Throwing Your Life Away

What to do when getting rid of your things feels like throwing a part of your life away…

ult frisbee cleats bottom
(#2311: soccer/ultimate cleats; trashed — also see narrative details below)

Do you hold on to some of your things because you’re afraid of throwing a part of your life away?

During a recent meeting of one of my writers’ groups, someone said that she felt as if she was throwing a part of her life away when she was getting rid of some of her items. Though this was not the first time I’d heard this sentiment, it struck a chord with me this time. In fact, to me it’s another one of our more common inner voices — You can’t get rid of that; it’d be throwing a part of your life away!

I’ve been hearing this inner voice a lot lately since I’ve been working so much on getting rid of mementos. Of course there are some things that we want to keep for sentimental reasons. Or maybe we think we’ll find a use for it someday, or gain an important insight or memory or moment of happiness or joy.

At the same time, when my fellow writer said this, I heard an inner voice with a different view: you may think you are throwing a part of your life away, but you aren’t really.  There are, in fact, multiple meanings to “throwing (a part of) your life away” besides the fear of losing something valuable or important to one’s life.

In my experience, a more common and insidious version of throwing your life away is to hold onto things in a way that prevents one from realizing their value, whether it’s having too many things or they’re forgotten or never used. Instead of holding our lives, our things end up blocking our lives; they get in the way instead of becoming part of the flow.

Another, more obvious meaning is that “throwing your life away” can be something you actually want to do.  Several books I’ve read on decluttering emphasize the value of doing this to make space (physical, mental, and emotional) for new and wonderful things in your life, or as a way of getting unstuck from old patterns and forming new ones.

These alternate meanings suggest to me three useful and related strategies for dealing with this issue. One is to consciously let go of some things and to separate the wheat from the chaff. I’ve also found this to be particularly useful for more difficult mementos which reflect parts of my life which were once very important to me such as teaching ESL, aikido, college papers, or journal notes. Sometimes this is relatively easy, for instance the soccer cleats I wore to play ultimate frisbee (#2311 above) back in the day. The cleats were at least 35 years old, and the dirt has been on them for close to a decade at least; a cleat is missing, and they even have a tear on the side. I’ve only worn them once in the past 20 years, and I don’t plan to wear them again. So this pair of cleats was relatively easy to throw out.  Even for more difficult mementos, a strategy of culling artifacts has helped me get rid of most of them, while keeping some as reminders and others for which I’m not quite yet ready to let go.

Another strategy is to separate the thing from its meaning and value. Can you capture the meaning and value of an object by taking and saving a picture of it? Making a short video? Telling and capturing a short (or long) story about it? In other words, can you retain or preserve its meaning and value without actually having physical possession of it?

Even though I’ve done this a number of times now, it doesn’t cease to amaze me how little I miss most things once they’re gone. I rarely even look at the pictures or videos or stories, although perhaps some day I will.

Sometimes, I found that it’s enough to revisit the object one more time, remember it, and then let it go for good without creating any new artifact of remembrance. Going through mementos for a sustained period also satiates me; the process reminds me that I’ve been fortunate to have a rich life with lots of wonderful experiences. The resulting feeling of abundance makes me more willing to give more of my stuff away. It also helps me remember that I’m better off having fewer things and being able to enjoy them, rather than keeping so many things that their value and meaning get lost in the shuffle.

Curating is a third strategy. If there are many of the same item or set of items, can you cull or select a few that will represent the many?  Of course, some things are complete sets for which it doesn’t make sense to separate. But many items can be separated; currently, I’m doing this with my son’s artwork. In this case, I’m keeping most of it for him to look at because it is his stuff, but I’ve also culled out some pieces for which there are many other similar examples, which have been damaged beyond repair, or which I’m willing to guess that neither of us really needs to keep in physical form (for example, see #2486 below)— especially given that I’m still keeping hundreds of other pieces.

CHS star photo 3rd grade
(#2486: school art from 3rd grade; recycled)

Still, I’ve had many conversations with people who are so attached to their stuff that they can’t bear to part with any of it, even as they recognize that it’s getting in their way. I’m not sure my suggestions are very helpful for that level of attachment.  But, as a quote I read the other day so wisely puts it, “We change our behavior when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing.”  More on that in my next post…

On Finding Good Homes for My Stuff

Sometimes it’s important to find a good home for your things — somewhere else…

LLWS program front

(#2079: Little League World Series program, 1962; Donated). Sent this off today to the LLWS Museum as a donation; wrote a note saying it was in honor of my dad, who was a Little League coach and assistant coach and kept score for the game we attended.

Getting rid of my stuff thoughtfully has meant learning to follow a few simple rules in the actual process:

  • Avoid putting something in the trash unless it’s really necessary.
  • Recycle useless objects when possible.
  • Spend at least a moment thinking about the thing and what it has meant to me.
  • Find a good home for something which seems to merit one.

In practice, of course, the process has hardly been this pure. Some days I put stuff in the trash without much of a second thought; spending a moment may mean more like a second, for instance recycling a piece of paper which I’m sure has some deeper meaning to me if I thought about it more deeply. This question becomes a key part of the curating process: when to spend time trying to remember or otherwise extract a meaningful moment, and when to simply let it go.

I don’t have reliable go-to answers for this question yet. Here are two good examples: these wooden statuettes are mementos from former ESL students of mine, but I can’t remember the stories behind them. Who gave them to me? What country are they (the students, the statuettes) from? Sadly, I no longer remember. So these two things are in one of my staging nests awaiting a decision about where a good home would be for them.


Conversely, there are objects which have been very hard to let go, many of which I still have. Some of them I’ve handled numerous times, perhaps even a dozen or more in some cases. This has hardly been rational or efficient, but it is still useful in reminding me of the hold my things have on me even now, after having gotten rid of 2,000+ of them (more on that in my next post).

Overall, though, I’ve learned that there is no Right Answer when deciding how much time to spend with each thing since it’s ultimately a very personal decision, but it’s also inevitable that some things will get a lot of attention, and others will get little or no attention.

Freecycle is great for finding a good home for your things more thoughtfully. It will require more effort — creating emails, replying to multiple responses, managing the pickup process, and occasionally having to deal with no-shows. Freecycle is particularly good for generating gratitude — recipients are usually glad to have your item and will often tell you so, which is nice. Even more reliable is feeling grateful to be rid of the things once they’re gone. So Freecycle is a good choice when “finding a good home” is important to you.

What about those things that you don’t care about so much but don’t want to treat as junk either? I’ve found that Goodwill is a good option in this case, and especially good for getting rid of a lot of culled things at one time. I’d never used Goodwill until recently, but I’m starting to run out of items that my other charities of choice will take. Then a few months ago, a colleague told me about he regularly collected items to take to Goodwill en masse, and his story persuaded me that it was a good strategy.

It’s essential to know what items your local Goodwill will take or not take; if you have more than one Goodwill available locally, it’s also essential to find out which one takes the widest selection of stuff. Once you find one of those, it’s culling and assembly time! When I started the 1000 things project, I had a colleague tell me that she got rid of 100 things in one weekend, and it just about killed her! My reaction then was ‘well, no wonder; that’s way too much stuff to tackle in one weekend.’ And it can be too much, depending on the stuff involved and how it’s organized. But since then, I’ve gotten rid of 100 things in one day twice, and both times, it has involved Goodwill. “100 things in one day” is misleading in that I didn’t do all the work in one day; I spent some time culling and organizing into staging nests until I had a sizable collection assembled, then I took it to Goodwill.

That doesn’t mean that Goodwill is always the best solution for your decluttering process. I don’t feel entirely comfortable getting rid of things there because it feels to some extent like I’m somehow passing the problem on to someone else, even though what I’m giving them is not junk. One thing that makes me feel more comfortable about the process is to include some relatively valuable items, especially ones which I have no particular attachment to. For instance, the last batch included a Lenox flower vase and serving tray. I don’t really know how valuable these things are or were, but the point for me is to make the act one of generosity, not just purging.  Goodwill is a good solution for finding new homes for those items which I have no lingering attachment but which are likely to have some value to others — in other words, for those items for which I don’t find a need for a whole lot of thoughtfulness. For instance, there was this pitcher from Spain which we may have bought during our trip there, but I don’t remember the back story anymore, and there’s no one else who knows or cares now either. So better to let such things go IMO.

It may also make a difference that I’ve now gotten rid of over 2,000 items using this thoughtful process. It’s been a great experience, but I’m starting to wonder if I’m getting tired of being this thoughtful about the process — and even about the notion of counting itself. More about that in my next post…

Some tips on decluttering

I’m not inclined to give advice about decluttering — but since someone asked…

outbox 103015
Decluttering tips in action: I’m long past the “low hanging fruit” stage, but emptying this outbox (which can sometimes take me 2-3 hours depending on how full it is) utilizes a mix of categorical (papers, mementos) and spatial (office, papers from storage bins in basement) strategies — and yes, the process of emptying this outbox is definitely therapeutic for me!

Recently, someone who was planning a possible move in the not-too-distant future asked me for advice about how to get rid of enough things to be ready for this move if it happens. I was reluctant at first to provide advice because that has never been the intention of my own 1000 things projects.  My writings about the projects are meant to be descriptive, and I don’t want them to end up as prescriptions for how others should do their own journeys.  But, since I was asked for advice, here are some of the ideas I shared about how I would proceed under her circumstances based on my recent experience and stories from others.

Go for the low hanging fruit first — In effect, this is the first stage in the culling process: pick out the obvious stuff first. For someone who’s planning to move, the most likely pivotal question is, “do I want to move this or not?” In this particular situation, this person wants to keep some things but not necessarily move them right away, so the process may involve deciding what to keep, what to pitch, and what to put in temporary storage.  I’ve had other people tell me that when they’ve done this and gone back to their storage, they realized that the things they kept in storage they really didn’t need after all. If you go this route, your experience may be similar — or different.

Mix spatial and categorical strategies, that is, go back and forth between spatial areas (for example, a corner of a room, a closet, a shelf of boxes, a file cabinet drawer) and categories (books, clothes, mementos, etc.) when selecting where to declutter next. I’m not a big fan of using just one of these strategies exclusively; it didn’t work for me when I tried it, and I liked the variety of going back and forth between areas and categories. One possible drawback of this mixed approach is that it’s harder to get that feeling of progress from noticeably altering a spatial or categorical area more quickly. So I used the counting of items I got rid of to get that sense of progress instead.

Your experience might be very different if you’re in a greater hurry, though. In that case, you might find it more effective to cull the low hanging fruit by space, for instance selecting the obvious items to get rid of first in a room or closet or section of the house, or by category, for instance by identifying pieces of furniture or clothing that you want to get rid of first.

Do your decluttering in two- to three-hour segments, or sprints — I got this idea from reading the book SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life (my review of the book is here), and I’ve found it works well as a guideline. I should say up front that I am generally incapable of following a rule like this for an extended period of time. For example, I will use the Pomodoro technique (25 minutes on task, five-minute break) now and then to structure a stretch of tasks during my workday, but I can almost never do more than two or three of these at a stretch, and sometimes I can only do one. So while I say that doing your decluttering in two- to three-hour segments is an effective strategy, that doesn’t mean I do it very well. So what does that tell you? Perhaps it tells you to try something and then adapt it to your needs.

I will say that I’ve been able to use the idea of “sprints” effectively. This idea comes from the world of software development and refers to a set period of time of focused work on a project, often with the goal of completing a specific set of work. The key elements are focus, time boundaries, and (to a lesser extent for me) some sort of goal. I tend to set a numerical goal such as getting rid of x number of things (or preparing x number of things for ‘disposal’) within a time period.  Someone who’s trying to move more quickly might find a spatial focus to be more effective here, for instance clearing out one file drawer or a closet or a corner of a room.

Use decluttering as therapy — This idea comes from a friend of mine who recently described to me how she spent a few hours cleaning out a closet in her home that was bothering her. The process made her feel much better when she was done; in fact, she described it as therapy.  Hearing this story was an ‘aha’ moment for me: decluttering can be great therapy!  I took her idea and ran with it a little bit more — imagine your home as being, in effect, a collection of therapy sessions-in-waiting: convenient (do them at a time of your choosing), effective (that feeling of release when you see a space that is clutter-free, organized, liberated even), and, perhaps best of all, free! No need to spend $175-200 on formal therapy when you can create your own therapy session; all it requires is your time and attention.

Create a staging nest to start with — This is the place where you put the things you’ve culled but can’t yet get rid of them at that moment. You could start with more than one; I’ve generally had several staging nests at one time, but this particular person did not have a lot of free dwelling space to set up multiple staging areas. Having just one to start with is still good; even though I’ve found that staging nests do not work well as motivators — I’ve looked at staging nests for months at a time without doing anything about them — they do work well as part of a larger process, especially for getting rid of large numbers of things or identifying items which require special attention. More on that in my next post…

Paying Attention: The Root of a Solution

The next time I go to Amazon to reflexively save a few bucks on a purchase, first I will pay attention…

More specifically, I will think about the intersection of these two articles: The Life and Death of an Amazon Warehouse Temp, and To Get at the Root of Spending, Pay Attention. Here are some excerpts from the first article:

“the company’s fulfillment centers are not sweatshops..At the same time, we are living in an era of maximum productivity. It has never been easier for employers to track the performance of workers and discard those who don’t meet their needs… [which] means showing up to work every day with the knowledge that you are always disposable…and yet …this precarious existence now represents one of the only remaining potential paths to a middle-class life.”

I’ll think about the Amazon worker story not because this is a story about horrible working conditions or outrageous exploitation or even moral clarity. The appropriate response is not immediately clear to me: do I stop shopping at Amazon and exhort others to do the same out of righteous moral indignation? Somehow, I find it easy to imagine a large group of warehouse workers who would exhort me NOT to do that. They would say that having their job may be a “precarious existence” but is still better than nothing; like Jeff, they would believe that they have at least a foothold on a path up, even if they literally die trying.

Which made me think of this second article that I read recently, in particular the following excerpts:

On my next trip, I made a point to pay attention to how much I spent for my lunch…I didn’t do anything with this information that day. I just noticed it and found it interesting… [an] outward focus on tips and tricks to control our spending might be important, but what is far more important is the inner work we can do by paying attention to what we do with our money… I just noticed what I was doing with my money and, for me, things changed.

What if spending without noticing what we’re doing is at the root of our problem with overspending? If that’s true, then the simple act of noticing what we’re doing is at the root of the solution.

Thoughtless consumerism (for lack of a better term; feel free to suggest one!) is a similarly ambiguous situation. Thoughtlessness can be a good thing; indeed, as individuals and as a society, we utterly depend on it. I’ve sat here typing these last 400+ words without giving a single thought to the multitudes of people who have made it possible — designers, manufacturers, transporters, salespeople, and others who have brought me my computer and the desk it sits on and the chair I sit in and the clothes I wear — including, quite possibly, someone like Jeff who snatched one or more of these items off a shelf in some faraway warehouse.

The issues, as usual, are boundary issues: when does thoughtlessness become harmful, even toxic? In my case, I have the luxury of not having to be particularly watchful about my spending, which makes it even easier to be thoughtless. But my 1000 things projects experiences have taught me that being thoughtless about my consuming has its perils.

The NYT article offers an antidote which I’ve found helpful: the simple act of noticing does change things; it is the root of a solution. So, the next time I go to Amazon to reflexively save a few bucks on a purchase, first I will pay attention. I’m not sure what I’ll think next: will I decide to purchase somewhere else? Will I decide not to buy anything at all? Will I come to some clearer sense of how my actions affect a few people working in an obscure fulfillment center? Will I decide to try to make a purchase that I think will somehow be a healthier one for those whose job it is to fulfill my purchase? I don’t know yet — partly because paying attention also opens the door to a potentially exhausting complexity of decisions.

One example: my last online purchase was some bath towels from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. I deliberately chose them instead of Amazon because they had a better selection and because it was not Amazon. I briefly had a passing thought of moral superiority because I forewent choosing Amazon. But now that I’m paying attention to that purchase retrospectively, I realize the foolishness of that thought: just because I’ve heard bad things about Amazon’s fulfillment practices doesn’t mean that BB&B’s are any better.

Paying attention to one’s purchases is a tricky bastard; the root of a solution is not a solution. But just noticing what I do with my consuming is the root, and the route, to a better place…

Book Review: Zero Waste Home

zero waste home graphic

Lots of good advice and tips (five stars); don’t be scared off by its extremes — worth the read overall (four stars).

Of the five books I read this summer, Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste by Bea Johnson is by far the most extreme. How extreme? Imagine a family of four generating only a quart of garbage — every year.

Obviously, getting to this level of waste reduction takes us far beyond simple decluttering, and as the subtitle implies, the Zero Waste Home approach places its primary emphasis on the intake side of your stuff. Although Johnson notes early on that the book “will encourage you to declutter,” her eyes are clearly on bigger prizes: “a better environment” and “a better you” [Kindle location 170]. The path for doing this is by “understanding the effect of our purchasing power on the environment and acting accordingly” [192]. In this context, decluttering is about not just getting rid of stuff, but learning how to refrain from collecting stuff in the first place. While Zero Waste Home does not have a method for decluttering, Johnson did have a motto which she and her family applied when they downsized to a much smaller house: “What we did not truly use, need, and love had to go” [85]. Using this motto, the author’s family reportedly got rid of 80 percent of their belongings within two years.

Zero Waste Home certainly delivers on its promise to “take you beyond the typical eco-friendly alternatives covered well in other publications” [179]. For starters, the book takes the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra one step further at each end, by adding refusing (what we do not need) as the best option and rotting (composting) as the option of final resort. But getting to Zero Waste in today’s society is another matter altogether; indeed, Johnson describes Zero Waste as “an idealistic goal, a carrot to get as close as possible” [188] and notes that “this is not a book about achieving absolute Zero Waste,” [187] which is not possible because of current manufacturing practices in place. The author should know: as first she tried to do things that even she found to be too extreme — churning her own butter, making her own lip balm, even foraging for moss to use instead of toilet paper [152], before she backed off in order to find some balance.  Even so, her family’s resulting “balance” is quite extreme for most people: using kitchen towels for sandwich bags instead of plastic ones [711], using cloth bags to buy all your produce and bulk items [862-66], or taking your bread home from a bakery in a pillowcase [873], to name just a few.

Fortunately, you don’t have to go to such extremes to derive value from the book. In fact, this book generated the largest number of useful tips (almost 20 of them, to be exact) of any of the books I read on decluttering. Perhaps this is because at this point I am as interested in reducing my intake of stuff as I am of getting rid of it. Some of the things I’ve already done (for instance, using microfiber cloths to replace paper towels; creating a reuse paper bin for printing on both sides; asking family members which of them wants my Kitchen Aid mixer which I never use).

Although the book is chock full of tips for reducing clutter (the word (de)clutter and its variants appear over 60 times in the book’s narrative), a lot of the book’s tips are about avoiding the creation of additional clutter by refusing to accept stuff, for instance by thinking twice before letting anything new into your house [306] or considering the life cycle and choosing only products you can reuse or recycle [316]. Again, most people would find such tips to be onerous as a unremitting regime, but they can also be handy tools to have in one’s decluttering toolbox. Happily, Zero Waste Home also includes useful sections to help with systematically reducing the clutter in various areas of your house and life, for instance getting rid of kitchen gadgets and specialty items that are not worth the space [612-636], having a carefully selected small “capsule wardrobe” [1840] which emphasizes style and quality over fashion and quantity, and tackling the formidable nests that are bathroom cabinets [1288].

Perhaps Zero Waste Home’s most useful contribution to the decluttering process is a series of questions to ask during the downsizing process [e.g., 641]:

– Is it in working condition? Is it outdated or expired?
– Do I use it regularly?
– Is it a duplicate?
– Does it put my family’s health in danger?
– Do I keep it out of guilt?
– Do I keep it because society tells me that I need one (“everyone has one”)?
– Does it truly save time, as promised?
– Could something else achieve the same task?
– Is it worth my precious time dusting and cleaning?
– Could I use this space for something else?
– Is it reusable?

I like that this list of questions is a menu rather than a checklist; the questions are varied enough so that I can pick and choose which ones are appropriate to ask for a given item rather than feeling like I’m supposed to ask each question of every item (which is a non-starter for me). This makes the list another set of handy tools to use in the decluttering process, particularly for dealing with difficult or sticky decisions about individual objects.

These takeaways are important because at times, the book’s single-minded focus on getting as close to Zero Waste as possible seems more fanatic than sensible. Even though Johnson says early in the book that “how much waste one generates is not important” and that “everyone can adopt the changes that are possible in their life” [191], Zero Waste Home also spends a fair amount of time prescribing correct behavior. For instance, “shopping should always start” with buying used items, preferably at thrift stores, garage sales, or online sites such as Amazon and Craiglist [380]. Such prescriptions at times lead to rather unhelpful assertions; for example, saying that “stuff takes us away from our roots, from the outdoors” [552] is only part of the story, and disposables [711] are not pure evil but in fact can save time and offer convenience, which is a different kind of freedom from making our own stuff. Zero Waste Home‘s emphasis on avoiding packaging at all costs sometimes leads to rather absurd concessions, as when Johnson advises readers to refill a beer jug at a local brewery but notes that this method requires being ready to drink a gallon of beer at once before the beer loses its carbonation; her solution to “have some friends over” [925] is a pretty weak and unreliable one.

In the end, Zero Waste Home amply demonstrates its premise (whether intentionally or not) that Zero Waste is an “idealistic goal” which requires going to extremes that most people won’t accept, including me. Even so, you can find value in this book without having to embrace its extremes, especially its many useful resources on decluttering both as a process of getting rid of things and as a process of refusing to take them in.  Even adopting just a few of the book’s suggestions will help you move the needle toward building a healthier relationship with your stuff.

Book Review: Breathing Room: Open Your Heart by Decluttering Your Home

breathing room cover graphic

Still more good advice and tips (five stars); spiritual approach with limited appeal (three stars); worth the read overall (four stars).

Breathing Room: Open Your Heart by Decluttering Your Home by Melva Green, Lauren Rosenfeld is yet another variation on the theme of using the decluttering process to change your life: in this case, decluttering as “a spiritual process that involves coming into communion with what is truly important” [Kindle location 96].

Given that this was the fourth of five books on decluttering which I read this summer, my reading goals were continuing to evolve. I was still looking for new tips and ideas, as well as examples which confirmed what I learned from my ‘1000 things project,’ but I was also even more focused on what made my project and my book different from the other books I was reading. One of the important differences which Breathing Room helped make clear to me is the very notion of clutter itself. Breathing Room’s definition of clutter is, in effect, anything that’s getting in the way of you living your life the way you want:

Here’s the deal, and it’s pretty darned simple: Whether the clutter is in your home, heart, mind, or spirit; if it’s weighing you down, crowding you out, blocking your light, cramping your style; if it’s become an obstacle you keep stumbling over; if it continually cuts you with a broken, jagged edge; if it’s stopping you from finding the things you really love, then it’s time for you to let it go [245].

The authors’ “honest truth” is that “you only have room and time for what you truly love, [357] hence the need “for you to make some space for what truly matters. It’s time you found a little breathing room” [248].

It’s important to understand that this definition of clutter is distinctly different from what you or I might have in mind. By Breathing Room’s definition, a cluttered desk or nest of things in a closet is not really clutter if it’s not getting in your way; conversely, a single object could be clutter if it’s “cramping your style” or “weighing you down.” In effect, defining your things (or your emotions or thoughts for that matter) as clutter depends more or less entirely on their effect on you.

In this context, it’s not surprising that Breathing Room makes large, outsized claims about the stakes and potential benefits of the decluttering process.  Green and Rosenfeld assert that “decluttering is a deep spiritual practice that can bring you closer to your true self, the people you love, and your Divine Source” [238].  In their view, one’s clutter is hiding “spiritual lessons and emotional ah-has” which are there waiting to help you liberate your home and your heart, “give flight to your spirit and rock your world” [144]. Perhaps this is because the authors’ experiences were based on their work with extreme cases (co-author Green was a consultant on the TV show Hoarders), I found myself wondering if the primary audience for this book is serious hoarders, for which the heavy spiritual emphasis is an antidote; extreme problems demand extreme solutions.

Although Breathing Room recognizes that the decluttering process is a “complex” and “personal” journey and that “only you know how to make that journey safe and comfortable” [149-153], this happens in the context of its “spiritual method of decluttering” which is called SLICE, an acronym for “Stop and Listen. Intend. Clear the Energy” [165].  The method itself is demanding  — the first step (Stop and Listen) asks no less of you than to “change your habits of being” [176] — and for me it goes off track by reading too much into our clutter, which for them represents “our history, fears, worries, and uncomfortable and painful emotions” [182]. Indeed, the authors assert that our emotions “tend to generate clutter” [188] that “blocks our hearts” [330]. The solution to all this is to use decluttering to create empty spaces, which are “full of pure potential, a vast openness into which we can invite any energy we desire” [265].

This does not match my experience with the 1000 things project. For instance, Breathing Room’s assertion that “we create our clutter unconsciously, through indecision, fear, and running away” is rather naive if you ask me; our consumerist society which encourages us to accumulate things thoughtlessly has a major role to play in this too. The authors also seem to uncritically criticize all “time-saving” devices that in fact “are not only consuming physical space and time, but they are also taking up mental and emotional energy” [353]. There is an element of truth to this in many cases, but I still happen to think a blender is quite handy, thank you.

As a result, I found Breathing Room’s approach to be foreign for my own purposes for the most part.  For me, decluttering can be a deep spiritual practice, or it can be something more mundane than that. The 1000 things project aims to support self-directed journeys rather than directly aiming for life-changing experiences, so a 1000 things project can be far less ambitious than aiming to serve one’s “Highest Self” [234], for instance. Likewise, in my experience decluttering doesn’t have to revolve around “love” or “joy.” Although Breathing Room offers a somewhat broader list of choices as did SHED Your Stuff and Letting Go — “happiness, freedom, joy, ease, or love” [385], this is not a complete list either; for instance, there is more to purpose than “ease” — things like security, safety, comfort, utility, giving, and lots of other positive things as well.

I did find some nuggets in Breathing Room here and there. The authors’ advice to

listen to your clutter. Yes, clutter speaks. It speaks volumes! It can tell us about our attachments, fears, and worries. It can regale us with regrets about missed opportunities or our disappointments in life. This is not easy stuff that our clutter has to say [504]

reminds me of the inner voices I encountered in my 1000 things project, and their description was more involved than what I encountered, so I’ve started listening more closely during my second 1000 things project currently in progress.  The notion that “our lives are overburdened by physical reflections of our emotional exhaustion” [351] could be another useful insight in moderation (vs. as the basis for an entire method or process).  The notion of decluttering as relief and release is another appealing concept for me moving forward. Who knows, maybe I haven’t reached this deep a spiritual level yet, and this serious level of a journey still awaits me. But I suspect not; so far I’ve been satisfied with where my own 1000 things project journeys have taken me.

Breathing Room looks like an excellent resource for someone who is in dire straits relative to their relationship with their things, or for someone who wants their decluttering process to be a deep spiritual journey. If that description doesn’t fit you, you’ll most likely find a more simpatico approach elsewhere.

Book Review: Letting Go: The Dao of Decluttering

letting go book cover graphic

More good advice and tips (five stars); overly prescriptive method (one and a half stars); worth the read overall (four stars).

Letting Go: The Dao of Decluttering: Create Joy through Decluttering, Minimalism, And a Life of Less by Kate Evans Scott and Melinda K. Bryce is another book which claims to have “the most effective process for decluttering your home,” a process based on “Joy and Purpose” [Kindle location 150].  As its subtitle implies, Letting Go combines two distinct decluttering sub-genres: minimalism and life improvement.  At least in my experience, the more severe proponents of a minimalist lifestyle (relative to one’s material possessions) advocate for their approach because it’s the Right Thing To Do: Save the Planet, maintain one’s personal purity, and the like.  Less austere proponents tout the personal benefits of a “life with less:” satisfaction, happiness, and other good things. Letting Go falls in this camp and takes it a step further: decluttering, minimalism, and a life of less will create Joy (yes, capital J) in your life, which is as much of a need as “food, water, shelter, sleep, safety, and security” [80].

It’s worth pointing out that this was the third of five books on decluttering which I read this summer. So by this time, my reading goals had evolved: I was looking new tips and ideas, as well as examples which confirmed what I learned from my ‘1000 things project.’  I never had any interest in following someone’s else method, so by the time I read Letting Go, my patience for prescription was wearing even thinner, and Letting Go lays on the prescription rather thickly — at least as strong as Tidying Up and much worse than SHED Your Stuff. It doesn’t take long for Letting Go to start telling you how to live your life, with an Rx that could have ‘clean your home, cleanse yourself’ on the label. For instance, there’s the assertion that “Your home should be your sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the outside world.  When you walk through your front doors, it should feel like a cleansing breath” [76]. Likewise, “Mindful decluttering is a cleansing process. Once you have cleansed away the superfluous items” [105], you won’t need to worry about organization. Authors Scott and Bryce tell you what your goal should be instead: organizing? No… “That is not your goal.  Your goal is to free yourself of the negative energy surrounding you” [108]. Thus it’s no surprise that Letting Go is similarly prescriptive about smaller decisions as well, such as the number of paper items from your child’s life to keep (a dozen per year is “practical” [655]) or the number of blankets to have (one; you’ll take better care of it, be more grateful and attract positive energy [677]). As with Tidying Up, Scott and Bryce also believe that “it is much more effective to clear clutter by category” [156], that the things you discard can find a New Life [170], and they also display occasional OCD tendencies such as the prescription to have color-coded place settings for each family member [307].

Despite its prescriptive tone, Letting Go confirmed some of the insights I gained from my 1000 things project and also offered new tips and advice that resonated with me. Among the insights that echoed my experience were the authors’ observation that clutter which fills your house drains both your physical and mental space [92]. Letting Go also advocates curating your things by taking valued objects out of storage and putting them on display and treating them like prized possessions which honors the memories themselves [644, 666].  The authors also recommend photographing childhood mementos and creating a scrapbook to help let go of the physical version [656]. The dual goals of Joy and Purpose [113] echo my goals of identifiable purpose or value, although I tend to use a broader range of criteria, for instance comfort and satisfaction among others.  Letting Go also asserts the importance of gratitude, although it places more emphasis on generating self-gratitude [692] rather than receiving gratitude from others.

Even though I don’t believe that decluttering by category is always the most effective method, I do like that Letting Go has more categories for things than Tidying Up, which makes the method a bit easier to tackle.  Although the notion of letting clothes “find a New Life with someone” else is a little woo-woo for my liking, it did help inspire me to do another culling of my clothing with this idea in mind.

Letting Go also offers useful insights about the time, energy, and attention costs of our possessions, for instance its description of how a piece of clothing can ‘own’ us:

If it was a popular name brand, you might have had to work five hours or more for that dress…What better activities could you have done with that five hours?
This is precisely how what you own, owns you.  That dress owns five hours of your time.  If you don’t love it, if it doesn’t bring you Joy, then that’s five hours not very well spent.  Look into your closet—How much time is in there? [228]

Although I believe that the notion of a maximized alternative is a fallacy — we most likely would have spent that time working or loafing or something else less than maximal — I do like the idea of considering how much time and effort we embed into our things, and whether we our energies would be better expended or served in some other way.  Letting Go follows a common trend of advocating for “experiences” rather than gifts [458]; in my opinion, this is also too pat of a response (many experiences require considerable time, resources, or expense), shifting from things to experiences, as well as the idea of purchasing many fewer, higher quality, more valued things, are both useful strategies for building a healthier relationship with our things.

And while I’m not willing to go as far as Letting Go does (as do SHED Your Stuff and Tidying Up) by asserting that clearing the clutter in your physical space will automatically bring you joy, reset your life [674], or clear your mind so much that “you may be able to finally focus on that dream of starting your own business, or you could become more focused on your studies” [196], such things can and do happen sometimes, whether you choose to embrace the authors’ prescriptions or not. At the very least, Letting Go does offer useful tips for you to pick and choose as you engage in your own decluttering journey.