And I don’t mean finally throwing away letters from your 6th grade crush or a sweater from 1998, I’m talking major-league decluttering.
I mean the kind of decluttering where you pick something up, look at it and say, “I haven’t used you or looked at you in 6 weeks, so I’m throwing you away.”
Our cluttered closets, our brimming drawers, our messy attics—they’re not just physical things taking up unnecessary space—they inhibit us, they anchor us, they drag us down.
And they drag us down because we become slaves to our stuff, organizing it, storing it, cleaning it, and carrying it around from the time of its acquisition to old age.
What would it be like if we made space in our lives?
Before the dawn of electronics, I had a healthy book collection. I had shelves full of books: books from childhood, books on spirituality and art and writing and award-winning novels. I was proud of my collection. I thought it defined me in some way; it told the world something about who I was.
But I was a mover, someone who never stayed in the same house for more than five years, and everywhere I went I lugged my books around with me— giant cartons of heavy books.
When I finally found the house I planned to die in one day, I went through some sort of inner transformation. The thought of lugging my old life with me to my new and coveted space was suddenly less appealing. The new me wanted a more “Zen” house, with airy rooms, simple furnishings, and a more simplistic appeal.
So I got rid of my books. Not all of them, but the books that didn’t serve me anymore, the random works that no longer inspired me. I sold a few and donated the rest to a worthy cause, and I felt like I had shed 1,000 pounds.
The truth is, we put an unhealthy emotional value on our “things,” be it books or clothes or mementos or a basement full of junk. We mistakenly believe that the physical items we possess hold our memories, when in reality, the intrinsic value of those possessions are what really matters.
If you are aiming for “Zen” when you’re looking to declutter, learning a healthy form of detachment will serve you best -Zen is a practice that is meant to calm your mind and bring you clarity. And part of its philosophy involves the art of letting go. So when decluttering, recognize that the physical things in your life don’t hold memories. You can rid yourself of those possessions and still take the memories with you.
My best friend’s mother had an unhealthy attachment to things. She was, in the biggest sense of the word, a hoarder. She didn’t have just one black wallet—she had fifty. She still had the papers she graded thirty years ago when she taught school, spices and canned goods from decades ago, and a garage full of things that were too old or broken to use.
She knew this unhealthy attachment didn’t serve her, but she didn’t seek help. When it got to the point where she couldn’t even throw away last week’s newspaper, even then she didn’t muster the courage to change her behavior.
When she died, my friend and her sister spent a week throwing away a lifetime of things into an oversized dumpster that they’d rented, dealing with the endless minutiae of their mother’s life for days.
And they realized then that their mother’s obsession with materialism had prevented her from living a more engaging and fulfilling life. She’d always been in pursuit of another trinket, or she spent endless days trying to organize the clutter in her life—caring for the trinkets she already had.
That clutter was a metaphor for procrastination. It was also a sign that their mother’s unhealthy attachment to physical things was a way for her to avoid the emptiness she felt inside.
While this example is extreme, it serves to show us how our emotional health plays a role in the way we deal with the minutiae in our own lives.
Is it true that less stuff equals more happiness?
Decluttering is certainly a trend right now, with best-selling books like the “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo and “Live More, Want Less,” by Mary Carlomagno, toting the merits of a more minimalistic life. Experts like Kondo say people have more stuff now than ever before in history and it’s getting harder for us to navigate our way through our lives.
Let’s call it the “clutter crisis” caused by our addiction, in part, to deeply discounted consumer goods.
People who purge themselves of countless possessions say they feel a greater sense of peace, and that they now use their homes to display only the things that bring them a sense of joy.
Want some decluttering tips? Start with these:
Once a week, pick a category—like books, clothes, or decorative items. Ask yourself if each item you choose is something useful, or if you’ve looked at it, worn it or used it in the past year. If the answer is no, toss it.
Japanese clearing expert Marie Kondo recommends you ask yourself, “Does this item spark joy inside of me?” If the answer is no, toss it.
Margot Russell is a book author, a script writer and a newspaper columnist. She lives in Western New York by lake Chautauqua.