If You're Decluttering the Same Stuff Over and Over, You're Doing it Wrong
Note: this post contains a few affiliate links. All the links are to wonderful books that you should read. And despite this entire post being about clutter, I still recommend owning them because not only will you learn a lot, but you'll be supporting great authors (and a small percentage helps this blog stay online).
Another resurgence of minimalism, simple living, and decluttering is making the rounds of social media, news sites, and blogs. Whether you're following Marie Kondo's Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, playing the #MinsGame, or reading The Minimalist Home by Joshua Becker, eventually you're going to end up with a life with fewer possessions, an emptier home, and a bunch of free space and time in your life. And that empty space is a beautiful thing, if it is preserved. Unfortunately, I've often found myself with fewer possessions and burdens and treated it like an empty plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet or an empty shopping cart at the store on Black Friday. I imagine many of you have found yourself in the same boat. If you keep reading, you'll find many of the mistakes I've made while decluttering over the years and some of the best advice I've read and used to help keep the clutter out for good.
You found a reason to declutter or simplify or KonMari your house. It was a great reason. You found a method or a blog or a video or a documentary or a book that helped kickstart your journey. It outlined how to let go of physical clutter in your life. Some things were easy to get rid of, some were difficult. Some days it was easy to haul those boxes out of your house, while other days you sat in the hallway reminiscing over old high school memorabilia. Whatever your journey, it led you to a final moment where your house and your life were free of clutter and excess. Maybe you finally got rid of that storage unit or you cleared out your basement office. It's such a wonderful feeling to have that clutter gone. You feel free again!
But, as I noted earlier, we so often lose our way on this simplicity journey and end up in a buy-declutter-buy-declutter cycle. When the “honeymoon stage” of simple living and decluttering wears off, we tend to buy back into our old ways. It might start with a good deal on Amazon or a sale at the clothing outlet stores. Next thing you know, your closets are full, your kitchen cupboards are lined with unused gadgets, your basement is full of boxes and bins filled with things you haven't touched in months. You're back where you started. How did this happen? You go back to your inspiration. You read the books and the blogs again. You rewatch the documentaries and videos. You try to figure out what went wrong and where you faltered.
You begin to wonder what's wrong with you or what's wrong with the system you followed. How could you let this happen again? Maybe you wallow in self-pity or get upset at yourself or the blogger or author or minimalist who led you down this path. Maybe you find a renewed determination to really do it this time and stick to it. Whatever your reaction, you either accept your failure and give up or you determine to give it another try.
Let me find a bit of fault in some of these decluttering programs, books, and documentaries (although I think many of them are wonderful and you should definitely follow their advice). They provide encouragement, evidence, testimonials, and guidelines to help you declutter your stuff and/or your life. They offer a crash-course in getting rid of your junk. And often they leave you there, at the end of your decluttering journey, to fend for yourself in maintaining your newfound clutter-free life.
Think about it this way: imagine you are hired as a support technician for a large software company. Your job is to answer customer questions about the software, help them troubleshoot problems, and generally provide assistance to software users. You arrive at the office on your first day and are immediately placed in a conference room with a trainer. She proceeds to train you on all aspects of the software and walk you through a bunch of example questions or problems you might encounter. After a few weeks of training, your manager hands you a laptop and a phone and sends you home. He tells you to answer any questions you receive via email or phone. He also tells you to avoid bothering your coworkers or supervisors with any questions. Good luck!
Don't get me wrong, I don't want to put down or discredit any of these programs, books, blogs, or whatever (after all, I'm a regular contributor to all this talk about simple living!). I think they're fantastic! But so many people miss out on opportunities to continue to live simply or the initial joy and benefits wear off over time. While we're reading the book or following the program or watching the documentary, we feel so inspired and so hopeful! Unfortunately, when that excitement and inspiration fade over time, we fall back into our old ways.
I hope the rest of this post will provide some help and encouragement and ideas to keep you going when the initial benefits begin to fade (or help keep them from fading at all).
So, how do you stick with the simple life year after year? How do you keep the clutter out instead of letting it creep back in and starting the whole cycle over again?
If you have the answer, please let me know!
Every situation and human being is unique, so unfortunately I don't have a magic pill that will solve all the issues that you face while keeping the clutter out or maintaining a simple life.
However, after several false starts and restarts on my own decluttering journey, I've definitely learned a few things about how to keep going after the “honeymoon phase” wears off. I've made about a million mistakes along the way, so learn from my mistakes and the wisdom of others who have also walked this path! I'm also not an expert or a guru, so I've provided plenty of links to other articles written by people who are smarter and have more experience than I do with keeping the clutter out for good.
Have a Why
This is possibly the most important paragraph of this entire post. Having a good 'Why' behind your 'What' and 'How' while decluttering is vital for success. If you don't know or fully understand why you're getting rid of your excess stuff, you will almost definitely fail and end up with a house full of clutter in the near future. I can't tell you what your purpose is or why you need to declutter. But I do know that having a reason beyond the simple “I'm tired of all this junk!” is powerful. Know why. Try to envision what your life will be like with less clutter. Who are you at your core? How is the clutter covering you up? Who do you want to become? What is important in your life? Questions like these can help you find your why. Courtney Carver lists having a why as her number one tip in her Decluttering 101 post.
Overcome the Just in Case Mentality
Courtney Carver of Be More With Less also has some wisdom to share about the “just in case” mentality and how it keeps our homes and our lives cluttered. She says it so eloquently, I'll refer you over there instead of trying to hash out my own version.
Enjoy Missing Out
I'm sure by now you've probably heard of FOMO (fear of missing out) and JOMO (joy of missing out). A lot of clutter comes from this fear of missing out, which is related to envy, fear, and insecurity. We think more stuff will fill the gaps in our life, make us feel better, or make us look better. The truth is, people who have a ton of stuff still have the same insecurities, fears, and feelings as everyone else. Stuff is often a distraction from dealing with our problems and realizing our full potential. Enjoy missing out on the swag, the latest trends and fads, the newest iPhone, or that Amazon item that you think you can't live without. If you look for joy in things that aren't sold in a store and don't come with 2-day shipping, you'll discover that there really is a joy in missing out on the clutter because with clutter, you're missing out on a lot of joy. Courtney Carver also has a bit of wisdom to share about FOMO and JOMO.
Curb the Need to Shop
You shop because you're bored. Or for therapy. Or for fun. Or maybe you actually need to buy something! Whatever the reason, shopping, both in a brick and mortar store and online, has become one of America's favorite pastimes. According to the US Department of Labor, adults who engaged in the purchase of goods and services spent, on average, over 1.5 hours per day doing so. However, I doubt that includes the type of shopping that many people would consider leisure time. The pull to shop is everywhere. Advertisements bombard us on highways, televisions, apps, news feeds, and websites. Social apps like Instagram and Pinterest now include links in posts that provide instant access to buy items featured in posts. Shopping malls and websites draw us in with the allure of a deal. These tactics may be one of the biggest reasons why we let the clutter creep back in (I know I've given in to Amazon's daily deal more than once).
Here are some great reads about how to curb your need to shop and how to stop buying future clutter:
Confessions of a (Reformed) Shopaholic: No Sidebar
Breaking Free From Consumerist Chains: Zen Habits
But I Love Shopping: Be More With Less
Use the 1 in/1 out rule
This is a simple, yet powerful rule to live by. If one thing comes into your house/life, one thing must leave. Typically, this rule should be applied to things that need replacing. Your favorite pair of jeans has finally worn out? Dispose of them responsibly and buy a new pair. Don't keep the old pair hanging about in your closet. There are times when this rule may not apply or be useful, such as when you welcome a new child or pet into your life, or if you begin a new hobby or profession that requires you to obtain new stuff. But for most gadgets and doodads, this rule should be applied rigorously.
I failed to apply this rule for some time with headphones and earbuds. I spent a good year looking for a new pair of good headphones or earbuds. Instead of waiting for the ones that best fit my needs or replacing broken earbuds, I acquired several (6) pairs of various earbuds and headphones. I only have one set of ears and can only listen to one thing at a time! I've since cut back drastically and now have a specific purpose for each set I've kept (I have different headphones for editing audio, use at work, and for wireless listening). Use the 1 in/1 out rule to make sure you're not just adding and adding to the contents of your home. If you want to go for bonus points, try using the 1 in/2 out rule to really cut the clutter.
Everything Has a Home
You've probably heard this advice from Benjamin Franklin before, “A place for everything, everything in its place.” Having a home for each item can help reduce clutter. Almost every item in your home deserves a permanent (or at least semi-permanent) place to stay. Here are a few things I've learned over the years about this advice:
- Have an inbox for incoming items (mail, packages, paperwork, gifts, etc.) that you clear out at least once a week. This provides a temporary home until a permanent home is found.
- Keep a filing cabinet or other easy-to-sort location for important paperwork that you need to keep for extended periods of time. Create a system that lets you easily and quickly sort, deal with, and file away any new papers.
- Leave empty space. If you fill up every nook and cranny with stuff, it might all have a home, but you're laying the foundations for future clutter. If you leave blank space between items or groups of items, you make your space calmer and make your things easier to find and care for.
- Avoid the organization traps. Bins, boxes, drawers, shelves, units. There is a massive industry to help you organize and stow away all your stuff. But remember, the things you put your stuff in also count as extra stuff. And what's the point of having all that stuff stored away, sitting unused? I think most of us need some drawers, bins, and shelves for some of our things (like keeping cleaning supplies out of reach of the kids), but if you find yourself buying more and more bins and shelf-organizers for your stuff, it's probably a good sign that you need to go through and declutter that stuff again.
Put It Away Right Away
This tip goes hand in hand with the last tip. If everything has a place, put it there immediately after you've finished using it. When you change into your pajamas, put your clothes in the laundry basket. When the dishwasher finishes running and the dishes are dry, put them away. Put the oven mitts back where they belong after you take dinner out of the oven. Put the scissors back in your desk drawer. You get the idea. Clutter breeds more clutter. And flat, empty surfaces are the perfect breeding grounds for that clutter. If you put things away when you're done using them, you'll effectively sanitize these areas and keep the clutter from growing. Trouble spots in our home are the kitchen table and kitchen countertops. My wife, Sarah, and I have been working through this habit and it is a tough one to break! But it can be done and will help you keep the clutter out.
Break the Twitch
One of my favorite blogs is Break the Twitch by Anthony Ongaro. He began his journey when he realized he had a “twitch” to get on Amazon and make small purchases. After a while of making these $20-$30 purchases, he looked back through his order history and realized that he had spent thousands of dollars on mostly cheap junk and little gadgets that hadn't really improved his life or made him happy. He decided that he was going to break the twitch and start living an intentional life instead of blankly scrolling through whatever feed and making random purchases. I recommend doing the same. We have an impulse to buy things because they're on sale, they're a good deal, we want them, they look cool, or sometimes just because we're bored and we know we have $20 to spend. Break that twitch and stop bringing in the clutter. I promise that extra charger, phone case, earbuds, or pressure cooker won't bring you real, lasting happiness. I do know that they'll probably add complexity to your life when they break or don't get used and end up collecting dust in storage bins in your attic.
I'm going to let my friend Cait explain this one to you. She has done at least two year-long shopping bans where she only purchased essential items or pre-defined items (for example, she knew she would need a few new clothing items, so she listed them before her ban started). I can't recommend her book and blog enough.
One other thought to go along with the shopping ban. If the year-long shopping ban seems too radical for you right now, try this instead: When you feel the urge to buy something, wait for a month. Add it to your wish list or write it down somewhere. I use a price-tracking site to store some of the items on my list, but you can use whatever works best for you. Usually after a month, the “new and shiny” phase wears off and you either forget about the thing or you realize that you don't need it. If a month passes and you still feel compelled to buy this item, list out alternatives by answering these questions: Can you borrow one? How often will you use it? Do you have something similar? Will it make life easier or better in some way? If you make it through all of these questions and you still want to make the purchase, I think you can go ahead and buy it without feeling guilt. But remember the 1 in/1 out rule and make sure this new thing will have a home.
And finally, tying this all back into “having a why”, we come to gratitude. Gratitude is one of the most powerful forces to keep clutter out. We should practice gratitude daily. Be grateful for everything we have. Be grateful for this beautiful Earth, for our sun and moon, for our bodies and our families and friends. Be grateful for our homes, for running water, for green grass, for trees, for access to almost limitless information and interaction with people around the world. Be grateful for things big and small. For your carpet and your toaster and a bowl and spoon and the grocery store.
Try this exercise: When you're not at home, make a list of all the material items that you own that you're grateful for and that you can think of. I know my list would get quite long. Then think of the reasons why you're grateful for that thing. Then, when you get home, go through the things you didn't list or didn't think of. Do you need to keep those things? Are you grateful for them? Why/why not? Then, make a list of non-material things you are grateful for (e.g., spouse, kids, pets, Earth, water, religion, knowledge, etc.). Compare the lists. If you had to lose all the things on one list, which would you choose? Which list is more important to you?
This powerful exercise in gratitude should show you what's important to you and where your priorities are (or where they should be). It also shows you that material things can be replaced and are temporary. They wear out or break or get lost. Finally, it helps you realize just how much you have already been blessed with. With a list so long, how could you possibly spend your evening scrolling through cheap gadgets on Amazon or browsing the local big box store? When the urge to buy something that is not an absolute necessity, refer back to this list. The impact of such a simple list may surprise you.
For more motivation in practicing gratitude, the amazing blogger Leo Babauta of Zen Habits has some great advice:
Gratitude to Cure the Impulse to Buy More Stuff: Zen Habits
The Transformative Power of the Gratitude Habit: Zen Habits
By no means is this list meant to overwhelm or scare you away from decluttering or becoming a minimalist. Please do not feel that you have to go out and apply all of the advice listed here or completely overhaul your life overnight. Simplifying your life is a process that often take years to implement and perfect (and even then, you'll still make changes and tweaks). It's not a race or a competition. When the going gets tough or you feel the clutter creeping back in, come back to this post and choose just one thing to help you out of the funk. Even one small and simple change will make a lasting impact in your life.
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