my methods for de-cluttering

I was quite the little pack rat when I was a kid. We lived in the same house for my whole childhood, then moved a couple of blocks up the street. I collected and scavenged and saved mementos. When I was in my 20s I moved to Japan for a year and never came back. I took one suitcase (grudgingly – I needed much more space, but the rules is the rules, or so I thought). When I moved from Japan to the U.S. four years later two suitcases didn’t even come close to fitting my stuff. Now, of course, I have a small houseful of stuff… and I’m eventually going to move around the world again. Is that why mastering my “stuff” sometimes feel like my life’s work?

Method 1: Re-organizing, also known as “churning”

This goes two different ways for me.

Sometimes I just have the urge to take everything out of the place where I have it stored and put it back a different way that works better. I think about all the things I might need the stuff for, how I’m going to use it in the future, how this system is going to be better. Everything goes back, in the old place or a new place, and I feel better. I might even be inspired to start doing some crafts or plan a new project.

Other times I pull everything out, hoping to de-clutter, but instead I get bogged down in guilt and shame and inertia. I think about how stupid I was to buy this stuff, how I could never get rid of it because someone else will criticize or be upset. I get completely overwhelmed by all the problems I have to fix, and everything goes back where it came from (sooner or later) and I feel bad.

Method 2: Basic de-cluttering:

I look around and notice or remember things I have that I haven’t used for a long time. I ask myself what they mean to me, why I think I am keeping them. I ask myself if I know someone who could make better use of them, who could be happy to have them. I notice that some things I “love” out of habit – that is, I have a strong memory of loving them, but now they are not so special.

I ask myself if the things I own are beautiful, useful, necessary, or delightful. If they make me feel bad and they don’t serve an important purpose I put them in the recycle pile.

The recycle pile is divided into stuff to donate at St Vinnie’s, stuff to redistribute at work, stuff I know a good recipient for, and stuff I need to figure out a way to get rid of (usually it needs to go in the trash, but I hate to trash anything). Sometimes I get bogged down with finding the “right” way to get rid of things.

Looking at my stuff often makes me like it more, even if I haven’t noticed it or used it in ages. It brings up a lot of emotion and memory. Sometimes I decide to keep things, but I decide to give them more importance in my life, or commit to using them. And sometimes I do.

Method 3: Clean slate de-cluttering, or getting serious:

This is the way to really reduce your stuff. It’s hard though. It’s what you do when you move across the world (especially when you’re young and poor), but maybe we should all try it now and then, because it breaks through clutter-blindness and habit.

You start with nothing – an empty suitcase or an empty room (or even an empty drawer). You decide what you need, what you should have, what you really value. You ask yourself what you would re-buy if you lost everything in a disaster. You don’t look at each item and think about whether to keep it (try it and you’ll see why). You say to yourself, if I’m starting my wardrobe from scratch I will need a two dresses, pair of jeans, lots of underwear, and enough t-shirts to last a week, and that’s what you put away. Sometimes you even get to buy something new, like when I realized I didn’t need-want any of my old non-stick pans any more, but I did need a steel wok to stir fry in. It’s better to go and buy the one thing you need rather than keeping 5 things that don’t quite work.

When you’re done you’re left with a pile of stuff to get rid of – all the things that weren’t on the list of “what I really need and want”… and that’s when it gets scary…

If you’re hardcore you toss that unloved stuff right away. If you’re nervous you put it in a box and hide it and when you find that you haven’t missed it at all a month later, then you toss it. If you’re chicken, or you really don’t want to de-clutter, you start looking at everything lovingly and justify why you should keep it (and thereby transform the process into churning).

There’s a lot of process in between. One day I spent time writing down why I loved a certain pair of boots, how they reminded me of a time in my life that has passed, how I finally found them (when I didn’t need them anymore), and how uncomfortable they were to wear. After I wrote it all down I saw what I was doing clearly, and the boots were easier to get rid of. Taking pictures sometimes helps.

I have given up on dreams I thought I wanted to live (but really only wanted to dream, or buy). I have given away things I love, knowing that someone else loves them more (or just for practice, knowing that you can’t keep anything forever). I have accepted that I can’t fix what’s broken, and holding on to the pieces only breaks my heart over and over again…

Letting stuff go gets easier with practice.

(Holding on gets stronger with practice too)


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4 Responses to my methods for de-cluttering

  1. Kate says:

    Love the categories. Great post JO! Keep on reminding me, pse. I need all the help I can get. I am often guilty of churning. Yes, that’s me.
    Having had the experience of unbearable lightness of being: moving across the world in my forties with only two suitcases and a day backpack, all of which I could handle myself through airports various (with a little help from luggage carts) I can really affirm to grace and beauty of letting go of everything.

    I was lucky however. I had nine months when all I had to do was let go of material possessions prior to immigration. I did it in layers. Sweeping through the house for things which had least significance, least attachment first and so on deeper and deeper into meaningful things which finally went to meaningful friends.

    However one of the post-lightness experiences for me was that the pendulum seemed to swing back the other way really hard when I arrived on US soil. Stuff is so very easy to come by in this country. Somehow I felt justified in gathering again. Randomly, wantonly and hugely as a panacea for loneliness, unhappiness and dislocation from my friends, land and culture.I dealt with the difficult aspects of immigration by accumulating stuff (and weight on my body too incidentally) Like having an eating disorder I gorged myself in thrift stores, Joannes, online shopping, yard sales, free on the side of the road, FOL booksales…everywhere you look stuff waits to follow you home in the US.

    Moving house definitely helps the shedding process. I have moved house 8 times in past 9.25 years so really know the weight of my accumulating disorder as I have seen the pile of possessions mount up.

    I am now in a mode of consciously assessing (I hope) but it does take time. Vast amounts of time. I deliberately moved to a smaller place. Part of the drive behind that was a recognition of the truth that nature abhors a vacuum: if there is a space, things will move in to it.

    I have also been trying to stick to the remove one thing a day rule this year.

    Currently one of the most difficult things for me is to restrain one of the significant people in my life, who constantly conjures stuff into my life, some of which I don’t really need and which I cannot give away because it is either “on extended loan”. Really truth is I am a parking place for his excess stuff which he doesn’t want but doesn’t want to get rid of.

    Another friend did this to me when she moved east to pursue her dream of studying. I became custodian of her mother’s sewing machine and a huge oil paitining amongst other things like bookshelves and baskets etc. I have subsequently found the ideal person for the sewing machine but not without feeling a little guilty.

    So it seems I become conduit for others in their process of detachment. This is a good thing as I am all for offering a helping hand, but sheesh, I have my own attachments to deal with too.

    Somedays I look around and acknowledge that truth is our friends and families can be the ones who place the biggest burden of attachment upon us. Both in material objects and in emotional baggage. Ever wondered why Milan Kundera’s “Unbearable lightness of being” features high on my list of fav books? Which reminds me, how the heck did I get TWO copies of that on my shelves…..

  2. Kate, all I can say is yes, yes, yes… yes.

    I haven’t read Kundera’s book yet, but I like the title

    • space says:

      yes, the stuff is hard… books are some of the hardest for me, clothes too… craft supplies & things that could become craft supplies…

      I like the catagories. :)

  3. Pingback: Quilting and Quitting « adventures in the here now

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