It’s going to be messy…On the Art of Decluttering

Timely Emerald, Hackberry – Male, 2007, “Moth series” made out of recycled materials by Michelle Stitzlein, exibited at COSI. Photograph by Miriam Clifford.

Let me start off by admitting this and I hope this does not deter you:  The journey to minimalism can be messy.  Super messy, tear your hair out and want to give up messy.  At least, mine was this way. If you peeked into my house about 4 weeks ago, you would be overwhelmed.   We had just downsized and unpacking into the smaller home was difficult.  Minimalism can certainly disrupt your life temporarily.  The laundry still needs washing and going through years of accumulated things is hard work.  It’s going to take  some time to sort out.

On the inside it’s messy too . Letting go of things tied to our histories and past can be emotional. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.  Many have experienced that indecision we face when deciding whether to keep mom’s old casserole dish or a gift from a family friend.

As you begin to see the years of things accumulated slowly unravel, you realize the roadblocks holding you back are hidden beneath the clutter. So resist the urge to organize it again and begin to let things go.  Underneath the mess, is a path to clarity.  So accept the mess for a bit, and don’t judge yourself, it is there to teach you something beautiful.

I like to think of it this way:  Art is messy.  If you think of decluttering as an art, it can really help your mindset.  Much like art, it requires dedication, patience, and emotional involvement; and once completed it can produce new feelings and perceptions.

In fact, artist Tracey Emin used her mess after a breakup to inspire a work of art called My Bed which later sold for $3.77 million(Begley, Time magazine 2014).  The piece was an actual bed she had slept in for four days surrounded by her clutter and mess, which she turned it into autobiographical piece of art.  If an artist can see clutter as art, then find a way to see your clutter and mess as a learning experience on your journey. Messes themselves are a sign of creativity, and life.  So don’t get all bogged down by it, everyone has messes from time to time.  The important thing is to learn from it, and get the space back before the clutter takes over valuable time from your life. A minimalist life is about simplicity, not things, and it takes time; the process is not always pretty, especially in the initial stages.

If you start feeling self-judgement and hit road blocks along the way, here are few things that may help:

  1. Be easy on yourself.  Some of these items once had a purpose in your life. Acknowledge that purpose, but be willing to move on. Realize that letting them go will open up new space to experience new things.  Maybe some items never held a purpose at all, get rid of those first.  Focus on the positive steps you are taking.  It can be overwhelming at first, but keep at it.
  2. Take breaks.  Some items may carry heavy emotional ties or undertones.  Other items might elicit guilt, for me it was the thought of knowing I had bought too many items of one category or wasted valuable money and time.  It’s okay to take breaks and do something you love.  I put on music and listen to the Piano guys or Passenger. Many of Passenger’s videos are about their travels to different countries as they tour, and watching these images inspires me by reminding me of my end goals.  I hope that by embracing minimalism, I free up time and money to travel, and their music reminds me of that end goal.  What can you use to remind yourself of your end goal?  Maybe it’s playing a game with your kids or going for run, slowly add in time to do that as you go.
  3. Start small. Start with a junk drawer.  What items in there can you easily get rid of?  Are there trinkets that you’ve been meaning to toss but haven’t had the time?  Set a box out and dump things in during the day as you go.
  4. Take the items out of your house.  Put them in the car as soon as you are done, so that you can immediately get rid of them.  We generally fill up a carload and then take it to a local charity as soon as possible.  Clearing things out let’s you see the success, or else you will end up focusing on the negative feeling of seeing the disorganization and clutter.  Seeing the clutter gone is a big motivation and keeps the mess at bay.
  5. Donate.  Find a charity you love or one that supports your local community.
  6. Recycle.  The work pictured above is made of recycled materials by Ohio artist Michelle Stitzlein.  I’ve seen many works of art recently made out of completely recycled materials.  By recycling things, we are minimizing our impact on the environment and that feels good; it’s a win-win.  Maybe there is a pet shelter in your area that can use old towels.  If you do a quick search online, you’ll find organizations like MotherNatureNetwork that give more information about how to recycle specific items.  This article gives a list of 20 items and with links on where to recycle or donate them. Another list from, gives a list of 50 common items and ideas on how to recycle them. As I go on this blog, I will try to compile ways to donate and recycle different items.
  7. Resuse or repurpose, rather than buy.   There are two aspects to minimalism:  what we already possess, and the other is what we bring into our home.  In other words, if we unclutter, but find ourselves buying new things, we will end up in the same predicament.  If you find you need something, instead of buying it, maybe find a way to re-purpose something you already have.  I am not suggesting you intentionally try to keep everything, but if you truly need something rather than buy it, consider if you have something that already suits the purpose. This might seem counter-intuitive, but it can be a useful tool.  The other day, we were going through decorations and we found an award my husband had won.  It was a wooden block with an eagle on top.  We had gotten rid of so many books, that we needed a book end.  Rather than buy one, we took the eagle off of the wooden block and are using it as a book end for now.  If we get rid of more books and add them to our list on googlereads, the book end will probably go too, but for now, it is useful.
  8. Relocate an item for now, and move on.  If you can’t part with an item yet or it is a difficult one for you, try relocating it to the another room, garage or basement.  Label the box with the date. See if you even remember  or use the item after a few days.  If you don’t, chances are you won’t need it or remember it later. One of our biggest learning experiences was when we moved to a house in New York with a basement, and never touched any of the items in the basement for a year.  This method allows you to re-evaluate your decision making.  If you haven’t used the item in its new spot or can’t even remember it, chances are you don’t need it.
  9. Reward yourself.  Decluttering is stressful, let me admit that.  It can be physically and emotionally draining.  Make sure you take time to reward yourself.  For me, writing is a great way to de-stress and reflect on the process of minimizing. For my husband, on the other hand, writing would be a huge stress, so find your own way to take some time for yourself. On days I feel like giving up, I take some time to reward myself and it keeps me going.
  10. Minimalism is not a one type fits all.  There is no “right” way to be a minimalist.  I attribute learning this idea to Joshua Becker, author of the blog, Becoming Minimalist.  His approachable method to adapting minimalism, inspired me to pursue it in my own life as a mother and a writer.  I learned in his online course, Uncluttered, that minimalism in one individual’s life might look very different another’s.  Becker suggests that depending on your occupation, you may have more items of one type, than another, and that’s okay.  He says to focus on the areas you can declutter and realize you may have more items in areas you are heavily focusing on, such as career or specific needs. His open-minded way of seeing minimalism inspired me to try it.  My assumption before beginning this process was to see minimalism as a white house with barren walls and bare essentials.  After reading his blog, I began to see that I could adapt this concept to my lifestyle as a busy mom of three and writer. Minimalism is different things to different people, and that is okay.

The journey to minimalism is not always easy.  On top of that, we are often our own worst critics.  Silence that inner critique. I am right now going through years of clutter, whatyoumacallits, whydidIkeepthis, and whattheheckisthis moments. In this blog, I will chronicle our family’s journey and try to share my successful ways of dealing with certain types of items. My main floor goes from being neat to a mess in a matter of minutes, and it seems the stuff has no end.   Yet at the end of each week, my house feels lighter, and my heart does too.   My bank account never had savings, and that is beginning to change.

At the end of the week, when I see all I have donated in the car loads, and I feel the spaces in the house grow lighter, I am reminded it’s worth it. Every morning when I wake up, and the clutter of the night before is cleared up into my car, I feel a sense of lightness.  When I go to clean my house and it takes me half the amount of time, I am reminded of all the time this is freeing up for me to do other things in my life.  The journey towards less, gives us so much more.



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