Why Decluttering Isn’t Like Waving a Magic Wand
Note: This is a guest post from Karen Trefzger of Maximum Gratitude, Minimal Stuff.
When I first began decluttering, I had no idea how long it would take, or even how much unneeded, unloved stuff I had. As I worked through the process—sometimes with quick successes and sometimes more slowly and painstakingly—I began to feel lightness and freedom. I enjoyed having less to care for and worry about, and more time for relationships, goals, and fun.
However, eventually I realized that decluttering isn’t magic. It’s not a once-and-done solution that simplifies life forever after.
You see, clutter is a symptom. And just as a cold medication may bring down your fever, keep your nose from running, and quiet your cough without actually making you well, decluttering reduces visual noise, makes your house easier to keep in order, and soothes stress and overwhelm without getting to the root of the problem. You still have to go through the process of healing the habits that continue to allow clutter into your life.
Four ways to clear clutter from the inside out:
1. Limit social media usage.
Social media can be a way to keep in touch and find inspiration, but it can also be a big time waster and a way to compare myself, my home, my achievements, and my life with others.
Comparison might help us choose between two or more options. It might inspire us toward self-improvement. But most often, comparing ourselves with what others have or do leads to jealousy and dissatisfaction. And trying to “keep up” leads to an endless search for more. We become unhappy, even if we have enough and should appreciate what we have.
Limiting my time on social media (even deleting some of my profiles) has helped me want less, avoid impulse purchases (which lead to debt and clutter), and be more aware of my blessings.
2. Decide once.
Some sources suggest that adults make 35,000 decisions per day, from what to wear to what to eat to whether to answer the phone or let it go to voicemail.
Even if that number seems somewhat high, the truth is that we do make decisions large and small from the moment we wake until we fall asleep. At some point, decision fatigue sets in and we start losing self-control and willpower. Our brains conserve energy by acting on impulse or avoiding decisions all together. That’s why you tell your partner, “I don’t care what we eat for dinner—you decide!” Or even, “Let’s just order a pizza tonight.”
One way to overcome decision fatigue (which will also help you avoid impulse purchases and junk accumulation) is to stick with routines. Decide once, and stop reinventing the wheel.
Some areas where “decide once” works particularly well:
- waking and bed times
- wearing a uniform or capsule wardrobe
- meal planning and prep
- certain chores/cleaning on certain days
- a certain time and place for exercise
- dealing with the daily mail
- specific times to check email, texts, and phone messages
- specific times for prayer, meditation, or a gratitude practice
3. Let go of imaginary needs.
Babies are happy with so little: Mama’s milk, a few clothes, a safe place to sleep, lots of love.
They have few needs, and yet they’re happy. Or if they’re not happy, it’s usually because one of their few needs isn’t being met.
However, as they grow, those needs expand. They become insatiable.
As adults, we work more, shop more, and still we’re not satisfied. Yet many of our needs are imaginary, fueled by fears, insecurities, and the need to fit in and keep up.
Have any of these imaginary needs become part of your life?
- the need to be super-busy
- the need to be constantly entertained
- the need to please everyone
- the need to stay current with news and trends
- the need to look perfect and be perfect
- the need to buy/receive gifts for/from everyone on every occasion
- the need to impress others
- the need to control the future and be prepared for every contingency
- the need to be an early adopter
- the need for bigger and bigger experiences and achievements
Letting go isn’t easy. It can be humbling, or even scary. But you can pay attention to how you’re spending your mental energy, make a list of all the things you do and think about, and then decide what’s truly necessary and good.
When you start living with just those essential activities, you might expose some emotions you’ve been crowding out and covering up. You might feel “bored.” You’ve become used to filling your time and thoughts with things that distract you from your main purpose and from simple daily pleasures.
But there’s hope. You can adjust. Soon you won’t need the constant inputs from media, shopping, technology, and a go-go-go lifestyle. You’ll be more inner-directed. And you can fill your life with the things you find truly important and meaningful.
4. Practice consistently.
I’ve read many, many books and articles about losing weight and adopting a healthier diet and lifestyle, yet I have no long-term success in those areas. (I do eat a lot of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains.)
Reading about self-improvement can give you much of the pleasure and excitement of changing your life without doing anything really demanding. As long as I’m reading about change or making plans to change, I might not begin the hard work of change. All of my reading and planning is really procrastination.
It’s possible that I want to change but don’t really trust myself. I look at my decades of being overweight and feel doomed to failure. Maybe I’m looking for the magic solution to fix my problem overnight.
But just like decluttering, a new diet isn’t magic. It doesn’t take a ton of special knowledge or carefully honed skills (unlike becoming a surgeon or a violinist). You just have to do something real—take a walk every day, eat smaller portions, save dessert for Friday night only. To stay uncluttered, you need to:
- wait (a day, or two, or even seven) before you buy
- practice one in one out
- do small purges regularly
If you’ve decluttered, you already know how to do it. Of course you can keep reading for enlightenment and encouragement (and I hope you’ll choose my blog and books), but make sure you’re also taking the small, consistent actions that will keep your life clutter-free.
That’s where the magic is.
Karen Trefzger is a writer, singer, teacher, wife, mother, and grandmother who has been choosing a simpler life for over 20 years. She is the author of several books about minimalism, and blogs at Maximum Gratitude, Minimal Stuff.