A Wannabe Minimalist’s Guide to Simple Living


How to lessen the burden of things

The walls of your adequately-sized-yet-somehow-cluttered home are caving in on you. You’re tired of completing one organization task, only to have three more spring up in the process. One annual spring clean is simply not enough. It’s a new year and you’re ready to say bon voyage to all the things that no longer serve you. 

Stacks of paper you swore you’d sort. Piles of folded clothing you haven’t worn in years but, for some reason, you stubbornly refuse to donate. Flotsam and jetsam that crowd your shelves but spark zero joy.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Follow this guide to simple living so you can take control of your stuff before your stuff takes control of you.

C.R.E.A.M.: Clutter Rules Everything Around Me

It may sound arbitrary to the novice minimalist, but there’s a big difference between decluttering your space and organizing your stuff. In fact, the common misconception that organization is the proper antidote to a life overrun by things can actually exacerbate the problem. That’s because organizing clutter is akin to moving your clutter from point A to point B.

Don’t get it twisted: Organization matters. But when you organize excess, you’re sweeping the underlying issue under the rug (or bed, or into the closet, etc.). The truth is, you don’t need more racks, cubes, and bins. You need less stuff. (Not that organizational tools don’t have a place in simple living, but more on that later.)

The bottom line? Adopt a first-this-then-that approach to simplifying your life. First, declutter. Then, organize.

Welcome to Organization Station

Benefits of organizing a decluttered environment include:

  • A tidy home with less time and energy invested
  • A better way to keep track of your belongings
  • A functional and aesthetically pleasing space

Some people groan at the thought of organization, and that’s okay. We can’t all have Type A personalities. But sometimes it helps to reframe what it means to organize. In short, organization is the practice of designating a place for everything. It’s also the practice of going a step further to ensure items remain in their designated place/return to that place after use.

For example: Keys, when not in use, might hang on a hook on the wall in your entryway. Or perhaps they reside in a small basket that sits on a table near the front door. 

For those who live their lives with lawless and reckless abandon, this will probably require some conditioning. Try writing a reminder to take your keys out of your pocket or bag on a sticky note and placing it in a visible location when you first come through the door. Over time, the process of actively reminding yourself to drop your keys in their designated spot will become a habit. And then, whenever you need to find your keys, you’ll know exactly where they are.

Depending on how disorganized you are, you might even start to feel psychic.

Of course, sticky notes won’t help you tackle placemaking for larger spaces like your closets, kitchen cabinets, and common areas. But the very practice of designating certain locations for your keys, cell phone charger, TV remote control, etc., will help you establish a mindset in which all belongings in your house are awarded a home of their own.

Parting With Precious Paper

What: Receipts, confidential documents, reminders, ticket stubs, love notes. (Maybe even hate mail—we don’t know your life.)

Where: Desk, junk drawer, nightstand, filing cabinets, the fridge. 

For as digitized as our lives have become, paper persists in infiltrating our open surfaces to disrupt our feng shui. Handwritten notes are more romantic than an email. Most stores still offer a paper receipt as proof of purchase. Things like your social security card and birth certificate come in hard-copy form. Chances are high that we as a society will never truly abandon paper goods.

But what happens when that old shoebox of mementos you keep in your closet or under the bed gets full? Do you start a new box? Do you cull the one you have to make room? Sentimental things are always the hardest things to part with, but they’re also the things that take up space while rarely being used—or even seen, for that matter.

Enter: The Digital Archive

Scanning and taking photos of the letters, cards, ticket stubs, wedding programs, etc. that you struggle to part with and keeping them online in a digital archive is a great way to clear space without losing what’s meaningful to you. Since hardware isn’t always reliable, it’s best to opt for something cloud-based like Google Drive or iCloud. It’s also recommended that you make three copies of each item for safe keeping.

Bonus: Storing a digitized copy of your beloved paper mementos means you can organize them into distinct categories such as birthday cards, letters from your old pen pal, shows you’ve seen, etc. It also empowers you to access your prized memories from wherever you have access to a device and the internet.

Safe It for Later

Not every piece of paper in your space can be photographed, uploaded, and recycled. (Try explaining to the social security administration that your social security card lives in the cloud now.) So for everything else, there are safes and filing cabinets.

For important and confidential documents, a fireproof safe is a surefire way to keep your sensitive information secure. 

Things that are smart to store in a safe:

  • Passports
  • Social security cards
  • Birth certificates
  • Property titles
  • Insurance policies
  • Financial account information
  • Wills and living trusts

Pro tip: Even some of the most highly rated fireproof safes aren’t waterproof. Place your precious documents in a plastic bag before locking them away in your safe.

Is your relationship with the paper in your life more complicated than that? Sounds like you might need a filing cabinet. Filing cabinets are a great way to avoid paper piles that start out innocent enough but rapidly evolve beyond our control. While the way you organize your filing cabinet will depend largely on the unique nature of the documents you’re looking to store, there are commonalities that make all filing cabinets easier to manage.

  • Separate active documents from permanent documents. Active documents are those you reference regularly while permanent documents are records you need to keep but rarely access. Keeping them in separate, clearly marked places within the filing cabinet will make it much easier to locate what you’re looking for in a flash.
  • Use colorful folders to indicate different categories. Maybe you need a way to differentiate between your work-related documents and those of your spouse. Perhaps you’re an independent contractor who wants to quickly identify documents related to each of your accounts. Whatever it is, colorful folders offer an eye-catching way to guide you to your filed paper without having to ransack the entire cabinet.
  • Add clear labels to each folder. Not even an elephant could remember where everything was placed inside its filing cabinet. Labels are present you’s way of guiding future you to the documents you seek as smoothly and efficiently as possible. Bonus points for alphabetizing your folders!
  • Stick to the plan. Organization only works when you commit to the system you’ve created. Stay with it, but remain flexible and open to adjusting your plan if something isn’t working for you.

A final word on paper: For paper items especially, it’s important to circle back to decluttering on occasion. The very system you’ve put in place for taming your files can quickly devolve into an organizational nightmare if you let things run away from you. Secure shredding and hard conversations about what is truly necessary to hold on to will help you maintain a healthy cycle of low-stress paper management.

Coaxing Clutter out of the Closets

What: Clothing, shoes, accessories, linens, towels.

Where: Bedroom closet, hallway closet, linen closet.

Your closet is stuffed to the brim with clothes, shoes, and accessories, but somehow you struggle to find something to wear every day. You’re sick of everything in your closet, so you keep buying more unique items to spruce it up. It’s a vicious cycle, because the more bold items you purchase, the harder it is to swap them into a regular rotation of outfits without tiring of them. So what do you do? You buy more clothes.

This song and dance is both exhausting and expensive. And somewhere out there, Marie Kondo is foaming at the mouth.

Bye, Bye, Bye

Truth is, you didn’t lose that blouse or that pair of jeans—you just lost them in the overgrown forest of clothes and hangers that is your closet. But did you miss them in your weekly rotation? If not, then it’s probably time to lose them for real. 

Clothes are hard to part with, but thinning your closet frees up some of the time you spend stressing over what to wear. Besides, the pressure of conjuring up unique outfits day after day is not realistic for most of us. We have jobs, families, significant others, and social lives to keep up with. Now we have to be style icons, too?

The ultimate goal of simplifying your closet is to narrow it to items you absolutely refuse to give up. It can help to think about your wardrobe in terms of neutral, high-quality, staple basics that you can mix and match for a number of outfits. Not that you should feel obligated to give away your fun items! Do you have a sequin skirt you love to bust out for parties? A velvet blazer that gets the crowd going every time? Then, by all means, keep it! But ask yourself if it’s truly something that will enjoy continued use. If it’s only going to occupy real estate in your closet, then it’s time to find it a new home.

If the task of whittling down your closet sounds overwhelming, consider breaking the larger task of getting rid of clothes into subtasks based on item type. Let’s start with t-shirts.

  1. Put every t-shirt you own out in one visible location, like your bed.
  2. One by one, separate your t-shirts into three categories: A keep pile, a donate pile, and a maybe pile.
  3. Once sorted, spend some time with the maybe pile—splitting its items between the keep pile and the donate pile. 
    Note: Be really scrutinizing. Ask yourself, “Will life go on without these t-shirts? Or will their absence cause me to spend more money at the store.”
  4. Bag the items in your donate pile so you can drop them at a nearby donation center.
  5. Put your t-shirts back in the drawer and save the task of organizing for another day.

The next day, week, or whatever works for you, repeat this same process for pants, outerwear, shoes, bags, belts, etc., until you’ve culled your wardrobe down into the reliable items you love wearing most. 

Pro tip: Stuck on a few items you rarely wear but are still reluctant to part with? Try the reverse hanger trick. Simply place those items on a hanger the reverse way in your closet. If you wear something that is hanging backward, readjust the hanger so that’s facing the usual direction. After a few months, reconsider if it’s time to say goodbye for good.

Seasons, They Change

Once your wardrobe is appropriately pruned, it’s time to get to work on dividing your closet into seasonal categories. A seasonal clothing system makes it easier to access items you need for that particular time of the year. It can also prevent you from feeling bored with the clothes you own. 

Whether you divide your closet into four seasons or two seasons depends on your regional climate and personal level of hardcore. Some people are happy to stash away tank tops, shorts, and sandals during fall and winter months before swapping them out for scarves, sweaters, and heavy coats to be stored throughout spring and summer. Others want to get more granular about what they wear in spring, summer, fall, and winter. Whatever system you choose, follow these tips for storing your clothing.

Like Attracts Like

The final step in organizing your well pruned and seasonally appropriate wardrobe is to group all like items with each other. Pants, dresses, jackets, long-sleeve tops, short-sleeve tops, etc.—these should all share their own designated real estate inside your closet. When organized in this way, your closet offers visibility into all the components you have available in front of you. Getting dressed becomes like a formula, i.e., jeans + t-shirt + jacket + sneakers = outfit.

A final word on closets: The closet that contains your wardrobe is not the only closet that needs your attention. Apply the above strategies to hallway and linen closets. Do you need all six of those blankets? Unless you live with five other people who can never seem to keep their feet warm, the answer is no. Choose your top two and part with the rest. Same goes for sheets and towels.

Nixing the Knick-Knacks

What: Small useless objects.

Where: Shelves, desk tops, bookcases.

By the time you move on to knick-knacks, you’ll have evolved into a ruthless purger. Take no prisoners as you perform intensive sweeps of the dusty shelf space occupied by lifeless items—many of which might not even hold sentimental value. If it’s not attached to a special feeling or memory, and if it hasn’t been moved or discussed in years, then it’s time to toss it. Even if this involves getting over some guilt because it was a gift. Not only should you feel zero guilt in parting with your knick-knacks, but you should also feel entirely empowered to tell people you’d appreciate it if they’d be more conscious about the stuff they buy for you. Maybe you’ll inspire others to embark on their own journey to simplified living!

For everything you don’t use but can’t bring yourself to part with, find storage near you.

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Thursday January 30, 2020