Publishing Date: April 19, 2022
Pages: 256 (Hardcover)
How often do you think something like “I should spend time with my family” and instead work late or keep scrolling your social media feed? It can be an uncomfortable question for many of us. In the opening of his new book, Things That Matter, author and minimalism advocate Joshua Becker flips the question on its head by asking: Have you ever thought about what you might regret when you come to the end of your life? He uses the question as a springboard to turn the lens of minimalism, defined as “the intentional promotion of the things that we most value by removing anything that distracts us from them”,1 from our physical stuff to the stuff of our lives—the things that create our legacy.
After opening the first chapter with a reflection on the regrets of the dying, Becker quickly flips the question about regret again, asking “Do you know your purpose (in life)?”2 He believes that the things we choose to pursue with our time are the things that really matter to us and thus reflect our “purpose in life.” He also observes that “pursuits that help other people are the most influential, the most enduring, and even—I would say—the most rewarding for us.”3 Becker concludes the first chapter by asking a poignant question: “If pursuing things that matter is so great…why aren’t we focusing on our purposes, which would give us joy and fulfillment day by day, leading to a sense of satisfaction at the end of life?”4 He believes that the reason is that we go on and on “putting the inconsequential ahead of the imperative”,5 or in other words: we’re distracted.
“Have you ever thought about what you might regret when you come to the end of your life?”Joshua Becker
After a brief history of the plague of distraction (hint: it didn’t spring into existence with the smartphone or the internet or the television or the novel or the _____ …), Becker identifies the distraction-filled lifestyle that we’re currently immersed in (which has inarguably been amplified by our constant connectivity), and this is where his minimalism expertise comes into play. He identifies eight distractions that he has noticed come up repeatedly, distractions which are “powerful enough to derail us from achieving our most cherished goals and purposes”6. These distractions are what he is focused on minimizing in the remainder of the book.
In Parts 2 and 3 (Distractions of a Paralyzed Will and Distractions of the Lesser Good, respectively) Becker devotes chapters to each of the distractions in turn: fear, past mistakes, happiness, money, possessions, applause, leisure, and technology. The chapters are written in Becker’s typical style, with short anecdotes about people and his own experiences interspersed among the main ideas to illustrate his points. The tone is conversational and informative rather than persuasive, and the chapters are reflective and potentially revealing.
As a long-time Becker reader (his earlier books on material minimalism have significantly influenced my life in positive ways), Things That Matter was not what I was expecting. In The Minimalist Home, each chapter ends with a checklist of questions about the purpose of a room leaving the reader with a potential quick win for clearing clutter. In Things That Matter, Becker leaves the reader to do the hard reflecting on their own, with no guiding questions. Immediately after finishing the book this disappointed me, but I also think it has forced me to think on my own about the distractions in my life, and the longer I sit with Becker’s ideas, the more they shed light on distractions in my own life. However, to gain this benefit the reader has to want to reflect, and have some skill at self-reflection.
“In Things that Matter, Becker leaves the reader to do the hard reflecting on their own, with no guiding questions.”
The reflections prompted by this book have been timely for me and I think they will also resonate with others. Around the world, the abrupt change of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two-and-a-half years have prompted many people to reflect on their life choices. For me, there is an added layer of working in an industry in the midst of significant disruption (exacerbated but not caused by the pandemic) which has led to feelings of job insecurity and dissatisfaction. This book has provided an opportunity to pause and consider how distractions are feeding into that whirlwind of uncertainty. Becker’s thoughts have given me a new lens to view the question, “Why do I teach in Christian higher ed?” by encouraging me to consider how my job might be integral to facilitating my life-purposes (my things that matter).
Becker ends the book with chapter 11: Live the Story You Want Told And Expect Surprises. This title succinctly summarizes what the author hopes all the discussion of distraction will empower you to do. You can’t live a focused life if you don’t know where you’re going, and you’ll become exhausted on the trail if you’re carrying too many distractions. It takes courage and effort to stop trying to keep all your options open and instead commit to living your purpose, but you have a greater impact when you do. Things That Matter can help you in this pursuit. How might your world look different five years from now if you clear away some of the distractions and live more fully towards your purpose?