Simplifying, not Sacrificing: Mental Challenges of De-Cluttering (and how to overcome them!)

Spring is here, and that means cleaning!  But not just ordinary tidying-up: over the past week, I aimed to simplify my material possessions as much as possible in preparation for moving to a new apartment. 200903_omag_clutter_220x312My mantra was if an item wasn’t worth bringing to my future tiny house, then it wouldn’t make the cut for moving. It’s never too early to start living lightly.

The tips in this article are intended to go beyond the obvious: my goal is to address the psychological challenges of reducing our attachments to material items. For example, if you’re struggling to organize your closet or dreading de-crapifying your garage, it’s helpful to ask yourself, “what emotions are hindering my ability to get rid of nonessential stuff?”

Even if you *want* to lighten your load, it can be difficult because doing so requires action.  Clutter doesn’t accumulate in 1 day, and it won’t disappear that fast either. But what if it did? I asked myself, “if there was a fire tomorrow and I lost this item, would I truly miss it?”  Most of the time the answer was “no”, which meant I should find the item a new home.1423145663862

I’ve organized this article by task difficulty, from “1” being an easy project for me to “5” being the most mentally challenging! Perhaps these challenges will resonate with you too, but remember to celebrate your victories. My accomplishment today was selling my beautiful, giant antique dresser to a home that will love it. Of course, having no dresser then really forced me to pare down my clothes! (If you want to learn more about minimalism and about streamlining your wardrobe in particular, see my post here.)

The Five Challenges

1) Bathroom

It’s a good idea to start with the bathroom (or if that’s too much, tackle your medicine cabinet or a single drawer). Why?

• Because the bathroom is a relatively small area, you’re less likely to get overwhelmed. You don’t want to exhaust all your brainpower in the first place you start organizing!
• There is less deliberation/sorting involved for bathroom items (i.e., either you keep that razor or chuck it).
• The bathroom doesn’t usually have items to which you are emotionally attached — you’ll probably find yourself throwing away expired medications and half-empty lotions. Quick and easy decision-making, coupled with observable results, helps to build your momentum for more challenging projects.

2) Linen closet

Again, the steps are straightforward. 1) Empty everything out – I mean everything!; 2) find matching sheets/pillowcases; 3) if they are in good condition, fold and put back (if they need to be washed then do it!). Obviously, if there are any items that give you grief (e.g., corners on fitted sheet don’t stay down, blankets too scratchy, etc.), do yourself a favor and get rid of them.  Your bed should be the ultimate retreat.

I like rotating linens with the seasons so I usually have 2-3 sets on hand, but I know when it’s time to let go of old items.  Sheets and pillowcases are not a lifetime investment so don’t feel bad about tossing/donating any that are in poor condition. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable having a guest use it, consider treating yourself to something new and fresh ☺

3) Work Desk/Office Space

This area could be a challenge if you work from home all the time, but normally this is a space where we accumulation goes unnoticed for a long time until it suddenly becomes dysfunctional. In my case, an ungodly number of notepads and pens had accumulated since the last time I’d moved.

Office supplies possess several attributes that make them especially easy to hoard beyond what is necessary.

a. They don’t expire. Unlike foods, cosmetics, or even clothes, office supplies don’t have a set lifespan: they don’t go out of style and they will function exactly the same 10 years from now. Since office supplies don’t require updating, it’s easy to hold onto more than we need, thinking that by some point in the future we will use it so we might as well hang onto it. The ingrained desire to “stock up” is a giant barrier to minimalism, but just because it doesn’t expire doesn’t mean you should keep it!

b. Office supplies are functional. Unlike items that are purely decorative, sentimental, or otherwise optional, office supplies are useful!  This “utility value” can trick us into thinking we need them hanging around in large quantities.

c. They are small. Because office supplies don’t take up a lot of room and are easily hidden in closets, cabinets, and drawers, they tend to take over the space even when we know we should sort through them. So our collection grows until the storage runs out or the area gets too chaotic to function.

While office supplies are useful, inconspicuous, and don’t go bad, are the mental hurdles of moving, organizing, storing, and cleaning around all those supplies worth it? Probably not. In my case, I didn’t want to choose between 30 pens on a daily basis when I only need a few and they last for so long! Having the right amount in the present is worth more than the cost of possibly having to replenish my supplies many years down the road. And let’s be real, pens (and a lot of other stuff!) often come to us for free whether we need them or not!

4) Jewelry collection

Compared to an entire closet or desk space, editing one’s jewelry collection should be a piece of cake, right? Not exactly! A good amount of jewelry is often reserved for “special occasions”, making it difficult to determine whether or not it is really worth keeping. You may think, “jewelry is so small, why take the time to go through it?” The reasons are psychological: to achieve order and clarity, without excess. To reduce the number of decisions you have to make on a daily basis and the time you spend trying to find things. To transform “stuff” from a distracting mess to a functional reflection of you.

Right off the bat, get rid of pieces that are fussy and uncomfortable or that are cheap looking. Then examine the pieces you don’t wear on a regular basis. Are those holiday earrings worth keeping around for that 1 time of the year?  Does that necklace go with multiple tops?  Will you restore those tarnished or broken pieces?  It’s also helpful to think about how you want to project yourself: don’t fall into the trap of wearing jewelry suited for someone much younger. For me, this meant getting rid of trendy bracelets.

Jewelry can be tough because many times it has sentimental value even if it goes unused. For instance, I had a few earrings that a friend had lovingly made me; however, those pieces weren’t my style anymore.  Note: if jewelry is associated with bad sentiments (e.g., an ex-partner) then it will probably feel great to allow yourself to purge the item no matter how pretty it was!

Remember: it’s ok to get rid of stuff that doesn’t serve you; your relationships with people are independent of material items associated with those people.

5) Decorations/Gifts

I love cute things that sit on a shelf and do nothing. But when it’s time to move, dealing with those things is a pain! Yet, it’s hard to just get rid of something so innocent as an unlit candle (or 10!), a mini stuffed animal, or some travel mementos. But you have to ask yourself: “are these trinkets enriching my life, or am I holding onto them for no reason other than that they’re pretty and it’s easy to let them sit there?” In my case, I had a ton of candles, most of which were gifts. I didn’t have sentimental attachment to them, and I never lit them, so they just sat there.

Like the candles, most of the items I blindly held onto were gifts that I didn’t even ask for. These items were in limbo for a long time: nothing about them was really beautiful or meaningful to me, yet nothing about them justified their disposal. Some of the items I had loved at one time, but now they were “just ok”. I had just gotten so used to seeing these things in my space that I never considered whether I really wanted them there. The intentionality behind those objects had never existed or had faded over time.

I delayed dealing with the “just ok” gifts because I “had space” for them. In other words: even though I had not sought out those items deliberately, I kept making room for them to avoid any real introspection and de-cluttering. Why?  Because contemplating whether or not to keep these objects would require time and mental energy, but more importantly, I realized that the thought of not keeping the items made me feel guilty. To me, getting rid of a gift meant I was unappreciative. It was rejecting the time, money, and effort the person put into getting that gift. And it just felt wasteful to let something perfectly good go unused and un-enjoyed, no matter how pointless the object was. The subconscious negative feelings prevented me from letting go of nonessential possessions, even when I wasn’t attached to those possessions!

The way I approached this emotionally-difficult task of paring down gifts and decorations was to reassure myself that dealing with the items – even if it meant removing them from my life – was better for my overall well-being than taking the easy route of avoiding the whole experience. I didn’t want to be moving giant boxes of stuff that I didn’t really care about to my next apartment.  And once I finally got rid of stuff, I was relieved and proud to reduce my attachments to material things. I felt happy that I could highlight items that did have meaning to me.

For the decorations I had purchased myself but no longer loved, I rationalized that the money was already spent and that hanging onto the item would continue to cost me in physical space, physical energy during the move, and mental stress over having too much clutter. A minimalist friend of mine advised me to just release anything I didn’t love or use regularly if it cost less than $15.  This criteria helped me to edit belongings that I had too much of or that I “might need in the future”.  Finally, it helped to think that by donating items or offering them to friends, I could bring happiness to others.


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