Already in childhood my belongings were neatly kept and organised, but decluttering I know rather precisely when I became acquainted with. At the time I lived in Copenhagen, Denmark and within seven months I moved twice. Once I had relocated the second time and found myself surrounded by an incredible number of moving boxes, something began to shake deep within.
In Finland there was my primary home, and to have accumulated that much Stuff within only a few years was unfathomable. Some duplicates were explained by my relatively frequent travelling back and forth, but otherwise I realised something had to change. In spring 2010 after some random googling, the Apartment Therapy Home Cure hosted by Maxwell Ryan entered my consciousness. More searching commenced and the freshly vibrant concept of decluttering whispered promises through my mind. A lot has happened since, and while one blog post isn’t ever going to be exhaustive, here’s an attempt at crystallising some key lessons learned during my journey into decluttering and organising.
Define the action
Defining the action has two meanings to me. First, just as cleaning, and fixing what is broken or in need of normal maintenance, are their distinct actions, decluttering and organising are two different things. Combined with a few other tasks, they all make up homekeeping.
Decluttering is the act of getting rid of stuff that has expired, is broken or worn out, has no function in the home, or isn’t generating nice feelings when used.
Organising, on the other hand, means setting up some sort of system for your stuff. A simple example is storing your toothbrush in the bathroom, where you use it, and storing your toothpaste also in the bathroom, for the same reason. A high-tech system is to store both items in close proximity, in the room where they are used.
Those of you, who enjoy interior decoration, might take it a step further by investing in a little basket, glass or other item in which the gear is kept when not in use.
If this toothbrush story is making you shake your head, remember it when you’re reading my up-coming post on establishing systems for home maintenance.
The second meaning of defining the action is to remember not to mix decluttering and organising. You could consider not organising clutter unless absolutely necessary, with clutter in this context referring to stuff you’ll get rid of later.
If you look at organising blogs, very frequently there’s a focus on pretty storage. I love pretty storage, but not when it becomes as much clutter as the stuff it contains. Another problem is that those photos are static images of transient moments. Few of us are capable of maintaining such order constantly.
You might find yourself encouraged to go on a shopping spree for cheap storage containers, and either you love all white like I do, or you go for the rainbow to cheer things up, but once you have a container for stuff, very often it will almost magically become filled up with more stuff. Stuff breeds, true story.
I hate dust. Maybe you see where this is going? Storage matters indeed. While you’ll see me pin one pretty photograph of open storage after the other, it’s nothing but organising porn to me. Dust is eternal, but my life isn’t, and so I have no intention of spending any extra minute cleaning if I can help it.
If you’re about to choose a bookshelf and happen to be an avid reader, a warm and friendly tip is to choose one with closed back and sides. Vacuuming them half-yearly (yes, I have a system, heh) isn’t too bad then, and you can focus more on the nice aspects of owning books.
Every item means maintenance
This came as a bit of a surprise to me when first starting to ponder the concept of stuff, but turns out every single item that shares my living space with me comes with its own maintenance needs. It’s rather ghastly a thought.
What you easily swiped a card for in the store and happily carried out in a beautiful bag, has potentially decades of maintenance tagged to its existence. This is what began to weigh me down oh so heavily, and still does.
And what if I say that twenty years from now you most likely will have dropped at least one interest, but gained a new one instead? Stuff. Decisions.
It never ends
Unless you live in a museum, where there’s no touching things, stuff will move and break and break beyond repair, all of which requires decisions.
When things move places, either you leave them in the new place, or you feel you want to find them in the same spot each time, at least to increase the likelihood of being able to grab your home keys when you’re about to head out, without having to spend half an hour looking for them first.
The only situation where you won’t be confronted with this conundrum is when you have no stuff at all. Chances are you do and so it becomes a trade-off. Sadly, if you refuse to make a decision on this, even that will have its own set of consequences, few of which are resembling a coconut drink sipped on a beach somewhere.
My solution is to imagine an ideal situation, then keep adhering to that structure to the best of my abilities. Commitment fluctuates, but once I’m done not obeying my own rules, I get back to the system – and breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Perhaps you’re wondering what’s simple about this? Does it sound awfully complicated? Sure. I judge the result rather than the process, though. The process is complex, not complicated, but the result is one of simplicity, where my soul rests.
Another aspect of simplifying is that once you have a system, you can schedule tasks, and once something can be repeatedly scheduled, there’s a chance to create a habit. Once you’ve established a habit, you don’t have to keep fighting with yourself at random times to get it done, but decreasing debate means automation means thoughts going where they should go, your unique projects rather than recurring baseline activities.
For me it’s easier to pay the price of sticking to my system than live in constant chaos, where I can’t find what I need exactly when I need it. I have piles, too, but I know the precise pile of say my netbanking stuff, and that’s good enough.
Good enough is good enough
Since life keeps changing and nothing is constant, I remind myself that perfection is a fallacy. I don’t aim for perfection and I don’t encourage you to do so either.
If I have a website to launch, keeping my house spotless and wonderfully organised is very, very low on my list of priorities. Piles happen, by choice, but they are controlled piles, also by choice. Once the website is launched, first I do some damage control, then go back to my routine.
Stop listening to other people’s rules
I have many scissors and I’m proud of it. They are duplicates, so what? I use two in the kitchen, and several in crafts. Then there are a few more smaller ones, too, and they are used. If you use my fabric scissors to cut anything else than fabric, you’re no longer welcome in my home. Step away from the sharp and ridiculously good embroidery scissors, too, or the door’s over there again.
Okay, that was tongue in cheek, but really, you don’t have to explain anything to anyone. If it’s more practical to have two cheese slicers than one, since there’s just one of you in the household and you run the machine every second day, by all means. The decluttering police has no business in your home.
If you haven’t used something in a year? Oh really… I live where some winters are warm and others are not so warm, but if I use my warmest accessories only every second or *gasp* third year, shush with the rules. Again, no explanations needed.
If I want to read my non-digitised, still very papery old diaries with the frequency of never, I have to neither digitise them nor ever read them, but they can remain in the box in the back of a closet if I please.
What is this sort of decluttering, you ask? The type where you play your game by your own rules. It’s the same game where you get to leave piles of clean laundry out when you have unexpected visitors, and said visitors can leave if the piles bother them too much.
One of the more amusing ones I’ve read is to colour code my keys with nail polish, because that’s apparently the only way to figure out which key goes where. There’s more than a handful of them on my ring yet no confusion, so I’m an epic fail at this particular goal of becoming a more organised individual. Quelle horreur.
If I may suggest one rule for you it would be to be your own decluttering guru. Drawing inspiration elsewhere is okay, desirable even, but creating your system to fit your life is quite nice. And the world will keep revolving.
You have energy until you don’t
Decluttering is fascinating in that sometimes I can go on for hours and other times I hit the wall only a few minutes in. Making decisions whether to keep or get rid of can be surprisingly exhausting, so if I may give a suggestion, don’t create an explosion in your kitchen if you plan to cook in it the same day.
Testing waters is a great idea and if we’re going with the kitchen example, one drawer would suffice. Deal with it in its entirety, then feel your energy status. Continue only if you’re reasonably sure you’ll get done with the next drawer. I’ve learned that there’s great power in finishing, no matter the size of a project.
If you’ve never tackled your kitchen in any way, another friendly tip is to choose either decluttering, organising, or deep cleaning, but not all at the same time – unless you take it a small area at a time. It might make more sense to declutter everything first, before cleaning, then pondering what to store where and organising the things.
A plan for things on their way out is fantastic
Not everyone lives with a charity shop in their neighbour, so the stuff to be donated rather than binned or recycled will need to be stored somehow. I tend to forget this.
Downsizing is possible
I don’t think I know anyone, who has downsized, but everyone has gone for bigger and better (?). It’s only online that I’ve stumbled upon the downsizing phenomenon, and as much as I love Pemberley, turns out I’m a downsizer, too.
Moving back home from abroad and merging two homes in the process into a studio apartment hasn’t been easy, but it can be done. My story isn’t the usual one, however, but in other situations the main motivator is often to buy smaller due to financial reasons, or because maintenance is becoming too much.
Other lifestyles are also desired, with less focus on things and more focus on exciting experiences. This point I subscribe to as well.
Gifts can be experiences rather than stuff
There’s nothing like receiving things you don’t want or need. I feel awful when it happens, but it’s become less painful to donate something unloved than to keep it around just because.
As an adult, who has lived almost half her life away from the parents’ home, I have what I need and prefer time spent together. Home-cooked or restaurant meals are pure luxury for a person, who is far from fond of cooking, so those are gems among gifts.
In terms of gifts for myself, these days I’m also aware of how travel isn’t possible when I buy things. I’d rather see the world.
Perks of being organised
There are unexpected perks to being organised. When your family member, human or furry, needs sudden hospitalisation, you’ll thank yourself for knowing exactly where to find the important data. And if the human is the one to pay household bills, how do you access their computer, if payments are crucial and manually done? Bad stuff doesn’t always happen to other people only.
Putting things in perspective
During my long time as unemployed, buying things has come to an almost complete halt. As odd as it may sound, I’m grateful for the forced lifestyle change. Of course there are things I’ve craved, but learning to live with a tight budget has caused attention to meander elsewhere. Nature with all its wonders still amazes me daily, and life has taught me to appreciate both the free and small things as well as to actively seek them out.
And now, over to you. Is decluttering and organising something you’re already doing? Or perhaps wanting to do?