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Decluttering + why “living with less” shouldn’t be your goal this year [Episode 36]

It’s that time of year when many people consider their goals; for some, decluttering is high on the list! Which is great, but HOW you approach your goal matters. Check out this episode of The Simply + Fiercely Show for a mindset shift to set you up for a successful and intentional 2024!

In This Episode:

  • why “living with less” isn’t my goal anymore
  • how decluttering can be a tool for intentional living
  • my favourite benefit of decluttering

Featured In This Episode:

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Note: this is not an exact transcript and has been edited for clarity.

Decluttering and Why Living with Less Shouldn’t Be Your Goal This Year

Hi everyone. It’s Jennifer here, and welcome to the Simply + Fiercely Show. 

This is the first episode of 2024, which is perfect timing because today I want to talk to you about decluttering and goal setting. 

To get straight to the point, what I want to drive home is why living with less shouldn’t be your goal this year. 

I know that might sound like a really weird thing to say and probably not what you’re expecting from me. 

If you are new here, one thing you should know about me is that I am quite passionate about decluttering and simple living. But at the same time, I’m very wary of decluttering or any decluttering advice that is focused on getting rid of as much as possible or focusing on numbers.

You’ve probably heard of different decluttering challenges or hacks or programs where it’s like, “Oh, hey, this is 2024. Let’s try to declutter 2,024 items for this 30-day decluttering challenge.” 

To be clear, I think that these can be helpful in the short term. It’s almost like a productivity hack. Having a set number or a set goal can be helpful in terms of keeping you accountable and keeping you motivated. 

But we have to make sure that we don’t lose sight of the big picture, that your ultimate goal isn’t, “Hey, can I declutter as much as possible?”

Because I don’t think that’s what most people want, and I just want to break that down today. Get into the nitty-gritty of why living with less shouldn’t be the goal and what your goal should be instead. 

How you achieve that goal also matters, from someone who has spent the past nearly 10 years or maybe longer than 10 years, decluttering my own life. Then writing, talking, and teaching other people how to declutter and simplify, I really believe that the way you approach it matters. 

The way that you set your goals matters in terms of not just achieving your “decluttering,” in terms of how much you get rid of, but just the whole experience.

What happens on the other end? What is your life going to be like once you get rid of all this stuff that you’ve been obsessing over? 

That might sound a bit vague, but let’s just dive in and I’m hoping that it’ll all make sense as we go.

Reliving Jen’s experience with decluttering and minimalism

A good place to start is with a little bit of my own experience. 

If you’re new here, I have been living a “minimalist lifestyle” for over a decade. From the outside looking in, that has varied a lot over the years. 

When I first started simplifying, I ended up in a spot where my now husband and I were living in a studio apartment. It was about 140 square feet, I think. It was already furnished so we didn’t own most of the stuff in the house. We didn’t even have a private kitchen and bathroom, they were shared with our neighbors down the hall.

During that period, one of the things I used to pride myself on was, “Oh, look. Everything we own fits into the back of our car.” 

We had a little Toyota Aygo hatchback at the time. And I thought that was something to be proud of.

 Back then, I was reading a lot of blog posts about decluttering. There was this big thing at the time, this trend in the early to mid-2010s where people were publishing posts like, “Oh, look, I only own 240 items” or however many. 

They were actually publishing lists of everything they owned, which at the time I found interesting. But looking back, I’m like, “What?” It’s a bit ridiculous now. 

But anyway, that’s where I started my minimalist journey. 

Then I took things even a bit more extreme when I went on my honeymoon. 

Because we had been living this extreme minimalist lifestyle for quite a few years, living well below our means, we were able to go on a seven-month honeymoon after we got married. We traveled around the world with only carry-on luggage for about seven months.

If you fast-forward to today, I have two kids, they are three and six. We live in a two-bedroom apartment that’s about 660 square feet, so probably small to a lot of people, but a lot bigger than how I used to live. 

What is minimalism for Jen? (…Why it isn’t just a number?)

What I now know when I reflect on all these different stages of my minimalist journey is, sure from the outside, it looks different. 

I was “more minimalist” at some stages. But I no longer believe that because deep down minimalism to me is not how much stuff you own. 

Instead, it is about alignment. And this is something I could talk about for hours but I won’t. I’ll save you that.

I believe that minimalism is about looking at your lifestyle. 

What are your values, your priorities, your circumstances? Things like your income level, your health, and where you live. 

I live here in Australia and some people live in the outback who are a half day, a day even, from the shops so obviously they’re going to need to keep more things than I do, just in case.

I live in a very urban environment. It’s a five-minute walk to the grocery store. I can live more minimalist because it’s easy for me to get to the shops. 

People who have different living circumstances, and again, it’s not just location, but they may need to keep more stuff. So minimalism for me is not about that number. It’s not about what’s in your home.

What it’s about is defining for yourself how much is enough, and then editing. 

Editing is probably the best word. Editing your life accordingly. Do the things you own, the things you do, and the things you buy reflect your values and priorities? 

As I said, in the short term you can use numbers to motivate you. They can be great as a productivity tool as long as you don’t lose sight of this big picture. 

Why focusing on the number or setting an arbitrary goal is not for everyone?

I’ll share a few reasons that drive home why this is important.

First and foremost, I think that when you focus on trying to have as little as possible or trying to be super minimalist, or whatever floats your boat, one of the problems it can lead to is pressure and comparisons. 

Which in my opinion, is one of the reasons why we have so much clutter in the first place. 

For example, I’ve worked with clients and felt this way myself early on, where your ideal, what you think that you want to achieve is the minimalist aesthetic. 

You’ve seen magazine photos, Pinterest, or Instagram, you see these gorgeous clutter-free homes that are very beautiful. But if we step back and remember that those are styled photos, or at least in most cases. For most people, if you live in your home, it is not going to look like that.

If you are singularly focused on trying to achieve something that is potentially completely unattainable because as I said, it’s a styled photo. 

Or even if it was attainable to everyone, it just might not be right for you. 

I have two kids. What matters to me more than having a perfect minimalist home is having a space where we can enjoy our time as a family. If I’m too focused on some kind of number or some kind of arbitrary goal, I’m going to miss out on what really matters.

It reminds me of when people set weight loss goals. And I apologize to those who’ve listened to some of the recent episodes. I do talk about health and weight loss a lot as an analogy for decluttering. 

I just want to get it out there that I am anti-diet culture. I definitely don’t feel like people need to be a certain weight or whatever but it’s often such a beautiful analogy for the mistakes that people make when they’re decluttering. 

How many times have you heard about people setting these weight loss goals that are so arbitrary? They’re not even what is necessarily healthy for them or what’s right for them because of their body shape, their age, or maybe their medications. There’s a million reasons why.

For example, I’m not going to be 115 pounds. But if I set that goal for myself because I feel this pressure from society, and I’m just pulling numbers out of my head, I don’t even know what 115 pounds looks or feels like anymore. 

But if I let that number become my fixation, I could be so obsessed about achieving that number on the scale while I might actually feel worse. I think right now if I was going to try to achieve 115 pounds, I’d probably have to starve myself. I’m not going to feel good. I’m not going to feel healthy. 

If I was trying to lose weight, which I’m not, the goal would be to feel better in my body. Starving myself to reach this arbitrary goal because that’s what I feel like I’m supposed to achieve is not going to get me there.

That sometimes happens with minimalism. 

Have you ever heard about people who have almost gone to this opposite extreme? 

As you know, I used to be a shopaholic, so I would be obsessed with buying things all the time. But I’ve heard of situations where people have gone to the other extreme and they’re obsessed with decluttering. 

They’re always on the lookout. What else can I get rid of? I feel like my home isn’t minimalist enough. 

For me, that just isn’t the right question to be asking. It’s almost like another obsession with stuff but they’ve just swung the pendulum in the other direction.

Decluttering as a way to achieve a stress-free lifestyle and self-care

This brings me to my next point that the goal should never be about the stuff. The goal is about the lifestyle. 

So even if you sit down and say, “What I want is to declutter my home this year.” That might be the words coming out of your mouth. That might be how you think you’re going to achieve your goal, but it’s probably not what you really want. 

What you want is the lifestyle that you think decluttering is going to achieve. You think that by decluttering, you might have less stress. 

You might think that by decluttering you’re going to have more time, and that might be true. It’s often true, but having less stuff is not the goal in and of itself.

For example, when I think about why I declutter, and what my ultimate goal really is, I have this vision. 

I want to have slower mornings. I don’t want to be feeling pressured and rushed in the morning. I don’t want to be spending every free moment of my time cleaning. 

I want to have more of my disposable income for travel. I’m passionate about travel. 

One of my favorite forms of self-care is massages. I’m a very physical, touchy-feely person, and getting a massage is just one of the most glorious things. I love having that in my life.

I want to have space to do creative work. I’m very passionate about creating content, of writing. I write a blog as some of you may know, but I also write really bad fiction as a hobby, which I’m never going to share with you all, but I do it just because it’s something that makes me happy. 

I want to feel good in my home. I want to feel good in my body. All of this is my vision for a long life. That is what all my goals should be working towards, and decluttering is a tool that can help me get there. 

But decluttering or living with as little as possible is not the goal in and of itself.

Understanding the roots of clutter

A really good example of that, or a really good way of conceptualizing that is to imagine that overnight, some kind of magical decluttering fairy came into your home. 

Poof, all the clutter, all the excess stuff that you’ve been wanting to get rid of just disappears overnight. It sounds like a dream. 

But the hard truth is that unless you have some rare situation where literally all of your clutter was let’s say, inherited overnight, which happens to some people, but in most situations, your clutter is something that you have accumulated over the years, and there are reasons for that. 

We have to get to the roots of your clutter.

What are the habits? What are the thoughts? What are the beliefs? What was it that led you to have clutter in the first place? 

If you don’t understand that and you don’t stop that, getting rid of all your stuff overnight is not going to change things. 

Everything’s going to come back to where it was. It reminds me of those stories you always hear about people who win the lottery and a couple of years later, they’ve lost it all and they’re bankrupt.

If you’re going to win that kind of money, you have to really work on your relationship with money. 

If you are going to declutter, you have to work on your relationship with clutter as well. You have to get to the roots so that you can break the cycle. 

That is another reason why, again, it’s sometimes less about what you get rid of and more about what you learn along the way.

It reminds me of that whole teach a man to fish analogy. It’s like if you learn how to really understand your clutter, if you can get to the roots of it, if something happens if you get sick and your house fills up with stuff again. Or if it’s because you’ve gone through a hard time or you get depressed, or whatever the reason. 

If you’ve done the work to understand the roots of your clutter, you can declutter again.

Learning the skill of intentional living and understanding the value of self-awareness

Okay, so what is the stuff that you’re learning? Let’s break this down even further. 

One of my favorite things about decluttering is that it teaches you the skill of intentional living. This was one of my first big aha moments about decluttering. 

If you go back to the early days of my blog, I probably wouldn’t recommend it because there was a lot of bad writing back in 2015. But if you went back there, this is something I talk about a lot, a way that decluttering can be a tool for values-led living. This is what I experienced in my life.

When you’re decluttering, it requires a lot of repetition. You are going through piles and piles of stuff. And every time you pick something up, you’ve got to ask yourself, or you can ask yourself, “How does this item help me live the life that I want most?” 

You’ve got this vision of this kind of lifestyle that you want. And you can ask yourself, “Is this helping me achieve that? Is it bringing me closer to that life? Or is it holding me back? Is it taking me further or in the opposite direction?” So you do that, and you do that with one item, and then you do it with 10 items, and then you do it with a 100, and you do it over and over and over.

What I found is that it’s almost like muscle memory. You are teaching your brain to think in new ways so that when you’re thinking about making a purchase, you start thinking, “Is this purchase going to help me? Is it going to take me closer to the life I want?” 

Then it goes even further. You start to think about the way that you spend your time when you take on new commitments, or when you agree to go to an event or something. 

Even in relationships, you start to think more intentionally about everything that comes into your life. 

And no one’s perfect. I’m not saying that we turn into robots, but it becomes a habit, and we just start to pause a little bit more and think, “Why do I do this? Is this right for me? Is this not right for me?” And that is a skill that you learn from decluttering.

This is something that I talk about a lot now because it’s a newer realization for me. 

It took me a long time to truly understand the value of decluttering from this other perspective, which is about self-awareness. 

I genuinely believe a lot of our clutter stems from the fact that there’s so much pressure. There are these expectations about who we think we should be, how we think we’re supposed to behave, and what we think we’re supposed to own. 

This big, giant pressure from society is just sitting on our shoulders, and a lot of decluttering is chipping that away.

Personally, my own story is that I was a shopaholic primarily for clothes, shoes, handbags, and that kind of stuff. 

I can see now that I kept things because it was literally like being in a costume. I didn’t like who I was. I wasn’t uncomfortable in my skin. There was so much about myself that I just hadn’t made peace with. 

So when I put on the right clothes and the right shoes, it was literally like getting dressed to go onto a stage and I could pretend to be somebody who wasn’t me. 

As I decluttered, it was like the chicken and the egg situation. Everything I got rid of helped me affirm who I was and what I believed in. It was like this constant cycle of saying, “This is what I believe,” and then acting on it.

That process is probably one of the most valuable things that I got out of decluttering. Just changing those beliefs. 

I used to think that a successful woman had to dress a certain way. Now I’ve changed that belief to, a successful woman wears what they want and they don’t think about what other people think. 

That was transformative for me. And it completely changed my confidence, and how I feel about myself. 

I love myself more than I ever have, even though I’m approaching middle age and things are sagging, and my hair is graying. 

I really think that I owe that self-love to decluttering and simplifying. 

What I would like to drive home is that the process of how you declutter really matters, and that your goal shouldn’t necessarily be to own as little as possible, but maybe your goal should be to open yourself up to self-discovery.

To understand yourself. To approach your clutter with curiosity and compassion, and to use decluttering as a tool to create this lifestyle that you really want.

So yes, the numbers, the figures, the decluttering checklist, or the charts, they’re beautiful ways to help keep you accountable, but that is not a goal in and of itself. 

Invitation to a workshop on January 14, 2024

I hope this inspires you to think about your decluttering a little bit differently this year.

If this is something that you’d like help with because I know that conceptually this might be really exciting, really beautiful, but the how can be a bit daunting. 

I wanted to let you know that I am teaching a free decluttering workshop on Sunday, the 14th of January 2024 at 7:00 PM New York time. It is free for anyone who wants to attend, but you do need to register.

You can go to this link simplyfiercely.com/goodbye

The reason it’s goodbye is because the very clever name for this workshop is Hello 2024, Goodbye Clutter! 

If you can attend live, that’s great. I find that attending live events always gets me a bit more excited and a bit more motivated. Plus, there’s going to be time at the end of the workshop to ask any questions that you have. 

But if you can’t attend live, still register and I will send you a replay after the event. As I said, we’re going to be diving into three decluttering mistakes that a lot of people make.

The number one thing that changed the way that I declutter, and also a really simple repeatable system that I have developed that helps you declutter in a way that not only gets results but helps people tackle that sticky clutter that can be so hard to get rid of. 

And also declutter in a way that you get all the benefits that we talked about in this episode. 

Helping you create the life that you want and getting all those really beautiful self-identity benefits. It’s really about establishing who you are and what you believe in. And if that speaks to you, I hope to see you then.

That’s all for today. Thanks so much for listening, and I’ll see you next week.

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