The Decluttering Project

Recently I have been spending a good amount of time tackling a project I had been putting off for years.  The idea is to streamline and organize all of my belongings so that I can reduce the clutter in my living space, be able to find anything I’m looking for on a moment’s notice, and pare down the stuff I have to a more satisfying and liberating minimum.  It’s clear to me that I don’t “need” a lot of what I’ve been holding on to.  I’ve done just fine having much of it stored away in boxes for years without ever touching or even looking at it.  So why is this something I have avoided doing for so long, and what exactly makes it so difficult?

For one thing, going through every single item you have and deciding what to keep and what to get rid of means that you must, in a very real sense, face and deal with all of your stuff.  For a longtime pack rat like me, this is no easy task.

But (assuming for a moment that I’m not alone here) why do we hold on to stuff we don’t need in the first place?  Why does our stuff tend to have such a powerful hold on us?  I think it’s because – for many of us, and to varying degrees – our sense of identity is linked to our stuff.  Yes, some of us may derive a sense of self-worth or importance from the material things that we own.  But on a deeper level, our stuff also validates our existence.  We have been around, and we have done things.  How do we know?  We have the proof in our stuff!  If we discard this stuff, how will we be able to keep track of all that we have done, especially when our memory fails us?  And how will the world at large ever know what we have done, or know that we were here at all, once we’re gone?

I find it especially interesting that I not only hold on to things that remind me of happy times or that might (presumably) come in handy some day, but that I tend to keep things even if they drudge up painful memories or are things I know I will never have any actual use for.  If these items are draining to wade through and revisit during those infrequent times when I actually do so, why bother keeping them at all?  Maybe it’s because I want to be able to point to the experiences I have accumulated that have shaped my life: the efforts I have put forth, the challenges I have endured, and my own perceived missteps and failures as well as personal victories and accomplishments.  Maybe there is some insight to be gleaned from all of this documentation regarding who I am and what I am really all about, how I have grown and developed over the years and what parts of me have remained essentially the same.

What’s the harm in holding on to stuff, anyway?  And what are the benefits of paring it down?  What is worth keeping, and for how long?  There is no one-size-fits-all answer.  But, for whatever it’s worth, here are some of my thoughts on all of this “stuff”:

1.  You’ve probably heard aphorisms before along the lines of “The stuff you own owns you” and “Possessions possess.”  There is nothing wrong with stuff in and of itself.  The trick is to have your stuff serve you rather than have it be your master.  Does your stuff prevent you from doing things you want to do?  Are you weighed down by it, or by the obligations to pay for, manage, or maintain it?  For any given thing that you own or keep, are you actually better off with it or without it?

2.  By physically going through all of your stuff item by item, you are inevitably confronted with your own spending habits, and perhaps become a bit wiser for it.  I have concluded that when making a purchase of any kind there are two questions that are worth asking:

  • Is this something I will actually use (or read/listen to/derive satisfaction from/get my money’s worth out of)?
  • Am I willing to go to the trouble of storing this item indefinitely?  Seeing a purchase as an obligation to house something, as a burden of sorts, might make me more thoughtful about what I choose to buy in the first place.

3.  Stuff that you have and no longer use might be very useful to someone else.  My friend Mikki, for example, once gave me a bike rack that was just sitting in her garage collecting dust when she heard that I could use one.  I went on to get a whole lot of use out of it for years (I’m still grateful to her, and often think of her when I use it!).  If you have items that you never use, consider giving them away to people who might get actual (possibly even abundant) use out of them.  If you don’t personally know any would-be recipients, you can always donate books to a local library, clothing to a homeless shelter, and just about anything to the Salvation Army or Goodwill.  I even discovered a local bike co-op to donate some old bike tubes and accessories to.

4.  Most of your stuff can probably be divided into two basic categories: the utilitarian and the sentimental.  The sentimental is that which may have no value to anyone but yourself, or perhaps people close to you, such as your children (born or unborn), etc.  This is the stuff that can be a lot harder to part with: personal items, photos, souvenirs, letters (“Yes, Virginia, there really was a time before e-mail…”), etc.  Going through a wide array of these items (including papers and mementos from as far back as elementary school), I have been experiencing the tension between the desires to both hold on to the past and to let go of it.  I think it helps to view decluttering as a process, and one that you can expect will be a time-consuming one.  It is hard to let go of things all at once, but it is more doable in stages.  I have found that I may have been hesitant to throw away much at all after going through an entire box full of papers, but on a second or third pass a short time later it suddenly becomes obvious that I don’t need half of what is in there, and it becomes easier to let go of it.  What I have done in a lot of cases is organized things into categories, even if I haven’t yet pared them down all that much.  Consolidating and organizing such items can give you a different perspective on them, and can make it easier to manage, reduce, or discard them at a later date.  Of course, in the digital age, scanning some things before throwing them away altogether might be the most comfortable and comforting option (take note several years later if you’ve ever even gone back once to look at these digital files!).

5.  No matter how thorough you are in your decluttering, your stuff will continue to amass, and chaos will inevitably reappear (my high school chemistry teacher referred to this phenomenon as the law of entropy).  Devising a system to manage incoming stuff on a regular basis can help you to deter the buildup of clutter.

6.  Some advantages of decluttering:

  • Things you have been meaning to attend to will become more visible instead of buried under piles of paper and forgotten about.  This increases the chances of your actually attending to them.
  • You may find things you have been looking for but misplaced.
  • Making your living space less cluttered and more aesthetically pleasing can have a calming effect and make it more appealing to spend time in it.
  • It can be a very symbolic and potentially liberating act: getting rid of the old to make room for the new.

7.  What will happen to all of our stuff in the end?  Pretty much the same thing that will happen to us.  It will vanish.  It will be no longer.  It will meet its maker!  It will end up buried in the ground somewhere, decompose, biodegrade, or be recycled.  Yes, it may be handed down from generation to generation for a time or be preserved in some fashion for a while, but all material things will ultimately disappear.  Like ourselves, our stuff has a limited lifespan.  And maybe that’s a good thing.

8.  My hope is that decluttering the immediate physical space of my living environment may have a similar effect on my inner living space, as well.  The way I see it, it can only help.  🙂

Here are some final thoughts on “stuff” from the inimitable George Carlin:

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3 Responses to The Decluttering Project

  1. David "Sodium Man" McG says:

    Great advice and analysis, Eric! I am working on clearing out one room (only one!) in anticipation of a foreign exchange student coming to stay with us next year. Who would have guessed the process could be so painful, heartwrenching, tedious, and difficult! But therapeutic all the same. The issues involved are not so small – as you point out, at the core is admitting that life is finite. That book that you read once will likely never be read again, or if it is, that comes at the cost of not reading a new book that may be better! That hobby that I always meant to get to won’t really happen, because I have found something I like better, and there will not be time for both. My old high school cross country shirt is torn and too small – but that one will stay anyway. Some things are too precious to let go!

    On the positive side, organizing can be like getting a lot of birthday presents. So many things have been put away and forgotten (memory is finite as well! ACK!) that discovering a lost treasure can make several hours of tedious sorting worthwhile.

    Keep up the good work. This weekend I will help my sister declutter. A much easier project than working on my own house!

  2. Pingback: Seven Habits for Highly Unemployed People | Eric's Inspired Living Blog

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