Face Your Clutter, Face Your Fear – Learning to Declutter From Leo Babauta of Zen Habits

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Conquering Clutter

Face Your Clutter, Face Your Fear – Learning to Declutter From Leo Babauta of Zen Habits

It’s a miracle I survived my freshman year of college without contracting cholera.
I lived with four people who all checked messy on their rooming applications. And within a month, our room had devolved into a more than respectable level of squalor.

How Bad Was It?

It was so bad tours used to stop by our room as a sort of amusing college dorm freak show. It was so bad before the end of school we had to write a letter of apology to the house keeping department. And when we cleaned it out it was a bit like an archeological expedition. The pizza box age, the crumpled clothing era, the goo millennia.

I wish I could say that this episode taught me something, but instead I only learned a greater tolerance for trash.
To me cleaning my room was an act of submission to mainstream society. And I was a counter culture hippie who exercised my rejection of those values by refusing the abide by the bourgeoisie standards of tidiness.

A Cover Up

Of course, this was all intellectual cover for my laziness and a subtle sense of self-loathing. For much of my twenties I figured I was failing at life. And if I couldn’t succeed like my sister the corporate business exec had, why should I even try. 

The only way to win was to find fault with the system and everything that represented it. I felt like crap, felt like my life was full of crap, felt like I was crap. And so, I filled my life with crap. Of course, it wasn’t until years later that I was able to see this.

Monastic Messiness

When I moved into Great Vow I had many run ins with powers that be about keeping my cubicle clean, wearing clothes that were tattered, and having a scruffy appearance. 

For a long time, I thought they were just being uptight. Until one day when my teacher explained to me why they kept calling me out. He told me that he could tell when my mind was falling back into old patterns, because my appearance would suffer.

I’d stop shaving. I wouldn’t comb my hair, and my clothes would become dirty.

I realized he was right. When I was in a good mood, I shaved and showered every other day and I washed my clothes more often. I also realized that when I was in a good mood I kept my room cleaner and free of clutter.

He told me that if I wanted to keep a positive attitude and a clear mind, one of the simplest things I could do was to take care of my environment and myself.

The Subtle Truth About Clutter

I recently had the chance to attend a webinar about how to declutter your life put on by Leo Babauta as part of the Sea Change Program.

And I realized that inside each lesson about decluttering was hidden the subtle truth that I discovered at the monastery. On the one hand, it’s true that you aren’t what you own. On the other hand, what you own, how much you own, and how you maintain your environment, has a huge impact on your ability to live a full and balanced life. 

Decluttering your life isn’t just about making it easier to find your keys. Decluttering your life is about finding peace and clarity. Decluttering your life is the act of creating space outside of ourselves, so we can open up space inside our own hearts.

The Obstacles to Decluttering

Leo started the webinar by defining the challenges many people face when they begin decluttering their lives. These challenges fell into three categories. Fear, Attachment, and Aspiration.

Fear –

Letting Go Means Facing Our Fears

The Challenge – I don’t have the time, energy, or motivation.

Anytime we take on a new challenge we have to face the fear of failure. So rather than getting started we come up with a list of reasons why we shouldn’t even give it a shot. 

The Solution – Keep It Simple

Start with just 5 – 10 mins of decluttering everyday. By making a small simple commitments you can build trust in yourself and develop the habit of self-care. 

Treat your self as you would a new friend you are just learning to trust. Schedule appointments to do this everyday and put in on your calendar. Leo suggests you make a commitment to do this for 30 days.

If after a month you find you are struggling then you know that decluttering isn’t a priority. But at least you can tell yourself you gave it a shot.

The Challenge – I don’t know where to start.

When we try something new often we are afraid we will do it wrong. So, instead of taking concrete steps, we become trapped in analysis, and never get going.

The Solution – Start Small

Leo suggests that you pick a small flat surface to get started. He recommends somewhere like a kitchen table, a coffee table in your living room, or a small section of your kitchen counter. 

By picking a small space, you can create a small clutter free zone. This zone can become an oasis of no clutter and give you the confidence and to expand this area or to colonize other parts of your home.

By starting small, the risk is small. And you can work out all the kinks before you bite off more than you can chew.

The Challenge – What if I don’t have what I need?

This fear is prevalent among people who have survived times of famine. People who lived through the depression are known to have been unwilling to waste food or give away valued items. If you didn’t grow up with a lot of resources you may be afraid of losing things that could protect you from returning to uncertain times. 

This is a big fear to overcome, because facing the fear means saying you have faith in yourself and hope for the future.

The Solution – A Back Up Plan

Think of other ways to get what you need if times got tough. Leo gives the example of a cookbook. If you need a new recipe, you could always get them online or borrow one from a friend.
One the best back up plans is developing a good personal network. Why dig through cookbooks when you can get recipes other people have already tried out? Why own a bunch of tools when you can borrow them from a neighbor? 

Not only is developing community connection a great back up plan and a great way to share resources. Studies have shown that the more connected we are the longer we live.


Letting Go Means, Being Satisfied with Less

The Challenge – But It Was a Gift!

When you get a gift, it can feel like in order to honor the gesture, you have to keep that gift forever. Of course over a life time this can add up to allot of unwanted gifts and a lot of unnecessary guilt. 

The Solution – Honor the Thought Not the Item.

Leo says that when someone gives you a gift it should be to enrich your life, to do something nice for you, but not to give you a burden. 

As a gift receiver you should try to receive the gift graciously, cherish the thought that came with it, and thank the person who gave it to you. But that is where your obligation ends. If you can’t use a gift then help it find a new home.

The best way to honor any gesture is to return a gesture of your own. A nice thank you card will go a long way and will mean more than you keeping something you don’t need for years to come.

If you find that your friends object to this practice. Let them know that you appreciated the time and thought they put into the gift. Then do your best to explain that you appreciated the gift, but wanted to make sure it went to good use.

Perhaps the best strategy for gifts is to stop them from coming in the first place. Leo says, he has stopped accepting gifts from others, but instead asks people to donate money to charity, give him experiential gifts, or skip giving him gifts all together.

The Challenge – It Has Sentimental Value.

Small items can take on great significance when they relate to important people or times in our lives. It can feel like letting go of these things means forgetting or losing those people or times all over again. 

Imagine if you tried to hold on to every memory in your mind. Instead of giving meaning to your life, you would lose the meaning in the mundane things that fill your day. This is what happens when we try to hold on to too many sentimental items.

The Solution – Memories Aren’t in Trinkets

Leo tells us that though a item can invoke a memory the memories don’t live in those items. The item only represents the memory. Where they live is inside your heart and mind. 

First, choose only the items that deeply connect you to a time, place, or person you hold dear. Instead of keeping, all of them take pictures of those items and review them on a regular basis.
Then get rid of as many of the items as you can. It’s ok to keep a few very precious things but make sure you only keep what really counts.

The Challenge – But What if I Need It? –

We’ve all been there. We decide to give away our old glue gun. Then a week later we think of a project that demands the use of a glue gun. So we go out, buy another one, and swear to never let this happen again. 

The problem is that the number of needs our minds can imagine are endless. Stores are literally stocked with things that retailers are predicting someone might need at some point.
The problem begins when your home moves from a boutique of a few essential items to a Wal-Mart stock room capable of serving the diverse needs of a large rural county.

The Solution – The Cost Illusion

Leo points out that we see the cost of replacing something but we are blind to the cost of holding on to things we don’t need. Besides, the visual stress that clutter causes and the time wasted looking for lost items, even keeping well organized clutter can cost you allot. 

The Clutter Cost Equation

Lifehacker offers a simple equation to help you figure out the cost of your clutter. 

If you own a home: Divide the value of your home by the total square footage, to find the value of one sq foot of space. If you live in a $250,000 home with 2,500 sq/ft each sq foot is worth $100 ($250,00/2500 = $100) 

If you rent: Take the total amount of rent for one year divided by the square footage of you home to find the yearly value of one sq foot of space. If your monthly rent is $1000 and you live in 982 sq/ft apartment each sq foot is $12.22 Per year. (($1000 x 12)/982)=$12.22)

Next estimate the space occupied by things you don’t use. (Don’t forget basements, closets, and garages.) Then multiply the value of each square foot by the total square feet of unused junk.

Let’s say clutter accounts for 300 sq ft of your home.
In the first example, your clutter is taking up $30,000 worth of space in your home. In the second example, you would be paying around $4000 dollars every year for your clutter. That’s almost 4 months of rent.

Now ask yourself if the things you are holding onto are really worth all that much money. If you think about it, your clutter is kind of like a bad roommate or a short-term squatter.

The Challenge – But Getting Rid of It is A Waste.

When we acquire things that are expensive, or that we got a ‘great deal’ on. we are reluctant to let it go. We feel like giving it away or selling it would be wasteful. And so we collect a drawer of closet of expensive gadgets that we never use. 

The Solution – Double Jeopardy

Leo says that it’s true that these items are expensive and yes it seems like a waste to get rid of them. But the mistake we made was buying something we didn’t need. 

When you keep something you don’t need it doesn’t fix the mistake it just compounds it.

We’ve already seen that clutter can cost us money and expensive items cost even more than regular items to store and maintain. They also represent a great risk if there is a fire, flood, or break in.

But if you sell, give away, or donate these items you can secure their value and relinquish the burden they place on you.

The Challenge – But It’s an Investment!

Just like expensive items, collectibles and ‘investment’ clutter can be hard to throw away.
We’ve all heard the story of the man or woman who cleans out their attic only to find a pristine Babe Ruth rookie card that they sell for a million dollars. 

The problem is most collectibles don’t hold their value over the long haul. Remember beanie babies? In their hay day, some of these plush toys sold for over $600 apiece, but today most of them are worth less than the plastic pellets they contain

The Solution – Reality Check

Leo says the first thing you should ask yourself about your collectable item is: Is it in pristine condition?
If the item isn’t in it’s original packaging, unmarred by human touch, and essentially brand new it won’t be worth much. 

Even if it is in pristine condition, it may be worth less than you think. Leo suggests that you go onto eBay and see what similar items cost. If it’s not that valuable, realize you are spending resources to keep this item.

You may not think a few small collectibles costs that much to keep, but as we’ve seen all these small items can really add up. And the cumulative cost can grow out of control.

If your investment item has real value, it’s all the more reason not to leave it lying around your house. Put it in a firebox or safety deposit box and make sure to list it on your homeowners insurance.

Aspirations –

Letting Go, Means Accepting We Are Whole and Complete

The Challenge – Mundane Tasks

Often the items that make up our clutter represent undone tasks. They may be photo albums we need to organize, half done sowing projects, and books we want to read.

Part of us knows that finishing these projects would make our lives easier. Our pictures would be easier to find, we’d have a new shirt to wear, and we’d know more about java programming. But something about the effort or time these projects takes helps us avoid them.

At first, it may just be a few things, but as time passes these tasks have a tendency to pile up. The bigger they are and the more of them there are the more stressful it becomes to think about them and the less likely it becomes that we will take them on.

The Solution – Divide, Conquer, and Delegate.

Leo encourages us to let go of as many of these projects as possible. If something has been sitting around it clearly isn’t a priority. He tells us to be ruthless in dividing up these projects, into ones that really need to get done and those we need to accept we just aren’t going to do. 

For those projects that make the cut you have two options:

1. Delegate –

Consider outsourcing these projects. You can hire a company to scan all your photos in for you, or you might even be able to hire a local teenager to do the work. 

2. Conquer –

If you don’t have the money to outsource, the project is very important, or it’s something only you can do. Then take the task head on. 

Set a time to work on it and put it on your calendar. When the time comes conquer the task whole-heartedly.

The Challenge – Better You Projects.

Letting go of these items is hard because it feels like we are giving up on these projects and ourselves.
No matter what the reason these items can become a physical and mental burden. Seeing them can make us feel like we are never doing enough. And reminds us of all the things we’ve left undone.

The Solution – Time Bank

Leo notes that having aspirations is wonderful, but we have to face the fact that we haven’t invested the time to make these aspirations real. If we want these changes to be real, we have to make the time to do it. 

Go item by item and decide if you have time to invest into learning a new skill. If you do then put it on the calendar. If you don’t accept it and let these aspirations go for now.

Most of us over predict the amount of time and money we will have. So, it’s important to be honest about how much time you really have and what you care most about.

And remember if you change our minds or discover you have time in the future, you can always take up these hobbies again.

Letting Go – Seeing What Really Matters

Gaining Perspective-

Leo shared a story about how he lost almost everything he owned in a typhoon. Everything in their house got soaked and at first, he was really bummed. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized how lucky he was. 

He realized that despite everything he’d lost he still had his health and his family. It helped him see that all that stuff just wasn’t that important.

He saw that the value we place in things is an illusion. The real value is in our lives and in the lives of those we care about.


Take a minute and imagine that everything in your house is destroyed, but that you, your family, and your pets are ok. What does it feel like in your to let go of everything you own? 

Now imagine that you have lost everyone you love, but you are surrounded by all of your possessions. What does it feel like to have all of your stuff, but no one to share it with?

Doing this exercise, the value of everything we own can’t even compare to the value of on person we care deeply about.

What You Own Ends Up Owning You –

At the end of the webinar Leo shared that letting go gets easier with experience. He said that when he was first decluttering, letting things go was really hard. But that with each successive round it got easier and easier.
Perhaps the most powerful thing I’ve learned during my transition from pack rat to minimalist. Is how much more full my life becomes with each thing I give away.
Decluttering has taught me that I don’t need as much I think. The key is to start small and keep at it. If you do this, you will soon find you are living a much simpler and happier life.

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