Are you as amazed as I am at how quickly clutter collects in our houses? It’s almost like the mysterious accumulation of dust. Where does it come from, and won’t it please stop — for just a little while?
When I was single, I used to be attracted to houses that were chock-full of stuff: wallpapered walls covered with paintings, and dusty shelves jammed with curios, souvenirs, and books.
Now that I am no longer lonely, and my kids fill our house with noise, action, toys, papers, crafts, and clothes, I long for a different aesthetic. I want clear counters, coats hung behind doors, and shelves that look just the slight bit empty, ready for more.
Because there will always be more. And that’s what I am coming to terms with.
If half of the magic equation for a satisfying life is being organized, then I think the best thing I can do to achieve that goal is to make sure I am always clearing stuff out.
Considering how often I have relocated in my adult life (12 times), I am a little surprised that I am even facing this problem. I have become a veteran at streamlining linen closets, giving away baby clothes without tears, and offloading stacks of magazines on Freecycle.
One time I even went so far as to throw away photos. I finally accepted the fact that there are precious few people (okay, maybe zero, including me) who want to see pictures of archaeological ruins or people I don’t even remember.
Even though my cross-country and cross-Atlantic moves kept me on my clutter-free toes, it seems a decluttering project always awaits me. As soon as I’m done helping my daughters unstuff their dressers, their craft supplies are overflowing. The tools are organized, but now all the boxes of papers in the attic are multiplying.
The thing is, like dusting, getting rid of Stuff is a never-ending job. It’s as constant as breathing, partly because — as long as we are living — we are always changing. Our bodies change, our interests change, our life stage changes, our dwellings change. And each of those changes almost always requires importing new stuff — and ideally — exporting the old.
Even if our interests and bodies were to freeze in time, stuff would keep flooding into our dwellings — through the mail, wrapped as presents, hidden in backpacks, and disguised by companies as free gifts.
An appraiser I met recently told me that one out of 25 houses she inspects in the D.C. area are so full she can barely find a path to walk through. We live in an age of cheap mass-produced goods, and it’s just easier for most of us to buy stuff instead of borrowing, exchanging, and doing without, as they did in the old days.
Not only is it easier, getting new stuff is simply more fun. It’s why shiny new objects call to us, and messy cabinets make us run the other way. It’s why it’s fun to pack a suitcase, but very unfun to unpack. Buying something gives us a feel-good rush, but listing that same thing on Craigslist a year later gives us a headache.
The chore of moving stuff out of the house is weighted down by emotional baggage. Anything that contains some kind of memory or was given to me by someone is very hard for me to give away. It also pains me to see the money and resources wasted, and I feel ashamed for making the wrong choices.
But the constant flux of our lives that creates much of the clutter in the first place helps me eventually let go. What seemed impossible to give away a few months ago, might be easy now. And when I finally muster up the strength to say goodbye to the college papers that I got B minuses on, the polka-dot curtains I was saving for “someday,” or the mini-dresses that I wore when I was 24, I feel great.
I am moving on. And forward. And so is my stuff. College is over, decorating tastes have changed, my body is a different shape. New good things will replace the old ones. Especially when I can let go, say good-bye, and make space.
Some people have a rule: when one new thing comes into the house, they get rid of two. My methods are less regimented, but nevertheless pretty relentless. So what does this constant decluttering look like at our place?
- Keeping a give-away box in the basement and scheduling a free charity pick-up every two months or so
- Giving away children’s books that I hate to read, even if I bought them or someone gave them to me
- Not “checking” email until I am ready to take action on them (I always struggle with this one, because, well, Tim Ferriss calls the inbox the “cocaine-pellet dispenser”)
- Trying to delete half as many photos as I take
- Occasionally going through the house with a black trash bag and surreptitiously depositing toys and stuffed animals that haven’t been played with forever (we’ll keep this our little secret)
- Going to the post office to send packages, returning merchandise to stores, dropping off borrowed stuff to friends
Trying to save money puts me in a dangerous position, ironically, because it is easy to accept too much free stuff, overbuy at thrift stores, or stockpile when things are on sale. But realizing how much time and mental peace that Stuff costs me (no matter how cheap in dollars) helps keep me in line.
I also keep myself busy so I’m not tempted to fill the void with shopping. I avoid stores when my little begging machines are with me. I fill Christmas stockings with loves notes instead of toys.
But please, oh please, do not open a Target anywhere within mile radius of my house. That might be too much to resist.
What about you — how do you keep the Stuff from taking over? Let me know in the comments.