declutter · minimalism

‘how did it ever get this bad?’ and other questions I ask myself

Why do we hold on to junk that we no longer use or need?

This is a question I asked myself frequently as I mercilessly purged my belongings during The Great Declutter of 2015.

I am equal parts embarrassed and amazed at the amount of garbage I had managed to collect in my 22 short years on this earth. They say pictures are worth a thousand words, so here’s a visual of the chaos I had been wading through up until that point:

IMG_3722
I have no excuse.
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Behind all the stuff, you can see my cousin fortifying my window against The Spider Army.

And this was just my bedroom in the new house, not the kitchen or office or bathroom or any other room where junk accumulates. To make matters worse, I had filled an entire spare bedroom at my parents’ house with additional stuff—and it had been there since I studied abroad a year prior. Some of the items I had left behind included a plaid couch, an ugly vinyl recliner straight out of the 80s, a TV stand, and several more stacks of boxes housing garbage I can’t even bother to remember.

Considering the chaos that was going on at the new house, I focused my immediate attention on the areas directly impacted by Spiderpocalypse 2015. As time went on and both the spider and clutter situations were brought under control, I started poking around my parents’ house during weekend trips home, incorporating a few valuable items into my new space and donating the vast majority of items that didn’t make the cut. I sold the couch, donated the chair and gave the TV stand to a family friend. Over the course of a few months, my parents finally got their space back. Shout out to Mom and Dad for patiently acting as a free storage locker for 1.5 years.

Here are the other areas in my life that underwent some hardcore decluttering:

Closet: In the past, I’d had a full-length closet that was packed with clothes, as well as a plastic storage bin in which I rotated out seasonal clothing items. At one point, I am ashamed to admit I had more than 30 t-shirts in my possession, most of which I did not wear but still carted from house to house for some reason that defies human logic.

In my new home, I was downsizing to a half-size closet. At first I was frustrated with the perceived lack of space, convinced I wouldn’t have enough room for my overabundance of textiles and multitude of shoes. I wasn’t wrong. But instead of more space, I discovered the true solution: less stuff.

In all, I estimate I’ve gotten rid of nearly 60 percent of my original wardrobe—and that’s just by relinquishing the items that didn’t fit, looked tatty, or were no longer loved. During the original purge, I also bagged up 45 plastic hangers and took them to Goodwill. Gone are the days I dedicated entire weekends to shuttling laundry back and forth from bedroom to laundry room like it was an Olympic event and not a mundane household chore that should be completed within a few hours.

Two years later, I’m still tossing more from my closet than I bring in, and I haven’t purchased a single hanger since before the move (I’ve actually donated upwards of two dozen!). However, I still have six coats hanging in the hall closet, so there’s definitely room for improvement.

Books: In the past, I would keep books for any number of the following stupid reasons:

  • The cover art was pretty.
  • I had the entire series and thought the books looked impressive lined up together.
  • A six-year-old version of myself had loved them.
  • They made me feel smart (i.e. Wuthering Heights or The Poisonwood Bible—stuff no sane person has read since high school).

When sorting through which hardbacks I wanted to keep and which I needed to donate, I employed Cait’s wisdom and stacked my books into three piles: Books I’ve read, books I’d read again, and books I haven’t read. Any books in the “Read” pile were boxed up and donated to my local library, and I experienced a surprising amount of joy from knowing these stories were in a place where many others would be able to access and enjoy them.

As time goes on, the number of books I own continues to dwindle as I “shop my bookshelf” for new stories and donate any that, after reading, I don’t absolutely love. This new pursuit of quality over quantity was such a radical shift in mindset that it actually scared me a little. But the fact is, if a book isn’t breaking at the bindings from use, I probably don’t love it. And if I don’t love it, it doesn’t belong in my life anymore.

Office supplies: A month after moving in, I still had two large unpacked boxes of miscellaneous office supplies sitting in an upstairs bedroom, looming over me like the clutter-filled monstrosities they were. The fact that I did not need or use a single item from either of these boxes in a month should have been a glaring signal to me that I needed literally none of these things. Once I was ready to peel open these boxes and examine their contents with a critical eye, what I found shocked me.

It was all garbage.

Erasers shaped like animals. Stale rubber bands. A desk lamp that was flaking its cheap plastic coating like a bad case of dandruff. Dozens of mismatched pencils. Dusty décor items. At one point in my life, I actually thought I needed this stuff. But that wasn’t me anymore.

I ended up donating almost everything in these two boxes. I kept a handful of items that were actually useful and that I continue to use daily: A stapler, pair of scissors, handful of working pens/pencils, sticky notes, blank envelopes. My laptop, charger, external hard drive, and a few other small electronics. I also reorganized my portable file folder and tossed three grocery bags full of papers I no longer needed.

Kitchen: I thought this category would be a piece of cake for me, because aside from a set of silverware and various cooking pots/pans, I don’t have much in the way of kitchen gear. Or so I thought. Surprise! Just like every other area of my life, I discovered a bunch of crap here I didn’t need. Mostly in the form of cheap, warped plastic cups, utensils that had rarely seen the light of day (hello, pizza cutter I used twice over the course of six years), and old tea towels that were so stained, no self-respecting human would ever consider using them.

A second, more difficult dimension of my kitchen declutter includes eliminating food waste, which is an ongoing process. My interest in trashing less and cooking more has me embracing the radical concept of actually consuming the groceries I’m spending my hard-earned money on, which at the beginning was a completely foreign concept to me. I’ll have to chronicle this journey someday in a later post once I get the hang of meal prep and figure out what I’m doing.

Bathroom: I used to think I didn’t own a lot of toiletries and bathroom products. And to be fair, if we’re playing the comparison game with folks like Kim Kardashian, Bella Thorne, or whoever is popular on Instagram these days, I am owning this category like Shaun White owned the 2010 X Games. Unfortunately, the comparison game is unhealthy and unsustainable, and so the only thing I am allowed to compare is how much I own vs. how much I actually need.

My bathroom cabinet was a nightmare of brightly colored plastic bottles in loud, bubbly fonts filled with half-used products. I had FOUR BOTTLES of body spray (I don’t even use body spray), a multitude of lotions, expired medications, old makeup, hair products I had allowed advertisements to trick me into buying, and an unreasonable number of trial-size floss threaders.

But the bathroom is a tricky place to declutter, because a lot of the items I wanted to get rid of were filled with products that I could use up (and therefore not waste) before tossing out. I ended up doing exactly what Cait had done during her bathroom purge: Rinse out and recycle any bottles that were old, donate unopened items I knew I wouldn’t use, and use up the products that were left (and not replace them once gone).

My trick to keeping my bathroom minimal after the purge is to not purchase new items before the old ones have run out. I have one face lotion. One perfume. One can of hairspray. One eyeshadow palette. There aren’t many duplicates in my bathroom, and I’m getting rid of more products every day as I use them up and throw them out, never to be replaced again. Sound too hard? Guess what—it really isn’t.

***

Originally, this declutter began because I looked around and realized I simply didn’t have enough space for all of the stuff I owned. It also happened because there were spiders aggressively staking claim to many of my belongings. So here’s a trick I employed often while decluttering—Take a look around your room, pick up an item and ask yourself: If there was a spider crawling on this item right now, is my first inclination to get rid of the spider, or to toss the item in a wood chipper and run away screaming?

Any belongings you did not feel an immediate desire to defend against a vengeful, eight-legged beast belong in the donate pile. This method is a bit unorthodox, but surprisingly effective.

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