An unclutterer’s perspective

In Tuesday’s post, we discussed the seven routines and guidelines most unclutterers follow. These aren’t laws, they’re just actions that unclutterers often have in common. In a comparable vein, unclutterers seem to repeat similar statements about physical possessions.

The vast majority of unclutterers I know are not ascetics who eschew physical possessions or consumerism. There are a few minimalists in our ranks and some anti-consumers, but the majority of us like the conveniences of modern life, have some sentimental items in our homes, and think of ourselves as smart consumers — we spend less than we earn, research purchases before we make them, and mostly buy only things we need but with a few fun things thrown in to keep life interesting.

Not surprisingly, the statements that tend to unite unclutterers are straightforward and practical. Again, these aren’t laws, no one ceases to be an unclutterer if he or she doesn’t agree with one or more of these ideas. Rather, these are the eight concepts unclutterers often use when evaluating and discussing their stuff and their uncluttered and organized lives:

  1. You are not your things. If your home were to burn down in a tragic accident, you wouldn’t stop being you. People would still recognize you in the office and in the grocery store. On a less dire level, if you part with an object, you’ll still be whole. The physical stuff in your life is not your life.
  2. Physical possessions are not alive, they do not contain souls. Your grandmother is not inside the quilt/rocking chair/ring she gave you. Objects remind you of the person who gave them to you. Objects stir up sentimental memories associated with happy times. However, if you were to recycle a rusty and damaged knife your grandfather gave you, you would not be recycling your grandfather. If an object were accidentally destroyed, you would still have the joyful memories of the person and/or event associated with the object.
  3. Know yourself, have less clutter. When you know who you are and what your priorities are in life, it’s easier to get rid of the things that don’t belong. It’s also easier to keep from acquiring things that distract you from what matters most to you. If you don’t know who you are and what matters to you, there will always be “what if” and “just in case” clutter in your life.
  4. Read the manual. Knowing what you own and all of the things these items can do prevents owning items that have duplicate purposes. Obviously, this applies to electronic equipment, but it can also apply to low-tech equipment. A three-hour knife skills class can help you to know how to properly use knives so you no longer need extremely specific kitchen tools that do the same things knives can do.
  5. Quality over quantity. Although this advice applies to purchases (a $50 toaster that lasts 50 years is a better deal than a $10 toaster that only lasts 5), it’s more about editing the things in your home. Instead of owning five pairs of pants you don’t like and don’t fit well, try owning two pairs that are the perfect fit and style. Instead of hoarding all your grandmother’s possessions in your garage, choose the one or two items that you truly value and use them in your home.
  6. Anyone can learn to unclutter and be organized. As long as a person is in good mental and physical health, he or she can learn the skills to being uncluttered and organized. Everyone learns at a different rate — heck, I’m still learning — but everyone can learn. And, everyone should expect to have bumps in the road and failures as they learn, as this is part of the skills acquisition process.
  7. Being an unclutterer is a choice, and it’s not for everyone. A person has to want to be an unclutterer to be one. You can’t force anyone against their will to adopt an uncluttered lifestyle. (You can teach them, talk with them, and show how it has improved your life, but that is where it ends.) More importantly, being an unclutterer isn’t for everyone. Uncluttered living is great, but there are multiple paths to living a remarkable life. Being intolerant of how other people have chosen to pursue what matters most to them only clutters up your time.
  8. Uncluttered and organized is not the goal, it is a path to a better goal. What matters most to you are the goals; being uncluttered and organized merely allows you a smoother path to reach your other goals.

In addition to these common perspectives, individuals will have other ideas they bring to their uncluttered life. What perspectives do you hold that help you communicate with yourself and others about your uncluttering and organizing adventures?

33 Comments for “An unclutterer’s perspective”

  1. posted by Jeff on

    At times this blog reads like excerpts from Fight Club. Not sure if this is a bad thing.

  2. posted by Jenn on

    I thought the exact same thing.

    You are not your khakis.

  3. posted by Sar on

    Harry Potter would disagree with the second one, methinks! :) haha.
    Good list, though!

  4. posted by Vanessa H. on

    I think this is a really good post.

  5. posted by Alix on

    I think concept #8 is really quite profound. So many people come to believe that uncluttering, or minimalism, is an end unto itself.

  6. posted by MaryJo @ reSPACEd: Budget Organizing on

    I’m an unclutterer, and this is my belief: Do a little bit of work now, instead of a whole lot of work later. For example, spend 5 minutes and go through the mail now and recycle/shred what I can rather than letting the mail pile up for weeks and spending hours going through it then. Spend 5 minutes putting my clothes away each night rather than an hour (or more!) putting away a huge clothing pile weeks from now.

  7. posted by infmom on

    We have to have our garage fumigated for termites. Which means we really should get rid of all the extra stuff in there that will just get saturated with noxious chemicals. A lot of that stuff was my mother’s. She left it with us when she moved to the East Coast in (oh dear) 1998. I have already been through it once and got rid of a lot of it, but there’s still stuff I haven’t been able to deal with.

    We also have a lot of “keeping for sentimental reasons” stuff of our own in the adjoining storage room. I was hoping to go through it one box at a time, but it seems that the gradual approach really won’t work.

    I really have a hard time letting some things go, because my parents didn’t give a hoot about anything but their own stuff when my brothers and I were growing up and they’d throw out our treasures without a second thought. If it didn’t matter to them, it couldn’t matter to anyone. Now I’ve got all kinds of stuff that evokes good memories that I can’t seem to let go of.

    I wish I could call in Mike Holmes to fix our house and Peter Walsh to get me past this business of clinging!

  8. posted by ErgoOrgo on

    This is a really great, thought-provoking list. Number two definitely resonates with me – I have always thought items were sentimental, until I lost a few / were stolen, and I realised I could still be happy. However, some items, like letters, contain more of their author than say the pen with which the letters were written.

    I also think number seven is an important one – especially if you are in a family where only one of you wants to be super minimal. I have not yet worked out a strategy for dealing with it (though it is an issue of debate rather than argument).

  9. posted by Elizabeth on

    Number 2: Physical Posssessions are not alive – they do not contain souls. My problem can be that I hold onto and use good quality items for so many years that they do develop a soul and once their time has come I feel awful parting with them.

    For example I used to have an old Nokia mobile phone – a sturdy warhorse of a phone. No photos, no internet, no colour screen, but could hold phone numbers, make texts and take calls. It lasted 5 years and got me through two job hunts, the organisation of several large scale industry events and three jobs. I finally felt its time had come because the battery was having to be recharged every day and the keypad lock was failing.

    When I took the Sim card out to put into a new phone it felt like I was putting down a pet. I cried. I thought it had gone to the great phone shop in the sky but recently it turned up in a pile of stuff to declutter. Now, five years on (and with an iphone) I feel that I can send it on its recycling journey but still feel a deep respect for it.

    Apologies for the long post.

  10. posted by CM on

    #4 is a great tip, not only because understanding what your possessions can do prevents you from buying duplicates, but also because you get more out of your possessions if you can use them effectively. I have been realizing that lately, after getting a new smartphone and having my son request that we use new features of our Wii. We have these amazing gadgets that can do so much, we should take advantage of them and really appreciate them and use them to improve our lives.

    I always resisted reading manuals because it seemed like a waste of time. I figured that when I needed to do something, I could look up how to do it. But investing some time into figuring out all the things my phone can do has been worth it — I’ve discovered all sorts of useful features, and I’m using it a lot more than I would have otherwise.

    When I catch myself thinking, wow, I really wish I had an iPad, or a stand mixer, or whatever, think of all the things I could do with it! I remind myself that I said the same thing about the gadgets I currently have. If I’m taking full advantage of those, which right now I know I’m not, THEN I can decide if there is really some gap in my life that would be worth filling with a new possession.

  11. posted by Jeannette on

    Physical items are not “alive” and do not contain our souls. Correct. However, some of us do believe there is an energetic connection (for lack of a better description) in items.

    This is especially true of items with great sentimental value due to prior ownership by someone we loved, etc.

    We know full well that the items are NOT the person who owned and used them. But there is something about some items that well, it’s simply impossible to describe. ( a piece of jewelry that has been handed down in the family for centuries; a piece of furniture someone made, etc.)

    Even in 2012, people fight wars over land and property. One could say that land is not “alive” nor does it contain soul. Millions of others however would disagree.

    Only you can determine something’s real value and whether it deserves a space in one’s present life. People seem to live in extremes: Too much or nothing. The rest of us fall in the middle, struggling to let go and to determine what should stay or go.

    I wish I could be one of those folks who finds it easy to jettison items of sentimental value. I wish I had their certainty that the future holds no place for all of what they toss today. Without that, it’s really hard to say “adieu.”

  12. posted by Cynthia Friedlob on

    Fine ideas, well put!

  13. posted by Zen friend on

    Although a seasoned unclutterer, I’m finding a review of the basics to be really valuable, particularly this time of year. Thanks, Erin!

  14. Profile photo of

    posted by celebkiriedhel on

    To the other commenters re. things have souls.

    I’m of the opinion that things do not have souls. What they have is the ability to invoke memories from visual, tactile, or other sensory cues.

    It’s these triggers that make things hard to get rid of, and the human tendency to anthropomorphise the things around us.

    Knowing that, is not necessarily going to make it easier to get rid of things, but at least we know why it’s harder than just getting rid of something.

    I’m a big fan of keeping one thing that triggers the memories, and ditching the rest.

    I have a jumper of father’s that everytime I look at it or touch it, evokes memories of him hugging me in it, or the smell of it, when I was up close. I’ve kept the jumper – but ditched the other things that evoked the same memories. (shirts, other jumpers, etc).

    This is a great article! Thanks for this!

  15. posted by Marina on

    Number 8 really resonated with me. I had always thought of being uncluttered as the final goal, but I am going to change my thinking on this. Putting uncluttering in the context of a larger goal makes a lot of sense, and I think will make it more likely to happen for me.

    Thanks Erin, great list!

  16. posted by Kerri on

    I like number 8 as well, and I definitely get more uncluttering done when I have some other goal in mind (like significant reorganizing to improve my mental and physical health) than when I just want to clean the house.

  17. posted by Kelley on

    This is great stuff!

  18. posted by Anita on

    I’ve been nodding the whole time I was reading this :)

    Somewhere between 4 and 5, I’d also slot something in about taking care of your belongings. Understanding how your things work should go hand in hand with knowing how to properly care and service your things to keep them in great shape, prolong their usefulness period, and prevent them from becoming clutter. Your $10 toaster can last a lifetime if it’s regularly cleaned and maintained. A toaster is a remarkably simple piece of equipment and takes really minimal skill to look after and repair if needed.

  19. posted by FakeName on

    Staying in the broom closet here, and of course I agree with most of your points, but as a wiccan part of the craft is in a sense ensouling one’s ritual tools. On the other hand, that’s usually just a few things–if you have more tools and supplies than can fit in a carryon bag the power is too diffuse. And if one’s tools get broken or lost, new ones can be hexed to replace them.
    So the main points apply.

    Also with knife skills, mostly agree except for squashing garlic, after I accidentally snapped an expensive knife in half. Also a garlic press helps keep the cutting board from smelling of garlic.

    Back to lurking–love this blog!

  20. posted by Triona on

    Posted by Sar – 01/05/2012

    “Harry Potter would disagree with the second one, methinks! haha.
    Good list, though!”

    Harry Potter was quite a clutterer if I remember correctly ;-)

  21. posted by Shaun on

    I want to say that you should always pay twice as much and half as many. This pairs with the quantity vs. quality argument.

    Do this in business and do this in your home.

    Once you have a clear set of priorities, it becomes much easier to do.

  22. posted by Caroline on

    My deep secret is that even tho I have a perfectly wonderful husband to sleep with – I also sleep wrapped around my Ugly Doll du jour.

    That said, I have 2 very well used ugly dolls that I am once again faced with disposal.

    When I was in my 30s, I had teddy bears. They were so tattered that they could only be thrown away. Not environmentally friendly – I could not bury them outside or burn them. Finally I put them in the trash with my heart breaking.

    Now, decades later I am faced with the demise of the ugly dolls, and although I understand mentally that they are just neutral objects that I have put emotion and attachment into, it’s still hard.

    One way to let go is to knowledge the attachment and thank the object for how valuable it was to you. Maybe journal. There is also taking a picture of them, but I don’t think that would be helpful in this case.

    Ergo the purely psychological factor of some of our belongings – no rhyme or reason

    Sometimes – you need to just let it go…..a moment when you are feeling strong – walk in and just do it. Or call a friend, and have them walk you thru it (one who is not judgemental, and not attached to your decision, of course)

  23. posted by Julie on

    Great post. #3 really struck me. Know thyself. It is hard to get rid of something that has ‘potential’ if you don’t know what’s important, or real, or if life is in transition.

    I work from home so do I need a business suit? If most of the people in my house are allergic to dairy, do I need to keep the cheese grater? Do I keep the expensive ski pants if I now live where it never snows, “in case” I take a trip?

    Are these “just in case” things getting in the way of more important or useful things, or even just having a little breathing room?

    Food for thought.

  24. posted by Shelby on

    Printworthy, thank you.

  25. posted by Lisa on

    #3 was the most profound for me. I even wrote it down to post on my bulletin board (is that clutter?!? ;)
    Love this website!

  26. posted by Merrilee on

    I need to tape #2 up on my wall and be reminded of it every day. I tend to think I’m dishonoring the memory of my loved ones who’ve passed on, if I get rid of something that once belonged to them. You have helped me in the past, but, I need constant reminding and reassurance that it is OK to move on and throw or give away sentimental items. (I do take a photo of the item before I part with it!)

  27. posted by Kelly S. on

    #3 I wrote this down. Lately I have been reevaluating who I REALLY am versus who I WANT to be. Am I the type of person who can use 50 skeins of yarn? No, I have tendonitis in my thumbs and crocheting makes this worse; and looking at all that yarn daily only depressed me and makes me think what I CAN’T do anymore. So I got rid of them. I feel like a weight has been lifted. Now I’m going through papers and thinking, who would want these, and is that person who I really am? Dreaming of the person you want to be is fine, but really, AM I this person now? Will I realistically BE this person? Can these things be bought in some perfect future where I AM the type of person who needs these items again? Uncluttering my mind and my space goes hand in hand.

  28. posted by bytheway on

    I don’t know how to articulate this, but to answer your question Erin:

    As I’ve downsized items in my home, minimized purchases, and streamlined processes, my refrain is this: I don’t live in the land of SOMEDAY. I live today. If I get rid of an object because it seemed appropriate to do so, and I need it later, I’ll get it then. It’s OK to change.

    I also don’t live in the land of YESTERDAY, the past. Just because something was useful then, or sentimental then, (or FIT my BODY then) doesn’t mean it is/does now. It’s OK to change.

    Perhaps a lot of the emotions around items we keep beyond their use/function/purpose has to do with one of these two unconscious things we tell ourselves, which keep us from living in the moment now.

    I love all the points, but I esp appreciate #7 and #8. A person unclutters because *s/he* wants to, and because *s/he* has other ways to spend their time, other goals and other dreams, and that is the only motivation that works long-term to become uncluttered and stay uncluttered. It is a means to an end, not the end itself. (I just really happen to enjoy the means to the end!)

    PS Congrats on the 5 yr anniversary!!! What a milestone. So many accomplishments to savor and appreciate.

  29. Profile photo of

    posted by s on

    @Caroline, you don’t *have to* get rid of your beloved companions. I still have my favorite “Sally doll” from when I was a toddler (now in my 40s). I have a different sleeping buddy now, but I’m still not ready to let Sally doll go. She’s stored safely in a tote, with some other loved items. I see her every once in awhile and I know she’s there. When my heartstrings don’t tug, it’ll be ok to say goodbye. On the other hand, many “friends” have made it into other loving hands when I’ve given them to charity or others. Limiting the keepers to what’s important to YOU and to the space you can give them is key to keeping too much.

  30. posted by Katrina on

    Good post Erin. I’d add “and use your things” to item 4. One of my ‘lightbulb moments’ was getting over the habit of keeping ‘good’ things for ‘special occasions’. I use most of the supposedly good things regularly now and the ‘every day’ things are gradually disappearing as I get rid of them or they break.

    So there aren’t 2 sets of dinner plates in my home, just 1. There aren’t ‘good’ wine glasses that are never used and ‘everyday’ wine glasses. I use the ‘good crystal’ everyday, as its meant to be used not kept in a cabinet. And if I don’t use it often it’s clutter and I wouldn’t bother keeping it.

    @Caroline, I agree with S. If you’re using and loving your doll companions then they aren’t clutter.

  31. posted by Lee on

    Bytheway hit home with living in the land of TODAY. Perspective is perfect for challenges I’m facing. Thank you.

  32. posted by Kristi on

    Amen!! I could not have said it better.

  33. posted by Diane Balch on

    Great list of things to deal with, but so hard. I helped so many people get rid of stuff and they just accumulate more… Clutter is so mentally based.

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