From Decluttering to Done: can this one step make all the difference?

From Decluttering to Done: can this one step make all the difference?

About a year ago, I was in a local town hall, with friends, watching a live band perform on a Saturday night. I was enjoying the music, and the company, but in the back of my mind I was distracted, thinking about other stuff. Or more specifically, I was thinking about stuff. My stuff.

I’d spent the day trying to declutter. I was planning to continue the following day. I was wondering whether I should get rid of something (I don’t remember what – maybe an item of clothing), or if I needed it, and what the best way to dispose of it would be… and then I caught myself. I noticed what I was doing, and realised how absurd it was.

I was letting my stuff spoil the moment. I was letting my stuff take up valuable space in my mind, as well as in my home. I was letting the process of decluttering take over my free time and my thoughts.

I’d been slowly decluttering over the past three years. I’d got rid of a heap of things I didn’t need and didn’t use, but the process had been slow. Here and now, at the gig, I realised that the longer I took, the more I was taking time and energy away from doing what I really wanted to be doing. (Which was not rearranging my wardrobe – again.)

The longer I took, the more I’d miss out on living my best life. “My best life” didn’t mean anything profound – it was as simple as this one evening.

Being able to spend time with my friends, or relax on a Saturday night. I could carry on decluttering the way I’d been going, and I’d still get there, but it would be long and drawn-out. How many moments like this would I miss in the process? I didn’t want to waste any more time. And so I didn’t. I made a plan.

I was clear what I wanted: a life with less stuff. I knew why in general terms: more time, more freedom, more connections and experiences. Yet I’d never really thought about what this actually looked like or felt like for me. The concert seemed to connect those dots. It really drilled down to my “why”.

What did more time look like? What did it feel like? What did I personally mean by freedom? What kind of experiences was I searching for? Was it about the big, soul-searching experiences, or was it being able to enjoy the simple things on a Sunday afternoon, undistracted by chores and clutter?

Why did I want a life with less stuff? There were many reasons.

I wanted more time.

I didn’t want to spend hours cleaning my home, or sorting, or dusting and vacuuming and putting stuff away.

I didn’t want to spend time rearranging ornaments or shopping for accessories.

I didn’t want to waste time looking for stuff amidst the clutter, or rummaging through overflowing drawers or cupboards.

I didn’t want to open my wardrobe to find a stuffed closet yet nothing to wear, trying on endless outfits before just wearing the same thing I always wore.

I didn’t want to be preoccupied thinking about my stuff.

What did I want to do instead? I wanted to spend my free time exploring, learning, and spending time with the people I care about. Visiting National Parks, reading, and leisurely breakfasts with family.

I wanted to spend my free time experiencing new things, being outdoors, and getting involved with my local community. I wanted to spend time with my friends, in a local town hall on a Saturday night, watching a band – not distracted by old jumpers and other stuff.

I wanted the stuff I owned to be useful and make my life easier – not distract me and take time away from the truly important things.

I wanted more freedom.

For me, freedom simply means having options. It’s not about being able to pack everything I own into a suitcase and heading off into the sunset. For me it’s about being able to make choices about how I spend my time. Not having to work extra long hours to pay for stuff I don’t need, or feeling burdened by a house full of possessions that need maintaining.

For me, freedom comes from having less stuff. Not owning more than I think is necessary (what I call my “enough”). The less I own, the more freedom I create for myself because the more choices I have. My husband and I can live comfortably in a small space with little storage. In Perth, this means we can live in a central location in a neighbourhood we like, close to amenities and transport. If we needed to move, or to pack up, we have the choice to do so – and owning less makes it easier.

My family live on the other side of the world, and part of this freedom means having enough savings in our bank account that if I needed to make a trip home, I could. It is far more important to me to have the money saved for that than to own a brand new dining suite, or the latest mobile phone.

Owning less also means less debt. The only debt we have is our mortgage. We saved up a sizable deposit to reduce the amount of debt we took on, and we made sure we could comfortably afford the repayments. Taking on a mortgage was a big decision, and we would love to be debt-free, but we don’t feel like our mortgage is stopping us doing the things we want to do – and for us, that is important. Previously we rented, and we loved the freedom that gave us. We don’t really see one as being better than the other: both offer different freedoms to us.

I wanted more connections and experiences.

I want to spend time with friends and family, I want to learn and to travel and to experience new things, and I want to have time to get involved in and contribute to my local community. I used to feel embarrassed about inviting friends over because I always felt that my home was a mess. As I began decluttering, a lot of the mess seemed to go away – and what was left was easier to deal with. I can’t believe I let my stuff get in the way of those relationships!

I also found that by breaking the cycle of working and shopping, I could use the money saved to go out for dinner with family, or take a short break down south to get amongst the trees and reconnect with nature. I created space in my evenings and weekends to take part in community events and contribute in a way that added value to my life and allows me to give something back to my local community.

I wanted less guilt, and less waste.

Every time I was faced with something in my home that I didn’t need, didn’t use or didn’t like, I would feel a wave of guilt. I’d feel guilty that I’d bought something that I hadn’t used, feel guilty that I’d got sucked in by some clever marketing campaign, maybe feel guilty that I wasn’t quite how I wanted to be. (If you have anything hanging in your wardrobe that doesn’t fit, you will know this feeling!) I don’t enjoy feeling guilty, so why didn’t I do something about it?

Somehow I’d justify keeping all these things because I hated the waste. Except, I’d failed to see that by keeping things that I didn’t want, didn’t use and didn’t like, I was creating waste. I was wasting good resources by not using them. If I wasn’t going to use them (and I mean by this, if I wasn’t going to use them properly, or regularly – if I wasn’t going to love them and get the best use out of them) then they were already being wasted.

Rather than feeling guilty about getting rid of perfectly good stuff, I began to realise that it was far worse and less ethical to keep perfectly good things for myself when I knew deep down that I wasn’t going to use them. It would be far better to pass them on for someone else to love them and get maximum use from them. Not only that, but all this worrying and contemplating was wasting my time…time I could spend doing other, better things.

There’s nothing wrong with taking time to declutter and make space in our lives. These things do take time. Decluttering is not something that is finished in a single weekend. But time is valuable, and the longer we take, the more we miss out on doing the important things.

I have no doubt that in the three years that it took me to get to this point, I missed out on great opportunities and experiences. After the concert, I was determined not to allow another three years to slip by. I wasn’t putting my dreams on hold for three more years. I didn’t want to ever be at another concert worrying about how many things were in my wardrobe.

More time and more freedom – we all want that. (“I really wish there were less hours in the day”, said no-one, ever.) What was a game-changer for me, what really made me see results, was actually drilling down into the specifics of what more time and more freedom actually looked like in my life, and what benefits they would bring to me, personally. What was it that I really wanted? How would I use this extra time? What did “freedom” actually mean to me? Then the biggest question – how was the stuff I owned preventing me from achieving this? How could decluttering, and letting stuff go, help me get closer to these goals?

Once I was really, truly clear on my goals, everything began to change. Joining the dots shifted my perspective: I was no longer somebody who simply liked the idea of a life with less stuff, and who slowly chipped away at decluttering the excess. The task at hand now had meaning and purpose, and a sense of urgency that hadn’t existed before. Even my decluttering nemesis, the wardrobe, finally came within my grasp. (In next week’s blog I’m going to share some “before” and “after” pictures so stay tuned.)

It’s not enough to simply want to make changes in our lives. We have to know why. We have to be clear on the benefits, and what they mean to us. Change can be hard, and there will be setbacks and wrong turns along the way. Being really clear as to why we’re doing it, and what we truly want, is what enables us to get up after these missteps, dust ourselves off, and try again.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you tried to make changes in your life? Have you considered your “why”? Have you thought about what success will look like, and feel like, for you? What are your main reasons for wanting to change? Have you struggled with change in the past, and did you manage to overcome those struggles? o you have any insights or tips to share? Have you embraced the idea of decluttering – and has that embrace transformed into action? Are you stuck at the planning stage? Have you had success – and what were your secrets? Do you have anything else you’d like to share! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below!

16 Responses to From Decluttering to Done: can this one step make all the difference?

  1. I love this. I am simplifying and decluttering because owning lots of things gives me too many options. I suffer from burnout/ptsd and don’t do well with lots of choices. Plus a decluttering house is so much less visually stimulating/activating mentally. It really calms me down to own less. And I don’t really have a lot of energy so the less time and energy I have to put into maintaining my stuff the more I have for me and getting healthier.

    Melina

    • Thanks so much Melina! I think most people don’t do well with lots of choices – it’s just that they don’t realise it. Miller’s Law (which Miller came up with in 1956) states that the human brain can only cope with 7 choices (plus or minus 2) before being overwhelmed. I think we kid ourselves if we think we can cope with more. I definitely find that I function much better with less choice. And I agree completely – less stuff is so much calmer.

      Good luck with the simplifying and decluttering. Better health is definitely a reason to work for! x

  2. Decluttering can be quite addictive – although of course that’s not the point! Maybe the addiction is more the feeling of space once overflowing cupboards and shelves have been cleared out and the beautiful simplicity of not having too much choice. In our two-person household we once had over 50 mugs (many of them were presents, I haste to add!). As you can imagine, even if we had visitors or lazy washing-up days that was way too many…

    Travelling with just the basics made me realise how little I actually needed on the daily basis. It’s of course nice to have a few extras at home but most of us probably have (or have had) stuff that we never use or even notice. When both hubby & I left our permanent full-time jobs we decided we’d rather spend our (at least temporarily reduced) income on experiences than more stuff, unless it was something we really, really wanted. We’ve never looked back. :-)

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Min! I know what you mean – when I first started decluttering I thought it would get harder and harder. I thought I’d pick the low-hanging fruit (the stuff I clearly disliked and didn’t use) and be left with all this stuff I couldn’t bear to part with. But the more you remove stuff from your space, the more you can see clearly what you need and what you don’t. I agree with what you say about it being addictive – I think it’s more that it’s motivating!

      50 mugs?! How much tea did you drink?! We have 6 I think, and sometimes I feel that is too many! I find that the more of things like that I have, the more the dishes piled up. Less stuff keeps my kitchen far tidier!

      Travelling is a good test of finding what is “enough”. I love packing the minimum now – I can’t believe there was a time when I’d haul a huge suitcase around the place with all these things that came back home, unused!

      Sounds like the perfect way to spend your time Min! And I love seeing your photos of all the places you’ve been : )

  3. My mother and I had to clean, sort, and sell the majority of my grandfather’s possessions a few years go so that he could move into a smaller place. It took weeks to get through everything. The entire family came over and took pieces they wanted, and everything left was auctioned in a moving sale. I took a small box of things that had special meaning to me and went home, exhausted from the process. While I was discussing the process with my daughter, it was like the light had been turned on for me. I suddenly realized that I would be going through the same process with my parents one day, and my daughter will be doing the same with my stuff. In the time since, I’ve pared down my belongings to almost only the necessities and a few sentimental pieces that we love to see each day. My “why” was less stress, more time with loved ones, and more time for unexpected adventures. My husband was very much NOT onboard when I started giving items away by the carload…until he started to see the benefits. Any time someone is complaining about how busy they are or how messy their house is, he now tells them that we’ll gladly discuss the benefits of less stuff and less commitments with them! Now it’s opened the door to allow us an opportunity to move to our “dream” location and build a small sustainable home….best of all, I’ll only need work for a few more years, and he won’t need to work at all. This life would never have been possible without pursuing less.

    • Oh Jen, thank you so much for sharing your story! I love how your experiences really changed the way you saw things, and led to you being able to make such fantastic changes in your life. My husband and I have the same thoughts regarding work – the idea of both of us working full-time until we are 65 is something neither of us are prepared to do! We want to spend our fifties (and some of our forties, hopefully) doing the things we love – not collect fancy gadgets and re-do the home decor every year!

      So often people say to me that there husbands or families aren’t on board with their new lifestyle (whether zero waste, plastic-free or minimalism) and I always say that you have to lead by example and hope that they will follow. And if the benefits are as great as we think they are, they WILL follow! Your husband is the perfect example! How could anyone NOT want more time and freedom and less stress? I love that he is now a champion for this lifestyle too ; )

  4. I’m in the ‘slowly moving on unnecessary items’ phase. The first change I made was to stop collecting things. I used to collect rhinoceroses and mid-century plates. It took awhile to realise this kind of collecting is more about wanting to create some kind of identity than actually needing to have such items throughout one’s house. It has been an interesting process to let go of connections to material objects. I was actually surprised and pleased this year that I only received two gifts for my birthday, fortunately both very useful!

    • Decluttering definitely take time! It takes time to think things through, and adjust…and letting go of stuff can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Especially at the start! I can relate to your “collecting”… I used to choose items that I thought said stuff about who I was. Now I realise that I don’t need physical items as proof that I have great taste / am well read / appreciate art (or whatever the reason might be). I don’t need to prove anything to anybody.

      It is definitely an interesting process. I’ve learned so much about who I am (compared to who I thought I was).

      It’s funny when we change to the point that less gifts is more exciting than more! And oh, for them to be useful! ;)

  5. I often feel as you did in that moment. I loathe waste and I refuse, refuse, refuse but I have a hubby and two kids who don’t, so I end up wasting so much of my life managing their stuff too. I have tried many times to discuss this with my family but they really don’t get it. I have a collection of stuff that is no good to anyone, I haven’t found an opportunity to recycle and yet which represent resources which I cannot bring myself to toss in landfill and so I feel I will never be done and will forever be plagued by this stuff.

    • Living with other people can have its challenges! My husband has always been completely on board with plastic-free living, but he sometimes reminds me (usually when I’m chastising him for picking up a paper mushroom bag at the shops because he forgot his own) that he didn’t sign up to zero waste!

      One thing I found helpful (for my own sanity) was to stop worrying about the waste of others. For example, extended family would sometimes try to pass onto us tatty old stuff that they didn’t want but thought we might be able to save. The thing is, if we can’t use it, I don’t want to take responsibility for disposing of it. And “about to break” or “about to wear out” is as good as, really. Sometimes I think people have to deal with their own guilt, and maybe this way they will make better choices next time! Similarly, we have verge collections here and I’d always want to save other peoples stuff. But I don’t have the space, time or energy to rescue stuff. I need to focus on where my energy has the biggest impact.

      I realise that this is slightly different when you live with the people creating the waste! Maybe trying to get them to deal with the waste themselves (so they realise what hassle it is) might be a start? Even making the kids haul the rubbish out to the kerb might make them less likely to fill the bin? Lay out your rules, and what they need to do if they don’t follow them.

      What kinds of things do you have that you say are no good to anyone?! Maybe we can brainstorm some solutions!

  6. I was first introduced to the term declutter by Flylady one week before September 11. So 15years ago! I have been decluttering ever since! In 2008 I discovered minimalism. I have read and read so much and continued to declutter. Somehow it hasn’t ended. Recently I read an article that resonated with me with a thought along these lines. Don’t concentrate on what you don’t want, decide what you do want. Discard the rest! Brilliant!
    Along my journey since 2001 I have decided many things from being vegan, going plastic free (a work in progress) ethical fashion, natural fibres, chemical free etc. all works in progress. But also boundaries for items in my house. If they don’t fit the boundaries and are not currently being used. They will be going. Why has it taken so long to realise this?! I’m glad I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and there will be a day when I don’t need to declutter anymore and I can do stuff instead of manage stuff!
    Thank you for your encouragement and inspiration!

    • 15 years ago, wow! Thanks for sharing your story, Larissa. Sometimes ideas take a while to sink in – I’m sure you didn’t start decluttering on day 1 and continue withe same intensity for those 15 years! ; )

      I wonder if you didn’t hear about minimalism before 2008 if those first years of decluttering just cleared the way for new stuff? I had to get rid of a lot of my stuff out of necessity when I moved to Australia (not all, mind!) and I came across minimalism fairly soon after moving here. Had I not, I have no doubt that I would have accumulated much more before I began decluttering! Moving country definitely gives us a headstart!

      I think all of these things are works in progress! (ps – I love all the choices you’re making, very inspiring!) Even with minimalism and decluttering, I am sure I can live with less. I have got the unnecessary and the clutter out of the way, and now is the time to experiment with less. Not replacing things when they wear out, and seeing if I need them.

      I am currently working towards veganism too. We are vegan at home, but we still struggle when we are out. I have no doubt it will get easier (both as my resolve strengthens, and as more options become available).

      Good luck with the decluttering Larissa! If you can see the light at the end of the tunnel then you are closer than you think! You will get there! : )

  7. There was a time I didn’t really think too much about the amount of stuff I had. I figured I had a small house so how bad could it be. Then my grandfather began to sell off and get rid of everything he didn’t need knowing he didn’t have long to live. A lifetime of possessions was dwindled down to a few pieces of furniture and just enough kitchen utensils to prepare his meals. He insisted he didn’t want us to deal with his stuff after he was gone. That got me thinking about how much stuff I had.

    Life was busy so the subject of what I needed and what I should pass on weighed down on me at night when I should have been sleeping. Luckily,, I no longer have sleepless nights over my stuff.

    Today I know it wouldn’t take much for my children to sort through my home when I’m gone.

    • Stuff takes up so much of our time Lois – first accumulating it; then maintaining it, worrying about it, wondering what to do with it; and then decluttering it! I like the idea that the older I get, the less I have. It occurred to me one day that whilst so many people are aspiring to get more, I’m aspiring to get less. And then I thought – isn’t that a great life goal?! Never to be weighed down by stuff!

      Your grandfather sounds very thoughtful! Stuff is such a burden…

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