5 Decluttering Tips for Letting Go (What A Difference a Year Makes!)

5 Decluttering Tips for Letting Go (What A Difference a Year Makes!)

This time last year I was back at my parents’ house in the UK, being forced to confront all the stuff I’d stored there for “safe keeping”. It was an interesting lesson in why hoarders shouldn’t get second chances, and I got rid of a lot of items, but I’m sorry to say, there were still several boxes remaining.

Everything that remains in storage
Everything that remained in storage at my parents’ house as of September last year. Yes, after the decluttering took place!

Fast forward a year and I’m back at my parents’ house (we went back to the UK for my brother’s wedding). My parents’ house is absolutely full to the brim with stuff, and as I’ve learned to let go of more and more, I find the amount of things they have more and more noticeable. It should be noted that whilst I always say that it’s far better to lead by example when trying to encourage change in others, and we shouldn’t preach or tell or instruct, I always fall down on this when it comes to my mum. Somehow the rules don’t apply! Maybe it’s because I only see her once a year, I feel I haven’t got the time to spend demonstrating change and waiting for it to catch on, and need to get right in there… or maybe it’s because I internalise all my preaching and bossy-ness and have to let it out somewhere! I hadn’t been back there two minutes and I was trying to persuade her to begin decluttering. (They tell me they like the clutter. Well, my dad does. I’m not completely convinced.)

Of course it wasn’t long before my parents pointed out that rather than declutter their stuff, I had a whole load of stuff of my stuff in their house that I should be focusing on. And they were right.

Well, what a difference a year makes! Sometimes it feels like we’re plodding away and not much is changing, but being put in exactly the same position a year later really made me realise how far I’ve come. Somewhere, in this past year, there’s been a shift. I didn’t notice it happen – maybe it was gradual there was nothing to notice – but it has happened. This time, when faced with decluttering, there was no internal struggle. There was very little debate. This time, I was ruthless.

Why was it so much easier this time round? Probably because decluttering is a skill I’ve been trying to master for a while, and I’ve learned a few lessons along the way:

1. Hoarders shouldn’t get second chances.

Anything that’s been in a box for a year (or really in my case, for almost 4 years) cannot be needed. Rather than opening boxes with the excitement of seeing what’s inside (it will cloud your judgement!), remember – you’ve long forgotten what’s inside. Instead, focus on the best way to pass these items to good homes. Stay detached. If you’re really brave, don’t open at all. Send straight to the charity shop!

2. If you’re passionate about zero waste, you can’t keep stuff in storage long-term (especially at someone else’s house).

Sometimes we find things in boxes that we like, that we remember fondly or we wish we had use for. That doesn’t mean we need them. If we liked them or needed them that much, they wouldn’t be sat in a box! If you really want your items to have value, give them to someone who needs them and will use them. Sell them on eBay or give them away on Freecycle or to the charity shop. Items sitting in storage gathering dust is just as much a waste of resources as sending something to landfill.

3. “Just in case” rarely happens.

Keeping items “just-in-case” is a waste of time (and space). Especially if the “just-in-case” items live in a box in storage. If you suddenly need the item, will you even remember where you put it? Let someone else get good use from your items. If you really need something you previously got rid of, you can borrow it, or buy another one second-hand when you need it. Chances are though, you won’t.

4. We live in the present, not the past.

Old photos of places we no longer remember, diaries and letters from years ago and other collected paraphernalia remind us of the people we were, but don’t necessarily represent the people we are now. If they bring up feelings of regret or sadness, are completely cringeworthy, or evoke no feelings at all, they have served their purpose. Let them go. We don’t need to be reminded of who we used to be! We live in the present, not the past. We should be creating new happy memories and living in the moment!

5. No matter how hard you find letting things go, if you keep trying you WILL succeed.

I was a natural hoarder. I’d collect, and accumulate, and hang on to things. It was how I was brought up, I’ve realised – there was always the option to store something if I wasn’t sure what to do about it. As a result, I never learned the art of decluttering or letting go. It’s been a hard lesson to learn. It takes time, and patience, and perseverance. But like all new habits, the more you practice the better you get. Keep flexing the decluttering muscle, and each time it gets a little stronger. I’m not perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve come a long way simply by not giving up.

So… what became of that pile of stuff? Most things went straight into boxes to the charity shop. A few (more specialist)  things went onto eBay…I felt there was more chance of connecting them with a better owner this way.  A couple of things came back to Perth with me (they may yet be decluttered). Those old diaries of my early teenage years?

Shredded Documents
Pages of paper filled with teenage angst are memories I’d rather forget! Those diaries served a purpose at the time, but their job is done. I felt rather excited that these pages will begin a new life as compost, and I will no longer be weighed down with awkward memories.

Shredded and added to the compost pile, and along with them a lot of teenage angst I’d rather forget!

With every item given away, sold, donated and shredded, I feel lighter. Stuff weighs you down. It’s a burden. Especially stuff spread across continents, and stored in other people’s houses.  It’s a relief to know next time I visit my parents for a holiday, I won’t be crawling through the storage space hunting down boxes to sort. I won’t be wasting time contemplating whether to keep things I’d already forgotten about. There will be no guilt at items left languishing.

It’s been a long road, this journey to a life with less stuff, and it’s been hard work, but I finally feel like I’m turning a corner, and that I’m seeing the benefits. Benefits like more time. More freedom. It makes me wonder… why did I ever think a bunch of stuff was more important than these?!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Confession time… do you have boxes languishing in storage, in your attic, garage, spare room, or worse – a relative’s house?! How many of them are filled with “just-in-case” items or stuff that you can’t even remember?! what is your biggest barrier to letting go? Or are your closets free of clutter? If so, what tips do you have for letting go of items? What has worked best for you? Anything else you’d like to add to the conversation? Please leave your thought in the comments below!

28 Responses to 5 Decluttering Tips for Letting Go (What A Difference a Year Makes!)

  1. Wow, well done, Lindsay! It must feel great not to have all that stuff lying around at the other side of the globe. A year of active decluttering has left me with only a dozen books that I would like to keep. I have two boxes of specialist books that I try to get rid of, but while I have sold many other books, these last piles of books are difficult to find a new owner for. Perhaps it’s hard to find a new owner because I live in a small town. It looks like I will be moving back to China in a few months, but this time I will have a lot less stuff to move to my parent’s house. This will save me so much time, energy and money!

    • Thanks Annemieke : ) It’s a relief that next time I go back for a holiday, there’ll be no chores awaiting me, definitely! ooh, I’m pretty sure I remember last year you saying you had a lot of books – great work! I think moving often – and moving continents! – is a great help in decluttering. My parents have lived in the same house for 30ish years, hence they have so much! I met my (Australian) husband in the UK, so he’d already gone through some of this process before we met – so he gets it too, fortunately. He’s just received all the final things that were stored at his parents’ house… Now to persuade him to ditch them! ; )

      Yes, it’s interesting how much stuff costs – money, time, stress levels!!!

  2. I just moved back from three years in Canada and I felt the same, I’d changed so much since I left and there were boxes upon boxes in my parents house. I sorted through and kept some kitchen stuff and furniture that I’ll need to set up a house here but I donated three shopping trolleys to a charity thrift store! I sold some other stuff online but I hate to say that I kept my angsty teenage diaries. Maybe they will get decluttered next time I visit them!

    • Haha – I think moving between countries definitely helps ease the decluttering! When we’re faced with stuff all the time it’s harder to make judgement on whether we really need it. With my kitchen stuff, I gave away most things in good condition in the end, but kept the stuff I knew I’d use, and also some old baking tins (I knew I’d use but didn’t necessarily need) because they aren’t sell-able, but I’m happy to use them until they deteriorate.

      Actually, last time I went back there (a year ago) I read all those teen angst diaries, but chose to keep them. This time I thought – why?! I don’t really want to remember most of it, I’d never want anyone else to read them. So they are gone. Maybe next time you’ll feel the same!

  3. Thank you for your inspiration. I started to declutter and organize several months ago, and have been stuck. Time to get busy again!

    • My pleasure Mi (I think – I didn’t mean to kick you! But if it helped… !) I’ve always been conflicted too. But this time I realised, there’s no need to keep them. The people who wrote the letters I shredded are different people too now, I don’t think it’s fair to hang on to the people they were any more… I’d be cringing if people still had letters I wrote in my teens, I’m sure! As for diaries – if they make you feel happy and joyful, great. Keep them. If not, what’s the point?!

  4. I currently have stuff stored In two small rooms in someone else’s house purely because I move so often at the moment and its all the usual stuff one needs to set up a wee flat. Could definitely do with sorting through the stuff again though… pretty sure I’d find treasures someone else would love!

  5. Great points. I have one “memory trunk” in my basement which I go through once a year to see what is still meaningful, and always end up getting rid of a pile of “huh, why was this special?” stuff, and because of that, over the past 20 years it’s never overflowed :) We also keep a bag by the door to fill up with giveaways, and belong to Nextdoor.com which allows us to freecycle stuff really quickly.

    • Wow, I love that you go through it once a year! That’s great! I used to have a memory box, i think I only ever went through it once in 20 years – and guess what, when I did it pretty much all went out! (Except those diaries. Should’ve known!)

      Nextdoor.com… I haven’t heard of that! Looks good though (I just looked it up). I love how the internet makes it so much easier to pass things on to good homes : )

  6. After moving again this year, I find most of our stuff is stuff that we do use and look at a lot. I moan at the size of it all, but I can’t detach from things if I’m always using them or looking at them.

    • Have you ever read Ryan from The Minimalists’ story? When he decided to try minimalism (inspired by the other Minimalist Joshua) he had a “packing party” where he boxed all his stuff up like he was gonna move, labelled all the boxes and then only took out what he needed, as he needed it. He ended up getting rid of most of it. I’d never bother to pack all my stuff up without the need, but I feel if I moved this would be a great idea! Rather than unpacking it all and being tempted, only going to the boxes as needed really helps identify what you actually need…without all the other things clouding your judgement.

      What do you think?! Good idea or not?!

  7. I find the “what will happen to it” the hardest. Can’t bring myself to throw stuff away if it needs to go to landfill. Like this wallet I replaced. It is leather and metal, probably has a bit more wear in it, but then what? Or am I donating too junky stuff to the opshops, like these plastic toys that look like they’re going to fall apart as soon as taken out of the package. Why do we have them? ‘Cause my husband’s boss thought they’d make a cool prize for something at work. So someone thought the toys are worthwhile, maybe other people will too? But what if the opshop decides that it’s junk and tosses it, it’s all for naught. At least I tried?
    I did make myself throw out the moldy towels ’cause I couldn’t come up with a way for someone to reuse them.

    • I completely relate! I do think it’s possible to be creative with getting rid of some things we don’t want. Art projects take packaging, and you can often recycle obscure things like corks or old shoes. Sometimes though, things have to go in the bin. The thing I’ve realised with deciding to live a zero waste lifestyle, is that many of those things purchased pre-zero waste will have to go to landfill at some stage. They were poor choices that I made, and I take comfort knowing I don’t make choices like that now, and that this will be the last time I send that type of *thing* to landfill. Out with the old, and in with the re-newable, so to speak!

      I think there’s a lot to be said for not bringing stuff home. Like the toys…the boss might think they’re a great idea, but leave them at work!

      Did you know you can give towels to dogs’ and cats’ homes? Depends how mouldy, obviously, but might be an option in the future?

  8. All that remains at my parents (who are local) are: a birdcage, two framed collages I did after returning from a year in France and wanting to ‘use up’ all my ‘nice things’ I’d collected (photos, magazine pictures etc).

    At my place – I have two identically sized lidded Ikea boxes – one for childhood/school til 17, and one since then. That sets a limit. Thought I can’t through out my old school uniform cause I don’t think anyone would ever believe the shoe lace in the collar!

    For many years, I know I stored cushion covers. I bought them for ‘my future home’ and in 2011, I got said home. Some covers were decluttered, but another sits in front of me now, so…!? And the inners are from old pillows my mother needed to get rid of. I keep a mozzie net too – it was hard to find a queen sized one. If I move back to a home without lots of screens, it’ll have been worth it. And it’s small…

    • Sounds like you’ve done a great job! Although it depends exactly how big these Ikea boxes of yours are, I suppose! Just kidding ; )

      It’s interesting what you say about the cushion covers. Several of the comments above also talk about saving things for the “future home” and lots of the things in my boxes were home things, like baking tins etc. My sister also has some crockery stored at my parents’ and she said the same thing – for when she has a home of her own (rather than a flatshare). I wonder though, when she moves, wouldn’t she rather have the opportunity to find *new* (well, second-hand, of course!) things that might be more appropriate for who she is now – and the kind of food she wants to cook.

      I definitely think, if something is truly useful, especially if it’s hard to find, then it’s worth keeping. Some minimalists have a rule that if you can buy it for say, less than $20 in less than 20 minutes, you shouldn’t own it. I don’t like the idea of unnecessary waste that comes with this, but I guess the real point is mostly you won’t need the thing…but there i security if you do. Hard to find but useful things are definitely worth keeping! : )

  9. One of the problems I have is that I like different hobbies: wood working, beekeeping (new one), cycling and gardening are the main ones. But there is definitely an option to declutter, thanks for the tips.

    • Hobbies are an interesting one! I think having tools and bits and pieces that you actually use is great, but that isn’t always the case. When we decide to take up a new hobby, the first thing we do is buy all the kit – often before trying it out to see if it’s a hobby that we enjoy and can fit in with our lifestyle!

      The other danger with hobbies is accumulating things for *projects* that never happen! It’s easy to see stuff on the verge, and think – ooh, that will make a great project! – but if it sits around unused and reminding us of our inaction that isn’t helpful. I read a great tip that you should set a timeline of projects like this – give yourself, say, 6 months, and say if you haven’t started or made progress (or finished – we right our own rules!) then it obviously wasn’t meant to be. Otherwise our garages would just be piled high with unfinished projects!

  10. I’ve moved to the UK about 7 years ago and I think I still have stuff at my parents’ house back in Germany. My trouble is that there are no charity shops so must things would just be binned and I don’t agree with that. So my mum has started sending most things now and a lot of it went into local charity shops over here.
    Also working in a charity shop has helped me to keep my house clutter free as it makes it so easy to just take unwanted items to work and sell them. I also very odten think twice if I really need to buy certain things. My job now is to get my partner’s mess tidied and decluttered ;)

    • I agree – there’s usually an alternative to the bin! There are lots of social networks springing up to donate things – like Gumtree and Freecycle, but also neighbourhood ones. Even ads on community noticeboards can work!

      It’s very true what you say – the key is to think twice before bringing things into our homes! Especially if it will be hard to dispose of later on!

      If you figure out how to declutter your partner’s mess, be sure to give me some tips ; )

  11. Ah well, I’m STILL working on stuff. Not too many boxes left though. I got side-tracked by eBay. Now I’m over it — I get things to good homes that way but it takes too much time. (although, on the bright side, I did make enough to fund a nice vacation)

    • Hi Sandy, good to hear you’re nearly the end! I know what you mean by eBay. At the start, I found it very useful as the money gave me an incentive to get rid of things I still saw had value. As I’ve gotten better at decluttering I can see it slows the process down, so I save it for valuable stuff (not that I have much of that) or obscure stuff… or when I’m low on motivation to get rid of something!

      It’s all about balance ; )

  12. You’re not the only person who has had to force themselves to declutter. I can’t read your other comments on this post but I am sure there must be others along the same lines as mine!

    Added to my struggle, I have a daughter who is even more sentimental, so it is uphill to downsize our belongings. However, we have made an impact this summer :-)

    Well done for letting go of so much of your past. At least, my diaries and such like went years ago. And like you say, the past really is best left there!

    • It’s a hard lesson to learn, Helen! But practice always makes us better. I’m lucky that my husband is keen to declutter too…the only thing is he is convinced that everything in our home is mine (so he doesn’t need to do much to help), whereas I’m convinced most of it is his! ; )

      Yes, I’m pleased to be rid of the diaries. Good riddance!

Share your thoughts!