30 Days to a Better Man Day 13: Declutter Your Life

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 12, 2009 · 30 comments

in 30 Days to a Better Man

Simplify, simplify.” -Henry David Thoreau

The simple life is a manly life. Some of history’s manliest men lived lives of true simplicity, free from unneeded clutter. The Spartans basically had one piece of clothing they wore all year, a spear, a shield, and some farm tools. Because of their simple lifestyle, they were able to focus on learning how to be fighting machines.

Despite being relatively wealthy, Ben Franklin lived a pretty simple life. Consequently, he was able to spend his time inventing stoves, creating public libraries, discovering electricity, and founding a country.

Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson were evangelists of simplicity. When Thoreau went to Walden Pond he brought with him just a few things. Because he didn’t have crap distracting him, he was able to focus his energies into writing some awesomely deep thoughts.

The simple life is a manly life because a man defines himself not by his possessions but by his character, virtues, relationships, and experiences. These are the things that he invests his time, energy, and emotions in, because these are the things that no natural disaster, no bomb, no prison can ever take away from him. The less stuff we accumulate, the less energy we have to devote to the maintenance of it, and the more energy we can put into becoming better men.

Why Declutter

It reduces stress. I definitely think there’s something to the idea that clutter can block the flow of good karma and energy in your life. Whenever I’m in a room filled with crap, I get tense and feel like I’m being buried in stuff. When I clear things out, I feel like a load has been taken off me physically and mentally. I think clearer, I’m more productive, and I have a bit more pep in my step.

It gives you a fresh start.
If you feel as though you’ve been stuck in a rut lately or if you’ve gone through a tough break-up or  recently been laid off, decluttering your space may be just the thing to kick start your life and move it out of neutral. You can get rid of stuff that reminds you of a part of your life you want to move on from. Holding onto stuff you associate with bad memories and feelings keeps the bad energy in your home. After you clear out your crap, you’ll have a clean canvas on which to create a new life.

It saves you time. I don’t know how many hours I’ve wasted in my life looking for something in the boxes and drawers of junk I’ve accumulated. When you have a house free of clutter, you can spend less time looking for stuff and more time focusing on more important things like making your bucket list or reconnecting with nature.

It can save (and make) you some money. When you have a disorganized mess, important things like bills can get lost in the mix. When that happens, you run the risk of forgetting to pay a bill and being slapped with an overdue fee. You also forget what you have and don’t have, and thus end up buying duplicates of things already in your possession. Save yourself money by keeping your place clutter free.

Also, through the process of decluttering, you may run across a few things that you can sell on eBay or Amazon and thus make some cash in the process.

How to Declutter

Set aside a big chunk of time. How much time you allocate for decluttering will depend on how much crap you’ve accumulated over the years. Usually when I declutter the house, it takes about four hours of focused work. It may take you longer or shorter. But I would give yourself at least 2 hours this weekend to get started on it.

Get some garbage bags. You’ll either be tossing stuff out, donating it to Goodwill, or selling it on eBay or in a tag sale. Have one trash bag for each one of these purposes.

Tackle the task one room at a time. One thing I’ve noticed when I’ve done some heavy duty decluttering is that I’ll begin in one room, but somehow end up in another. This just makes my job harder because I have to keep track of what’s going on in both rooms, and I’ve made a mess in two rooms instead of one. It’s better when I just focus on one room or closet at a time and focus completely on clearing it out until I’m satisfied with the job I’ve done. So fight the temptation to have several irons in the fire while decluttering. Pick a room in your house and work on it until you’re done.

After you’ve selected a room, work on it section by section. For example, start with your dresser or desk and go through it drawer by drawer. Or start with your closet and look at what’s on each hanger. Don’t move on to another section until the one you started on is done.

Finally, leave no stone unturned. Go through your underwear drawer and throw out those socks without matches or those boxers with gaping holes in them. Clean out your medicine cabinet and throw away anything that has expired. Go through your desk drawers and chuck your pens that have run out of ink. Get every last piece of unusable clutter out of your life.

Sort Through Your Stuff

As you work through each section, take everything item by item and decide whether you’re going to keep it or which bag it goes into: trash, sell, or donate. Here’s some advice on how to make that decision:

Books

Go book by book and ask yourself if you’re ever going to read it or read it again. Be honest here. Don’t keep a book because it makes you feel smart while deep down you know there’s no way you’re going to read it. Books aren’t accessories or decorative pieces. Also, keep in mind that if you get rid of a book and then regret it, you can always check it out from the library or buy it used for $2 on Amazon or at a used book store. This is not a life or death decision, so err on the side of uncluttering.

Take the books you don’t want and put them for sale on sites like Amazon or half.com. Or take them to you local used bookstore. If you can’t sell them, donate them to the library.

Clothes and Miscellaneous Items

Go through your clothes and other stuff piece by piece. Ask yourself this question as you hold each item, “Is this something I have used/worn in the past year?”

If you haven’t, then get rid of it. We often hold onto stuff because we think we’re going to need it “someday.” But if you haven’t used something in a  year, you’re probably never going to use it, and it will just end up taking up space in your house. Even if you would end up using it 10 years from now, the cost/benefit analysis of lugging that thing around for the next decade just doesn’t make sense.

When you make this decision, be quick. Don’t mull over it too much. The more you mull, the more likely you’ll hold onto it. Remember, if you hesitate at all, you probably don’t need it. You have to learn to detach feelings and emotions from stuff. Stuff is just stuff, a bunch of atoms and molecules. Unless something is truly irreplaceable, then it’s okay to throw it away and keep the memories in your mind and heart.

Put your old clothes, with the exception of your underwear, in the donate bag. As you put stuff in the bag, make a  note of what the item is on a piece of paper and give it an approximate value.  You can use this to get a receipt from Goodwill and write off the amount you donated on your income taxes.

Items that are interesting and usable can be sold on eBay or in a tag sale.

Paper and Mail

If you don’t have one now, go out and buy a file box. And then make folders labeled as “Bills,” “Instruction Manuals,” “Letters,” “Receipts,” and so on. Then go through your mail and paper piles piece by piece, throwing away what you don’t need and filing what you do need.

Chuck It or Donate It

When you’re done decluttering, take the bags designated for trash to the curb. Drop off the donate bags to Goodwill and make sure to get a receipt from them for your income tax deduction.

Preventing Clutter from Re-entering Your Life

Once you have successfully decluttered  your home, you’ll be amazed at how satisfying and amazing it feels. The hard part is holding on to that feeling and not letting everything get cluttered up again. So here are a few steps to take to prevent clutter from creeping back into your life:

  • Every time you bring home something new, get rid of something. This keeps the balance of clutter in check.
  • Every time you go to bed, spend 5 minutes moving from room to room and throwing away junk that’s been lying around.
  • Each time you get the mail, open it immediately, throwing away what you don’t need and filing what you do.

Today’s task is to declutter your place. It’s Saturday, so most of us have plenty of time to take on this project. Maybe you have so much crap that you can only get one room done all day. So be it. Just get started. Report back to the community page and let us know how your decluttering went. Also, if you have any tips on how to prevent clutter from re-entering your life, share them in the comments.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Daniel Richard June 12, 2009 at 10:42 pm

I don’t own a whole shelf of books (not more than 20 titles to my collection), and I probably won’t pick most of them up to read anytime soon again. Hmm. Didn’t thought of selling it away on Amazon before, though I could start decluttering by giving them away.

Decluttering my place should be pretty easy. Except for official documents (self-employed here) which have to stay for a period of time (7 years if I’m not wrong). :)

2 David Stark June 13, 2009 at 12:00 am

So true, so true. About 3 months ago I made the effort and it made an unexpected move last month so much easier. It’s amazing how much better organised I now feel. I found myself throwing out over half of my clothes, tons of paperwork and quite a few gadgets, some of which I hadn’t touched in almost a decade. As someone who felt the need to make a new start with various things it helped enormously.

3 Matt June 13, 2009 at 12:09 am

how’s that for luck, i was gonna do that today anyway, i’ll get right on it

4 Sandy June 13, 2009 at 2:13 am

If you feel as though you’ve been stuck in a rut lately or if you’ve gone through a tough break-up or  recently been laid off, decluttering your space may be just the thing to kick start your life and move it out of neutral. You can get rid of stuff that reminds you of a part of your life you want to move on from.

5 Ethan June 13, 2009 at 2:32 am

This is such a great article. One look at my bedroom reminds me that this is what I need. :)

But I’ve found one place where I disagree with Art of Manliness, and that is their placement of Henry David Thoreau in the hallowed halls of manly heros. While Thoroeau was able to create incredible prose, I feel that he really was not a true manly man. He was anti-Capitalist; it seems to me that Communist/Socialist ideals are not in the nature of a true man. It seems to me that he also did not practice what he preached. His first chapter of Walden, “Economy,” is about solidarity and self-reliance. Thoreau himself, though, used borrowed tools and donated lumber to build a house on someone else’s property, and made frequent trips to the nearby town for supplies. Mmhmm. Does anyone else see what I mean?

6 Fraz June 13, 2009 at 5:17 am

Sorry, whilst in general I agree with the majority of the content in AoM, I really abhor the idea of throwing/giving/selling away books in the interest of “de-cluttering.” Yes, clutter-free is a good goal, but more importantly (in my mind) is everything should have a place and be in it. Shouldn’t a gentleman aim to possess a library of works that are an expression of his self, his learnings, and his breadth of repertoire? Admittedly, if your library consists primarily of airport novels, throw ‘em out (in my humble opinion). But an Encyclopedia Brittanica? Oxford English Dictionary (or Websters, I care not)? The works of Shakespeare? “The classics?”

Again, I’m sorry, but NO. De-clutter and make room for a decent set of bookshelves against the wall, and fill them with books. A gentleman is well-read, and may always refer back to his library for countenance, consultation, or contemplation.

7 Cutter June 13, 2009 at 5:21 am

“The things you own end up owning YOU.”
–Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Having said that, I agree with Fraz. I’ve been trying to cull my library and for the most part, it ain’t happening. The same with certain family heirlooms, like my great-great-grandfather’s desk. It’s ugly & I can’t really use it, but I’ll never get rid of it.

8 Brett June 13, 2009 at 5:47 am

@Fraz-

I’m not saying you should get rid of your books, just to get rid of the books that you know you won’t read and know you don’t like. Why would you keep those books? And how are they an expression of your self?

9 Scott June 13, 2009 at 6:18 am

Don’t forget your email inbox!

10 Brett June 13, 2009 at 6:20 am

Excellent idea Scott! I should have included that.

11 Jack June 13, 2009 at 7:05 am

I would disagree with throwing out books. So many good books, especially old ones, are too often disgarded.

Books are great decorative pieces. A great collection of books can also show off the wisdom of a man. Books can also be handed down to posterity.

I just cleaned out a house as part of a executing a diseased old woman’s will. She had a number of great books from the “good, old days.” Fortunately I was able to save them rather than having someone trash them. Older books are full of so much more wisdom than modern books.

12 Matt June 13, 2009 at 7:09 am

Zen Habits has an excellent post on keeping you home clutter free.

http://zenhabits.net/2009/06/a-simple-guide-to-keeping-your-counters-clutter-free/

13 Brett June 13, 2009 at 7:10 am

@Jack-

As I said to Fraz, I’m not advocating throwing out books willy nilly, and especially not throwing out books because they’re old! My favorite books are old books! I’m talking about selling off books that you don’t like. For example, my wife’s grandma often sends us random books like The Weight Watchers Cookbook or a book about good hygiene for boys from the 1970′s. If you know you’re never going to read that book and no one else is either, then why not sell it?

14 Ryan June 13, 2009 at 2:40 pm

Great, and timely, article. My wife and I just moved into a new place and once again were confronted head on with just how much useless junk we own. We’ve thrown out a lot and set aside some larger things we intend to sell. I really like the tips in the article though, especially about staying focused on one room at a time.

15 Valerio June 13, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Excellent post! I’ve been profusely doing that lately and my feeling of freedom and interpersonal relations satisfaction have increased 1000%, since I don’t have many stuff to keep track of. Currently all my belongings fit in 2 sailor bags and a suitcase, and I’m planning to reduce even more.

16 Derek Archer June 13, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Do we get like two weeks for this one? Cause 24 hours is not enough for (ahem, cough, cough) some guys out there!

17 Scott June 13, 2009 at 5:54 pm

Excellent article. I’ve been talking to my friends about this stuff for a long time, and the suggestions on book management are exactly what I have found. I’ve had a number of great books on my shelf, but I have been forcing myself to answer whether I will ever read them again. Count of Monte Cristo? Excellent book. Am I ever going to read its 1400 pages again? I strongly doubt it. Sale.

Another thing, though, that might be good to keep in mind is having the balls to actually check stuff out from the library. Sure, I have my own copy of the Iliad and the Odyssey, nothing wrong with that. But if I’m buying a barrage of books that I know for sure can be found at any library worth being called a library, I shouldn’t be spending my money at the bookstore. I’ve actually heard one person say that he has a problem in which he cannot bring himself to read a book he does not own. Talk about wasteful and proud! I don’t think that’s very common, but it’s definitely not manly to think yourself too good for the library. Libraries are full of excellent resources for improving one’s mind, and almost all libraries are free. You can’t go wrong with that.

Also, I’ve been through the phase of feeling really intelligent by flashing a few big names on the shelf. However, having a book doesn’t mean its lessons are in your head. Books are meant to challenge the mind, but your own mental victories are more valuable to you in your behavior and understanding, and not as some sort of “one-up” mechanism to remind your visitors how intelligent you are. And just because someone hasn’t read the books you have doesn’t mean he’s any less intelligent or worthy of respect.

Also, my parents and I just moved. They have a ridiculous amount of junk (though not nearly as much as some people I’ve helped move). As little as I have, however, I desire to always challenge my possessions because we are all guilty at some point. I do what I can to weed the things that I don’t truly need and put more into the things I truly do need or the things that have true value in life (not going to lie – sometimes a good four-player video game is an excellent way to bring people together). And also, my parents were raised by classic parents who went through the depression as kids – they hold onto their crap. Some people unconsciously have this desire and it is not always wrong, but I am a firm believer that if you keep your career straightforward and waste not, you won’t have to worry about falling upon hard times (though I’m young, so maybe I shouldn’t be talking). Besides, if you do fall upon hard times, less stuff is easier to move into a smaller place. Just some thoughts.

18 Simon June 13, 2009 at 11:45 pm

Amen. This is exactly what I did when I got stuck in a rut in my life and needed to freshen up my mind and simplify my thoughts. It simply felt that as the natural thing to do. I eliminated well over 90% of the stuff I had. My ultimate goal is to being able to fit all my belongings in a suitcase or two. I am partially there thanks to the fact that I read mostly ebooks. Still working on the rest. :)

19 Trent June 14, 2009 at 10:15 pm

Books generate a surprisingly emotional response. There are some that you won’t read again but want to keep so that your children can read them. There are some that have positive associations for us, even though we’re not going to read them again. Deciding which books to toss is hard.

Clothes. I love clothes, and still have some nice socks that I bought 27 years ago (warm wool ones, so they don’t get a lot of wear). I just wore, for the first time, a sweater I bought eight years ago, and discovered that I really like it. Last year I got rid of a pair of socks I’d never worn that now, I really wish I had. Even so, my wife and I have identified a lot of clothes that we can give away, and once we get the donation list (for tax purposes) made, off they go!

Incidentally, the IRS rules for donated clothes allow you to claim one-quarter of the retail value. You can claim higher for nearly-new clothes, but if you’ve worn it a bit, best to stay safe.

20 Adam Snider June 15, 2009 at 2:42 pm

I actually decluttered my life just a few weeks ago. Now, I just need to prevent it from re-entering my life.

21 Andy June 18, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Another good way to get rid of books you don’t want is to give them to various friends as gifts.

22 West LA October 18, 2009 at 11:35 pm

“You can always –” is often a false statement.

It makes people feel good to say it, but then THEY don’t pay the penalty
if you act on their advice and then regret it.
YOU pay for their bad guidance, not them.

Many good books are out of print, not owned by your local public library system,
and not found for sale (used or new) online (or they are surprisingly expensive).

Many good movies (which were put onto VHS tapes) have never been put onto DVD.

Many fine music recordings (vinyl records, or cassettes)
have never been put onto CD.

Getting rid of something is usually an irreversible decision.
Keeping it is a decision which you are free to reverse at any time.
Those fond of saying “You can always — ” might try to remember this fact:
You can always decide to get rid of it later.

23 Dave Hill May 14, 2010 at 6:04 am

I have been decluttering for about a year now. It is brilliant, it isn’t fast and slowly but surely it is getting easier.

The results however are wonderful. I almost never have to tidy and I know where everything is.

My best tip is to create an outbox for items. It doesn’t matter how you get rid of it, just that if you want it to be gone then put it in the box.

24 David May 14, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Thoreau spent weekends with mommy, where all his stuff was. I enjoy his writing, but he wasn’t really the loner or minimalist people make him out to be at all.

25 Michael May 30, 2010 at 9:49 am

An good blog post that is read one year after being published. Personally, I really enjoyed getting rid of the unnecessary things that I had in my life. Often, things like electronics where broken or outdated and I simply got rid of them and saved myself alot of stress. I also found a much greater respect for the things that were left behind. This thinking also applies to books as well, get rid of the books that have no value.

26 Jeb July 19, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Consider paperbackswap.com for disposing of old books (paper, hard, and audio). You get credits that can be used to acquire books on your list. Classic online bartering and relatively well organized.

27 Grant August 5, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Brett, this is golden. Thank you very much for posting it. I’ve jump-started the process by completely clearing out my room, repainting it and building a bookcase to cover one of the walls. I’m going to move one thing at a time back in only as I need it. So far I have a dresser, bed, drafting table, and a lamp. The rest I’m going to go through outside my room and get rid of all of my extra clothes and books I don’t like/don’t want and by the time I’m done I’ll probably have very little left to move back into my room! Thanks so much for posting this!!

28 Peter October 29, 2013 at 10:35 am

Good article. My top tip is to make use of an empty room. For clothing, for example, ensure that you place every item of clothing in your possession in that room (whilst wearing clothing you will keep). Classify and sort into piles. I think this is a better approach than tackling each room at a time. Then consider categorisation: everything we own MUST fall into one of the following categories:- (i) keep, (ii) sell – online, (iii) sell – other, (iv) donate, (v) recycle, (vi) shred & recycle (confidential waste), (vii) burn/destroy (e.g. hard drives, large volumes of confidential waste) and (viii) trash. These are the eight categories. Use eight boxes in the empty room, to simplify the sorting process. Approach each “class” of item (clothing, footwear, paperwork etc.) like this in the empty room with the eight boxes and you can’t fail.

29 Marc February 7, 2014 at 1:45 am

Two caveats that I can think of:

1.) Like some of the guys here, I caution against tossing a book because you assume a library will have it (they may not), or that you can buy it again. Books are tricky things, because they can have extremely brief publishing runs. Even if you can find the book you want again in the future, you may have to settle for a different edition that you don’t like as well as your original. Especially hold on to things like manga or comics, since they have even shorter publishing runs than typical printed materials.

2.) If you have had financial difficulties in the past, or are likely to in the future, be more selective when going through your belongings. (Clothes and electronics especially.) In some cases, it can be less expensive to have and store an “extra” of a thing, than to purchase it again when you’re strapped for cash.

Case in point: I once donated an old monitor that a friend loaned me because “there was no way I’d use it in a year” so out it went. Less than three months later I went through a horrible break-up where my ex took, out of all things, my computer monitor. I couldn’t afford a new monitor, so I had to wait over two months before I could use my desktop PC again.

I like to ask myself questions when de-cluttering like, “What would be the cost of replacing this item? How much space does it take to store? Is there something else I need even less that I could get rid of to make space for this?”

All that being said: This is a great article! The more minimalistic I become, the happier I become, too.

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