By Sarah Papineau

Do you know that sensation when you’ve taken down your Christmas decorations and you look around at how bare your living room seems? Have you ever wondered if you really need to bring all of that stuff back into the room, or whether you might be able to live more simply without it? Well, this year, that is exactly what I did. I put the decorations away then left all of my everyday décor in the basement and I can tell you it felt amazing.

The simplicity of my living room has freed up my time so that I can clean the room, top-to-bottom, in seven minutes. That means vacuum, dust, fluff pillows and clean windows. The room that my guests see first, the room that is visible from the front door, the room that can become a toy-explosion nightmare can now be cleaned in seven little minutes. That is an earth-shattering revelation to a mother with two kids who are never happier than when they’re building American Ninja Warrior courses out of our couch cushions.

I won’t say that I created a monster that day, but I can say that I felt transformed. Knick-knacks be darned. Toys be organized. I was embracing the freedom of less stuff. The realization hit me that maybe I really needed more less stuff in my life. So, for the next few weeks, I began to slowly minimize our possessions so that I didn’t have to spend so much time on their care, location and condition. I created a four-week strategy to reduce and organize our things.  At the time I am writing this I have three weeks down and one dreaded week to go.

For the sake of authenticity, I don’t have full weeks available to dedicate to this task. So I organized my efforts by weekends. Perhaps there are other busy people out there who would benefit from some inspiration to simplify their spaces and find some peace.

Weekend 1: The rough start

The first week was what I call my injured-duckling week. I had great ambition, however, I didn’t make bold moves or push boundaries; it was really just about limping along and repairing the damage done. My goal of massive simplification and renewal was downgraded to putting misplaced items in their proper places. I thoughtfully dubbed this effort “cleaning.”

In brief, I adopted the strategy of going room-by-room boxing up items that were out of place, that seemed unnecessary or that I didn’t really like. I grabbed four boxes and a marker and labeled four boxes with the words Keep, Give Away, or Sell on them and then sorted the items into those categories. I also had one box that I labeled, I Have No Idea. Because sometimes you just don’t. The Keep box is the only one that I went through during that first weekend. I put those items in their proper locations and then shoved the other boxes in the closet. I was tired and I knew that next weekend would be here soon enough.

Weekend 2: The purge

My goal for this busy weekend was to get rid of the clutter and create some space. I wanted more rooms in our home to feel the way that our minimalistic living room did. Out came all four of my boxes and I did another sweep of the house. This slowed me down because, surprisingly, I had a lot of additional items that I decided I would go ahead and part with, even though I had hesitated on them last weekend.

The first box I decided to address was the I Have No Idea box. I reviewed all of the items and sorted them into the Keep, Give Away or Sell boxes. I was pleased that this task was much easier to do during the second week. Perhaps it was because I had bought into the philosophy of being more purposeful about my stuff.

I delivered the items in the Give Away boxes (I ended up with three) to the Salvation Army. I packed items that needed to be given to family as hand-me-downs. Most of these were kids’ clothes and shoes, which I sorted by size and neatly stored in the basement until my next trip to visit family.

I explored some different options for the Sell box items just to see what people are doing these days. Is Craigslist considered old and antiquated like the Hotmail address I still have? I decided to check out the app called LetGo to possibly sell a couple of items. It is a really simple app to use and I didn’t see drawbacks in my research, other than the fact that there was very little activity for my city. Instead, I opted to use Craigslist and committed not to meet anyone in creepy locations so that I’m safe and also so that I don’t look like a drug dealer completing a transaction from my car. I only had a few items to sell, including two car seats, some picture frames and a giant, animatronic, ride-able triceratops. (Don’t tell me you’ve never had one.) I have committed to give away anything that doesn’t sell in two weeks.

The next horrible thing to tackle on weekend two was our closets. I knew it would be a challenge for me because I love clothes. However, two things happened in the last years that have created a challenging clothing problem for me.

First, we had children. I went from being a consistent size 6 to a size 8 or 10 (depending on what snacks people bring to the office). The trouble has been that I have every intention of getting back to my old size. However, it’s been eight years. Yep, eight. I decided it was time to open up my crates and say goodbye. A friend of mine recommended that I take some photos and post entire crates for sale, advertising them as Business Wardrobe and Casual Wardrobe with size info and brief descriptions. I feel good about this strategy. After all, they aren’t doing anyone any good in storage crates.

Secondly, we moved into a house with smaller closets. I am embarrassed of the amount of things I have tried to stuff into our small closet. I’m also embarrassed to share that my clothes also take up a double-door closet in another bedroom. It brings me no joy to look at my cluttered closet and wonder what the heck I’m going to wear each day. Even worse, it’s a chore to put clean clothes away because I have to figure out where to put them.

In the end, I have a limited amount of items that I wear regularly. I decided that I should thin the herd. My strategy was to do the following:

I picked out all of the items that I hadn’t worn for a year, even if I loved them, and laid them on the bed. I wrote, “Haven’t worn for 1 year!” on a piece of paper and laid it on top.

Then I went in for round two and pulled out anything that I’ve ever opted not to wear because it didn’t look quite right or that didn’t fit well. I also grabbed anything that seemed out of style. I wrote, “Bad Fit/Out of Style!” on a piece of paper and laid it on top of that stack.

Next, I went through my workout apparel. Being a busy mom, I know I only work out a few times a week at best. I asked myself important questions, such as, “Do I need 26 T-shirts?” “Why do I own swishy athletic pants?” “Is the elastic working harder than I am if I’m squeezing into these?” I was aggressive. No old pair of shorts, worn-out shoe or matchless sock were safe. All of these items went into Give Away or straight into the trash.

In my next sweep, I tried to look at items and ask, “Does this item bring me joy?,” as is recommended by Marie Kondo who wrote “The Life Changing Method of Tidying Up,” but I felt like I was talking to my clothes – in my closet – by myself. “Do you bring me joy?” “How about you? Do you bring me joy?” “No, you know the answer to that. You’ve never done a darned thing for me.”

Last, I did the same thing in our other closets. Once finished, I sorted everything by season. Things I thought I could sell at a consignment store were labeled by season and placed in a closet. I made an appointment right away to sell spring/summer items since that is what they want this time of year. The other items went straight to the Salvation Army.

What a difference it makes to clear out so many clothes! This was the biggest burden that I had lifted so far.

Weekend 3: Getting organized

During the next weekend, I focused on sorting through the kitchen drawers and cabinets looking for things that the great Alton Brown of the Food Network would call “unitaskers.” According to Brown, there are far too many single-use tools, utensils and gadgets in the average kitchen. These tools, while helpful, clutter up your kitchen space. For example, I don’t need a potato mandolin (slicer) when I have a good sharp knife and a cutting board. In the spirit of simplification out went the slicers, chopping gadgets, extra pitchers, lid-less storage containers, extra coffee mugs and around 20 Shakespeare’s Pizza plastic cups (it’s a Columbia thing).

My next task was to organize my junk-filled mail basket. Anything that I needed to keep, I sorted and filed. This included paperwork, old bills, greeting cards, etc. I had the benefit of knowing where a lot of these items needed to go, as well as what I should keep and for how long. That skillset was something I learned from Dave Ramsey.

Ramsey recommends that every person, single or married, creates what he calls a Legacy Drawer. This is a drawer in your home that houses all of the important paperwork that your loved ones would need if something ever happened to you. He details the 11 critical items that you need to keep, including things like important documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.), insurance policy information, financial records, will and estate plans, funeral instructions and letters to your family, to name a few. I also include all of our paystubs and the last six months of paid bills in my drawer. I highly recommend that you research the Legacy Drawer strategy at daveramsey.com. The process of creating it opened up communication on some difficult topics and has been a blessing to my marriage.

Weekend 4: Letting go

The last weekend is the one I dread the most. This is mostly because I’m a sentimental person. My goal for the last weekend is to sort through sentimental things and try to let go of some of them.

I don’t know if you are like me, but I tend to hang on to things. However, I am not a hoarder. I know this because I looked up the definition on Web MD and I feel great relief that I’m not in need of an intervention at this time. I do know for certain from my research that there is a great deal of psychology in why we hang on to things.

I was the seventh of eight kids in my family. We weren’t Mormon and we weren’t Catholic, but we did get asked that a lot. My parents worked hard to provide for us, but we had very little. We also shared everything with each other. There weren’t a lot of possessions that we owned that were truly ours and ours alone. In reflecting, I believe that this imprinted on me the desire to save, to hold on to things, to have items of my own. I also have very few photos of myself as a child and I see that reality exhibited in my desire to hang on to every photo of my children now (good, bad or ugly).

There are many reasons that people have trouble letting go. My dad was born during the great depression, so he held on to everything. He drank out of the same plastic foam cup for weeks at a time, rinsing and reusing it. He stopped to pick up every penny on the ground even if he was in a hurry. And I still don’t understand why, but he kept a fork in his pocket a lot of the time.

On the website Psychology Today, Mark Banschick, M.D., attempts to answer the difficult question of why people hold onto stuff. He writes, “The answer is complicated because there are so many different kinds of stuff and there are so many different kinds of people. No two individuals are alike. No situations are alike. Each is unique in their environment, and although you may empathize, you cannot compare your situation to theirs, nor can you judge them.”

Dr. Banschick states that some of the reasons that people don’t just get rid of stuff are:

  • Lack of permission
  • Unaware of an alternative
  • It is borrowed
  • Out of sight, out of mind
  • I may need it someday
  • Someone else may need it
  • Sentimentality
  • Overwhelmed
  • Don’t know where to begin
  • Not ready yet
  • Not a priority

If you can relate to hanging on to too many things, I encourage you to reflect on why that might be. I’ll be doing my soul searching this weekend as I dive into items I’ve saved from childhood. My goal is to determine if I love the item, if I can save a photo versus saving an actual item, to determine if I’m honoring the item if it is stored away in a box and to give myself permission to keep what I want to keep.

When I started this project, I did not intend to write an article about it. However, I couldn’t have imagined a better topic for a spring issue of the magazine. I’ve felt a great weight lifted in going through this process and hope that it could be helpful to others.

Sarah Papineau is a field service coordinator with the Missouri State Teachers Association and also serves as a Dave Ramsey-trained personal finance coach.