Decluttering is a bad place to end your minimalism journey

Towards the end of 2019, I finally did something about the clutter in my apartment. I was overwhelmed long before that, but I had no idea how to tackle the problem. Luckily, 2019 was the start of the minimalist craze. Reading Gretchen Rubin’s Outer Order, Inner Calm and watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondo were the kick in the pants I needed to start decluttering.

But I didn’t truly embody minimalism back then, despite reading lots about it – that’s only been in the past few months. Here are the three phases I went through in my decluttering journey to arrive at minimalism.

1: Clearing space is just the first step.

Going beyond decluttering was the most important transformation in my thinking over the past year and a half. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a bad place to start. But it is a bad place to end.

Since I started this process, I’ve gotten rid of >30 trash bags full of stuff, not including the things I’ve given away on my local Buy Nothing group or donated to local secondhand shops like Make & Mend or put in the community fridge. For reference, I live in an ~850 sq. ft., 1 BR apartment. And most of this stuff moved with me from a similarly-sized apartment in Pittsburgh to a slightly larger space in Virginia before it ended up here.

All of that was great, and necessary. But not enough.

As time went on, and bags and bags of stuff left my small space, I had flashes of enlightenment: how nice it was to rearrange my living room furniture without having to move boxes out of the way. Fitting all of my clothes onto hangers in my closet, and not needing a dresser at all. And then, getting rid of extra hangers! Having space for all of my food in my pantry, instead of storing some on my kitchen counters.

How could I keep this up once I’d removed everything “extra” from my apartment?

2: Organizing comes afterwards.

A few weeks ago, I went to Target with a mission: I needed plastic containers that would fit into one of my kitchen cabinets and hold the overflowing bags and tins of coffee and tea that were stuffed inside. It was a momentous occasion: the first organizing supplies I bought since beginning to declutter.

I see the light at the end of the clutter tunnel; most of what I have left in my apartment has survived at least three rounds of excavating. Much of it is going to stay. It needs a place to go.

To paraphrase one of the most impactful minimalism blogs I’ve read, extra things that I might need one day can be stored at the store until I do need them! And when I was ready, the plastic bins – just two of them! – were ready for me to buy.

To be quite honest, this was the part of minimalism that scared me most. I very much bought into the belief of not purchasing any supplies to organize until the decluttering was done, so accepting that I’d reached this point was as much frightening as it was exciting: I made it!

Can I keep it up?

3: Transition from cleaning to minimalism.

I’ve actually enjoyed cleaning out my belongings! But once that’s over, the long-term goal becomes keeping the number of socks, dish towels, pens, sticky notes, reusable grocery bags, charging cords, and yoga mats I own at only what I actually need.

This requires a mindset shift in many ways: not picking up so much free swag at conferences (once the world reopens). Not accepting every hand-me-down from my parents’ house. Thinking about the physical and mental space every exciting freebie from the Buy Nothing group will actually take up.

You might be able to tell that my biggest clutter generator is free items. Yours might be related to shopping, heirlooms, or something else. Recognizing your problem area is is a key part of the mindset shift towards minimalism, and keeping it up once the excitement of your first round of excavating has passed.

In conjunction, I’ve begun to realize what I can replace all of the clutter with: going out to a new restaurant or driving around scenic parks near my house. How are these activities related to decluttering? Now that I don’t have to spend as much time dealing with all of the mess, I have time to do more of what I love. And it turns out that’s the core of minimalism after all.

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Aliyah is a scientist, writer, and advocate for inclusion in STEM. She currently works in the Boston biotech scene. A fan of traveling, board games, college sports, and reality TV, you can engage more with Aliyah on Twitter @YourTurnAliyah.

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