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)