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3 (More) Assumptions You’re Making About Decluttering…And Why You’re Right

After writing last week’s post all about assumptions that we make about decluttering that are actually wrong (no, decluttering something that you never use, don’t need and don’t like is not a waste – you can read all about these assumptions here), I wanted to continue with this theme – but talk about some other assumptions we make that are actually right.

Yes, some of those assumptions we make about decluttering are most definitely right.

I want to talk you through three of the assumptions I made before I started my decluttering journey and that – now I’m out the other side – still hold true.

I also want to talk you through why they aren’t necessarily bad things, and give you some tips for staying on track.

4. Decluttering is hard.

I’m not going to lie or try to pretend otherwise: decluttering is hard. Yes there are people who find it easy to let go of things. (I’m not one of them.) The thing about decluttering is that it is the removal of clutter – and people who are good at letting things go tend not to have clutter in the first place.

The definition of clutter is “an untidy collection of things” and those people who find it easy to let things go do not amass collections of things.

The rest of us – well by the time we realise there are collections of things that bother us, those collections tend to be sizeable amounts. We need to declutter a lot, and it’s hard.

But hard is not impossible.

I think a lot of the “it’s so hard” feeling comes because by the time we notice that we have all this clutter and need to do something about it, it’s becoming a little overwhelming.

We realise it’s overwhelming and we want it gone – now!

But we forget that this stuff took us months and often years to accumulate, so wanting it gone in an afternoon is wishful thinking.

(Well, unless you order skip bin and toss the lot. I think, not only is that an incredible waste of useful stuff, but how can we possibly change our relationship with things if we don’t take the time to consider why we bought these things and why we’re letting go of them now? How will we ever learn the lessons that stop us just accumulating more stuff and having to repeat the whole process again?)

We think decluttering is hard when we think of it as a task, because we then become overwhelmed with the enormity of it. Really, we need to think of decluttering as a project.

We need to simplify into manageable steps.

Divide a Big Project into Manageable Tasks

Once we think of it as a project, we can start to split it down into manageable tasks.

First, we can prioritise our spaces and stuff according to what is difficult and what is easy, what will have a big impact and what will have less impact.

I talk about this in a lot more detail in my book ‘Less Stuff’, but the premise is this: start with the easy stuff that will make a big difference – either to the look or feel of a room, to the surface clutter, or simply for your sanity levels – and start there.

That way you’ll not find it too challenging and will see results quickly – and that keeps you motivated to do more!

The garage might be desperately in need of a clearout but if you know there are still boxes of stuff in there from when you last moved 20 years ago, it’s not going to be the best place to start.

Batch Your Tasks

Second, I’m a big fan of ‘batching’, which means do the same task a few times before moving on the the next thing.

For example, gather together items and sort them into how you’re going to deal with them, and once you’ve got a full box of things to sell or things to donate, move onto dealing with these.

Dealing with one item at a time is woefully inefficient. By the same token, waiting until you have 15 boxes of stuff you’d like to sell will become so overwhelming you won’t want to look at it.

Also, the longer we leave taking action, the more likely we are to convince ourselves that we did need things after all – and unpack those boxes.

So batch. Find a few things you no longer need, decide what to do with those items, deal with them, and then find the next few things.

Decluttering (the entire house) might seem hard, but listing a few books on the Buy Nothing group is easy. Donating some unwanted gift food items to the Food Bank is easy. Selling a couple of unworn dresses is easy.

Decluttering might seem hard, but it is also simple. Let things go, one at a time.

As a wise philosopher once said, a journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step.

5. Decluttering takes time.

Yes, decluttering takes time. Just as accumulating the clutter took time, letting it go takes time. I don’t believe anyone can (responsibly) declutter a whole house, or even a whole room, in a single afternoon.

I think it takes weeks, sometimes months, and maybe even years (depending on how much stuff we have when we start, and how much time we can dedicate to letting it go).

But taking time does not mean taking forever. There is an end. And you will get there.

The journey is just as important as the destination.

When we declutter, we aren’t just physically letting go of stuff, we’re de-owning it. To do that sometimes means letting go of the ideas we attach to the item. Whether that’s guilt or regret or fear, we attach a lot of emotions to our stuff. We have to let go of these as well as the actual object.

It’s about finding acceptance with who we are now (no, hot pink really doesn’t suit me; no, as much as I love the idea of playing the guitar I know I’ll never be disciplined enough to practice; no, I’ll never fit back into that dress I wore at that party in 1977).

We need the time to learn the lessons. We need the time to test our fears (because sometimes we really aren’t sure, and no-one wants to buy stuff they decluttered back again). We need to develop a new, better relationship with our stuff.

All that time we’re in the process of decluttering stuff but not yet finished, we’re learning.

So yes, decluttering takes time, but that is a good thing. All things that are truly rewarding and worthwhile take time.

6. Decluttering is oh-so worth it.

We know that those piles of things are driving us crazy. We know that “reorganising the linen cupboard – again” is not the best use of a long weekend or day off work. We know that madly panicking just before leaving the house because we’ve no idea where our stuff is, except that it is in one of the piles, isn’t helping our blood pressure levels.

We know that less stuff makes us less stressed. We know it gives us more time. We know it gives us more freedom. Research tells us that, and so do those people who’ve successfully decluttered. I’ve never ever come across an article or a person that said “I got read of all that stuff I didn’t need and was so overwhelmed by the calm and the clear space that I had to go and buy a bunch of pointless junk to fill it again”.

So yes, decluttering is immensely worthwhile. It can be hard, and it can take time, which is why it is so easy to talk ourselves out of it, or maybe justify not doing it at all.

Because ultimately, less clutter, less mess and less stress is worth it. More time, more freedom and more calm is worth it. The work might not be easy, but the results speak for themselves.

‘Less Stuff: Simple Zero-Waste Steps to a Joyful and Clutter-Free Life’ by Lindsay Miles is available to order now from all good bookstores and online.


3 Assumptions You’re Making About Decluttering… And Why You’re Wrong

If you care even the teeniest bit about our planet and where stuff goes when we throw it “away”, if you see ‘stuff’ as money spent and resources used, chances are you struggle with the idea of decluttering.

I get it.

This used to be me. There I was, holding onto things I didn’t really need or use, seeing landfill as a terrible waste of resources, and despairing of the clutter all the while.

It took time to change my thinking, and more importantly change my relationship with stuff. It was a process, a slow realisation that I needed to change the way I viewed ‘stuff’.

I’d made a few assumptions about decluttering and waste in my time. It turned out, I was wrong.

Here’s 3 things I thought were true about decluttering, and how I’ve reshaped how I think about them.

1. Decluttering is a waste of resources.

Let’s be clear. Stuff is resources. But the idea that decluttering is a waste of resources comes from the mistaken belief that decluttering means sending stuff to landfill (or perhaps dumping it at the closest charity shop – which can often mean the same thing).

Since when was putting something in the bin the only option for our unwanted stuff?

Yes, putting stuff in the bin is a waste of resources. But finding new homes for our old things, with owners who love what we no longer need and will use it often – now that is an excellent use of resources.

Think about it this way. No-one declutters stuff that they love, need and use all the time. The stuff we are trying to declutter is the stuff we don’t like, don’t need and don’t use.

If we don’t use it, don’t need it and don’t like it, how is keeping it anything other than a waste of resources? Sure it might not be in the bin, but turning our cupboards and storage into mini-landfills (which is what they are, when you think about it) really isn’t saving resources.

Owning stuff we never use is a waste of resources.

If we can pass these things onto people who will use them, we allow these things to realise their full potential. To do the jobs they were made to do. Not only that, we are also helping stop the purchasing of more new stuff. Someone uses our old stuff, so they don’t need to buy new stuff.

Making our things available to others slows down the production of stuff, and remember – all stuff is resources.

What we need to do is find new homes for our stuff. To think beyond the bin, and beyond the closest charity shop. Believe me, someone somewhere wants what you have, and it is far easier to find them than you might think.

As someone who is incredibly passionate about zero waste, I say with full conviction that decluttering can be a very zero waste thing to do, and is an excellent use of resources.

2. That stuff could be useful one day.

Of course on one level this is true. That stuff you don’t like and never use could be useful one day. But often we confuse the fact that stuff is inherently useful with a rather different question – is it useful, and is it necessary, to us?

Being useful isn’t the same as being necessary.

The real question to ask is this. If in this future imaginary scenario where I envisage that this item might be useful, and I didn’t have it, would I actually need to own it?

Or could I make do with something else I already have that can do a similar job? Would I be able to borrow from friends, family or neighbours? What would actually happen if I wanted to use the item and was without it?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this. It depends a lot on what the item is, where we live and whether we have access to friends, family and neighbours, whether we have access to a vehicle, and the function that the item serves.

Keeping a torch in case there is ever a power failure is a very different scenario to keeping a watercolour set in case we ever decide to take up painting.

So we can be practical about it. We can think about our own situation and circumstances and make sensible decisions around what is likely to be useful, and what is necessary.

And we can agree that yes, all things are useful. But being inherently useful is not a reason to keep things that aren’t particularly useful to us.

Rather than keeping things just in case they might be useful one day, we can pass things onto people who definitely need them now, and intend to use them straightaway. That is a better outcome for those resources.

3. Decluttering is not for anyone on a budget.

The idea of decluttering something, only to realise that actually it was needed after all, and having to buy it back again, does not sit well with anyone on a budget. (Nor does it sit well with anyone who thinks that shopping is not a great use of their time.)

This argument is used often when talking about decluttering – if we realise we need it we can buy it back – because almost always, we won’t regret that decision and actually want to buy it back.

But what if this thing we declutter is the exception? What then?

In the same way that decluttering doesn’t have to mean going in the bin, it doesn’t have to mean giving stuff away for free, either. It is perfectly possible to sell items that we no longer need – either using online services such as auction and classifieds sites, social media marketplaces, or in-person services such as car boot sales, swap meets and garage sales.

Online services have made it possible to connect with buyers beyond our suburb, often nationally and even internationally. They also provide an easy way to find out what our stuff might be worth, and what other people are willing to pay.

The great thing about second-hand stuff, is that it tends to lose its value fairly slowly. Meaning you could sell an item second-hand, change your mind once it is sold and buy back a similar item for a similar price.

With technology it works out even better, because models get superceded so quickly, so re-buying something later for the same price means getting a more advanced version.

Budgets are a reality for most of us. When deciding what your budget can handle, consider these questions:

  • How readily available is the item? Would you expect every charity shop in the country to have one? Is it something that has daily new listings on the online classifieds?
  • How much it might cost to buy-back second-hand? How does that fit with your expendable income?
  • How practical and easy is it to re-buy the item? Is it local, is a vehicle required?

Considering these questions first can help make an informed decision about whether we really need to hang onto something or not.

It might not even be necessary to buy it back – it may be possible to find it for free. There are plenty of “free stuff” websites and networks where items are given away free of charge. Freecycle, Freegle and the Buy Nothing network are just a few great examples. You can read more about buying less (new) stuff in this post.

Budget or not, we’ve got to remember that the stuff we declutter tends to be the stuff we don’t use, don’t need and don’t like. Why then, would we actually want to buy that stuff back?

It’s helpful to try to understand if this is a truly practical consideration for us, or a fear masquerading an an excuse that’s probably unfounded.

For most of us, decluttering does not come easy. But when it comes to the excuses we make or assumptions we believe around why we don’t want to pass on our old things, it could just be that we’re looking at it under the wrong lens.

The fact that things are inherently useful does not necessarily mean they are useful to us. And yes, budgets and expendable income are an important consideration – but we can still be pragmatic. Most importantly of all: decluttering does not have to mean waste.

‘Less Stuff: Simple Zero-Waste Steps to a Joyful and Clutter-Free Life’ by Lindsay Miles is available to order now from all good bookstores and online.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Whether you’re proficient at decluttering, or novice; someone who finds it easy to let go, or someone who wants to hold onto everything; somebody who hates the idea of waste or someone who loves to find new homes for old things, we want to hear your stories! Share your experiences, struggles, successes and any thoughts at all below!