I want to make one thing very, very clear. I like stuff. I have stuff. Lots of it. I own an air popper, an outdoor grill, and a cottage. I have a coffee pot, a blow dryer, and a full set of dishes. There’s none of that “one plate per person” stuff going on up in here. I love my dishwasher and washing machine, and rely heavily on my air conditioner in the summertime and my heated blanket in the winter.
The point of messy minimalism isn’t to eliminate every item until eventually you’re living in an ice-cold cubicle with just a pallet to sleep on and a sheet for warmth. Then again, if that’s your dream, you do you. You still get to own stuff. The difference is that now the stuff you own actually adds value to your life rather than distracting you from it.
Eliminating the extras, the excess, and the clutter only accentuates our favorite things. Go ahead and indulge your scrapbooking obsession, bake your heart out, knit your weekends away, and kayak until the cows come home. Our goal is to make more time to spend on those things. Trust me: I’m not here to take your stuff. I’m just here to offer a new way to look at it.
My guess is that we’ve got a lot in common. Maybe you’re a little less messy than I am. I’m sure you’ve never lost your child’s car seat by accidentally buckling it into a stranger’s vehicle (#itsfine). Odds are good, though, that you, too, have wasted a fair amount of time on the wrong things.
For me, one of the biggest time wasters has been chasing organization.
“This weekend we are going to organize the basement!”
“This morning I’m going to organize the toys.”
“We’ve got to get the garage in order.”
“Check out what I did in the pantry. It’s soooo organized now.”
Each of those sentences has flowed through my lips on numerous occasions.
The thought of everything in our homes being perfectly sorted and placed into designated bins, cubbies, shelves, or baskets is alluring. I tried and failed for years, buying shelving and bins from IKEA and totes and baskets from HomeGoods. I figured if I could only get the right system in place, then maybe, just maybe, I could keep this home of ours in order. At one time we owned three separate toy shelves, all strategically located in different areas of our home, each cubby meant for a specific type of toy: Hot Wheels, Fisher-Price Little People, Star Wars action figures, Transformers, Disney Princess dolls, and LEGO bricks were each assigned their own corner of my real estate.
The problem was that the little hands I placed in charge of putting these toys away never managed to “get” my system. I mean, let’s be honest, they hardly tried. I can’t say I blame them, though. It was just too much to manage. So who was it that wound up spending Saturday morning shuffling plastic junk from one bin to another, redoing their insufficient attempt at putting everything away? Not my children. No, it was me, once again using my down time to try to organize our excess stuff. All to watch them undo my careful organization in an instant.
This cycle went on for years, and I never once stopped to question the chaotic and cluttered life we were living. I always assumed the problem was too few bins, unbearably stubborn children, or my own incompetence.
If you’ve found yourself stuck in the crazy cycle of organization, consider this your wake-up call. Stop it. Just stop. Those areas in your home prone to clutter? They don’t need to be rearranged or organized; they need to be pruned. Something has to go.
You do not need more bins; you need less stuff. There is rarely an organizational problem that can’t be solved by owning less. From toys and T-shirts to bedsheets and kitchen towels. I’m living proof of this important truth. Owning less is the secret to finally getting organized.
Turn Off the Water
We’ve owned a cottage on a lake since our kids were just babies. Long before minimalism was ever on our radar. To this day we love spending as much time there as possible, and minimalism has done nothing but give us more time to do exactly that. Year after year, it continues to be a place that brings us closer together and adds joy to our lives. Except for that one winter, when it flooded.
We had just spent the previous summer renovating the kitchen. It was one of the many rooms of our fixer-upper in need of some serious work. We gutted it from top to bottom, ripping down a wall of cabinetry, creating as much counterspace as we could in this tiny cottage kitchen, and of course, adding a dishwasher. (Why do so many of my stories involve a dishwasher?)
Anyway, we had planned on visiting our cottage during the winter months, but it never happened. Between our oldest starting kindergarten, subzero Michigan weather, and life in general, we never made it out there. Around early March we decided to take a trip to the lake to, you know, “check on it.” When we arrived, I hopped out, leaving Paul to unbuckle the kiddos, and went to unlock the front door. Before I even opened the door, I knew. I could smell it.
There was water everywhere, and a steady stream still spraying out from beneath that new kitchen sink. I frantically—which is a grossly underexaggerated way to describe my panic—yelled to Paul. I have no clue what he did after that or where our children even were because I was on a mission to find a bucket to catch the water. Yes, you read that right. A bucket. I panicked.
I headed to our garage, running through knee deep snow, in search of this bucket that I had, for some ridiculous reason, made a priority. Maybe I thought it would magically turn back time? I don’t know. The garage, of course, was locked, but that didn’t stop me from trying to get in. I kicked at the door, hoping to knock it down. I was solely, and irrationally, committed to finding a bucket to solve our flood problem.
As you might imagine, kicking down a door is much more difficult than they make it look like in the movies, and this door wouldn’t give. I then spotted a flower planter on my neighbor’s porch. They, too, were gone for the winter, but I remember thinking, “They’ll totally understand why I stole their planter when they come back in the summer.” After making my way through the snow, again, I tried to lift that planter to dump out its frozen contents onto their porch. Like a good neighbor. But the planter wouldn’t budge either. Turns out it was made of cement.
I scurried back over toward our front porch, shouting to Paul, “I can’t find a bucket!” To which he responded, “We don’t need a bucket! We need to figure out how to turn the water off.”
Eventually we found the water valve hidden beneath the floor of the new kitchen cabinet, as well as the culprit of the leak: a faulty dishwasher valve.
Our efforts to organize are often much like my sad attempt to find a bucket. More than one hundred thousand gallons of water had been spraying into our home for weeks. Sure, a bucket would have made me feel better in that moment, but it wasn’t a solution. We needed to stop the flow of water into our home before cleanup could occur.
No amount of decluttering will ever result in a cleared-out home if you keep bringing in stuff. And that goes for organizational supplies as well. Totes, shelving, toy bins, and buckets aren’t a long-term solution. In the spirit of tough love, I’ll say this: If you’re not going to change the way you purchase and accumulate going forward, why even bother with decluttering? It might scratch the itch of that habitual cycle of organization. But if you want less clutter tomorrow and the next day and the next—if you want to stop organizing and reorganizing and then organizing again—stop bringing stuff in. You don’t need a bucket! You need to turn the water off.
To Move or Not to Move
A few years ago, we seriously considered moving. The year before we found minimalism, we had gone from toying with the idea of moving to figuring it must be time because we had “outgrown our space.” Like many other Americans, we assumed more space and a bigger place were our only options.
Deep down, though, neither Paul nor I really wanted to leave this home. You see, my dad is a builder, and together we had helped him to build this house. I had laid insulation during the day and headed to work to deliver babies at night. We had helped our electrician friend run the electrical lines, and we had painted every wall and filled every nail hole. (For the record, there are a bazillion nail holes in the trim of a new home. The more time I spent filling them, the sloppier my work became. It shows to this day.)
We’ve got our blood, sweat, and tears in the very floorboards around here, which is exactly why we dragged our feet in regard to moving. Maybe we could add another garage stall instead? Or extra cabinetry to the kitchen? Neither of us really wanted to move. We just needed more space for all our stuff.
Thankfully we found minimalism in the nick of time and took moving off the table. Turns out we didn’t need more space after all; we just needed to ditch some things. Lots of things! I can’t say we’ll never move, but I can promise you this: we’ll never move to make space for more stuff.
Finishing a basement, moving into a larger home, adding on or customizing closets: these upgrades won’t solve an underlying too-much-stuff problem. They may help contain the disaster for a little while. But if you haven’t turned off the water, it won’t be long before you’re outside, knee-deep in snow, trying to steal your neighbor’s planter.
If you want a more organized home, begin by shutting off the flow of material items into it. Once you’ve stopped the rising waters, you can begin to effectively let go of the items cluttering your home in the first place.
It’s then that everything important will find a place.
MESSY MINIMALIST TIP: THE TEN-MINUTE TIDY
Even when everything has a place, someone still has to be responsible for putting it where it goes. In a home full of messy people, that’s the most difficult part of all of this. The actually-putting-something-away part. Even after you’ve minimized your possessions, when everything you own is sprawled across the floor, it will still feel like chaos. In those moments, I remind myself that minimalism doesn’t mean always tidy; it just means easily tidied. And then I call for a ten-minute tidy.
We usually do this before our kids go to bed, but from time to time I’ll shout it out in the middle of the day. When my children hear me say, “Ten-minute tidy!” they hop up with smiles on their faces and scramble as fast as they can to put their things away. Bahahaha. Wouldn’t that be nice? No, they still turn into zombie-sloth children with the muscle mass of a pencil. Apparently everything they own goes from weighing next to nothing to a million pounds. Ten minutes occasionally turns into twenty-five. But still, it gets the job done.
This is an excerpt from Messy Minimalism chapter 10: Stop Chasing Organization.