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A primal minimalism practice

Materialism is a primal downer. Yet most of us learn to lust for stuff, as revealed by our reluctance to part with it. I’ve designed a joyshift to bring your inner hoarder to your attention and launch you on the path to primal minimalism.

You start the practice simply by regularly clearing the one surface in your home at which you spend more time than any other. That could be the kitchen or bathroom counter, a work desk, coffee table in the living room, or dining table. You put anything on this surface in its proper place, as described below. If that surface is already clear, then you move on to the next most important surface, and then the next.

Homes get cluttered because we have too much stuff and give little attention to finding the best location for the relatively few items we really need. We tend to dump stuff where convenient – usually open surfaces such as the kitchen counter, dinner table, desks, side tables, display shelves, and floors. But convenience now can produce headaches later. A happier approach is to designate a location (or “base”) for everything you own using a simple formula: the more you value the object, the closer its accessibility.

Only the objects that you use every day or have great meaning to you should be located on the most accessible surfaces. Like a coffee grinder on the kitchen counter, a photo of your children on the mantel in the living room, and your computer on your work desk. Everything non-essential should be kept in either handy storage like cupboards and drawers, or distant storage, like the basement, garage or locker. But our handy storage is itself often clogged. That is why we often dump things on the more easily accessed surfaces – there are no places left to put them.

So in time, congested storage areas need to be decluttered as well. Anything not used within a month should be removed to distant storage, unless you have not used it within the last six months in which case it is probably a candidate for recycling, sale or the garbage. Exceptions would include seasonal items, such as skis or swimming flippers, items used infrequently such as a hobby gear or tools, and items that are permanently stored because they have huge sentimental value, like a family heirloom. But in general, the stuff which does not pass the six month rule should be shown the door.

When you are poised to let go of something you never use, anxiety is a natural reaction because you are about to break a link with the past. You contemplate throwing out your battered ice skates and recall the years of fun you had playing on the team. Much of what you hold on to has trivial sentimental value. Your attachment to the fond memories of the past keeps you clinging to things that diminish your enjoyment of the now.

You may also hold onto stuff because you fear a future without it. You tell yourself: “Maybe, just maybe I will need this third raincoat, old computer, or rusty bicycle”. And you actually may need it someday. But the vast majority of such stuff remains unused. Your sole relationship with it is, in sum, the fear of its loss. Its emotional return is negative.

The better you get at decluttering, and experiencing the reward it brings, the faster you will be able to overcome the fears that inspire your hoarding. It took me quite a while to get rid of my stockpile of junk and its associated fears. When I first started decluttering, I was reluctant to part with almost anything. If I wondered whether a certain item should be tossed out, I would just store it further and further away, while trying to convince myself that it had value. But as my storage lockers filled up, I saw that I was rationalizing, and came to recognize the fear that kept me holding on.

Besides gratifying your innate minimalist and making your space more livable, decluttering will teach you about the true value of the things you acquire. Research shows that people often buy a product impulsively or with unrealistic expectations about its utility. ("Splurge purchases and materialism", Julie Fitzmaurice, Journal of Consumer Marketing, 2008, pp.332-338.) Most of the stuff that you will ultimately remove from your home is of that sort. The exercise of culling your stuff will bring new intelligence to your point-of-sale decisions, helping you embrace the material minimalism which we evolved to enjoy.

But as you will soon discover, your now beautifully organized surfaces and storage places will quickly attract stuff. Most of us have an irresistible habit of dumping things wherever we see a clear surface rather than finding its base. Without an on-going practice to return everything back to its designated location, the wonderful minimalist order you have created in your home will slowly break down. The solution is a regular “return to base” joyshift that will allow you to maintain your spatial Zen.

If these practices become habitual, over time (depending on your situation, it could take a year or more), your house will become a model of organization. Everything you really need or value will be close at hand. Your storage areas will be free of the stuff you never use. And you will keep these spaces clean and tidy and manage the clutter creep that always threatens. Nomads would be proud of you.


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