Note: This is a guest post from Colleen Madsen of 365 Less Things.
I have never considered myself a natural organizer. But in 2007, my family moved to Australia from the USA. Because we were moving into a smaller home, I found myself needing to unclutter a large number of items. Fortunately, we were able to accomplish the task…but mostly, because I had no other choice.
Shortly after the move, a new stage of life surfaced. My husband was about to begin semi-retirement. And to prepare for our new life together, I set a personal goal to again reduce our possessions. Coincidentally, on January 3rd, a segment aired on morning television about people abandoning their New Year resolutions. Turns out, on average, most people only stick to their resolution for three days. Even though I had never been one to take on resolutions, I found great motivation in beating those narrow odds… in fact, the challenge was nearly irresistible to me
I decided at that moment to set a new resolution to minimize our possessions. I determined to remove one item each day for the next 365 days. I started with three items to make up for the missed days, and promptly began removing one thing a day for the rest of the year. I am happy to say I not only completed my resolution successfully but it was so simple and satisfying that I continued uncluttering in my slow and steady pace (an average of five items per week) for an additional two years!
Over these last three years of clearing clutter, I have removed over a thousand things from our home. Also, through the process and through my writing, I have had the opportunity to help many people realize their own goals as well. These conversations have sharpened my desire for simplicity and taught me important insight about uncluttering. I have learned that understanding just a few key principles can help anyone just learning how to declutter.
The 10 Most Important Principles I Have Learned to Help Anyone Unclutter:
1. Stop the Flow of Stuff Coming In. Uncluttering is a waste of time if you simply replace the old stuff with new. You’ll need to begin by slowing the flow of things entering your home. Determine today to buy less. Trust me, you won’t regret it. The freedom from desire to acquire is a beautiful thing.
2. Remove at Least One Item a Day. The process does not have to be a mad frenzy that disrupts your entire household. Over the years, my home has become quite minimalist by simply choosing one item a day to get rid of. This gradual process began to change the way I think about stuff. Eventually, it became a way of life rather than just a crash diet of stuff.
3. Get Rid of the Easy Stuff First. There is no need to make things difficult by trying to get rid of the hardest things first. Most likely, it will simply deter you from the task altogether. Instead, start with the easy stuff and then as you strengthen your will to reduce, the harder decisions will become easier.
4. Put a Disposal Plan in Place. Before you begin, investigate selling, recycling, donating and give away options for the items you choose to remove. The more prepared you are for the task, the simpler it will be… and the more likely you will be to follow through. Ebay, Freecycle, and our local thrift store became my favorite disposal options. However there are endless others to explore.
5. Decide to Not Keep Things out of Guilt or Obligation. Your home should only contain the things you love or use. Don’t let incorrect thinking or other people dictate what you should keep or give away. Remember, if the items are yours, it is your choice to decide what to do with them.
6. Do Not Be Afraid to Let Go. The urge to hold on to items you think you might need someday can be eliminated simply by being realistic about what need really is. Many items in our homes may be useful, but they are not particularly necessary to our happiness, well-being, or the functionality of our homes. Seek to understand the difference.
7. Gifts Do Not Have to be Material. There are so many ways to honor loved ones without giving gifts that end up as clutter. Encourage people to follow this concept when buying gifts for you. Some alternative gifts are gifts of experience or adventure, a gift of time spent together, even cash gifts are appropriate in some instances. I have two clutter-free gift guides at my blog if you are looking for ideas.
8. Do Not Over-Equip Your Home. A home does not need enough linen, crockery, cutlery, or pantry supplies to serve as a hotel. Be realistic about your true needs. In the rare event an unusually large number of guests arrive on your doorstep, you can always borrow from friends, family or neighbors.
9. Do Not Throw Out Things that are not Yours Without the Owner’s Permission. Everyone should have a choice about their own belongings, even small children. Honor them by allowing them to choose. You can encourage hoarding tendencies in others by ripping things away from them before they are ready to let go.
10. Do Not Waste Your Life on Clutter. Every item you own takes time out of your life: time to manage it, clean it, repair it, and maintain it; time to choose between objects of a similar category; time spent shopping for it… and that doesn’t even mention the time spent earning the money to pay for it in the first space. Decide to sacrifice less of your precious life on the pursuit and ownership of stuff.
These ten principles have kept me resolute for the past three years. I had no idea when I began this mission how much stuff I would relinquish over the next three years. What I originally thought was going to be an arduous task quickly became a way of life… so much so, we have just put a deposit on a beautiful, even smaller, apartment with fabulous views of our coastal city, a swimming pool, and gym all within walking distance of everything we want. Semi-retirement is becoming a beautiful thing. Uncluttering made it possible.
Colleen Madsen blogs regularly at 365 Less Things where she inspires others to reduce their stuff one day at a time. You can find her on Twitter.
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Laurie J says
Aloha Colleen —
I remember finding your blog back during what I think must have been your first year. I even copied some lines you wrote about not burdening one’s children’s with one’s stuff, that is, not leaving it for them to have to deal with after a parent’s death. Nice to see your post here, I really enjoyed it! I’ve been happily downsizing since discovering minimalism four years ago this month. To those of you struggling now, I get it about the sentimental stuff, but after a while that which you thought you could never part with…you can. And the lightness of being is so worth it!
I photographed some of my old clothes or handbags which I loved before I gave them away. You know how some are attached to some memories. I usually keep my clothes and accessories well maintained and the style is classic so it can be worn at any time. But I think of some poor person who doesnt have clothes or shoes, and I have plenty, so I give them away to charity.
Terry Hadaway says
So many times, the stuff we own keeps us from pursuing our dreams and living our passions. By simplifying our life, my wife and I have been able to accelerate our dream. My online writing course is up and running quicker because we don’t have so many demands on our time and our resources. Life is good and I am doing what I love–helping people discover their inner writer–rather than what I am forced to do because my stuff owns me! (http://www.iamchangingthegame.com)
Hi Colleen, Thanks for this posting. I am happy with my environment some of the time… then I get furious with my ability to keep & file paper. I am aiming to clear a file or two a day… have a huge ‘in-tray’ which is actually things I don’t know what to do with… and my real question is this: I have done The Artists Way and written morning pages for years – about 10 – and they cover a very turbulent set of years and changes in my life. I’ve been thinking to keep them (great material for my ‘book’ which I may yet write). I heard that Julia Cameron kept hers for a time… I also know that trying to read them is v hard work. I did try to extract themes as was suggested on my course – but v time consuming. I’m loathe to ditch them all…now stacked about a metre high of A4 paper. Any thoughts would be v welcome. Thanks for all your great ideas thus far! Maggie
Calm Order says
Well done! I agree whole heartedly! We have so much stuff and there is always stuff. new stuff, old stuff , different stuff. Key is to live with what you absolutely love and let go of the rest. Visit us at calmorder.com We share your views!
Great post thanks for sharing. I really like point 7. Now living a minimalist lifestyle, it has been challenging to work out what to do when it comes to giving gifts to people who are not living the same way, and giving something that they will really enjoy while also gifting something that aligns with my values.
Will check out your website.
Thanks so much
My pleasure Bernadette. I hope you find my guides useful.
This is great news about your move, Colleen! It’s a three year plan come to completion.
And the suggestions are great ones to follow.
Hi Willow, the sale fell through because someone placed a higher bid and even though the owner had agreed on our offer he soon reneged. So we are back to hunting for a new place.
Annie Lo says
I have been decluttering for some time now. I get a happy feeling when I discover another thing can let go of. It has been such a freeing experience.
I am fascinated by the TV shows about hoarding. I wish I could help them. It occurred to me that the therapists who are there to help may be there to just create more drama for the producers. When people are at risk of losing their homes because of condemnation by the city, isn’t that the same as warning of an impending natural disaster? When you know a hurricane or fire is coming to destroy all your belongings doesn’t that put it into perspective what is really important? If they were told they have 1 hour to pack everything that they cannot live without, could they do it?
Hi Annie Lo, I feel your joy. I think decluttering a a wonderful freeing experience. Why let clutter control your life. Why let stuff in general control your life.
Like you I also have my doubt about those hoarder shows on TV. I hope these people get better help behind the scenes because you sure don’t see enough of it on the show.
I have never seen one of those hoarding show where the person didn’t become that way due to some sort of trauma in their lives. The stuff they have or simply acquiring the stuff is often the only joy they seem to have in their lives. Even their loved ones take second billing because these people build up a wall between them to shield themselves from further hurt. What they don’t see is the clutter is only making the situation worse.
I hate those shows because chances are, those people have already been told multiple times to do something about it, and the show films them when all else has been tried, for sensationalism. Those people have serious mental/emotional issues that a “disaster” won’t fix. After everything is gone, they’ll just start hoarding all over again if they don’t get the right kind of help.
Sally Ferguson says
Paper clutter consumes me. I have piles of stuff that seems important but never gets attention!
May advice, digitise where possible. Importance is often a figment of our imagination.
Get a separate camera storage device (SD Card..etc) and take tons of photos of ALL the paperwork worth saving…ditch each paper, one at a time, and if it’s not important, just ditch it (no photo) Put ALL paper on storage device and it’s ready to be dealt with when you are, on a tiny little easy to load on your computer gadget.
Now get rid of ALL that has been processed and be done with paper once and for all. Your piles of important paperwork are all right there out of sight. You can also go one better and load it all online(shutterfly is free). That way it’s all backed up and safe…..Good Luck!
I think my difficulty comes in paper. I know I hold onto too much other stuff (especially old clothes and mementos), but the thing I keep way too much of is paper. I have a tough time figuring out what I can throw away versus what needs to be kept in terms of important papers. I think once I develop a better system for that, I’ll throw out a lot of paper. Actually doing so is the tough part!
Lynn Brown says
I keep cooking magazines and find them also hard to let go ….. I even buy them in tied bundles at yard sales. I definitely have a horrible time letting them go. Another mans trash is another mans treasure …. Well I must be Rich with all these Clutter Treasures ! ! ! ! Got to give them up but I will look through some of them & see great recipes or decorating ideas and decide to keep the magazines….. not an easy thing to give up … I did fill a box with some mags to donate to the Convelescent home – someone told me they would really enjoy the recipes and the pretty pictures ………
Hi Lynn, it is so easy to find recipes on line these days. So let go of those magazines and google for a recipe the next time you want one. Browsing the internet is much easier than browsing through dusty old magazines. At many recipe sites you can even put in what ingredients you have and it will come up with recipes to suit. How simple is that and not clutter necessary.
An easy way to discard ALL magazines is to go through them one at a time and find all the juicy recipes or articles (that you are afraid might not be online) have your camera ready to take a detailed photo and store the pics online (I use shutterfly…it’s free)
then you can be done with each magazine without the fear of losing something….you will have it all saved AND you can let it all go at the same time….
Hi Nutshell, you have penned your own solution there. All you need is to educate yourself on what you have to keep and what isn’t important and shred the rest. I love it that here in Australia we no longer need to keep personal tax records in paper format, scanned copies suffice. That make it possible to empty yet another box in the garage. And with off site storage clouds on the internet one doesn’t even have to clutter up their hard drive with these digital copies. You can even store them on several sites just to be on the safe side.