I should probably start off by confessing I’ve never read Marie Kondo’s wildly popular book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (you may be more familiar with her technique as the “KonMari Method“). The biggest reason for this is because being tidy has never been my problem.
Even as a small child, I was obsessed with keeping the area around me neat. In fact, one of my earliest memories—I would guess I was 4—is of waking up before everyone else and, instead of going back to sleep or pestering my sister, using the time to organize my sock drawer.
Unfortunately, while going from super messy to tidy may be magical, for someone who has always been tidy, I can attest to the fact it comes with its own issues. Namely, it’s easier to fit a lot of stuff into a small space when it is organized. And, unfortunately, over the years I have accumulated a lot of stuff.
My First Purge
About a year after I graduated college I moved across the country with a friend of mine, splitting the cost of the moving van 50-50. As I transferred box after box from the van to the garage that came with our unit, I remember her asking me what they were filled with.
When I told her some of the things I had brought with me—including the notes I took in my high-school English class—she couldn’t believe it and (half-)jokingly suggested I should have paid more of the moving costs. This conversation has stayed with me for a couple of reasons.
To start with, it was one of the first times someone had ever called me out on being a pack rat. I had always been so organized (and tidy), especially in comparison with the rest of my family, that finding a place for something that had ended up in the keep pile had never been a problem. This meant I had never needed to sit back and ponder why something was in the keep pile to begin with.
The other reason it stuck with me was because of my response: shame. I wanted to be a person who didn’t need to keep notes from her junior year of high school. The logical part of my brain said keeping these notes was ridiculous. But for the life of me I couldn’t bring myself to toss them.
About a year later, my friend’s boyfriend (now husband) moved to the West Coast and I moved in with a different roommate, bringing the boxes with me to my new place.
And about a year after that, I woke up one Saturday and felt the need to get rid of some stuff.
I don’t know if it was the shame that spurred me (two years later) to trash about half of the stuff I had stored—including those class notes from high school—or being in a better place emotionally which made living without them less scary. What I do know is that day was the first time I ever experienced the rush that comes from de-cluttering.
By evening, I was hot and thirsty and covered in dust. But I felt lighter and more free too.
Does De-cluttering Really Boost Happiness?
Was this rush of positive emotions an aberration or is there some science behind it? As noted in this post on Psychology Today, research does suggest a connection between being surrounded by stuff you don’t need and increased levels of stress. Reasons include:
- Over-stimulating our senses
- Distracting us from what we are trying to focus on
- Making it hard to relax
- Causing anxiety or guilt
- Inhibiting creativity
- Making it hard to find the things we need.
Many of these reasons ring true to me, especially the relationship between clutter and anxiety.
My Most Recent Purge
I would love to tell you that after tossing the notes from my high school English class, the relief I felt was such that I never again surrounded myself with stuff so patently useless—either generally useless or useless to me specifically—but I would be lying.
This was most recently made apparent when a work assignment meant living in a different city for 11 months. I drove there so I had only what I could fit in my car (including my cat). Everything else remained behind.
When the assignment finally ended, it was very easy to state with absolute certainty my condo was full of stuff I could live without. Because I had lived without it. Here is a list of everything I have gotten rid of in the weeks since.
Shocking, right? What I find particularly painful is calculating the costs of all of this stuff. I easily spent several thousand dollars in total on the things listed here, money I could have used to pay down the debt I had at the time or to invest for my future. But instead I spent it on stuff that held no value for me.
The good news is that once again, I have felt a joy in having less. And this time, I think it will stick.
Why I Spent Money On Stuff I Didn’t Need
I hesitated to use past tense in the heading for this section but I truly do think I have turned a corner on spending money on things I don’t need. How did I do it? I became aware of what was driving the behavior.
Buying For the Person I Thought I Should Be
First and foremost, it was because I wasn’t comfortable with who I was—the size of the clothing I wore, the hobbies I enjoyed, the amount of money I earned—and so I bought stuff appropriate for the person I thought I should be.
Someone who was imminently going to lose ten pounds and who liked wearing trendy clothing. Someone who enjoyed cooking and outdoor activities like tennis and golf despite her asthma and hayfever. And someone for whom a revolving credit card balance wasn’t that big of a deal because I would be able to pay it off once I got that next raise.
I am still am not 100% comfortable with who I am but I sure as hell know I am not that person.
Falling Into a Rut
I have also realized that some of that mindless spending was a consequence of a rut I had let myself fall into. I was bored and instead of finding something to occupy my time and my mind that I actually enjoyed, I shopped.
As I wrote about in my very first post, Getting Unstuck, it was a 3-month shopping ban that forced me to confront this reality. (I can’t recommend experimenting with a shopping ban enough—it changed my life! I write about how to start one here).
Since starting my debt-free journey in January of 2017, I have more than once walked out of a store having bought nothing because they didn’t have the thing I needed (and this includes Target!). I also no longer go to stores like TJ Maxx or Home Goods “just to browse.”
Do I miss shopping as a way to fill the time? Not really. Especially after seeing a list like the one above, or feeling the calm that comes from not having every nook and cranny of my condo filled with stuff that made me fill inadequate.
What are Five Things You Could Donate or Sell Today?
What do you think? As you look around your home, are there things you have held on to for reasons that no longer make sense? If you have recently cleared out a lot of stuff, how did it make you feel?
P.S. In researching this article, I did come across a video explaining Marie Kondo’s system for folding underwear and it is awesome!
I love it! When I moved into my apartment. I got rid of like 13 bags and boxes. Similarly, I wondered why I was holding onto this stuff for so long. There often is a connection between our stuff and our self-worth. In the act of purging, we are forced to evaluate what matters most to us. Stuff rarely wins. I think decluttering can be a useful annual thing…
Agree—regularly reassessing is a great idea. If it’s no longer useful it may be causing stress or anxiety. I think it’s also preventative. After being confronted with how much I’ve wasted, I’m going to think twice before bringing new stuff into my life.
I’ve also been working to declutter my home by removing things that no longer bring me joy or are useful. Just last week I threw away a pile of lesson plans from 1996. I haven’t been teaching for over 5 years now. I have no idea why I held on to them for so long. It’s been freeing to clear things out.
Congratulations! That’s so great. It is freeing to say goodbye to stuff that has stopped being a fit for who we are now. Way to go!
Okay you aren’t the first person who’s specifically listed out your decluttered items and it’s making me really think I should start doing this. I know we’ve gotten rid of a lot of stuff, but it’s hard to really get a handle of how much when I’m not actually tracking things closely.
I have been tracking generally for a few years for tax purposes but I got more intentional with it this time because it’s my first big purge since reading The Year of Less. Can’t say what percent of my stuff I got rid of because I haven’t counted the rest of the stuff but I feel much more relaxed with all of it gone.
I’ve downsized twice in the past five years and am finally at the point where I need/use what I have. It’s so liberating! I shop when I need something, for the most part. I will admit that there are a few things I wish I had kept but what’s done is done!
That’s so great! I’m sure I still have some excess but definitely closer to being at a point where all my stuff serves a purpose. And you have a great attitude about the few things you regret tossing. When I have had similar regrets in the past–which is rare–I usually tell myself someone else is getting use out of the item which makes me feel better. Thanks for the comment!