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Overwhelmed by clutter? 5 ways to get a more minimalist mindset

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Minimalism experts weigh in on real ways to start paring down.

Stuff. Everybody’s got it, but just how much we should have is the question more people are asking as the idea of “minimalism” gains traction in the mainstream. Minimalism — the notion that less is more when it comes to physical things — is not solely about shunning consumerism, but about what one stands to gain from the mindset of simply having and using less.

American families are drowning in excess stuff, and we’re all feeling the burden of accumulating it all. How many of us would love to spend less time cleaning, organizing, even shopping for and buying useless junk? Most people probably don’t dream of a vacation or weekends spent purging the toybox or sweeping out the garage. And yet, when we add up our leisure hours spent “decluttering,” cleaning and managing our stuff, the total time is probably more than we’d care to admit. The goal of minimalism is to spend less time on the physical world of “things” in order to devote more time, energy, and effort to the intangible — cultivating meaningful relationships, making memories together, helping and serving in one’s community, being creative and just plain old living.

All this talk about minimalism may have you dreaming of a serene space, fresh white walls and just a few simple decor pieces complementing perfectly cleansed (and purged) closets — but perhaps your home and space isn’t quite the Zen-like abode you’ve seen in Dwell magazine (or those perfectly posed— and filtered — Instagram posts either). All of us could benefit from the practice of paring down to free up space, time, and energy for things of greater meaning and substance — no model-home necessary. We asked a number of minimalism expert to share their tips for getting rid of the clutter and craziness were. Here’s what they said:

Define minimalism for YOU

There’s no one-size-fits-all reason for decluttering or embracing a less material-focused lifestyle. Colin Wright of the minimalism-focused blog Exile Lifestyle advises having clear goals as to why you’re decluttering. “Take a step back, look at the big picture, understand who you are and where you’re going, to the best of your ability, and then start homing in on what’s most vital you to and eschewing what’s not. Taking too much action before you’ve clarified for yourself what you’re actually trying to accomplish, and where your next steps will ideally take you, is often action without purpose.”

Once you’ve figured out your ultimate goal in paring down, “the decluttering and refocusing is a whole lot easier, and each act is a lot more purposeful and effective.” So maybe don’t just open some closets and start throwing away stuff by the bucketful. Instead, give yourself clear reasons for pursuing simplicity and your own personal brand of minimalism will begin to emerge.

Start small

If you’re like most Americans drowning in the clutter of the American Dream, you may look around your home brimming with things and wonder if the freedom of minimalism is even possible for you. Try to focus on one little area of your home or life that can be purged. Maybe it’s the toy box, the kitchen junk drawer or even your purse — one step at a time can help things stay manageable and set you up for successful purging. Ben Soreff of House 2 Home Organizing emphasizes the emotional connection between clutter and stress or anxiety. “Most people have anxiety when they are not in control. When people have clutter in their space they often feel stress. One thing to remember is that organizing isn’t about stuff, it is about time.”

Instead of believing you have to purge and organize the whole house in one go, Soreff says to “budget small chunks of time to finish one small area of the house.” Want to give yourself a fun challenge each day? Set the timer on your phone for 15 minutes and declutter like crazy until it goes off. Pretty soon your hard work will begin to add up, without a whole lot of effort. 

Assign value

So you’re ready to purge and organize, but you can’t seem to let go of anything — what if you need this later? Joshua Becker, author of Clutterfree with Kids and the wildly successful blog Becoming Minimalist, said in an interview with Mint, “Minimalism forces questions of value and purpose and significance. Think of it this way, you can’t really know which possessions are essential without an understanding of your highest purpose.” As he began his own journey towards decluttering and simplifying, he “thought [he] was just going to be removing a bunch of clutter from [his] home.” He continued: “If I was no longer going to find success and meaning in the things that I owned, where would I look? And how would I need to design my life in pursuit of them?” It may take some re-training in your mind to place value on things that aren’t tangible. Perhaps in lieu of organizing and managing things, your family wants to pursue generosity, physical fitness, or even taking more outdoor adventures together! Whatever it is that you’re pursuing, keep that idea front and center as you begin to lose your stuff.

Be mindful about sentimentality

Birthday parties, Christmas, “just because” … all gifts, especially for kids, can start to pile up for many families. Whether it’s generous grandparents or a propensity to stop at the toy aisle on every grocery trip, most families have the trouble managing out-of-control toys — many people feel a sense of guilt about throwing or giving gifts away, but gifts are just that — gifts for the receiver to decide how to use them. Family heirlooms carry the same weight, whether they hold any real value or not.

When it comes to keeping things for the sake of sentimentality, Zoe Kim of The Minimalist Plate suggests taking a photo of an item to remember it by, rather than living with a garage full of “memories” that simply take up space. She also advises budding minimalists to consider whether or not you’d be comfortable leaving your things for someone else to take care of when you’re gone.

Stop comparing

Courtney Carver of Be More with Less reminds us of an age-old (yet tough to execute!) truth when it comes to finding contentment and joy in what we already have: quit the comparisons. “So often we think we need something to keep up or measure up. Instead of looking out at what everyone else is doing, look in for a little while. Take the Facebook app off your phone for 30 days, stay out of the malls and the magazines and go in. Ask yourself what you need. Chances are it isn’t more stuff.”

Check your cart

With speedy shipping and 24/7 availability of online shopping, it’s easy to accumulate extra stuff with a few simple clicks. Mother of four and self-proclaimed clutter-hater Andi P. Compton of Spoken Bride suggests getting a handle on the stuff by using delayed online purchasing. Instead of simply heading to the virtual checkout line as soon as you’ve found what you “need,” she suggests finding your items and leaving them in the cart, only coming back to them a few days or even weeks later. Most of the time, you’ll probably forget you selected the items and realize you never really needed them in the first place! This concept can be applied anywhere you do shopping that may include impulse buys (hello home section at Target!).

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