About eight years ago, I convinced my husband to move from our four-bedroom home to a smaller townhome. Our kids were grown and we were tired of mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, and raking the snowdrifts off the roof. We’re now tucked into a townhome with a lot less stuff. Even better, we’re nestled in the woods with a creek running near our front door. And life is simpler.
While this sounds easy and idyllic, cleaning out our home of 18 years was no easy task. It took a lot of sorting, donating, tossing, and packing. During that process, several of our neighbors expressed that they wanted a simpler life. They too wanted to downsize, but felt they had too much stuff and were paralyzed by the thought of going through it all. Essentially, they were trapped in their homes by their accumulated belongings.
Don’t misunderstand me—we had our share of junk amassing in the basement, and my husband is especially fond of holding onto stuff for reasons I cannot fathom. One theory is that people hang onto all kinds of things like scrapbooks, kindergarten artwork, programs, ticket stubs, and grandma’s gewgaws as a way to remember the past. Another is that people store things because they are looking to the future, in that you never know when you will need 300 marbles or that scrap of green carpeting.
Most of us crave simplicity. We don’t choose to be overwhelmed, to live in clutter, or to be held hostage by our stuff; it just seems to happen. This process and ensuing breakdown is something similar to digestion in Chinese medicine, in which one of its most important activities is your body’s ability to discern what is useful and nutritious and what is not and should be let go of. However, when you’re unable to separate what you need from what you don’t, accumulation happens.
The ability to sort and let go also occurs in your mind. As you take in ideas and knowledge, you put the helpful ones to use, and discard those that don’t serve you well. With your mind, however, when you’re unable to let go, it becomes the stuff of worry, anxiety, and harboring grudges.
So how do you find simplicity in a complicated, cluttered life? There are no easy answers, and sometimes trying to fix the problem can intensify the feelings of being overwhelmed. However, there are a few steps that you may find helpful, offered with the caveat that you choose only one or two at a time, go slowly, and be kind to yourself:
Start with the things you know you can let go of painlessly. This is the low-hanging fruit: the old newspapers in your entryway, the junk mail sitting on the table, and the jacket with the broken zipper in your closet. These are easy, so just set them free.
The same is true of some of your time commitments. Do you have to go to events that you don’t enjoy or spend time with people who drain your energy? Some events may be non-negotiable, but some may be easy to drop from your calendar. The end result is that you’ll end up spending more time with the people you care about and less time honoring meaningless commitments.
Put stuff away. Again, start with the easy stuff, like putting your dirty laundry into the hamper, the dishes into the dishwasher, and the recycling out into the bin.
Get really good at donating. Find a Goodwill near you or better yet, a charity that will pick your stuff up and use it locally. If you know it is easy to get it out of your house, it is easier to let it go. What to get rid of? A good rule of thumb is, if you haven’t touched it in two years, set it free.
Create white space in your home. Clear out an area that has nothing in it except a few things that you love. While clutter feels stressful and overwhelming, an empty space to yourself is incredibly relaxing.
Create white space in your life, too. Prioritize your time commitments and learn to say “no.” If you’re feeling busy and overwhelmed, unscheduled time alone is like permission to do whatever pleases only you.
Practice gratitude. Maintaining a habit of thankfulness helps to keep worry and anxiety at a distance. This may be as simple as acknowledging three things for which you’re grateful each morning before getting out of bed.
And finally, just slow down. Spend some time doing nothing. Think about what your life would look like if you owned less; if you strived for less, and start simplifying in baby steps.
The bottom line is that clutter, whether it’s in your living room or in your mind, is a source of stress and feeling overwhelmed. By letting go of some of the things that no longer serve you, it reduces stress and worry and creates space for new ideas and experiences. Give it a try!