When in Doubt, Part 2: Declutter

Part 2 of the “When In Doubt, Do Everything At Once” series on Taste Life Twice. See Part 1 here.

This series of “When In Doubt” posts will deal specifically with how to get happy when you feel like you’re drowning in more questions than answers. I have frequently been in dips like this, as you can see from many of my posts. Sometimes I work out a problem on the blog here with you, but often it is expressed in activity in another sphere. Here is where I’m showcasing those other activities, and how I deal with uncertainty every day.

Tree growing in library

Too much stuff? Get back to your roots…

Besides traveling to foreign destinations, I learn about myself and the world by decluttering my belongings. This is a huge thing right now, and for very good reason. Declutter superheros like Courtney from Be More With Less or Joshua and Ryan from The Minimalists are pioneering the way for the rest of us who have had it up to here with the insatiable desire of our culture to consume more and more all the time (Um, hel-LO, Black FRIDAY calling!).

Take Stock of What You Have

If you’re getting increasingly less pleasure each time from a shopping spree, here’s what you should do first. When I first started decluttering, before I could throw anything out, I had to make a mental (or you could make it more formal) inventory of things I had that I used, things I had that I didn’t use, and things I didn’t have that I wanted. This helps me both avoid the guilt of purchasing something I already had as well as the inconvenience of keeping or storing something I didn’t want. In theory. (More on that later).

Figure out why

After you have a sense of what you have, now you can consider why you feel the urge to buy, buy, buy, when you have something perfectly serviceable at home. Are you at an emotional low? Are you feeling pressure to look modern and up-to-date? Are you feeling like things are out of control in other parts of your life? These are all reasons why I have gone out and spent $100 a pop– mostly on clothes or books, but others can do it on jewelry, gym memberships, anything. The important point is that you don’t need it. So don’t consume it.

This can get very tricky, especially if your consumption indulgence is food. Obsessing about or being irrational about food is a common problem, and the “why’s” are excellently highlighted by author Geneen Roth in her writing– check her out.

Make It A Mindset

Once you’ve taken stock and gotten some clues as to why you’re feeling the need to consume food, or shoes, or recipes, then you take steps to make it a habit to declutter. When I started, I would dedicate a couple hours to my clothes–  editing the closet, for example. The next weekend, it would be a few hours for going over books and clearing off at least a shelf-full to go to the used bookstore to be sold for credit. The weekend after that, it would be checking that I was using all my kitchen gadgets, and if not, putting them on notice that their days were numbered unless I used them soon.

Taking repeated steps toward a goal helps to make a habit, and from there, you create a mindset by reflecting on the process. It closes the loop, making it a feedback cycle. For example, I did all of the above purges for different areas of my apartment, which helped thin out the mess I was having to deal with. But if I didn’t reflect on the other end– the buying and using end– then I wouldn’t be fully considering how I consume. For example, I see an exotic spice at a specialty store and think, “Ooh, how cool! I want to try making something with that!” I still do think that, but now I also think about the space in my spice rack, the types of meat I have that would go with the spice, the amount of fresh produce I have that probably needs no special treatment… and I realize now is not the time. I will save the dream of using juniper berries until later (le sigh).

Monitor and Change the Incentives

After you’ve constructed this new psychological system for yourself where you are more aware of what you have, why you consume,  and how you can change it, it’s time to test yourself. Do it. See how you feel when you stop yourself from buying that awesome-deal-of-an-iPod, when you already have two. Deprived? Frantically bored? You can journal about it, as some have done, or you can change your incentives, as many others have recommended.

This has been a very hard one for me, especially with food, but here are some of the ways I try to accomplish that mood lift, or that distraction for a hard decision, or whatever I’m not ready to face yet:

  • go for a brisk walk in the cold
  • cook something that takes a lot of concentration
  • read a book in the sunshine
  • do a chore that someone would be astonished to find you doing (shoe-polishing recommended)
  • sit and stare (this is totally OK, for short periods of time)

In general, switch gears. Get out of your own skin for a while so that you can  more rationally see your own behavior. I’ve been on the declutter train for several years now, and just took a big step: buying an e-reader. Now I can go through and edit my bookshelves of all the books that are free in e-book form, at least, and I have hopes for much more ambitious purging as well!

Final Note on Forgiveness

I alluded to this above, that this is a system that can work very well, in theory. However, I know if you’ve read this far, you’re interested in many aspects of self-improvement, and have probably got a lot of projects going that fascinate you. So remember not to be absolutely black-and-white about whether the system is working for you. First of all, you can always tweak the system, if you need more or less discipline for the monitoring, or the questioning, or the switching gears part. Adapting any system to work for your personality and incentives is key to getting results from that system.

Second, if you are trying to adapt but still finding yourself slipping into automatic mode, finding a stash of new Christmas bulbs the next time you come back from CVS, for example (ahem), forgive yourself, and don’t toss the whole idea because it’s not working. Give yourself some space, some time, and try again. Because that’s the mark of someone who can deal with uncertainty and still be happy.

What do you think? Do you have a completely different view of decluttering? Have you tried it and tossed it? Let us hear in the comments!

8 Responses to When in Doubt, Part 2: Declutter

  1. Margaret, I think your part on forgiveness is absolutely central. I’m personally not a big minimalist anyway (at least not in the sense of some of the more popular blogs); but then, I never had a problem with hoarding too much stuff, either.

    But what I really like about that bit is the notion of “trying again”. Because here’s the thing: There are certain habits, practices and ideas that we can see as positive and accept on one level of our existence, but that are difficult to implement into our daily life. So we will fail at that; and, most probably, we will fail more than just a couple of times. But that doesn’t make the habit, practice or idea less valid – we might just have to keep “trying again” until it sticks.

    • Fabian- good point! It gets at what makes systems sustainable, and often times, that’s a very personal thing to capture. You’re lucky if you didn’t get the genetic predisposition to “collect” 😉

  2. How did I miss the declutter post? I’m a FlyBaby from way back! Whenever my life seems completely out of control, I declutter, reorganize and clean. It’s my way of saying and feeling I’m going to have control over something, dammit. I’m in the process of weeding out years and years of accumulated stuff. I’ve gotten into the habit of closely looking at things in drawers, cabinets or closets when I go in them to get something. I ask, “Is there anything in here that I never use or doesn’t bring my the life satisfaction I thought it would?” It’s amazing how many things I’ve moved to my rec room waiting for me to take the next step of moving them out the door to new homes!

    • Lori- for me, I still have the hangup of being afraid to waste something, e.g. someone made this for me, or bought this for me, and I can’t just throw it away… the order of best use goes from selling the item, to giving it to a friend or someone on freecycle, to recycling or donating, to throwing away. And it’s hard to let go of the feeling that I should try harder to be at the top of that scale when decluttering, but with time and space constraints as they are now, I’m feeling much freer!

    • Btw, what’s a FlyBaby, Lori? And good point- it’s all in the habits, a type of mindfulness that forgets the perpetually-thinking mind and kicks into the values that you hold and aspire to. A challenging skill to acquire!

  3. Pingback: When in Doubt, Part 6: Average a Book a Week, Or, Be Voracious | Taste Life Twice

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