Choosing to minimize clutter and avoid materialism

I didn’t need to read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tiding Up to know I needed to minimize clutter. I have seen a few blogs about her methods, which, for me, seem almost too extreme. However, the sheer uneasiness of feeling surrounded or suffocated by too much stuff made me desire minimalism. Therefore, I began taking my own, simple steps to decluttering.

Step 1: Recognize the need to declutter

I wouldn’t call myself a “hoarder,” and that’s such a dirty word anyway, thanks to reality TV. But I do admit I’ve had “pack rat” tendencies. Simply, for the bulk of my life, I’ve been want to throw things away.

Clothes I haven’t worn in years but hanging onto just because they are still good clothes. A framed, department-store art reproduction, propped in the corner, forgotten. Pairs of shoes relinquished to the back of my closet, shoes that at one point I adored, but now are forgotten. And many more. All cluttering up my home. And those are just the things I acquired myself.

There are also the things I’ve been given. My father, for example, always gave me a lot of stuff. Repeatedly. And each time, he told me how important or valuable the item was. Each time, I kept it.

My uncle, his brother, used to give me mounds of stuff. Spare vacuum cleaners, decorative items, antique memorabilia, etc. Who knows where he even got it all. Because he had taken the time to think of me, I hung onto them, valuing those items because I valued him.  When he died, it was even more difficult to give those items away.

Even worse, when my mother died, I, her only child, got all of her stuff. Everything. I had two toasters, two coffee pots, and so forth. Because of the emotional attachment, it was really hard parting with her items. I had to wait for time to pass.

A few steps, but not enough, to minimize clutter

With the help of the persistence of some friends (“It looks like a junk yard in here!”), I did get rid of some things.

The year after my mom died, I had a couple of garage sales. For the next couple of years, and while I was in law school, I sold loads of stuff on eBay (back when postal shipping rates were reasonable).

A few years later, I moved, and, a few years after that, moved again.  Each time I got rid of many bags of stuff and took several trips to Goodwill. But I also ended up keeping — and moving — loads of stuff, which I still have.

I also kept buying stuff. Online shopping, trips to the shops. Shoes, clothes, and more.  Just more and more stuff. More in, but not enough going out.

Moving — again — into a new home has been on the radar, however. So I’m thinking ahead: I don’t want to move all this stuff.

Too much clutter leads to stress

Other reasons make me want to declutter. For one, I’ve simply tired of just having so many things. They seem like a burden.  My closet has given me stress. The piles of stuff — they just make me feel uneasy, like an overflowing task list.

And it’s true – stuff does cause stress. In 2001, a team of archaeologists, anthropologists, and sociologists conducted an in-depth study of the home-life of 32 middleclass families. They published their results in a book, Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, which revealed, among other things, that the mountains and stockpiles of material possessions in the average middle-class home contribute to increased stress levels.

Materialism leads to unhappiness

It’s not just clutter that causes stress.  It’s also the emphasis on material possessions. Materialism is the act of being preoccupied with stuff, things. Thinking about them, collecting them, admiring them, stockpiling them, wanting them.

In her blog, life coach Celestine Chua discusses how materialism breeds discontentment, that, contrary to popular perception, people with mountains of material possessions are not happier, as the happiness of, for instance, a new pair of shoes, is illusory. The sense of gratification when obtaining a new item — a new handbag, shoes, whatever — is fleeting. Eventually the newness, and the excitement, wears off, and all you are left with is an inanimate object. The only way to reach that gratification again — that high — is to buy more stuff. It is an endless cycle, and one that appears disturbingly parallel to that of a drug addiction.

Step 2: Make a commitment to declutter

Recognizing that clutter causes stress and an emphasis on material possessions causes unhappiness, decluttering and minimalism seem, obviously, like a no-brainer. Therefore, I want to purge and minimize clutter.  I’m ready. For this step, I need to do three things:

  1. Rid my home of existing nonessential material items; 
  2. Stop bringing in new nonessential material items; and 
  3. Change my mental focus away from nonessential material items.

A few months ago I made a soft-start toward this goal. First, I reduced shopping, stopped looking for sales. I began to focus on items that I need, what is necessary. I have simplified my wardrobe into a uniform-like style, with focus on practicality over trends. If an item will not help me, I won’t buy it. This focus not always easy, and requires reminders that material possessions will not make me happy. But, with a conscious effort, it can happen.

A structured commitment each week

Next, I began purging. I committed to filling one trash bag each week of items to bring to Goodwill.  This has not always been easy, and in some weeks my bag has been smaller than others, but I have forced myself to take time each Saturday or Sunday morning to gather enough stuff from my closet, bookshelves, and other areas of the home to fill up that bag.

The more I get rid of, the easier it gets to detach myself from my material possessions.  The book I have kept for six years because I have intended to eventually read it? Get rid of it.  The jacket I bought because it was such an amazing clearance sale price and I actually liked the price more than the jacket itself? Get rid of it.

For each item, I ask myself:

  • Would I miss this item if it were gone?
  • Do I need this item in my life?
  • Does this item add value to my life?
  • Is my reason for keeping this item really rational?

Overwhelmingly, when I pick up an item and ask myself these questions, I find that the answer is usually “no.”

This is a process. It is not something I can do, nor do I have the time to do, overnight. But each week I get closer to my goal of a minimalistic lifestyle. Each week I remind myself of the importance of simplifying. Finally, each week, I feel a bigger sense of contentment. 

For now, I remain in Step 2. Once I achieve this, I anticipate graduating to maintenance and continuing to live a minimalist lifestyle. But for now, i’ll take one step at a time.

Have you taken steps to minimize clutter and simplify your life? What worked, and what didn’t? Please share in the comments below!