If you simply embrace the what without the why, then you’ll get nowhere (slowly and painfully, by the way, repeatedly making the same mistakes).
Do you ever feel like you’re stuck in a decluttering rut? You have a purge of your kitchen cupboards, buy some new drawer dividers to get everything nice and organised… only to find that within a few months, you’re back to square one?
It’s a curious conundrum, and somewhere I think we’ve all found ourselves at some point on our minimalist journey.
The truth is, becoming a minimalist is much more of a mindset shift than you probably bargained for. We all want the instant benefits of a decluttered space, but we haven’t done any of the inner work to get there.
So if you’re wondering why your best efforts don’t seem to be working and you haven’t addressed the 9 points below, then step away from the binbag! In this post, I want to address the necessary steps you must take before you start the physical act of decluttering. Because I promise that you’ll find things a whole lot easier once you’ve been through this process.
Why Decluttering Doesn’t Work
This might be an unpopular opinion, but in my own experience, the act of decluttering alone doesn’t work as a long-term solution.
In short, when you rush into decluttering, you tackle the symptom rather than the root cause.
Imagine you had tendonitis in your wrist. You start taking Ibuprofen on the doctor’s orders which helps to manage the pain. But the problem never seems to fully resolve itself and you struggle with repeat flare-ups. Of course, until you address the underlying cause – repetitive strain from spending too long on your computer keyboard each day – the issue will continue to resurface.
Or let’s take another example. You’re weeding your lawn but never pulling the plant up by the root. Within a few months, you’re back to a garden full of weeds again. On the other hand, if you’d just taken the time to put down a lining under the soil, you’d be weed-free very quickly.
Now, these may be fairly crude analogies, but we can think about decluttering in much the same way. In other words, it’s a temporary fix. A bandage over the problem. To have any long-term success with maintaining a clean and tidy home, you have to address your relationship with stuff at its source.
What most people won’t tell you is that this can be an uncomfortable place to find yourself. This is because, if you do it properly, you can’t help but undergo a whole lot of personal growth in the process. As uncomfortable as it is, this inner work lays solid foundations that will help you to declutter far more effectively – once and for all.
9 Things To Do Before You Start Physically Decluttering
Before you hire the skip, make sure you’ve taken the time to fully embrace the introspective suggestions below. I promise, you’ll be thanking yourself in the long run!
#1 Understand your relationship with stuff at a deeper level
Firstly, you’ve got to scrutinise your mindless shopping habits. It’s important to become self-aware and understand exactly where your money is going each month. If you haven’t already, consider an app that splits your finances into categories (e.g. Mint) so that you can easily see at a top level your monthly spending on clothing, homewares, eating out, etc. Alternatively, you can work this out by manually going through your recent bank statements.
When you’ve completed this exercise, identify any themes that emerge. Do you have a problem with shoes? Coats? The latest tech?
Whatever it is that you have a particular weakness for, consider what might be going on at a deeper level:
- Where does the compulsion to purchase come from?
- Why are you so emotionally invested in the need to own these things?
- How do they make you feel?
For instance, when I critically examined my insatiable appetite for fast fashion, I realised it wasn’t so much about looking good, but more about deep-seated insecurities and wanting to feel validated about my self-worth. On a subconscious level, I was trying to fill a void in which I didn’t feel whole and complete. It helped to soothe anxious questions like:
- How do I look compared to other girls?
- Would a guy find me attractive?
- Am I enough?
When I became aware that this is what was going on under the surface, I realised that I had a lot of work to do on my self-image. I had to learn how to get comfortable in my own skin and validate myself.
Whatever you happen to find – whether it’s insecurities around appearing outwardly successful or keeping up with the Joneses – approach this exercise with curiosity and be kind to yourself. There’s no judgment here! The first step of self-awareness is the hardest, but it’s also the best way to fundamentally challenge your relationship with (read: dependence on) stuff.
#2 Recognise how your possessions are holding you back
Why do decluttering sprees and ‘no-buy’ challenges not work in the long term? Because, just like fad diets, your mindset is one of limitation, restriction and scarcity.
You only have to look at the language of a ‘no-buy’ challenge to recognise that it’s phrased as a negative. How different would we feel if we more aptly renamed it to a ‘be-free’ challenge?
How you feel about something matters, so you’ve got to change your mindset from one of lack to abundance. Instead of giving up your things, you’re making space for more of the things which truly matter in your life. When you accept that all of your possessions require some level of mental bandwidth and physical maintenance, you realise that they are quite literally holding you back from the things which are important to you.
For example, it may be that you have so much stuff, you’re constantly tidying up in the evening. This means that you don’t get to spend as much quality time with your kids as you’d like.
Once you change the narrative and understand how your stuff is causing you pain, your attitude towards decluttering shifts. It becomes a whole lot easier to let go of the things which are holding you back from the life you want to lead.
#3 Consider the wider impact of your mindless shopping habits
Minimalism can have all sorts of wonderful personal benefits. But in my own experience, it also helps to understand how mindless consumerism is part of a larger social pandemic.
Whether it’s shady supply chains that exploit workers in vulnerable third-world countries, vast amounts of pollution and landfill, or the silent suffering of animals, it becomes clear that we must change our relationship with stuff if we are to have a healthy relationship not only with ourselves and our own homes – but with the planet at large.
When you see past the perfectly packaged products on shop shelves, you start to become aware that every item has undergone a long journey to get there. And the story behind your stuff isn’t always kind.
To understand more about the scale of the problem and what you can do to purchase more mindfully, check out the following articles:
#4 Know your values
I talk about the importance of your personal value system a lot, but that’s because it’s the key to understanding yourself and living your best life.
In my own experience, mindless shopping can be the symptom of a life lived out of alignment with your values. Or worse, feeling empty and unfulfilled because you’re not even fully aware of what your values are in the first place.
I encourage you to take half an hour and sit down with my personal values exercise – see below to download the accompanying workbook. Once you know what is important to you and why, you can clear the clutter to make room for the things which should be taking centre stage.
For instance, one of my values is Creativity, and writing this blog is something I want to commit time to every day. However, when it came down to the practicalities, I realised that my office was a completely unintentional space. Part guest room, part box room, part office, it wasn’t the most inspiring space to sit and be creative. Clearing the clutter and giving myself a more defined workspace has helped me to be more productive and do what I love.
Ask yourself where your purchasing habits may be out of alignment with your values. And then, identify how decluttering may help you to dedicate more time, space and energy to the stuff that matters to you.
#5 Get specific
Once you’ve identified your values, I love this exercise from Ask and It Is Given:
Write the heading ‘My Home’ and start with the phrase ‘This is what I desire regarding my home…’ then write a short list. Drill down into each statement and write the reasons why you want those things. Then, move on to each room:
- ‘This is what I desire regarding my kitchen…’
- ‘I want to feel ___ in this room’
- ‘It’s important to me because…’
Tapping into this creative energy focuses you on positive feelings of hope and excitement (the perfect partner exercise to Step #2 – recognising why your possessions are holding you back).
#6 Create a vision board for your home
Now that you have an understanding of what you want your home to look like and why, you can create a vision board for your home. The beauty of this is that it will be completely unique and personal to you! Create a physical or digital version – whatever your preference – that you can refer to often.
Just remember, this is less about a wishlist of items you want to buy(!) and more about the new way in which you want to live – a lifestyle you’re being pulled towards. The process of decluttering is easier once you can envision the end goal.
#7 Address your self-limiting beliefs
If you’re struggling with decluttering, then I’ll hazard a guess that there are some niggling self-limiting beliefs running the show under the surface. I remember telling myself things like:
- I’m just a messy person
- No matter how hard I try, my house is never tidy
- I could never get rid of that
It goes without saying that whilst you’re thinking these kinds of thoughts, you’ll never have success with decluttering. Because your subconscious believes everything you tell it and is always working to make your beliefs a reality.
If you’ve ever found yourself making excuses and running the same unhelpful narrative loops, then you’ll want to identify these self-limiting beliefs. Check out my in-depth post on the subject here to recognise your own, rewrite them, and work to overcome them.
#8 Develop a set of non-negotiables & self-reflective questions
If you find yourself poring over items for 10 minutes at a time deciding whether or not it’s something you should part with, then I totally sympathise! The thing is, this makes decluttering a time-consuming and emotionally draining process, and often stops us from making any meaningful progress. In fact, we may even be completely put off altogether!
What I’ve found is that it helps to do some prep work beforehand. Whichever category you plan on tackling, draw up your own set of non-negotiables. For instance, when it comes to clothing, my absolute minimum criteria is that it must:
- Fit (not when I’ve lost 5lbs, etc)
- Be comfortable (yep, I said goodbye to all of my stiletto heels)
- Be animal-friendly
- Have been worn in the last year
If it passes these initial tests, I’ll move on to some self-reflective questions:
- Do I own duplicates/anything similar?
- Does it still look its best?
- Do I love it?
By having a self-guided process you can run through for each item, you’ll find that you can make decisions much more quickly and efficiently.
#9 Manage your expectations
Last but not least, I don’t want to dampen your enthusiasm for your decluttering project! But bear in mind that as with any kind of sustainable change, if you want it to be more than a flash in the pan or an abandoned New Year’s resolution, then it really helps to manage your expectations.
You may not see immediate results, but progress is far more important than perfection. So acknowledge that even having completed these exercises, you still won’t be perfect. Your home will always likely be a work in progress. Minimalism is truly a journey rather than a destination to be reached.
If you can learn to enjoy the ups and downs along the way, it’s not only going to be something you can stick with… but something that’s, dare I say it, actually enjoyable.
Stop Decluttering: Address the Root Cause Rather Than the Symptom
I know you’re probably itching to get started with decluttering, but remember that you won’t get very far if you haven’t done the inner work to set yourself up for success. I hope that, once you’ve been through this introspective process, you’re able to become more mindfully aware of the unconscious patterns and cycles that need disrupting and challenging in your life.
For more inspiration, check out my posts on:
- Things I no longer buy as a minimalist
- How to style and maintain a cosy minimalist home
- 33 practical ways to simplify your life
I’d love to hear what’s worked for you when addressing the ‘why’ behind the decluttering process. What have been your ‘aha’ moments? Let me know in the comments below!