Unexpected benefits of uncluttering: An interview with editor Erin Doland

Sue Brenner, PCC, PMP, and author of The Naked Desk, sat down with Unclutterer editor Erin Doland to learn about her path to simple living, and decided to let you in on the conversation that took place back in 2008.

Clearing out the excess clutter in your life has parallel benefits, sometimes unexpected. Just as each gotten-rid-of item is one less thing in your physical way, it is also one less thing to occupy your thoughts and emotions. You are freed up to focus on the subjects that matter to you without the weight of all that excess stuff getting in the way.

Erin, Editor-at-Large at Unclutterer says she wasn’t born with the orderly gene. (Me either. I didn’t begin to adopt that habit until well into my 20s.) But when the weight of “too much stuff” got too great, Erin was forced to learn how to lighten her load and create order — now she experiences a more enriching life as a result. Here’s her story:

When Erin was in her 20s, she could pack everything she owned except her mattress into her 2-door hatchback. But when the dreaded call from her mom came telling her, “All of your stuff in my house has to go,” Erin suddenly found herself with boxes filled with childhood memorabilia and college life, along with a desire to hang on to it all.

Not ready to let any of it go, she packed it all with her when she moved to Washington, D.C. Later, when she and her husband moved in together, they blended their lives and their things into an even smaller urban apartment. Every room spilled over with so much stuff they had no room to move.

Concerned, Erin’s husband sat her down. “I can’t even take one step,” he said. “We can’t live our lives together this way.”

Looking at all their stuff, Erin couldn’t imagine how they could organize it, and she couldn’t even think about letting any of it go. Just the thought of dealing with any of it stressed her out, but she agreed with her husband that living this way wasn’t an option.

Out of desperation, Erin had become interested in getting organized to set her married life off on the right foot. But with no built-in, natural propensity for organization or lightening her load, Erin had no idea where to begin.

“I could organize an argument for a paper and that was the extent of it,” she pondered, “but I didn’t know how to apply that idea to my home.”

So, Erin decided to do some research and find out. “That’s where my daily inspiration for Unclutterer comes from,” she explained. “I had to learn and I pass on what I learned to others. After Unclutterer, came my books, Unclutter Your Life in One Week (2010) and Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter (2016).”

Erin’s first step was to begin to assess what everything was that was cluttering up her home. As she’s written about in previous posts, Erin had kept every note from high school and middle school. Like a mouse collecting morsels, she had kept every trinket that came her way, such as various key chains and t-shirts she had been given at fraternity parties. So much stuff that she had no use for but had packed away at the time because the things seemed worth saving.

“Who knows what I thought I was going to do with all that stuff,” she said. Since it was tough to completely let go of all those memories, she decided to photograph a lot of the stuff — a great strategy for hanging onto the sentiment the thing represented without having to store the thing itself. Erin also realized that she was more likely to go through a photo album on a trip down memory lane than she was to ever go through boxes of stuff.

As Erin’s process continued, she came up with some rules to help her purge things: “If I couldn’t even remember where it came from, it was gone.”

Erin realized that letting stuff go wasn’t just lightening her physical load, but she was also beginning to feel lighter; she realized letting go of the past was allowing her to better move forward with her life. She hadn’t realized how much all that stuff was weighing her down as if she was dragging it all around like a ball and chain around her ankle. She explained: “All that stuff represented my past. I’m now focused on the present and the future with my husband.”

Yes, it was a lot of work — it took Erin about six months to fully unclutter her new dwelling — but as the days progressed into weeks and then months, Erin got better and better at purging all that stuff and began to feel more and more invigorated the closer she got to her goal.

“I have peace of mind now,” she said. “I don’t have that old dread when I leave the house that I will have to come home to that. All that weight is gone. Now my home is a place of relaxation and order; When I come home I get to rejuvenate. There’s a sense of calm.”

That is peace of mind. And confidence too, I’d add. A real sense of accomplishment that feeds all the other areas of your life.

So how has getting uncluttered influenced other areas of your life?


Editors note: Erin’s pursuit of simple living continues as she shares her adventures traveling across North American in an even smaller residence — a motor home! Find out more at her website Tumbleweed.Life and check out the amazing photos on her Instagram feed.

18 Comments for “Unexpected benefits of uncluttering: An interview with editor Erin Doland”

  1. posted by Annedien Hoen on

    Considering cleaning up clutter as a way to energetically become lighter is already taking it one step further than most lifehackers do. In my personal experiments with cleaning up personal clutter I’ve found that the next items that come into sight as you ease on down that road are things like “identity”, “relationships”, “thoughts” and “perception”.
    What burdens the energetic resources, for instance, are the ways you are invested in your ‘stuff’. Anything that you consider yours is something you maintain a relationship with. This also means your personal history, the roles your hold in life, your desires and the things you (consciously or subconsciously) try to avoid (pain, suffering, loss, grief).

    Do you find this too extreme a point of view or have you noticed that these things appeared in your peripheral vision as you were uncluttering? How have you dealt with that, how is it changing your life?

  2. posted by Joy (from Just Plain Joy) on

    I recently became a mother, and the first few months were a huge adjustment. Having an organized and clutter-free home helped me relax and enjoy being home with our new baby.

  3. posted by na0 on

    i’ve never really been a terrible housekeeper, but i’ve spent a good portion of my adult life living alone.
    in march, my boyfriend will be moving into my tiny one bedroom apartment with me.
    so this means that i need to downsize my belongings AND get better organized.
    i don’t want my boyfriend to move in with me and then have our relationship slowly fall to pieces because we bicker over a messy living space.

    great entry!

  4. posted by Another Deb on

    Only six months to unclutter your home? Wow. It took my grandmother 20 years of garage sales to undo 50 years of post-depression hoarding.

    I can only hope to beat Grandma’s record!

  5. posted by sky on

    I’ve slowly uncluttered my home over 4 years. When my parents passed away, I had their belongings to deal with plus my own. It has been hard at times to part with certain items, but I’ve realized they are not the memory associated with it. I can get rid of something and keep the memory. I love living uncluttered!

  6. posted by anonymous on

    I’ve printed a copy of this article, so I can save it forever!

  7. posted by Nina on

    I uncluttered my life in April 2007, when I moved out of a five bedroom house and into a studio apartment. This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done–it took four entire weekends, and I had to ask everyone I’d ever known to help me. We took 1 1/2 tons of stuff to the dump and another truckload to a thrift store. Everything in my current apartment is a beloved item I chose to bring with me. During all of this messiness, all I could think of is why why why? I feel like an entirely different person now. NEVER AGAIN.

  8. posted by Wobagi on

    Erin, I didn’t realize that we have so much in common. The only difference is that it took me almost a decade to unclutter my life. Now, my motto is “do not collect anything but knowledge”. I live a minimalistic life, all my personal things fit into one carry-on bag, the rest is decoration. After so many years of struggling with clutter I feel soo happy now.

  9. posted by Amie on

    This sounds a lot like my accumulation of stuff over my lifetime so far. I’ve felt burdened for years by a bunch of stuff but unable to let go of it. I’ve recently begun, in fits and starts, to actually go through a bunch of my things and purge. This was also brought on by my mom telling me a bunch of stuff I had at her house had to go (some stuff was allowed to stay, though, which has been pared down but still probably needs some final resolution). Some stuff has been living for several months in a small storage unit, which I hope to not need soon. In an effort toward that goal, I’m in the middle of a self-imposed “12 days of decluttering” project of my own, to make room in the limited storage at my apartment for the things I have in my rented storage. I’ve challenged myself to devote a minimum of 15 minutes to de-cluttering around the apartment for 12 days in a row. Since just starting is usually the hard part, on most days that 15 minutes grows to be more substantial, but the important thing was to get myself to do *something* consistently. So far, so good (today marking day 6 and the halfway point of my challenge).

  10. posted by Nicole on

    I teach second grade at an urban school, and I’ve been overwhelmed that my children are so eager to pass on usused toys, clothing, etc. to students at my school who are less fortunate. Yesterday my nine year old realized he’s moved past the stuffed animal phase and bagged up – on his own – over half his collection. He told me he couldn’t bring himself to do it all at once. It fills my heart to know that my children will not suffer with the same affliction to things that I have.

  11. posted by momofthree on

    Said it before and will say it again: Small house=small space=not much room for clutter!!

    One distinct advantage of a small house (our 920sf) means that there is VERY little extra space to accumulate much of anything!! In our hallway, we have a floor to ceiling bookcase. and it’s jam packed full!! The bottom 3 shelves are kids books, mostly reference type, the next two shelves are the kids collections (Harry Potter, Twilight, Among the hidden, Betsy/Tacy, American Girl, Little House, etc) and the next two are mine, collections again, of my favorite authors, and the top shelf are the oversize collector type books that the kids use for reference too.

    Most of the furniture is dual duty, dining nook benches are school supply storage, and underneath, my scrapbooking supplies. TV stand is a dry sink with the VCR and DVD players in the cabinet, along with the DVD’s we have.

    Everything is culled every couple of years, and that includes what we have stored out in the garage. Attic access is smaller than a copier case so we store everything out in the garage in Rubbermaid ™ bins and with our oldest heading off to college soon, she will sort thru her “keeper boxes” once again.

    Now to get rid of the vast array of DVD’s and VHS tapes we have. I hope to get rid of the kid themed ones (since mine are all teens, should be easy) but I REFUSE to get rid of any with my favorite actor! I need to drool every now and then!!

  12. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    What an AWESOME story. Thanks for sharing. I find that the more organized I am, the less stress I feel, the better I sleep and the more at peace that I am.

  13. posted by timgray on

    I found that larger items that have sentimental value but you cant have it in your home…. Take detailed photos. I had a giant roll top desk that my grandfather ran his business from. I detailed photographed it the way he had it before we shipped it off to the antique store. We published it as a book at blurb.com

    I now have well over 150 photos detailing my grandpa’s desk his business, and his crafts for my child and grandchildren. Those items will last forever now as detailed memories in a book.

  14. posted by Jessica on

    I was such a hoarder as a child that I saved gum wrappers! Finally at age 20 I read “Simplify Your Life” by Elaine St. James, and I spent weeks uncluttering. I must have gotten rid of at least four truckloads. I learned to keep a clean and organized house, but I was still holding on to clutter. I’ve gone through about four waves of uncluttering over the years. Now I live in a 600 sq ft house, and none of my friends know I was ever less than an “immaculate housekeeper.”

  15. posted by Tim on

    @ Annedien Hoen:
    Your comment about the subconscious roles objects play in your life is right on for me. I have recently been going through some boxes of trinkets and junk from high school and before, and as I come across each of them, I can remember what I was doing and how I was feeling at the time I acquired it or put it in the box. It reminds me of ex-girlfriends, games I used to play, the way my personality has changed, and on and on.

    I enjoy reminiscing to an extent, but mostly I feel that when I do it, I am thinking about a combination of the hardships I went through as I went through puberty and came of age, as well as feeling a little jealous of a more innocent time when the biggest worries were comparably small.

    All this is unleashed when I look at the object — and a lot of it is because it is **the** same object, the exact one I touched and felt long ago. I think a photo, as a *replica*, would allow me to reminisce without feeling like I am having a vivid flashback.

  16. posted by Claycat on

    I’m glad this was posted again. I enjoyed reading about Erin’s journey.

  17. posted by laura ann on

    I have uncluttered for sometime, we are moving. Now I have too many storage totes and storage basket. will use some in the garage, and donated others to group homes.

  18. posted by DekorOne on

    I’m glad this was posted again. What an AWESOME story. Thanks for sharing.

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