‘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.
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
In 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.
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.