As the weather (almost) warms up, is it time to pare back? That’s the simple message coming from those who have stepped up their spring cleaning in an effort to reduce clutter and be happier
Can taking spring cleaning to the extreme lead to a simpler, happier life?
T here’s nothing like moving house to make you realise how much stuff you have. Having recently moved my family across the state, I think I’m still recovering from the trauma. When you’re paying a removal company per box, you’re forced to make tough decisions about what is worth taking and what to leave behind. It doesn’t help that I’m one of those people who hates to throw anything away. I still own almost every book I’ve read. I keep them not as trophies but because books are important to me, and anything I’ve read has affected me in some way.
While I could justify my hoarding of books, what of the boxes of obsolete computer parts and cables (I might need them one day), worn-out shoes (what if all my good ones get wet) and a sailboard I never figured out how to use (maybe next summer…)?
My wife hit Gumtree to sell anything of value, we did many tip runs for anything that wasn’t, including the items above, and I even got rid of a dozen books, Even so, I filled several boxes with sentimental items to keep.
The experience forced me to take a long, hard look at myself and my tendency to hang on to stuff I don’t need, allowing it to clutter my life, both physically and mentally. Am I too sentimental? Do I need to make like Princess Elsa and let it go? Surprisingly, decluttering expert Tanya Lewis says not necessarily.
A professional organiser and author of the new book Stuff Off! (published by EcoOrganiser, $24.99), Lewis says decluttering or organising a home is not necessarily about throwing out heaps of stuff. In fact, she says many of her clients emerge at the other end with a house that is still full of possessions, sometimes even messy, but that can be OK.
When I phone Lewis in Victoria, there is clattering and shuffling at the end of the line and she apologises, saying she is preparing for a conference and her desk is a mess. The irony makes us both laugh, but Lewis insists there is no hypocrisy at work.
“Declutter is such a buzzword, and people get caught up on the idea of having to get rid of things,” she says. “But I prefer to see people have organisation so they can find what they need and not have to waste time looking for stuff. That is far more important.
“It’s not my job to come into someone’s house and start throwing things out. I don’t have the right to do that. It’s not about being a perfectionist or living a minimalist lifestyle. You can live happily in mess if you want, as long as you are still able to find what you need when you need to.”
Lewis has a global perspective on decluttering that, by definition, extends far beyond one person’s home. With a background in the design and manufacture of commercial packaging, she knows better than most how much waste we create with products we buy. She sees clutter as a symptom of a larger problem with roots in consumerism and wastefulness and believes we can reduce our carbon footprint by being more considered in our choices.
“It is a classic first-world problem,” she says. “Clutter robs us of time, money, health and affects our relationships. The key thing is to break the cycle of not b eing able to find something so buying more of it. You might have worn that pair of jeans once, shoved
them to the back of the cupboard, and now you don’t know where they are so you buy a new pair. It’s a waste of your money, and it creates unnecessary rubbish and landfill.
“For one of my clients, we reorganised her wardrobe and it saved her $2500 because we found clothes she’d forgotten she had, and she had been about to go out and buy more.
“We reorganised another client’s pantry and found so much packaged food shoved to the back she’d forgotten about that it saved her $50 a week in groceries for a year because she could eat what was already there instead of buying more.
“My philosophy is just to slow down and rethink before buying something. Ask, ‘Do I already have something similar to this at home? Do I really need it or want it?’ If you rethink those purchases, you immediately start to reduce the clutter building in your home and have more money in your pocket as well.”
Lewis, who calls herself the EcoOrganiser, says it is important to identify your “pain point” before undertaking major reorganisation projects, to ask yourself what part of your cluttered life is giving you grief? Is it that you can’t find certain things? Or that you’re running out of space. Or that you need to clear out stuff after the end of a relationship.
“You need to be clear about why you are decluttering and what you want to achieve,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘Is this thing relevant? Does it warrant space?’”
Kate Kelly has been asking those questions a lot lately. The single mum is in the process of downsizing from a three-bedroom home at South Hobart to a two-bedroom villa-like unit in the bush fringe of the city. Environmentally conscious and wary of consumerism, Kelly says she has longed to overhaul her life and try to live more simply and free of unnecessary possessions.
Finding herself in what she describes as an extreme rental crisis – spending more than 70 per cent of her income on her rent – the children’s author and illustrator decided it was time to take the plunge and downsize to something more affordable. “My goal is to move into the new place with only the bare essentials, just like the first time I moved out of home,” she says.
“I reckon I’ve got maybe three truckloads of stuff in this house and I’m only going to take what I can fit into one van.”
The process of whittling her worldly goods down to this single carload is brutal. Kelly is getting rid of most of her clothes, books, DVDs, jewellery, crockery and cutlery.
“If it doesn’t get used at least three times a week, it’s gone,” she says. “Things that have some real value, such as the clothes dryer and other electronic goods, I’m trying to sell. But everything else, anything I can’t sell, I’m perfectly prepared to give away to the City Mission and the All Saints Church, because I’d rather it all went to people who need it.”
Kelly says she came to the realisation the only items in her house she actually chose for herself were artwork, her music collection and her pet rabbit Donna.
“For a long time I’ve wanted to make my life simpler, to live with a smaller carbon footprint and have more energy to put into real life,” she says.
“All this stuff comes with its attachments and memories of things I’ve carried my whole life, things that dead people have left me, things I bought with my ex-partner, and I don’t want those things around anymore.
“I want to see what difference it makes to my mental wellbeing to get rid of everything I’ve been dragging around with me for the past 20 years, the things I’ve only kept because someone gave it to me and I felt obliged to hold on to them, the things I’ll never use but have kept just in case.”
Kelly’s five-year-old son Albert has the only exemption from the purge. He is not under any pressure to get rid of any of his toys or possessions. He has been told he can take whatever he wants. But Kelly says he has also started carefully going through his things and weighing up what he wants to keep.
“Even now he is already packing things in boxes that are going and putting other things aside to give away,” she says. “I think it’s just because he sees me doing it, but he is also learning to think about what he does and doesn’t need. We talked about it and he knows that by getting rid of three things he doesn’t want, it makes room for one really cool big thing, and I think that’s a great perspective.
“I don’t want to keep consuming, I don’t want to waste space on useless things and waste time on maintaining them. Where we’re moving to, I’ll finally have room for a garden so I can grow food and I can start to live more simply and more sustainably.”
Sophie and Matt Calic took decluttering to a new level when they moved out of their three-bedroom home on Hobart’s Eastern Shore and into a tiny converted shed on a 1.6ha block at Ridgeway with their three daughters, aged 5, 8 and 9.
Their tiny house is a former studio with a 40 sq m liveable area – less than half the size of an average three-bedroom home. They converted it into a family home and have been innovative in maximising the space they have.
The bathroom is the only completely separate space in the house, the rest mostly open-plan. There are three bunks on one wall for the girls, a small kitchen, some open floor space for the girls to play and an enclosed spot for the couple’s bedroom. It is barely larger than the queen-size bed, which is raised and lowered by a pulley system, allowing it to be lifted out of the way during the day, the area below being used as clothes storage and a small home office.
“The place where we used to live was already small compared with where some of our friends live,” Sophie says. “And we were in the outer suburbs, so we wanted to be closer to South Hobart, which was closer to where we worked. We knew we couldn’t afford anything in the area – houses at Ridgeway were selling for about $600,000 – so we bought this land for $295,000,
with this place already on it, and made the conscious decision to live more simply so we could prioritise our kids rather than cars and travel and all those other things.
“I feel really lucky. I see it as upsizing in a way because the kids have all this outside space to play in now – but winters can be a bit challenging.”
Sophie is a community development project manager for Hobart City Council and Matt is a builder, meaning he was able to do most of the refurbishing work.
Despite their best intentions, the family is facing the prospect of adding an extension. With the girls getting older, they simply need more space. But they are still doing it modestly.
“We did as much in the current footprint as we could to keep from needing new council approval, but we’ve just about hit breaking point,” Sophie says.
“There will be extra bedroom space for the girls, a proper bedroom for us, and we will be able to extend our living and dining room space. It will be at least a year before we start building, but the result will still only be a total of about 160 sq m, which is still well below the size of an average home but will feel huge to us.”
Sophie says they are determined to keep living small, but the current size is starting to have a negative impact on their lifestyle.
“We can’t have friends over because it’s too small to have groups for dinner, and in the evenings Matt and I have to basically be silent so we don’t wake the kids,” she says.
“We looked into the tiny house movement when we moved in here, and in nearly every story we read, the people were only doing it for a year while they built something bigger, or it was only one or two people living there.
“The only other alternative for us was moving and we don’t want to do that – we love the lifestyle and the community here,.”
The Calics had to get rid of lots of furniture and other personal items before squeezing their lives into such a small home. Continuing to live there means being vigilant about clutter.
Each of the children has a box in which they store their special things such as art projects and collected items. Whenever a box starts to overflow, it is time to cull. Sophie says they have regular purges and it has become second nature to them all.
“We do tip-shop runs all the time for stuff we don’t need. It sounds a bit brutal, but we simply have limited space. We end up regifting lots of things we get that we don’t want or need. For the girls’ birthdays we ask people to only buy Lego or books, because we have room for those.”
Ultimately, Kelly and the Calics say their experiences have been good for them and their families, in terms of learning what is important in life. As well as being an exercise in letting go of attachments to material things, they have discovered a certain peace that comes from living simply.
“I don’t think of myself as being a very organised person,” Sophie says. “But living like this, you have to be really tidy because you can’t hide anything.
“And the other bonus is the kids hardly ever argue. You just can’t afford to let things fester when you live in such close quarters. If there’s a problem you have to confront it and resolve it and get on with life.”
As much as these families are making a positive difference to their lives – and the environment, Lewis says the rest of us need not be quite so drastic. In fact, it is smaller, simpler changes that can make big differences to our lives.
“People tend to pull all this stuff around them to protect themselves,” she says. “You need to tap into that, work out what the reason is and systematically try to let go of your attachment to those things.
“It doesn’t just have to be physical stuff, either. You might have 2500 emails in your inbox and you can’t find anything, you hate even checking your mail. So start hitting that delete button.
“Every day set aside five minutes – set a timer if you need to – and just start deleting the ones you don’t need, and you’ll start making a difference very quickly. Your phone as well. Remove messages that are no longer relevant, delete apps you don’t use … when you take all the unnecessary stuff off your phone, it will work better and last longer, which saves you having to upgrade and recycle it.
Lewis says decluttering isn’t about having a sparkling kitchen or a minimalist house: “It is about figuring out what is getting to you, what you are clinging to, and letting go of it.
“Some people want to live in a big house, and that’s fine, live in the space you want to live in. Big, small, neat or messy, but live the life you want. And if clutter of any kind is robbing you of that life, deal with it.” Professional organiser Tanya Lewis will be leading three free declutter workshops around Hobart next month. Kingston Declutter Workshop, Kingborough Civic Centre, Tuesday, October 10, 6.30-8.30pm, $10; Hobart Declutter Spring Fling, Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania, Wednesday, October 11, 6-9pm, $45. Hobart Declutter Workshop, Hobart Town Hall, Thursday, October 12, 6.30-8.30pm. For details, visit ecoorganiser.com.au