A Beginner’s Guide to Purging Your Stuff

Minimalism for people who have never done it before.

Megan Holstein
Dec 7, 2019 · 15 min read

“The things you own end up owning you.“― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

When the topic of minimalism comes up in my personal life, most people tell me they’re “not a minimalist, but not really into possessions either.” That would be a really nice sentiment if it were true. But based on what I observe, it isn’t.

Most Americans not only fill their closet with clothes until it bursts, but also fill a dresser and perhaps an armoire with clothes until they burst as well. Many Americans keep going, filling under-bed bins and external storage units with clothes with “off-season” clothes they never manage to wear even when it’s the on season.

To say nothing of the rest of an American’s possessions: plastic bins filled with broken airsoft guns and ten-year-old camo are shoved in the closets of men who haven’t been airsofting in over a decade, piles of random paperwork littering the corners of home offices, and entire garages filled with bins and random tools, even to the point where the garage no longer has enough room for the cars in the first place.


Frankly, we Americans need less than ten per cent of what we use. Most Americans have so many clothes their clothes need their own storage units, but most Americans only wear ten or twenty articles of clothing. (To see which articles these are, simply look in the laundry bin and on the floor. The clothes you see there are the ones they actually wear.)

Many Americans own sports equipment for all kinds of random sports they have only played once in the last five years. Many more Americans own bins and bins of random cables, components, and tools, telling themselves they’ll “sort through that stuff one day” when “one day” is never going to come.

Perhaps the most damning fact is this: At the beginning of 2019, I made a pact to myself to only buy pre-owned goods. For everything that does not need to be purchased new (like food and socks), I purchased pre-owned wherever possible. Things I was able to easily, locally purchase pre-owned over the last year include:

  • A handcrafted leather phone case
  • Two comfortable chairs and an end table
  • Many pairs of jeans by designer brands like Express and American Eagle
  • Many shirts made by designer brands like Kenneth Cole and Ann Taylor
  • A trendy modern couch
  • A 4K Apple TV
  • A wool Armani coat

I don’t live in some centre of fashion and industry. I live in Columbus. And I have supplied myself with new, high-quality tech and designer fashion entirely from the excess of others around me. This is only possible in a culture whose consumerism is so over-the-top that even handcrafted luxury goods get replaced within three years.

Unless you have made a conscious choice not to be a part of that culture, you probably are.


Why You Should Minimize

Essentially, the reason everyone should minimize is that it reduces decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is that curious condition most often experienced at the end of the day when you just want people to stop asking you questions.

In decision making and psychology, decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making.12 It is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making.2 For instance, judges in court have been shown to make poorer-quality decisions late in the day than they do early in the day.13 Decision fatigue may also lead to consumers making poor choices with their purchases.

Wikipedia, Decision Fatigue

Minimizing decision fatigue is one of the top priorities of anyone looking to maximize their performance. It is for this reason that Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg wear the same thing to work every day; if they wear the same thing to work every day, that’s one more thing they don’t have to decide.

Personal possessions are the enemy of people who are fighting decision fatigue because each thing you possess multiplies the number of decisions you must make. If you own one outfit, there’s no decision to make. If you own five, you’re picking between five outfits. If you own fifty, you’re picking from fifty outfits, every single morning. Own enough clothes and hygiene products, and getting ready for the day can become a project unto itself.

It works the same way for everything else you own. If you own a small house, a reading chair, a desk for working, a kitchen, and a bed, then when you get home from work, all you have to do is ask yourself if you’d like to read, work, cook, or sleep. If you own a three thousand square foot house with all kinds of stuff bursting out of every room, the number of options you have is staggering.

In this way, everything you own costs energy. You must make decisions about it and account for it and navigate around it. To eliminate decision fatigue, you need to decide which of these items is worth that cost.


Using minimalism to reduce my decision fatigue has had a number of positive effects on my life. Being a minimalist has…

  • enabled me to pack all my possessions into a camper van and travel the country
  • increased my daily productivity 2x; even my least productive days still include something like exercise, a healthy meal, or progress made toward my goals. I simply don’t have days where nothing gets done anymore.
  • reduced the amount of time I spend doing housework and chores to near-zero
  • made it so my apartment is almost always neat; even when it is at it’s very dirtiest, it is still rather neat compared to how messy a home can get
  • made it so I actually pursue my hobbies. Before, stuff I needed to pursue my hobbies got buried in the stuff. Most of the time, the annoyance of unburying the stuff keeps people from using it. Not consciously, but subconsciously. Now, since I own so little, it’s easy for me to pull out my hobby stuff and take some time to pursue that.
  • reduced my anxiety. This works in a couple of ways; having fewer items means there are fewer things for my brain to latch on to and devote energy to understanding. Having fewer items means I have fewer chores to do, which makes me feel like there’s less I have to get done. And I can comprehend what I do own, so pursuing meaningful hobbies (painting, etc) is no longer a pain in the ass.
  • helped me to understand what’s really important to me. When you own sports equipment for seven different sports that you only use twice a year, you can maintain a personal delusion that you are into those sports. If you get rid of everything you don’t use at least once every three months, though, you are forced to acknowledge what it is you actually spend your time doing.

That being said, this list of benefits is just that — an abstract list. You, sitting on the other side of the computer screen, can read that entire list without emotionally appreciating any of it. I don’t blame you; the internet is full of people singing the praises of one thing or another. To you, it’s just more meaningless garbage.

It’s meaningless to you because the trouble with minimizing is that many of the beneficial effects only make sense after experiencing them. A minimalist can say “minimizing helps you feel relaxed in your home,” but a hoarder might retort “having all these books and clothes helps me feel relaxed because my stuff makes me happy.” We know minimizing works because of the results; maximizers tend to be riddled with stress and anxiety, while minimizers tend to be focused, relaxed, and happier.

So in addition to that itemized list, I will say this: you have no idea how all that stuff affects you until it’s gone. All those things I listed off are true, but you don’t appreciate what that means until three weeks after you got rid of more than half your stuff, when you realize the last three weeks have been some of the most productive and the most enjoyable of your life.

If you want the benefits of minimizing — a mind that finally feels relaxed, a home that finally feels comfortable, and a well of focus so deep you will wonder where it was when you were an underachieving high school student — then you have to get rid of your stuff before you feel the benefits. You have to have faith.


How to Minimize

You do not, however, have to do it all at once. It will certainly be better for you if you do, but most people simply aren’t comfortable with that. It’s also difficult to do all at once; people who are new to the mindset of minimalism often struggle with what to do about their sentimental items. It is for this reason that organizing expert Marie Kondo recommends minimizing your possessions in a certain order:

  1. Clothes
  2. Books
  3. Papers
  4. Miscellaneous Items
  5. Sentimental Items

The logic is this: Most people find it relatively easy to determine which clothes they want to keep versus donate. People find that decision harder to make for books, yet harder for papers, so on and so forth, with sentimental items coming in last. By the time you get to the sentimental items stage, you are so practiced at judging your possessions that you are ready to make the difficult choices.

There are critics of Marie Kondo’s method. Some people are righteously angry when she recommends they minimize their book collection. (Kondo believes that unless you are a voracious reader who is curating their own library, you should own no more than thirty books.) Others think the Miscellaneous Items section should be broken out into kitchenware, home goods, and other subsections.

These criticisms miss the point. The magic of Marie Kondo’s method isn’t in any particular methodology, it’s in her heuristic, her fundamental question:

Does this item spark joy?

If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, she says, toss it. Life is too short for anything else.

Clothes

The sad fact is that most Americans own far more clothes than they actually wear. Take a look at the closet of an American, and you will see a third of the clothes on the floor or in the laundry that get worn regularly, a third of the clothes hanging in the closet that get worn every so often, and a third of the clothes shoved in the back of the closet (or better yet, in storage bins) that get worn exactly never.

The closet of a minimalist, on the other hand, looks like this: All the clothes are either hung up or in the laundry bin. There are almost no clothes on the floor because there is plenty of space in the laundry bin and in the closet for them. (The minimalist does not own enough clothes with which to cover their floor anyways.) There are no dressers with exploding drawers and bins squirrelled under beds. Every article of clothing the minimalist owns gets worn.

The goal of the aspiring minimalist, then, is to get as close to this ideal as possible. The best place to start is with any storage bins you may have. The next best place to start is in the back of your closet, where all the forgotten clothes have gone to hide.

Marie Kondo also has one other technique I very much like: She recommends that when you minimize, you gather up every item you own in that category and put them all in the same place so you can see exactly how much you own. Her clients are often rendered speechless by their towering piles of clothes, piles that are sometimes eight feet tall. We often own far more than we realize.

Books

I have an unpopular opinion about book ownership. I don’t respect it. When people tell me they “love books” or “love the smell of books” or “love the feel of paper in their hands,” it is more likely to lower my opinion of them than raise it.

Why? Because most of the people I’ve met who say these things aren’t readers. Maybe they were once readers, perhaps in their childhood, but as of the moment they say they “love books,” they haven’t read a book cover-to-cover in years. They like thinking of themselves as readers, not actually being readers.

Look — if someone told me they “love rock climbing” and showed me their collection of rock climbing equipment, but hadn’t actually been rock climbing in years, I’m not going to think they’re really that into rock climbing. I’m going to think they are deluding themselves into thinking they are into rock climbing. I am going to think they’re lying to themselves.

So it goes with books as well; if you own a bunch of books but you really don’t read all that often, I think you’re lying to yourself about being a “reader.”

It’s forgivable. People often want to think of themselves as “readers.” “Readers” are “smart” and “readers” are “educated” and “readers” are… you get the idea. To think of oneself as a “reader” is to think of oneself in a very flattering light. But there is a huge difference between thinking of yourself as a “reader” and actually being one.

Coming back to owning books: owning books is great if you’re actually a reader. However, if you’re not a reader, owning books is likely nothing more than an expensive attempt to prop up your own self-image.

My personal recommendation for book ownership is this: Own no more than two times the amount of books you read in a year. If you read 50 books a year, that’s 100 books in your personal library. If you read 3 books a year, that’s 6 books on the shelf. This gives you plenty of wiggle room to choose your next book without cluttering up your house with a personal delusion.

Papers

Unlike most of what we own, paperwork is purely practical. If we can’t come up with a concrete reason to keep something, it isn’t worth keeping.

Which system of paperwork management is best for you is a topic long enough for it’s own article, so I’ll simply share mine with you. Here is how I sort my paperwork:

  • Keep: Anything the state requires me to keep a paper copy of. So far, this includes my car title, my social security card, and my birth certificate.
  • Scan: Anything I need to keep for personal records. This includes receipts for auto work, personal copies of contracts, and certain financial documents.
  • Recycle: Literally everything else. This includes manuals for appliances, most receipts, and tons of other things most people think they should keep.

I have been filing my paperwork according to this method — in other words, recycling the vast majority of it — for years, and have yet for this method to become a problem. When I need paperwork, the company I need it from is almost always able to provide an up-to-date copy. We simply don’t need most of the paperwork we think we do.

Miscellany

Miscellany can be anything from kitchen appliances to a serious collection of video game equipment. Since there are dozens of different categories, I’ll stick to those on which I have a considered opinion:

Kitchen Tools & Appliances

My mother has a set of shelves in her basement arranged in a hallway configuration — there are several sets of shelves you can walk in between. On these shelves sit a wide variety of kitchen cooking equipment, appliances, and serving dishes and platters. The vast majority of these are used less than once a year. Judging by the dust buildup, some have never been used at all.

If your kitchen tools are building up dust, it’s probably time to acknowledge you don’t cook very much and just let it go. If you get interested in cooking again, you can buy an updated version of what you need later. (And if you’re worried about the cost of that: Every Goodwill I’ve ever been to has an overabundance of kitchen equipment, entire shelves dedicated to forks and spatulas and pots and pans and different kinds of toasters and vegetable steamers and dozens of other appliances I don’t understand. If you have a local goodwill, you should never want for kitchen equipment.)

Tech

Ah, tech. How I love tech. If I ever get tens of thousands of dollars into credit card debt, it will be because I bought a bunch of tech. I know I will because I see my friends do it: they own one, or two, or three tablets, and also a laptop and a desktop and a TV and a great monitor for their desktop that they keep next to the TV…

The best advice I can give on how to minimize tech is to avoid owning duplicates. If you own an iPhone Pro, sell the iPhone 8 that’s collecting dust in your drawer. If you own more than one tablet, sell the ones you never seem to use. If you have multiple laptops, keep the one you take everywhere and sell the one you leave at home. And if you have more than one TV, then please, sell the second. No home needs more than one TV.

Furniture

Minimizing guides often overlook furniture, but furniture has a very strong effect on the way a home feels. A home with lots of furniture feels crowded, dark, and difficult to navigate. A home with the right amount of furniture feels comfortably open and relaxed. (A home with too little furniture, of course, feels like you haven’t fully moved in.)

Benjamin Foley said it best: “No, I’m not suggesting you throw away your bed or your couch, but think long and hard if you need that 6th lamp or that 4th side table.” Are the small pieces of furniture doing you any good? The side table that you have shoved in the corner in the kitchen — is it ever anything more than a landing zone for dirty dishes and trash? The stack of chairs taking up half the closet — do you ever actually get them out for guests? Or have they lived in the back of the closet for years? Getting rid of these small pieces can open up a home very quickly.

Sentimental Items

When something is classified as sentimental, it has one purpose: to evoke a particular memory, be it of a feeling or of a particular day. To fulfill this function, you must see your sentimental item. It must be viewed or used regularly. A sentimental item that is in a cardboard box in the back of a closet is not being used for its purpose, which makes it like every other item you own which is not being used for it’s intended purpose — junk.

As you go through your sentimental items, ask yourself what you want to do with this item. Do you want to display it on a shelf in your room? Do you want to use it until it falls apart? Do you want to get it a class case or a frame so you may enjoy it? If you want to keep it in storage but view it when you are in the mood, do you want to get a wooden storage box just for mindfully storing it?

Then there’s the most important question of all: Do you want to be reminded of what it reminds you of?

When I thought about this for myself, I found most of the “sentimental” items I owned reminded me of things I didn’t really want to be reminded of. Like the t-shirt with the name of my middle school on it — it’s not functional as a shirt because I don’t want to wear a middle school t-shirt out and about. It’s not functional as a sentimental item because it doesn’t “take me back” to anything (except perhaps how much growing up sucks). I realized I had no reason to keep it. I pitched it and never regretted it.

On the other hand, there are items that are genuinely sentimental to a person — notes friends wrote as a child, photos of friends taken at parties — that we want to see. These things can be taken out of storage, placed in frames and hung on walls as reminders of what really matters.


What To Do With What You’re Disposing

Some people get it into their head that they are going to take all the stuff they’re getting rid of to the appropriate donation facilities. I was one of those people. I tried to sell things on eBay or take them to donation facilities — anything but allowing them to end up in a landfill.

But after a few months of constant trips to different donation facilities, I realized a few things:

  1. I was sick of running errands
  2. Goodwill accepted everything I wanted to donate already
  3. The prospect of running these errands was making tidying seem less appealing to me

Now, my strategy is simple. If there is somewhere I can sell my castoffs for money, I take them there. If they are not accepted by the resale shop, I take them directly to Goodwill. Is Goodwill a problematic donation facility? Perhaps. But it’s better a problematic donation facility has my clothes than me.


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Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Thanks to Reed Rawlings

Megan Holstein

Written by

Articles about productivity, personal philosophy, and why we’re here. www.meganeholstein.com.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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