How to Declutter Your Home: A Rational Minimalist Approach

‘Decluttering’ has become such a popular trend in recent years that the phrase ‘how to organize’ is searched 1,500,000 times in Google each month, ‘what is clutter’ 246,000 times, and even something as specific as ‘how to declutter your home’ receives 8100 monthly searches. So why is decluttering  – or at least talking about decluttering – so popular, and how do you do it?

In his short eBook, Simplify: 7 Guiding Principles to Help Anyone Declutter Their Home and Life, Joshua Becker relates his experiences taking Americans into third world environments and watching their reactions. They tend to go from shock at the conditions and that “people with so little can be so joyful”, to saying they are blessed to live in America and to own so many possessions, despite the in-between step, in which they wish they enjoyed life as much as the people they meet. Not all Becker’s travellers make these observations without realizing the irony inherent in the third statement, but one might hazard a guess that very few of them go home to dispense with all the possessions which have failed to make them happy.

more stuff is not equal to more happiness, so does less stuff equal more happiness?In truth, the leap from “these people who have nothing are happier than me, despite all my money and possessions” to “I would be happier if I gave it all away” is neither obvious nor logical. But it does provide food for thought. What should be as obvious as it is logical is that all those possessions are not required for happiness. So a question we might ask is, do they contribute to happiness or, do they contribute to unhappiness or stress? The answer to these questions will not be the same for every possession nor for every person.

Clutter Costs Time

Simplfy book cover: 7 Guiding Principles to Help Anyone Declutter Their Home and Life, Joshua BeckerIn the introduction to Simplify, Becker observes that he enjoys “clean, tidy, uncluttered rooms” but that he doesn’t like to clean, and also that he was “tired of spending vacation days cleaning”. The introduction is available to download free to your kindle app or you can read it directly on Becker’s site, and it was this section that really caught my attention. The idea that decluttering my house would make keeping it clean easier was sort of obvious, but at the same time it was almost revolutionary for me.

I too like to live in a clean, tidy house. I too dislike cleaning and – especially – tidying (I’d far rather spend my time cleaning the toilet than tidying the living room). And, the one thing I always want more of is not a thing at all. It’s time. So if I get rid of some of my “stuff” I could spend less time cleaning, less time tidying and of course, less time looking for things, and at the same time live in a more pleasant environment? Where do I sign on?

I read the introduction to Becker’s book back in January 2011, and promptly declared “decluttering” to be my word for the year. I told my family, and encouraged them to get on board, but didn’t try to push them too hard. This was to be my project and hopefully we would all reap the benefits. So 11 months later, how are we doing?

I’m happy to report it hasn’t been a complete failure. Not that you can tell that, if you walk into my house, but changes have been made. Numberless bags of clothes have been taken to the charity shop, along with not a few books and some (but not many) toys.  I threw out dozens and dozens of old writers’ centre and breastfeeding mothers’ newsletters that I had been keeping for a purpose I can’t now imagine, since I never once re-read one after it got filed on the shelf. We cleaned up our study/spare room quite substantially before going overseas recently, since my mother was to sleep in that room while house-sitting for us, and we cleaned up our yard a bit at the same time. None the less, our house is still more on the cluttered end of the scale than the minimalist end.

Working from home can be the worst of both worlds in terms of house cleaning. I, and at minimum one of my children, spend most of the day at home. We use dishes and toys, and while I work, my toddler plays. If I were strictly a stay-at-home-mum instead of a work-at-home-mum I might tidy up behind her as she goes, cleaning the kitchen and doing the dishes (or at least stacking the dishwasher) after each meal, and doing other odd jobs like folding and putting away laundry or cleaning the bathroom in between times. When my toddler naps I could finish whichever household chores I couldn’t get done while she is awake. But that is not how our life is.

While I don’t work all day (far from it), I do spend a portion of each day working while my daughter happily destroys the house. The duplo gets spread around the floor, the magazine table gets emptied (and the floor more cluttered), the books get pulled off the shelf.  On a good day some of this will get tidied up – more or less – before she gets into the basket of cars and the train set, or discovers that her big brother has left his Pokemon cards where she can reach them, or finds a stack of CDs. On a bad day it’s all out together. Then her brother and sister come home from school…

So just to recap, I could have more time and a tidier house, if I had less stuff, right? But if I had too much less stuff, what would my toddler do while I worked? Okay, my youngest is getting older and will soon be entering a period of more creative play (I hope), but I do need some things for her to play with. At the same time, my eldest is not going to give up his Pokemon cards (and nor does he think they’re appropriate toys for his little sister!). This is where Becker’s term “rational minimalism” comes in.

Rational Minimalism – What is Clutter, Really?

Becker mentions minimalism quite a lot in the introduction to Simplify, and the truth is, this put me off a bit. It was a long time for me between reading the introduction and buying the rest of the book, and that is largely why. The first guiding principle of Becker’s seven is “Be Convinced”. “Our actions will always follow the true desires of our heart”, he tells us. So if we are not truly convinced, we are unlikely to act. Well, I am not convinced by true minimalism. I actually like some clutter. I like a lived in house, and a like an eclectic collection of memorabilia. I just don’t like mess.

Becker spends the rest of the section on his first principle detailing ten good reasons for choosing a minimalist lifestyle, and I’m here to tell you, they are convincing. But his second principle “Make Minimalism Work for You” is where I was really sold. This is where he introduces the idea of rational minimalism, explaining that he and his wife live in suburbia with their two children, and that “if we were going to become minimalist, it would have to be a style of minimalism specific to us.” So I don’t have to get rid of everything? I don’t, for instance have to get rid of all my books? (I have a lot of books.) The simple answer is: no.

Later, Becker defines clutter as 1. Anything that is disorganised, 2. Anything you don’t need or love, and 3. Too much stuff in too small a space. He also gives some excellent advice on how to begin decluttering your home: Start small. Start with achievable goals, so that your small victories can accumulate and protect your motivation.

So rational minimalism is about figuring out what level of minimalism, and what level of clutter, works for you. And partly, that will be determined by what in your house you need and what you love, and what fits into neither category.

Persevere

If the word for 2011 was “declutter”, the word for 2012 is going to be “persevere”.  Actually, that’s another one of Becker’s guiding principles. He uses it in the context of having achieved your goal of decluttering your house, and figuring out how to keep it decluttered, and he offers some tips for doing just that. But for me it is more than that. It is about persevering with the whole process, and it is also about keeping spaces clutter-free once they get there.

Becker talks about recognising your “clutter collection sites”. For us, one of these is our kitchen bench. This is a space we declutter semi-regularly, particularly when we are expecting guests, but the clutter keeps coming back.  It was delightfully clear and tidy when we came back from our overseas trip, but quickly cluttered up again. However, I have completely cleared it several times in the past couple of weeks. So one of my goals for the next couple of months is to keep clearing it; to not let the clutter pile up.

My longer term goal is to declutter something each month. To hold me accountable to that goal, I have committed to writing a monthly decluttering column here at Sustainable Suburbia, detailing how I am putting Becker’s principles into practice and whether they are working for me.

My first big goal, by virtue of our household needs, is to finish decluttering the study as well as our walk-in-robe. We need to do this because we want to put our girls in a room together, in what is currently the master bedroom, while turning the WIR around to make it accessible from the study (which is how it was in the original house plans), rather than what will be their room. But that’s a huge job, so I am going to break it down into small steps, to create more achievable goals, as per Becker’s advice. I figure I can probably manage to declutter my socks drawer, for instance, reasonably easily, so that could be an easy win to help keep me motivated and optimistic.

Tune in next month to find out how I’m going, but in the mean time, share your tips for decluttering your home. Have you tried? Have you had any success? And importantly, have you managed to maintain it afterwards, and how does it make you feel? Or do you think the whole  decluttering trend is just a waste of time, and you’re going to hang on to your stuff, thank you very much?

Kirsten McCulloch is the Editor of Sustainable Suburbia as well as a work-at-home mother of three. She is a master clutterer on the path to becoming a master de-clutterer as part of her journey towards a more sustainable, less ‘stuff’ focussed, lifestyle.

  6 comments for “How to Declutter Your Home: A Rational Minimalist Approach

  1. Penelope Rixon
    December 6, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Decluttering – I love it! Great article. I will have to buy the book. It’s totally addictive and makes me feel very staisfied. I have been on the decluttering journey since the beginning of the year after our discussion on ‘de-cluttering”, your word for the year. I was inspired and I got stuck into it with a serious commitment. I have thrown away bags and bags of clothes that I just don’t wear – even newish ones, that I bought on sale, that were designer by label. I decided if it doesnt flatter or make it feel comfortable and I haven’t really worn it – it must go! and out it did. I threw out at least 15 pairs of shoes. I can’t believe how many shoes I had that didn’t even fit properly. (Did you know that most women actually wear less than 20% of their shoe collection?) … and then on to books – I had a school fete on the horizon so I boxed them up and moved them on – someone else should get the joy of reading them.(4 or 5 boxes went). I only kept books that I absolutely loved and think I might want to re-read, refer to or recomend to a friend – every other book went! I also hit the kids clothes, toys and books with as much enthusiasm and it was like a rejuventating,cleansing feeling that I can’t describe. Infact I had to hold myself back for throwing away their clothes that they will soon grow out of – but actually haven’t yet! I stayed away from my husbands books and clothes – as he is not much of a hoarder in the first place and I think he might not appreciate my gutso. There are still areas to get to – like the kitchen cupboards, laundry and garage – and these school holidays I intended to do just that. In the meantime I bought some extra storage boxes, shelving units and tubs and have tried to make a specific place for everything. And then, the most addictive thing of all, I bought a label maker and started labelling everything. This last part, I admit is laughable, but there is something so satisfying as the label maker spits out each neat little label that I can stick on appropriate box/tub/shelf/section/containter. I still have a way to go, and things do still get in a mess but it makes life sooo much easier if everything has a little (labelled) home to go to when I am trying to tidy things up. Decluttering has made my life easier and has defintely meant less time spent of cleaning,something I completely detest and I think everyone who walks into my home can feel the lighter, freer atmosphere due the new order of things.

    Great website too by the way.

    Penny

    • Editor
      December 6, 2011 at 8:30 pm

      So it sounds like less stuff *does* make more happiness (and Becker talks about that sense of freedom too), but the odd little item like the lable maker can still be justified 🙂

      Great stuff. I do envy you coming to this when your children are still young. Wish I’d had more motivation to do it back then, before they got so attached to their stuff!

  2. Emma Lloyd
    December 10, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Great post. I’m in the process of slowly decluttering my place, one small step at a time. I’ve found I’ve been able to reduce the possessions in each area that I focus on to about a third of their original amount – sometimes less. It’s so freeing to be able to see plenty of space where so much junk used to be. I never realised how little of it I actually used or valued until I started going through everything I own.

  3. Kirsten
    December 10, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    That’s awesome Emma. I am still plodding slowly along with my decluttering efforts myself 🙂

  4. February 26, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good.

    I don’t know who you are but definitely you’re going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!
    Malissa recently posted..MalissaMy Profile

  5. Gloria
    December 5, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    Hi Kristen. Awesome article. I felt like you were writing about me. 😃

    I have… with huge help from friends & rellies… decluttered twice in 4 years of being in my little downsized house.

    My problem is it is now in dire need of being decluttered again. I detest the mess and say to myself i am going to declutter this week…. and i say it with conviction. However, i find that life gets in the way… along with no motivation or inspiration and it doesn’t get done.

    My kitchen bench is like yours and appears to have layers of clutter laying in wait somewhere invisible untill i declutter the bench. Feeling extremely happy & accomplished i walk out of the kichen for a short time. Low & behold…. when i walk back in… that which was invisible clutter … is no more invisible. It’s on my kitchen bench!!!!

    I will take on your advice and start small & see where i get. Its so refreshing to know that I’m not the only apprentice declutterer in training that will more than likely regress at times.

    Caution… declutter in progress!!

    Cheers
    Gloria

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