Feeling overwhelmed by your stuff? Here’s how to pare down, simplify and keep just what you need and love at home
Of course I was imagining the absolute best house fire, where all the mess was (poof!) gone and the insurance company immediately handed us a big, fat check to start over soberly and responsibly, without Legos and stuffed animals.
This daydreaming came to an abrupt stop after we remodeled our kitchen. We took it down to the studs and installed new cabinets, counters, appliances and floors. After this, the first time I imagined my laundry room consumed by flames, I checked myself. The laundry was just down the hall from my fresh and beautiful kitchen, which I did not want to lose; I’d have to get organized the old-fashioned way.
That’s what I’d been trying to do for years. I had spent so much time and energy into setting my house in order, but I could only ever get it to a certain point before it fell back into mayhem. But then the answer came in a vacation that inspired an epiphany, which changed everything.
Our family had rented a little cottage on Lake Michigan. I kept the place as neat as the proverbial pin, and it was so simple. Wondering why, I realized our life at the cottage was limited to food, clothes and books. And that was that. I decided this was the way I wanted to live all the time. No matter what, I was going to get us down to food, clothes and books. I was finally going to live William Morris’ maxim, “Have nothing in your house you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
With the help of an organized friend, I began a spree of decluttering and reorganizing, the likes of which our home had never seen. Over the course of several months, I went room by room, sorting, throwing away and donating until I had gone through almost everything.
And then, in one of life’s little ironies, in the wee hours of June 27, 2010, an arsonist randomly set our house on fire. My husband and I and our three children were all at home in bed and escaped with the clothes on our backs. I did grab my laptop, because it was right at hand. I didn’t even stop to put on shoes or fetch my purse, and I was so thankful to have saved our digital pictures and all my writings.
Our home was about 2,500 square feet and full of cherished things, but what I have wept over (my children’s art and writing), what I have longed for (pictures and videos), what my mind has returned to again and again (more than 30 years of letters and journals) could fit into a small closet with room to spare.
It’s a peculiar experience to have sorted through all my possessions, to have gotten down to what I thought I could not live without, only to lose everything and find I was able to live without it all.
I would not wish a house fire on a rat and yet, at the end of the day, it’s been strangely freeing. It’s so clear to me now that for years and years, I traded peace of mind for things I didn’t truly want and absolutely did not need.
How do you define how much is too much?
Bottom line: It’s subjective. If you’ve read the wonderful article Clutter vs. Keepers, by Laura Gaskill, or Beautiful Clutter?, by Samantha Schoech, you know that tastes and comfort needs vary. It really comes down to what is too much for you.
Some questions to ask:
If you answered yes to any of the above, you could almost certainly benefit from getting rid of some things. Just reading that may bring up some anxiety, but if you feel overwhelmed, it’s a sign that engaging and beginning to consider what you could get rid of would be worth it. And there’s going to be tension either way; one is short term but the other could last forever.
7 tips for going minimalist:
1. Begin with the end in mind. Think about how you want your home to be. Browse through the ideabooks you’ve already created and look for themes. Only after you’re clear what you’re shooting for should you begin to purge.
3. Forgive yourself. When the feelings of shame surface, take a moment to say, “I forgive myself” and then keep going. These feelings will dissipate as you build momentum.
4. Get help. Do you have a friend who loves to organize? Arrange a barter. My friend Jane owns a bed-and-breakfast, and I traded helping her there in exchange for her assistance with my purge. My husband, Paul, took over on hauling things away.
5. Give or throw things away. One stall of my garage was for Goodwill, and the other was trash. I have sold a lot on Craigslist, but when I was doing my hardcore decluttering, I wanted to get rid of things as quickly as possible. In a way it was spiritual: I’ve gotten so many deals over the years on Craigslist and at thrift stores, it was a way to resow something I had reaped.
6. Break it down. Plan to give yourself weeks, even months to go through your home. I recommend going room by room; this keeps the mess contained and the project more manageable. Take a day or two to do a room and then take some time off. Once you declutter a space, you can see if you’re able to maintain it or if you need to get rid of more.
7. Ask yourself what you would grab in a fire. In an actual fire, you should think of saving only people and animals, but asking yourself this in the abstract can be a helpful exercise in pointing you to what really matters. Bonus tip: Don’t speak glibly about this to people who have actually survived a fire, or you may be throttled.
The 3 stages of decluttering, simplified:
Like many things in life, “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy,” but breaking the process down into these categories can help you stay focused.
A few weeks after we moved into our new house, the fire alarms went off, again in the wee hours. My laptop was next to my bed, but I walked right past it to gather my children and the dog and head straight for the door while Paul investigated. He quickly realized it was a false alarm. Only later did I notice I went right into evacuation mode and didn’t think of a thing.