The secret art of decluttering

Like most people, I’ve often felt like I’m fighting a losing battle against clutter.

But when I set out to throw out 10 items a day from my tiny flat over the course of one month, I thought I would quickly run out of tchotchkes to ditch. I joked to one friend that by Day 25, I would find myself opening a packet of Tic Tacs and counting each individual sweet towards my daily allocation of tat to be binned. What I couldn’t have known was that by the end of the month I would have exceeded my goals. Or that the month-long declutter would only scratch the surface, and that my mission to downsize would continue into 2020 and beyond.

I like to think that I’m not the world’s worst clutterbug. I used to have a weakness for chain-store knitwear and pretty kitchenware but living in a tiny flat means that I’ve been pretty good in recent years at stemming the flow of stuff into my home.

Friends meanwhile had fallen under the spell of Marie Kondo and her Netflix series, but I felt entitled to look askance at advice to only hang on to objects that “spark joy”. After all, to me it looked like the precursor to a never-ending quest to find the perfect throw, the ideal sofa, the ultimate coffee table… and contribute to the endless churn of consumer culture. I was even less impressed when, late last year, Kondo’s website launched an online shop where one could purchase a crumb brush ($24), a pair of food-storage containers ($34) or a tea scoop ($52). At least I could honestly say a hand-crafted brass tea scoop had zero chance of getting near my cutlery drawer.

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But in recent months I gradually became aware that parts of my flat were no-go areas.

A good wodge of space at the top of one wardrobe was taken up with shopping bags that were full of gifts for babies who are now old enough to attend school; many of my bookshelves were full of books that I hadn’t opened in years; the living room dresser had a shelf given over to receipts and manuals for appliances that have become obsolete – all just sitting there, taking up room. Meanwhile, items that I used regularly – cleaning supplies, say – were piled up, higgledy-piggledy, wherever I could find a space. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

In addition, as a single woman, I was aware that somebody would have to sort all this out at some stage. I had a vision of one of my nieces, decades from now, gingerly handling the CD I’d used back in 2006 to install camera software on a long-dead laptop, and turning to her cousins to muse, “I wonder what emotional significance this had for aunty Mary…?”

Something had to change.

The truth was I’d been accumulating stuff for years. But I wasn’t alone. The average US household has 300,000 items in it. How on earth could anybody believe that 300,000 items are essential or worthwhile in their everyday living space? It’s partly because as humans, we identify with our possessions, and imbue them with meaning. As 19th-century philosopher William James observed: “A man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his.”

Just consider how traumatising it is to have our possessions taken from us in a burglary or fire, or the fact that when people join a religious order, say, where one is obliged to subsume one’s personality, a key part of the process is giving up one’s possessions.

But for most of our history, the number of possessions we owned was on a much more modest scale. After all, in 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits; today she owns 30. What changed everything was the advent of plastics in the mid to late 20th century, and a consumer culture that was fuelled by cheap credit from the 1990s on.

It all means that we’ve gone from a situation where our parents and grandparents prized every new purchase – largely because they were rare – to a point where we can pick up an entire ensemble with the weekly grocery shop without giving it too much thought.

But at what cost? Individually, those low-stakes purchases are harmless enough: another plain white blouse never goes amiss in the standard work wardrobe, right? But a few idle purchases quickly mount up.

The result? A tidal wave of stuff coming into our homes. Meanwhile, clutter takes a toll in other ways. One 2017 study found that people make unhealthier food choices if they are in an environment that is cluttered. A 2016 study found that visual clutter may inhibit one’s ability to read emotions in others.

My growing unease with this phenomenon coincided with my writing a book on minimalism, and how to apply its principles to everyday life. Minimalism gets a bad rap because people think it’s pretty joyless, that followers live in bare shells of rooms. But minimalism is actually about creating space for what really matters to you – family, relationships, fulfilling work – and not letting your life be taken over by meaningless stuff.

So I decided to declutter 10 items every day, using these three questions to decide whether an object should stay or go: Had I used it within the last year? Would I buy it if I saw it in a shop now? Did I have a ‘home’ for it?

Then the item would be allocated to one of four piles: ‘Keep’, ‘Donate’, ‘Recycle’ or ‘Trash’.

However, I wasn’t in any way systematic as I dove in on day one. The most obvious place to start was the bathroom shelf which groaned under the weight of make-up and toiletries. As a former newspaper journalist, I had accumulated masses of freebies over the years, most of which would take up residence in my bathroom, be used a couple of times, and then be forgotten about when I went back to my old reliables. So the first few days were given over to fake tan, hair serum and bottles of skin toner.

After the winnowing of the bathroom shelf contents, I scored a few low-hanging fruit by disposing of tired old tops that I’d failed to warm to. A spare yoga mat, a pair of boots that I loved when I bought them in 2005, and a robotic vacuum cleaner from the central aisle of a budget supermarket that was ultimately defeated by the challenge of mounting the mat in my living room.

The challenge I’d set myself also allowed me to address other areas of housekeeping: that of returning books, CDs and DVDs that had been lent to me over the years.

So, it was with a heavy heart that ‘my’ collection lost music from Greg Allman, Laura Nyroo and Donald Fagen. If I’m being honest, any feeling of loss was tempered by the fact that I had barely listened to these CDs: as much as I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of good music, I simply don’t play CDs any more. If I need a hit of music, I will turn to Spotify.

Meanwhile, my bookshelves were a rich source of items to be shown the door. I realised that my collection contained a couple of dozen titles which I hadn’t read or consulted in years. I grew up in a house where books were respected and valued, and it felt a little heretical to consider getting rid of something that somebody had put so much work into.

  • READ MORE: Fran Power: ‘Declutter your home and you’ll repurpose your life’

On the other hand, what purpose were they serving if they were simply sitting on my bookshelf, lying unread? I realised that some of the titles were simply serving as status symbols: I was trying to project an image of somebody who was well read. The Bell Jar, We Need To Talk About Kevin, The Help – they all conjured up an image of an educated woman, right? At least I’d read those books: Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea; Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude had been perched there for over a decade and I still hadn’t got round to reading them. It was time to let them go to new homes where they’d be appreciated. As the days went by, I kept expecting to hit a dead end but I found more and more rich seams of jumble. The kitchen drawer which was home to five bread and carving knives (three of which I never use), a zester and a melon baller. The melon baller was purchased in 2001 or 2002 and still had its little plastic tie attached.

Now that I was on a roll, I could clearly see why I had so many unworn items tucked away. In years gone by, I would try to ‘buy into’ cool, billowy linen trousers, say, for a summer, but then fail to wear them, so they would be carefully folded and stored away in September. Come the following May, I would stumble across them once more and half-heartedly pledge to wear them more often only to fail miserably and find myself, four months later, folding them up unworn and secreting them away once more.

Now that I thought about it, it was obvious: I simply didn’t like them but hated the thought of getting rid of ‘perfectly good’ clothes.

As I turned to the emotional minefield of mementos of the past, I had to draw a deep breath. Over the years, I would simply bury them deep in a drawer old letters, diaries, newspapers, photos or keepsakes that dated back decades. It was time to take them out and finally look at them . I’d already earmarked two storage boxes for items I couldn’t bear to part with, including one smaller box where photographs could go. And quickly and purposefully, I set to work sorting through the contents of the drawer.

What surprised me was how much worthless rubbish I found. The diaries that I’d dared not peer into for decades were largely garbage, and could go for recycling. The bundles of newspapers had been kept as reminders of my early work in journalism but my articles were easily filleted and set aside for safekeeping (or to be scanned and uploaded to the cloud). And many of my old photographs were duplicates or of panoramas from half-forgotten holiday destinations that meant little to me.

There were one or two gems in the cache of letters, little snapshots from a different time. They wouldn’t mean much to anybody else, but I still treasured them, I still thought they merited hanging on to, so they found their way into the larger storage box, the archive.

This may not seem within the spirit of a ruthless declutter but my intention wasn’t to purge my flat of all the little touches that make it a home. It was to remove items that weren’t either useful or meaningful to me.

The really surprising thing was that by the end of the month, I felt like I had barely scratched the surface. I had offloaded a rats’ nest of charger cables, recycled a handful of old mobile phones, donated armfuls of barely worn clothes to the local charity shops.

Yet I kept unearthing more repositories of tat I’d scarcely thought about for years.

By October 31, when I’d exceeded my quota of decluttering 310 items over the month, I felt no little sense of achievement. As it turned out, picking something up and really interrogating myself about why I’d held on to it for so long was a useful exercise. A personalised picture frame made by my niece didn’t get anywhere near the ‘Donate’, ‘Recycle’ or ‘Trash’ piles. Neither did an oil painting by my godmother. Why would they? They hold considerable meaning for me. But a mass-produced travel mug brought home to me from the States a decade ago? Well, that was easy to part with.

I feel like I now have a better grasp on what I own, and what I’m surrounding myself with. Having done a little stocktake, I feel in control of my physical possessions instead of – as Fight Club memorably outlined decades ago – the things that I own owning me.

I can now lay my hands on anything that I want instead of dreading the thought of wading through a morass of indistinguishable charging cables.

I certainly hope that, having gone to all this trouble, I won’t be quite so tempted to stock up on fancy zesters for the haute cuisine dishes I never prepare. Most importantly, I feel that in carving out a little extra room in my flat, I’m making room for an exciting new future – one that’s clutter-free!

Mary Conroy is the author of ‘Simplify Your Life: Waste Less, Value More, Go Minimalist’ (published by Hay House) which is out in February

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