Radical De-Cluttering

The new year is a traditional time for cleaning out closets and drawers, clearing out the old, and making way for the new.  I want to make sure that the “new” for me is not new stuff, but a new level of simplicity, new avenues for happiness in daily life.  Some time ago I began a practice I call “radical de-cluttering.” cairnI started by going through all my closets and drawers, and giving away bags of stuff.  Clothes went to the local charity, books to our beloved Pegasus Book Exchange. After this initial cleansing, I began to follow the usual anti-clutter guideline that appears in magazines and on “simplicity” blogs:  whenever you acquire something, you give something similar away.  New shirt?  Out with an old piece of clothing.  New book?  Old book out. I quickly found that this was no challenge at all.

So I set a new rule for myself:  One in, two out.  Whenever I acquire something, I get rid of two things.

In my practice of radical de-cluttering, the things that come in and go out do not have to be the same thing.  I can buy a book, say, and give away a pair of shoes and a flower pot.  This allows me to re-dress imbalance, and to choose what I want to emphasize in my life (including a little joyful frivolity). Maybe I have too many hats, but could use a pair of garden clogs.  Maybe I have too many books, but don’t care! Maybe I want to keep more and more books, and less and less of everything else until eventually I live with nothing but a library and a teacup!

teaI make exceptions:  consumables such as food (obviously), but also other things that are regularly used up and replaced–office supplies, kitchen towels, socks. (This allows me a nice bit of room to cheat, since I am obsessed with office supplies, and I seem to let myself have as many notebooks and bottles of fountain pen ink as I want.)  Otherwise, in my calculus a thing is a thing.  I don’t care how big or how small it is, or how much it cost.  A car counts for one thing, a book of poetry counts for one thing, and I don’t make exceptions for gifts I receive, or fabulous thrift store finds.

One in, two out.  Even though I started by (I thought)  thoroughly doing away with the superfluous, I am amazed that after about a year, the one in/two out rule is still very easy to live by.  I am looking forward to it becoming difficult.  I am hoping, one day, to get to the point that  the material things I keep in my life are so well-chosen that I have to think deeply about any acquisition I make, to wonder, “Wow, if I really want this thing, then what will I give up?”  To have to truly measure need/desire/authenticity.  Maybe someday when I am aged and wise my possessions and my spirit will find themselves in perfect harmony–then maybe I’ll change to the one in/one out plan, or not bother to think about such things at all.

I love (to the point of obsession, really) the work of Lloyd Kahn, and have spent much of this month pouring over his newest volume, Tiny Homes:  Simple Shelter.  With my drastic need for privacy, and a daughter who plays cello, piano, guitar, and ukulele, I don’t envision us moving into a tiny home anytime soon.  The airiness of our old farmhouse feels simple in its own right.  But I do agree with Kahn’s feeling that everyone can find inspiration in the tiny shelter movement:  “You can get ideas here for simplifying your life, wherever you live.”

Want to join me in Radical De-Cluttering?  What other ways are you all simplifying in 2013?

Thank you for the CC-licensed photos: Flickr users Neil Bonnar (rocks) and Laurel Fan (tea).


  1. It is amazing, isn’t it, how if you’re not careful, a space cleared immediately exerts a kind of suction that attracts more stuff…even more than fit in the space initially.

    I haven’t employed a formula for the in/out box that is our home yet (and with a resident teen who plays sports and has a wardrobe that tends to manifest itself in every corner of the house, we’re just as unlikely to fit in a smaller space!).

    But the experience of helping an elderly person in our extended family downsize from a big home to a small apartment has brought home to me the need to better control the flow of objects. Got off to a good start this year by sending a niece my childhood dollhouse furniture (with my own child’s permission to let it go). Baby clothes from my own childhood, saved by my parents, went to a doll restorer (they were not comfy or durable clothes you’d put on a modern baby).

    It felt very, very good to physically and emotionally let go of these items and to know they were bringing great joy to the recipients! Now if only we can keep up the good work…

  2. K8

    For me, this puts a new perspective on giving, too. Knowing that by accepting my one gift, a friend must rid herself of two things will cause me to be a more thoughtful gift giver!

  3. lyanda

    Thanks for sharing your story, Christina. And you touch on something so significant–the lightness of being that comes with letting go of the things we’ve been carrying around, but really don’t need.

  4. Kendra

    I have been on this path for a while now too, but where yours seems straight & clear, mine has been winding & mostly uphill. I love your idea and I plan to try it. The only problem is that there’s more than just me to contend with; I might have some hoarders living in the house…

  5. Patti

    Once upon a time I had a million (or so) books on shelves in every room in the house. We were moving to a much smaller home and I was having a hard time letting go of the books. I finally realized that by putting them back out into the stream it would give someone else the opportunity to enjoy them. I blessed and thanked each book and author for their gift and let them go. It was so liberating.

  6. Ah, a subject I am intimately involved in at the moment, as you know! Love this post. I feel a little more umph to go through more things now, except I think I will skip over the book shelves and the teacups and teapots for now. Oh, and art supplies, those aren’t going anywhere – wait those get used up don’t they? They’re like glorified office supplies! Ah I feel much better now! ; )

  7. Carol

    I have been reducing my stuff for the past couple years, but it is a ongoing battle. For this year, I am getting rid of one thing everyday. OR if I do make the decision not to buy something, you know at an estate sale or little shop because I don’t really love it, or need it, then that counts as getting rid of for that day. So far so good. I do like your idea for next year.

  8. Deb

    How did I miss this? For privacy, small space, and a great view, try a fire lookout! The Forest Service rents them or allows you to stay as a volunteer. Good bird watching too.

    Decluttering–I live in 600 square feet with books, outdoor gear, creative projects and a cat. Clutter is a perennial issue, and I continuously deal with organizing and reducing “stuff”. Unfortunately I save things that I might use someday…there’s a yard sale planned for spring, bags of stuff to give away, fabric and yarn from the stash being turned into quilts and socks, etc. Letting go is a priority this year. I admire the discipline you bring to your decluttering process. Carry on!

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  10. I’ve had a one-in-one out rule for some time, and hadn’t thought to double the out end of the equation as you have. I love the idea of working toward a point when what you have is so essential to you and your life that when you want to bring one thing in, you have to seriously consider what you’d get rid of. Having had my family life radically de-cluttered for me (not by my choosing) over the past two years, first with my mother’s death, and then nine months later, my love’s death to brain cancer and my need to sell the house he built for us and his historic studio, I’ve learned to appreciate lightening my own load on many levels. This fall, just in time for my birthday, I’ll be moving from 4,000 square feet of space (the house, guest cottage and Richard’s studio together) to 725 plus a 384-foot-square guest studio. I can’t wait!

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