Go Ahead. Start Decluttering with the Easiest Step.

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Whenever I have opportunity to speak on the benefits of minimalism, I allow time at the end for some question and answer with the participants. I believe strongly the journey of minimalism is a personal journey. And as a result, I always expect there to be unique, specific circumstances in the audience which could not possibly have been addressed from upfront.

And while each setting, venue, and audience vary from presentation to presentation, the first few questions from any audience are nearly identical. Depending on who I call on first, I will receive one of these questions: What about my sentimental items and family heirlooms? What about my books? What about my kids’ toys? My husband/wife will never go along with this idea, what should I do with their clutter?

Interestingly enough, each of these questions sound unique. And in some ways they are, they do represent different personalities and/or family dynamics. But there is one great similarity in each of these questions. And it is this similarity that causes too many people to get stuck in their journey towards a clutter-free home.

Notice, each of these questions represent the apparent “toughest” thing in their homes to declutter: books, heirlooms, or clutter from someone else in the family. Each of their minds has quickly raced to the most difficult area in their home to declutter. And the thought of removing those items from their home seems daunting.

My response to their question is always the same: Take heart. You don’t need to start with the hard stuff. Instead, start at the easiest place possible in your home. Build up little victories and momentum by clearing the clutter from your automobile, a drawer, your living room, or maybe your bathroom cupboard. You’ll quickly begin to experience the benefits of living with less… and you’ll know what to do when you finally arrive at the seemingly impossible areas in your home.

A few years back, I ran a marathon. It was the fulfillment of a life dream. I had always wanted to run one as an exercise in self-discipline and focus, but the challenge always seemed to difficult. How would I ever run 26.2 miles?  What about that stretch of mile 20 to mile 26? Where would I find the mental strength to run through the “wall” as I neared the end?

The fear of running 26.2 miles kept me from even trying.

That was, until I picked up a book titled, Run Your First Marathon. While I ultimately found conversations with other marathon runners to be a bit more helpful in my training, this book by Grete Waitz provided me with all the motivation to get started. Specifically, it was the training guide that motivated me the most. It read:

  • Day 1: Run 1 mile.
  • Day 2: Rest.
  • Day 3: Run 1.5 miles.
  • Day 4: Rest.

I found great motivation in this training plan. You see, I knew I could run one mile – that was an easy step. I even knew I could probably run two miles… and that would get me all the way through almost the whole first week. Suddenly, I stopped worrying about miles 20-26.2 and I just stayed focused on accomplishing what I knew I could accomplish. Ultimately, the lessons I learned while running 1, 2, and 5 miles prepared me to run 10, 12, 14. And the lessons I learned running 10, 12, and 14 miles prepared me to run 18, 20, and eventually 26.2.

So go ahead. Start your decluttering journey with the easiest step – just pick one drawer. And leave your toughest questions for mile 20. You’ll get there when you are ready.

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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  1. says

    Excellent! I just recently started 15 minutes a day of “mindful decluttering” and I’ve been bumping into the exact same feelings and questions you mentioned here. Thanks so much for this post. Little victories day by day, just 15 minutes at a time…that’s a formula for great results

  2. says

    I’m working on my book dilemma at this very moment. I’ve decided to go the Kindle route (though I’ve yet to get one. I refuse to buy one and will only have one if I get it as a gift.) Any book that has a Kindle version or has a suitable replacement (textbooks, reference books, etc.) have all been listed for sale on eBay. I’m left with about five books that I’ll probably end up selling as soon as I decide I don’t really “need” them either. This is the last of my “clutter” and what I’m left with are only the things that provide utility in my life. It feels good. I’m so happy that I’ve been on this path for the last few years (it’s taken me that long to really adopt the lifestyle completely…and I still find myself going on consumer binges on occassion.) I just have to keep reminding myself that it’s just stuff…sentimental or not…and that keeping an object locked away in a box in the closet provides absolutely no purpose.

    I’ll be excited to see just how little I actually have once I begin packing my belongings for my move to South America next month. I have a feeling I’ll be surprised by how far I’ve come in this journey.

    • says

      Steven, my husband is an avid reader. We moved from a big house to one half the size. I had to get rid of tons of his paperbacks before we moved. For his birthday, I got him a Nook. He loves it. Says it’s the best gift he ever got. The lack of clutter is a big help for us. He loves those big Presidential biography books and they cost less on the Nook — and I don’t have to worry about where to put each new book! You can get magazine subscriptions too and surf the net so he can read his email. It was one of the best things I’d done in an effort to have less stuff in our house (and especially our bedroom where less clutter is even more important).

      • Renee says

        I agree…the Nook Tablet is by far the best purchase I’ve made in a long time. Doesn’t take up a lot of room, but does it pack a lot of punch for enjoyment! No more books or magazines taking up room on shelves. I have my calendar online and set up as my home page on the Nook. And I love the convenience of checking my email and facebook. And Words With Friends….let’s just say that’s a fun pasttime for me!

      • Wendy says

        Buying a Kindle was one of the most de-cluttering experiences of my life. I got rid of more than 1000 books and now have actual empty shelves.

    • Kelly O says

      I’ve been ereading for about 2 years and I love it. I also switched to the library for those that I can’t get electronically. I love not having books everywhere! This one was a hard one for me but I started looking at all the space issues not to mention what the cost was. So now I have a handful of hard copies left to read and under 10 of my favourites that I will keep. The ones I have left to read will go in the work lunchroom – I find if I think of it as sharing the joy I’ve just read with someone else, it helps.

      Believe me, if I can let go of books, you can too! I come by pack ratism naturally…my father loves to keep stuff. I almost cried when I threw out my old single mattress from childhood years ago. But it gets better with time…it’s only material stuff, I still have the memories! And, sites like Goodreads help me keep track of what I have read.

      • Fiona Cee says

        if i bought all the books i read, my house would be a firetrap of books, yet, it still is a firetrap of clutter.

        Thank God for libraries!

  3. says

    Thank you Joshua. I have been decluttering for a while now but the principle you laid out in this post actually helped me with another project I have to accomplish at work. Nothing to do with decluttering – but everything to do with *starting*. Thanks.

  4. Kelekona says

    Well the other thing about starting to simplify with the easy things is that some people may find a state of “good enough” while barely brushing through the sentimental items and managing to give their family’s clutter adequate storage or banished to their own space.

    Wasn’t it this blog that was talking about not making minimalism into a competition? and how some people have to regard a well-managed collection as one item to even think about the 100 things challenge.

    And any organizer / minimalist / etc type that points to my books is going to metaphorically bloody themselves without gaining any battleground. Fiction books are okay on the e-reader except for pricing and transferability issues, the how-to books are easier to use in dead-tree format.

    • Melanie says

      I have been going through my books and have used the kindle approach too, but only if I could borrow them or get them for free. I refuse to buy another book for kindle that I now own (that is wasteful) And there are several reference books that I won’t part with, but gave 10 boxes of books to my daughter’s library for a book sale! Woo hoo! I still have a lot of books, but one step at a time. And I will go through them again down the line. Thanks for the encouragement. We are doing it, but I am struggling with what to do with all the stuff we have inherited from deceased relatives still.

      • Audrey says

        I had also found my home with lots of items from deceased relatives, my mother being the hardest to get rid of. However, I have learned some valuable lessons also. First what my mother treasured (tea sets) I do not necessarily treasure. Lesson just because I love it doesn’t mean my family will when I am gone. Second lesson: she wouldn’t want me hanging on to something out of obligation. My mother was very giving and woul rather I give it to someone else who would enjoy instead of being boxes up somewhere. You can’t keep someone alive by holding on to their things is what I have learned. You are not dishonoring them nor are you giving them away. They remain a part of you and you have your memories!

        • Dana says

          I just had an epiphany. I don’t see how “only keep things you love” fits in with the whole minimalism and decluttering and being an aware consumer. I think that as long as the item is good quality (won’t fall apart on you if you breathe on it) and isn’t repellent to you in some way, you might as well keep it.

          Why? Because if everyone says they will only keep things they love, and then they get rid of everything else, that means there’s an awful lot of junk out there in circulation not being kept by people who would rather buy something they love which is new and recently made, than hold on to something that isn’t new but that works perfectly well.

          People used to pass things on to their children so that the adult children would not have to acquire the things in question all over again. A mother who passes on her fine china to her daughter, has a daughter who will never have to buy a fine china set. In this scenario it only makes sense to get rid of the china set if you are absolutely sure you will never use a fine china set. Otherwise you’re wasting resources to get yourself a brand-new set and sending the one your mother bought off to gather dust in a thrift shop somewhere.

          And what is this business of “loving things” anyway? You don’t love things, you love people.

        • Deb says

          One thing I do is to take a Picture of an item that is sentimental and then send it out into the universe for someone else to enjoy. Looking at the picture will bring back the same memories and feelings without the clutter!

      • Kate says

        Melanie and other fans of e-readers – If you haven’t checked out your public library website for ebooks, you should do that. Many (or most) public libraries have a collection of ebooks and other downloadables that you can borrow with your library card. Sure beats paying for them! Plus using the library for e-materials supports your public library in being funded and delivering great service in all formats! I’m a library director in Pittsburgh and our system is very strong with e-materials.

  5. says

    Great motivation Joshua.
    The first place to start is in your heart! Find the faith that will empower you to do anything. Know that it is a righteous thing to set you life straight, and divest yourself of excess. After that, everything is “small stuff”. Just get the ball rolling and as you build new habits things will take care of themselves… momentum will build!
    Thanks again for helping us all keep our focus!

  6. Emily says

    Perfect. I love Tuesday nights at my condo because it’s the night we can take stuff to the trash room for bulk trash pick-up the next day. I look through my apartment all week eying what I can take down each week. I’m also having a hard time starting with decluttering because I see so much to do but not enough time to do it all. So I’m only committing myself to do something each week – not each day – which takes the pressure off, but I’m still seeing results.

  7. kathy says

    Taking care of our parents possessions after my father-in-law’s death led my husband and I to look at our possessions in a whole new light. Not only did our parents spend time and money buying and maintaining possessions, but we have in turn had to spend much time, effort and money to sell or give away what remains. What was once considered “valuable” is a burden. Now when we go through our own possessions we ask ourselves how much it is worth to hang onto something. What’s the price we are willing to pay? There are definitely some things we choose to keep, but asking this question has simplified the process greatly. We definitely have a new sense of freedom with every object that is “released” (as we say) to a new home.

    • Melanie says

      We are doing the same thing now since my parents are down sizing and moving to an apartment from a 4 bedroom house with a full basement and they have a
      “mountain” of stuff. It makes me want to get rid of my stuff too. I want to be free of clutter. Thanks for the thought- provoking questions.

      • lilian says

        My parents are also downsizing and moving from their home of 36 years. My Dad is a shopaholic and have collected so much stuff, many still in the box they came in. I feel so sad now that he is trying to give the stuff away and all I see is the amount of money wasted. Financially they could do with the money now. This has pushed me further into not buying anything I don’t need anymore as I never want to be in the position of having to find a new home for my stuff.I have been trying to live a minimalist life for years now with slow progress. This is a real kick back to reality for me.

    • says

      We had the same experience this summer. My mother-in-law died, and it was amazing how much stuff she had accumulated in her tiny apartment. My folks are in the process of moving back to Michigan. They lived in a tiny one-bedroom mobile home in Florida. My mother has so much craft junk. They sold some before she came, too. My Dad is still in Florida trying to get the trailer ready to sell. He had a garage sale, too…and sold some more stuff.

      I have a four bedroom house. One handicapped daughter. A son who has moved out and another daughter who will move out soon. I am sending kitchen items with them, plus small appliances. I still have more than enough. I don’t want to leave a huge job for them to do.

  8. says

    This is absolutely the way to go, whether it’s a room, a whole house, or in my case, a storage unit. For almost 3 years, I avoided the issue and this year, I just started at the easiest place – the front! One box at a time, one trip to Salvation Army at a time, one blog post at a time.

  9. says

    Another great post….and a super reminder that the journey of minimalism (and yes it is a journey) is a bit by bit process…and that there is no where to arrive…only a growing appreciation of what is really important in our lives. Keep up the good work and constant reminders of that… And for anyone who still wonders if they are a minimalist…here is my own definition on my blog asking “Are you really a minimalist–and five questions to find out.” http://smartliving365.com/?p=1375#more-1375

  10. Terri says

    I too find decluttering is a process. Small steps sometimes giant leaps other times. Some things are harder, some easier. Amazing how momentum builds the free-er I become. At the end of the day the results are always the same, I love space, I love less. I’ve never missed a single thing I move on to other places.
    I’m appreciative of all the bloggers and commenters who keep sharing their stories. It keeps me going.

  11. Steve says

    For me this is something like being a window washer on the Empire State building;’ by the time you get finished it is time to start again. So how do you gain ground and keep it? Particularly in a family setting where you have shared space…

    • says

      Steve, I’ve been struggling with the same question I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but even with the two of us and our 5 kids that are still at home, it’s working. Maybe this will help for you….

      1. I give 15 minutes a day to “mindful” decluttering some part of my physical environment, either at work or home or in the car

      2. The wife gives 15 minutes a day to mindful decluttering at home

      3. Each of the 5 kids gives 15 minutes a day to decluttering either their rooms or the common areas. They alternate between the two so their rooms are actually starting to show some progress and the common areas are too.

      By the way…for the kids, what I’ve noticed is that they have very subtly moved into the side of keeping things more tidy so they don’t have to do the same work twice if it’s not necessary.

      Maybe that will work for you too. Cheers!

    • says

      One thing that’s helped us is the “one in, one out” rule. Even kids can learn that if they want a new toy, one will have to be donated to charity. On a bigger scale, just before Christmas and his birthday, I remind my son that he needs to clean out his room so he’ll have room for new stuff.

      Since I’m still in the decluttering process, I often get rid of two items for each new one.

  12. Erin says

    While agreeing we all have too much and much of it is unnecessary, I have two fundamental concerns.

    This corporate culture which has relentlessly pushed materialism, simultaneously relegates family connections and traditions and much else to the dustbin. It’s always urging “starting over” each year – new colors, new house design, new clothes, new self. One’s earlier connections (especially to family), or home arrangement, or clothing, are all treated as disposable, an embarrassment, or or a burden. (“It’s not your father’s automobile,” “It’s not your mother’s dishwashing detergent,” i.e. their product, in being different from what is used by those who brought you up, is good) Even the self is seen as something to be changed out. Style is everything, whatever “style” means. Something in this de-cluttering feels like a cultural rejection of caring about one’s roots, about history, about family. It’s not recycling what has value or even recognizing what does, but tossing it. Baby clothes and toys saved for grandchildren can save family a fair amount of money, reconnect adult children to their own childhoods and their parents, reminding them of how much love and care they received. For adult children who have lost connection with their parents, such items, filled with love, bring them a new awareness that they are a part of culture, a tradition. And in seeing that cotton clothes from the 70s are all organic, one also has a deeper sense of that time, and how much needs to be fixed now.

    The second concern is with books. While it would be nice to be able to declutter all one’s books, and have only a single device, not all books are digitally produced, and even if they were, it means that some corporate entity would control what will exist, so what can be read, and what can be censored. The Church burned the library at Alexandria – so much of humanity’s accumulated knowledge was lost – and it also censored out part of the ancient texts. They took out what Asian religions teach – that the mind and body are connected, and that people have the ability to affect things with their feelings (hearts) (what Masuru Emoto is showing now with messages from water or what Gregg Braden is showing http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmMNlmn1DPc). A home library can a very unique treasure of material, not unlike the biodiversity of plants that some people work hard to preserve – whether it contains books on traditional healing, or a personally built collection of a group’s history, or books of maps, or old children’s books, or textbooks, or a broad or narrow collection of art books or poetry books. I read once about very poor people in North Africa whose families were tasked with preserving texts for hundreds of years, a very great honor. Thanks to them, not all was lost at Alexandria because some texts were held in private homes, in caves, and are a gift to humanity. Do we really want corporations, through digital patents, to make the decisions about what is available for us to read and what material they would gladly wipe out (perhaps Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the US, or books criticizing US foreign policy or Monsanto, or texts of indigenous healing or natural health or of Aryuvedic or Chinese medicine about what plant material cures diseases)? A family’s book collection can grow from generation to generation, the work of the family’s imagination and knowledge.

    We see we need to grow our own food because it can’t be left in corporate hands. While it seems okay to toss out processed food and cheap books, don’t we (and not just corporate funded libraries) need to keep control of organic seeds and unique collections and rare books? Buddhists monks like very simply but they are guardians of books and art work, both of which were immediately destroyed by the Chinese when they took over Tibet, in order to destroy the culture, by detaching it from its knowledge base.

    When we declutter private libraries, what are we doing?

    Finally, something in decluttering is missing the distinctiveness of objects, that are not dead things with no meaning, but are alive with history and significance. It is good to move away from the empty materialism of this culture but in the process, how do we make sure we are not losing hold of the texture and history of things, which give heart to family, culture and meaning? How do we not make history and culture the next disposable, items?

    • Melanie says

      These are the things I struggle with as I declutter. My mom kept all of our cards and I just went through my 4 yo birthday cards with her last weekend (I am 52). It was fun and I kept my doll from when I was 5 that my granddaughter enjoy playing with. Many of the granddaughters took things from my mom’s house. But how many heirloom quilts does one person need? My grandmother, husbands grandmother and my mother all quilted. And what to do with all the photographs? How many do you need to keep? I kept some of my mom’s holiday decorations that were from my childhood and have gotten rid of some of the newer ones. And my husband and I have agreed that if we take something in we need to give something away. I can only use so many quilts and so I need to let someone who doesn’t have one use it. I will keep the books I cherish and part with those that aren’t as important to me so that others can use them.

    • says

      I think that minimalism and decluttering aren’t about just blindly getting rid of things. You should keep the things that are meaningful for you and your family.

      Most of us, though, have a ton of stuff we’ve accumulated and don’t even care about.

      Even regarding my books (and I love real books, the heft, the smell….), I’ve been trying hard to buy only books I know I’ll want to read multiple times or use as a resource, and to sell or donate the books that have no personal meaning and I won’t read again.

      I have a small collection of books I’m done with but am saving for my son when he’s older. Not that he couldn’t just check them out from the library, but I hope there will be some connection knowing they were mine.

    • Anne Stockwell says

      I think that’s where good judgment has to come into play. Do all the things you own have equal value? No. Can you take better care of the high-value things, and enjoy them more, if you winnow out the chaff?

    • Rachel says

      Good points, but also:
      1. You can save books on your own cards or other devices, which are not controlled by companies. I read PDF books all the time–on my Nook, Kindle app, phone, or computer.
      2. There is nothing my grandmother has that I want. Everything she owns would be a poor substitution for her and my memories of growing up with her.
      3. People used to pass stories down verbally. Maybe we should connect to one another without stuff. I can take these stories with me anywhere. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau sits in jail displaying the difficulty of imprisoning the mind. We can be stripped of all things physically, but as long as we are in good health, we have our thoughts.

  13. Derek says

    Erin that was the most profound thing I’ve read in weeks. Unfortunately you have caused many readers to scratch their heads with confusion at your attempt to mass induce a little cognitive dissonance about this otherwise innocuous subject. You are smarter and more thoughtful than 95% of the people who read this stuff.

  14. says

    I love this, it’s exactly how I started, by taking the junk which was more of a hindrance than help and moving on progressively to things like clothes which didn’t fit me anymore and then the books no longer read before the dreaded academic notes which were all digitised anyway. I have a lot of heirlooms but it’s nice to accept that it could be a while before these get reviewed and even then if they do stay knowing that’s okay simply because reducing the clutter and entering into minimalist living is such a personal experience. Great post Josh!

  15. Happy Annie says

    Excellent post! I find that because my home is very simple and clutter free that I CAN keep sentimental items from my childhood, my kid’s art and writings, and a huge bookcase filled with my well loved books. Getting rid of all that other meaningless clutter I had before allows plenty of space for the things that have meaning for me and the things I love. Living simply and with minimalism as a goal does not need to look like a sterile white room with a white table and 4 white chairs with nothing on the walls. It just means getting rid of all the non-essential items that are blocking the way to what really matters to you. :)

  16. Kate says

    I was thinking about this recently in terms of food. People say ‘I could never be a vegetarian/vegan, I love X too much!’ So, don’t give that up. Give up something easier and see how it feels. Go from there. So, in minimalism, ‘I could never get rid of X’ doesn’t mean you can’t get rid of other, less important things. And who knows? Next year, you may find it’s not as important to you anymore to own X, to eat X, to keep up with the Joneses. These journeys to arbitrary labels are ongoing, and can be taken at any pace, and stopped at any point. It’s personal. It’s about what improves every individual life. Thanks for the reminder!

  17. Darlene says

    Thank you, Joshua! I made my first attempt at paring down my shoes today….shoes are my chocolate. While I made significant progress by donating almost 50 pair of shoes, but I was left looking at a rack of about 75 shoes still remaining. I felt so disappointed with myself…simply defeated. After reading the article, I am feeling a little better knowing that my quest today was just the beginning. I am determined to bring myself to a happier state and rid myself of unnecessary clutter that I have accumulated in all areas of my life…today was just one of my first steps…still working on my first mile. Thank you for the motivation!

    • Jane Slater says

      Remember when we used to have one or two pairs of shoes? That’s no longer the norm. But we did fine with just one or two, years ago.

  18. bonnie says

    books are the most difficult to get rid of. I dont want to see bookstores dissapear. I like the feel of a book as i turn the pages. I have a nook and put books on there too. But I read my real books more. I have downsized on the paperbacks and am planning on doing that again. But the hardcovers are a treasure.

  19. Keith says

    I’ve been contemplating the “tiny house” concept for a few years now; and now that our kids are married, big dogs have passed, and we are MT nesters, looking more seriously at this lifestyle. I love the de-clutter syndrome and work on it everyday. Why wait to bless your family, friends, or the needy when you’re gone ?

  20. Karathoner says

    Practice the 15 minutes a day declutter. It really helps to segment your time. I like my regular books. Yes, I have cleaned some out but can’t go entirely Kindle or Nook or whatever ( use an IPad ). Taking online courses and find I need the actual book to mark and read, I must be too old school. Also, don’t like to fall asleep to electronic reading. So books are going to be around in my house.
    My biggest problem are still things passed down from family. I have seven children, four are still at home and I’m never quite certain what to keep.

  21. Jeannie says

    I am definitely working on this and have been for a couple of months and have done the easier projects first and it is very encouraging and my goal is on a drawer or closet at a time but I also have been purging as I decorate for Christmas… don’t just put up the tree but go through the excess or unwanted ‘stuff’ and get rid of it or donate as the season changes…that does take time. Even if it is small I do something every day and in the spring there will be bigger projects (like the garage) to finish from the fall YIKES.. Thanks for your daily post Joshua.. I try not to miss reading them because it keeps me going especially over the Christmas season as there are soooo many flyers that come in but I read what you said about not looking at what you don’t have but be grateful for what we already have (too much)!!!

  22. Grateful granny says

    I had a number of items (less than 50) that belonged to either of my two grandmothers and my mom – all deceased. I faithfully kept these things, even though their style was not my own and I seldom, if ever, used them. Finally got to the point where I moved across state and into a small home. I offered these items to my children first – for sentimental reasons, if they wanted them, then asked friends and finally just packed them off to St. Vinnie’s because they have several “vintage” sales throughout the year. I do not miss the, don’t feel guilty and have lovely memories of seeing these objects in grandmas’ homes and in my childhood home. And if I end up with Alzheimer’s. these objects will have no meaning for me. I’ve never been a hoarder/got to keep it just in case type person, always been organized and neat and now the icing on the cake is being a minimalist. Got rid of surplus coffee cups; kept 4 plain white that match my basic dishes (4 place settings only) and kept 4 black mugs for tea. That’s it. Granddaughter (2) comes to play and pulls out the cloth basket that fits under the coffee table. All her toys are in there; but her favorite thing to do – search the house for all the spheres that kitty plays with. I’ve been searching for something to “validate” my feelings about stuff and minimalism is it. Thank you. If I could shrink my 880 sq. ft. house I would.

  23. Jayne says

    Love the idea about taking a picture of the item that is important to your memories. It was so much easier parting with them.

  24. ren says

    Love reading the opposing views, no where does it say to throw precious items, but what may be precious to you Maybe a burden to others.

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