NOTE: I first wrote the below guidelines on a personal blog many years ago, and in the time since, I have again a mere fraction of the physical belongings I did then, now living most-time in a van (which is not nearly so glamorous as those douchey instagram fakers would have you believe, btw).
My shift from being a pack rat to nearly everything I own fitting into a 10 foot truck happened fairly organically, and is attached to my growth into my life over the last two decades. That doesn’t by any means imply that the process was always easy, or always pleasurable.
When I am purging, I am pressing up against my unconscious identifications with my stuff, my identifications with scarcity and poverty, my resistance to change, and my fears of not being or having enough. I think to some extent we all have our shit around our stuff, and that it’s generally some big shit to take on, taking courage to approach.
When I began this as a serious practice in 2004, my walk-in clothes closet was 3x bigger than my current living space. Moving away from many of the unconscious, traumatizing contracts that enabled me to rationalize living in such a materially consuming way, has taken time, and work. It took repetition and practice for the panic impulses to dissipate when I got rid of things, and it took time to put my fear of scarcity, and the pressures of the economic class around me, into a more balanced perspective.
Whether you’re looking for tips for the purpose of living your best life, or you just want help being able to walk through your own garage without having to sign a liability waiver, here are some of the principles I have incrementally leveraged to get rid of a fuckton of my material stuff:
I Scheduled It
There is simply no substitute for making the time to clean out my closet and my life.
I usually go through my less-used junk drawers and boxes a couple times a year to take inventory and get rid of things I just don’t need anymore. I put it on my calendar, have a reasonable goal, and give myself the entire day to achieve it.
I Made a Mess
Transition is messy, and when I am doing it right, paring down is messy. It means emptying out all the drawers of my dresser and putting my clothes into piles all over my bed (3 of them — keep, give/donate, trash) that sometimes take a while to address.
It means emptying boxes out onto the middle of the floor and dealing with the disaster. It means being ok with dishevelment in order to have the opportunity to see the big picture.
And it also means being dedicated and determined enough not to give up and just leave shit like that.
Trying to be tidy and doing things like taking out each dresser drawer individually and looking through the folded things inside doesn’t give me a real sense of what I have.
I have also found the existing organization, itself, when trying to think in a new way, becomes a limiting perspective. I am far less likely to be real about how many 3ft USB cables I need (hint: not 5) when I am sitting there staring at how they fit perfectly all coiled up where they are.
I Got Help
I am naturally organized, good at packing, and creative with storage, but if you aren’t, get help from someone who is! And even if you are, get help from someone who is!
It can be really nice to have a person to bounce things off of, joke around with, help run loads out of my sight, for emotional support if I needed it while going through things that may trigger memories, for accountability, and to celebrate with when the task is done.
When I was first starting purging, I really needed the accountability and boost of energy having help brought. Now, one of the odd jobs I frequently take is helping people organize and purge their stuff.
I (Probably) Only Need One
Ok, yes, it makes sense to have a selection of teas, and a few different mustards, because HELLO, MUSTARD IS AWESOME. It makes sense to have more than one glass, so I can entertain in the weird event that I have another person over to the van. But seriously, do I need 3 colanders?
No. No, I do not need 3 colanders. Not even a little bit.
I Made Mistakes
I’ve gotten rid of art supplies and musical instruments that I wish I hadn’t. There are a few letters I no longer have that I would have liked to have read again. But I learned that mistakes are ok most recognizably when, as I am about as neurotic about organizing in my digital life as I am my physical, I wiped the wrong hard drive and I lost all my memories and photos and original files for my art/music for a few years.
I was paralyzed with fear and remorse the moment I realized what I’d done — a feeling I remember well when first attempting to change how I viewed my material stuff. I survived it, and now come to a place of ease much more quickly when similar losses happen.
Mistakes are ok. Attrition and destruction are a natural part of existing, even if they come from a mistake you’ve made. When deciding whether to let go of things I am often reminded that the world will not end if I realize a week later that I would have liked to have worn a shirt I gave away or I end up having to procure another USB mouse because I hastily got rid of mine thinking I wouldn’t need it again.
In reality, there are very, very few things that I own that would actually impact my life if I did not have them. It took testing and experience to differentiate a self destructive impulse to purge from a life affirming one. By doing this I am able to handle my mistakes gracefully.
Not only has that realization freed me of a lot of the pressure I used to feel when tasking myself to pare down, it’s also given me a more keen sense of appreciation for what I do choose to keep.
I Let Go (of the past)
A big part of letting go of attachment to a lot of my material things has stemmed from learning that there is an inherent value in memories fading over time.
Memories are designed to fade. They are supposed to muddle and eventually go away, mostly. It’s how we grow and move on. Realizing that, at first, incited an intense feeling of loss and about a week long grief period. After that, though, it made getting rid of most of my nostalgic belongings relatively easy.
Accepting the value the statute of limitations of human memory has also significantly shortened the amount of time I needed to keep stuff around before I am ready to be without it, and helped me to reorganize my perspective around mementos.
Now, I keep things that remind me of an atmospheric time in my life more than I keep reminders of specific memories. This meant I could keep the best letter I got in middle school as opposed to 50 little things from that time, like I had done in the past.
Nowadays, I attempt to make the things I keep utilitarian in some way rather than a trinket I need shelf space for simply to exist in my space.
I Embraced Technology
If a piece of paper is around to remind me of something, I put it in a spreadsheet or on my calendar instead.
If a picture of a sculpture that’s taking up 2sqft of counter space would make a good substitute, I take the picture and re-gift or sell the sculpture.
In recent years I have taken to scaling back on this principle in favor of having hard copies of important information, and even working to get back into the habit of keeping a paper schedule and address book. That leads me to the newest addition to my list of anecdotal recommendations:
I Have Stayed Flexible
The commitment to reducing my footprint is a life long one that shifts and ebbs over time, particularly for me as I am rather constantly trying new things, prioritizing supplies differently, and have what is still considered a unique lifestyle.
On one hand, I despise that my van gets 15mpg at its very best and relies on fossil fuels, but this is a balance and a compromise to supporting the predatory and ridiculous housing market, contributing to overall environmental impact by buying a new vehicle when the one I have works (usually), or diving so deep into shedding that I no longer have access to the tools I need for my trades or a substantial enough shelter to stay healthy in weather.
My willingness to be open to experimentation, and being open to shifting my views about what my ‘best’ actually looks like, has been a core aspect of being able to stick with this project for so long.
Bonus Round: Clothes
If I haven’t worn it in a while and I know someone who will love it, I give it to them.
If I haven’t worn it in a while and it’s worth money, I sell it.
If I haven’t worn it in a while and neither of the previous things are relevant, I donate it.
If I haven’t worn it in a while but I feel a deep electrical pain in my heart when I think of being without it, I keep it.
If I HAVE been wearing it, but I look at it and go “bleh”, I get rid of it.
Combined with “I only need one”, I have found this method of discipline works well.
More Than “Things”
During the years since I write this, I’ve developed a sensitivity to how presumptuous and privilege-focused some of the things are that I talk about on this list, as well as having cultivated skepticism regarding the tiny house/minimalist movement (which I’ve found over time echos many of the romanticizations I eyeroll at in regards to the given impoverishment of ‘real’ artists and activists).
I’m not sure what paved the way for which, but I believe my approach to releasing myself from my belongings, and my deeper understandings of the unacceptable violence and oppression relied upon by the world order that told me those things were what mattered, are inextricably linked.
It is clear to me that my material shrinkage is attached to my growth into the various forms of activism that I’ve cultivated in my life after I first realized how disenchanted and stressed I was by bombarding myself in all that bullshit ‘stuff’.
Through practicing these guidelines, I found over time, although some of my belongings have been truly precious and fueling for me, my attachment to most things was fearful, and identifying with the stuff I owned was feeding a monster that ultimately owned me.