11 Tips for A Clutter Free Space (But Not Getting Rid of Everything!)
That was an unexpected absence from the blog, but I have been keeping busy elsewhere. Well, sort of. We had a heat wave, so in the moments between melting and sitting in front of my fan, I went on a decluttering rampage. I started getting interested in minimalism in 2019, and have gotten rid of a LOT of stuff over the past few years. I wouldn’t call myself a minimalist quite yet, but I am aiming for a clutter free space. As someone who enjoys collecting old things, whether it’s clothing, furniture, or dishes (I have a weakness for pretty vintage pieces!) I don’t think I’ve quite reached that “sweet spot” yet, but I am definitely getting closer to my goal.
This last decluttering whirlwind was sparked by (and “sparked joy” by!) reading and watching some books and blogs and videos. I’ve been decluttering a few items here and there, and going through my things a little bit at a time. I’ve read quite a bit of minimalism content over the past few years, so I wanted to share 11 of my favourite tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way that have helped me to let go of my excess, and have a more clutter free space, in case these might help you too.
First, though, I wanted to quickly mention the difference between Minimalism as an Aesthetic and Minimalism as a Lifestyle. People often get these confused with each other, and because they don’t like blank white walls and sleek, low-slung furniture, they think that can’t be minimalists. However, Minimalism was originally an art movement that came out of the 1960’s featuring simple square and rectangular shapes. It came to be referred to as Minimalism because it was made of a minimal number of colours, textures and shapes, unlike the art that came before it.
As with most things, Art reflects culture and while the term Minimalism was coined to reflect this specific art movement, it had been present in the world of Design since the 1920’s. Much like how the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800’s was a reaction against the Victorian era’s excessive ornamentation, the Minimalism design movement was characterized by those same open spaces, quality pieces and thoughtfulness of design… just in a slightly more modern way. The Minimalist movement took the “paring back” even further than the Arts and Crafts movement did; the function of an item became the form, and the beauty of an item was found in its simplicity.
Minimalism as a lifestyle takes it’s name from these movements, and reflects the idea of removing the excess from your space, paring back to the minimum amount of items needed and finding the beauty in the simplicity of your lifestyle. (For more info, this is a great article)
While I do admire minimalist design, with white open spaces and graceful modern furniture, that is not my personal decorating style at all! When it comes to decorating my space, I love collecting beautiful antique and vintage pieces, filling my walls with galleries of artwork, and I can never pass up pretty blue and white ceramics. Although I do love the blank feature wall in my bedroom and like to keep many of my surfaces bare, I also really love ornamentation. What I am trying to achieve is a minimalist approach to the belongings that I own and bring into my home. This means being choosy with the pieces I have and not collecting more items than my space can hold in order to avoid those dreaded piles of clutter! I want my home to be full of the items I enjoy, without the extra things that just clutter it up.
1. Practicing Gratitude
I’ve been reflecting on how blessed I am to be in a position where I am struggling with too much, rather than too little. I have been making sure to thank God for those blessings, both as I declutter and by keeping a gratitude journal. As I declutter, I want to make sure that I have a good perspective of my belongings, both in thankfulness for what God has given me… and also in remembering that everything I “own” is His anyways!
2. Blessing Others
And on that note, as I consider items to part with, I try to think of someone I know who could be blessed by that item. For example, we’ve been able to give toys, craft supplies and children’s books to young families in my church. I’ve also been able to pass on duplicate copies of my Agatha Christie books to friends who enjoy reading mysteries, and teacups and dishes to ladies in my church who enjoy hosting. When you can think of someone else who would be able to use and enjoy something you don’t need anymore, it makes it so much easier, and even fun, to part with it. It’s much better for someone else to be able to use something right now, than keeping it in storage indefinitely.
3. Picturing the End Goal
Perhaps I should have mentioned first the most helpful tip, from Marie Kondo: visualize what you want your ideal life to look like. This does not mean what your fantasy life would be like, but what you would realistically like to achieve….and what is holding you back? One way I put this into action was when I realized that, while I love to collect pretty vintage dishes, I actually want to be able to display them all in a china cabinet to enjoy them even when not in use. I don’t want to have to dig through boxes or climb precariously to the top shelf of the kitchen to pull down teacups and cake platters. I also don’t want to have a wide variety of colours in my china cabinet; I like a palette of white, blue, green and glass. This made it so much easier for me to decide which pieces to keep: if they won’t fit in the china cabinet, and they aren’t in the colour palette, then I am OK with parting with them because they don’t fit my vision.
4. Be Realistic
Be realistic about what your lifestyle is like. If you don’t enjoy dry cleaning or hand washing your clothes, then only keep machine washable pieces in your wardrobe. If you don’t like hosting people at your house, but would rather go out to socialize, then pare down your serving ware to only what you need for your family. For me, I love high heels, but my feet do not. I’ve never been able to wear high heels to work or long periods like that, but now I struggle to wear them even for a few hours. I’m not quite ready to get rid of them all, but I have started reducing my shoe collection to include only flats that can fit my orthotics, and lower heeled shoes that I can wear for a few hours to church without causing my feet to ache for days. While I love tall heeled shoes, they don’t fit my lifestyle anymore, so there’s no point in keeping them and feeling sad that I can’t wear them.
5. Keeping Rather than Getting Rid Of
I like this quote by William Morris (one of the founders of the aforementioned Arts and Crafts movement): “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. Or put another way, by Marie Kondo, keep what “Sparks Joy”. I like this tactic because it focuses on choosing what to keep rather than what to get rid of, and it places an emphasis on your personal feelings towards an item, rather than just what is practical. I used this question when curating my closet; choosing which items to keep by how they make me feel when I wear them. I wrote more in depth about that in this post series here. I have some fancy evening dresses that I will probably never wear again, but they are so pretty and they make me happy. Even though they aren’t useful, they definitely spark joy, so they were an obvious keeper. On the other hand, my basic black t-shirts are nothing exciting to look at, but I wear them at home every day because I love how comfortable and neutral they are. I know them to be useful, so I kept them. And I suppose they “spark joy” too, because they clothe me! I have removed a lot of items from my closet over the past few years: things I never wore because they didn’t fit quite right, or I never felt confident in because of ___ reason or because they didn’t coordinate with anything else in my closet (but I didn’t want to buy items to go with them). My every day wardrobe still has some empty spots, but I wear almost all of the pieces on a regular basis.
6. Choosing Your Favourites
Once you’ve decluttered the easy stuff, but need to do more, then it’s time to start looking at items that made their way through the first round. I ask myself “If I could only keep 5 of my ____, which ones would they be?” This forces you to prioritize your favourites of a collection, and decide whether you actually want to keep all of them. At one point I had close to 30 houseplants, and while I did like them, I discovered that I don’t actually want to have a house full of plants; I just want to have a few for each room. When I started picking out my favourites, I chose my purple shamrock, Marble Queen pothos, snake plant, English ivy and air plants. Further down that list were my Wandering Jew and Umbrella tree…in fact they were so far down that list I decided to get rid of them altogether. (I even sold one, which was nice!)) I still have more than five houseplants, at last count 17, but that’s OK. The goal wasn’t to get down to a certain number, but to clear some space while making sure I enjoy each of the plants I do have.
7. Using an Outbox
I was never drowning under clutter, so if you’re needing to move out a lot of stuff quickly, then this tip might not be for you. Sometimes I immediately know when it’s time to declutter something, but not always. I don’t want to make snap decisions and then regret them later so I take my time with items I am on the fence about. Oftentimes I will see something and think, “I should get rid of that”, but then immediately think of a reason why I shouldn’t. If I either keep that thought in the back of my mind, or physically place that item in an outbox (or bag) for several days or weeks, then I think more objectively about it and most of the time will decide to part with it. The outbox works really well for breaking an emotional hold on an item: do you have a reason to take it out of the box, or are you OK with passing it on because you realize you don’t need it as much as you think? I do this with sentimental items and gifts, because I tend to keep gifts because they remind me of the giver. However, if I never use something, it’s not serving any purpose in my life except guilt. It was very helpful to realize that the purpose and value of a gift is in the giving. Once it’s been given and received, it has served it’s main purpose, so if it’s not serving any other purpose for you, then it’s OK to put it in the outbox and eventually pass it on to someone else who could use it.
8. Guidelines for Books
As a bibliophile, I have my own set of rules when it comes to books. I find that many minimalists either don’t talk much about books or just say if you haven’t read it yet or aren’t going to re-read it you should get rid of it. I love books, so those guidelines don’t work for me. Here’s how I decide what to keep on my shelf:
- First, I stop the influx of books by using the library. I read about 40 to 50 books each year, so that is a lot of books coming in! I automatically check to see if I can get any book I’m interested in from my library through an inter-library loan. So far this year I have saved $471.13!!! (They print the total on my receipt each visit). Not only does the library save me money, but shelf space as well. If I borrow a book from the library, and enjoy it so much that I’d like to own it, such as reference, fashion or decorating books then I’ll buy it (or ask for it as a gift) and add it to my personal library.
- I only ever buy books that I haven’t read yet if I get them at a thrift store, or if I can’t get them from the library.
- If I have a book I haven’t read yet, but am still interested in reading, I will keep it. Many minimalists recommend decluttering books you haven’t read yet, but I sometimes have books for several years before I finally get around to reading them (so many books, so little time!) Any books that I no longer find intriguing though, I will definitely remove… to make space for new ones, of course!
- I keep almost all of my Classics, at least the ones that I enjoyed reading and which hold a bit of nostalgia, even if I’m not sure I will read them again. I like to keep them because they seem like good friends. I also like to listen to audio books of Dickens, but one time the disc was scratched so I was glad to have a hard copy of the book so I could finish the book. (It was 1:00 am and I was desperate to find out the ending of A Tale of Two Cities!)
- I label my books with bookplates or with a “This Book Belongs To” stamp. I’ve discovered that if I don’t want to take the time to put my name in a book because I’m not sure if I will get rid of it someday then it probably means I can declutter it now. (Although I could always go the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society route and perhaps meet someone new because my name is written in the front of a book…)
- I have an IKEA Expedit sixteen cube shelf to hold my books. It’s a nice large size to hold a lot of books, but that also means that if there are more books than can fit on the shelf, it’s time to see whether I need to weed some out. (And yes, I do organize by colour because I not only find that more “visually pleasing”, but it is actually easier for me to find my books that way!)
9. Respecting the Amount of Space You Have
A big part of living clutter free is deciding where to store the items you keep. Many professional organizers and minimalists suggest that you should start to figure out organization and storage only after you’ve finished decluttering. This makes sense, because if you start organizing part way through, then you’ll either end up keeping way more than you need, or you’ll run out of space for your stuff and have to go back and declutter all over again. Instead of wishing for more space, I want to instead keep only as much as can comfortably fit. For my crafting area, if something does not easily fit in my desk or shelves, then I have to either get rid of it or remove something else to make space. Having a finite area to keep projects has helped me to be realistic about how many supplies I want to keep, and I go through them regularly. It’s hard as a creative person, because I can come up with all sorts of project ideas, but I’m realizing that just because I could start a new hobby, doesn’t mean I have to (or maybe even want to), and having a clean and organized desk is more important to me. I want to be able to walk into the craft room and be excited to start a project, not have to clear away piles of stuff before I can even start. I haven’t achieved this yet, as evidenced by the top of my desk this morning, but I’m getting closer!
10. Beware of Bins
Don’t store things, other than off-season items, in storage bins because it is way too easy to accumulate stuff: as long as there is room in the bin, you keep adding and because you have to unpack the boxes to see what is inside them, you can end up with duplicates. Also, because they aren’t usually easy to access, you won’t use the items inside regularly, so what’s the point of having them? Even though you can get nice, attractive looking storage boxes, that still doesn’t solve these problems. I am living with storage boxes at the moment, which I would like to find other solutions for, and a perfect example of this accidental accumulation is a set of luncheon/snack dishes I have. I’ve been collecting them for the past 10 years, but have never had a place to display them. I would find a few cups at one thrift store and a few plates at another and I just kept putting them into a storage bin. I knew that some of the cups were foggy and chipped, so when I picked up some more cups a few months ago I decided it was the time to go through the bin, pair up the cups and plates to make a complete set and get rid of the ones that weren’t in good condition. I thought I had about 15 or 20 pairs, but when I opened the bin I discovered that I had over 30 pairs (64 pieces)! I had no idea I had accumulated that many. I got rid of over half of the dishes in that box, keeping only 16 pairs for myself, because I can never imagine hosting more than that number of guests at once. (And that gives me a few extra in case of breakage).
11. Selling Makes it Easier
My final tip is that selling items can make it easier to part with them. While many people advocate for cutting your losses and getting items out of your space as quickly as possible, I think that if something is valuable or in good condition, then it’s worth it to try and sell it. Sometimes it can be hard to declutter items that you paid good money for- not only does it seem like a failure but, even though the money is already gone, it also seems like it’s setting you back financially. For me, it was worth the time and effort in order to recoup some money, especially since I was replacing some of the items in my closet that didn’t “spark joy” with new ones that did. I was able to set that money aside for my wardrobe and didn’t have to spend any extra money on clothes that year. Selling through Poshmark also made it easier for me to part with a lot of my vintage clothing- especially my hats- because, even though I didn’t want to keep them all, I didn’t have anyone to give them to, and I didn’t want to send them to the thrift store where I knew they’d be mistreated and perhaps damaged. Selling these very niche items online was a win-win situation: people who like vintage hats got some fabulous new pieces, and I cleared out more space in my closet!
Well, there are my tips for how to adapt minimalism to suit yourself and to live a more clutter free lifestyle. At the end of the day, I want to have the “just right” number of possessions. I don’t think I’ve reached that yet, but I’m getting close. Some people may look at my space and think that I have way too much, and others may think I have way too little, but the best thing about minimalism is that each person gets to decide what it looks like for their lifestyle. As long as you’re not overwhelmed and surrounded by clutter and when you walk into your space your first thought isn’t “there are so many piles” but rather enjoyment of what you have, then that seems to be the “sweet spot” to me!
What are your favourite decluttering and minimalism tips and what ways do you create a clutter free space for yourself? Do you read or follow any other Minimalist accounts or books?
Ps. Here are some of the other resources I’ve been reading and enjoying lately:
-Marie Kondo’s book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up
-Marissa of A to Zen Life blog and Youtube channel
-Miquillyn Smith’s book Welcome Home (I also got Cozy Minimalist Home from the library, but haven’t read it yet)
-The Minimal Mom Youtube Channel