Last fall my husband and I embarked on a decluttering project. We recognized that we were ill prepared for sudden life changes that might force us to move or down-size on short notice. Our garage was cluttered with remodeling debris, old or broken furniture, skis and sporting gear we no longer used, mildewed books. We found boxes we hadn’t opened since grad school. Our closets were stuffed to the gills.
Although we’d talked about it for several years, we’d found it almost impossible to take the first real step toward decluttering. And then something changed a year ago.
Our brother-in-law’s unexpected death last August was a wake-up call. Since then we’ve been watching our sister struggle with the aftermath of her husband’s passing. We were able to help her afterwards for a few weeks, but then had to return to our own lives. We didn’t want to risk subjecting our friends or family to a similar challenge if something happened to us.
We also recognized that a house full of clutter takes time to deal with, which would make it hard to act quickly if we were forced to put this house on the market. Sometimes life forces you to cope with unexpected events like serious illness, job loss or forced retirement. We wanted to be less burdened, in case we’re forced to confront some difficult choices.
Adding to our concerns, we started to hear rumors that my husband’s job might move out-of-state later this year. [Fortunately, we heard last week that his job isn’t moving!]
Whatever the reason, we recognized that the time had come to lighten our load, so we’d be more agile, less burdened with stuff — more able to consider our options or initiate change on short notice.
Taking the First Steps
We had old bank books, tax filings, school projects, tickets, expense receipts, reports for former employers or clients… We had years’ worth of paid bills and credit card statements. We had shrink-wrapped software for computers we no longer own.
We had souvenirs and mementos from travel holidays, family memorabilia, and other keepsakes. We had calendars from college, love letters, greeting cards and old journals. Some of these are worth keeping, so we’ve begun a background project to scan and digitize the ones we might like to see again someday.
To discard documents with no emotional or practical value, we bought a heavy-duty shredder that can run for hours before over-heating. For weeks I focused intensely on shredding a lifetime’s worth of paper documents — decades’ worth of detritus. Day after day I loaded up the Prius with bags full of shredded documents, for disposal at a recycling center ten miles away.
I’ve learned my lesson about accumulating unnecessary paper. These days I shred incoming documents that have no value, so I don’t accumulate a bunch of junk I’ll have to deal with later.
Tackling the Harder Stuff
Having disposed of the paper, I’ve switched my attention to pruning closets, looking for household objects, unused appliances, gadgets or garments we can donate to charities.
Over the years I’ve donated clothes that no longer fit, so what remains is harder to give away. These clothes still fit, look good, and are made from high-quality fabric or materials. But, they’re either out-of-style or too dressy for my current lifestyle. So they hang in the closets, unused, collecting dust. Good candidates for donation.
So, I take a deep breath and remind myself that, rather than hold on to them indefinitely, for some occasion when I might use them, it’s better to give them away today to people desperately in need of warm or useful clothing. I try to remember the yogic principle of non-attachment.
With practice I’m getting much better at finding things to give away. As a result each week I’ve collected bags and boxes like these for the donation trucks to pick up. Space is opening up in our closets.
Words to Live By
Rather than just randomly giving stuff away (which might be a good practice too), I’ve found the pruning process works better when guided by a set of principles. What works for us are these guidelines a friend shared with us last month:
Do you use it?
Do you love it?
Does it bring you joy?
If you can’t say yes to any of these questions, then you’ve just found a good candidate for donation.
It also helps to devote concentrated time to sorting and pruning, so you get more efficient (and less emotional) when working through these questions.
If you really want to prune heavily, then this mantra from a Buddhist friend offers additional wisdom:
Can you simply remember the joy, and let the item go?
If you’re on the verge of decluttering your household, good luck!