Decluttering

3 Common Decluttering Mistakes (And How To Get Over Each)

This article was originally posted on mindbodygreen.com

image //  via

image // via



As a minimalist and a professional declutterer, I've seen firsthand how changing your space can change your life. I've seen just how powerful the transformation from a cluttered and overwhelming home to one that is simple, beautiful, and streamlined can be.

The process of creating these spaces is actually quite simple: Step one is to go through your stuff. Then, you keep the very best of it—the items that are your favorite, that inspire and delight you, and that are useful to you right now—and donate the rest.

 But just because it's simple doesn't mean it's easy. Our relationship with stuff can be complicated!

According to one new poll by Porch, a digital network of home professionals for hire, over 61 percent of us are ashamed of the extra stuff we hold onto. Let that sink in.

So why do we do it? Why do we hold onto stuff that makes us feel so bad? 

Imagine a baseball cap. An objective observer might note that the cap is worn out, ragged, and ill-fitting. But to the owner, this is the hat they got on their first date with their first love. It's the hat they were wearing when their team finally won. It's the hat they always grab when they go to the beach. Or it's a hat that works perfectly well and doesn't need to be replaced, thank you very much.

All of those reactions to the cap are actually about much larger forces: our relationships, our sense of self, our values. So maybe you know the hat is on the fritz, but it's still hard to let it go.

Porch also detailed three "reasons" or mental blocks that we most frequently use to convince ourselves to hold onto items. Their findings aligned completely with my experience and the archetypes I detailed in the book I co-authored with my business partner, New Minimalism: Decluttering and Design for Sustainable, Intentional Living.

The good news is that these blocks can be fairly easily worked through. With self-awareness and self-kindness, you can release these shame-inducing items and create the home you've always dreamed of.

Here are the three main reasons people give for holding onto clutter, and how to overcome them:

Reason No. 1: "I might need it someday."

Archetype: Practical

Practical people are mind-driven, tend to be logical, strategic and pragmatic; they see potential use in all objects.

The key for the Practical personality is to reframe what exactly makes something useful and to elevate your standards accordingly.

So rather than asking yourself if a third box of paper clips is potentially useful, ask yourself if those items are useful to you right now. Consider not just the costs of perhaps needing to replace something someday but also the costs of keeping items that you don't need. How much space do all of these items take up? How much time do you waste hunting for things you do need or wondering what you have around?

Reason No. 2: "It was expensive."

Archetype: Frugal

Frugal types tend to be very self-aware and clear on their priorities. They are intentional about where they spend their precious resources. They don't like the idea of wasting, whether that be money, time, or energy. This gets tricky when Frugal folks come up against items that aren't useful or wanted but for which they've invested precious resources.

The most important lesson for the Frugal archetype is self-forgiveness.

It can be frustrating to have made a purchasing "mistake." While you can't go back in time and undo that action, you do get to choose how you feel about it moving forward. You can keep items you regret and feel a pang of guilt and shame each time you see them. Or you can acknowledge the sunk cost, internalize the bigger reason this investment didn't pan out, and let the item—and your negative feelings—go and vow to do better next time.

Reason No. 3: "It brings back good memories."

Archetype: Connected

Connected folks are heart-led; they value relationships and shared memories above all else. In general, if objects elicit positive feelings, this is a good thing. But homes oriented toward memories can quickly become museums of the past that don't allow space for new experiences and relationships.

Allow one to stand for many.

Don't feel like you need to part with everything from your beloved grandmother or treasured travels. Instead, select an item or two to represent the relationship or experiences you want to recall. Rather than sticking all of these items in a closet, choose to display and interact with those couple of items and then graciously let go of the rest.

How to declutter when someone you love has died

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There is a reason that the Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning made such a splash in American culture: a significant portion of us either receive or will leave a lifetime’s worth of possessions for someone else to sort out.

The main challenges of decluttering when someone you love has died are threefold. First, in the state of grief and loss, it’s really hard to untangle our desire to feel connection to that person with wanting to be surrounded by their stuff.

Second, it can be overwhelming for anyone to declutter their own lives. When you add another person’s stuff on top and it can feel impossible to know where to even begin.

Third, we know the stories of our own things and that can lead to us being attached. But with our loved one’s belongings sometimes we won’t know what things are or if our loved one valued them, so we will assign value and importance to everything.

If you or someone you care about is dealing with this now, please know we are sending you a big hug, that we are so sorry for your loss, and that we believe in your ability to both honor and cherish the memory of your loved one while living in a space that feels light, calm, and supportive to you.

I’ve been thinking over this subject a lot but it was a question that came in from a reader that inspired me to get this is all out. Below I’ve included a version of the question (removing any personal details for the sake of anonymity) we received and my letter in response.

The most important takeaways are these:

  1. Decide if you’re at a place in your mourning and grief where you are actually ready to begin decluttering. It’s ok if you aren’t. Be kind to yourself and take your time.

  2. Start with your own belongings. This really serves as a warm up. A chance to experience decluttering in a less emotionally challenging area.

  3. Choose a few of your favorite, most treasured items of your loved one. Give these items places of honor in your home and display them in a way that brings you joy and helps you feel connected to your loved one and their memory.

  4. Move into an easier category of your loved one’s belongings. This will ideally be quite small and not emotionally burdensome, like: athletic shoes, tupperware, or office supplies.

  5. Go at a pace and scale that feels right to you. It’s important to stay within the bounds of what feels safe and good to you, and to give yourself a break if you stumble upon something emotionally complicated when you’re not expecting it.

  6. Select an organization (or several) that were meaningful to your loved one or to you and donate their items there. Trying to sell belongings usually extends an already trying process and can feel invalidating when the financial value does not match our emotional experience of the object.

  7. Offer up a few belongings to any interested family members but don’t transfer the burden of decluttering to them or a future generation. This is one of the kindest things you can do for others.

 
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My aunt lived with me for 15 years and she passed away last year. I haven't been able to go through her closet and donate her things because it makes me cry. I also have china, crystal, and silver plate things that my aunt had and also inherited more from her mother and aunt. I also have a lot of craft items, fabric, and various other collections my parents bought me (they’re gone, too). My problem is I don't want to just give away some of these things because they are valuable, but in speaking with an antique dealer, those items aren't wanted. I have no other family so I can't give anything to relatives. I feel so overwhelmed with all my stuff I don't know what to do or where to start. I would follow your directions and start with wardrobe, but I can't do my aunt's clothes yet. Any advice? Thank you in advance for your time and expertise.

Hi there,

First of all, I am so sorry for loss. It makes so much sense that sorting through your aunt’s belongings would be hard. So I guess I would start there, and just encourage you to be kind and gentle with yourself. What you're going through is incredibly challenging and unfortunately very common. We've worked with a lot of clients who've lost parents, spouses, and other family members and it is hands down one of the most challenging projects to undertake.

I'd love to offer up a few pieces of advice or thoughts to mull over. The first would be: do you feel ready to tackle your aunt’s belongings now? It's ok to take your time and to process your grief and return to this later. If, however, you're feeling like you're really ready to make a change and just overwhelmed trying to determine where to begin, read on.

To begin, I'd encourage you to start with your own possessions in a category that will be easy for you. This will be a place where you can get a few big wins, start to make a dent in the amount of stuff you have, and familiarize yourself with the process of letting go. For some people, this could be books (which could then be donated to the local library), while for others it might be kitchenware (which could be donated to an organization that helps to resettle refugees, houses those experiencing homelessness, or helps domestic abuse survivors). Feel free to start really small, like just with athletic shoes or scarves. 

Once you're feeling confident and starting to experience some benefits of letting go you can then make moves into more emotionally complex zones. Before touching any of your aunt's goods, I'd go through and select a few really prized items that you love and remind you of aunt in a happy way. Maybe you'll display a small collection of her necklaces, or a frame a beautiful scarf of hers, or bring four of her best china teacups into your cabinets to use each morning. This will help ensure that your aunt's presence is felt in your home and will give you space to release more items.

You could then move to a tiny category of your aunt's, like bracelets or slacks. Depending on how she liked to dress, those items could be donated to Dress for Success or a local Senior Center or Salvation Army. From there, you can expand into larger or more complex categories, always going at a pace and scale that feels safe and good to you. Usually decluttering gets easier and easier as you go along, but know that grief comes in waves and that you might stumble upon a really tender item when you’re not expecting it. Take the time to process your feelings and honor yourself if and when you need to take a break.

In terms of the items that the antique dealer told you there wasn't a market for, I'm afraid my advice might not be what you are hoping for: let them go. It can be so hard when we've invested money into belongings to simply donate them, but the energy and time and emotional space we take up by trying to sell things at a fraction of their perceived value is ultimately far harder and less rewarding. Instead, I'd select an recipient organization that is important to you or to your aunt and know that these items will be utterly treasured and beloved by people who've not been fortunate enough to have such beautiful things in their life before. Again, I'd suggest one of several organizations that work on housing and helping to create stable, meaningful lives for the vulnerable among us. It might feel really hard as you prepare yourself to let these items go, but once they're gone I think you might be surprised by how much lighter (physically, emotionally, spiritually) you feel in your home. 

We’re here if you have any other questions or would like to work with us directly; many hands can indeed make light work.

Wishing you the best,

Cary

5 Feng Shui & Decluttering Hacks For Calling In Love

This article was originally written for and posted on mindbodygreen

image //  from our book

image // from our book

You’re ready for love. You’ve got the dating profile and the first date outfit you feel unstoppable in. You’re confident, open, and excited to meet someone new. Yet the type of relationship you desire most eludes you.

As a professional declutterer, I’ve worked with dozens of clients who say they are looking for love but whose spaces not only do not attract love but often repel potential partners.

While your body language may be shouting "Yes!" to romance, chances are your home is yelling "No!" The good news? In just one day, you can shift the energy, layout, and appearance of your home to be optimized for love.

Below are five crucial decluttering and feng shui tips for calling in love:

1. Make emotional space for this person.

We had a client whose walls were full of framed photos of her and her family, her and her friends, and her and *gasp* her ex (see No. 5). While she said that she wanted a partner, everything about her space implied that opposite: Her full walls signified a life without room for someone new. Not only that, having her walls so full of memories energetically pulled her into the past. This is not to say you shouldn’t decorate your home as you prefer, but do make sure that there is room both physically and energetically for someone new to enter your life. Negative space is not an absence; it’s allowing space for things to unfold.

Try this: Designate space in your home to leave open.

This could be a dresser drawer, a couple of open picture frames, a hook next to the door for someone else’s jacket, a towel bar in the bathroom, or, ideally, all of the above. This signals to the universe and subconsciously to people who enter your space that you are ready for love.

2. Shift your layout to support love.

I can’t tell you how many clients we’ve worked with who say that finding love is a top priority, and yet their spaces are completely uninviting or unsupportive of a relationship. There might be only one comfy reading spot, just one good coffee mug, or a bed too small to comfortably sleep two people. The point is not to make some voodoo doll of exactly the person you’re calling in but to make your space, however subconsciously, feel welcoming to the person you choose to invite in. In terms of design, this means making room for another person to be comfortable and relaxed in your bedroom with you.

Try this: Make your bedroom work for two.

Above all, pull your bed out of the corner—the only side of the bed that should be against the wall is where you rest your head. This allows comfortable access to the bed on each side for each person. Ideally, you’ll have a second bedside table with a lamp and room for a water glass, contacts, and so on

image //  via

image // via

3. Remove stuff from under your bed.

This problem seems to be a holdover from college days of tiny dorm rooms shared with strangers. Yet we see so many clients in their 20s, 30s, and 40s with boxes and bins under the bed! This space becomes a musty catchall for things that aren’t needed right now or aren’t a priority. Which is really bad feng shui. You’re literally spending the time you’re supposed to be relaxing and restoring floating just a few inches above dust bunnies and a bunch of to-do's. Ideally, under the bed will be totally empty, no exceptions, which allows for optimal energy circulation around the bed. If you are in a tiny studio or sharing an apartment in Brooklyn where your bed takes up about 60 percent of your room, it might be almost impossible to avoid storing things there.

Try this: Keep under your bed completely clear.

If you must store items under the bed, then do so in this order: clean bed linens, clean towels, clean out-of-season but beloved clothing. Storage should be well-made, closed bins that fit easily under the bed (i.e., if you have to pull everything out in order to find what you want or if the bins are forced up against the bottom of the bed frame, it’s no good). Do not store at any cost: mail, power cords, to-do’s, anything unkempt. Be certain to regularly clean under the bed and declutter any noncrucial items.

4. Get electronics out of the bedroom.

This is a good lifelong practice for everyone: single, partnered, child, adult. Bedrooms are the most aptly and literally named spaces in our homes. Bed. Room. They are meant exclusively for rest, rejuvenation, and intimacy. Electronics, on the other hand, are stimulating: They scatter our energy, steal our focus, and distract us from the pure. Ideally, the only items needing electricity in your room would be lamps and possibly an alarm clock or music source.

Try this: Remove ALL TVs, computers, gaming systems, cellphones, and other stimulating electronics from the bedroom.

Make sure that any remaining electronics are in good shape, dust-free, that their cords are comfortably tucked away, and that there are no overloaded power outlets.

5. Release objects from exes.

Objects have energy; that’s why we can have such strong feelings about them. Items from our exes have a powerful vibration that is both negative and pulls us toward the past. Think about stumbling upon an object from a past relationship. Paying close attention, what emotions arise when you see, hold, or wear this item? The best-case scenario is that you feel nostalgia, melancholy, or the distant ache of a fond memory. The worst-case scenario is you spiral into regret, anger, recrimination, loneliness, or heartache. The most effective way to shift your energy—conscious and subconscious—to a positive, present state is to part with the negative items in your space.

Try this: Do a "cord-cutting visualization" alongside a thorough purge of items you associate with your ex-lovers.

The visualization will help to defuse much of the energetic power of these items, making it far more straightforward to bless and release things from your exes. This includes: belongings of your ex, gifts from them, and items you associate strongly with a memory or experience with them (e.g., the dress you wore on your first date, the tchotchke you purchased on a trip together). If there are things you truly do not want to part with, be conscious of clearing the energy associated with them and how you store or display them. Note: Past relationships that end well still require a type of energetic cutting to allow you to move forward. If you’ve had a relationship where you were hurt, betrayed, or brokenhearted, then all the more so.

I Tried Living With Only 100 Things. Here's What Happened.

This post originally appeared on mindbodygreen.

A peak inside my post-100 Things Challenge closet.

A peak inside my post-100 Things Challenge closet.

My journey to minimalism began in one of the least romantic ways possible: I was broke.

I’d love to say that I woke up one day and decided that I wanted to live a more conscious life, but that’s not the case. Nope, what I really wanted was to get the hell out of my cubicle and corporate law office. I wanted to leave so badly that I decided to forsake my generous salary and all the free meals and perks that came with my steady gig. Oh, and I did all of this in the heart of the recession in 2010.

In order to make ends meet, I knew that I would need to drastically reduce my spending and likely sell of some of my possessions. Like, immediately. I fully expected the experience to be a sacrifice—likely a painful one—but I thought that it would end as soon as my next stream of corporate paychecks came in.

Imagine my surprise, then, when about three months into my self-imposed, ultra- frugal experiment, I realized I was really really happy.

I didn’t feel restricted at all by not buying shoes and iPods (this was 2010 folks!) on my lunch breaks. In fact, I felt the exact opposite. I felt light, liberated, confident and free.

I was astonished that I’d ever lived with overflowing closets and crazy high credit card bills. I was also hooked: removing all of the extra stuff I didn’t really need from my life and donating it to people in my community felt amazing. For the first time I felt like the me I wanted to be: generous, thoughtful, and at ease.

Several years into my minimalist journey, though, I felt I’d hit a plateau.

I was hungry for the hit of dopamine that decluttering inspired—the personal growth that had come from simplifying in the past. As luck would have it, it wasn't long before I stumbled across a book by a man named Dave Bruno titled The 100 Thing Challenge. It was about, go figure, a guy lived with exactly 100 personal items for a year. And he didn’t just keep his other stuff in storage—he donated or tossed anything that didn’t make the cut.

“This is it!” I thought to myself. “This is how I can get that feeling back; this is how I can get even more clear, even more free, even more generous.”

If you can already sense that this was a bad idea, or at least poor reasoning for an iffy idea, then you would be several steps ahead of me. While I eschewed the greedy consumerist mindset of “more is always better,” I didn’t pause for a second to consider that “less is always better” might also be untrue.

Instead I charged ahead, creating all kinds of rules. I decided that I wouldn't count household items like plates, furniture, and the like, in my 100. I would count any of my personal possessions including pens, journals, shoes, jewelry, clothing, etc. As far as how I would count them, a pair of socks was one thing, a bikini was one thing, and a "library" of 25 books counted as one thing. (What can I say, I love books!).

Here's how the challenge panned out:

 

The Good

As I went from around 300 to 175 things, I felt sleeker and lighter. Letting go of so much felt a little bit risky, but in an exhilarating way. Everything I let go of was replaceable, and yet I didn't end up replacing any of it.

The Okay

175 to 135 things. In hindsight, this was probably sweet spot of the challenge for me. It was hard, don’t get me wrong, and more than a little uncomfortable. But it also helped me reach new levels of self-awareness. It helped me break a number of long-held stories and beliefs about stuff I’d never realized I held. Parting with these items was challenging but liberating. Had I not been so stubborn and so proud (and more than a little bit holier-than-thou) I would have declared the experiment a success and complete right here.

The Ugly

When it was time to whittle 135 things down to 100, sanity left me and obsession took its place. I simultaneously hated and obsessed over every. single. thing. I. owned. I counted and compared value and prayed for holes so that I could force myself to let go of things that I really loved. Getting to 100 things required me to totally override my internal sense of what felt good, and in doing so I ventured into a hollow, controlling emotional space.

The end of the experiment re-ignited a piece of my brain that I’d not felt since I was an early teen who struggled with food issues. It became about proving a point, imagining that by contorting myself to fit a made up standard, I would suddenly feel the way l craved. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t.)

Instead, I ended up getting back into the habit that I turned to minimalism to relieve in the first place: I became obsessed with my stuff.

 

Which is why you might be surprised that I would nonetheless recommend everyone try out the 100 Things Challenge.

Just with one crucial caveat: do NOT count your stuff. I believe this challenge is fatally flawed because it rewards rigid, obsessive behavior.

Counting is a form of keeping score. It’s how we get competitive; it roots us ego; and it removes us from the bigger picture of why we’re simplifying in the first place. Life is all about fluidity and flexibility. Philosophies and values keep your actions aligned with what matters to you, while rules keep you penned in. There is a crucial difference.

Instead, I would encourage you to take on this challenge basing your “success” on how it feels.

Note that if this is the first time you’re deeply decluttering, it might feel a bit uncomfortable. A mild or even medium amount of discomfort is a good thing: like our muscles feeling sore after a challenging workout, intellectual discomfort is how we know we’re growing. So stretch a toe outside of your comfort zone and hangout there for a moment.

Are you actually ok?  Does this maybe even feel better?  Then keep moving forward and testing your limits, but please do so more mindfully than I did. Push yourself until you hit your real limit (which might be a good amount further than you thought it was!) where tension is growing and the benefits of further decluttering falter, then honor yourself and stop there. That is how you really succeed in decluttering.

 

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You Get To Choose

"You get to choose how you feel.  You get to choose how you feel about everything."

This is one of my favorite quotes of all time.  Danielle LaPorte in her sultry-voiced, slam poet wisdom said this in a recorded interview several years ago.*  I have relistened to it no less than a dozen times.

You get to choose how you feel about everything.

This wisdom can be applied to everyday shit-hitting-the-fan kind of moments (Bay Area traffic, I'm looking at you).  But on a deeper level, I think it's a powerful tool for reflecting on our stuff.  And specifically:

How your stuff makes you feel.

This past year I've been treading through the decluttering landmine of Childhood Memorabilia.  My parents decided to downsize and moved out of my childhood home this past August.  This meant that all my photos, art projects, writing, diaries, awards, etc. which had to-date lived in "my room" were suddenly mine to deal with.  

 

A daily, yet precious memory from childhood.  Around the dinner table with my siblings: Lauren, Robin, Zack and myself.  Yep, I know I had killer bangs. 

Arriving at my San Francisco apartment inside of a box and large suitcase were memories from every part of my life, from birth until I moved to California at 24 years old: every sports ribbon I'd earned, every photo I'd ever taken, even my first pair of shoes.

Where Do I Begin?

Opening these boxes up, it felt like everything inside them was a treasure: a marker of a time in my life that could never be recreated.  Each object or written page felt like a crucial piece in the puzzle of "who I am."

Not only that, everything had been kept for so long already.  They'd been stored for decades in Illinois and then lovingly boxed up and brought to California by my mom.  

Obviously, this would all have to stay.  Or would it?

There is a psychological principle called the Endowment Effect (look at me, mom and dad -- I'm using my college education!) which says that the longer we've had something in our possession, the more value it holds in our eyes.  Combine this with a healthy dose of nostalgia and suddenly it seems unfathomable to part with a single item from our personal history.

And yet, in my attempt to match my actions with my words (aka: trying not to be a total hypocrite), I decided to question everything and go through each item, one by one.

The Oriole cabin at Camp Lake Hubert circa 1993.  A brief but catalytic and deeply happy memory.  Also, this photo was mailed to me by my camp bestie, Annelyse, during our 3 year penpal spell.  Rad, right?

The Oriole cabin at Camp Lake Hubert circa 1993.  A brief but catalytic and deeply happy memory.  Also, this photo was mailed to me by my camp bestie, Annelyse, during our 3 year penpal spell.  Rad, right?

Question Everything

On the surface, each item was of somewhat equal merit: it was from my past and had, at some point, been deemed worthy of saving.  

So to help me through this process I called on Danielle LaPorte and decided to pay attention exclusively to how the item made me feel.  

While everything was tinged with a bit of nostalgia, some created a sense of real happiness and joy while others fell flat and others still called up for me strong feelings of sadness or isolation or embarrassment (ah, adolescence).  

The Criteria

The most joyful surprise of this entire process was noticing the threads of values and narratives which have remained constant throughout my life.  Nearly every item I kept spoke to the traits and values that I still love about myself: family, creativity, athletics, adventure, and writing.  

The things I kept: hysterical little notebooks that I've written creative stories and diary entries throughout my life, my songbook from camp, the journal from my NOLS trip in Wyoming, elementary school sports team photos (me and my tiny legs in huge shin guards with a soccer ball on my knee), elementary school class photos (some of those teachers shaped my life more than they could ever know -- Miss Badran, if for some crazy reason you happen to be reading this, thank you), a couple of my prized swimming awards, and nearly every family photo.  Just typing out this list makes me smile!

What I Let Go

1. Items that "fell flat".  This category mostly includes objects of achievement, ie: reports I got good grades on but could not care less about their content or don't even recall creating.  Also, objects from areas that aren't important to me: participation awards for mandatory science fairs and spelling bees, photos of people who I knew briefly and never kept up with, yearbooks in general.  

2. Things that made me feel negative emotions.  Photos from my surprise 16th birthday (all of that attention as a teenager still in braces felt mortifying), inappropriate notes from friends during my rebellious years (a shameful defiant, bratty period), a slew of generally ugly photos from said teenage/braces years (don't worry, there are still plenty in our family albums that my kids can tease me about).

On the shores of Lake Superior (my favorite place in the world) with my siblings (3 of my favorite people in the world). 

On the shores of Lake Superior (my favorite place in the world) with my siblings (3 of my favorite people in the world). 

What's Your Story?

I'm not encouraging a false sense of who we once were or a rewriting of history.  That time I snuck out in eighth grade and scared the crap out of my parents who then grounded me forever?  I will never forget that. But I also don't need to be continually faced with reminders of who I was, frozen in a particular time period during my personal evolution.  Of course, I still suffer, I still feel sad, but I choose not to have things that trigger those emotions in my home. 

As humans, we are given the gift of narrative.  We might think that we tell events exactly as they were, but we don't.  We tell things as we saw them, through our own eyes from our perspective based on our own values and stories.  And so I'm deciding to only surround myself with things that create and inspire a positive narrative in my life.  

 

*PS- This quote was from Ms. LaPorte's interview with Mastin Kipp on The Daily Love Extravaganza 2012.  I have this saved to my iTunes but unfortunately could not find a live link!

Love is an Overused Word

When working with clients to declutter their homes, we ask a lot of questions.  We look at items through a variety of lenses to help our clients determine whether or not an item is adding value to their life (and should stay) or is no longer relevant or needed (and should be donated).  

Some of these questions include: 

  • Is this a duplicate?
  • If you needed it, could you use something else in its place?  
  • Would you buy it again if it cost twice as much? 
  • And the ever popular (yet not always effective for reasons I am about to explain) question, do you love it?

 

Let’s imagine we are helping a client declutter her handbags (feel free to insert "backpacks," "costumes," "electronics" or "sneakers" if those are a better fit for you).  After staging all handbags for easy decision-making, Cary holds up the first bag.  Our client responds, “I love that bag, I use it all the time.”  Ok, we put it in the keep pile.  Cary holds up a second bag and again the client says, “I love that bag, I use it all the time.”  Ok, keep pile.  Fast-forward to twelve handbags later, our client has said the same thing for all 12 bags.  

Ok, waaaait a minute.  Do you really love all 12 separate handbags?  And use them all the time?  First of all, it is physically impossible to use all 12 handbags all the time.  So let’s just remove that reasoning from the table.  

Secondly, what about the true meaning of love? It is a noun, defined as “an intense feeling of deep affection”.  Do you truly love even one handbag? Like actually love it, the way you love your grandmother?  Or your kids?  Or your pet? Would you do anything for this handbag?

When you start to use a word like “love” to describe all your handbags, how is it possible to differentiate between them?  What if it came down to having just 2 and only 2?  What if your house were on fire and you could only grab 2 handbags on the way out, which ones make the cut?  (Never mind that if your house were actually on fire I’m guessing you would ditch the handbags altogether and save the family photos!)

Marie Kondo uses the lens, “spark joy”.  If an item “sparks joy”, then it earns the right to stay in your life.  And while that lens may work for some people, others first need to define what joy means for themselves.  Doing so requires a grounded self-awareness that won’t work for the people who claim to love everything that they own.

So, let’s say you are decluttering on your own and you find yourself rationalizing that you love all your items.  What do you do then? 

At this point, you have to pivot and use a different lens to look at your things.  You have to be even more discerning. You start by slowing down, taking a deep breath, and stepping back. Reexamine your use of the word love. Give it back the power it was originally intended to have. Be selective when using it in your day-to-day life. 

Because here’s the thing - even if you love something, you can still donate it!  

I know - it’s shocking!  It is possible to concurrently appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of an item and let someone else own it.  The act of cherishing an item and donating it are not mutually exclusive, in fact, those two acts, at their heart, are probably positively correlated

Because things are made to be used, and when they are not being used you are not honoring the inherent usefulness, the time and energy it took to extract those resources, dye the fabric, product the zippers and assemble the materials. 

So if you actually, truly love your 12th favorite handbag, you'll understand that you are not using it with the frequency that this wonderful bag deserves, and you'll donate it, so that it becomes someone else’s No. 1, favorite handbag that they use all the time.

 

Make Space for What Matters Most

*Author's note:  Today I wanted to share a more personal, complete story of how I came to be one half of New Minimalism.  Also, I am deeply grateful for my mother's current vibrant health and well-being.

The first time I ever did a major decluttering project, I didn’t have a name for what I was doing or a even clear understanding of why.  

Twelve years ago my mom was hospitalized for several weeks with a terrifying and seemingly undiagnosable illness.  My dad was doing his best to be the breadwinner for our family as well as the health advocate for my mom, parent to my little sister and brother who were at home, and optimist for my older sister and I away at college.  

I rushed home early from a term in college to find my parents’ home a functioning if hollow place. 

My little sister, still in high school, was trying to run our house, take care of herself and my brother, all while being terrified that our mom still had no diagnosis and wasn’t coming home.  My little brother, just into double digits, said upon receiving a school lunch our father had made him without the usual motherly touches (read: the wrong kind of cheese and no dessert), “You’re my favorite dad, but you’re not a really good mom.” 

After returning home from the hospital where I had spent the day with my disoriented, confused, and deeply upset mom as she received a series of MRIs and other scans, I went up to my childhood bedroom, curled up into a ball as panic and sadness washed over me.  I cried, hyperventilated, went down rabbit-holes of all the terrible scenarios that might play out. 

I felt wholly impotent and scared, powerless to make my mom healthy or to substitute for her in my fragmented family.  How could I explain to my brother what was going on when I had no idea?  How could I help with the things that really mattered: finances, insurance, treatment plans -- when I was barely an adult myself?   

And yet I needed to do something.  I needed to feel like I was making at least one small thing better.

So I went down to the basement of our old 1913 farmhouse and looked around.  A month's worth of dirty towels, sheets, clothing, my brother's sports uniforms -- they were spilling out of our massive hamper on onto the floor.   Laundry.  That was something I could do.  

As I slowly chipped away at the mountain of laundry, I felt better.  Just a tiny bit lighter and inspired to do more.  If I couldn’t fix the big things, I reasoned, at least I could somehow make life a little easier for everyone. 

Looking around our dark, crowded basement I decided to start with all of the stuff there. 

As so often happens with families, our basement had become a zone of cast-off hobbies, outgrown clothing and equipment.  

Many of these items had been passed down through all four of us, had been well used and loved.  And most of it was ready to go.

For five days, any time I wasn't at the hospital or getting dinner ready for my siblings, I worked in the basement and was able to donate of three huge SUVs worth of stuff to our community rummage sale.  Everything else in the basement suddenly fit on the shelves, like-with-like, orderly, good, calm.  I could breathe a little deeper still. 

Looking at the washer and dryer in corner, I was struck by the sheer number of loads of laundry my mom had done for us in the 20 years we’d been in the house.   All of the hours spent in the dark, musty, old basement just to take care of us... 

This, I knew, was my turn to be the one taking care of my mom.

So I went to the hardware store, selected two shades of paint that I hoped would transport her from the basement to somewhere softer, warmer, easier.  Then I hung a few of my parents prints from Jamaica on the walls and placed a brightly striped rug for the floor — and ta da!  Just like being in Negril (not really, but I tried:). 

A few weeks later, my mom returned from the hospital with a clear diagnosis and path to health.  As I showed her around the basement, I was suddenly self-conscious.  

It seemed so clear when the two of us were together that this project had just been a way for me to channel anxiety while unable to do something that really mattered.  But my mom loved it.  She understood my desire to show her my love, to care for her in some way, to make her life a little brighter and easier.

The Telander Clan:  My parents, sisters, brother and me before my little sister's wedding.

The Telander Clan:  My parents, sisters, brother and me before my little sister's wedding.

Over the years my aesthetic has matured (and by that I mean I teamed up with Kyle!), and the speed with which I help others declutter has increased exponentially, but at my core, the reason I do what I do is the same reason I decluttered and elevated my parents' basement:  

To make things easier when they are hard.  To lighten burdens, to lift spirits, to open space for happiness and creativity.  I find it an honor to bear witness to the things that people part with, to celebrate their rediscovery of an item they deeply love, to support them through the challenges of the process, and to shepherd them into a new phase in their lives.  And to give a small piece of my love.

There are so many things in this life that we cannot control, so many joyful and challenging times that arise unexpectedly, so much mess associated with life in general.  At New Minimalism it's not that we're trying to control life so that nothing out of the ordinary ever plays out.  We’re actually clearing a stage so that the real, meaningful events and relationships can receive the attention and focus they deserve (I love you mom:).

When It's Time to Let Go

Last week I donated two items which had both been really important to me in the past.

The first was a pair of shoes.  Not just any pair, my original "fancy" work heels.  

I purchased them on a mid-day shopping trip to Neiman Marcus with my former boss/first real mentor.  She had demanded that we take a shopping break in the midst of an all-consuming trial preparation month to "clear our minds."  We'd been working 12 hour days for weeks.  We deserve this, she insisted.

And to be fair, in 2009 I was all about shopping.  3% of my income was being directly diverted into my 401(k), almost half of each paycheck went to rent, and they rest went straight into my "entertainment fund."   Said fund was emptied each month in the form of clothing, purses, iPods (I know, I'm really dating myself), and breakfast/coffee/lunch/happy hour/dinner/drinks out.  All of which is to say she wasn't exactly twisting my arm.

She bought Manolos, I bought Cole Haans with Nike Air technology.  They were more expensive than any clothing item I'd ever owned and were purchased with my own hard-earned money from my real-adult corporate job.  

(Side note: I don't have a single photo of "Corporate Cary."  Is this because our phones didn't yet function as cameras or because I've never felt less like myself than in a pantsuit?)

Fast forward to today. 

Everything else from this time in my life is loooong gone -- all my suits, conservative silk tops, briefcases, tolerance for being yelled at by people who don't even know my name, etc. 

But the shoes...  After two years of them collecting dust at the top of my closet I knew I was never going to wear them, yet I was really struggling with the thought of letting them go.  I felt like they represented this whole period in my life, a point of pride, an old mentorship.  

These shoes symbolized to me that I was an independent, adult woman. 

The second item was a kelly green Diane Von Furstenberg dress.  I purchased this dress (using a Bloomingdale's credit card I signed up for to get 20% off -- oh how I've changed!) also in 2009 as a potential bridesmaid dress for my older sister's wedding.  

To date, I've worn it to just shy of a dozen weddings and have celebrated the nuptials of some of my favorite people in the world while wearing it.  I wore it in Montana, Tennessee, New Mexico, Chicago (twice), NorCal and SoCal.  I wore it while I danced with my best friends, when I celebrated with my family.  

So how on earth could I let these memories go?

For exactly that reason: my memories ARE NOT my stuff.

It's easy to confuse the two.  

To conflate the experience you had with what you were wearing when it occurred.  

To think that the joys of a trip are wrapped up in a souvenir.  

But those precious memories are far more resilient and powerful than that.  The things that happened in your life cannot be taken away or thrown out in the trash.  They are real.  And no matter how much or how little "stuff" you have in your life, that will always be true.   

As with the case of my precious shoes and dress, it's not that I wanted these things for their functions, they were worn out and no longer my style.  What I wanted was to preserve the memories I associated with them.  

 

So how do I know when it's time to let go?

1. It's either a "Hell Yes!" or it's a no.  One of my favorite pieces of advice ever comes from Derek Sivers and it's another way of creating incredibly high standards.  Essentially, when you're considering whether to keep an object or agree to a commitment, you don't want the answer to be "yeah, sure" or "ok."  For something to earn precious space in your life, it needs to be a Hell Yes!  Otherwise it's a no.  For me, whenever I cannot answer the following questions with a "Hell Yes!" then I know clearly and absolutely that it's time to go:

  • Does the item fit into my current life?
  • Does the item reflect my current style or does it suit my current needs?
  • Do I feel the ways I most want to feel when I use/wear/interact with this item?
  • Would I buy the same item again right now at the same price?

2.  Take a photo.  I kept my shoes and dress because I wanted to be sure I had the occasion to jog my memory about these times in my life.  So I took a photo of each and added them to my digital album entitled "Things I love."  Now I can see those things and access those memories whenever I want without simultaneously dealing with the clutter and the stress of having things in my life that I don't enjoy anymore.

3.  Say Thanks.  It might sound silly, but sometimes what we want most when we part with items that meant a lot is to acknowledge them (ahem, like this post).  So tell the story aloud of how you acquired it, why you loved it, why you're grateful for the experience it brought you.  Then give it a little hug, say thank you (aloud), wish it well as it serves whoever uses it next.  Then let it go.  *This is how I was able to donate my wedding dress. *

So how do you know when it's time to let go?  

Have you ever donated something that used to be incredibly important to you?

The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter

Image //  via

Image // via

I moved to San Francisco after only two brief visits, knowing in my bones that this eucalyptus scented city was my home.  

Sight unseen, I signed a lease on an apartment.  It had easy access to my work and, more importantly, was close to my girlfriends who were already settled in the city.  

I'd found a Craigslist gem: a ground floor five bedroom that I shared with four other roommates.  We had two bathrooms, a dishwasher, a window in each bedroom, and *gasp* a washer/dryer right in the hall.

The apartment was situated in what I imagined to be a dream locale: within blocks of a sweet little park, close to gorgeous, historic homes and right up the hill from fun, funky, vibrant strip of restaurants and bars.  

An empty parking lot next door served as the hub of our micro-neighborhood and attracted all matter of people: drum circles and hula-hoop enthusiasts, skateboarding teenagers recording each other doing tricks, a trio of kindly homeless men and their mutts.  

It felt like quintessential San Francisco, a place where vast swathes of people co-exist peacefully, where we all live and let live.  

Unfortunately, a growing group of hostile individuals were encroaching on this lovely shared space.  Slowly, other groups ceased returning to the lot.  This new group cat-called every passer by and said things to me that make me shudder to this day.  One afternoon I returned from a run to see my roommate being held up at gun and knife point at the corner of that very lot.  

The final straw occurred in the middle of a warm fall night.  My female roommate left her window a few inches ajar to enjoy the night breeze and woke up to two strange men inside her room, passing her computer out the window to a third robber.  Luckily, everyone was unharmed, but the violation of our space made it impossible for me to feel safe, even inside my own home.  

When I moved a mile across town I was worried I would miss my funky neighborhood, my roommates, my walkability to friends.  But that next morning when I walked outside of my new apartment for the first time, I realized what I had been dealing with.

I paused at the door of my building to "armour up": emotionless expression, focused posture, eyes straight ahead, prepared to ignore obscene remarks and gestures directed at me.  

I exhaled, walked outside and it was....quiet.  Peaceful.  I felt safe. 

The release washed over me.  I think I laughed.  I might have cried a little.  I let my shoulders down.  I actually looked up at the sky and saw the soft hues of a fading sunrise.  The lightness was visceral, felt throughout my body.

I hadn't realized the profound weight of that experience until I was free from it.  

Like the frog in warm water brought slowly to a boil, I'd just gotten accustomed to a way of living that I couldn't have imagined before and I would never return to now.  

The same is true of clutter.

People live with clutter because they don't actually understand the effect it takes on them.  They're so accustomed to being bombarded with visual stimuli, piles in the corners, piles on the counters, dozens of to-do's staring at them, just waiting to be done.  

You might think it doesn't bother you, but your subconscious has to armour up for these moments.  Your home, your very sanctuary, is a constant reminder of what you need to do, where you're not succeeding, all of the promises that you made to yourself and others that you're not keeping.  Even if you are not actively dealing with your clutter, your brain is working on overdrive to ignore it all being there.  

The most universal reaction from our clients after we work together is exactly that -- a casual laugh, a dropping of the shoulders, a sensation of lightness and clarity where it hadn't even seemed possible before.  It gives me the chills everytime.

Are you ready for that?  

The freedom, the release of the clutter-free life?  

Here are the 11 Decluttering Questions You Should be Asking YourselfHow to Let Go of Something You Used to Really Love and Why I Donated My Wedding Dress to get you started!

Let Go of "Just In Case"

To date, Kyle and I have spent thousands of hours working with clients guiding and helping them declutter their homes.  We've probably spent even more time still speaking with each other and friends and acquaintances and colleagues about minimalism.

And do you want to know the single pain point which comes up the most?  

Just. In. Case.

Often it shows up to in response to me suggesting that someone might prefer to donate an item they've never used / don't particularly like / wish they'd never purchased to begin with.  

(Think: a third box of 2,000 staples in a paperless office, a dress with tags on purchased 2 sizes too small, a stack of old and unread magazines which just might hold an article or photo that might be referred to if they end up deciding to learn to sew after all.)

With an incredulous stare, I get back the questions: "But what if I need it someday?" or "Shouldn't I keep it, you know, just in case?" 

I'm not going to argue that you will 100% guaranteed never need any of these items again.  

That would be pointless.  I'm not a fortune teller and I cannot know the intricacies of your life moving forward.  But I am going to encourage you to let go these "just in case" items anyway.  

 

3 Reasons to Let Go of "Just In Case" Objects.

1. Consider the costs of keeping the item.  Anytime a particular topic or idea shows up across all spectrums of lifestyles and situations, it signals to me that something very human is going on.  And the truth is that biologically speaking, humans have evolved to be more motivated to avoid pain than to seek joy.  Meaning that as a species we're naturally going to give more weight to fear of having to potentially re-acquire something than the pleasure of an uncluttered space.  

What our lizard brain is not considering, however, is the hidden pain of keeping so much stuff around.  We don't consider what a burden it is to maintain and upkeep these items.  We don't consider all of the physical and mental space they take up.  We forget about the hard, crappy decisions we have to make (like spending a gorgeous weekend cleaning up the garage or not moving to a new space because there isn't enough storage) in service of these items that we don't even use.

2. Experience the under-acknowledged joy of knowing what you don't have.  Imagine I ask you to find an old, semi-functioning raincoat you've kept just in case...  You would maybe look in your regular closet.  Then the coat closet.  Then perhaps with your stored winter gear.  Then perhaps check your camping bin.  Or maybe it's with your costumes under the bed?  Or is it possible that you leant it to a friend awhile back?  Or maybe it is in the coat closet in the way, way back?  20 minutes later you're sweaty, frustrated and still don't know where the raincoat is.  

If instead you make a habit of releasing excess items, you'll know right away what you have and where it is -- and you'll also know right away when you don't have something.  Rather than wasting time searching, you can jump right into reacquiring, borrowing, substituting, or making do without.  It is liberating.

3. Leave room for yourself to grow.  Whenever we hold onto items "just in case," we're locking our future selves into a certain way of being.  One of the most beautiful things about being human is that we are constantly evolving as people.  Our habits, priorities, and hobbies shift and vary as we continue through life.  When you hold onto old items "just in case" you're committing to staying in place, to having those same exact interests or to living in the same space.  When you let go of those items you are giving yourself permission to be flexible and flowing, to grow and change.

So what do you think?  Could you donate some of the things you've been holding onto "just in case?" Do you have any strategies that have worked for you in the past?