What I wish I'd known about decluttering before I started


I'm not sure exactly when or why, but I reached my clutter rock-bottom a couple of years ago when I suddenly became obsessed with the notion of living and working in a minimalist environment. I had no idea how I was going to get there, but I knew that on some very deep level, I needed to... and sooner rather than later.

I started with some basic beliefs about the decluttering process:

1. Once I committed to it and followed "the rules," the process would be easy and wouldn't take too long. After all, all I needed was a couple of weekends, three big boxes (Keep, Trash, Donate), and a pot of fresh coffee.

2. After I put things back in place, dragged them to the dumpster, or hauled them to Goodwill, my work would be done and life would be groovy.

3. Once I completed the task, I'd be done with it, and my life moving forward would be forever clutter-free.

Well, as much as I hate to admit it, it's been three years and I'm finally almost done. I never would've imagined that it would take this long. So why did it? Because not a single one of my assumptions going into the process turned out to be true.

There are no steadfast "rules"

Sure, there are lots of books and websites devoted to decluttering and adopting a minimalist lifestyle and I would recommend doing your own research to figure out what approach works best for you.

Just keep in mind that the key is "what works best for YOU." Not everyone reaches the decision to commit to what amounts to a major lifestyle change for the same reasons, nor do they start with the same amount of physical and/or emotional clutter to deal with. Not to mention that "clutter-free" and "minimalism" mean different things to different people.

The process is very different if you live alone, with only your own "stuff" to deal with, than if you have a partner, roommate, and/or family members and their "stuff" too.

And, of course, the size of your space plays a role. Even though it may sound counter-intuitive, I think that the more storage space you have available, the harder it is to declutter because you can always default to the old "out of sight, out of mind" mentality. Instead of dealing with the clutter and all that it represents, you simply "organize" it.

The reality is that no matter how organized your storage spaces may be, depending on them as a clutter-management strategy defeats the purpose of decluttering.

It's not easy

While I don't recall reading anywhere that decluttering was easy, most of the resources I read focused so much on the benefits of living a clutter-free life that it was easy to gloss over the very hard work of getting from here to there.

I started the process full of optimism and excitement, but it didn't take long for me to come to a surprising revelation. Decluttering is not only hard, but it can also be painful. As I explain in my blog post, Why is decluttering so hard?, "It’s not the objects themselves that are difficult to let go of, it’s the emotional and energetic connections we still have with them. We overlook this energetic dust and allow it to accumulate at our own peril."

Be prepared to laugh, to cry, to ask "what the hell was I thinking?" as you unearth old memories and feelings, unrequited love, and unfulfilled promises.

It's a journey, not a destination

I suppose there are the lucky ones who navigate the journey quickly, but if I had to guess, I'd say that the vast majority do not.

As it turns out, my three-years-and-counting journey has had three distinct phases, each lasting almost exactly a year, which makes perfect sense in retrospect. I just wish I'd known what to expect at the start.

Phase I: Clear the surface

This is the one that most people think of when they think of decluttering. If you can see it, do something with it. If it's something that you absolutely either love and/or use, keep it. Otherwise, decide whether to store it (be careful here!), trash it, or give it away.

This is the phase that usually seems overwhelming to many people. The fact that you can "see" the clutter may make the process seem daunting, particularly if there's a lot to go through.

The good news is that it yields the most immediate benefits. When you're done with this step, not only will you know that you've done something huge, but others who know what your space looked like before will notice it too. Great job!

Phase II: Dig deeper

After living with Phase I for a while, you'll probably realize that while you thought you were done, you start noticing that there's more you can do. Hopefully what you're reacting to isn't a return of old clutter habits, but some of that happens. After all, allowing clutter to accumulate is a habit that often has less to do with laziness and more to do with old emotional connections that aren't being processed as well as they could be.

For me, this was the point at which I realized that of the things I was keeping, I needed to organize them more effectively, partly for visual reasons, but also so I could follow my mother's sage advice from so long ago... have a place for everything, and everything in its place.

At this point, I decided to bring in the big guns to help. I hired a wonderful personal organizer who employs a holistic approach to decluttering and organizing. Before even thinking about developing an organizational system for me, she literally went through every room of my house with me and gently questioned me about many of the items that remained.

Tell me the story about this.

When was the last time you used this?