Decluttering Without Minimalism

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” –William Morris, textile designer, writer, activist

What is minimalism?

Minimalism is one end of a spectrum. At this end, the idea is as little as possible of whatever is included in your context. So, in art, you have perhaps Rothko, or those minimalist movie posters that were everywhere for a moment. In music, you might have the extreme of John Cage’s famous 4’33, where absolutely nothing happens except for the incidental sounds of the audience existing.

But I’m talking about the decorating style of minimalism. It’s been held up for years as the classiest, the ultimate, the best way your house can be. And while there is some backlash, it’s still being held up as an optimal lifestyle (which really isn’t surprising, since it takes quite a bit of money to obtain and maintain).

All I know is, whenever I see a photo of a minimal interior design, my first and loudest thought is “Where is all your stuff??” How do you live without books and souvenirs and tools and… all the stuff that goes along with living? Where’s your toolbox, your half-done projects? Where’s the litterbox?

It is important to remember that those pictures are not pictures of the way anyone actually lives. Just like photos of supermodels, they’re aspirational. They’re meant to get you into a state of desire and desperation where you want to buy the thing they’re advertising–in minimalism’s case, often a “storage solution” or an expensive but uncomfortable piece of furniture, or at worst a “productive lifestyle” where, since you have no stuff, you can focus only on your work.

Life is more than that.

What is Clutter?

Now, clutter is still not a great thing. Clutter does cause stress, just by the fact of having visual noise present; not to mention the fact that piles of stuff reminds you of all those things you need to get done, all those things you can’t find, all that cleaning you haven’t done, which makes you feel like you’re “not good enough.” Now, your self-worth shouldn’t be defined by how your house looks, of course. But the visual noise and the wasted time looking for stuff, those do objectively exist.

Clutter is stuff that you can see and that is not useful.

  • A workbench with the tools you always use close at hand? Not clutter.
  • A shelf full of a clean line carefully ordered video game boxes that you will literally never play again? Clutter.
  • A workbench scattered with tools you use and ones you don’t, so much that it’s hard to put your hands on the one you need when you need it? Clutter.
  • A shelf with a messy pile of games you love and play over and over? Well, we can put them in a straight line, so it’s visually cleaner and more accessible, but it’s not something you need to actually get rid of.

That’s the line between minimalism and decluttering. Minimalism says “Get rid of it.” Decluttering says to make it nicer to look at and easier to use. And that can mean getting rid of a few things–but not everything.

Marie Kondo and Sparking Joy

You’ve heard of Marie Kondo. If you’re looking for resources on decluttering and cleaning up–if you’re reading this page–I know you’ve heard the phrase “sparks joy.” And I am not going to say a single word against her book! It’s a really good book and if you haven’t read it, I truly recommend it.

The main takeaways are:

  • Take your decluttering project step by step. Do it one section at a time, and finish what you start. (I’m going to have another post later on about how to start, where to start, and how to avoid becoming overwhelmed when you’re decluttering.)
  • Find storage solutions that actually work for your particular stuff. For example, she stores her purses inside one another to save space. I can’t believe I never thought of that! For all my Tetris wizardry at storing stuff, that one escaped me, and it works perfectly.

(Now, her solutions for her stuff might not work for your stuff. I know someone who likes to wear little silky slippy tank tops, and not so many blouses or tee shirts. Kondo recommends folding your tops into small rectangles (that is, fold them normally and then once more) and then standing them on end in their drawer to save space. It works great for most shirts, but thin material just won’t stand up on its side, no matter how you fold it. So this person would keep their shirts folded the way they normally would, because that’s what works for them. Never take someone’s advice just because everyone else is using it. Make it work for you.)

  • Acknowledge that you love your stuff. Kondo takes this to the point of animism, believing that your belongings have their own opinions about what happens to them and you should care about that. I think for people with anxiety or certain other mental disorders, this might not be a wise belief to pursue. But it does help to “thank” your things when you decide to get rid of them. It’s not for the items; it’s for you, to say to yourself “This thing helped me in its way, it did what it would do, and now I am releasing it.” You’re releasing yourself from your obligation to the object.
  • And of course, the infamous “Keep only what sparks joy.”

How to Know What Sparks Joy

This is where people trip up. Just like with any one-sentence rule, there are situations where it has to be bent to fit your life in a beneficial way.

For example:

“Well, my bills don’t spark joy!”

“A hammer doesn’t spark joy!”

“They’re just shirts!”

Capitalism doesn’t spark joy to 99% of us, yeah. And some of us are just covering our bodies and not feeling emotions about it. Kondo counters this with the idea that no, paying the bills or doing household work doesn’t, but having a warm house, covered body, and no bill collectors? Joy.

We think of “joy” as a huge feeling, a momentous burst of happiness. But that’s not what it’s often used to mean. “Joy” can mean a deep happiness, one that runs through you all the way down in your heart or belly. Contentment, but brighter. Love. Not that you love the object, but that you love yourself–meaning you want the best for yourself, for good things to happen and not harm–and that this object will help you accomplish that.

That’s the feeling you need to look for in your body when you pick up, say, a coffee mug, and ask whether it sparks joy. When you see it, do you feel love? If you were designing your ideal (realistic) life, would this mug be part of it? Or did someone give it to you as a souvenir of a place you’ve never been, and every time you see it, you think of how that person doesn’t really care about what you would like as a souvenir? Or does it make you feel nothing at all?

If you have sufficient mugs that make you feel love, you can toss or donate the ones that make you feel nothing at all. Do that for every part of the place you live, and see what it’s like when you’re surrounded by only the things that you love.

It’ll be easier to find the things you want to work with for your art; it’ll be easier to get through the motions of daily living, like deciding which shirt to wear or book to read. When you love all of the ones you have, there’s no wrong choice! And none of it is clutter, because none of it causes stress. The more full of love your life is, the better it is.

Get assistance!

Do you need help decluttering or organizing? Talk to me!

4 thoughts on “Decluttering Without Minimalism

  1. What an interesting & helpful writing! I have never bought colmpletely into minimalism mainly because of sentimentality, but not always! I do like things to be “neat” so I really appreciate your blog clarifying how decluttering might *really* be your goal. Now, if I could just do that! I’ve got stuff in the attic I need to sell, so give me some advice on how to get myself going with that. :-) BB


    1. Thank you! I am planning a post on how to Just Start with a large decluttering project. The main point is basically: pick a part–any part you feel capable of doing, it doesn’t have to be the “first” part–and do that. Then, when you’re done, don’t give yourself time to get anxious about the next part. Just keep going! I’ll make sure to include tips on selling stuff, too, when I write the post. Thanks!


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