How to Declutter and Move Forward

, , 51 Comments

“Out of clutter find simplicity; from discord find harmony; in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” ~Einstein

I’ve spent the last 3 weeks selling all my possessions for my upcoming round-the-world trip.

As I watched friends and kind strangers leave with my belongings, I felt aches of attachment.

“What if I need it when I come back?”
“I’m selling it for so much less than I paid for it.”
“Should I have even sold it? I have such fond memories.”

Clearing my possessions to start my new adventure was the right thing to do, so why did I feel such attachments to my items?

[ Aside: Get free email updates on my year-off and round-the-world trip. ]


A personal story

A year ago, my (then) partner and I moved into our bright and spacious apartment in the perfect location in downtown Toronto.

It was our first time living together and we moved in with nothing but excitement and a suitcase of clothes. We painted, furnished and filled the apartment with everything that makes a place home. Everything we bought was hand-picked, assembled and enjoyed with love and happiness.

How could I get rid of everything when it has so much meaning attached to it?

When I decided to travel, I initially wanted to keep everything in storage where they’d stay safe and secure while I was away.

Then I started wondering, What if I end up travelling longer than I plan? What if I don’t need everything in my next apartment? I’d feel guilty about leaving items I love couped up in storage and guilty about spending money for storage.

In the end, I decided to sell everything.

Parting with my material possessions was hard. I genuinely loved all my belongings, from my white IKEA couch I assembled myself, to shiny Lagostina pots, to the free birch tree from Craigslist. I felt blessed for the abundance that has made my apartment so joyous and comfortable. I wanted my things to be in good homes where they’d be enjoyed.

Just like how I moved into the apartment a year ago with nothing, I’d have the freedom to go onto my next adventure with a fresh start.


Why we get attached to belongings

  • Guilt for “throwing away” money

    Maybe it took a long time to save for the item, or the cost of acquiring the item was significant. When we consider giving away or selling the item, we remember the financial investment we made.

  • Guilt for selling/giving away gifts

    Even when we may no longer use items, getting rid of a present seems ungrateful to the person who gave us the item. Sentimental items like cards, old love letters or photos are extra hard to toss away. You might not remember the shoebox full of letters at the back of your closet, but once you see it again the re-attachment surfaces.

  • Attachment to “sweat” equity invested

    This is the strongest reason behind why I get attached to items. It’s hard to let go of things I put a lot of attention and emotional energy into. In the case of my apartment, I had many days of frustration and joy of assembling an entire apartment of IKEA furniture, plus the memories of the furniture facilitating good times with loved ones.


What I’ve realized about material possessions

  • Beautiful things are nice, but freedom is even better

    Material objects can bring comfort, beautify your surroundings and even impress your friends, but being baggage-free is priceless. Unneeded belongings ends up filling mental space as much as it does physical space.

  • Experiences make me happy, not things

    In some of the happiest moments in my life I had nothing but a backpack, and some of my happiest days didn’t even have running water or electricity.

  • The more I latch on, the harder it is for new things to flow into my life

    This applies to both physical objects, like shoes I don’t wear, as well as emotional items, like old grudges. Clearing out old things creates space for great new things to enter my life.

  • Minimalism leads to clarity
    The less clutter and baggage you have, the easier it is to focus on what really matters. Each time I travelled living out of a backpack, I’ve gained or regained a clearer view of the big picture, what would truly make me happy, and found the courage to pursue what matters most.

Overcoming attachment

  • Possessions are just tangible tokens of beautiful moments
    I used to think it was the actual objects I was attached to, but what I really connected with was the enjoyment from the item or the kind gesture from the person who gave me the gift. Your attachment is to the moment and experience, not the object. Giving away the objects you don’t need won’t make your memories any less precious.
  • Assume abundance instead of scarcity
    Instead of hoarding possessions under the “I might need this later” thinking, believe everything you need will be easily available to you. If you do need material things, there is almost nothing you can’t again, or find the resources to get what you need, whether it’s at a store, online or from someone you know.
  • Focus on value, not price
    You might have made a big time or energy investment in the past, but do the items still provide value going forward? Would you replace the item if you suddenly lost it? If they’re not worth replacing, why do you have it in the first place?

Practical ways of getting rid of possessions

  • Just toss it
    As someone who has gone through the pain of decluttering hundreds of pounds of stuff, tossing things is the fastest and most effective way to declutter. Selling items or giving it away to people may sound appealing, but that means you’re keeping your clutter around for longer, which means you might change your mind, and it takes patience to find interested takers.

    Throwing away things may seem unenvironmentally friendly, but your mental clarity will benefit the world much more than a few bags of recycled possessions.

  • Sell it on Craigslist
    If you have many items to sell or give away for free, here are a few tips:
    1. Save time by taking a photo of all the items together.
    2. Take photos during daylight
    3. When posting items, post each item individually, e.g. IKEA paper floor lamp, not in aggregate, e.g. Moving out sale

    You can see samples of photos I used for my sale.

  • Constantly give thanks
    When people pick up your items, take a second to silently give gratitude for having the item. Thank the person for picking up the items and wish them well. This is what I said to everyone “Thanks so much for picking this up, all the best.” Over my 3 week sale, I thanked over 100 people who stopped by and by the end I was delighted all my things found good homes.

What does letting go feel like?

Letting go is like a breath of fresh air.

You’ll feel lighter, freer and happier. It feels like the sense of relief you feel when you find the courage to tell someone something you’ve been scared to say.

In the process of letting go, hidden feelings may surface. You may feel attachment, sadness, joy, or fear. That’s natural, take a deep breath and keep going. Every time you get through a challenge, you increase your capacity as a human being.

Do you have a hard time letting go of belongings? What your #1 tip for moving forward?
>> Please say ‘hi’ below, I love hearing what you think :)

[relatedPosts]

[adrotate group="1" banner="1"]

email
  • lux8x

    I’m a freelance programmer, and after traveling for the last months with just a backpack, I started questioning my currenty lifestyle.

    I work remotely, so I don’t really need to be in the same place… Why do I live in a house? Why do I keep paying rent? Why don’t I just sell everything, and travel around while I work with my laptop?

    I chose being a remote programmer because I wanted to free myself from the office. But now I feel like taking it to another level by freeing myself from my house.

    Any thoughts on that? I’m so confused…

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi lux8x,

      Realizing that you don’t actually have to be tied to your belongings or your physical home is such a liberating, yet scary experience. If you’re curious and excited by the idea of traveling while working, you should go for it! You can always return when/if you change or mind.

      Having the option to work from anywhere in the world is amazing freedom. As exciting traveling is, if you enjoy being at home, there’s also nothing wrong with just staying home either. You should do whatever feels right to you and inline with your dreams. After traveling for a year, I realized that being in my home city has a lot of advantages too, like friends, family, being able to network and see your professional connections face-to-face. You may find that you want a balance between home and travel, and work base out of your house but take trips a few times a year.

      Obviously, what is right for you depends on what you want and your future goals.

      If you’re not sure, give it a try and see how it feels! You can always come home to your house, or a different house after :)

      - Lily

  • http://www.facebook.com/judithemily Judith Emily Tiamsim

    Interesting read! I truly agree that when we let go, there’s bigger room for abundance to sip in!

  • Pingback: 10 Questions to Free You From Status Quo

  • Chester

    I’m glad I read this. I still had stuff that I can’t let go, I hope this will help me finish what getting rid if it =)

    • Chester

      I mean finish getting rid of it

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OHGCRQ7VYQFMBUKWPOSRHIRXBU fallenstar

    i’m debating doing this myself. i have a friend staying over in my rented room temporarily and i realize i have too much crap because the room is always a mess. i’m hoping i can get rid of most of it pretty quickly but yeah, i think its time for me to let go of a lot of the things i own. i have clothes i’ve never worn and books i dont read so its time for them to go!

  • Blue-sky

    Hi, I found your article really inspiring and your ideas rang so true with me.  For a long time now I have been de-cluttering, little by little, as it helps me to feel that I’m preparing for change of a more major kind.  I have never really settled in my home area or liked my career or job, even though the job is secure (a great thing these days).  You are so right about clutter being related to emotions.  For the first few years here I was drowning in clutter which was a reflection of feeling trapped and helpless, giving up in a way.  Family members (I live far from my family) started to give me items of furniture in a bid to “settle me down”.  But eventually I started to listen to my emotions, which were telling me to remove unnecessary items (finding a good home for them where they were wanted) , and now I feel so much better – I think more clearly, am more organised and my confidence is improving by the day. One day I might even find the courage to leave this area.  I realise now that the physical clutter has played its part in keeping me stuck – emotionally, I left long ago. 

  • Barbara

    Oh this is so helpful!!!!!!

  • Stephen

    I found this post hugely inspiring; to have someone else reaffirm what I already know.   I’ve been through it many times – selling all my possessions and heading off on a tropical adventure.  This time I thought it would be different, that I was older, that I would settle down, grow some roots… So we got a ridiculously overpriced apartment and filled it with “stuff”.  

    Now I have an apartment full of stuff I feel trapped.   I want the freedom of owning little again.  Owning lots of stuff makes me feel vulnerable.  I own hundreds of DVDs for example.  Watching them brings me joy, but owning them feels like a burden. In reality there’s only about 10 I couldn’t bear to be without.  I think that’s why I place so much value on my tattoos, They all have significance. But more than that, they cant be lost, stolen or broken.  They take up no space beyond my body, and they go where i go… unlike all my other “things”, which, most of the time, I just wish i didn’t own…

    • http://www.breakfreefrombroke.com/ Breakfreefrombroke

      One of the best things my husband and I ever realized is that much of the stuff can be replaced if we really needed or wanted it. We had hundreds of dvds as well. We enjoyed watching them, but the process of storing, organizing, and actually finding the one we wanted was frustrating. One day, we finally decided we didn’t need all of them. Before we got rid of 95% of them, we found an article on LifeHacker about how to rip the content to our computer and network storage on our wifi. So we did just that and now we can watch the content whenever we want, find it when we need it, and made a little cash selling the dvds at our yard sale. 

  • Kay

    I found this site so interesting and decided to share my story although a bit different. I recently got divorced and decluttered not only my belongings but also my life. The only thing I own right now is a 95 volvo that was used when I bought it. I honestly love my stress free life and even though I am still adjusting to being single at 49 I know now I can do it.

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Kay, thanks for sharing that. It must be exhilarating to own nothing but your lovely car! How brave of you to embrace this life change. My warmest wishes to you :)

      - Lily

  • Diannlhirondelle

    I love your website Lily…I found it when looking for quotes on change.  Lots of inspirational stuff on here.  Thanks!

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      You’re very welcome, thanks for dropping by and hope to see you here again soon ;)
      - Lily

  • Linda

    I’m having a hard time. We’re planning on moving. This will be the first move of my life out of the area where I grew up. We’ve lived in our house since we were married (12 years) and my kids go to the same elementary school I went to. I’m trying to declutter and I’m finding it very difficult, but you have encouraged me.

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Linda, I’ve never lived in one home for that long a period of time, but did maintain all my belongings throughout the years. When I finished university, I still had notes from elementary school. It was a huge relief to declutter – I figure that if the item doesn’t contribute to a current goal (or at least not hinder it), then it’s not worth keeping in my mental space. Thinking that way helped me put some of my attachment in perspective. Best of luck.

      - Lily

  • Elaineori

    I’m loving your blog, thank you for sharing your experiences, thoughts and inner reflections! I’ve been planning to take a year RTW trip since I started grad school and your writing is so helpful in knowing the details of a whole year off…even for a seasoned world traveller like me! Some of what you write I know for myself but it’s great to be reminded and to know others share the perspective. Thank you :)

  • Pingback: Hello world! « ajeeshkashamkulam

  • Pingback: Worth Checking Out «

  • Pingback: Top 55 Inspirational Quotes on Traveling

  • Kaycii

    Thanks for the personal experience passed on this page. I am growing older and matured over the things of life

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Kaycii,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article and it was a pleasure to share :)

      Thanks for stopping by!
      - Lily

  • Paulie

    Thanks for an inspirational post :-)

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Paulie,

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Hope to see you again here :)

      - Lily

  • Honumana01

    Lol! I think I ran out of letters & didn’t get to thank you, Lily! I’m gonna become a follower of your blog & world travels!! Have fun!!! Thank you!!

    Christine

  • Honumana01

    Hi Lily,

    I stumbled upon your blog while looking for inspirational quotes! Thank you for the 45 you posted!! What a great journey you’ve embarked on! My husband & I have been in the middle of a house remodel for several years now & have all of our stuff in the garage or storage!!! So much stuff & yet we’ve somehow done w/o most of it these past 2 years. I appreciate you sharing your process of decluttering & how you let go of your things. A great jumping off point for my rainy day of clearing out & starting my process of weeding clutter from my life:)

  • Pingback: 29 Awesome Lessons From My 29th Birthday

  • Jill

    Thank you for the article.  It came at the perfect moment in my onward journey at 59 yrs. of age. 

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Jill,

      You’re very welcome and I wish you all the best on your journey. If you like, keep me updated on what you’re up to :)

      Warmest regards,
      - Lily

  • Pingback: Aussie lawyer turned photographer: Interview with Holger Mette

  • Pingback: Best of Explore for a Year – 7 Links

  • Pingback: 6 Months of Travelling Alone – a Safety Update

  • Pingback: Personal Update: Next 7 Months, Leaving Asia and More Adventures

  • KnittyCat

    Lily, this is just what I need to read! Am down sizing into a studio apartment and have so much stuff! Have gotten rid of some large things but am now focusing on the little stuff, the true clutter, it feels so overwhelming at times. What you said about, “Possessions are just tangible tokens of beautiful moments” is very helpful, I feel an emotional kick to the belly when I contemplate getting rid of some things. I’ll keep nibbling away at the stuff and checking back here to reread your post for inspiration and the great comments.

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi KnittyCat,

      My gosh, you described the mixed feeling of letting go so well with your “an emotional kick to the belly” quote. It took me a long to start decluttering. Two years after university I was still holding on to notes and math tests from high school and elementary school because they were so nicely written and tidy. Between started weaning myself off these attachments and to fully being free was probably about 2 years plus lots of personal growth in the process. Clutter is never just clutter. Good luck and keep in touch :)

      - Lily

  • http://www.regardsfromthebalcony.com Tony

    Just re-read this as I’m getting rid of a lot of stuff right now and needed the inspiration. I’m really wrestling with the storage/not storage debate. I am dead set against paying for storage though! Your words ring true – the words of someone who’s been through the emotional turmoil of letting go of material objects and who has come out the other side the better for it. Thanks!

  • http://lgmassmedia.com Briana Ford

    For a long time, that’s how I felt about my clothes; I refused to give away my clothes, even though they didn’t fit me anymore or I never wore them, because I felt like I was throwing money away. Now, I have a huge bag of clothes waiting to be taken to the consignment store.

  • http://www.1yearsabbatical.com Matt

    Well written Lily. It was really interesting to see the emotions you went through getting rid of your stuff and the end realizations that in the end they are just things. We will be going through the same thing in a few months and I’m nervous about it. While I enjoy traveling and seeing new places I also have an attachment to a place I can call home. I think many of us surround ourselves with possessions to make us feel safe, secure and comfortable. removing those things removes the barriers between us and fear. Your realizations offer me hope that we will be able to cope while we sell off everything.

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Matt,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment – I definitely know what you mean about having an attachment to ‘home’. I’m particularly feeling it right now because my flight is in less than 24 hours. It’s not even the materials that make things “home” as much as the certainty, familiarity and beautiful memories. I send you love, strength and deep breaths as your time approaches to prepare for your travels. :)

      - Lily

  • http://www.youngandthrifty.ca Youngandthrifty

    Very exciting. We get too easily attached to our material possessions. I sometimes have phases where I am more apt to get rid of things than other days. I hate clutter but my room is so cluttered. Thank goodness Craigslist exists. It really helps!

    Very excited about your pending big trip!

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi YoungandThrifty,

      I totally agree on Craigslist being a great declutter (and get some money for the clutter) tool. It’s amazing that I sold an apartment worth of belongings in 3 weeks just on CL. I’m excited about my trip too! I’ll everyone updated :)

      - Lily

  • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

    Hi Tia,

    Congratulations on your travel adventures, and thanks for sharing your experience with me. You’re not over thinking anything at all! Decluttering and letting go of belongings is such a complex challenge, and I really admire your ability to articulate so much of your thoughts. I can totally relate to what you said about living happily with a minimal amount of belongings, yet feeling emotionally attached to certain things that pull our heart strings (like the antique desk and special Christmas decorations you mentioned).

    Your tip on asking friends/family to look after certain items is a great suggestion. I ended up leaving a handful of precious stuffed animals with my mom and a friend who I know will take good care of them. That really eases my anxiety for the few items that I *really* feel sentimental about :)

    All the very best on your travels this January!
    - Lily

  • http://www.donteverlookback.com Amy & Kieron

    Oh we know these feelings so well… we’re going through the exact same thing at the moment! In the past 12 months we’ve furnished our apartment and have strong attachments to many of these possessions. Now we are in the process of selling everything!

    An extremely well written post – and just remember, everything material can easily be replaced when you get back!

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Amy & Kieron,

      Thanks for stopping by and for the friendly reminder that material possessions can be replaced. That’s an easy thing forget sometimes! It’s definitely true that every time I’ve needed something (material wise) I’ve always been able to find it, and pretty easily too.

      - Lily
      P.S. Just followed you on Twitter :)

  • Pingback: How to Declutter and Move Forward | Declutter My House

  • Tia

    Hola Lily,

    I stumbled across your blog via Twitter, and it was just what I needed to see! I’ve been “on the go” for 14 months now, living out of one big suitcase. I’ve always been more of a minimalist, living large in small studios. Prior to leaving the States, in 2009, I went through my things again, had a yard sale, put things on Craigslist, donated to the thrift store, and gave away special things to friends. But then I put the remaining “necessary things” in storage.

    I’m back in the States again for a few months, couch-surfing, and still living out of my suitcase. I’m perfectly happy with my suitcase living. But all my other belongings in storage are really starting to stress me out. I go visit my stuff! Sometimes I grab something I’ve missed or decide I need right now (my favorite frying pan or a winter coat). But mostly I’ve started sorting through again & getting rid of more stuff. “Well, I haven’t missed this item for over a year, guess I don’t need it.”…toss!

    I’m prepping to set off traveling again in January and I’m really stressing about what to do with the last of my belongings. That antique desk I just can’t get rid of. The rubbermaid tub of special Christmas decorations, collected over a lifetime. Same as you, I’ve had those thoughts of “what if I’m gone for a really long time?”. I don’t want to have a storage unit fee forever. And just knowing that I have “stuff” holding me back is really stressful. Yes, most things are replaceable, but I just don’t have the money the spend on that. But maybe I’m just worrying too much about the unforeseeable future? Would it be a good option to find friends/family who would agree to be “foster-owners” of a few special items? Am I over-thinking all this? Gah!

    Thanks for your blog,

    ~Tia

  • http://www.regardsfromthebalcony.com Tony

    Wonderful writing Lily. I know you are going through a pretty big change, and change is always hard, but often necessary.

    “The more I latch on, the harder it is for new things to flow into my life”

    I think this is one of the deepest insights I have read in a while. I’ve always found when you make that significant change, take that leap of faith, that things you never expected suddenly flow into your life. I’m sure that will happen for you too.

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Tony, thanks for your words of encouragement. It is true that leaps of faith bring great new things into one’s life, which is something I have experienced in the recent past. Thank you so much for that reminder, it was timed perfectly :)

      Lily

  • http://globetrooper.com Globetrooper Lauren

    Great post Lily. I had a hard time throwing away and selling everything too. I think once you find that box of letters/cards that have an emotional attachment, it’s all over. Take the rest of the day to go through them if you want, or put them aside to keep for later. But your whole mental strength to chuck is then gone for the day. Sleep on it, remember why you’re getting rid of these things (for freedom) and start again in the morning. I found once I got caught up on one thing, it would replicate to everything else I had just decided to sell/throw. So just keep your game face on!

    • http://exploreforayear.com Lily

      Hi Lauren,

      Those are excellent and practical tips on letting go of belongings, especially the taking a break and starting again the next day. It’s crazy how sentimental emotions can quickly override rationality or make you forget why you are doing something.

      Thanks for your comment Lauren!
      Lily