10 Things I Have Learned Through Decluttering My Life

I knew after I moved house 3 years ago that something had to change. The stuff I’d had for over 25 years had found itself comfortable little corners where it was and when finally it was all turned out and into a new flat it was completely overwhelming. I began a programme of decluttering which has been underway for the last 3 years. Here are some things I have learned along the way:

  1. It’s a slow, deeply emotional process. I didn’t really expect that. I started with a very satisfying purge involving many trips to the charity shop and dump. I lived with a bit less for a while. I then adjusted my perception and that still seemed like a lot so I did another ‘wave’, working through each room one by one or by ‘categories’ of things. I had times when I was really determined, then times when life took over, but all the while felt and believed that the journey towards having less would take me to something better.
  2. The stuff you own affects you more than you think. This has been deeply profound for me. I knew that I ‘felt better’ in tidy rooms and that they would be cleaner because there were less hiding places for dust! I didn’t realise how the stuff you have works on a deep emotional and psychological level. You have a relationship to everything you have around, whether you know it or not. Questioning why you are keeping something throws up questions, memories, feelings. Not always comfortable ones; “why do I have this?”, “what does this make me feel?”, “what memories does this object contain?”, “are these memories I want to keep round me?” What do you keep and why? It’s a voyage of self-discovery. What have you kept before and why? What things have you rediscovered through the process that are actually still important to you and that you can reincorporate into your current life?
  3. It can take years! And that is ok. If you truly go through everything, and not just on a surface level, then you are going to be dealing with deep emotions. It will be upsetting and exhilerating and a gradual, growing process. And that’s ok. I have written an article here on banning the phrase ‘one day’ from my life and that applies here, too. “I’ll clear out my attic one day”, “I’ll do a big tidy out one day”. When? Why not now?
  4. You don’t actually love stuff if you have loads of it. I thought I must just love stuff because I couldn’t seem to stop buying things or reduce to few possessions (certainly not like those ‘minimalists’ — I have since learned minimalism is about your life and only keeping what is right for you — see Joshua Becker, www.becomingminimalist.com.) As I have worked through my possessions, I realise I haven’t actually valued ‘stuff’ at all. I’ve had so many jackets that most of them didn’t make it out to be worn. I’ve had too many shirts that they were all stuffed together on hangers, crumpled and needing re-ironed before they could be worn. I’ve had shelves and shelves of books, and would be lying if I said they were all regularly loved and dusted (note: I have never been massively untidy so my spaces have always been clean!). Having less means taking care more. One special jacket that you wear more often, that becomes a ‘friend and ally’ as you face the world. Books you love that you know you will read again. Ornaments that tell a story, conjure an amazing memory. That is ‘loving stuff’…but it’s actually loving your life first and stuff supporting that second. This also changes your thinking on when and how you buy. I was buying 8 jackets because I was trying to buy fulfilment or meet an emotional need. I try to find a great one now because I need a jacket and want to find one I love which will do a lot of important things with me. Of course, changing how stuff comes in is a major part of the decluttering process otherwise you will never really scale down!
  5. It’s a creation process, you are creating the life you want. Leo Babauta calls it “curating your life”. I liken this journey to sculpting (chipping away the bits you don’t want) or painting (building up the life you do want in gradual layers). I expected it to be a mechanical process, keeping things based on their utility but, as Marie Kondo in ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’ says “keep things that bring you joy” (2 parts to that. You — no-one else, and Joy — an emotion). It’s your journey towards the life you want. What you decide to get rid of doesn’t represent the life you want and what is left does. You might know from the outset what you really want your life to be like or you might just know something needs to change but either way you are creating something different, something more ‘you’.
  6. Decluttering gives you confidence and makes you feel safe. There are a lot of opposites in all of this! I thought having lots of stuff around me protected me. If I fell on hard times and couldn’t buy clothes, I had some there. I had choices to be different versions of me in the things I read, used, wore. What I did not expect was that as I got rid of some of these options, I would feel a stronger sense of my own identity because I was keeping the things that were ‘most me’. As I loosened connections to ‘stuff’ I gained confidence and freedom. As I understood my emotional relationships to things, I wasn’t as scared of losing or damaging them. They lost some of their power over me. I am more relaxed now if I accidentally damage something because it is a thing rather than something filled with undealt-with emotion.
  7. The things you put off give you clues. There are areas of our homes (and we all know which ones!) where ‘one day’ features strongly. You don’t want to go there. Childhood stuff? Old love letters? Photos? Memories of those who have passed? You know it will be hard, maybe too hard, so they stay where they are. In a box, hidden. Maybe even moved from home to home unopened. This is the hard stuff but, as with so much in life, the hard stuff also brings the most rewards. Imagine knowing what is in every box. Choosing what is in every box. You are in control. There is not going to be a nasty future surprise when you accidentally open it, forget what’s in it and cry all over again for your old friend. I decided to cry now. Take control and decide which of these things made me happy and which didn’t. Some do make me sad and that is ok. It’s not about editing out everything. But birthday cards from people I no longer speak to? Gifts from people who have hurt me? These things don’t help. And by crying now and letting go I am not stuffing those feelings back in the box to upset me again in a few years’ time when I forget what is in it and open it again!
  8. Decluttering liberates your whole life. I have found this to be absolutely true. First of all, having less stuff frees up your time. You know exactly what you have and where it is, so you don’t waste time searching! Tidying is a dream (so I can have people round at short notice), cleaning is a dream (so I can live a healthier life), shopping is a dream (because I’ve got rid of my emotional need to shop…well, mostly, but we all have our challenges). Having less choice means choices can be made more quickly, packing is a dream (so I can travel more). I have a little bit more money than I did and my sense of self is stronger (because I’m not weighed down by all the hidden emotional boxes or by too much choice of ‘which me to be’ around). I have more time to pursue what is really important. I was sceptical right to the end that shedding stuff would really change my life. And it does take a while (see number 3!)…but one day something just clicks.
  9. Anyone can do this. It’s not about decor or design. I might like more ornaments and pictures than you. It’s about what you keep and who you are and whether the stuff around you helps or hinders that. Some good advice from the decluttering sites is to start small. Do the junk drawer, do one area or one room and feel what it is like to live only with what you need. Feel what it is like to let actual life creep in…when you’re not so buried in stuff. We all start in different places and go on different journeys but that’s true generally of life.
  10. It’s the future. I believe that. We are seeing more people questioning consumerism. ‘Stuffocation’ by James Wallman is an interesting book. With digital transformation, technology and changing mindsets we are all gravitating more towards experiences rather than stuff. Or, rather, stuff for its own sake, just to ‘have it’. The stuff enhances the experience. Does your stuff enhance your experience?

Decluttering my life is proving to be one of the most challenging, rewarding, interesting periods of my life and it’s not over. More than ever I view this as a way of life not a one-off event. Continually and periodically going through the things you choose to have around and asking the questions: “Why am I keeping you?” “What do you add to my life?” And somehow in doing so what I am really asking is “Why am I doing what I’m doing?”, “Is this still the life I want to live?” I’m not done with this learning yet.