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5Dec/180

The Physical and Emotional Challenge of Decluttering

Decluttering your life is not as simple as throwing away things. Not only do you need an efficient process to sort and classify the value of objects in your life, you also need to be prepared to deal with the mental and emotional challenges that will arise.

My wife and I are in the process of decluttering our lives. To start, we've gone room by room at our house, decluttering our closets, bathroom, bedroom, and living room. We've moved on to the kitchen. The only physical space we'll have left after that is the garage (where everything we've removed from the other rooms is piled up waiting to be picked over by our kids or donated to Goodwill).

I already feel lighter. Everything that remains is essential to us, useful, productive, and makes me happy to own. Gone are the random piles of things we didn't really know what to do with. Gone are the numerous decisions about what to wear (I pared my wardrobe down to multiple versions of my favorite jeans, tee shirts, underwear, shoes, with a few long shirts and a jacket). Gone is the head slap from tripping over things we bought but never used (with every possible movie and music album on streaming, why we held on to three copies of Old School on DVD makes no sense to me). And gone is the messy, cluttered evidence of the harder choices we neglected to make (we had 100 frames photos piled in a heap inside a coffee table purely because we were overwhelmed at removing the pictures from the frames and setting them up in proper, long-term photo storage).

We have a ways to go. Our home is not completely decluttered yet. Then we have our company office. Then things like cars and bikes. Then we plan to declutter our finances. And, finally, we'll attack the real reason why we're doing all this - to have the freedom to redefine our daily/working lives so we're living the best possible version of our lives.

So the process is worth the end goal, but is not easy. You don't just throw a bunch of stuff away and live happily ever after. It's a process. It requires work. By taking our time and processing through our home one decision at a time, we've learned that decluttering is both a physical and a mental process. Each part of the process needs to be approached differently. Here's what we learned about how to navigate decluttering your home.

The physical challenge - decluttering requires efficiency

Now that we have the experience of decluttering most of our home, we've refined the physical side of the job into a working system. It breaks down like this:

  1. Target - We first identify a category or area of possession that we want to declutter (Closet, Garage, Laundry room, TV cabinet, etc.). It may be that we're just attacking a single cupboard (the spice cupboard was a hot mess, as what our kitchen junk drawer)
  2. Remove - We then pull everything we own in that category or place out so we can see it all at one time. We brought one of those gray hard-plastic folding tables from Home Depot into the house to use as our sorting table. It makes things very easy and efficient.
  3. Analyze - We try to understand what led us to each of the choices in that pile. Which items bring us joy? What about them works for us? What about them gave us challenges? We get clear in my mind what the ideal thing(s) are in that category. Using the junk drawer as an example, we used it to house our spare keys to everything in one place. That's an essential function. As was keeping a pen and a pair of scissors close by. But the loose change, dead batteries, paperclips, and unregarded mail were all a psychic burden.
  4. Separate - We separate everything into three piles trash, give-away, and keep.
  5. Review - More accurately, it starts out as keep for sure, throw-away for sure, and consider for a minute. Items in the consider pile may shift to the keep or throw-away piles, but ultimately, we end the culling with usually 10% of what we started with in the keep pile.
  6. Return - We place the keep items back into the space in a clean, organized way (we buy storage and organizing containers and hangers only at this stage). The end result being that everything is essential, and everything has a place where it belongs.

The mental challenge - decluttering is about confronting attachment

The psychological burden of the process of decluttering your life is that you have to confront the attachment we have to the things in our lives.

In our sorting process, we have uncovered all kinds of useless objects that contribute to the clutter, but are difficult, at first, to let go of. You unpack a cluttered closet only to find a stack of birthday, anniversary, and Christmas cards. What do you do? These are the words of your loved ones, trapped in amber and preserved as archaeological evidence of their love for you? Do you just toss them in the trash?

This is the dilemma. You don't need these things, but you have strong attachment to them. Letting them go seems live a betrayal, a violation of the relationship between you and whatever you have attached as meaning to them. But, no object has any more meaning than you assign to it. Meaning, in and of itself, is a fabrication of your mind. While decluttering the house, we've learned to handle these confrontations with our attachment in a couple of ways.

First, we hold each item in our hand and ask: Do I need this? Does this bring value to my life? If the answer is yes, it stays. If the answer is no, it goes in the give-away pile. If you are clear and honest with yourself, the thing is an artifact of meaning you've attached to it. Asking yourself if the object holds the value, or what it represents holds the value, can you lead to redefine value. You may come to understand that what you actually valued about a thing is the underlying relationship or experience that you used to give the thing meaning in the first place. That discovery can put you on a path to a more fulfilled life, one with a shift in focus from the accumulation of things as a way to measure growth and happiness, to a life that values experiences and relationships. And when the things are all out of the way, your life becomes more open to new experiences and relationships, leaving you richer after all.

One last things on this. Going back to the cards as an example, there are a couple of final tricks to letting go of objects you have a complicated attachment to, an alternative to the just-throw-them-away approach. One trick is to have a temporary holding place in your garage, a bin where these objects can sit for a predetermined amount of time before they get donated or thrown away. We think we can't let go of that sweater our favorite aunt gave us nine years ago for Christmas, but if it sits unused in the holding bin for three months, you've learned that it is not essential to your happiness after all.

Another trick for handling objects you are struggling to let go of, is to just take a picture of them. Keep an album on your phone (and your cloud-based photo storage backup service) of these things. That way, you're free to let the physical object go, but have it saved permanently, with no clutter, to look at any time you want.

We're still on our journey to declutter our lives, but armed with a system for attacking clutter, and a mental process for dealing with the complex attachment issues related to our owning and collection of stuff, we feel great about the way our lives are evolving. What about you? Are you hemmed in by your physical possessions? Are you ready to let the stuff go? Have you found a system for dealing with a junk pile that works for you? How do you deal with the emotional hiccup that occurs when you hold something you value in your hands but know it needs to go in the throw-away pile? Comment below and let's share notes.

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