Simplifying Your Life by Getting Rid of Stuff

As you may be aware from my last blog post, my wife and I have shed most of our possessions, sold our home of the past twenty three years, turned off our phones, and scaled back our professional, community, and church commitments as we get ready to move to India.

For the moment, our lives are simpler. Of course, this will soon change as we begin a new life in India and take on new responsibilities. But in the meantime, the process we’ve been through has made me think about the value of a simpler life. One way to accomplish that is to get rid of so much of the stuff we accumulate through years of living.

Of course, it’s normal to accumulate more and more as we go through the years. But over time this can become a problem because we don’t shed at nearly the same pace as we accumulate. Over many years of living we’re cramming more stuff into the same space and our lives gradually become physically and psychologically cluttered. In truth, we not only own our stuff, it owns us. It takes up physical and mental/emotional space in our lives. It demands our time, attention, and energy. And in general, the more stuff we have (furniture, clothing, gadgets, knickknacks, and so on) the more encumbered we feel. It actually becomes a drag on our energy and positivity.

I’ve found that lots of people want to get rid of stuff but aren’t sure how or where to start. It seems like such a big task that we put it off. So, I want to share a few tips from what my wife and I have learned as we’ve gone through the process of shedding many of our possessions during the last three or four months.

See it as a process. I remember when I wrote my first book, a friend asked me, “How do you eat an elephant?”  Not knowing what he was getting at, I replied that I didn’t know. “One bite at a time,” he suggested. This was sage advice. The project seemed big, even overwhelming, but his counsel helped me realize that it was only overwhelming if I tried to do it all at once. By breaking it down to bite-size chunks, it felt manageable.  This is also true of paring down your physical belongings. It is a process.

Start small. Identify one room (or corner, closet, or book shelf) where you want to begin. Bring with you two large trash bags, one labeled “throw away” and the other labeled “give away.” Take a look at the overall appearance of this space and think about what you want it to look like. Now examine each item in this space and ask yourself: How often do I use/enjoy it? Does it bring positive energy? Joy? Now make a decision about it. You’ll either keep it, throw it away, or give it away. If you are going to keep it you can put it back. If not, put it in one of the two bags. Long-term, you may want to move the item to a different location, but for now you can leave it where it is.

Don’t deliberate. You can over analyze and make the process too difficult. You need to make your decisions pretty quickly based on intuition and gut feel more than rationally thinking through your options and weighing all the pros and cons of every decision.

Be ruthless. In our case, it was helpful to be ruthless in our decision-making. If you’re going through this exercise you probably want to get rid of a good percentage of the stuff you own. So, if in doubt about something it probably means it needs to go. We had to clearly feel good about something to make a decision to keep it.

Don’t look back. Trust your decision making rather than going back and second-guessing yourself.  Make decisions and move forward. Once in a while, you’ll think that you could have kept something you threw away or gave away. That is okay. Overall, the tradeoffs your making will free up lots of energy and emotional space.

Keep moving. Once you’ve done this in one room (closet or shelf) move to the next location and do the same. You’ll know, intuitively, where you need to go next. Continue making progress in this way and the process will become reinforcing. It will feel good, freeing.

Go at a pace that feels right to you. Perhaps you’re in a mood to do quite a bit. Go for it. But be careful not to push yourself so hard that you burn out and lose your motivation to continue the process. You may need to do a little at a time, like ten or fifteen minutes every day for a number of weeks, or a half hour to hour every Saturday (or some predetermined day of the week.) There are no “shoulds” in terms of pace. It needs to work for you.

Get rid of redundancy. Lots of people have many items to do the same job—a number of toothbrushes, bottles of shampoo, cleaning supplies, cooking utensils, etc. Keep an eye out for these redundancies and either store items you don’t need at the moment or give them away. You want your living space to be as efficient as possible.

Use simple structures. By this I mean physical resources to help you turn chaos into order—a plastic container or small shelf for shoes, containers for toys, shelves for books, closet organizers, a transportable kit for cleaning supplies, etc. These structures help keep like things together and give them a “home.” However, one thing you have to be careful of is not using these things to avoid getting rid of stuff. You still need to go through and decide what you really need and don’t need to keep.

Adopt a motto—“a place for everything and everything in its place.” It is important that everything have a home. You are making this decision as you go through your house. This will help you not only declutter but also maintain a clean home in the future. Not only does everything have a home but should be put back in its home when you finish with it, before moving to another task or even relaxation. This step takes discipline in the moment but will result in an uncluttered house and actually save tons of time cleaning in the long run.

New purchases. Obviously, you’re going to buy more stuff in the future, at birthdays, holidays, and other times of the year when there is something you desire. However, perhaps you can ask yourself some questions to be more deliberate about these purchases: Is it something I really need? What value will it add to my life? Where will its home be? What might it allow me to get rid of? If you’re only accumulating and never getting rid of stuff then you’re going to have the same problem again in the future. You have to have a mindset that you’ll continue to shed stuff as you buy new stuff.

Papers. Incoming paper is a particular problem. We get bills, ads, magazines, correspondence, flyers, and so on throughout the week. Although more of this is coming online, most households still have a lot of tangible paper that accumulates. Create a set of rules and simple filing system to handle this paperwork. Have an “inbox” where all these items go. Then try to touch each item only once so you’re not continually shuffling papers. Review each item and either act on it immediately, throw it away (perhaps after making a note on a calendar or day planner), or file it into an action folder/box so you can get to it later (invoices and bills). Ask to be taken off of unwanted mailings and lists.

Certainly, this is not a comprehensive list. There are books and lots of articles you can read on how to declutter or simplify your life. But I think it is something lots of people can benefit from not only physically but emotionally. Although people have different values around how much stuff they have in their homes, in general, simplicity brings a sense of harmony and peace.



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