I’ve read a few books, blogs and articles that have helped me practically apply the ideas of simplifying. I’ve really enjoyed the feelings of gratitude and of being satisfied that have accompanied this journey. (Click here for my first thoughts on this process and how much I have benefitted from simplifying our home.)
The article that started it all was Matilda Kahl’s article about wearing the same thing to work every day. I was really fascinated by this idea that was so counter-cultural. After reading more, including articles like this one, it dawned on me how much of my time, and therefore, my life, was being wasted by the constant pressure to consume. I didn’t really like that realization and knew I wanted to do something about it. Eventually, I found the idea of a capsule wardrobe to be much more practical for my lifestyle. (Basically, capsule wardrobes are the greatest things of all time. Everyone in my family has one and it makes our lives great. More on this in a bit.) After discarding* so many unused or unloved clothes, and sensing the mental freedom that came with it, I have to admit I got a little addicted to the idea of minimizing everything we own.
Now obviously, if you’ve ever been to my house, you know that I’m not a true minimalist. I like pretty things. I like creating things and trying new ideas. However, I also love the idea of only keeping things are that are currently being used and bringing joy to our family. I don’t intend to own things that have no purpose in our home – I would rather they be out in the world, available to people who do want or need them.
(*By discarding, I don’t mean that I just throw things in the garbage, because that also seems pretty wasteful. Whenever possible I donate or consign things we aren’t using. I have found a local consignment shop I love. We also have connections with a local homeless shelter for families where we have sent many extra items like hotel toiletries, etcetera.)
So… a round up of some practical ideas if you’re ready to get started simplifying. Collected from a few places like Un-Fancy, Zero Waste Home and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and this article that nicely sums up that book.
- Go through every room (or every category) of your home. Touch every single item and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” This is the main idea behind Marie Kondo’s book (The Life-Changing Magic one). And it really is the easiest standard of measurement I can think of. The intention of going through every category one by one is that you put everything in that category next to each other, and so you can see if you have two of something you really only need one of. Also, putting all the toys together in one spot just might be scary enough to make you want to get rid of everything. I’ve found that I could even clean out my kitchen by asking this question. Because there are a lot of kitchen gadgets that aren’t really that useful, or perhaps take up more space than they are worth. If I looked at something and thought, “This is in my way more often than it is useful, and I could definitely do without it,” it got donated. Keeping a really good knife allowed me to get rid of a bunch of other knick-knacks in the kitchen. And I don’t need a food processor and a blender… just one will be fine, thank you.
The key to this is to take everything out of your room, closet or kitchen at one time, go through it, and then only put back the things that are truly used and loved. And in the kitchen you just might be surprised at how long you’ve had that jar of BBQ sauce hidden in the back of the cupboard, considering the expiration date was five years ago (yikes).
- Don’t keep things out of guilt. Gift guilt was a huge mental block for me – I’ve had lots of things tucked away that were lovely gifts but I just didn’t need or use. Now, I can appreciate that they served their purpose in the moment by creating a happy little gift exchange. And they can fulfill a further purpose if available to someone who really needs them.
The same goes with sentimental items. I had kept several things in storage that were hard to part with simply because they once belonged to someone who is now deceased. A freeing realization was that those people, our memories together, and even my love for them, is not contained in an object. If that object brings joy, than I will certainly keep it and use it. If it does not, it’s okay to let it go. It doesn’t mean that I am letting my love for them go.
If you are afraid someone will ask where X is that they gave you, be willing to speak up. “We weren’t using it anymore, so I gave it away. Thank you so much for your consideration in giving it to us.” I have very rarely been asked about anything (not many people can remember what they gave you and seek it out in your house), but on the occasions that I am, I am perfectly willing to defend my position. I would rather that it be available to someone who needs it than have it collecting dust in my basement because I feel too guilty giving it away. The brief moment of admitting that you parted with their gift is much less life-stealing than the mind clutter it has been taking up all this time. And if you need help, just sing on the top of your lungs, “Let it go! LET IT GOOOOOOOOO!!!” It really helps.
- I started off slowly. If you are wondering, “Can I really part with this?”, try an experiment. As with some kitchen gadgets, clothes that I was unsure about, or sentimental items that I couldn’t quite discern my attachment to, I put them in a box marked “Donate” and put it in the basement. I also set a reminder on my phone for one month from that date. If in one month I didn’t think about or miss any of those items by name, the whole box got donated, without even opening it. (It’s important not to open the box! You haven’t missed it, so nothing in there is worth being in your home.) And I’ll be honest, I don’t even know what most of the things in there were.
- Don’t organize until you’ve discarded everything you don’t really need or enjoy. There’s really no point in organizing things you aren’t actually going to use. For me, the bathroom was the hardest place to do this. I had so many “just in case” items in there… but when I checked the expiration dates on them I realized how that “just in case” moment has never come along. I’d been hoarding old makeup or expired ibuprofen for years. And if I haven’t used it since 2010, what makes me think I’m going to need it tomorrow? Also, in the drastic scenario in which I do need that item immediately… let’s be honest… there’s a grocery store 5 minutes from my house. I won’t die if I let them go. And going through all of it has made me more conscientious about my purchases. I say no to all the freebies and samples people are giving away, knowing full well they’re going to end up in the trash before too long, anyway.
And when it is time to organize, everything has it’s own place. If everything has it’s own spot, it’s easier to put away. I’ll admit, the perfectionist side of me can get a little carried away with this. It gets downright addictive to make a little spot for everything. It’s kind of fun, like real-life Tetris! And putting things right back where they came from is like completing the puzzle. Oh the little joys!
- Help kids manage their clutter by also giving them a limited space to keep personal belongings. My oldest daughter, Ellie, loves paper things so much. I can’t blame her. I like paper, too. But if I kept every piece of paper she brought home from school, we would have already drowned in a sea of garbage. So, each of our children has a memory box that they are in charge of. If they bring home something from school or a note from a friend that they want to keep, it goes in the memory box. And if the box is too full, they have to take something out. Every once in a while we’ve even gone through the box together to look for things they are ready to part with. After a while, they’ve forgotten why a piece of paper with a red smudge on it was important, and they’re ready to part with it to make room for something that is currently meaningful. And the same principle applies to getting new toys. All the toys need to fit in a designated area, so if they’re hoping for a new Lego set for their birthday, they’re going to have to part with something else to make room for it. I am also sure to model the benefits of this for them. I keep a memory box, too, and when I get a special note from them or a card from a friend, I put it in there. The same rules apply to me, so they can see that what I’m asking of them is not ridiculous.
- Maintain a capsule wardrobe. They are amazing. Have you ever tried them? Basically, the idea of a capsule wardrobe is that you only wear your favorite clothes all the time. How great does that sound? Oh, and you just don’t keep anything that isn’t your favorite. There is lots of information about capsule wardrobes for adults, but I’m also preparing a little post on kids’ capsule wardrobes because I think you will like them every bit as much as I do. Seriously. Amazing. The feeling of freedom that came from a capsule wardrobe is so addictive that it was what spurred the rest of my decluttering. It feels that awesome.
- With all these principles in mind, storage is almost non-existent. Our storage is now limited to clothes that will be used by another sibling soon, off-season clothes like coats or swimsuits, the dishes I need to host parties, canning jars waiting to be refilled in the summer, and a limited amount of off-season decor items (like Christmas tree ornaments and stockings). If I do want to store some sentimental items for my children (like their christening gowns or a special baby blanket), it has to fit in a limited space, like one small tote. Storage space is not a catch-all for things I don’t want to deal with. It is only very purposeful and useful storage. And in the event we are hit by that massive earthquake after all, I can actually access my emergency kit and food storage instead of wondering where it went behind all the boxes of nonesense blocking it’s way.
- Realize that more needs more. More stuff means you need a bigger house, with a bigger mortgage to pay for it. A bigger house means you need more cleaning products and gadgets and organizing systems to maintain it. Clutter and consumption are distractions. They distract us and keep us permanently unsatisfied, permanently seeking that next best thing. Or, we can say: enough is enough. I have enough. I am enough. I will no longer waste my life feeling lacking. It’s a very clarifying moment, realizing you have everything you need. For me, it was like a big exhale of relief, when I didn’t even know I had been holding my breath. And with that relief came the realization that I could “make do and mend” much more often than I had given myself credit for. Prime shipping from Amazon is no longer my main solution to problems. I can take the time to repair or figure out a way to make what I already have work.
- Unsubscribe. Personally, I feel like this is one of the most important pieces of the decluttering-home-and-life project. It was on my to-do list for ages, and I finally took the time to unsubscribe. First from email offers. I don’t need to follow sales, I already have everything I need. If I am on the hunt for a specific thing, and I can wait for a deal to become available, I’ll temporarily subscribe to emails about it. And since it’s usually only one thing at a time, I can actually take advantage of the sale when it happens! I also have unsubscribed from all the catalogs and junk mail that comes to my house. I haven’t completely conquered it, but I have been able to keep a lot of it from being mailed to me. Which means I don’t get tempted with every new catalog or flyer or coupon. I also unsubscribed from following accounts on social media that were toxic… that made me feel like I needed to buy more things in order to be as cool as them. Just, no. (P.S. If you ever do find yourself in need of a coupon, a quick Google search of “X coupon” will usually find you the code you need, so subscribing to emails for the sake of coupons in completely unnecessary. Trust me.)
- Take back the Internet. Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, what have you. They are tricky little things. They can be the source of that permanent feeling of “lacking” or “unsatisfied.” But you don’t have to disavow them forever. Use them to your advantage. If you’ve ever pinned to a “home inspiration” or a “fashion” board on Pinterest, go look at those pins again, but this time gloss over them. You’ll likely see a pattern of things that have always appealed to you. Use this pattern to help you formulate your capsule wardrobe or choose the color you want to paint your wall. Use a recipe board to eliminate your need to keep cookbooks you don’t use. If you have something you want to buy, pin it for later. If after a couple of months, that is still attractive to you, buy it or send it as wish-list item to someone who would like to buy you a gift. Eliminate the need for impulse shopping and know that in the meantime, you’ll be just as happy as you are right now, without that thing. If you have something that needs repaired, search for a DIY tutorial or ideas for upcycling. Let the resources out there be your friend, instead of your enemy.
- And finally, envision the life you want. And then make a plan to get there. In your ideal life, what would you be doing right now? Where would you be? What does your space look like? Who would you be spending time with? Embellish that fantasy. How would you spend your day?What would you feel as you were doing each task? Decluttering your home and mind is the first step towards getting to that ideal life. Get rid of all the things that aren’t a part of that dream, and you’ll have the space in your home and heart to make it happen. It sounds cliche , but trust me when I say, it works. You have to let go of the past, of the things that are weighing you down, in order to embrace your present. You’ll even discover you were holding onto things you didn’t even know where holding you back. But with practice with tangible items, you’ll have the ability to let go of those intangible forces as well.
This past year or so of taking the time to really cultivate my life has made me feel so much freedom. It has helped me clarify the people, circumstances and things that I do want in my life, and take better care of them. It has helped me see how buying those little, unnecessary items one by one was really stealing from myself – it was keeping me from saving towards things I wanted a lot more – like a meaningful trip to see friends. I found it hard to save money because I felt compelled to satisfy temporary urges to accumulate just because I could. It has shown me how distracted I had become, how preoccupied with appearances and frivolity. That didn’t feel like the me I really wanted to be. The person I do want to be is considerate, thoughtful, caring, ambitious, grateful and grounded. The person I want to be is more than just a pretty face or house, but something substantial, meaningful and uncluttered behind all that.