3 Steps to Easier Decluttering – for Nerds

I want to start this post about easier decluttering with an important note for anyone who needs to hear it:
Minimalism is not a moral imperative and having stuff doesn’t make you a bad person. Clutter isn’t evil. But it does take up mental space for many of us. If you’re not struggling with your stuff and you’re happy with what you have, whether it’s a lot or a little, then feel free to wait for tomorrow’s post if you prefer. Or even better, read on and then give the rest of us some advice in the comments!

How-to Nerd without all the stuff

Dr. Nerd and I both like to imagine ourselves to be minimalists – a fancy first kindled when he read Fight Club and then solidified when I learned the Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up from Marie Kondo’s books. 

But the thing is – we’re not minimalists at all. We’re geeks, and in capitalist terms that’s just another word for sucker. Michael has his games and collectibles, and I have my gadgets and antique gizmos aplenty. 

We nerds like our stuff, and that’s okay. Having clutter does not make us morally inferior to the ultra-minimalists. Yes, it’s good to reduce, reuse, recycle, and to avoid overconsumption for the health of both your planet and your wallet, but simply having things in your house isn’t immoral and that’s something worth adding to your affirmations if you can’t immediately accept it.

Mess and mental health 

However, most people also like empty space and being surrounded by clutter can weigh heavy. When my house is a mess, so is my mind. I have a variety of strategies to reduce my stress and increase my effieciency, but in the end there are only so many workarounds to simply having Too Much STUFF. I want to spend time playing with my kids, not just cleaning up after them. I want time to write and to read and hell to play video games.
And that’s why minimalism matters to me. The less stuff I have, the less stuff I have to pick up.

  1.  Live what you love – lose what you don’t

Step one is all about making a plan and customizing it to your own needs. This is the hardest part but it is setting a foundation to make the rest easier. 

Follow your gut here. Some people really struggle in an environment with any clutter at all, while some people love having stuff on every wall and in every nook and cranny, but just not on the tabletops. Find your happy point and aim for that instead of worrying that someone else might be more minimal than you are.

Minimize without undermining your YOUness

How can I minimize without giving up the things I love, and a little piece of myself in the process? 

Read The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up

This post is pretty short so of course her book gives a lot more advice as far as the actual how-to side of things.
Yes, it’s trendy and the title is cheesy and the idea of “sparking joy” is gag-worthy to a lot of people, but I’ve heard few people criticize the book after actually reading it. Criticism tends to come either second hand, or else from serious minimalists who think she doesn’t cull enough. KonMari is certainly not true minimalism. By her method, you could live in a warehouse full of Warhammer miniatures and as long as they made you happier than the empty space would, you’re doing it right. That’s the approach I recommend – especially for other nerds.

Prioritize

Identify the things you absolutely love. The things that “spark joy” for you. Most items fall into three categories pretty easily:

  1. Things you know you can’t live without
  2. Things you know you don’t care about
  3. Things you think you should get rid of, but that you are afraid to let go 

The third category is what makes a purge hard. If an object represents the version of yourself you wish you were, then ask yourself how it makes you feel. If having it makes you feel inspired to be that person, keep it. If it makes you feel guilty for not being that person, toss it. If you’re really worried that future you may need an item, use the 20/20 rule. If you can replace it in 20 minutes or less for $20 or less, then let it go.

Marie Kondo recommends starting by identifying things in the first category. Once you’ve found a few of these, it’ll be easier to see what joy feels like and it’ll make it easier to tease apart which things from the third category you really want to keep

Don’t let perfection impede progress

Ideally you could have a garage sale and put your special collectibles on ebay or another auction site to maximize your profits. In a perfect world you’d find the perfect charity to donate each type of item that you can’t sell, and every item that could be recycled would be, even if it means a trip to the recycling center instead of the regular curbside pickup. Perfection means your purge would involve throwing out very little and having a decent bunch of cash in the end.

For some people, these things work great. For me, they cause paralysis. I would just hang on to my “purged” items forever while I try to figure out the perfect place for each one. So instead, I accepted that my method is to take anything worth keeping (for someone else of course) to Goodwill, to recycle anything that will get picked up curbside, and trash the rest. 

Things to keep in mind while making your plan

Don’t be afraid to break up a set

I know that one hurts. It hurt me too at first. It was brought up in the context of a knife block. Wait – I could give away those three knives I never use? But, it’s a set! 

I’m as much a completionist as anyone else, so this is a thing I have to actively work on with my brain. I prefer not to use the actual block anyway for fear it’ll fall and drop knives all over my kids, so why hang on to knives I won’t use and don’t care for?

Why get the last three Star Wars Itty Bittys that are characters we don’t particularly like? Is there any measurable value added to my life? Or is it just a way to soothe that little itch I have between my shoulder blades that comes with having a nearly complete set? What else could I do with that money? What else could I do with that space – both physical and mental?

Be honest with yourself and accept that you’re probably a collector, not an investor

A lot of collectors justify buying things by convincing themselves that they’re making an investment, but it rarely actually works out that way. Making money off of collectibles takes work and special knowledge that most of us don’t bother to pursue. Remember your beanie baby collection? How’s that investment paid off to date? Unless you are going to put in the work, take your figures out of the box and enjoy them. Heck, even let your kids play with them. Watch the Lego Movie and throw out the kragle.

Sentimentality alone isn’t a reason to keep

Memories are worth more than mementos. When the idea of getting rid of something you never use makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself if it’s the item sparking joy, or the memory. This also goes back to those things you’re keeping because you want to be the kind of person that uses them. 

You must reduce

Remember that it’s Reduce, Reuse, Recycle in that order. Ask yourself if things spark joy for you before you ever buy them. It’s better to have one sweater that you love than three that you can tolerate.

2. Carefully Curate your Collections

You can maintain your collections while still reducing the mental load of clutter. Here are a few tips:

Build fun scenes

I’m sure he wasn’t the first one to do it, but this was an idea I got from Dr. Nerd. He has a ton of Star Wars Black Series action figures but instead of rows of boxes or a pile of toys crowded together he sets them up in scenes (both from the movies and originals). This serves triple duty of giving you a chance to enjoy the things you love, making you more invested and engaged with them in the process, and also making their display more of a visual feature that enhances a space instead of making it feel overloaded.

Rotate your collections

Divide them up into smaller mini-collections and then rotate through either monthly or seasonally. Imagine how much fun it’ll be each year to pull out your Jack and Sally merch the second Fall becomes official. Like the previous suggestion, this one is huge for reducing visual load and the the stress brought on by clutter.

Be selective

Don’t buy something just because you collect it. Be picky. And extend this rule to gifts, too. When you’re a collector, friends and family always want to get you yet another item for your collection. Thank them, appreciate them for thinking of you and caring about what you love. But if it doesn’t meet your new high standards, trade it in. Giving away gifts is not inherently ungrateful and most people who love you don’t have any desire for you to feel like their gifts are an obligation.

3. Memories over Mementos

Many people (and not just nerds) make a big deal of having keepsakes for all the things they’ve ever done in their lives. Every stop on every vacation, every event and concert attended, every year of being alive. In fact, with the expectation of souvenirs for friends and family, we’ve also got mementos for every vacation they have all taken. It’s wonderful to remember these things, but it’s just all too much stuff, and none of it gets the attention it deserves – or that you deserve to give it.

Discomfort is okay

A big purge is not easy. Aside from being both physically and mentally exhausting to sort through every item you own and make a decision, it will wear you down emotionally as well. And that’s okay. 

A lot of people think that if it feels too hard to part with something, then that must mean it sparks joy. It doesn’t. Joy makes you feel light and energetic. Many things you don’t want to give away will make you feel lethargic and weighed down when you think about keeping them – even while they make you feel hot and panicked about giving them away. I hope to do a post eventually about thought work, but for now I’ll limit it to saying that discomfort is okay. It’s by definition not comfortable though, and we have a tendency to avoid certain kinds of discomfort at all cost, even to our own detriment. 

If an object doesn’t make you happy either to keep it or to toss it, and you’re stuck, then it’s time for you to practice a few minutes of mindfulness. Sit with your discomfort and ask yourself how it feels (hot, heavy, tired, etc…) and just allow yourself to feel it. Hopefully by the end you have a better sense of whether you want to keep or not. 

When it’s too hard, take pictures 

For me it was t-shirts. From concerts, festivals, college, etc, etc… I wear t-shirts a lot, but not I-could-go-months-without-doing-laundry levels. Many of them weren’t even cute, but they held sentimental value so I kept them shoved in my drawer. For my first purge, I did my clothes KonMari style and pulled them all onto my bed. It was a lot, but I already knew that so while it may have been overwhelming, it wasn’t really shocking. 

The t-shirts were where I really struggled, and at first most of them went automatically into the keep pile without much thought. But when my pile didn’t decrease as much as I hoped, the thought occurred to me.

Yes, I love the t-shirt from my 5th grade softball team – Pete’s Hotdogs! Whoo! – but after twenty years it was starting to fall apart and I couldn’t wear it anymore. So I spread it out nice and neat and flat, took a picture in some decent light. Then I gave it a hug like a weirdo, told the shirt thanks, and got rid of it. 

Then I did it several more times. I still have a drawer full of t-shirts that I love and wear. But it’s no longer crammed so full I can’t find anything without pulling everything out. And because the shirts I have left are my favorite bands and breweries (yes I’m also a beer nerd), NaNoWrimo winner shirts, or designed by close friends, every shirt I do pull out makes me feel so joyful.

Taking pictures is a great way to save all those memories without saving the actual things attached to the memories. It may take up a few MB on your storage platform of choice, but that’s not the same as taking up a few rooms in your home. (Digital clutter is real though and is a topic for another day.)

Are you ready to minimize?

I still struggle with stuff, a lot. In fact, here’s a current picture of my office, where I will – in theory – be writing future posts, if the stuff ever gets managed.

We just moved this summer and it was a horrifying experience. There was more than one moment when I considered just forgetting about it all and leaving the rest of it at the old apartment. And yet I still have a hard time breaking down the things to keep versus toss. 

That’s why I came up with these rules – to help guide other nerds who have a particular attachment to their things. A full-house purge is never easy, but I hope with these steps it will be easier to distinguish between the things that are making you happier and those that aren’t, and to create an environment where you really enjoy those things you do keep.

What things do you do to make your space one you love? Are you ready for a purge? Hit me up in the comments or join in on the discussion on Facebook or Discord.

All that Nerdish

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