In a workshop on stress that I taught recently for people over the age of 50, I asked what their biggest source of tension was. More than a third said, “Too much stuff!”
Some described a triple whammy: not only did they have too many possessions of their own, but they were still storing stuff belonging to their adult children, plus some things inherited from their parents — three generations of belongings coexisting in the same house.
I’ve found that letting go of our stuff is a lot like losing weight: almost everyone I know wants to shed some excess “baggage,” but few of us are excited about the process of doing it. In the workshops I lead for seniors on decluttering, though, my goal is not only to help people reduce their possessions, but to do it with a gentle, lighthearted spirit. The following 18 steps are key.
1. Attitude Is More Important Than Strategy
A sense of optimism and confidence is crucial, because dealing with our stuff can indeed become exhausting and overwhelming if we don’t take care of ourselves as we do it.
2. Be Vigilant At Point Of Entry
The most reliable way to prevent clutter is not to acquire it in the first place. Every time I consider buying a non-perishable item, I remind myself it will take up space and require maintenance. Do I really want it? I usually find myself saying no. True, a moment of wistfulness takes hold of me as I give up the perfume of ownership, but the whiff always passes.
3. Define What Clutter Is To You
I’ve adopted the definition used by many feng shui practitioners: anything “unfinished, unused, unresolved, tolerated or disorganized.” My weakness is tolerating. For example, I once owned a mosaic candle holder that a friend made for me. There was nothing wrong with it, but it just didn’t inspire me. After several years of trying to convince myself I liked it, I finally gave it away.
4. Make It A Daily Habit
Most people I know put off dealing with their stuff and then push themselves to handle it all in a weekend blitz. Far better to make decluttering a daily 15-20 minute practice, setting aside time for it just like you would other routines like walking, writing in your journal, and skin care. Your success will come about from a daily habit, not an occasional dramatic transformation.
And on the flip side, I also suggest limiting the amount of time you spend, so you look forward to the process and enjoy it without getting bogged down. Set an alarm and don’t drag it out. 15 minutes of daily decluttering not only can accomplish a lot, it can transform your energy. When I’m feeling low-energy or irritable, just a short session of active decluttering will turn my mood around and make me feel upbeat.
5. Open With A Ritual
Lighting a candle, making a cup of tea, putting on music, taking a moment of silence before considering the objects in front of you, and other rituals elevate the task and remind you that you’re doing important, intentional, even sacred work. You’re not just shuffling things around, you’re freeing yourself and creating room for new energy, new opportunities, and a new sense of self.
6. Start Small
Your first goal is to build momentum, so zero in on one — and only one — small, solvable clutter problem. Clear one counter, one shelf, or one drawer. Empty the shelf or counter completely. Place all the objects on a separate table and sort through them, one item at a time. Have a trash bag and give-away bag handy.
7. Then Keep Repeating As Needed
Drawer by drawer, shelf by shelf, corner by corner.
8. Don’t Overthink It!
Clutter is often referred to as “deferred decision-making.” We can’t decide, so we freeze and do nothing. Instead, aim for quick, intuitive decisions. Trust your gut.
9. Keep A “Six Month Box” Nearby
My favorite strategy! I put anything into the box that I don’t think I want but am not ready to toss permanently. My husband, Barry, places the box somewhere out of sight, and our agreement is that if I don’t ask for it within 6 months, he has my agreement to take it to a secondhand store or otherwise deal with it. If you live alone, ask a friend or family member to be the temporary steward of your box. If you’re like me, you’ll never ask for it again.
10. Keep One Small Item Of A Set
I grew up in a Southern family where relics of this or that great-grandparent hung on every wall. But I’ve learned you can love your family and be sentimental without surrounding yourself with childhood mementos. For example, I saved three of the ceramic tiles my mother gave me in the 60s, and they now hang in the patio of our Mexican home. I don’t need a houseful of antiques.
11. Take Photos
During COVID, Barry and I went through our albums, throwing out or digitizing photos, using the app Photomyne, which stores images in the cloud. I also take photos of my bulky, three-dimensional belongings in order to remember them. 10 years ago, when I was letting go of many of my former journals, I realized I was more attached to the colorful covers I had collaged than to the pages within, so I photographed the covers and let go of the contents. Since then, I’ve deleted the images too — and haven’t missed them.
12. Reduce Gift Clutter
If you’re someone who ends up with piles of gifts you don’t want, be proactive and offer your family and friends a list of ideas you’d enjoy, like a coupon for a dinner out, a contribution to your favorite charity, or a ticket to a concert. Studies show that lived experiences are a better gauge of happiness than material things anyway.
13. Ask A Friend To Help
A friend can offer a degree of detachment you simply don’t have. Years ago when I was unhappy with my wardrobe, I tried on every single thing I owned in front of a friend. First we made sure it fit (ha!). Then she’d ask, “Do you like it?” and “Do you feel good in it?”
I had no idea what I’d signed up for! By the time we finished, I had one dress left in my closet, but I slowly built a wardrobe of clothes that made me shine. I could never have accomplished this without her help.
14. Accept That Occasionally You May Add To The Landfill
This is a tough one because no one wants to damage the planet. In an ideal world, we’d give our stuff away or sell it. But sometimes we’re left with the unpleasant choice of either passing it on to someone else to deal with down the line or — wince — taking it to the dump. It’s hard, but occasionally there is no other realistic option.
15. Don’t Count On Your Children To Handle Your Stuff
For generations, aging parents blithely assumed their adult kids would deal with their possessions, as did my dad and my mother-in-law. But that tradition is fast dying, because fewer and fewer adult children want their parents’ stuff, as this article attests.
16. Be Kind To Yourself And To Your Possessions
Dealing with our stuff will bring up deep emotions and many memories — some happy, others not. Try not to blame yourself for past buying decisions you now regret. Remember, investing in the things you wish you didn’t own made sense at the time.
Your belongings deserve respect and kindness, too. Rather than adversaries, see them as friends you’ve outgrown. I follow the advice outlined in Marie Kondo’s best seller, The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up — to thank each possession for what it gave me and respectfully send it on its way.
17. Use Language That Works For You
Phrases like “get rid of,” “trash,” “dump,” and “throw away” feel hard and unfriendly to me, so I use more encouraging words like “release,” “let go of,” and “repurpose.” I would never have been able to let go of my journals if I’d told myself just to “dump” them.
18. Don’t Forget To Celebrate
We each celebrate in different ways. I love to sit in a chair and observe my environment with fresh eyes, appreciating the newly defined spaces between objects. You might want to invite someone over to delight in your space with you. However you choose to celebrate, rejoice and feel proud of yourself.
As I write, I look up from time to time at the print hanging above my desk, painted by a local artist. Against a soft green hillside, delicately patterned kimonos sway on a clothesline tied to cherry trees. I appreciate that picture every day. Whereas the candle holder robbed me of energy, the print of kimonos restores me.
Like my print, the more you surround yourself with things you love — and only things you love — the happier and more peaceful you’ll feel. Light a candle, put on some music, dedicate a clutter box, and begin.