It will be no secret to my regular readers that during 2017 and 2018, I decluttered every single area of my life. It was life-changing, and I can recommend it if you are starting to feel you need to minimise a little. The way I did it would not work for anyone – in fact I didn’t even know I had a method until afterwards.
In April 2017, Stockholm had a terror attack which hit very very close to home for me. I have probably never been closer to death, and it changed everything for me. I was locked in the building realising that if I had entered ten minutes earlier I could have been dead. I had no next of kin and I did not have a will. If I had died, I -and everything about me – would belong to the Swedish state (just as I had been a ward of the South African state when my parents died when I was a teenager). No one knew where I was. My cats were home alone, and, being a Friday, no one would have missed me until I failed to show up for work on Monday. In addition, I thought of the strangers who would have had to go through my apartment sorting through my things. The piles of work papers. My old ratty underwear. My personal journals.
From that day I got things in order. I drew up a will, started carrying cards in my wallet stating that my pets were home alone and who to contact in an emergency.
and then I started the decluttering, bit by bit.
- Three (and often four) of us used to live in the apartment before the children grew up and moved out, and before I divorced. There were many things they left behind (computers, cables, old phones, music, books, clothes) which they no longer wanted.
- I had way too much cutlery and crockery and I had enough coffee mugs for about 15 people!
- I had clothes that did not fit, clothes I did not wear, clothes that needed to be tossed. I had THIRTY bras, all of which had seen better days…
- I had books, DVDs, CDs gathering dust which could all be downloaded in electronic form.
- There were piles of teaching materials, textbooks etc in my office – and I did not use any of it.
- I use very little makeup but I had boxes of makeup I never used.
- I often had multiples of things – how many toothbrush mugs can one person need?
- I kept all paperwork, tax declarations, cards, letters, invoices, guarantees – for years and years.
- I did not give away or sell anything that was a gift. Those are all special to me and will be with me until the day I kick the bucket!
So each day I would tackle something small – a shelf, a drawer, a pile. And things would be thrown out, recycled, donated, or sold.
I cannot emphasise enough that, for me, going slowly was the key to success. For me, hauling ALL my clothes onto the bed and trying on/sorting/rehanging over an afternoon is frustrating and self-defeating. I end up sweaty, irritable and frustrated a third of the way through, and I just give up. But a shelf or two a day – that’s doable. You don’t notice how much you have done until one day you look around you and realise you have done what seemed to be an insurmountable task – you just did it a small bit at a time.
I kept four paper bags next to the front door – one each for throwing away, recycling, donating and selling. And each day I would deal with the throwing away and recycling bags – either on my way to work, or when I got home. Once a week over the weekend I would donate things, take stuff into to consignment stores, put items up for auction, or sell them in groups on Facebook.
It was so nice going into the charity shop for Stockholm’s homeless people and seeing things I had donated up for sale. The money would go to help others, and the person who bought it would have found a bargain.
I had a paper organiser which recorded what went out and kept a record of when auctions were, when listings started and ended, and when I shipped items. Luckily, nothing went wrong and everyone was really happy with their items. Each week I would make a list of what I had to do and where, so that I could slot it into quiet times between lessons. I also made lists of things I needed to buy – for example I threw out my 30 old bras and bought four really fancy new ones. I threw out my worn t shirts and bought new.
As the decluttering progressed I started to feel lighter, and freer. The clutter had weighed on me for a long time but the task of getting rid of it had seemed so daunting that I just could not see where or how to start.
It was really easy in the beginning but as time went on, I was starting to deal with things that meant a lot to me, or had once meant a lot to me. I never ‘released’ something I was unsure of – seller’s remorse is a terrible thing. I knew that when it was time I could let it go. For me, there was no time limit on how long things could take. For example I never sold rare or beloved handbags, jewellery, or Filofaxes. I never forced myself to make a decision about myself until I was 100% sure.
I never embraced the miminalism trend, Marie Kondo, or any other kind of method. Looking back and reading about them, I was doing a combination of Death Cleaning and the Pomodoro method. I never set out to do it, it just worked out that way. I think it is important to declutter in a way that suits you.
The results manifested themselves in different ways.
- I found clothes and accessories I had forgotten about
- I saw a pattern of buying things I liked to look at but didn’t like to wear
- I ended up with loads of free space in my life and myself
- I got rid of loads of things I didn’t use or like, and made room for fewer things that I need and love
- I now operate a one in one out policy.
At the same time as I was decluttering, I started re-nourishing ties with my Swedish and South African family and friends, planning a visit to see South Africa and my family for the first time in seven years. I said yes to a date with a man who had been asking me out for a long time, and ended up falling totally and utterly in love for the first time in my life. I was easily able to move in with him when the time came, and we are getting married in July of this year. I started showing and telling people how much they mean to me. I became much more open about my feelings. I started spoiling myself and stopped saving things for a special occasion. I started wearing dresses again, after years in jeans and trousers. After my divorce and when work became really busy, I had neglected important personal relationships – and myself – over time, and never even realised it until that day in that shop with the truck halfway through the window.
What a beautiful, moving story. Thank you for sharing. I love how decluttering and overall self-improvement go hand in hand. I agree with you, the ONLY way I could declutter was gradually or it wouldn’t work for me–I would get too overwhelmed. It helped peel back my layers of mental clutter, too. (I write and Youtube about it now because like you, it’s too amazing of a transformation to keep quiet about!) Hmmm, I have not heard of the Pomodoro method. Thanks for the introduction. Congratulations, btw.
I’ve been slowly trying to declutter, with variable success, since 2013. In late 2012 a whole pile of stuff arrived from my partner’s late parents’ house, after we had spent about 6 months clearing and refurbishing that property once Father-in-law died. I felt overwhelmed by the influx and something had to move. Like you, I keep a log of items decluttered since late 2015 (and also “permanent” items in) and I find that, and the support of some friends online, helps to keep me motivated. My best year on the decluttering front was 2016, when I shifted 2133 items decluttered (vs 206 items in); in 2017 (the year I had my own “close encounter” with the grim reaper) 701 items left. Last year I “only” managed 644 items out. Things have improved quite a lot along the way; but there is still a long way to go. At the moment I feel like a lot of the “low hanging fruit” has gone, and the next big moves are likely to be more serious stuff like books and some sentimental things. Those take time, so the decluttering has stalled a bit this year so far… I tend to be “bursty”, nothing for ages and then I’ll nuke an area and lots of stuff will move. And sometimes it’s like peeling an onion, where you return to an area and uncover another “layer” of stuff which can be released. But – very much a case of “whatever works”, and different people will naturally operate in different ways!
I am so sorry to hear about your close encounter, Paul. It sure gives you a wake up call though, doesn’t it? I love your analogy of the ‘low hanging fruit’ – I found it easy going in the beginning but once the dead wood has gone, all the more sentimental stuff remained and that, for me, was – and still is – really hard. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I think your achievement is impressive – thousands of items!
I have a humungous decluttering task ahead of me, and your post made me feel more hopeful about the mountain! As my brother says, how do you eat an elephant? Answer: a mouthful at a time!
That is a very inspiring post that, I’m sure, will make lots of people start decluttering.
I have never been someone who tends to keep or collect things. I like a neat home space and though I enjoy decorating my rooms I don’t over do it. The same applies for my wardrobe, bookshelves and office. When I bought my apartment about fifteen years ago I decided that I would move the minimum of things into it and I donated a lot of things which had accumulated over the years (mostly books and teaching material). Since then I have set a rule which I respect that is “one in, two out”. If I buy an item, say a pair of shoes, then I get rid of two. And that applies for every thing. I used to have about thirty planners and I only had about six in use. So I gave the unused ones to some friends and I have somehow managed to reduce my collection to four that are in constant use.
I dislike wasting or having things sleeping in a drawer so I don’t store. Also as I travel a lot and spend little time at home I like to keep my space neat and functional.
This is a very inspiring post. Over the weekend, I took care of my wardrobe. Since I only buy clothes when all my other clothes are either too old or too tattered to be seen in public, I did this very quickly. And I will continue. I started watching Marie Kondo and seeing all these people who had so many stuff lying around made me feel guilty of my own mess and it got me started. I have also done some emotional cleaning and got rid of Facebook (this happened a long time ago) and while I miss the groups, severing ties with Facebook made me realise that the 5o + “friends” who were in my friend’s list were just there for decoration. In the end, I am still in touch (as in writing proper letters and emails) with 4 of them. It feels very good and your post gave me the extra kick in the backside to continue on my cleaning way!
Dear Kim, I really liked your “Decluttering” entry. I’ve been trying to declutter my stuff for years. The picture and entry you shared were a breath of fresh air. I’m going to keep trying. I also very much appreciated your sharing the impact of coming so close to death on your priorities. I love the way you live life to the fullest! Thanks, Genie