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?

How many of these do you really need?

What's the worst that would happen if you let go of this?

Is that person in your life anymore? Would they ever know if you gave that gift that never suited you a new home?

I must admit, the questions were a bit unnerving at first, but after I while she'd start to ask a question and I'd start laughing and toss the item before she even finished. The key was that she allowed me to connect with the emotional roots of why I was keeping things that no longer suited the life I was building for myself in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way. Hiring her is near the top of my list of best investments I've ever made in myself.

Phase 3: The Deep Dive

After living with the changes my organizer helped me make for about a year, I found that I was ready (no, I needed) to dig deeper. I challenged myself to find even more things that no longer suited me that I could let go of. I used the probing technique my professional organizer used with me and it worked!!! I reduced my belongings by another 50% and knew that although I'd made a lot of progress, I can and would do more.

At the same time, I noticed that I'm bringing much less into my home to have to deal with, with benefits that go beyond remaining clutter-free. I shop less (clothes, groceries, cosmetics, and toiletries - many of which had been duplicated in the past because my closet was so cluttered that I didn't know what I had).

I'm more creative in using leftovers (lots of stir-frys!) and have discovered Bokashi, an amazing new indoor year-round composting system that has significantly reduced the amount of kitchen waste I throw out and helped my garden too.

I'm still making frequent trips to Goodwill to drop off things that I no longer need. In fact, whenever I buy new clothes (which is rare now), I try to get rid of at least one item that I no longer wear so that my small closet remains manageable.

Phase 4: Minimalism

Now I'm finally working on my ultimate goal... to reach a beautifully bare-boned, elegantly simple lifestyle that results from, and is reflected in, a minimalist lifestyle.

This phase is turning out to be the hardest one of all, because the focus isn't just on letting go of things I no longer need or want, it's about a major lifestyle change - a mindset shift - that requires an intentional focus not only on things, but on processes.

It's no longer just about composting my kitchen waste. It's about re-thinking how I plan my meals, how I shop for groceries in an efficient and budget-friendly way, and what, where, and when will I plant vegetables in my garden, and how I organize my pantry of staples.

It's no longer just about how many clothes I can donate to Goodwill. It's about deciding how many clothes I really need, what style suits me best, and how I can create a small capsule wardrobe that makes me look and feel fabulous, even when I'm home alone.

It's thoughtfully examining the things (and people) in my life that consume too much time and/or energy and finding ways to adjust.

I remain motivated to push forward in my journey towards minimalism by imaging all of the new energy I'm making space for in my life by letting go of all that no longer suits the person I'm becoming. I'm learning that by having less I truly am living more.

Living our best lives,


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