In last week’s post I shared my two big priorities while back in the UK in December and January: to see family and friends and to rent out my flat. This second activity has meant a lot of clearing as I prepare to put my life in storage; it’s meant decluttering. Big time.
I’ve always enjoyed decluttering. But the enjoyment has been less about throwing things away than having a beautiful, clean space at the end of it. And I liked reading books and watching TV programmes about decluttering – where people start with piles of stuff, and end up with a lovely clear space at the end. The transformation aspect really appealed to me.
I’ve done lots of decluttering in the past. The worst was when we cleared my parents’ house after my Dad died. A hoarder at heart, though one with the best of intentions, my Dad was always collecting things for yet another project he was planning. After his death, we used every kind of decluttering tool available – three skips, trailer loads more to the tip, huge amounts of paper recycling, a second-hand book dealer, freecycle, and even at the end, an ‘open-house sale’. It was quite the lesson to me not to hoard ‘stuff’.
In SE Asia, every time I move city I have to do a mini-declutter. I travel with only a suitcase for the hold and a small rucksack as carryon, so whenever I move, everything has to fit in these. I don’t keep anything in storage, I rent my flat or bungalow for the time I am in a location, and then I move on. But even a few months in a place does mean you accumulate some stuff, even if it’s just a knife and fork, and, in Thailand, usually a few more scarves.
Coming home to declutter
Travelling light whilst living a wonderful life has helped me to get used to the idea that I don’t need as much ‘stuff’ as I thought I did. So when I headed back home to the UK in December knowing I was going to need to get rid of a fair number of my possessions to keep storage costs low, I felt like I was ready.
I’d even read a book (on the kindle!) about decluttering to get me in the mood. Plus, I had the memory that when I left the UK at the end of 2012, I’d done quite a lot of decluttering. So, I figured, most of the work had already been done.
But returning home and looking around at all the things I still owned made me realize previously I’d just attacked the tip of the iceberg. It was going to take some deep-diving into my possessions to really whittle the iceberg down to a more manageable proportions.
In my living room on the second night home, I felt total overwhelm. I sat in the middle of the floor, just looking around, without a clue where to start. And then I panicked and decided to begin by decluttering the hard drive recorder on the television, and started working my way through old episodes of British Bake Off so I could delete them.
The next day, after I’d completed that important task, I decided to get a few friends involved. And I made a list. Because lists always make me feel better. I went round the flat and ‘chunked’ the decluttering into more manageable tasks. A small thing, but it enabled me to see the scope of the problem, and also involve (‘rope’) key people in things I found more difficult.
One example was over what I loosely termed ‘electricals’. I had several boxes and bags of wires, chargers and other miscellaneous probably-electrical-related items, most of which I wasn’t even sure what they were, let alone whether I could throw them away. What if I needed them?
I asked (well, pleaded with, and offered bribes to) a friend who ‘knows stuff’ about ‘things with wires and plugs’, and he came round and went through them. He’s also pretty ruthless, and most of them went to the tip, and the others that I kept I now at least know what they are. I might even use them.
I kept attacking the problem like this, in more manageable chunks. And getting friends and family involved in some of the chunks, like helping me get rid of clothes.
The biggest of all these chunks, to my surprise, has been paper. I am a paper-magpie.
The paper has been reasonably well hidden in my two-bedroom flat. I had eight archive boxes on top of my wardrobes that no one ever looked up at, and a two-drawer filing cabinet under my desk. The two paper storage systems alone contained (amongst other things) all my bank statements from age 14 up, and Christmas and Birthday Cards – all of them – from about age 16 upwards. Pretty much every bill I’d ever had, at all the homes I’ve lived in, stretching back to my student house more than 15 years ago. A lot of paper.
It’s a bit odd to me that I’m like this, as I do have a good system with email (hence my ‘Inbox Zero’ post on MDI last week), and this is usually clean. But having said that, I don’t actually delete a lot of the emails, I just deal with them and file them away. Hmmm…
I have been through all of the boxes of paper now, including another stack of boxes overflowing with paper that I brought home from my job when I left in November 2012. Oh, and 24 day-books covering 10 years of work there. It’s been an arduous and dusty process. Sad at times, as I came across cards or letters from my Dad, or the debris of past relationships.
I’ve been to the tip twice, the charity shop and am freecycling away. I’ve got rid of 30 of my books – but I have another 500 or so on the shelves. I’m decommissioning my desktop PC, and am moving years of data onto portable hard drives – no doubt to be stored somewhere and never looked at, but somehow I’ll feel better if I’ve kept it.
Tools and methods
The books and advice on decluttering seems to have two key questions to ask yourself when approaching an item. I have found these very helpful. They are:
- Do you need it?
- Do you love it?
Although even this covers a lot of ground. A surprising amount in fact. And I manage to include a lot of grey. When I ask myself ‘do I love it’, is the answer yes if it has some vaguely sentimental attachment? For example, the shirt that I have had for many years, is out of style, and I now never wear, but that I met an (ex) boyfriend in for the first time? It went. But the letters and photos didn’t.
I read a good idea about how to deal with this, which was to take a photo of items that have sentimental value but that you will never use/wear/put on show again. That way you can make up a photo album with pictures of all the items that tell you a story, but the the items no longer take up lots of space.
I found the process good practice for my own decision-making skills, pushing myself to be ruthless about each item. The best piece of advice I read was that once you have picked an item up, don’t put it down without making a decision about it. This is critical. On that first evening of overwhelm, I picked up and put down items at random, consigning many in my mind to the category: ‘too hard’. Not a way to make progress.
The rituals of decluttering
I think that decluttering, the environmental equivalent of detoxing, serves an important purpose in our lives. In order to continue moving forward in our lives, learning and growing, and experiencing new things, often we need to let go of things which might have served us previously, but now are no longer helpful.
Of course, this could be attitudes, values, thoughts, beliefs, behaviours, as well as physical things.
For example, I know that to be able to experience Thailand fully, and with one less financial constraint, I need to rent out my flat so it can finance itself. So every possession I give to the charity shop, every piece of paper I shred or recycle, helps me to move further towards my goal of a health-filled 2014.
And there were certainly some papers that contained less positive memories, that reading through them had a physical impact as part of me curled up, with distress, embarrassment or sadness. Many of these I put into the shredding pile, and was glad to have them gone from my life. I didn’t need to read them again.
What part of your life could you declutter?
As I’ve let go of each bag or box of paper, or taken clothes to the charity shop, I’ve felt lighter and more joyful. Hysteria? Perhaps. But I think more because I have processed a lot of memories, good, bad and sad. It’s made me wonder what other parts of my life I might want to declutter this year. What other memories I need to let go of so I can move forward.
And you, my lovely readers, in this month of new beginnings, what part of your life could you declutter right now? Is there a ‘spare room of doom’ (apologies to the friend from whom I have stolen this!), a drawer of destiny, or a catastrophe cupboard that you could start with?
My advice from my own experience, in a nutshell. The first time, set a timer for 30 minutes. Put on some upbeat music, get out a couple of (ideally different coloured!) bin bags labelled rubbish and charity shop. Work through items for decluttering in term. Hold one at a time in your hand and ask yourself: Do I need this? Do I love this?
If the answer is no to both, get rid of it. And don’t put it down until you’ve made a decision either way.
Good luck. And let me know how it goes.