How Do You Accumulate So Much?
Having too much stuff is the new normal. Stuff that takes up space, thought, energy, time or money. In the past, material goods were difficult to acquire and were expensive. If you could acquire something, you got it and kept hold of it. Now, things are relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire but we’re keeping it all; filling our homes and lives without really noticing that it’s happening.
We acquire more things to improve our lives, because we think we ‘have’ to have them, to help us cope with a situation or just in case we need things in the future. Most of our things started out as something useful, interesting, attractive, enjoyable. But in time – over the months and years – the things we’ve bought or acquired reach a point where they’re no longer useful or enjoyable. They’re clutter.
Keeping so many things that served you in the past but no longer serve you today means that you’re holding yourself in that past. All this stuff is proving, in many ways, to be bad for the planet and bad for people. We’re facing a clutter crisis; overwhelmed and burdened by our clutter.
Why Can’t You Clear It All Out?
You might be reluctant to clear your clutter because it will take too much time and effort. It may be that you have tried before but never really got on top of it. Perhaps you just don’t know where to start; you feel overwhelmed by it all. Every item is going to require a decision. What to keep or let go? What if you make the ‘wrong’ decision? What if you throw out something that you need in future?
The things you’re afraid to let go of make up ‘fear-based’ clutter. In contrast, ‘hope-based’ clutter is all the things you hold onto in the hope that some day you’ll get round to using, reading, wearing etc. Fears and hopes about the future stop us from letting go. So do memories from the past.
There’s an emotional attachment to many of our things and to the memories that they hold. We identify ourselves by the things around us. Letting go of things can be like letting go of a part of ourselves. Attempts to discard things often bring up emotions that are difficult to deal with: sadness, worry, fear, unfulfilled hopes. Avoiding these emotions can be a reason to avoid a clear out. Guilt – a sense that we’re doing something ‘wrong’ – is a key reason not to let go of so many of our things. We think we’re being ungrateful or wasteful if we clear them out.
Clearing clutter requires new ways of thinking and doing. But before you can start doing anything, you need to start thinking differently; to take on new, more helpful ways of thinking about things. If you’ve acquired something you’ve hardly or never used, realize that, at the time, you made the right choice; you sincerely thought you would wear it, read it or use it. That was then. Keeping it just ties you to the past. Live in the present!
Take a mindful approach; be aware that holding onto so many things just because they remind you of the past encourages you to look back at what was, instead of living more fully in the present and looking forward to the future. You can always keep a few favourite things from the past, just be selective about what you keep to remind you of people, places and experiences.
Think differently about thinking differently; rather than feeling bad about having changed your mind and no longer wanting some of your possessions, feel good – see yourself as having made a new decision. Don’t let gifts become burdens. Try and separate your feelings about the person from the gift itself; you can still like the person but dislike the gift they gave you.
When you hold onto something that you don’t need, don’t use or don’t like, you’re withholding it from someone who does need it, could use it and/or would love it. If you aren’t using it, it is a greater waste to keep it when someone else could use it or enjoy it. See letting go as an opportunity to benefit someone else. Rather than feeling assured by its presence, ‘fear-based’ clutter – the things you keep as a result of ‘what if’ and ‘just in case’ thinking – only serves to keep you stuck with the worst case scenario that you’re worried about.
Let go of things with the knowledge that, in most cases, you could borrow or buy another one if you really needed to. Hope-based clutter – unused sports equipment, clothes no longer worn, books not read and so on – just serves to remind you of what you still haven’t got round to doing, reading, wearing etc. Live in the present; free up space in your home for something you need, want or want to do now.
Whatever it is that you’re holding onto, ask yourself why. Identify and acknowledge the feelings and emotions that arise. Then focus on what you have to gain by clearing your clutter; focus on the benefits.
Declutter Your Home
Having a clearly defined reason for clearing your clutter will help to keep you focused and motivated; you’ll have something specific to aim for. Breaking the task down into smaller steps will make it less overwhelming. It’s easier to get straight on to the next step if you have already thought about what it will be.
Your brain can only make a certain number of decisions before it reaches ‘decision fatigue’. The most simple approach is to ask yourself, ‘Do I love it? Do I need it?’ Not sure? Then have three categories – Keep, Maybe Keep and Don’t Keep. First, you go through things and decide what you definitely do want, don’t want and maybe want. Then, you go back over the ‘maybe’ things and decide what to definitely keep and what to let go of.
Adopt a ‘beginner’s mind’ – rather than let the past influence what you hold onto, let the present guide you. So, for each thing you can’t decide whether to keep or not, ask yourself if today was the first time you’d seen it – would you buy it now? Take an ‘acceptance and commitment’ approach: acknowledge the memories and accept how you feel about something – that it was once useful, that you liked or loved it. Then commit to the ‘don’t keep’ pile.
Set realistic expectations for yourself. Deadlines can motivate you, but the pressure can be stressful. So, instead, focus on working consistently towards what it is you want to achieve, one step at a time.
Expect that it’s normal not to feel like it at the beginning of a clutter-clearing session and be prepared to move through that reluctant feeling on your way to a clutter-free home. Get started and, quite soon, the momentum takes over and you may well find yourself easily carrying on. All it takes is a little effort at the start.
Start with the easiest decisions you can. Start with the easy stuff and you’ll feel like you’re getting somewhere; quick wins can really help get you motivated to continue and to tackle more. Other people’s stuff driving you mad? Rather than sneaking out their things, ask if you can go through them and identify those items that don’t seem worth keeping and then check to see if they agree.
If your partner or housemate refuses to join you in decluttering, work out a compromise. You can still have areas that are yours – your wardrobe or your bedroom – that you have more control over. Everyone should have a choice about their own belongings, even small children. Involve them and help them to make decisions about which toys should stay and which should go. What do they play with? What do they love?
Once you’ve decluttered, you need to get all that stuff out the door. Fast! It can really help, as part of your planning, if you know what the options are for what you’ll do with the stuff you’re going to clear out.
Declutter Your Commitments
Too many commitments create pressure and stress and can get in the way of doing the things you most want to do. There’s also no room for newer, more interesting or enjoyable activities that are more in line with your life now.
There are a number of reasons why you might over commit; perhaps you think you can take on and cope with more. Maybe you’re an overachiever: you feel you have to prove something to yourself or others. It could be that you commit to help others out of goodwill or you feel strongly about an issue and really want to do something about it. Or perhaps you just can’t say no to invites or to other people’s requests for help.
Sunk costs, not wanting to let other people down, avoiding guilt, wanting to keep up appearances, fear of rejection, scorn or shame can all be reasons why you find it difficult to let go of commitments. There are benefits to decluttering your commitments: you’ll feel less stressed and less put upon. You won’t waste time worrying about what you feel you ‘ought’ to do or you ‘should’ do. You’ll have more time, energy and/or money for the things you really need and want to do, that you enjoy.
Identify your commitments. For each commitment, ask yourself, ‘How much does it matter to me? Is it something that’s important to me, in line with my values and priorities?’ Identify what to let go of. Feelings of stress, anxiety, irritation and resentment for any one commitment are telling you to let go.
Apply the keep/don’t keep principle to your commitments. Think about what you really need to keep. What can you let go of, not do or not go to? What can you give away, delegate and get someone else to do? Ditch the guilt. Realize that, at the time you committed yourself, you made the right choice. Don’t let the past dictate the present. What matters is how you live your life now; what commitments you choose to keep.
Think about what you have to gain rather than what you have to lose by pulling out. Unless you signed a contract, there’s nothing to stop you from walking away. You may feel uncomfortable – you’ve got to explain your change of mind to friends, family or colleagues – but it’s a small price to pay for what’s right for you from now on.
If your commitment was to someone else, let them down gently and suggest an alternative way forward for them. Other people might need someone filling your role but it doesn’t have to be you. If you leave the situation, they’ll adjust and they will sort it out. But if you stay in that situation, will you be fine?
Be careful about saying yes to new commitments. Take the ‘one in, one out’ approach: for every new commitment you agree to, think which activity you’re currently committed to that you could drop. Learn to say no. This is a key skill to help declutter your time and simplify your life. If you can’t say no to other people, you’ll find yourself taking on too much.
Set limits. Decide how many commitments and obligations are enough in any one day, week or month. Instead of trying to cram too much into every day, leave room between commitments. Take time to do what you’re doing instead of looking for ways that you can fit more in. Review your commitments now and again. Are you still enjoying them? Are they important and do you care about them?
Too much information has the same effect on your brain as physical clutter: it’s overwhelming, stressful and frustrating. Most of us have a number of sources of information that we could eliminate with no detriment to our lives whatsoever.
You can declutter your information consumption. Identify how many different types of media you use. Then try making a note of how much time you spend consuming information; try logging your time spent on media for one day. See if you can cut out everything for a day, everything that isn’t completely essential. If it’s not work related, don’t read it, watch it or listen to it. Just for a day or two. Pick a day you can do other activities – over the weekend maybe. Then try it for a couple of days in the week. Give it a try.
There will always be more information available than you can consume. Set limits so you’re not simply trying to get through it all but, rather, enjoying more of what you consume. Find other ways to spend your time: get out more; meet people; do things that stretch your mind, not clutter it up; create things.
Instead of consuming whatever is readily available, clutters your mind and drains you, make more conscious choices about what you read, watch and listen to. Steer clear of negative headlines and dire tales of things going wrong. Look instead for uplifting stories that celebrate the best of life and be inspired by the good in the world around us.