blog Boston Mamas, the graphic designer behind Posh Peacock, and a digital strategist at The Mission List. She is a speaker, a writer, and co-author of the practical and humorous book, Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More By Doing Less. She might sound like the farthest thing from a minimalist, but she insists that a minimalist family life is what frees her up to do what she values most.

Foundational Values

Christine decided to co-author the book, Minimalist Parenting, because she found it especially hard as a parent to define her own family’s values and stand up for them. She points out that there is so much noise about what your family’s values should be. 

For example, parents feel compelled by the popular culture to have their teens do a million activities at once, or they’ll never get into college. For some families, that’s totally fine! They might like being busy. But Christine knows that in her family, her kids need a lot of down time. Her kids can’t focus on their homework and chores if they’re too saturated with activities they don’t care about. It was hard for her family to say, “No! We’re only going to do one activity per season!” They had to do it, though, in order to honor their own key values.

She says it’s really important to identify your family’s key values because everything else in your life will be founded on those. Quiet times, space, sleep, and a minimalist family life are all part of Christine’s key values. If her family isn’t getting those three things, life begins to get a bit dysfunctional.

Balancing Values

What if your personal values differ from your spouse’s, though? Christine can speak personally to this. 

Remember those five companies Christine runs? Well, her husband isn’t so on board with how diverted her energy can become. Having different projects is something that Christine loves and values in her life, while her husband values more quality time away from work. They needed to 

The two of them have worked very hard to balance their values and create a minimalist family life. They have to be very clear about how Christine can stop working at the end of each day and be present with her family. At the same time, her husband knows that he must sacrifice some one-on-one time to support her career goals. And their balance is working great!

When key values are identified and balanced, everyone in the household benefits.

What does it look like practically, though, to identify key values and balance them?

A “More” and “Less” List

One of Christine’s favorite tools for creating a minimalist family life by identifying key values is a More and Less List. 

A More and Less List is just what it sounds like. It’s a list with two columns. One side is the “More” column, and the other is the “Less” column. The trick, Christine says, is to be honest with your thoughts. Turn off your inner critic. No one has to see this list except you. Now, write what you genuinely want more and less of in your life!

Maybe it’s less running around, more time with friends outdoors, or having a more minimalist family life in general.

Once you have your thoughts on paper, you can make a plan to edit your life. Get rid of stuff that is unnecessary, and make room for what is really important to you. Work on creating a minimalist family life that isn’t complicated by things that aren’t adding value to your life. 

If you wrote down that you want to learn more, maybe you can rent some audiobooks from your local library, and listen to them during your commutes. If you wrote down that you want to be driving your kids less, maybe set up a carpool rotation with another family.

Christine’s other favorite part about making a list, is that the exercise can help you realize that the stuff you want more of is within reach!

Coffee Punch Cards and You

Research shows that when you feel like you’re part of the way towards achieving a goal, you’re more likely to take action to achieve it. Just think about coffee punch cards! If you have an unpunched card, well, that’s not motivating. But if you have a card with one or two punches already in it, then you feel like you’re already on your way to winning that free coffee!

A More and Less List is like a coffee punch card. It helps you see that you’re already on your way to achieving your goals. The list helps you realize that you can make changes to your life, and that in some ways you’ve already started to make such changes. It’s this ability to make changes that is at the heart of a minimalist family life.

Even if one of your minimalist family life goals is just “clean the playroom,” you might need to break the job down into baby steps to make it more approachable. It’s not that you don’t know how to clean the playroom, but that the scope of the task can seem overwhelming if you’re tired and stressed.

Taking a couple extra minutes to break the task into baby steps makes it more approachable and less dreadful. Kinda like the coffee punch card! This is why taking small steps is a valuable commodity in adopting a minimalist family life.

So Many More Possibilities!

The idea that you can make changes to your life to make room for what is important might sound like common sense. But if it’s common sense, then why are so few people making the changes needed to create a minimalist family life? 

A minimalist family life really puts the power of change front and center. It helps you define a clear path towards shaping your life to stand up for your values. There are so many ways to apply this idea, so Christine and I cover as much as we can!

  • What “minimalism” is NOT
  • What is a minimalist approach to technology? (Since it wasn’t in the book!)
  • How do you avoid “Nostalgia Stallout” when cleaning?
  • The dangers of upsizing
  • Money management for teens – chores, allowance, and paid jobs
  • Thoughts on the importance of travel
  • Shared experiences and personal time with your teens

A minimalist family life might sound odd and niche at first, but its applications are in fact far reaching. I loved talking about coffee punch cards and the value of travel with Christine. I really hope you enjoy this episode!

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Stop Nagging Your Teen and Focus on Progress Instead:

Does it ever feel like your teenager is dragging their feet on a project when they should really just be getting started? As Christine explained during our interview, it can help improve your teen’s motivation if you help them focus on ways in which they’ve already made some progress (even if it’s very minimal). To take advantage of this psychology, grab a piece of paper and write down two things your teenager has been dragging their feet on. Below each of these, write down what progress your teen has already made. Even just thinking about the project or telling you about it counts! Try to come up with at least 3 things that your teen has already done for each of the two projects you wrote down. Next time you have the urge to nag your teenager about one of these things, try focusing on what they’ve already done instead. Give them a compliment and say you’re proud of the work they’ve done so far. Be specific about exactly what “work” you mean.

2.  Rethinking Values: Getting Specific:

(Members Only)

3.  Get More of What You Want (and Less of What You Don’t) From Your Teenager:

(Members Only)

4.  Connect and Make Memories with a Special Parent-Teen Trip:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I just think a great place to start is how I found out about you was from your book, Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less. I thought it was just such an interesting concept for a parenting book to take the minimalist approach to parenting. And so I was really curious, what was it that kind of propelled you into saying, hey, we need a book on minimalist parenting?

Christine: Well, like many things, I get ideas on airplanes. I had been at a conference where I had been talking about this do less approach to life. Let’s be honest, I’m somebody who does a lot. Right now I have five businesses I touch every day. I love projects. I love doing things. I know it’s a lot. It’s pretty extra.

Christine: So to back up, I used to be a music and brain neuroscientist. I left academia in 2007, and I had started my blog, Boston Mama’s in 2006. Because I kind of felt like there was a hole in the sort of lifestyle editorial space in Boston. And I had a lot of moments in parenting where I just felt like, why is this so hard? Why is there so much pressure? Why are there so many shoulds? And anytime I wrote about something related to that, I would get almost all of these, “Oh my gosh, I’m feeling that too,” these kind of whispers from other people, also questioning.

Christine: And so, I had met Asha Dornfest, my coauthor, she’s also my podcast cohost and we have sort of similar philosophies, and she had done the same thing or was experiencing the same thing. Where any time she talked about marching to the beat of your own drum as a parent and really standing up for the values that you believe in, people would respond to it. And so I said, let’s write this book together. I bought the domain already. Let’s just do it.

Andy: Values is like kind of one of the cornerstones of what we teach here at Talking to Teens. And I think it’s one of just like the most important ways that you can actually influence a teenager because, once they get to the teenage years, it gets hard to, influence their smaller daily activities. But maybe, there is kind of an opportunity to impart some values and hopefully you’ve been already imparting values. I like this kind of discussion that you have in here about breaking down your values and getting in touch with those little more. Could you talk about how you develop this and why it’s so upfront? I mean, page three of your book here.

Christine: I just want to give a moment to say that I completely feel for parental overwhelm and even the idea of when somebody says, “Tune into your values.” I mean, that can be a little intimidating. I think one just because it’s big. And then two, because when there is so much noise about what your values should be or what you should be caring about, it’s really challenging.

Christine: The reason that Asha and I are so keyed into values as you are is, with any family system, you have to have this foundation on which to stack all of these details and all of these things. And so, that foundation will be a lot stronger if you can just figure out even at a baseline, where you’re at.

Christine: So I’ll just give you a quick example, because that sounds very abstract. Right now the parenting culture and certainly for teenagers, especially with the idea of college pressure and being evaluated and all that is to just, do more activities, sign up for all the things, do all the things, at the risk of like the whole system breaking down.

Christine: For some families that is perfectly fine. They love being busy. They like being on the go. Maybe they don’t like being at home that much, whatever. But I have seen personally for our family too, but for lots of families, some people, and some kids need a ton of downtime and cannot function. They can’t do their homework, they can’t do other things if they’re just too saturated with people and activities and things. And so if you are in that boat and you identify that quiet space sleep, that those are like key part of your value system and part of what’s really important to you to function as a human being, everything is kind of sitting on top of that stuff.

Christine: That’s why we’re so into that. And it’s hard to resist. I’ll say very clearly, it’s hard put your stake in the ground and say, “No, we’re going to just do one activity a season,” when everybody else around you is running from thing to thing to thing.

Andy: Sure. Says the woman who runs, how many, five companies.

Christine: Yeah. For me, having different projects and being like in this sort of dynamic workspace, that is something I love. So that works for me. But for my husband, that is a nightmare for him. He is not into that. So, we have to be really clear on that and how I can stop at the end of the day and just be present. And actually that is something I’ve worked on a lot and our family system works a lot better.

Andy: Also, it strikes me that there’s a value of kind of knowing yourself and that you could foster a family value of the importance of being true to yourself and the importance of that. Especially with teenagers, because I think that’s the time of your life when you’re really trying to figure out who the heck am I, and what do I want to stand for? Knowing that you come from a household where it’s okay to be either way and you’re going to be accepted, I think is huge.

Andy: So can you talk about the more and less list, and why would you create one of these as a parent and what would be the benefit of doing that and how the heck would you do it?

Christine: I love the more or less list. I have to give Asha credit for that. That is her, but it’s so simple. So, a couple things. One, the more and less list is just as simple as it sounds. It is literally whether you’re doing it on a scrap of paper, in a journal or in a Google doc, make two columns, just draw a line down the center. And on one side is more and on the other side is less. The idea is to really-

Andy: Okay, I can handle that.

Christine: You can handle that. I mean, it’s pretty simple, but the idea is to just really be free with your thoughts. Turn off the inner critic. Nobody has to see this list except for you and to jot down what you want more of in life and what you want less. I mean, for a lot of people it’s less running around, it’s less stress, it’s more fun, more travel, more time to myself, any of those things.

Christine: And turning off the inner critic is a really big part of this and not overthinking it too much because the idea is to just get down those thoughts, because once you have those down on paper, then the next step would be okay, how do we figure out? And this is the big part of minimalist parenting is, how do we figure out how to edit your life? And that’s actually our podcast name now, in order to get rid of some of that stuff that’s unnecessary that you really can get rid of on that less list. And then how do you carve out instead the room for the good stuff, the stuff you want more of.

Andy: It strikes me that that’s kind of … The name minimalist parenting is almost a little misleading because the whole reason to strip out the unnecessary stuff from your life is to make room for what is really important to you. And to kind of, I guess, get down to the essence of what you want to be doing with your time. And so it’s just the more and less list is just such a visual easy way to see, like you say, what kind of edits you want to start making to your life. And then you can start kind of planning that out.

Christine: Yeah. And the interesting thing, and I’m glad you brought that up about the title, because it’s funny, a lot of the times we start out when we’re telling people about minimalist parenting, we start out with what it’s not. So we’re kind of like, so it’s not like we love toilet paper. It’s not like we hate stuff. But the point is to identify wherever your level of crazy is, and then find ways to take it down a notch, or two or 12.

Christine: The other thing that I love about the more or less list and just list making and thinking about what lights you up and what’s dragging you down in general is that, sometimes, and I experienced this just last summer when I was struggling with some stuff. Sometimes that exercise helps you realize that the stuff that you want more of is right in reach. It’s actually right there. So part of it is like, I just need to devote a little more intention to this. Or, I’m actually doing that thing already. Life is actually okay. And it’s not as big a dumpster fire as I thought.

Christine: I think that’s part of the exercise that I really love. And I think it can be a little comforting to people to realize that they can make change and they have the power to do that.

Andy: There’s like research that I really liked that shows when you feel that you’re already part of the way there you’re much more likely to take action. Like when you give someone you know those little punch cards, like when you get your 10th coffee is free. And so if you give someone one of those and there’s just 10 and none of them are punched, versus if you give someone and there’s 12 and you punch the first two for them, they’re more likely to fill up the card when you give them the 12 and you punch the first two because they feel like, hey, I’m already on my way a little bit. Even though it’s still the exact same thing. You still have to get 10 coffees in order to get a free one or whatever the deal is.

Andy: But it kind of strikes me that the more or less listed is kind of having that same effect, like you say, because it’s just like, hey, I’m already kind of doing these things. What do I just want to do more of and what do I just want to do a little bit less of. And it’s kind of less overwhelming than being like, oh, I need to just overhaul everything. You’re already doing it. You already started.

Christine: For sure. We frame it in terms of baby steps all the time, taking those little steps. Because, it is overwhelming and it can’t just put like overhaul my life. Or making the task too big. Or, even if it’s like clean the playroom, you got to start small and break it down because you’re more likely to tackle it if you can tackle a little steps and feel like you’re actually making progress.

Christine: I love the punch card. I’m going to envision that. Because it’s such a good example.

Andy: I just feel that, and I feel that way in my life a lot. Like, oh man, if I can just kind of in my head somehow convince myself that I’ve started, create the word document. Even if it’s blank, save it somewhere or have it open on my thing. It’s like, okay, I’ve started this project. It’s a subtle little Jedi mind trick a little bit. But for me, it makes me feel like I’m on my way.

Andy: Okay. Another part of the book that I really connected with was when you talk about nostalgia. Because having a family becomes like a black hole of stuff. It’s like every year there’s like more and more stuff and it’s all priceless and one of a kind and how do you choose what to get rid of and what to keep, and you feel like a bad person almost sometimes, getting rid of certain things. Like, I can’t get rid of this. It’s like, well, that thing, Oh yeah, I remember that.

Andy: But you guys have some really cool tips in here. And so I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about how you avoid the nostalgia stall out.

Christine: The stall out is real and it is a long time thing. Or across the ages, I was just talking yesterday to a friend and we were kind of commiserating about the challenge of moving your parents. If your parents are moving and I was telling this person that I had to help my in laws move, but I literally uttered the words, “You don’t need this rusty can have rusty nails that’s also filled with mouse poop.” It’s time to just let it go.

Christine: But with kids stuff, I think there are a couple challenges. There’s like the level of parent nostalgia about whatever the thing is in question, as you said. Everything feels like a masterpiece. Then, there’s also the layer of what kind of kid you have. It’s going to be more or less challenging depending on that.

Christine: So for example, I have two daughters. My older daughter has always been very nostalgic. Even if it’s a thing that she hasn’t been using, she attaches meaning to it based on the person who gave it to her. So I’ll say, “I think it’s time to get rid of this because you have not used it ever.” And she’ll say, “But so-and-so gave it to me, and that has meaning. And what if she asks me about it?” I’m like, “Yeah. Okay. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Christine: Whereas my other kid, we’ll do a cabinet clean out or something and she’ll be like, “Get rid of that. Get rid of that.” She doesn’t care. She just doesn’t care as much. I think, there are a few like tactics one could take, I think that have been helpful. I think in the book Asha describes the idea of having sort of a … I don’t think she calls it quarantine, but putting stuff in a bag or a bin, stowing it somewhere. And if nobody has mentioned it or asked for it in six months or something, there’s some statute of limitations that then you can get rid of it.

Christine: I have found, I think limiting space is also crucial. Like the endless artwork that comes home from school, each of my kids has one large cardboard box in the basement, which holds many, many years of things. But my thing is basically like, okay, if you fill up this box, then you got to get rid of something from the box. This is all the space you get. And that has worked shockingly well.

Christine: I actually am a fan of decluttering some of that stuff with your kids, because then it avoids the you threw it out and you didn’t tell me situation, which is real if you have kids that have elephant memories. And also because with my kids, I’ve used it as a way to pay it forward and think about other kids. So it’ll be like in framing it in terms of donation. Let’s get rid of these games or these puzzles or whatever. There are other kids that we could donate it to and then they could have fun. And when you frame it like it’s also teaching the values of empathy, sort of looping back to that and opening up space.

Christine: So we tend to also do this before the holidays and before a birthday. Those are good landmarks to make room and make space since they know there’s probably other stuff coming in and that I think can make it a little easier for kids too. It is hard. It’s hard for them to let go of stuff.

Andy: Absolutely. It’s hard for anybody. And they say, neurons that fire together wire together. And I feel like sometimes, an item does just remind you of the time or the thing or the great memory or whatever it was, and getting rid of it or throwing it away makes you feel like you’re getting rid of a piece of that or you’re going to lose kind of part of that warm, fuzzy feeling or something like that.

Andy: I love the idea of limiting the space and you could do that for all kinds of different categories of things. My dad always used to say, it’s like what they teach you in chemistry, the properties of a gas is, it expands to fill the size of whatever can you put it in. I feel that way with stuff. That however much space you allow it to fill, it just kind of magically seems to just expand to fill the container.

Christine: I know. I’m so anti up-sizing. That’s America, let’s upsize it. I just feel like the bigger your house, the more space you have, the more storage you build, all this stuff, you’re just going to fill it up. Even with my kids, actually, it’s interesting. If you walk into my home, and it’s mostly because clutter makes me super anxious and we don’t have like a perfectly tidy home or anything. But if you walk in, you actually won’t see toys all over the place, because we have one corner bench cabinet in the living area where toys go in and then each of my girls has a cabinet, it looks like a sideboard, but it’s a big sort of dining room cabinet. And they each have their own cabinet. If they fill it up, then they got to empty stuff out of it. And that’s it. And it works shockingly well. We’ve never expanded to make more room because it just more junk accumulates that way.

Andy: You have a chapter that I found really interesting in here about money management and how to teach kids about money management. And I was really interested to get your take on this, especially specifically for teenagers.

Christine: Oh yeah. I’m big into money management. I’m not particularly a savvy … I don’t consider myself one of these people who knows all about investments or whatever. But I just mean at a basic level that one of the craziest things to me is that kids and teens do not get financial literacy education in school. I find that to be the most bananas thing in the world.

Andy: Zero.

Christine: Zero. It is crazy. So my top line recommendation just for any parents is that, I think have kids do chores, not for money, but just because they’re part of a family system. That’s a question I get a lot. Two, I think it’s really important to give them an allowance, which is actually money for them to experiment with.

Christine: Because, you go into target, your kid asks you for a million things. This is what happens to all of us. It is much easier and they will be prime to make decisions and think things through and experiment and maybe have something break if you say, “Yeah, you could use your allowance for that. How much do you have in your allowance?”

Christine: Giving them the chance to actually experiment. And some kids, if you’ve got a super … Like my older one is very, “I will put 30% in the college account and I will put 30% in this.” You might have a kid like that, you might not. It just gives them a chance to experiment and potentially fail with their money too, and have something that doesn’t work out. And that’s fine.

Christine: And then the third one, which is particularly relevant for teens is to make them work.

About Christine Koh

A former music and brain scientist, Christine now works as a writer, speaker, designer, and consultant. She is the founder and editor of the award-winning blog Boston Mamas, the graphic designer behind Posh Peacock, co-author of Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More By Doing Less, and a digital strategist at The Mission List. Christine has been featured in the New York Times, Redbook, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Parents Magazine, National Public Radio, ABC News, and other fine media outlets. She lives in the Boston area with her husband Jonathan and daughters Laurel and Violet.

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