Uncomfortable as it might be, let's start by thinking about all the stuff that gets left behind once we’re dead. The stuff in attics, garages and storage units. In the U.S., 90% of the 2.3 billion sqft of total storage space available is occupied. Given that 65% of self-storage renters also have a garage, 47% have an attic and 33% have a basement, we can assume that many of us have a lot more things than we probably need. All the things that we leave behind for our relatives to sort out once we’re dead. And all the things which might be holding us back right now…
This article is all about consciously decluttering your life, so that you can create more freedom- physically, emotionally, financially and socially- for the things that matter most. There’s actually a Swedish word for this: dostadning, a hybrid of the words for death and cleaning. It’s essentially the willingness to declutter you life before you die, rather than leaving it for your loved ones after you do. And it’s a practice that will benefit you as much in life as it will in death. When you consciously declutter, you create more space in your life for new adventures and opportunities; you are less tied down and therefore more free to travel and move about; you release yourself from the desire to constantly consume and therefore feel more grateful for what you’ve already got; and perhaps most importantly, you will understand that your most treasured memories aren’t made in the material world…which is a truly wonderful realisation because that means you can take them with you wherever you go!
So…shall we begin the big sort out?
Moving and Minimalism
Last month, my new husband and I moved our life from London to Charlotte, North Carolina where we’ll be living for the next few years. We’re both incredibly excited about our expat adventure- professionally and personally- and can’t wait to explore all over the Americas. However, the move itself was a real eye-opener as it made us evaluate what mattered most.
We assigned one day to pack up all of our belongings in our London apartment, which might seem like a surprisingly short amount of time to pack up one’s life. Yet, when you consider the size of our living space (a cosy 2-bedroom apartment in Canning Town), our mutual hate of shopping (and thus lack of clothes) and the fact that we’re leaving behind the essentials (as we’re renting out our place on Airbnb) it wasn’t quite as frantic as you might think. So, Sunday was spent cramming our whole life into four suitcases. Which I am proud to say, we managed. All of our belongings just about fit into four incredibly packed suitcases (which we did have to sit on to close!)
Putting it simply, when you consciously declutter your life you create more room for moving about! For us this meant having enough floor space in our living room to practice yoga every morning but it also meant being able to pack up for America, without the stress of storing everything away. There’s a Zen proverb that reminds us of how important the practice can be: “Let go or be dragged”. Having fewer material possession means creating more more physical freedom, within your home and beyond!
More now, Less Later
Packing up our stuff gave us a much needed opportunity to sort out old clothes. Given that we share one small wardrobe and 4 draws I was surprised to find 10 old jumpers at the back of a draw, only 3 of which had been worn regularly!
Many highly successful entrepreneurs recognise the brain power wasted on these simple daily decisions- like deciding what to wear -and so save time and energy by doing the same thing everyday. Mark Zuckerberg sports his iconic grey Brunello Cucinelli t-shirt and Steve Jobs became famous for a black turtleneck, jeans and New Balance sneakers. We make an average of 35,000 decisions everyday, so when we simplify decisions or keep them the same, we save brain power for more important matters. Whilst I’ve not simplified my wardrobe down to one single uniform, I’ve only kept clothes that I absolutely love. This way, I don’t spend half as much time worrying about what to wear and spend the saved time on the people or projects that I prioritise most.
There’s a lot of truth in the old adage, ‘Tidy Room, Tidy mind’ because a disorganised life can raise stress levels and reduce focus and productivity. UCLA's 'Life At Home In The Twenty-First Century' study revealed that a disorganised home leads to higher levels of stress. For example, a new juicer for your kitchen might initially seem like a great idea, but after a week or so- if the excitement wears off- the appliance might start to clutter up your life. It takes up space- literally and mentally- and may even cause frustration or financial regret. So next time you feel like you really need something- whether it be a brand new phone or a new pair of trainers- stop to consider the longer term implications of that purchase. It may seem exhilarating in the immediate instance, but over time will the financial stress or the mental and physical space that it takes up outweigh the initial high? If yes- then why not reconsider the purchase or perhaps look at other options that will be less stress inducing in the long-term. You may find that a cheaper item, a smaller version or a short-term contract might have a much more positive impact on your mental health.
Sentiment and Stuff
Whilst packing for our move to America, I had a moment of melancholy about the few items we were going be storing under our bed, notably beautiful cards, and memorabilia from our recent wedding. Coincidentally, my husband Dan had Storage Hunters playing in the background (for those of you who’ve not seen it, it’s a TV show about old storage units that get auctioned off to traders who re-sell any quality items.) A woman throws open the garage door of a storage unit she’s just bought and we discover that the unit belonged to a family, who have either forgotten all about it, or- as I guessed from the grainy black and white photo that was thrown onto the floor- are probably dead. Memories of a lifetime stacked up in boxes. But these memories won’t make the woman any money and in her haste to find things she can sell, she smashes a photo frame containing an image of a happy couple. The sad reality is that this couple’s priceless memory has now become someone else’s trash.
In a flash forward moment I see our wedding photo suffering the same fate. The memories we made are timeless and can never be taken away. So why do we try to solidify them in so much stuff? Boxes of photographs and memorabilia can’t turn back the clock, but one photo on a living room wall and can bring back so many memories. Which is the really magically thing about memories. They don’t arise from the stuff acquired but from the sentiment attached to them. And that sentiment can be triggered by another person, a silly keyring or even a sunny sky. So in the end we decided to take two polaroids and a photo album to our new home, which I’m sure will be more than enough to jog our memories of the past as well as inform the new memories we are going to make.
Discern and declutter
Our Sonos sound system is our pride and joy. Over the past 18 months, we’ve collected 3 speakers which wirelessly connect and play music all over our house. They’ve cost us a small fortune but that truly was a small price to pay for the amount of joy the sound system has brought us. We use it every day: the radio wakes us up, it plays music for our workouts, serenades our evening meals and has kept parties going until the early hours! So there was no way we were going to be leaving it behind in the UK. The Sonos was one of the most important items we packed. A material possession- yes- but one that we have consciously chosen as opposed to one that is unconsciously cluttering our life. A conscious choice based on the amount of joy an item brings.
You may have come across The Minimalists. They have a documentary and a Tedx Talk all about how to live a rich life with less stuff. Their definition of minimalism really struck a chord with me because it offers a balance between excessive consumerism and the life of a monk in an Ashram living without any material possessions (for example, Digambara Jain monks go so far as to renounce all clothing!) People might think that minimalism is about getting rid of material possessions but for Minimalist’s Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus this is just the icing on the cake. They don’t believe minimalism is about having less: “We focus on making room for more: more time, more passion, more creativity, more experiences, more contribution, more contentment, more freedom. Clearing the clutter from life’s path helps make that room. Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s important things—which aren’t things at all.” It’s not about ridding yourself of all your worldly possessions. It’s about only having things in your life that are important to you, have a specific purpose and/or bring you joy. For example, our Sonos, a material possession that continues to fill our daily life with so much joy.
What brings meaning to your life?
Margaret Magusson’s book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter” offers a proactive approach to dealing with the unavoidable and natural process of ageing. Tackling this taboo topic not only facilitates communication and cooperation between families early on but it also empowers people to organise their lives around the things that matter most and let go of things that might be generating a lingering discontent. Maybe it’s a pair of jeans that you never wear because they don’t quite fit. They don’t leave you feeling fabulous- and they never have- so why waste space in your mind and life by keeping them about. Instead of buying 6 pairs of 'alright' jeans, why not buy one amazing pair that you absolutely love (and end up buying again!) In the long term this is both cost efficient and life efficient…and you’ll spend much less time worrying about jeans.
Professional Organiser, Peter Walsh, believes that “when you declutter- whether it’s your home, your head or your heart- it is astounding what will flow into that space that will enrich you, your life and your family.” Life clutter isn’t just limited to material possessions. Clutter also extends to limiting beliefs, negative influences, toxic relationships and bad habits. When you realise your power to consciously declutter, you’ll be free to fill your life with meaning. Whether that be through people, places or things, stay present to the moment and conscious to constant changes in clutter, so that you can always create space for what matters most.