I’m not the tidiest person you’ll ever meet. Some areas of my life are incredibly tidy, probably to the point of being annoying to other people. Some are, um, not. For example, I have to have the bed made every day, but am not allowed to have a desk anymore because I will cover any “spare” horizontal surface with piles of crap. The inside of my car is usually pretty free of trash and clutter, but until last weekend the outside looked like Pigpen’s 16th birthday present.
The point here is that there’s (sort of) a balance. Part of me would love to boast about fully embracing the Marie Kondo* lifestyle, with the kind of aesthetic minimalism that makes people feel both peaceful and impressed as soon as they walk in the room. In other words, part of me would love for my possessions to give you the impression that I have my whole life together.
But another part of me wants everything cushy with a ton of healthy houseplants and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with an honest-to-God rolling ladder because that is the dream. However, neither of these acknowledges the part of me that sometimes mentally just can’t deal and needs to put all those papers in a pile until I can handle them later.
So we compromise. I, as a typical American, have too much stuff. To be fair, I’ve been progressively whittling down my stuff over the past 5+ years. Growing up with two houses, I did not have two of everything, but I did have too much. Moving a lot, certain boxes just got moved around and never gone through. And if I could find some little corner to tuck stuff in (which I am very good at), then I never had to deal with it because I couldn’t see it. But that shouldn’t be the norm. So began the rounds of purging.
The first big one was when I left for college. I spent days — and utilized the help of several people — to go through literally every item I owned and get rid of as much as possible. The nice thing is I had the time to be fun and nostalgic about it, and I really did get rid of a ton.
I tried to do at least a medium purge at the end of every school year, because I had to singlehandedly pack up everything I had brought to school and either store it or fit it in my car and drive it to the other end of the state. (Side note: This improved my already very efficient car-packing skills. It’s real-life Tetris.)
I did another sort-of purge during the months after college. With personal belongings, it was more like sorting because a lot was stuff I’d need again as soon as I moved out. But I did the most thorough purge of old school stuff I had ever completed and it felt amazing. I had saved so many papers and books and general crap because “I might need to go back and find it one day.” Let me tell you: The only things from college that I have gone back to were a very short list of books, notes and assignments from like four classes, and some concepts that were an easy find on Google. What stuff have I gone back to from high school and grade school? Absolutely. Nothing.*
When I moved out was the latest big purge. It mattered to me that I feel fully moved out, and I didn’t want to make my parents deal with a bunch of my stuff in my old room. It wasn’t a flawless execution — as much as I got rid of, they’re still storing a number of boxes for me that my shared apartment simply doesn’t have room for. But those boxes contain almost solely childhood mementos and books. And when I have a bigger space, they’ll come with me and be whittled down again.
But I still have too much stuff. So rather than doing one massive purge, I’ve been going through things in small bursts. And for a lot of us emerging adults, it’s a lot more feasible to tackle our crap that way than attempting to do it all at once. So here is everything I’ve learned in my effort to declutter my space:
- Would you be sad if it were gone? This is my version of the “Does it bring you joy?” trick. If I would be disappointed not keeping a piece of art or old stuffed animal and regret it later, it matters enough that I can hold onto it — at least for now.
- Do you need it? This serves a dual purpose: Some stuff is lame but necessary. I’m not sentimentally attached to my cleaning supplies, but I do need them. Some stuff is convenient, but not necessary. I don’t need as many sweaters as I own, so I figure out how many I “need” and get rid of the rest.
- Do you use it? Also a good one for clothes, but excellent for random clutter and knickknacks. If I haven’t worn a pair of everyday shoes in more than a year, probably not worth keeping. If I avoid using that one blanket because I like the other ones better, I can let it go.
- File things. Y’all. It can feel like an annoying adult thing, but having a file box is the best. I know where all my important papers are — and if they don’t belong in there, I probably don’t need them.
- Find things a home. My boyfriend laughs that I phrase it like this, but this is where Marie Kondo and I agree: Treat your stuff like it lives there, and you want its home to be nice. If there isn’t a space where it can belong, it might be time to get rid of it.
- Ditch duplicates. My current apartment is not the best at this because eventually we won’t all be living together and will want our own stuff when we leave, i.e. we have way more dishes than we need. But if you have multiple of something without a very good justification, pick your favorite and ditch the others.
- Throw away your trash. I really can’t emphasize this one enough; it’s the only one I’m consistent about even in the more cluttered corners of my life. Trash is not worth the space it takes up. Throw it out (and recycle what you can).
- It doesn’t have to be clutter-free, but it does have to be clean. A lot of us need at least a little space where we can be messy — it’s often an important part of psychological well-being. But don’t let it get gross, and turn into a health hazard and a source of stress. If you clean regularly, you’ll probably get rid of some unnecessary stuff at the same time. This is why I make the bed every morning and clean off my desk before leaving work.
- Digital isn’t infinite. Unfortunately, computers and phones also run out of space, but most of the same principles apply as when decluttering tangible spaces: toss what you don’t need, organize what you do need so you can actually find it when you want it. Bonus tips: Keep items off your desktop in documents and other folders (or put your apps in folders for mobile) for some digital breathing room; emptying your trash, deleting old downloads, and restarting your device can all free up storage space.
- It’s okay to have exceptions. I hate getting rid of pictures. Because especially the older they are, the less likely it is you can get it back. I also own a ton of books, and allow myself to keep more than I need in that category. That being said, the pictures still have to be organized and the books can’t exceed the shelves (even if they are full to the brim).
I know that was a lot, but I hope it proves helpful in making your space feel a little more manageable.
What are your best tips for decluttering? (Seriously, I’m still in the process and could use the help.) Let me know in a comment below, on Twitter @ohgrowup, or Instagram @oh.grow.up! Thanks for reading, and happy adulting!
*Marie Kondo is the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, aka the first thing most people will bring up when you mention decluttering.
**This isn’t to say you shouldn’t save anything. My mom has a manila folder with the “best of the best” of my brother’s and my schoolwork from each grade, including the spelling test I got a 0% on in 2nd grade, which she occasionally pulls out for a life lesson that it’s okay to fail. I’ve kept some small items that friends gave me or we made. The point is just that the memories are more important than the paper.
(Photo is a free stock photo because this type of space is my goal.)