I like to joke that my interest in litter has its origin in my background as an archaeologist. After all, most artefacts are simply the detritus of past civilisations, and middens—the landfills of the past—are considered an archaeological jackpot because they’re rich sources of evidence for how people once lived.
Yet the archaeology I’ve been doing over the past few months is of the very recent past: my own to be precise. After limbering up and exercising my tidying muscles in a household spring clean, Jon and I began the equivalent of a declutter marathon in the garage, excavating through years of possessions.
Our garage has been a disaster area since moving into our house five years ago. Rather than have a proper clear out before moving, we just stuck everything that didn’t have an immediate use in the garage, with the grand plans to sort it out at the unspecified time of later. Over the years, it has turned into a black hole for things that we couldn’t bear to part with but which weren’t useful enough to be at our fingertips in the house. The result?
Stuff. Everywhere. There was no real organisation, just piles of things or, occasionally, things piled into boxes that, at the time, made sense to carefully preserve. And the number of times we actually used the things that were piled about? I think you can probably guess the answer (hint: it rhymes with biro).
As we ticked past the half a decade mark, we knew it was finally time to tackle the mess, and I found Lindsay Miles’ new book, Less Stuff, to be an incredibly helpful companion in the process. In particular, she addresses some of the psychology behind letting go of belongings:
- The fantasy self: We all have one of these: that person we will magically transform into … at some point. For some, it’s cooking: cookbooks and interesting utensils multiply across the kitchen in an earnest desire to become the next Jamie Oliver or Julia Child. The reality? Takeaway or ready meals most nights. Or there’s the sporty: those who purchase all the necessary kit then don’t touch it for years. My fantasy self was the charity shop upcycler: used goods remade into useful products … except that I rarely actually did so. Recognising that no one is perfect and that we choose what we want to prioritise (or not) may make it easier to let go of the fantasy and embrace the person we are right now.
- Might need it: I tend to think of this as the Scouting Syndrome—the motto of the Boy Scouts is “Be prepared” and, for those of us with this disease, we fear that we will need that very thing we got rid of … at some point. So we hold on to it just in case it becomes useful. Some day. Maybe. Lindsay makes the point that if it can be easily replaced within budget, then it makes sense to let it go now. And I have to be honest: I can’t recall ever needing any of those things I’ve held on to, and I suspect I wouldn’t have been able to find them in the clutter even if I did.
- Monetary value: Then there’s the financial side of things. I think we all know someone who refuses to part with something sitting unused in a wardrobe or tucked away out of sight in storage because they “paid good money for that!” But if it’s not used or worn, isn’t the current value actually zero? Letting high-quality items go—whether sold online or at a car boot sale, or given to someone who needs it—unlocks some of that value while freeing up valuable space in your home.
- Environmental values: And this is the biggie. When you try to be environmentally conscious, decluttering can feel like it goes against everything you stand for. You don’t want to add to landfill. You know that recycling isn’t ideal. You know that charity shops can’t be expected to absorb everything. So you hold on to clothes that don’t fit, items in need of repair, gifts you’ve never used, and other assorted things … and feel bad every time you see them. Recognising that you have to start somewhere on the path to being clutter free can help draw a line under the past so that you can move forward toward a clutter-free future.
In many ways, I was fortunate in my clutter. Because it had been in the garage so long, there was a distance of time and space that meant I no longer felt quite so possessive over many things, and I also recognised that much of it had served its purpose. Yes, I spent a lot of time (and paper) collecting my PhD research … but it’s been nearly a decade since graduating. The research area has moved on. Continuing with the excavation metaphor, there were even some artefacts that I couldn’t recognise or remember why I had held on to them in the first place!
I’ll be honest: the garage is still a work in progress and I don’t feel quite brave enough to post a picture yet, but there are a few things I’ve learned through this experience that I think are worth sharing:
- I am now far more careful about what I bring into the house (or the garage). You don’t have to declutter what you don’t have in the first place.
- If I am hesitant about getting rid of something, I set myself a time limit to think about it. If I don’t use it during that time, it goes. [I use the tool Follow Up Then to automatically send myself an email reminder on the given date].
- Decluttering is about more than the three options of bin, charity shop, or recycle: we found that some things were actually useful and brought them in the house. Others could be sent to auction, where Jon is hoping to cash in on the nostalgia for games from the 1990s. And a few things were given to recipients who had a need for them.
- Now that things are more organised, it’s a lot easier to access the litter picking equipment! If you would like to borrow any of it to run your own community litter pick, please get in touch.
If any of this has resonated with you, please consider checking out Lindsay’s book Less Stuff: Simple zero-waste steps to a joyful and clutter-free life or her blog posts on the topic:
- 3 assumptions you’re making about decluttering … and why you’re wrong
- 3 (more) assumption you’re making about decluttering … and why you’re right
DISCLAIMER: Affiliate links are used in this post; Less Stuff is currently available in the UK and will be released in the US in August.