As a species, we are built to hold on to things that we think hold value. In early civilizations, these tendencies helped keep us alive - holding on to tools, food, and shelter. But now that literal survival is not really a day-to-day concern, we have developed the artificial need to own more and more.
"Buy All of the Things!"
With the rise of advertising and technology, we're conditioned to think that we need new, expensive things all the time. “You can't be happy with that iPhone from two years ago! It takes an entire second longer to open Google Chrome and access the entire world’s knowledge pool!” I admit that I also like shiny things, but I've been working on dialing this habit back. It's so easy to take for granted the immense power that we have at our fingertips. So how do we break this desire for stuff?
The first adjustment I had to make was completely mental. I started looking at material possessions as lifelong burdens. Everything in my apartment would have to be packed up and unpacked every time I move to a new place. These things also break down and get dirty. This means more of my free time spent repairing, cleaning, and maintaining. Even worse, the more I own, the more space I need to store it. And especially in an urban area like Seattle, every square foot will cost you.
Already, we're seeing our extra stuff as inconvenient, time-consuming, and cumbersome.
Sometimes, as a thought experiment, I imagine what I would do if literally all my belongings disappeared. All that’s left are the clothes on my back and some money in the bank. Devastating as that would be, it opens your mind to think about the freedom that it would provide. You could hop a train and move to a new city on a whim. You could find a new place and only fill it with the most essential things that you need for a comfortable life. Not extravagant, but comfortable.
Live on Necessity, Not Excess
In my 26 years of life, I am finally getting to that point where everything I own serves a purpose. Nearly all of my possessions get used at least once a year. It’s a wonderful feeling. And because of this, I also know exactly where every little thing is stored. I don't have any cardboard “storage boxes” full of who knows what. The things that are in boxes are in flat, clear plastic bins for easy access. I highly recommend these bins for storage under your bed. If you don't have under-bed space, these guys are great for putting in closets. They also act as perfect boxes for when moving day comes (or for Burning Man!).
So now that you have that tickling urge to purge, let’s break down my process for releasing clutter from captivity.
Step One - Pick a Zone
First, you need to pick an area to start on. If you're new to this whole purging idea, start with just one drawer, cabinet, or shelf. If you really want to make progress and have a little time, pick a larger area like your bathroom or kitchen. The bigger area you do at once, the better system you will build for organizing the things you keep.
Step Two - Pull Out Everything
This is the easy part. Just take every single item out of it's resting place and into the center of the room (on a table or the floor). You want to get everything out to not only organize, but so you can clean the shelf or cabinet in the process. Vacuums are handy on this step. Ones with the little hose suckers. Mmm.
Step Three - Organize in Piles
Here is where things get tricky. But don't fret, you're not actually disposing of anything just yet. Now that you have everything out in the open, start dividing things up into three piles. One pile for things you know you'll never use that don't have much real value - TRASH. Another pile for things that someone could still utilize, but you haven't touched for a long time - DONATE. Now hopefully you're being liberal with your decisions here. Remember, the more you are able to let go of, the richer you become. Each of these things have responsibility and is losing value with time. For the things that you will honestly use, put them into the third pile - KEEP. After you've made these piles, go through your keep pile and try to remove a couple more things. Don't worry, you can always find these things later on Craigslist. Speaking of Craigslist, let's make one more pile from items in the donate pile - SELL. This might not be the biggest pile, but it's full of things that you think other people would be willing to shell out a few bucks for.
Step Four - Thank and Release
Are you freaking out a little now? Good. You're human. Let's continue. You've undoubtedly come across a handful of things that were given to you as a gift. Or they're from an old lover or a grandparent or anyone in between. That's fine. What I want you to do is take each item, one at a time, and hold it for a moment. Think about the significance of it. Relive the memories it might resurface. Then quietly thank the item and/or the person that gave it to you. Now you have closure to enable you to throw it away. If it's something extra special, take a few photos of it and then toss it. These photos will be with you forever and take no physical space.
Step Five - Make a Home
Now that you've successfully let go, we must rebuild. Your keep pile should be significantly smaller than the original mound of stuff you took out of this area. Take a minute to sort through the stuff and put them into piles. These piles should have related items that you might use together. One for crafts, one for camping gear, one for spatulas and one for electronics. The more precisely you categorize these piles, the easier time you will have putting things away in the future. It also makes finding things increasingly quicker. Once you're happy with your piles, neatly return them to the shelves and cabinets. As you go, remember what category of items goes where. This is the new home for this kind of object.
Step Six - Repeat
Congratulations! You've purged! One area, at least. When you have more time, keep repeating this process until you've gone through ALL of your belongings. Leave no box unopened. It's not until then you will have complete understanding and control over your space.
Extra Challenge: Paperwork
While objects are relatively easy to send to the wayside, papers pose a different challenge. Years ago, I would keep every appliance manual I came across. Any purchase over $10? Keep the receipt. Instructions for my speakers? Yup. Every single birthday, Christmas, and Valentine's Day card? Stored away. Expired warranties. Homework assignments. College diploma (just kidding, that's worth keeping). You get the idea. Most of us have this irrational tendency to keep any papers that are given to us. But what do you really need in those stacks of papers? Probably very little.
Receipts - Unless it's a big purchase, or one you feel you'll likely return, go ahead and keep the receipt. Otherwise, you really don't need it. For those who work as freelancers or run their own businesses, you can scan your receipts for tax write-offs. You don't need the physical copy.
Manuals - It's the year 2015. You'll have an easier time finding a Youtube video teaching you how to use your device than actually digging up the manual. If not, most companies have all their manuals online.
Birthday and Christmas Cards - I'll admit that I keep a few of these around, but not many. Every year, I'll look through my little stash and throw away the least sentimental to make room for new ones. You shouldn't need to have more than ten cards total.
Warranties - When was the last time you used a paper warranty? I honestly can't think of one instance where it was necessary. Call me lucky, but as long as you're good with your stuff, things tend to last a long time. I do keep warranties on big purchases for the first couple years, but if it's expired, there's no reason to keep it around.
Credit Cards, etc - This includes all old credit cards, debit cards, old licences, library cards, punch cards, super value savings cards. Any sort of card that you have in storage probably isn't providing much value. The ones to hold on to should just be insurance card, your previous ID, active memberships, passport, and anything else that you might actually use. Remember, a credit card with a zero balance all the time is not good for credit.
Time to Relax
Now that your entire home is immaculate, you can sit back and enjoy the new calm that you undoubtedly feel. Your burden has been lightened significantly. Now just don't turn around and buy more stuff! Look at every purchase as a lifelong commitment.