Why and How to Have Less Stuff

Living room clutter

Image by nilexuk via Flickr

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time sorting through my kids’ toys, clothes, and books to get rid of things they’ve out grown so there’s room for what they currently use.  Every time I do this, I’m amazed at how much stuff has accumulated, even when we’re not big shoppers.  It’s energy intensive to clear out things and that makes me wish we had fewer items to begin with.  But there are other costs to material things as well.

Everything you own has an environmental impact.  All material goods take precious resources in their production, transport, and disposal.  Once you get these items, you need space and sometimes more things with which to store them such as shelves, boxes, etc.  The more you own and the larger your home is, the greater your ecological footprint is.

Besides environmental impact, there’s also a personal cost in terms of money, time, and energy spent acquiring and subsequently maintaining the items we bring into our lives.  Clothes need to be washed, cars need to be insured and tuned, and knickknacks need to be dusted.  In addition, clutter is draining mentally, emotionally, and physically, regardless of whether we’re aware of it or not.  Having too many things can cause indecision, distraction, stagnation, and fatigue.

Now I’m not advocating you live like a monk, unless that’s right for you.  We all need some material possessions for our use and enjoyment.  The problem is most of us have too much.  We fill our homes with things we don’t need, don’t use, and don’t even want.  I’m not sure if it’s the hunter/gatherer in us who delights in shopping but I do know that over consumption is good neither for our planet nor for our soul.

There are so many benefits to having fewer things.  Amongst them are:

  • You can find what you actually need more easily.
  • You’ll save time and money because there’s less to clean, organize, and maintain.
  • You can help charity if you donate what you no longer want.
  • You can earn some money if you sell your things.
  • Other people get to use and enjoy what was cluttering up your home.
  • Moving will be easier (I’ve moved 3 times in the last four years so I know)
  • You can live in a smaller home if you choose thus decreasing your expenses and environmental impact.
  • You’ll feel better – calmer, happier, more free and energetic.
  • You’ll have more focus, time, and energy for what you truly value in life.

I actually enjoy decluttering because I feel better afterwards.  But that’s not to say it’s always an easy process.  We have a lot of attachments to the things we own, regardless of whether or not we actually use or want them.  It can be difficult to part with things we’ve spent money on, that we think we might need someday, or was given to us as gifts.  Leo Babauta of Zen Habits explores some of the reasons we hang on to things that don’t really serve us.

My criteria for keeping things are 1) I’ve used it in the past year or 2) I’m certain I’ll use it in the next 12 months, or 3) I love it.  Otherwise, there’s no point hanging on to it.  It’s better to free up physical as well as mental and emotion space.  Allow room for something new to enter.  Here are some strategies for letting go:

  1. Instead of overwhelming yourself with clearing your entire home, just do one drawer or surface at a time.  Remove everything from that drawer, clean the drawer,  then only put back what you want to keep in there.  Items that belong elsewhere should be put in their rightful place.  Items that you’re not keeping can be separated into categories of sell, give away, or throw away.  Enjoy the uncluttered drawer.  Keep clearing small, manageable spaces and eventually, you’ll be surrounded only by things that you value.
  2. Another strategy is to get rid of two or more things whenever you get one new item.  For instance, if you buy a pair of pants, let go of an old pair that you hardly wear and a book you’ll likely never touch.  This is a way to reduce your possessions without making a concerted effort to declutter.  Plus, knowing that you’ll have to get rid of things you already own will likely prompt you to be more selective about acquiring something new.
  3. On a regular basis such as monthly or quarterly, go through an area or room of your home and get rid of at least 10 items.  This is what I do and it’s one of my monthly tasks I actually look forward to.  Yes, as time goes on you’ll revisit the same spaces.  But the contents of the spaces change and your life changes as well so you won’t have trouble finding things to release.

Material items are a necessity but they need to be put in their proper place.  Your possessions should serve you, not the other way around.  Being unencumbered by excess opens you up to truly enjoy life.  Simplify.  Live lightly.  Be free.

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