If you’re feeling a little too smug or perfect, I have the perfect antidote for you. Simply head over to the United States Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) website to check out some statistics on material and waste, and recycling. I kid you not; those numbers are strong enough to burst any bubble of righteousness we may carry within us. The truth is we simply waste way too much. I understand why you think it seems ludicrous for me then to ask you to “declutter your life” (especially when you’ve just reviewed those stats.) How is adding more to the waste going to be helpful? The answer to that question is in the rest of this article.
We waste too much
I’m usually all rah-rah-rah about positive life changes. My shtick in life is to find the silver lining in grey clouds. So, forgive me for sounding like a Debbie Downer. But, “Houston, we have a problem.”
We are drowning in stuff. All kinds of material stuff. It’s a widespread problem, especially in developed (and developing) nations.
Let’s take the example of clothing. The US EPA website has some alarming statistics on just how much we waste.
In 1960, we generated 1.7 million tons of clothing, but by 2018, we ramped up to 17.3 million tons—a ten-fold increase. Our population in the same period only doubled—from 180 to 330 million. In other words, our consumption went up by ten times more for a mere 2x increase in population.
But the problem isn’t just overconsumption.
Of the 17million tons of clothing we generate each year, an astounding 85% ended up in the incinerator or landfill in 2018. In other words, we throw away 29 billion pounds (yes, that’s Billion with a B) of clothing every year.
Per person, that averages to about 88lbs of clothing thrown away each year—about half our body mass on an average! If only we could shed our excess body weight at the same pace!
And, clothing is just one example—it accounts for just 9% of the municipal solid waste each year. There are other similar horror stories on the site about different kinds of waste.
The harsh truth is that we are drowning in stuff.
We may differ in terms of the stuff we hoard, but the underlying problem—of excess—is universal.
Too much stuff makes us sick
Think back to an occasion when you overindulged in your favorite foods. I bet in the ensuing discomfort and remorse, you had resolved never to overeat again.
Surrounding yourself with excess material stuff is similar to overindulging on your favorite dessert. It causes physical discomfort. But unlike foods (the body has built-in systems to eliminate excess), the extra material stuff—clutter—just builds up continuously. In the long run, it can (and will) you make you sick. Literally. Unless you declutter your life.
A research study concluded that more clutter leads to increased life dissatisfaction. Clutter causes real physiological symptoms. It elevates cortisol, the stress hormone making us more anxious.
The cookie-clutter study (my words—not a typo) showed that a messy kitchen could make you overconsume junk foods. More clutter, more cookies. We all know this to be true anecdotally, but the study is proof—if that was what you were waiting for before you embark on a mission to declutter your life.
People who tend to procrastinate also struggle with clutter due to their reluctance to dispose of things. When they get their mess under control, other positive life changes start to happen as well. This explains why you often hear of someone donating all their unused clothing and then miraculously also losing the ten pounds they had struggled with for so long.
So, no more excuses. Declutter your life now because you need to. If you care about staying alive and healthy, that is.
How to Declutter your life
We are pack rats with an overabundance of possessions. Our overconsumption and the need to keep climbing on the hedonic treadmill have created the perfect storm for developing an entire industry of professional organizers and products. Their job—to help us organize, clean, and declutter what we’ve hoarded. These people quit other lucrative and established professions (law, media, technology) to show someone how to fill their trash and recycle bins. And they’re paid to do it. Handsomely.
The organizing industry has spawned countless books and TV shows and created celebrities. You know you’ve made it to primetime when your name becomes a de facto verb (I Marie Kondo’d my kitchen items last week!) And then, there are stores selling products to help you organize. Some of these stores are now huge conglomerates with a market cap tending to a billion dollars.
Here’s the thing, though.
The solution to a lot of stuff isn’t more stuff.
Yes, professional organizers and decluttering articles in magazines have vested interests. They have products and services to push. Their business model is dependent on either the products themselves or the advertising dollars stemming from the sale of such products/services.
But you don’t need to get started on your decluttering project with two-dozen color-coordinated hangers or rectangular storage boxes any more than you need a 5-in-1 drill driver system to hang a small picture frame.
The formula to declutter your life is simple, with just two steps.
The math couldn’t be more straightforward. The less you acquire, and the more you dispose of, the happier you’ll be.
There are only two steps needed to declutter your life.
1. Stop acquiring
2. Start disposing
There, I said it.
Clutter isn’t a problem with space. It is usually a problem with behavior.
Emotional wants rather than physical needs usually cause us to hoard. Some people use shopping in the same way another may use alcohol or food to deal with emotional ups and downs. Hitting the stores isn’t that different from hitting the bottle.
Don’t attempt to solve the clutter problem with more clutter. Containers, shelves, or bins simply help you to rearrange the stuff you already have. You won't be any lighter after the fact.
For this reason, step 1—to stop acquiring more stuff—is harder than step 2—to get rid of things you already have.
For the rest of this post, we’ll just focus on Step 1. I have so much to say about this. I’ll leave Part 2 for next time.
The simplest sounding things are often the most complicated to implement.
Stop. Buying. Turn off the purchase faucet.
Try to impose a purchase moratorium. On everything. See how long that lasts. A day? 2 hours? 10 minutes?
It can be challenging to simply not run to the store (physically or online) to solve a problem.
- Can’t find the packing tape? Run to the store.
- Graduation party coming up? Order stuff online.
- Bored? Head to Starbucks or open up Amazon on your browser.
It’s interesting how the answer to almost any question can be met with a purchase of some sort. The only thing that’s stopping us from truly doing so is our wallet. But then, isn't that what credit cards are for?
I’m not suggesting we all live like paupers, deny ourselves life’s pleasures, or be miserly in our spending patterns. I’m simply recommending being a bit more mindful. Consider other alternatives before resorting to buying more stuff. Remove buying things as the default first-choice option.
I’ll be the first to admit this is hard for many reasons. Here are five tried and tested ways to deal with roadblocks when you try to limit consumption.
a. Team effort
If you’re single, it’s usually easy to implement a purchase moratorium.
But if you live with others, you can’t unilaterally decide to stop acquiring. You can turn off the tap all you want in your room. But just know others could walk right behind you and turn all the faucets back on.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet solution on how to get family consensus on an issue as hard as this. If I knew, I’d be the world’s most famous therapist.
Some families make this work. But they are few and far between. Heck, they may even be unicorns for all I know.
For the rest of us, it may be easier to agree to set limits, instead, on either the types of purchases (e.g., groceries okay, clothes not) or the $ value. I’m not a fan of the latter because even if it costs nothing, clutter is clutter. (especially if it costs less—think of the goody bags you get at kids’ birthday parties.)
Find a way, as a group, to curtail purchases.
b. Heir and the spare
Traditionally, royal families have been known to encourage the concept of the heir and the spare. The heir is the first royal baby who’d go on to become the future monarch. The spare is a sibling to the royal baby, whose job would be to step into the limelight in case of premature death of the heir.
I can see the logic in that. (Well, as much logic as the concept of royalty in the 21st century would allow.)
We, common folk, though, have taken this concept a little too much to heart. We’ve started to treat our possessions like royal babies. Most times, we have two (or more) of everything—just in case! I’m all about good planning and backup, but it seems absurd to have duplicates and triplicates of everything—just in case something were to happen to the first one.
You know what I’m talking about, right? Buying a new toaster but not throwing the old one away, just in case you have unforeseen problems with the new purchase. You grab two similar shirts just in case one ends up in the wash the day you need it.
To declutter your life, stop worrying about the spare. Make sure you don’t already have a duplicate when you buy something. Or buy to replace rather than to add.
Even better, use the rule of one in two out. For every item you bring in, make sure you discard (or donate, two of the same category.)
c. Ice the decision
Athletes, as a group, seem to suggest the same solution to almost any problem. Ice and rest.
Think like an athlete. When you are itching to purchase something, simply put the itch on ice. Postpone the purchase decision by a short period (a week, 48-hours, or even just 24-hours). Leave the product sitting in the cart.
This can help reduce all those instant gratification and impulse purchases.
Set the item free in the cart. If 48-hours later you still want it, go ahead and buy it. If not, it was never meant to be yours.
Quarantine is a term we’re sadly all too familiar with these days.
Let’s say you did your due diligence and waited the requisite icing period (step c) and still ended up buying some stuff. Don’t lose hope.
Subject the package(s) to quarantine when it arrives at your home. Let it sit somewhere, untouched for another defined cooling-off period, maybe two or three more days? Then, evaluate honestly, if the new items deserve the honor of a place in your home. If not, return it guilt-free. Yes, I know. You just contributed to climate change with the back and forth, but it’s best to return an unopened package to the store than an opened package into the recycling center two months later.
There is a method to this madness. Sometimes we simply crave the thrill of the chase in shopping. The product itself isn’t of much value to us. Quarantining will help us make the right decision.
e. Add Friction
Friction and habits are closely linked.
The best way to encourage good habits is by eliminating friction between you and the habit.
For instance, if you’d like to run at 6 a.m., setting out your running gear (maybe even sleeping in it), planning your route, music, etc., before you go to bed the night before makes it easy to just wake up in the morning and go. You don’t have to deal with analysis-paralysis at 5.55 a.m.
Conversely, you can deter negative patterns by introducing friction into the habit.
To avoid watching too much Netflix, try logging out of your Netflix account each time. This forces you to type in your username and password every time. Maybe, also, leave the remote in a room that would cause you to walk the length of your house before you settle in on the couch. Sometimes these minor deterrents are enough to dissuade you from the negative habit. They remove the automaticity of the pattern.
We can deal with shopping out of habit, the same way. Don’t set up your accounts for 1-click shopping. Make your setup difficult by not saving your credit card number to your shopping account. Log out of all shopping sites, so you’ll be forced to type in your username and password. Use complicated and random passwords generated through a password generator. Be ruthless. Bonus points for using random special characters that you can never find on your keyboard.
Believe me, these minor irritants do the job. They add enough friction to stop you from impulse buying the electric pencil sharpener (because it was a great deal!), even though you haven’t used a pencil in five years.
We all have areas of clutter in our lives. The first and most important step you can take to declutter your life is to stop acquiring more stuff.
I’ll leave you with an apt snippet from Wordsworth’s forlorn words about how we’ve stopped connecting with nature because we’re too busy “getting and spending.”
Poem: The World Is Too Much With Us – by William Wordsworth
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!