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The many costs of too much stuff (and some lessons for decluttering)

Over time, we accumulate stuff. Maybe we buy it, maybe it’s given to us, maybe we find it. Eventually our space becomes too full and too cluttered, and we need to do something about it.

One solution is to find some more space. There are a few options here. We can move to a bigger house or apartment, we can rent self-storage or a garage, or if we have amenable parents or friends, we can stash our stuff at theirs.

Getting more space costs us – time, money, or both. A bigger house or flat will mean higher costs, or if we decide to live further away in a cheaper neighbourhood then we spend more time travelling (and on fuel). Plus we have to spend time sorting and boxing our stuff and lugging it across town. If we’ve left our stuff with our amenable friends, there’s also the fear factor – the fear that they’ll appear on our doorstep in a few months with all of our stuff because they’re sick of tripping over it.

Plus this stuff cost us in the first place. If we took the time to look for it, and buy it, it cost us. If it was a gift, it cost someone else their time and money. Also, if our stuff was brand-new, there’s an environmental cost too. The raw materials needed to be mined or harvested, transported, processed, assembled, packaged, shipped, displayed and sold in order for us to have it.

Too much stuff also affects us in other ways, too. Clutter can affect our health. Clutter harbours dust and mould, which we breathe in. It makes us stressed and drains our energy. It can be a fire or trip hazard. Having a messy house that’s too full of stuff can be embarrassing, and make us ashamed to invite friends or family over, meaning we can become more isolated. In extreme cases, people have literally been killed by having too much stuff (I’m not going to provide any links but if you don’t believe me, google it.)

We can become slaves to our stuff. The more we have, the more it demands of us, and we end up trying to make our stuff happy. We spend time cleaning and dusting, rearranging and polishing. We buy more stuff to improve our stuff (a new display cabinet to show off our stuff, a bigger wardrobe so our clothes aren’t so squashed, a new addition to our ‘shiny things’ collection that makes it just that little bit more splendid). It is all consuming.

Of course, there’s another way to deal with having too much stuff.

Getting rid of some of it.

It sounds fairly simple, but it’s something I struggle with. Stuff can have a pretty tight grip on us. Living with my boyfriend in our one-bedroom flat – the smallest place I’ve ever lived in – for the last 18 months has been a great experience in living with less. Slowly but surely though, the amount of stuff has built up and the flat is currently feeling less than zen.

We did think about moving into a two-bedroom place, but it would cost us an extra $3000 a year. That’s a lot of money to spend on an extra room to keep all our stuff in. That money could be spent on a pretty amazing holiday. There was no contest. We’re going to stay where we are and I am going to learn how to declutter.

We’ve had a couple of attempts at decluttering so far, with mixed success, and I’ve learned some valuable lessons. Our first attempt was dedicating a weekend to decluttering, where I mostly just got impatient that our flat wasn’t decluttered already. In reality I didn’t really do much to assist the process. We got rid of one box of things. After reflecting, I decided to try a different approach.

Lesson 1: It’s not enough to want to declutter, no matter how much you desperately want it. You have to put in the physical work too.

Lesson 2: Don’t expect miracles. If you’re new to decluttering, or you’ve been a hoarder all your life, you’re not going to change in one weekend. Change takes time.

Lesson 3: If one method doesn’t work for you, try something else until you find something that does.

My next idea was to try to get rid of 100 things by taking smaller steps, and getting rid of 5 things a day. We gathered together a few bits and pieces for the charity shops and Gumtree, and we recycled some glass and cardboard that we’d been keeping (sorry, that I’d insisted we keep) in case they turned out to be useful. Excluding the rubbish and recycling, we got rid of 36 things. Not the 100 I wanted, but we did clear some more stuff.

Lesson 4: Focus on what you did achieve, not what you didn’t, and celebrate your successes, however small they may seem.

Lesson 5: If it all gets too much, take a step back. Come back to it when you feel ready again.

I decided to take some time out, and now I’m feeling re-energised and ready for another attempt. I’ve decided that this time I’m going to focus on clutter. All the stuff that seems transient, and really should have a permanent home, yet somehow doesn’t actually seem to.

I’m going to tackle the clutter from the other side. I’m going to have a major thorough spring clean, one section of the flat at a time. Rather than imagining a clutter-free space, the idea is that I’ll actually create it. Rather than being a conscious thought, it’ll be a physical manifestation. Maybe if I can see it with my own eyes, then my conscious mind will know what’s going on, can let my subconscious mind in on the plan and we’ll all be on the same page. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I don’t have all the answers to successful decluttering, but I’m learning all the time, and I’m hopeful that if I keep at it, it will get easier!

My new minimalist living space (the confessions of a hoarder)

I decided to take a week off from writing the blog in order to clear some space in my life (both the tiny flat that I live in, and also my schedule) and create some order. Now I would like to return triumphantly with reports of dazzling success, a new minimalist living space and feelings of serenity and calm.

Alas, that isn’t exactly what happened.

Last week I set myself the challenge of ridding myself of 100 things I no longer wanted/needed/used by the end of the month. I was committed. I was willing. I hadn’t decided what 100 things, but that was just a minor detail. To make it even easier, the weekend was a long weekend with a public holiday, so an extra day for sorting.

But despite my best efforts to sit on the sofa whilst willing the decluttering to miraculously begin, berating the general lack of action, and chastising my boyfriend every time he settled down to read a book/magazine for not helping, we didn’t manage to clear out anywhere near as much as I’d hoped.

We managed to fill a box with stuff to take to the charity shop. We also managed to get rid of two wastepaper baskets of recycling. I wish I could say it was a commendable effort, and a good first attempt, but in three days, I think I should have managed a bit more. I think I should have managed a LOT more. I like the idea of the stuff being gone, but actually doing the tasks that make it happen is another thing altogether.

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This one box was the result of three days of sorting. I think it demonstrates quite well how most of the ‘sorting’ actually consisted of (me) moaning about the sorting, and (me) talking about how great it would be once the sorting was actually done, rather than actual genuine sorting. We (actually, no, my boyfriend did that) did put an additional couple of things on eBay and Gumtree, but actually, they’d fit inside this box too, so no extra points for those.

And that’s the thing. It’s me that’s stopping the process. I just can’t get rid of anything! Every time my boyfriend threw something in the bin I scurried over and fished it back out. He tested a drawer full of pens and threw the ones in the bin that didn’t work, but even then I was tempted to get them back out and test them myself just in case one of them could be saved. Why?! We have a million other biros that work and we don’t need those either.

And then on Monday evening when we went to bed, I said that I wished we’d got it all finished, and he looked at me in amazement, and said “but it’s not a job that’ll be finished and then you’re done. It’s a job that you’ll always need to keep coming back to.”

What?!?!?!? How can that be true?! Surely I can spend three days sorting out my things and then I will rejoice in my clutter-free space and will never need to declutter again? What if I declare never to buy or acquire anything ever again? What does he mean, I’m going to have to go through this all over again in a few months time?!

Of course, he’s right. Maybe some people could do it, but I am never going to be a true minimalist. I’m probably never going to be close! I hate waste too much. I have three pairs of shoes in my closet that I haven’t worn for over a year – in fact two of them I haven’t worn in two or three years. But I can’t bring myself to get rid of them.

I think when people accumulate stuff, and the stuff starts to get in the way of their lives, they have two choices. They either get a bigger house, or more storage, in order to assimilate their possessions and not have to really think about them. Or they decide to have a clear-out, in which case they have to face up to the money they’ve wasted, the dreams that never quite came true (even though you bought the book on paper maché crafts or the home candle-making kit or whatever new hobby, you just never quite got round to it), and the emotions which come with that (be it guilt, anger, resentment, or simply frustration at having too much stuff). Maybe some people really don’t care, they happily just chuck it all in the bin and head back to the shops to get a load more shiny new stuff, but for me, I find this second option really confronting.

What it means, though, is that on the public holiday weekend, whilst friends of mine are spending a few days relaxing in the beautiful Margaret River region down south and having a glorious time, I am at home fishing things out of the dustbin. That is the consequence of my having too much stuff. And it’s rubbish – literally.

So I’ve decided I need to rethink my challenge in order to actually make some progress. I think it’s going to be easier for me if I break my goal of 100 things down into bite-size chunks. I’m going to commit to getting rid of 5 things every day for the next 20 days. That will take me to the 24th June. Hopefully if I’m on a bit of a roll, I’ll be able to keep going until the end of the month.

I think spending a few minutes every day is a much better option than dedicating three days to achieving greatness, and then feeling miserable about my lack of achievement. And as that didn’t work anyway, I’m not going to spend another weekend floundering.

So, small steps. I’m off to find my five things to get rid of today. Wish me luck!