Decluttering 101: The Why & How of Minimalistic Purging

Within six months I went from a fully furnished one bedroom apartment to two large suitcases and a carry-on when moving from Chicago to Berlin. (Oh, and nothing in storage besides one piece of artwork I left behind with my mom.) It was not easy, especially as an Interior Designer. I put a lot of thought, time and money into my homely possessions. Parting with them was painful at first. But, if I can do it – so can you. The how part is easy. It’s the why part that may take some more time to figure out. In order to make the process easier you need to first understand your motives behind the desire to uphold a minimalist lifestyle and make sure they resonate with you at the core.

What’s Your Ignition?

What started the fire inside you to begin decluttering? The initial proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back doesn’t necessarily need to be profound at first. Were you having a hard time finding something in your home? Did the closet rod break again? Are you just bored? But if you’re looking to embody a more minimalist and mindful approach to life then you need to understand why purging can help you achieve that and, more importantly, what you value in this particular lifestyle.

For me, purging started before I even knew much about minimalism. I Googled some ideas to get me going for a trans-Atlantic move and accidentally stumbled across The Minimalists. My initial motives were to downsize for the move and to reduce the things I’d have to schlep or ship. I was merely looking for ideas to jumpstart my purge. But then…

What’s the Fuel That Keeps You Going?

…it happened. I was sucked deep into the black hole of the internet where I read story after story of people who significantly downsized and turned their backs on conventional consumerism and were actually happier because of it. The more blogs I read and podcasts I listened to, the more fascinated I became with the concept of minimalism and intentional living. I didn’t just want to begrudgingly dispose of my possessions. I wanted to embrace it.

We all know, superficially, what matters in life. Ask anyone and a majority will tell you it’s things like family, health, and well-being, but most won’t show you that. I was no different and I no longer wanted to live that kind of life. I wanted purpose and happiness and I knew none of that was coming from the things I owned. I wanted to intentionally build a life that focused on health and well-being, relationships, passions, community. I didn’t just want to say I’m happy, but actually feel it deep within. I didn’t just want to just say I’m content, but actually show it.

I wanted intrinsic gratitude and I knew the first step was detaching my connection and identity from the things I owned, or rather, the things that owned me.

A spring cleaning will only take you so far without any real meaning or value behind it. You’ll donate a few bags of clothing, rid yourself of any duplicate items and maybe organize the junk drawer. Anyone can do that. That’s different from decluttering and purging with the intention of mindful living. With the intention of keeping only the items you find truly useful, valuable and joyful. With the intention of refusing to passively let more things into your home.

I began applying these principles to every aspect of my life as I hedged my way towards minimalism. I was conscious of my actions on all levels, not just when it came to materialistic items, as I began purging for our move. I made a more conscious effort to really engage with people, focus on being present in conversation and in other’s lives. I reduced my spending on frivolous things and made conscious and intentional decisions when it came to laying down my credit card. I took reign over my finances, spent more time reading and learning, more time investing in myself, and evaluating my life choices in the moment and for the future.

The values I defined through intentional living and the benefits I perceived from a minimalist lifestyle kept me motivated and on target. However, I’d be lying if I said it was easy. I, of course, had “slip-ups”. It wasn’t just the urge to give into the phenomenal marketing ploys or social pressures. I actually spent money when I shouldn’t have, wasted time on things that didn’t matter and made life choices without thinking. This can, and will, happen. It’s part of the process. But I was always pulled back in by the moments of minimalism that set me free. Reminders of what it feels like to let go of things, refusal to take on more than you need, and re-defining what’s important kept me going. It’s control and intention and it cleared the way for what truly makes me happy. If you want to pursue a purge for the benefits of minimalism, it’s essential to define what minimalism means to you and the values you want to uphold. They will be your guide as you develop a more intentional life.

Where to Begin
  • Set ground rules and deadlines. This could mean no more spending until you’ve finished decluttering (with exceptions like groceries and rent). Set a date for when you want to be finished. Could be one week or one month. Determine how many hours you want to spend each day on purging and set a timer to keep you focused.
  • Tell people to hold you accountable. If you have a significant other who is on board, even better! Tell friends and family so they keep tabs on you.
  • Drop the guilt. You may feel guilty as you start getting down to the sentimental items from your past, especially your childhood. But do not feel guilty for not wanting to hang onto every amateur drawing, piece of clothing or baby toy from your past. Just because it meant something to you (or your parents) at one point does not mean you are required to hold onto it forever. If you struggle with letting go there are things you can do: Take photos of everything or make a scrap book that you can show people or your (future) children. It’s a great conversation starter and a chance to feed your nostalgia. If you’re not the arts ‘n crafts type of person then decide up front that you want to keep one box of items (nothing more) and stick to it.
  • Remember sunk cost fallacy. It’s the continued pursuit of a task or possession because you’ve already spent money on it, despite its inability to bring happiness, joy or value to your life. It’s the $150 blouse in the back of your closet you never wear, the concert tickets you muster up the strength to use despite having the flu, and the unhealthy relationship you stay in because you’ve already been together for years. Do not let past decisions influence your current ones. Just because you spent money on something does not mean it brings you any value. Forget the price tag and focus on what’s in front of you. If it’s no longer bringing you joy or value, then it’s time to move on. Same goes for your relationships!
  • Let go of “just in case”. This sentence is dangerous and will hold you back from intentional living. Don’t live your life on the ifs. Instead, focus on reality. Examples of this might be if you haven’t worn it in the last 90 days and you don’t wear in the next 90 days then it’s time to part ways. If you haven’t played tennis since high school, get rid of the racket sitting in your garage. The ugly fruit bowl you received as a wedding gift from that uncle but kept just in case he visits? Gone.
  • Try the 30-Day Minimalist Game. It’s a great way to start small and gradually build momentum. Make it a competition with your partner or friend.
  • Tackle the easy areas first. I recommend the bathroom, bedroom or kitchen. It’s easier to compartmentalize these areas based on usage. Then move onto the trickier areas like the library/study, the garage or storage room. These rooms have a tendency to accumulate long term items that you use infrequently and sporadically, and can seem daunting to tackle at first. But once you get going, the more you remove from your life the more weight will be lifted off your shoulders.
  • Purge responsibly. What’s trash is trash. But try to donate as much as you can. If you have a hard time parting with something because of it’s fond memory or that sunk cost fallacy, try giving it to a friend or family member you know will appreciate it and find value in it.
  • Remember to ask yourself: When was the last time I used this? Does this item bring me value or joy? Will my life change dramatically if I remove this item? Why did I begin this process of decluttering in the first place? Stay focused.
  • Box it. At the end of the purge if you’re still struggling to part with some items then box them up. Put them out of sight like in the attic or back of your closet. Set a reminder on your phone for six months from now. When the time comes if you’ve forgotten about the box or the contents in it, then it’s safe to say toss or donate them. If you find yourself going to the box before the time is up to access an item then hold onto it and reset the clock again for the remaining items. More often than not, the things you think you’ll need often end up not being things at all.

Remind yourself – it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Oh, and sidebar – there is no finish line because minimalism is more like a layered circle. Decluttering does not happen over night and the mindset needed to keep a minimalist lifestyle does not develop overnight. It’s an ever-evolving process that will take hard work in the beginning. But eventually, if you truly value the lifestyle, it will become part of your core values and habits. You’ll gain the time, energy and freedom to focus on your relationships, your health and passions. You will have more time for what truly matters to you. Whatever your reasons are for decluttering they need to be just that – your reasons. There are no hard and fast rules for this process and how you measure success on this journey is entirely up to you.