I am no expert, nor am I a perfect or pure minimalist. Truthfully, there is no pure or perfect; there is process. Process is about experience, learning, trial and error. In this post I’ll share with you some of the things that worked for getting me and our family going with minimalism, especially with regard to decluttering and living with less. Minimalism is more than just stuff, but that is a big part of it, at least when you begin.
We are not a family living in luxury; there are many basic things we go without, not entirely by choice, but by matter of circumstance (mainly lack of money). However, we live in Canada and not in poverty so I know we’re living very well. That said, we don’t have a lot of things that families consider necessary and basic. We don’t have a car, we don’t have a dining table (read here), we don’t have a desktop computer, TV, air conditioning and so on. But, still, we do have lots of things. Many of these things are the things that easily accumulate like toys, books, and clothing.
If you’ve read books about de-cluttering, like Marie Kondo’s opus, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, you’ll know that she recommends doing your tidying and discarding all in one go. Wait, what?! That’s just slightly impossible to imagine if you work full time, have young children and/or are single parenting. It’s just not realistic. That said, I do recommend people read her book, not necessarily for the process she recommends, but for her excellent discussion of all the positive benefits of de-cluttering and setting your home in order, along with the many social and health benefits you wouldn’t imagine result from decluttering. I also really love her discussion of the deep respect we should show to things and inanimate objects. This is quite an uncommon perspective, but one I share, and I’m so happy she has brought it to a mass audience. My one reservation, which I’ve mentioned before, is that her book does not offer strategies for discarding things in an ecological way. She uses the word garbage bag way too many times for my liking. ‘Garbage bag’ is a dirty word, am I right?
Then there are others who advocate a longer de-cluttering process, taken in steps over a period of time that works for you. Maybe doing one room each day or each week, until you are done, is the best approach for you? What I think is important is for you to first assess your own personality, your own sources of motivation, and figure out what approach will keep you going to the end. Aristotle’s words on education are as relevant to that process as that of minimalism:
The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.
Some people need to see instant progress or have to finish a job quickly once they’ve started or else they know they’ll never finish it. These people are probably going to find success with the all-on-one go method. Are you someone who doesn’t a finish project unless you do it in a short period? If so, you should dedicate a full weekend to purging and de-cluttering and then the job is done. All you have to do is be a good gate keeper and not allow much new stuff to come into your home and you’ll maintain it easily. If you do a proper and thorough job you will love your new space and it will be easy to maintain because you’ll be careful about not disturbing the calm you achieved. Problems arise when you only half de-clutter…more on that later.
The reality is most of us don’t have the time, energy or resources to do it all in one go. That was the case for me. So here are the strategies and techniques I applied, choose one or both:
1) The Smoking Jacket Approach
Start by making one room, your favourite room or the room you spend the most time in, fully decluttered. Make an oasis of calm, decluttered space in your home. Be thorough, don’t leave any corner of the room messy or cluttered, even if it’s out of sight. (Cluttered closets and drawers should not be left as is, in your mind you know they are there and the busy clutter will affect you subconsciously). Once you have one room that is just how you like it, you will likely be motivated to do the same in other rooms. If you don’t have the time right away, you at least have a space to retreat to that feels just right. Additionally, other people will likely be drawn to this space and enjoy the calm it offers and they may, in turn, be motivated to arrange their own spaces in the house similarly, and at the very least will be less resistant to you decluttering other rooms once they feel the benefits, physically and emotionally, of being in a peaceful, calm space. This was certainly true in the case of my family. Once I decluttered my bedroom thoroughly Ro was much more open to me doing the same to her room, while before this she had been very hesitant. She thought she felt a comfort in things, but learned through experience that she actually preferred a decluttered space.
Once you have one room just right what is likely to happen is what I call the smoking jacket phenomenon (it is also known as the Diderot effect). I didn’t invent this phrase. The smoking jacket phenomenon is a reference to a story of a man who lived in what he thought was a decently furnished apartment. He was then given a beautiful, luxury smoking jacket. It was so lovely that it made everything around seem shabby in comparison. He became sad and was then motivated, even driven, to one thing at a time replace everything he owned with something that measured up to that smoking jacket. By the time he replaced everything he owned the smoking jacket then didn’t seem beautiful enough to be among all his new things. The story is (as originally told) intended to convey the traps of consumerism, stuff, and class status – that you’ll never reach that point when your stuff is enough.
When it comes to decluttering you can apply a smoking jacket analogy, and interestingly it does the reverse of the original story. So, once you make one space in your home just exactly as you like it, calm, clear of clutter, the other rooms will look and feel poor in comparison, you’ll be motivated to declutter each one, until you have done it to all the rooms and the whole home matches the beauty and peace of the first room you started with. Turning the original problem of the smoking jacket on its head, you can use this approach to make less your more, to make less enough.
2) The Baby Steps Approach
The other approach I recommend for those who think a whole room is just too much to accomplish right away, is identifying small contained units that you can declutter one at a time. A unit could be your bathroom cabinet, your utensil drawer, the bottom drawer in your dresser, your linen closet, etc. Make it whatever size, small or tiny, that you think is manageable. The important thing to ensure is that whatever you choose to declutter you finish the decluttering in one go. If you only half declutter you may not go back and finish or you might say “it’s good enough”. But let me tell you: when you haven’t fully decluttered it is very easy for it slip back into clutter. Furthermore other people may not notice the change and may re-clutter it. Whereas, if it is done fully and well, you will be motivated to maintain it and others will likely help keep it that way. Think of a counter with no dirty dishes, people are more likely to wash up their dish than start a pile, or will put the dish in the dishwasher. But once there is one dirty dish there on the counter everyone just piles things on. It’s like permission to make a mess! So, what I recommend is to make a small area clutter free and then build on that success.
The baby steps approach, by the way, is also my maintenance technique. I know that if I lived alone the clutter would not return. But I live with people that have other interests than tidying and less sensitivity to space. So things accumulate, not too much, but they do. So I usually spend a few minutes a day just going through a small zone and making sure to discard any clutter. When Sen is in the bath, I’m checking the bathroom vanity. When water is waiting to boil, I’m looking in the utensil drawer for stray elastics or twist ties, etc. Everytime laundry is returned from the dryer I take out anything that the kids don’t love to wear or don’t really need, and I ask Ro not to hang anything from her laundry that she doesn’t love, but instead to put it in our donation bag. Every week she’s assessing what she wants to keep. Doing this on an ongoing basis has made it very easy for her to part with things. Whereas just a few years ago Matt and I had a very serious conversation about how me might work with Ro on non-attachment since she seemed so obsessively attached to her things (like crying when we recycled a paper napkin she had used at a restaurant to doodle on). She has since outgrown this phase, mostly likely natural maturing, but she’s also gotten quite good at parting with her less loved things on a regular basis through practice.
So there you have it, two ways to get started with minimalism based on your personality assessment: all in one go or step by step process. Within the step by step process you can use the smoking jacket approach or the baby steps approach.
I’ll write another post on how to decide what to keep, but for now try to think about your own personality, what motivates you to finish a project. Understanding yourself better will help you decide if you are an all-in-one go person or not, and then how to proceed.
As an aside, I find that Erin Boyle’s book Simple Matters is great for the step by step, over time approach to decluttering. She also has a child so understands the challenges of having gifts and new things constantly coming into your home. You can find her book here. Another great book for families is Joshua Becker’s Clutter Free with Kids, which you can find here.
Feel free to ask any questions in the comments; I’m happy to answer. If you think you’d like to start with decluttering closets and clothing, this post here will really help with that. Another post, here, has tips for involving children in minimalism and decluttering (called “In the News”).
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