The best things carried to excess are wrong.–Charles Churchill (18th century satirist)
Minimalism is a tool to eliminate life’s excess, focus on the essentials, and find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.–Joshua Fields Millman (co-founder of the Minimalists.com)
Confession: I might have a shoe problem. It may be just a tiny bit excessive. The good news? I haven’t bought a single pair of shoes in 10 months—not even a pair of boots! Actually, like so many people during Covid, I really haven’t shopped for much except more “activewear” so I could be more comfortable lounging!
Confession #2: I might border on having some hoarding behaviors. (Disclaimer: I understand it’s genetic.) But I am feeling the pressure of a house full of excess and I’m ready to pare down to the essential and dump the excess by donating or discarding.
According to Joshua Millman and Ryan Nicodemus (The Minimalists), Minimalism is a philosophy that moves us beyond things so we can make room for what is important in life—which are not things at all. Minimalists don’t focus on having less, but rather, posit that they focus on making room for more: more time, more passion, more creativity, more experiences, more contribution, more contentment, more freedom. Clearing the clutter from life’s path helps make that room.
What you should also know about Millman and Nicodemus is that they were extraordinarily successful before the age of 30, making substantial six-figure salaries and living a “big life” of luxury cars, homes, and stuff–hardly the typical story for most of us. Finding that lifestyle unsatisfying, they left their jobs and began to “downsize” at an age when most other people are still building their lives and accumulating things. Now, Millman, with his wife and their daughter, claim to own fewer than 288 items. I don’t know about you, but this makes me anxious and I find it rather extreme—and extremism is not a philosophy I find appealing. I am much more of a committed moderate. But I still believe there is an important lesson here. I should also note, that with the success of their minimalist blog, books, podcasts, etc., they are very generous philanthropists.
Marie Kondo, professional organizing consultant, built her reputation and brand based on her goal to help people “tidy up” or declutter. With her simple, native Japanese sensibility for style, she suggests that you pick up each item and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” If not, donate or discard that thing. (If you want a great laugh, watch the Holderness Family’s parody song, You just got KonMari-ed!)
2020 has been an interesting year in that we were less able to shop recreationally. “Oh, that’s pretty!” “I think I want this thing.” Or “I’m bored, I’ll just go browse.” Then we come home with more. It’s also been a year when we’ve discovered just how little we really need. Coincidentally, I had friends who (unrelated) made a resolve to do more with less last year. Without anticipating the shut-down, one decided he would not order anything on Amazon for one year. Another resolved not to buy any clothes for a year. Without any specific intent, I already mentioned that I shopped for almost nothing.
I think we all probably agree we can do with less. Adopt an attitude of sticking to the essentials vs excess. One of my clients lamented this very process of clearing out the excess last week and said, “The only difference between me and a hoarder is I’m mortified by my clutter!” YES. So let’s start by getting rid of excess and organizing the essentials.
Obstacles in Dumping Excess:
As Millman, Nicodemus, and Kondo suggest, clutter contributes to a lifestyle of excess and stress. So let’s look at obstacles that get in the way of our ability to even find the essentials and strategies to rid ourselves of the excess.
- Interests: If you are a creative soul, you might have what others consider excess. I need an entire room for my creative interests. I have paints, beading materials, fabrics and a sewing machine, and many little things I’ve gathered for crafting projects. It can be a mess but I also DO use these things. Michael J. Fox is quoted as saying, “A creative mess is better than idle tidiness.” Most artistic types know this and would consider all these materials essential. No interests? No excess.
- Sentimentality. This is the one that seems to run in families. It’s also a really hard one to break! I come from a very sentimental family and one of my parents (ahem!) has A LOT of family artifacts stored in their garage. This is very hard on children down the road. I urge people to give their kids the gift of sorting that stuff while parents are able and not leaving it to the next generation. If there is something you want to give your kids, maybe offer it now. It’s entirely possible they will take a hard pass on many of the things you are hanging onto. Maybe there is a small, useful trinket that could be a symbolic keepsake without storing all of the excess.
- Space. Not everyone lives in a space that allows for organized, out-of-sight storage. I know I don’t. I live in a house built in 1947—in a post-World War II neighborhood. One thing we know about this era is that people were barely getting by with what they had—it was not a time of rampant consumerism. Houses built in that era barely have closets, much less linen closets, coat closets, pantries, or other modern areas for storage. I can tell you it is a constant organizational challenge to find places to put things. Gratefully, I renovated the house in 1997 and I at least have somewhat adequate master bedroom closets. But finding places to even park my school bags, office bags, computers, etc. is an ongoing challenge—and I am by nature relatively skilled at organizing.
- Time. This is my greatest personal organizational and clutter challenge. When I lack the time and brain power to think about where to put things, I build stacks. Then I stash the stacks. It is a horrible habit. I often feel overwhelmed by what to do with these things.
- Resources. Sometimes we are “making do” with some group of items that were given to us but are not efficient in size or utility. If we don’t have the disposable income, then we might keep these things, unable to replace them with something more streamlined or efficient. I’ve also had periods in my life when I couldn’t go out and purchase the shelves, storage containers, or other materials needed to properly store or organize “all the things.”
Strategies for Organizing the Essential:
- Phone a friend. Remember that life line? This can be extraordinarily helpful but I find is rarely discussed. Even just having the company of someone who can push you through when you begin to “flag” is remarkably helpful. They can also help with the “naw, girl—NEVER wear that again! I don’t care how much you love it or all the good memories associated with it—it’s time to GO!” I have one daughter who has become very adept at aesthetics and organization from living in small spaces for a long time. The other daughter struggles organizationally due to ADHD—which is a very REAL problem for a lot of people. Even though they live about a thousand miles apart (literally), they Facetimed to work on organizing some small spaces. They had a great time and the less organized one was so grateful for the help from the other.
- Create a system that is maintainable. About 5 years ago, my closet was about waist-deep in, well, everything… I could no longer find ANYthing! It was, in part, from long workdays, weekend travel, chronic busyness, and too much on my plate. When we remodeled the house, building a suitable closet system was not in the budget and I’d been making do for way too long. It was, simply, NOT WORKING for me AT ALL. Because of that, I’d accumulated many things that needed to be discarded for a long time—hidden in the dark recesses of the closet. I rebuilt everything in the closet with a system that works for me and five years later, I’m still easily able to maintain it.
- Allot a big chunk of time. When I did this closet rebuild, I did it over the New Year holiday and gave myself DAYS to get it done. In fact, it took a FULL four days without any other demands or distractions. I had to start by taking every.single.thing out of two closets and piled it all up in my bedroom. Knowing this would be an unlivable situation if I also had to work, I didn’t even attempt it until I knew I would have enough free time. I did the same type of rebuild in my pantry one year when we ended up with an unexpected chunk of free time waiting on a hurricane at the beginning of one fall semester. I set up a folding banquet table in my kitchen and every available surface was covered while I reconstructed the entire thing. The things I found stashed in the back of my pantry, taking up precious space, were ridiculous! In both cases, I built a system that I have easily maintained.
- Skills and tools. I am not suggesting that everyone can do this on their own. I am more adept than many people with construction skills and have the tools to prove it. If you don’t, use that life line and phone a friend. Or maybe that is a situation that requires the resources to hire someone.
- Set the stage. This is a little known strategy for keeping oneself on task. I often use energetic music as a backdrop. (In fact, I’m using a certain type of music in the background right now for writing.) Sometimes, during the closet make-over, I turned on the bedroom TV to a familiar show or movie, I don’t need to attend to but it “keeps me company” in the often deafening silence of living alone. Not only does it redirect me from dreaming up unnecessary distractions, it prevents my very busy mind from getting bored on a distasteful, menial job. It works for me. Do you know what might work for you?
- Set structural rules. I put my phone in another room and only allowed myself to check it a few times per day. Similarly, I decided I wouldn’t make calls to people just to check in which I might otherwise do during time off from work. Also, I made a rule that I would not get on social media. I treated this time like a scheduled obligation.
- Add 1; subtract 2. My attic became the family dumping ground years ago when the girls were little. Anything they couldn’t find a place for (remember those 1940’s closets) got boxed or bagged and placed in the attic. For a few years, I made a rule: for each thing that got stored, two things needed to be discarded. Some people do this with clothing and I can only imagine how well that works–even if it’s one in, one out.
No Judgment Here.
If you’re struggling with excess, I get it. I would never suggest that being a minimalist exists on a higher moral ground. I know I can devolve into a state of shame when the world pushes perfection on me—whether it’s our houses, closets, attics, or whatever. I’m not suggesting perfectionism (another form of extremism, by the way), but rather to find your own path with what feels essential to you.
It might be your grandmother’s dishes that you rarely use but in which you delight. I have a total (don’t laugh) of 36 dinner plates in my house. Excess? Maybe. But I also host Thanksgiving with as many as 24 guests at times. These plates are only a problem if I determine they are a problem. There is no moral rule that defines the acceptable number of plates as 8 and beyond that as excessive. No judgement here. Maybe the question is the line my client drew, at what point do you begin to feel mortified? THAT is likely when you’ve crossed into your problem zone.
Life is Messy, Friends. So are our houses, closets, garages, and attics. But maybe after the challenges of 2020, we can become more intentional about what is essential to us and dump the excess. Stick to the marvelous essentials!
Rhea A. Merck, Ph.D.
I’m a Licensed Psychologist and I’ve had a private practice in Columbia, SC, since 1996. In addition to teaching at the University, I also provide clinical consulting services with the athletic department. A persistent woman, mother of 2 amazing young women, writer, teacher, life-long learner, curious & creative human, lover of life, I am passionate about making life better every day… for more, visit my outdated website at www.ramphd.com or email me at [email protected]
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