I grew up in Tokyo where public transport and bicycling are the main modes of transportation, so I’ve only had my US driver’s license for a few years. About a month ago I was driving home from a place I’m not super familiar with, on a highway I rarely take, by myself, at night. My limited experience driving combined with these conditions were already putting me on edge.
Then out of nowhere, a zippy sports car started weaving around my car and two others, one of which was trying to merge onto the highway. My hands gripped the steering wheel as I gave the situation my full attention, worried that this guy was going to cause an accident.
At one point he slid across three lanes between us, narrowly missing one of the cars, but then he sped on ahead and was out of sight. Whew.
Just then I realized, “Oh, this is my exit!” But it was too late—I had missed my turn and had to keep going. My GPS started recalculating as I drove down a stretch of highway I had never been on before into a great expanse of darkness. I was stressed. I managed to get home okay though, albeit late, thanks to that map.
I can’t help but be grateful for it, because what would I have done if it were a paper map or handwritten instructions like we used to use before smartphones were a thing? Or worse, I was trying to drive based on my fuzzy memory alone?
Sometimes we just need someone to show us the way, especially when we’re lost, overwhelmed, or stressed out. I find that to be true with all kinds of things, not just driving. I certainly felt that way when I had to downsize our household in the span of a few months for our international move.
Do you feel that way too, when you look around at your stuff? Is there never enough time to get to the things nagging at the back of your mind? Do you feel like, “I know I need to get out of this mess, but I don’t even know where to start”?
Let me offer you a map of practical first steps you can take as you start to declutter your life.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Understand that this will take a while, and be at peace knowing that every baby step will get you closer to your goal. This isn’t just a first step, either. This is something you’ll need to do intentionally throughout the process. Stop. Pause. Breathe. …and then continue.
In future posts I’ll show you how to build large pauses into your schedule for deep breathing, a form of rest called a sabbath or sabbatical. But right now don’t worry about finding a big chunk of time for that. You just need to take a moment to center yourself and breathe any time you feel overwhelmed. Maybe that break lasts for an hour. Maybe it’s for ten minutes. Maybe it’s only for ten seconds. That’s okay. Just start where you are, and don’t forget to breathe.
Renew your mind
We act according to our beliefs and thoughts. If we want to change the way we live, it makes sense then that we’d need to change the way we think.
The saying “you are what you eat” isn’t wrong. Consuming content that guides you in the direction you want to go can help shift your perspective and motivate you. This blog can help you with that too, but there are lots of other great resources. The following are just a handful.
The books The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo and Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki (neither of which are Christian, so please take their woo-woo with a grain of salt; Marie’s method for decluttering and Fumio’s thoughts on why minimalism is a tool worth using are both valuable, however)
The Minimalists’ documentary on Netflix called Minimalism
But those aren’t even the most important resource. The phrase “renew your mind” probably sounded familiar and acted as a clue: Immerse yourself daily in what God says about our stuff. Read the Bible. Pray continuously. Ask Him to renew your mind (Romans 12:2) and change your heart—your thoughts—so that it better aligns with His.
God calls us to pay attention to our motivations; why we do something is more important than what we actually do (1 Samuel 16:7; Luke 21:1-4; Matthew 6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3; James 4:3, but the whole chapter, too; and so many more). Be mindful of why you want to get the thing. Be mindful of why you can’t let the thing go. Be mindful why you’re saying “yes” to someone’s ask. Be mindful of why you’re saying “no.”
I didn’t grow up participating in Lent, but now I love to observe it every year. Fasting allows me to pay attention to what I consume instinctively. It forces me to pay attention to what I put into my body or how I spend my time or where I seek my comfort. A temporary shopping ban can do the same thing with our shopping habits. Just how often do we buy things impulsively? Even if we’re researching it carefully, do we really need the thing we’re reading the reviews for? How much comfort are we getting from the things we can buy instead of from the One who provides? A fast like this can reset our impulses and retrain our thoughts and habits.
Remove one thing from your schedule
Eventually you’ll be ready to clear your schedule completely so you can add back in only the things that align with your priorities, including leaving space for a sabbath. But for now, you just need a baby step. Find one thing—one appointment, one obligation—to remove from your calendar or to-do list. It’s possible that your schedule or list is already pretty clear, but most of us pack them way too full.
It will feel good to get rid of the thing that’s been hanging over you. You were probably doing it because you “should,” rather than because it was right for you. It’ll also free up that time for something else. Maybe this is where you can take your breath. Or maybe this is the time you pray and read scripture. Or maybe you’d like to use this time towards decluttering. Or maybe you’d like to use that time for another obligation so you can hurry up and complete that, leaving you with two empty slots instead of just one. That’s up to you. Most people know in their gut what they need. Trust that.
One at a time. We cannot declutter our thoughts, our time, and our stuff all at once. Baby steps. Pick one to focus on right now. If it’s stuff, here’s what that might look like.
One category at a time. Some like to say one room or one drawer at a time, and if that works for you, that’s great. But I found Marie Kondo’s method of one category at a time to be really helpful, because then I could see all that I owned of something at once. I was less likely to hold on to as many of tank tops or pairs of scissors or decorative bowls if I group them together to see how many I actually own. Usually I had way more than I needed or even wanted.
Just trash, first. Whichever category you pick—clothes, books, office and school supplies, kitchen, bathrooms, etc.—just get rid of the obvious nos. Be gentle to yourself and save the hard choices for later. You can come back to this category after you’ve found your groove for making more discerning choices. For now, just grab all the things that are obviously trash or obviously need to leave your life via the donation bin.
Side note: Unless it’s worth more than $100, it’s not worth selling. And often even if it is worth something, it still may not be worth the cost of your time and energy to sell it. Just get the obvious clutter OUT. Now is not the time to get your money back; speed is of the essence. Getting things out of the house quickly will help you feel like you’re making progress and will give you the motivation to keep going.
Just you and your stuff. Not his. Not theirs. Just yours. This can be hard, because it’s all of their stuff that’s driving us crazy, am I right??? Why does he even need this? They never even play with that. It’s enough to make any mom go bananas.
But I have read several times, and found to be true in my own life, that the one complaining the loudest about all of the stuff (that’s me) is also the one with the most excess in need of purging (ouch, but yeah, also me). Even if that isn’t the case for you, we all learn best by example, not by lecture, don’t we?
By focusing on just your stuff, your family will see the effects: less to manage, less to put away, less stress, and more satisfaction. They’ll also feel safe knowing you’ll never purge their stuff without asking, which will make it easier for them to let the stuff go on their own. It may take time, but they will come around when they see how much you’re benefiting from your own purging. They might even end up asking for your help! But in the meantime, I can’t stress enough the importance of buckling down on just your own belongings. You will make more progress than you think, you’ll retain your family’s trust, and your relief and joy will be contagious.
Goals are a funny thing. We carry them around in our heads, and we think we know what they are, but when asked to explain exactly what we want, we find it difficult to do so. And then if we’re asked what steps we need to take to get there, we start going, “Uhhh…”
Writing them down clarifies the goal. What is your vision for your space? What do you want your life to look like? To feel like? Be as specific as you can. Being able to clearly see what you want will inspire you to act, and you’ll be able to see what steps you need to take to get there.
Writing those steps down is important, too, and when you plan to do them by. Just clarifying those mini goals and their expected completion will help you actually do them, which will in turn lead you to your overarching goal.
Have a friend check in on your mini goals. Just knowing they’ll ask can help you to do it. Or make it fun and find a friend who also wants to declutter, and go through the process at the same time. There’s nothing like being in the trenches with someone who gets it.
“Okay,” you might be thinking. “This all sounds nice in theory, but do you know how much WORK you’re asking me to do? And what if I can’t find anyone to do this with me? What if I literally can’t take anything out of my schedule right now? I’m already stressed enough as it is AND YOU’RE MAKING IT WORSE!”
This isn’t a to-do list. They’re intentionally not numbered. These are just some ideas to get you started when you’re not sure what to do next. Pick any one thing, anything that feels manageable to you, and do that.
“But what if I pick the wrong thing first?”
Remember that dark highway that was taking me into the unknown? My GPS recalculated my route and still brought me safely home. But what if I had pulled off into a parking lot and sat there hyperventilating instead? Would that have helped me get home?
You can’t steer a parked car. The car must be moving, in any direction, in order for it to be steered toward the right direction. Your route can be redirected. Even if you go completely the opposite way of where you want to end up, so long as you keep moving you can change your course.
It’s okay. No matter where you are, or how you’re feeling, if you take one step forward each day, in the end you will end up where you want to go. If this blog can act as your GPS, great! That’s why I’m here. But at least start with something and keep going.
You can do this.
What’s one thing you pick today? Where do you plan to start? Share it in the comments below, or text it to a friend right now and tell us that you did.