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Lessons from Decluttering: What I Learned After Purging 400+ Items

what i learned from decluttering

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Inspired by some friends making changes in their lives, and also by some incredible rent deals, I’m preparing to move. Just down the street. Still, some people think that moving is a good time to start fresh. And I’ve taken this thought to heart.

I’ve decluttered 400+ items from my apartment. Some of it is little knickknacks, but it’s also furniture, clothes and accessories, personal care products, home goods, food, and sentimental stuff. I’ve also worked hard not to buy anything new (I haven’t even bought groceries in over a month). Here’s what I learned after decluttering 400+ items including how I’m going to prevent another big decluttering from happening again.

Decluttering Is Terrible

I wrote an article about why we should buy stuff over experiences. It was not meant to imply that we shouldn’t be judicious with our stuff , just that we should be judicious with everything, our experiences and our stuff. We can have too much of either and it’s not worth it to neglect one over the other.

My desire to declutter and downsize came before I decided to move. I had too many things I didn’t use or didn’t like in my apartment. Every day I had to confront these objects, and they took a cosmic toll on my psyche.

I have previously thought feng shui was utter crap but most of its prescriptions hold true, even if the rationale is flawed. One can’t hold clutter anywhere in the house without it affecting some part of your life. Your junk drawer isn’t harmless – it’s a message telling you that junk gets free rent in your home and your head. It’s a message telling you that you have to put up with this crap. But that’s just not true.

Lessons From Decluttering

I hope that this deep declutter is only a one-time thing and I’ll never have to do it again because I’ll bring fewer things home and be more ruthless on a daily basis in getting rid of things. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned to make that happen.

1. Don’t Believe the Hype

I saw a tweet wondering about FIRE and why anyone would choose to live on an artificially-restricted income. I immediately thought, maybe it’s because they’re tired of having stuff.

Too often when we have money to spend, everything appears to be a problem that money can solve.

There’s nothing wrong with using money to solve your problems but be wary of it creating more and new problems. For instance I had a crick in my neck yesterday. I used to have a heating pad that I used for this purpose but it got damaged. I bemoaned my need to go to the store until the internet recommended microwaving some beans in a sock. This sock contraption works just as well and takes up no room. The Unitasker heating pad was not better for my life.

I’ve bought tons of skincare, vitamins, fancy contraptions – all thinking this would solve problems. Then I realized they were too complicated for my life. In the future, I’m going to be more critical to see if it’s a problem that can really be solved with money or if it’s just more crap and empty promises.

2. Get Rid of Bad Habit Triggers

I had a chair in my bedroom that I only used to toss my clothes on. I don’t toss things on the floor or on my bed, but because I had this chair, I kept tossing clothes on it instead of putting them away.

The same with my coffee table. I heard this joke that anyone with a two-tiered coffee table is delusional because we naively believe the two tiers will magically make us organized.  It’s been true for me as well. Rather than keep me organized, it’s a repository for clutter. Off it goes and now I have to deal with my stuff and not just placed it somewhere where it can linger. Because if my options are on the floor or in its rightful place, I’m more likely to pick the latter.

3. Live in the Present

I keep things because I feel bad for what they cost. I keep other things hoping that they may be useful someday. So I find myself straddling the past and the future.

But the problem is I’m only living in the present.

For me, living in the now means using all those things I saved for “someday.” I’ve been using all sorts of fancy skincare and haircare. It’s odd that my shopping ban is actually the most luxurious time for me. I’ve been able to see what I have at home instead of constantly looking for a store for answers.

Living in the now also means acknowledging that some purchases were mistakes and owning that. Being reminded of those purchases won’t make Past Me or Present or Future Me happy. I know more than Past Lisa so goodbye to her shopping mistakes. I hope Future Lisa knows more than me.

4. Think About What You Need

I once read that generations ago, people only owned 9 outfits. I don’t know anyone who only has 9 outfits, but with washing machines and 24-hour dry cleaning, why do we need more?

We need to think of our home environments as precious and not allow just anything to make the cut. Think of yourself as a curator to a fancy museum, not a garbage truck operator.

5. Think About What You Don’t Need

Reading over the list of everything I purged reminded me of all the ridiculous things I was hanging onto. I convinced myself I didn’t need a spare broken umbrella for “emergencies.” I bargained with myself over discarding expired eye drops, dresses I actively hate, and a large rubber duck that has sat in a closet for 5 years.

Every day I would open my closet and think, ugh you again. I don’t need it! Goodbye unnecessary hatred. Maybe someone else will find you and love you.

When we get rid of these unnecessary things, it’s easier to remember what we do need. The lesson in decluttering here is that all this JUNK takes time and energy away from us. We could use this time and energy toward things that really matter.

6. Think About Your Time

Too often, we’re buying things to save time and then we are surprised when we don’t have any more time. It’s partially because the more things we buy, the more we have to take care of them. But also sometimes we change our lifestyles because we now have this amazing new device. (See the book More Work for Mother: the Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave).

Like if you get a washing machine, you start doing laundry more often. Your cleanliness standards rise, which erases a lot of your time saving goals.

That doesn’t mean technology is futile, but it takes a bit more work to make sure that you really are getting the time savings you think you are. And you have to consider when you buy something new, how it will change you and if you’re ok with that.

7. Think About Your Space

The more ample your storage space, the less space you have for you. We don’t live in our closets – our stuff does. But if we have less stuff, we can use those closets for living space.

Just because we can store things, doesn’t mean we should. Space is not costless – not in your home and not in your head. I’m a little excited that my new apartment has LESS closet space, because that means I have more room for living.

8. Make Decisions

I know, it’s exhausting making decisions. But making firm decisions saves decision energy for the future. People who are well-organized are decisive. I really admire the friends I knew who dutifully got rid of their old magazines when new ones came in. They’ve not only made the decision, but they’ve automated it so they have less decision fatigue.

Part of the reason for making this list of lessons is a reminder for myself to reduce future purchase and decluttering decisions. Too often we avoid making these tough decisions but it only gets harder (and the decisions more plentiful) if you ignore them. Decide not to buy something? Well that one decision saves you from figuring out how to afford it, what to do with the packaging, where to store it, how to take care of it, and how to dispose of it.

9. Go After What You Really Want

I read once that fashion houses display one ridiculously expensive purse in the store because their shoppers will be enthralled but think better of it. The customers will instead purchase something cheaper and less coveted to soothe their disappointment. The customer feels smart for avoiding the big purchase but they are “rewarded” with something they don’t really want.

I mused with a friend that people often buy things because they can’t get what they really want. People are upset at their meaningless jobs and soothe themselves through retail therapy. A spouse wants love so they buy their partner expensive gifts. We buy things to cover our shortcomings and shame. And what you end up with is a medium-empty wallet and a lot of crap.

But if we figure out what we really want, we don’t end up with tons of clutter. Because maybe you don’t ultimately get the $10,000 Birkin bag, but at least you don’t end up with a ridiculous Hermes keychain. Too many of my purchases were “I really wanted that but this is good enough.” Not anymore. It’s what I want or nothing. And in many cases, I really do hope it’s nothing.

10. Think About The End Use of Your Products

The less stuff I have, the less stuff I have to dispose of. The less I have to dispose of, the more thoughtfully I can think of how to dispose of the product. When I’m overwhelmed with too many things, it can be easy just to throw everything in the trash.

But over along period of time, I can donate, gift, repurpose, recycle, etc. And if I start this conversation before I even buy the product, I can reduce the number of questions in the end. And that will save a lot of time and landfill space.

11. Your Stuff Fills Up Whatever Space You Give It

Even after decluttering, the apartment doesn’t look different. Stuff naturally fills up the space it’s in. Still, you can still feel more space in between your objects. They say that silence makes music sing. It’s the negative space that makes things beautiful.

We always think the answer is more storage, but more storage equals more stuff. Once you get rid of the storage, you necessarily have to get rid of your stuff. The storage almost encourages more stuff. To get that beautiful minimalist look, you have to remove way more stuff than you think you should. But that negative space, that breathing room for your stuff, and ultimately for you, is worth it.

Conclusion – Lessons from Decluttering

Even though my apartment doesn’t look much different, the weight lifted off my mind has been tremendous. I really do think that the decisions I’m making now are a great contribution to my future self. The main lessons from decluttering is that I don’t want to be a slave to my past or the future. By living in the present, I’m doing the best I can for the past and the future.

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