Intro to Decluttering

Some time ago while working as an executive assistant I coordinated my boss’s move. He was married with a toddler and a very pregnant wife. I arranged for the movers, set up the appointments with the condo, called for internet installation, the usual. On the day of the move I sat around as his old Condo was packed up and put into the moving truck.

After many hours I got a message from my boss that there were two storage areas in the parking garage that also had to be emptied. He forgot about them when we originally brought the movers out for an estimate. I took two of the movers downstairs and we opened up the units to reveal bicycles, bins, and the other sorts of things one stores in a condo garage unit. One of the movers turned to me with a smile on his face.

“This makes more sense,” he said. “It didn’t seem like they had a lot of stuff. I was like, ‘Where are the golf clubs and ski equipment and stuff?’” He laughed.

I’m sure the mover thought nothing of it, but his words really stuck with me. This is what he does for a living, and it was finally making sense to him right as it was becoming astounding for me. Obviously it made sense that a family of three should have more stuff than I do and I don’t begrudge them their possessions, but after hours of packing it already felt like a lot to me. But not to this guy. He knew exactly how much there would be.

Most of us find it easy to justify what we own in aggregate, or justify any item individually. Recently I started a document called “Why I Have Everything I Own.” I turn to it when I need to get in my daily words and don’t have any ideas. I look towards any section of my apartment and list every item. I’ve started with the things that are in and around my desk, and may one day make it through the whole apartment. It’s dull writing and it’s unlikely to produce anything worth sharing, but as an exercise it’s been helpful. It’s easy for me to justify having purses in general, but to justify each individual bag by itself, defending its merits and explaining why none of the other bags could fully replace it – that’s a struggle worth attempting. Every so often I end up throwing a few things in the giveaway bin before I’m done with my word count for the day.

I have this dream of one day owning very few things. It’s a weird dream when you think about it. I could have it right now if I wanted. A couple trips to Goodwill and the dump and I could get down to only what would fit in my car. But that’s not the struggle of course. I’ve been slowly minimizing my belongings for several years now, and I’m starting to hit a wall. It’s easy to get rid of the broken and stupid and useless things in our lives. It’s harder to get rid of the good-but-too-much and if-I-just-wait-long-enough things.

In the coming months I’d like to write more about the art of paring down and my personal struggles with it. It’s more complicated than most people realize, and the problems are more universal than most people think. When I went on vacation in February and told people I did work as a professional organizer, I ended up in a lot of mini-counseling sessions with the people around me. I always thought I’d have to see a clutter problem to fix it, but you can learn a lot from how a person describes their situation. If you have a specific problem you need help with, feel free to leave it in the comments. You’ll help me to know which topics to focus on, and you may just find a solution to your problem!

Decluttering with Nikki

For a while now I’ve been offering my services as a Professional Organizer. At least, that’s what I introduce myself as. In truth, I think Professional Declutterer is more accurate. Because to me it’s not about how you organize the things you have, it’s about getting rid of the things you don’t need.
My sister Nikki asked for my help with a couple big boxes of cables. She’s not a super techie person, so she didn’t know what half of the stuff she had was even for. I once worked for a computer cable manufacturer and as a result I’m pretty good at looking at a box of cords and telling you what everything does.

Nikki had five boxes and bags of various sizes full of old electronics and peripherals. We started sorting and found several categories for immediately removal:

Phones1) Old cell phones
I can accept an argument for a person having at most two cell phones. One phone that they use, and one feature phone that’s kept fully charged in case of emergencies. That’s more than most people need, but it’s defensible. My sister had five old cell phones, including a Blackberry she doesn’t remember ever owning. Many cell phone providers take old phones to be wiped and repurposed for organizations that deal with domestic violence victims. The phones are included in bags that victims can take in case they need a safe and private way to call the police. Nikki and I put together her collection of old phones and chargers for donation.

2) Orphan Chargers
The good and terrible thing about chargers is that they are usually generic. This means you can sometimes charge your phone or camera at a friend’s house if need be, but it also means that once a charger is separated from the intended device there is no way to know what it’s for. Nikki had a large collection of chargers, many identical, and none identifiable. Over the course of the morning we were able to pair a few up, but many were left without a match. It can be difficult to part with such items, since for all you know you still have the things they charge. My solution was to have Nikki label a gallon zip-top bag with the words “Orphan Chargers” and the date. If she ever needs a charger she knows where to look, and if she comes across the bag again in five years and has never opened it, she’ll know it’s time to let them go.

3) Duplicates
There are explanations for how my sister ended up with three routers. There are reasons why she owned eleven coaxial cables. We all end up with duplicates from time to time, and we all have our reasons. The important thing is periodically taking stock and asking a simple question: how many extras will I ever really need? Nikki was already using the best of the three routers for her wireless network, and the other two were so old that they’d likely be obsolete by the time her current one broke. Most things that require coaxial cables come with coaxial cables, so we picked the best two just in case. We went through each duplicate cord and picked the best of the bunch to keep. Nikki has a cord-chewing cat, so some duplicates are reasonable.

4) Boxes
As we were separating the wheat from the chaff in her electronics, I also found that she had a lot of unnecessary boxes. Old box clutter is pretty easy to acquire, since anyone who’s ever had to return something knows not to get rid of the box right away. However once your manufacturer’s warrantee has expired (usually one year after purchase), the box is only worth what it’s worth to you. Some boxes are so perfectly fitted that it’s worth keeping them around just so you can properly pack the item next time you move. Some boxes are easily repurposed for storage of other items. But a box for the box’s sake is just clutter. Every time I saw an old electronics box I asked Nikki the same question: “Have you had this for more than a year?” The answer was always yes, and the box always went away.Cables in Bags

By the end of the day Nikki’s five boxes and bags were down to a single box, with cables organized by function (computer cables in one bag, TV cables in another, etc). But we didn’t stop there. We also fixed up and cleared away unnecessary parts of her TV setup and downsized her remotes. But the real gem of the day for me came when we were taking a lunch break. I asked her a question that had been bugging me for the last half hour.

“Why do you have a shelf of VHS tapes if you don’t own a VCR?”

It honestly hadn’t occurred to her. She’d had most of them for a very long time, probably going back to a time when she did have a VCR hooked up to her TV. We pulled them off the shelf and she gave them away without protest. If anything, she seemed upset that she even had some of them.

“Why do I own The Core?” she asked.

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” I told her, “But I was wondering that myself.”

One of the things I’ve struggled with in trying to build my personal decluttering business is explaining to people why they might need outside help to get rid of their own belongings. I think Nikki is a great example of that. Sometimes we own things for so long, we become blind to them. Sometimes we’re so use to our lives as we’ve built them, we don’t stop to think about how we’ve changed over time. In the hours I’ve spent helping people clear out their homes, I’ve realized that the majority of the time is spent saying goodbye to the people they used to be, and the things that used to matter.

I said Nikki gave away her movies without protest, but that’s not entirely true. She did briefly resist giving away a copy of The Boy Who Could Fly, a drama from 1986. “We used to watch it all the time,” she told me. I couldn’t remember it at all. She started to describe it and realized she didn’t remember much of it either. She shrugged it off and it went in the give-away pile with all the other things. Nikki has been making some big and wonderful changes in her life over the last few years. She needs room in her home for the person she is now and the person she is becoming.

Everything else is just something that used to be important to the person she used to be.

Too Many Mugs

My boyfriend and I have too many mugs. Seriously. Way too many mugs. Even if both of us drank two cups of coffee in the morning we would have too many mugs. We don’t drink coffee at all. Even if we had dinner parties with coffee and desert we would have too many mugs. We don’t have dinner parties.

For the most part the mugs get used when I’m sick and needing to drink a lot of tea. Occasionally my boyfriend will eat ice cream out of a mug. And that’s it. That’s our total mug usage. So how did we get this way?

MugsGrowing up, my parents always had an amazingly eclectic mug collection. They are both coffee drinkers and often had coffee-drinking guests, so it made since. They had mugs from NPR pledge drives and Mother’s and Father’s Days past. They had Mary Engelbreit mugs and Disneyland mugs. I associated those mugs with a well-established home. After all, it must have taken them years to amass such a fine collection. So when I went to the church garage sale when I was about 13, I bought a bunch of mugs. I figured I had to start sometime, and the mugs at the garage sale were so cheap. I must have picked up 10 mugs on the assumption that in five years I would need them.

I didn’t stop at mugs. Inspired by that time our video store was going out of business and my mom and I picked up dozens of VHS tapes for a dollar each, I slowly acquired over 400 DVDs. A well-established home had a large video collection, after all. There’s more. I have posters and candles and more fabric than I imagine I’ll ever use, all in deference to my future self and her established home. She would be so glad to have such a vast movie collection to pull from. She would be overjoyed at being able to pick from cupboard full of mugs every morning.

I wasn’t totally wrong. My future self would have been overjoyed at all of these things – if my future self had turned out exactly like my parents. At thirteen, this wasn’t an insane prediction. I love my parents and they have a wonderful life and home. I loved growing up in that home and will probably throw a joint fit with my sister if they ever try to sell it. And there are ways in which I still want to be like them. But having their home, their family, their stuff – it may not be one of them.

My thirteen-year-old self was planning for the house she loved growing up in, because she figured she’d be raising her own little thirteen-year-olds in it. Even back then I considered staying childless, but the house/husband/kids track was just as real an option. As that option drifts further from my mind, I realize that my home needs to cater to the person I am right now, not the person I may one day want to be. The person I am now doesn’t need so many mugs. She’d rather get her movies off Nexflix – it loads faster than the DVD player anyway. Someday I may change my mind and want the house and the family and the thirteen-year-old girls. But I don’t need to prepare for that just in case. I am confident I will be able to find more mugs. Maybe my parents will give me some.

My Bookmarked Life

I realized recently that on the right side of my browser, next to the bookmarks I actually use, there lived an endless string of forgotten links. They just sort of ran off the edge of the bookmarks bar into oblivion. In theory they’re not causing any harm. They don’t take up space. But they are visual clutter – a constant reminder of yet another part of my life I don’t have a complete grasp on. Since there’s no reason to have useless buttons in front of me, I set to sorting and deleting.

BookmarksThe first few were easy. Some bookmarks were no longer useful, others had to be categorized. I had a link to an online food journal for those times when I need to be intentional about my calorie count. But I don’t usually need it, so I moved it to a Food Reference folder.

I kept clicking and deleting, and before long I found myself falling down a rabbit hole of people I once thought I would be. I found, which is full of useful suggestions like adding bluetooth to your bathroom scale, or building a Wimshurst Machine from plastic bottles. At some point in my life, I envisioned being the sort of person that would “hack” everything. I would make everything myself, adjust everything myself, be the master of my surroundings and everything in them. But from the point of view of the person I am now, I look at this as so much useless junk. I don’t need to add bluetooth to my bathroom scale because I don’t even have a bathroom scale. While I love science, the at-home tinkering aspects just never appealed to me. I was always a bigger fan of the theoretical and astronomical over the practical and mechanical. Making a lightbulb potato is nice, but I’d rather learn how stars are born.

In my Culture section I deleted a lot of links to OpenCulture. Not because they aren’t useful pages, but because I don’t need the link. I know that if I need a list of free eBooks or free university courses or free classic movies that OpenCulture is the place to go. When people talk about the benefits of the internet, they are talking about sites like that. Knowledge, art, history, education – free for all and available at our whim.

There were recipes left over from before I was tracking them in Evernote. There was a link for, apparently from a time when I was going to be an amateur artisan bread maker (I only recently got my bread machine to produce something I actually want to eat).

There was a link to Mac keyboard shortcuts from a time when they weren’t second nature to me. I found an article on making a Get Home Bag from a time before I started keeping in-case-of-volcano shoes and a full first aid kit in my car.

There was a Name That Color website for identifying the code definitions of colors from before I realized such sites are easy to find via Google at any time. Same with the sites full of guitar chords.

Some bookmarks were so old they no longer worked, like an article about Star Wars Burlesque I was saving for the photos of the awesome costumes. However it should come as no surprise that a Google Image Search of “Star Wars Burlesque” accomplishes the same thing ten-fold.

It’s funny how things like this creep up on you. I wouldn’t have thought of myself as having a lot of bookmark clutter, but I did. I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to keep things “just in case,” and that’s the dangerous path bookmarking takes you down. I better keep track of this site, just in case. I might need this information someday. Someday when I’ll act on it. Someday when it interests me enough to pursue. Someday when I care enough to do more than file it away.

The Perfect Pair of Socks

There have been two or three times in my life where I received, as a gift, a pair of fuzzy socks. I don’t just mean fun socks or thick socks, I mean heaven-to-the-touch soft fuzzy goodness. It’s the kind of fabric you want to put up against your cheek like it’s a baby. Happiness in a sock. And I never wore them.

They were too thick to fit into shoes, and I knew that if I wore them by themselves the bottoms would slowly get dirty. The fabric would stretch and they wouldn’t fit so snuggly. The softness would wear off the inside. Eventually they’d develop holes, and I’d lose my delightful socks forever. They wouldn’t be perfect anymore.

I realize that it might sound insane. But I often have this problem with things that I love. I’d rather preserve them than use them. I worry about denting the spine when I read books. I worry about the beater marks on my mixing bowls. I love keeping my possessions in good condition, but sometimes this is to the detriment of my enjoying them. That’s why I never wore those socks.

The epiphany came when I finally got fed up with storing four pairs of fuzzy socks I never wore. I kept moving them from drawer to drawer, always having to find a new hiding place for them. I honestly considered giving them to Goodwill just so I could get them out of the house. They had become clutter. Like any piece of clutter, they were taking up space without being useful.

So I put on a pair.Fuzzy Socks

And they were heavenly.

I began to wear them around the house as slippers. In many ways they were superior to slippers, because I wouldn’t feel the need to kick them off when I snuggled up on the couch or hopped into bed. My feet get so cold so easily, a pair of heavenly soft socks were just what I wanted and needed. They were perfect.

After many enjoyable months I wore holes into the first pair and confidently threw them out after determining that they were beyond repair. And it felt great. Because as silly as it sounds, those socks were a weight on me. Something I had received as a gift but never used. Something that just took up space. And there was no reason. They’re just socks after all.

I’m sure it will be at least another two years before I make my way through the next three pairs of fuzzy socks. But it feels good to see them in use, to know that I’m not just storing them because I can’t fathom throwing out perfectly good socks. Instead I’m using them and making them less than perfect. Which I suppose is the point of all my possessions.

It only took me ten years to figure it out.

Project 333

Several months ago I came across Project 333, an exercise in simplifying your wardrobe (and hopefully your life). I was intrigued, because at the time I was feeling the drain of how many decisions I was making every day. I had trouble getting anything done in the morning, and it was mainly because I was trying to make too many decisions before I was even awake.

The premise of Project 333 is simple: choose only 33 items in your wardrobe to wear for the next three months. Ideally this would include outerwear, shoes, and accessories, but exclude workout clothes, pajamas, and underwear. However what I really like about Project 333 is how committed the founder is that the project shouldn’t be an exercise in suffering. She tells people that if limiting shoes is too hard, don’t include them. If three months is too long, try three weeks. And if an item gets damaged or no longer fits, replace it.

ScarvesLast spring I opened up all my drawers and began pulling things. I wanted to choose what to keep rather than what to lose, which made it much easier. Pretty soon I had my 33 items and set to work hiding everything else. There’s a lot to be said about the effects of visual clutter, and I didn’t want to constantly look at things I wasn’t going to wear. I grabbed a bunch of scarves and began draping them everywhere. I moved all of my 33 pieces into one drawer and hid everything else in the others. Even though I wasn’t counting socks or underwear, I still went through them and hid about half of each in drawers that I wouldn’t bother opening for the next three months.

The project was a huge success. I credit my victory to the “this isn’t about suffering” philosophy it came with. I cheated plenty of times. Some were legitimate, like pulling out costume outfits for shows and theme parties. Other times I just wanted something more casual than my usual wardrobe, so I grabbed a t-shirt that wasn’t part of my 33. And along the way I switched out one or two items when I realized something else would be better. But none of that cheating matters, because I still solved my original problem. Every morning when I got up, the decision of what to wear was easy.

In July I picked out a new batch of 33 items, though many were the same ones from my first batch. In theory I still have 30 days to go before I switch out again, but after five months I’m wondering if the lesson I needed to learn wasn’t about living with less (which wasn’t hard), but about giving up some control. My problem wasn’t that I had an overflowing closet, but that every morning I approached my closet as a blank slate with all options open to me. Once I switched to only 33 items I had very few options, and you know what? I barely noticed or cared. Neither did anyone else. The only real problem was having to do laundry more often.

For me Project 333 wasn’t so much an exercise in minimalism of objects but in minimalism of effort. I have a simple style, and mentally going through the hundreds of permutations I could make between pants, shirts, and shoes doesn’t hold up to cost/benefit analysis. This is one part of my life where I’m no worse off for not thinking about it.

Perhaps my next experiment will be limit to my vision rather than my clothes. I might stack my sweaters directly on top of each other so I only ever see the top two. Those will be the sweaters I wear until they need to be washed, at which point new ones will be revealed. I’ll solve my laundry problem without adding back the unnecessary decision-making.

My sense of frugality will probably make it difficult to let go of perfectly good clothes even if I don’t wear them, so for now I’ll just have to keep hiding the things I don’t need to see. The scarves work wonders for that. And one day I’ll have to own up to another obvious problem: I own too many scarves.

The Bare Necessities

I remember six years ago after traveling through Europe with a friend, we came home and happened to be looking at our school backpacks. “I bet I could backpack through Europe with this,” she said, holding up a bag of rather ordinary size. I looked at her bag and thought it sounded lovely, but couldn’t understand how she thought she’d manage. Our previous trip bags were easily three times the size. What was she thinking?

Flash forward two years to me moving into a studio apartment. It was the first time I lived by myself, and I became acutely aware of which required items I had been borrowing from roommates for my entire life. Bowls, for example, proved to be a challenging item to live without. My new place had a mini-fridge but no freezer, and the idea of going a winter without smoothies was as abhorrent as the idea of paying for fresh fruit out of season. I ordered a stand alone freezer. I didn’t have a microwave either, but figured I could wait a week or two before I started shopping.

I lived there for two years and never bought a microwave.

It turned out that between the fast heat of a gas stove and the toaster oven my sister gave to me that same year, I didn’t actually need a microwave. The only reason I have one now is because my new place had it included.

Sometimes I’m amazed with what I can live without. Several years ago I made a conscious effort to limit my fast food intake. This was primarily to save money (fast food is not cheap, despite its reputation), but I thought it might encourage me to eat better as well. I gave myself a fast food budget of $20 a month, or about four meals. It was hard at first. I’ve always had a soft spot for Wendy’s chicken nuggets. But I made it through. Before long I lowered my budget to $10, then $5. Eventually I gave it up altogether, and went for about two or three years without buying fast food of any kind. These days I’ll get it occasionally when I’m truly in a bind for fast calories, or if I’m with friends and they suggest it. But I don’t crave it anymore (Peanut Buster Parfaits aside).

But it’s more than microwaves and french fries. I once turned off the DVD part of my Netflix subscription for two months to save a few bucks during the busy holidays. I never turned it back on. As a college sophomore I regularly used both my Tivo and a cable TV connection. I haven’t had either in years.

I spent years bringing things into my life, and I’m slowly managing to release myself from their grip. I’ve accumulated clothes and kitchen gadgets and subscriptions of every kind. It’s strange how easy it is to pick something up off a store shelf and bring it home, but how hard it is to throw it in the giveaway box once it’s outlived its usefulness.

JournalsThese days I fantasize about living in a Tiny Home. I’m not quite there yet. I still have a lot of stuff to get rid of. Sometimes my minimalist side fights with my frugal side, and I find myself unable to get rid of something that still has monetary value. I may never use the dozen blank journals I have on my bookshelf, but I can’t stomach the thought that I would get rid of them only to need them later.

Still, change has happened. Improvement is there. Last year I traveled around the country for four months, and by the end I’d managed to get nearly all of my belongings into the trunk of my tiny Volkswagen Jetta. People were astounded. I wasn’t. I could have done it with less.

I recently came across a post from a man who backpacked around Europe for three months. He mentioned that people were jealous of how small his pack was – a bag about the size of my friend’s backpack from years before. I looked at his bag, and thought of hers.

Yeah, I could do it with less.