Without all this stuff to distract you, you are forced to search a little deeper to find out what the fuck it is you want to do with your life. Sometimes that leaves you staring into an abyss. Your shit isn’t going to fill the abyss, it will merely obscure it.
Physical Baggage Is Emotional Baggage
In 2015 I sold almost all my possessions to pursue a travel lifestyle. Getting rid of all my stuff got harder, the closer I got to my goal. It started to become less about practical matters and more about the emotional side of my possessions. I left the most difficult things until last.
Extreme decluttering forced me to clarify for myself what my possessions mean to me. I kept things because of psychological needs, not just practical ones. If you want to declutter, pretty soon you get to the point where you're pushing up against emotional baggage.
I hope that my experience with letting go will inspire you to reflect on your relationship to your stuff, so that you can get rid of any emotional baggage that is holding you back from achieving more freedom.
Don't Let Your Stuff Own You
A long time ago I bought some skiwear. I used it a couple of times and enjoyed skiing. But skiing is very expensive, relative to other kinds of holiday that I enjoy, so other trips almost always took priority over skiing. Then I got together with Hannah, who doesn’t enjoy skiing, so there was even less incentive for me to ski.
That skiwear took up space in my wardrobe for years, unused. Whenever I saw it, I found myself thinking, “I should go skiing again.” I wanted to “get value” out of my past purchase of ski stuff. I had spent a lot of money on it, and I had a nagging feeling of guilt about not using it enough. Owning the skiwear made me feel bad.
You can get the skiwear effect from any purchase. Every time you buy something, a part of your brain starts to post-rationalise your purchase. You think that you ought to do something with your possessions, in order to justify the fact that you spent money on them. Instead of deciding that you want to do something and then spending the money to do so, you can end up determining your activities on the basis of your past purchases. Over time, your stuff can come to own you.
The Victorian poet William Morris said that you should have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. The problem with that idea is that all your stuff is potentially useful. My skiwear was useful (for skiing). But it was more useful converted into cash than it was cluttering up my wardrobe.
I suggest—unpoetically—that you should not have anything in your life that isn't much more useful or beautiful than its storage and maintenance requires. These days I only keep possessions if the benefits are much more significant than the mental and financial maintenance costs.
Owning lots of stuff limits your psychological freedom. Don’t let the fact that you bought something in the past determine how you spend your time now. If your stuff does not bring you fulfilment now, get rid of it.
Close The Open Loops
I used to have cardboard boxes in my cupboards, filled with all sorts of unused junk that I intended to sort through “one day”. These boxes contained old home videos on VHS, even though I hadn’t owned a video player for over a decade.
I kept an ancient collection of audio cassettes—music that I had bought years ago and mix tapes that I had made. I kept these tapes even though I hadn’t owned a cassette player for nearly two decades.
I had old floppy disks, left over from the 1990s, with god knows what on them. I have not seen a computer that can read floppy disks for two decades, but I kept these, “just in case”.
When I packed away stuff in boxes, it was out of sight, but there was an open loop left in my mind. I had not made the decisions about what to do with all this old clutter.
Extreme decluttering involved making all these decisions. I made the choice about which videos and disks I wanted to digitise, and got it done. I said goodbye to the old cassettes that were never going to be played.
Storage gives you a great excuse for avoiding decisions. If you have cupboard space to fill with crap, you don’t have to know why you own it, what you are going to do with it, or whether it can ever serve any purpose in your life.
Having unsorted stuff is a drain on your mental energy, even if you never look at it. Make the decisions, clear the decks, and free yourself of the mental baggage.
Give Back What Is Not Yours
One of the boxes that I procrastinated about decluttering was filled with other people’s stuff. Some of this stuff belonged to people that I had broken contact with. Giving back their stuff would involve initiating contact of some kind. I didn’t want to open a dialogue. I thought that giving things back might be misinterpreted. At the same time, I did not consider it right to sell or throw away things that didn’t belong to me. So the box languished in my cupboard, and I avoided thinking about it.
In the end, I decided to simply give back everything that was not mine, without fanfare. It is not within my control how anyone else interprets my actions. It is within my control to do what I consider the right thing for my own peace of mind. So I just stopped worrying about how my actions might be interpreted. I gave back things that belonged to others, and I felt better for doing so. That box was emotional baggage. I feel much freer having taken care of it.
Let the past be done. Give back what is not yours, or throw it away— do whatever you think is right. Let others have whatever interpretations of you they want. Other people’s opinions of you are not your business.
I used to buy a lot of books, resulting in many unread books on my shelves. As long as I held on to those books, I could keep telling myself that I would read them “someday”. I avoided admitting to myself that I had wasted money buying them too hastily.
This was an example of me avoiding getting rid of some stuff because I would have to acknowledge mistakes that I had made in purchasing it. Acknowledging rash purchases would give me minor discomfort in the moment, so I avoided it.
I chose to stop procrastinating and sell those books. The payoff in the long run has been clearing all that clutter from my life. The great thing about acknowledging your mistakes is that you put them behind you and move on. I feel lighter and more free, whenever I let go of the baggage of past mistakes by acknowledging them and moving on.
When we first moved into our flat in Brighton, I bought various pieces of ergonomic furniture which I assumed we would use for many years to come. When our plans changed, and we decided to pursue a life of travel, I discovered that the resale value of the furniture would be far less than I had imagined. I felt reluctant to sell these items at such a loss, so I procrastinated.
This way of thinking is called the fallacy of sunk costs. If you buy an asset that subsequently goes down in value, and you avoid selling at a lower value because that would acknowledge the loss, then you are only kidding yourself.
Treat the past as done, behind us, finished. The only relevant question is whether it makes more sense to keep an asset now, or sell it. If it is not worth keeping now, the rational course of action is to let it go.
Clearing out all your stuff forces you to recognise losses, which hurts. On the bright side, it also forces you to put all that stuff behind you and move on.
Challenge Your Customs And Assumptions
Before I started decluttering, it never occurred to me that I could get rid of some possessions. For example, I never considered it an option to get rid of my books because… that’s just not what I thought one does with books. Books were almost sacred objects to me.
Both my parents collected hundreds of books. I learned from an early age to treat books as treasured possessions. I grew up respecting books as the main repository of knowledge within society. They were the tool by which knowledge got handed down from one generation to the next.
I still value books very highly, but I have learned to challenge my custom of treating them as sacred. The ideas in the book are what matter, not the paper that they are printed on.
A digital file can be a far more enduring way to store and transmit knowledge than paper, because it can be backed up, shared, or copied. If I want to share a rare book with my children in future, it will be much easier to give them my scan of it.
It was uncomfortable challenging my assumptions. When I first thought about destructive book scanning, I felt like I was contemplating a crime. It was a strange sensation cutting the covers off previously sacred objects.
Extreme decluttering is an unconventional lifestyle. If you do it, you will end up breaking some of the customs regarding possessions that are held by your family, friends and social circle. You can do things differently. Some people might be surprised, or disapprove, but so what.
You may not have the same assumptions about your book collection as I did. But I bet you have some unchallenged customs or assumptions preventing you from decluttering. If you are finding it hard to contemplate getting rid of some of your stuff, challenge your assumptions. Let go of any outdated customs.
Let Go Of Your Status Symbols
Another obstacle to getting rid of all my books was my concern about what others think of me.
I took pride in having read a lot of books. Reading books takes some discipline. Finishing a book is an accomplishment. But keeping books was not just a matter of personal pride, it was also an exercise of vanity on my part. The books on my shelf were trophies.
I regarded books as a kind of status symbol. My collection of books was not just for my own reference, they were also to show off to people who came to my apartment. My collection proclaimed “look at all the books that this guy has read!”.
I’m telling you a lot about my relationship with books, as these formed such a big part of my personal possessions and I had a lot of emotional baggage attached to my book collection. That’s were I wanted to “make an impression” through my possessions.
Your status symbols could be different. There are many things that you might own in order to impress other people, or communicate a message about the kind of person you are. I’ve never been interested in cars, but I know that a lot of people use cars as status signifiers, in the same way that I did with books.
What I have found is that the pursuit of my own dreams—a life of travel with Hannah—has enabled me to let go of my preoccupation with “making an impression” through the stuff I own. I still confront my ego sometimes, but it no longer shows up through stuff. I don’t care what people think about the fact that I don’t own any books. I have more important things to do.
Find a purpose for your life and pursue it relentlessly. Doing so will help you to forget about insecurities and preoccupations that are getting in the way, like what others think of you.
Decide What Your Life Is About
The hardest object for me to get rid of was a beautiful, vintage Fender Stratocaster guitar. I had owned that guitar since I was a teenager, when I played in a band. The Strat travelled with me to university, and then afterwards to all the various flats that I lived in. I took it with me wherever I moved to, even though I stopped playing regularly during my University years, and very rarely picked up my guitar afterwards.
I got a PhD, became an entrepreneur and built a business. During many years of hard work, the Stratocaster was a reminder of times that I had been more playful. I did not have the energy for creative improvisation. I missed that aspect of life. I didn’t want to sell the guitar because I didn’t want to admit to myself that I didn't play any more.
When I sold my business and retired early, one of the first things I did was get back into playing my guitar. I attended a Jazz school, where I learned to play a style of music that I'd never tried before. I learned new tunes and did a lot of improvisation. I joined jamming sessions and played live gigs in a pub every Friday night for a summer.
I also found other creative outlets for play. I attended comedy improvisation courses and performed in some comedy improv shows. Making a podcast and writing books are also my creative pursuits.
When we decided to sell everything and adopt a life of travel, I knew that it would be impractical for me to take the Stratocaster with me. It is notoriously stressful taking musical instruments on planes. I would have had to carry an additional flight suitcase, and that old guitar was made of heavy maple wood. I would also need an amp. All these obstacles were surmountable, but I knew that it was only worth taking the guitar if I was going to play it every day, as an integral part of my life.
I loved the idea of playing. But, uncomfortable though it was to admit it, I knew that I loved the idea, not the the reality. I did not have the same hunger for playing my guitar that I have for writing, podcasting, travel, my life with Hannah, starting a family, and all the other things that I am wildly enthusiastic about.
Extreme decluttering has forced me to ask myself: what do I hunger for? What am I enthusiastic about? It is a vulnerable feeling to admit these things to yourself, and go for them, dumping everything else.
It is much more comforting to be mildly interested in a thousand pursuits, and keep all the crap associated with them. If you have a guitar, and play it once a year, you can think of yourself as a guitarist.
I know what it feels like to be afraid to commit to being wildly enthusiastic about something. It is easy to forget that you have the freedom to change your mind. I sold my guitar and said goodbye to that pursuit, to focus fully on the things that are most meaningful to me. But I can always change my mind. If, in two years, I decide that playing guitar every day is a really important goal for me, I’ll just buy a guitar.
Don’t keep all your clutter to avoid deciding what you are enthusiastic about. And don’t keep it just in case you change your mind. If you are not passionate about skiing every year, sell your skiwear. If you are not passionate about playing that guitar every day, sell it.
You can experience and achieve a huge amount in life, but not all at once. A rich life is lived as a series of focussed pursuits. Extreme decluttering forces you to commit to wanting only a few things in your life at any moment, but wanting them with wild enthusiasm. Give up on all those other things that you are semi-committed to, but not wildly enthusiastic about.
Stop pretending that you can do a thousand things at once in life. Then you can allow yourself the courage to do something truly remarkable with it.