Unstuffing your life
Stuff. We all have it, some more than others. And as we accumulate it, our homes and workplaces become increasingly cluttered — and then we argue for bigger spaces to accommodate all the things we say and think we need. Take a good look around you and ask yourself: do I need all of it? If you find yourself saying ‘no’, then it’s time to get rid of things.
Clutter is the great time-waster. It reduces productivity, if only because it takes longer to find things. And you can end up buying something because you think you’re out of it only to find you had three of them ‘buried’ in different parts of the house. It also occupies your attention. And it can get you down.
Decluttering, on the other hand, not only frees space and creates a flow (literally) through your rooms, it also clears the mind and allows you to live more simply and be more relaxed, unencumbered by the physical sight of so much stuff. You might even save some money in the process by both buying less and even selling what you have but don’t need, use or like any more. That is especially so with food that can go off if you buy too much of it to fill the fridge or that large pantry. (We tend to fill the spaces we have.) When liberated through periodic decluttering, you’re also less likely to buy new clothes every season. And the time saved by not shopping so much can be spent doing the things you say you never have time for! The other plus is that with less stuff, you’ll spend less time trying to find what you’re looking for because there’s less to wade through to find it!
Another benefit of decluttering is that it’s easier to organise what you have; you’ll know where things are and what and how much you have of any item, which means you’re less inclined to buy more of something you already have enough of. I’ve helped people move house and declutter rooms over the years, and I’ve been surprised by how many of something they can have, often stored in different parts of the house. Consolidating and having a place for specific items means not only knowing where things are and therefore spending less time finding them, but you’re less likely to over-buy. You’ll always know what you need, rather than wasting time going through everything to figure out what to buy.
There are some items we like to keep because of the memories and that’s fine as along as they don’t take over the house. You can always take pictures and print them for a photo album or store them digitally, which takes up even less space. Are you saving all those diaries because one day you’ll write a memoir or someone will write your bio? If so, scan them and store them digitally.
Tips for decluttering
Commitment and perseverance are key. Initially, it’s often easier if you invite a friend to help out — at least until you get good at it. For one, they are less inclined to be attached to all your things and more able to support you when you feel yourself wavering and slipping into sentimentality about that dinner set you received for your 21st that you didn’t like in the first place and have never opened but don’t want to offend the giver so you keep it only to gather dust!
Anything you use regularly, obviously keep. If you haven’t used or worn something for a year or more, you have to ask yourself why are you keeping it. Especially clothes! Get serious; in all truth, you won’t miss it when it’s gone; you weren’t wearing it anyway and half the time you didn’t even know you had it.
Frequent clean-outs can be easier than the big purge when it all gets too much. The Japanese have a ritual called ‘Oosouji’ (“Oo” meaning ‘big’, ”souji” meaning cleaning). It’s undertaken at the end of every year, when Japanese homes are meticulously cleaned in an effort to drive out any “impure influences” that may have taken up residence during the year. It’s considered inauspicious to drag old business, clutter and dust into a brand new year. The end result is a clean and uncluttered house. While most of us don’t follow Oosouji, many of us do do spring cleans. But why make it only an annual affair? Clean-outs can be undertaken any time, especially after major gift-receiving birthdays and Christmas or moving house or the end of the financial year, when you can throw out old documents. Use these occasions to examine related items and decide if they need to be kept.
The big three. Ask yourself: Do I like it? Do I use it? Do I need it? How you respond will depend on what it is. The last two are straightforward: if you answer 'yes', then you keep it, but if you answer 'no', you can let it go. 'Use' and 'need' are functional. This does mean letting go of broken items that you could repair or have repaired but haven't. You can only say 'yes' to the last two if the item is in working order. The bigger battle is with 'Do I like it?' And this is where it can become sentimental. You have to be serious and honest with yourself. Take an item of clothing: you wore it years ago, but haven't for the past few years. You say, "Oh, it'll come back into fashion." "It is in such good condition, I couldn't throw it out." "It's a gift, and I couldn't." If you don't like it and therefore don't wear it, find a home for it. Oh, and if you answer ’no’ to all three questions, it can go. You won’t miss it!
It’s probably best to tackle one room at a time, or one stored box at a time. While you might get on a roll and end up doing the whole house or the storeroom, it’s best to set small targets, at least initially. You’re more likely to meet them and have the confidence to go on. Meeting lowered expectations means more confidence to press on.
After you’ve cleared out the cupboards and wardrobe, make items as viewable as possible. That way you can see what you have and you can get to them more easily. Note to designers/builders/renovators: most cupboards and wardrobes are too deep. If shelves have less depth, there’s easier access, and less likelihood of things remaining at the back, never seen and never used.
Don’t clean when decluttering. It’s so easy to become distracted and start cleaning instead of organising and discarding. Declutter first, clean after.
After the sort-out, create three piles
Once you’ve decluttered, you can bin, donate or sell those items that didn’t make the cut.
RUBBISH Unsalvageable items only. This is the stuff no one would want: the broken, the unusable, the worn out, the moth-eaten, the falling-to-pieces, the threadbare. They are only fit for landfill or possibly recycling or, perhaps, composting.
DONATION Items still in good knick, but not worth selling. Examples include the well-used: books, clothes (in good condition), kitchen utensils, tools and sporting equipment. This includes items good enough for re-gifting, provided you’re careful who you give them to!
SALE The worth-somethings, especially the ones you spent a bit on. Try Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace, eBay or a garage sale or two.
Do I like it? Do I use it? Do I need it? If you answer ’yes’ to at least one of them, you can keep it. If not, it can go. You won’t miss it.