There are many reasons why less stuff is better.
But there are also lots of reasons why we have our stuff. And those reasons don’t make us bad people.
I’ve always wanted to have less stuff, but I’ve always struggled to achieve this ideal. After having the “you should have less stuff” argument with myself once again, I finally just said, “Fuck it. I have these books. I have these things. I have these attachments. I am going to accept that I still want these things around me.”
And then, gradually…something shifted.
It’s like something inside me could now trust that I wasn’t going to take a shovel to my stuff (something my father used to threaten when my room was especially messy).
Without the edge of fear, the natural inspiration to have a clear, clean house emerged. I felt a relaxed ease about letting go of the items I was truly ready to release. And there was no more internal battle if I felt like I wanted to keep something: I was allowed to.
What changed? I accepted that I have attachments to stuff.
Before: Look at a shelf of books. Feel guilty that I haven’t read them all. Feel bad that I don’t want to give them away. Fight with myself: “You haven’t read it! But I want to keep it! You’re just attached to this item that you will never use, what’s wrong with you! What if I need it in the future?!”. Stress and fret until I get so frustrated that I go do something else. All the books still on the shelf.
Or: get rid of books in a fit of determination. Buy some of them back a few years later, and feel EXTRA-guilty when I still haven’t read them.
Now: Look at a shelf of books. Pick out the ones I’m actually ready to let go of. Put them in a box to leave the house (Goodwill, Powells, etc). While I’m taking the box to the car, see a few I still want to keep and take them back out. And then the box goes. And I remind myself: It’s OK to still be attached to the books I kept. It’s OK to do this a little at a time. It’s OK to let go of what I’m really ready to let go of, and not try to force myself past any resistance.
Forget the rules.
The rules say, “Don’t take anything back out of the get-rid-of box after it’s in it.”
“Don’t keep anything you don’t love or aren’t using”.
“Toss any book you haven’t read in the last year.”
DUDE. I can’t follow those rules. I just shut down.
Our stuff is DEAR to us. We are ATTACHED to it. Being strict with yourself is not necessary.
Start with acceptance.
Look around at your stuff and appreciate how much vitality and creativity you have, and how your stuff is part of that.
I have a lot of books, and art supplies, and stuff leftover from projects. These are evidence of my path through life, and all the things I’ve been interested in and experimented with. They aren’t bad. They are good. I don’t need to be ruthless and rid myself of them. I need to be appreciative, and just prune what I no longer need.
Before, I would read about decluttering, set some resolution-like goals (i.e. unrealistic and motivated by comparison rather than inspiration), go crazy with it for awhile, and then abandon the project altogether as guilt and frustration took over.
Now I am slowly going through my stuff, organizing and letting go of things, and I’m not stressed or unrealistic about it. It feels good.
And I can now finally read blogs like mnmlist and feel inspired instead of feeling bad about my not-entirely-streamlined existence.
Decluttering is a practice of relaxing attachments; forcing is counter-productive.
Letting go of stuff = letting go of attachments. This is something best done slowly, gently, and with a lot of permission to hang on until you are truly ready to let go.
When we force ourselves, it creates resistance and an atmosphere of fear. This just makes it harder to let go.
Over time, as you let go of the easy stuff, you’ll create a positive feedback loop around letting go. You will naturally relax more and feel OK about letting go of more things. And you’ll develop a habit of understanding your internal sense of when it’s right to let something go. This will create an internal clarity and trust which makes the whole process go smoother.
So forget the ideals and the rules. Accept your attachments. Focus on letting go of what you are ready to, and organize the rest so it is easier to access.
What has your experience been with decluttering?
Have you tried too hard to be a Zen Master or some other ideal of clean/clear/minimalist/perfect?
What helps you move from guilt and feeling bad to inspiration and forward motion?
Ah yes, how to love and embrace the “less is more” philosophy without feeling guilty about the stuff I’m still hanging onto for one reason or another. Having the awareness I’m attached to something is a good thing. Knowing why I’m attached to it is even better and helps me relax about feeling the need to let go of it.
What a wonderful article. I am currently in the midst of de-cluttering my home and arguing with my ‘stuff’. The resistance is infuriating. One part of me wants to hang on, another part wants to let go. Unfortunately the “hang on” part is winning…
However, I am totally convinced there is something magical about the act of “acceptance”. I suspect it has to do with embracing our current emotional state and truly honoring where we are at that time. Now it becomes a choice rather than an obligation. I finally put the taskmaster (in my head) to bed. Thank you.
Charles A. Bowsher says
Thank you for posting this article. It rang very true for me, especially your struggle with books…. I struggle not only with books, but Ideas and stuff. The ideas, most jotted down on random slips of papers, the outside of cardboard boxes, etc. are everywhere and they are the most important to me. Organizing, preserving and routing to the proper forum is the plan. NOW is the beginning. I’ll try to check in later. Thanks for being here. charles
P.S.( I don’t have a blog or URL).cab
Sue T says
So very true. Thanks for posting this, which so many helpers don’t understand.
Over the past five years I’ve probably donated a quarter of my huge book stash. Early in this process it would take two-to-several months to collect enough to donate. Later it has become easier, since I found out I’m close to a used book store which will buy back some of them. However, some are books I know won’t sell. For example, I am still attached to a Geology textbook my Dad used when he was in college in the 30’s, apparently merely because it has his signature in the front. Have recently thought about tearing out that page plus the title page, but then the book is “less useful” for donation purposes. I think I’ll be able to work around this eventually.
Still having trouble with the paper piles, though! This is information attachment, confounded with ADHD-like visual issues. Need piles when sorting, but too many piles blur together mentally. Big sticky notes with large marker labels help, but I don’t always remember I need them. Only when all paper articles in a category (I have dozens of those) are collected in a folder can I decide what to purge for the recycle box. Have managed, though, to be able to discard any copy of a paid bill if it’s older than a year. Being able to do that took about 6 years of stops/starts.
Yeah, papers are hard. I am working on my random collections of notes from workshops, projects, etc. What I’ve found helpful so far is to design the organization I want first – so when I sort the papers, they are going into a better system, rather than piling like things together and hoping an organization emerges. It takes some thought to figure out a useful and flexible filing scheme (and it has to be adjusted periodically), but I’m hoping the up-front work will make it easier to sort and help keep them organized over time. I’m going to mirror the organizational scheme in Evernote for electronic notes.
I recently gave away a whole load of beautiful expensive clothes, designer and tailor made for me, from when I was very skinny, to someone, and I’ve been feeling terrible ever since. I had strong thoughts of asking for them back, and the only thing that prevented me from doing that, is the importance of being a person who keeps their word. But anyway the whole thing made me feel bad for giving them away and guilty for wanting them back. So even after giving one’s things away the attachment can remain. I’ll just add that I always thought of myself as not being very materialistic, I live in a tiny apartment and don’t have a car, although I do have a strong aesthetic taste in clothes and home furnishings. I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts on any of this, and especially on how one can enjoy nice things without being so attached to them. Thanks.