Three years ago I was living in a two-story townhouse. One year ago I lived in a one-story ranch. Last month I was making do with a single bedroom in an apartment.
Today, every single one of my belongings fits in my two-door Toyota Echo.
It wasn’t easy. I’ve been a bit of a hoarder my entire life. Everything from first grade essays to bowling trophies to Christmas decorations were shoved into every bit of available space in my previous residences.
I’ve learned a lot about what I can and can’t live with over the past few years, and I’m consistently surprised by how little I need, how little I miss, and how much I’ve gained.
I won’t pretend it wasn’t overwhelming at times. It’s not easy getting rid of an entire house worth of stuff. But was it worth it?
Oh, yeah. Definitely.
If you’re looking to downsize and the very thought makes you start feeling anxious, it’s okay. Rather than avoiding it, take a deep breath and dive right in with these tips for clearing clutter.
1. Differentiate between nostalgia and perceived emotional attachment
There is a small, stuffed lizard that I own. I don’t know where it came from. I think a student may have left it in my classroom, years ago. Somehow, it followed me home. Somehow, it made it through multiple Goodwill runs. Somehow, it snuck behind cabinets, into drawers, and beneath piles of clothing, remaining a fixture in my house.
I have no idea where this lizard came from, but eventually I reached a point where I wouldn’t donate it simply because it had been around for so long. I had become attached to it simply through its continued existence.
This is different from nostalgia. This is your biggest enemy: Perceived emotional attachment. Note the word perceived. It isn’t real. There’s no true depth or meaning behind that reluctance to let go.
So let go.
2. Start small
If an entire house is overwhelming, is a single drawer more manageable? Maybe your bedroom is chaotic, but your bathroom is doable. Carve out small spaces and work from there. Give yourself time to think about each object that you are keeping, donating, or tossing.
If it’s even too overwhelming to pick a single area, you might try simply putting an empty box in a room. The goal isn’t to clean the room — the goal is to fill the box with items to donate. The items can come from anywhere in the house, but once the box is filled you’re done for the time being.
3. Celebrate your victories
Did you fill that one box? Have you dropped it off at Goodwill? Good! Reward yourself for successfully downsizing, just a little bit. A single box may not seem like much, but its an important first step towards a more minimalistic future.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but you can even reward yourself with a shopping trip. Did you donate an entire bag of clothes? Let yourself buy one new top that you love. Have you finally parted with all of your old, worn out camping supplies? Head on over to REI and buy one thing that you’ve had your eye on.
The key is to limit yourself. Don’t replace 100 old outfits with 100 new outfits. Every purchase that you make should be made with intention, care, and consideration.
4. Ask yourself: Does this make me happy?
My usual questioning process when making a donation pile tends to go like this: “Have I used this recently?” No. “Do I need this?” No. “Might I need it someday?” Maybe.
That “maybe” is killer. That “maybe” gets the item put back on the shelf for another couple of years, taking up space and gathering dust.
Lately, I’ve been listening to the wisdom of Marie Kondo, and her KonMarie method of decluttering. Instead of asking myself whether I need something, I ask myself if that something makes me happy.
If the answer is yes, if it legitimately brings me joy, then I can keep it. If I just feel sort of meh about it, it goes. And if it turns out I really, really needed it? Well I’ll figure that out soon enough and get a new one, but it hasn’t happened yet.
5. Cut yourself some slack
I don’t believe in just giving away all of your possessions haphazardly. I’m a nostalgic person, and there are things from my childhood that I care about and won’t ever part with.
Take my collection of Animorphs books, for example. I have the complete collection, all 60+ books. When I was growing up the publication of the newest book in the series was the high point of my month. My favorite book in the series was signed by the authors. The series, which concluded in 2001, is no longer in print.
You’ll have to pry my cold, dead hands off of that collection before I get rid of it. It’s just not happening. It may be bulky, heavy, and extraneous, but (going back to #4) the collection brings me joy, and I don’t want to part with it.
Inevitably, you will run across some items that you don’t want to get rid of, even if they’re somewhat impractical to have. That’s okay, so long as keeping those items makes you happy.
Downsizing isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.
Whether you’re seeking out location independence, or just trying to minimize the clutter in your house, it’s worth regularly combing through your possessions and cutting out the fat. It might surprise you how much you own that you don’t need, and how little you miss it once its gone. I sold 75% of my possessions last September, and I honestly don’t remember the vast majority of what it was I got rid of.
Stuff is just stuff. Don’t let it own you.