All through the month of October, I had just one focus.
I had to fit everything we owned — all of us, myself, my husband, our daughter, our son, Kevin’s parents, and our friend Zach who moved with us from Nevada to Pennsylvania — in one 26-foot truck, one car we’d be towing, the backseat and trunk of the car Zach would drive, and the trunk of the car I’d drive.
That might sound like a lot of space. I’m here to tell you that it is not. It so is not.
It’s a little shocking to me to really think about how much we got rid of.
We took a 15-foot trailer to Portland at the beginning of the month filled to the brim with things for our daughter who is a graduate student there. She’d spent the summer with us and accumulated furniture and other things for her first solo apartment. We also gave her our sofa and some bookshelves and literally anything else I could think of that she might like.
We filled all three of our cars (both of mine and Kevin’s, and Zach’s) with thrift store donations — a total of twelve times. That’s 36 car loads of donations. And by car load, I mean packed.
I don’t even know how to quantify the amount of garbage we threw away and recycled because even the thrift stores wouldn’t have wanted it, except to say that it’s embarrassing. We had to get special stickers from the sanitation department to put on the extra stuff so they’d pick it up.
Two days before the final move we rented a 15-foot truck again and filled it up twice. Once for the thrift store and once for the dump.
All I can say is that is a shit ton of decluttering. By the end it was cathartic, tossing anything and everything that touched my fingers into a donation or trash bag.
I learned a few things from this experience.
- Whatever efforts I’d ever made in the past to declutter would never have worked. I didn’t realize how surface-level they were until I made it all the way to the bottom of junk.
- I’m not a hoarder, you guys, I swear. But after a while piles on every horizontal surface and too much stuff jammed into too small an area just feels normal. It’s easier than I thought possible to live with things that are so broken down, even Goodwill wouldn’t take it, or ancient tube TVs that you have to actually pay to recycle taking up space in our garage. After a while, you just don’t see it anymore.
- It’s easy to talk away the state of things. We moved to Reno in a mini-van and it was a year before we went to get our things out of storage. A year during which we replaced practically everything we owned, so when we emptied our storage unit, our garage filled up with duplicates. And then my parents-in-law moved from their 1000-square-foot apartment to our 400-square-foot basement apartment, and their things were added to the garage.
- Things could totally go there again. Especially with the fact that our new house has nearly 5000 square feet, compared to the 1500 (plus basement apartment) we moved from.
- Getting rid of so much of stuff had an unexpected negative effect. It’s been really hard for me to feel like I’m not on vacation or visiting someone else’s house now that we’re in Pennsylvania. It’s fun to get new things, but just buying them doesn’t make them mine if you know what I mean. I think overall, this move would have been psychologically easier if I’d had my own bed.
How to DYI Your Own Insane Decluttering
First, you need to actually touch your stuff and be conscious of deciding whether or not it’s something that makes the cut. Ask yourself if you’d pay to move each thing across the country. Only keep your favorite brand of pens, the pots and pans you actually use, the clothes you’ve worn in the last twelve months.
Seriously. If you wouldn’t hand over cash to someone to move the thing across country, out it goes.
And remember not to let sunk costs keep you buried in your clutter. Spending money on a thing doesn’t obligate you to keep it forever. The money is already spent, whether or not you let it go.
Ready to do this?
Try to think of your house as a series of spaces. I mean, that’s easy, right? Your home is already divided into rooms. But take each room and divide it down further.
So your bedroom might have areas like the closet, the dresser, the bedside, under the bed, the walls. Your kitchen might include the fridge, the cabinets, the drawers, the pantry, under the sink.
You get the idea.
Try to make each area something you can tackle in a day. Even if that means dividing your closet into quarters.
You’ll need a big bag for trash, one for donations, and a box or laundry basket or two for things you’re keeping. Have another box for things you’re keeping, but that go in a different area.
Take every single thing out of each area and put it on a work area. The floor, the bed, the kitchen table, a counter top — any horizontal surface will do. Completely empty the area.
First, clean the area. You won’t want to do it later. Really clean it. Clean it like you’re trying to get your security deposit back.
Now go through all the stuff. Work quickly, putting each item either in the trash bag, the donation bag, the put-away box, or the put-away-in-a-different-room box. Trust me here, don’t let yourself have too much time to think about each thing.
If you’re moving, you’ll want to actually pack the things you’ll keep. If you’re not, put those things away. Then go around the house with the box of things that were in the wrong space and put those things where they go. If you haven’t decluttered that area yet, just get the thing in the vicinity. If you have, put it away in it’s new forever home.
Discard the trash bag.
The donation bag can go two ways. The easiest thing is to put it in your car now, so that you can donate it the next time you leave the house. Or you could sell the stuff. Take some pictures and post stuff on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist within 24 hours. Whatever doesn’t get posted in 24-hours gets put in the car for donation.
You can use bookscouter.com to enter any book’s ISBN and find out if anyone is buying it. Again, give yourself a deadline for actually shipping those books off, or out they go to the thrift store.
Technically, you could store stuff for a garage sale when you get done with the entire declutter process. The problem with that is this: if you’re in a position to need this level of decluttering, you probably aren’t exactly likely to actually hold the garage sale. Don’t let this be an excuse to just shift your junk to boxes in your garage.
At first it might seem like you’re doing a ton of work without making much progress, but eventually it will all come together. By the time you’ve done every section of your house, everything will be deeply, deeply decluttered and deep cleaned, too.
How long the whole project will take depends on how much time you can give to it. If you do one little area a week, it might take months. If you do an area a day, it could take weeks. Just keep plugging along.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.