A Beginner’s Guide to Minimalism: Turning Five Boxes of Stuff Into Two

by Anne Dorko

Do you ever look around you and realize how much stuff you have? The rate at which our piles of belongings can grow is, quite frankly, astonishing. You may not even consider yourself a big collector of anything… and yet. There you are.

I am a minimalist. (Sort of.)

Let’s back up a bit: I am a budding minimalist, or rather, I am learning the art of actively letting go of clutter.

In other words, I get rid of everything that doesn’t contribute something to my life – and I do it often.

To be fair, I should mention that I am a 23-year-old who just got back from living out of a car for 7 months. I don’t have a ton of stuff sitting around to being with. What didn’t fit in the car was left sitting in my mom’s garage while I waited to line up for an apartment.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I reduced five boxes of belongings into two, all in one short afternoon.

The same principles I used can be applied to your own situation, no matter how much you have sitting around. Today, I’d like to share my methods with you!

Here’s how I got rid of my things, and why.

How “Minimalism” Got My Attention

As many good things do, it began by reading the experiences of others. These stories inspired me to challenge the idea of what it really means to own something.

When I first started hearing these stories, I didn’t know there was a word for it. Minimalism.

It turns out that there’s a whole lot of people out there dedicating their life to reducing clutter. Minimalism as a trend wasn’t all that interesting to me, because I liked my stuff. I worked hard to earn the money and invest in those items. In a way, they represented my life achievements. A visual representation of my successes, if you will.

Then, I went on the road trip of a lifetime. I lived out of my car, slept on a hundred couches, and opened my eyes to a slew of new experiences. All in 7 short months.

It gave me a completely new perspective of ownership. Having lots of stuff sucks! You have to pack, move, and clean it. It needs to be transported between people’s homes and your car. If you lose something or it breaks, well – I hope you were ready to part with it.

Not to mention, it turns out that “out of sight, out of mind” applies to even your most precious belongings. I all but forgot everything that I’d left home in my mom’s garage.

It got me thinking — what do I actually need?

My Personal Minimalist Goals

  1. Be able to move myself in one car trip.
  2. Be able to pack everything I’d take with me on an extended trip in under 30 minutes.
  3. Anything I wouldn’t pack should be directly benefiting me in a daily or weekly manner. Examples: Bedding and cooking supplies.
  4. 1 box of sentimental items I can leave with a family member, in the event of extended travel.

Right now, I have a ways to go, but I have faith I’ll get there. Particularly if I repeat the following process next time I move again!

Enough about me and why I chose to reduce the amount of stuff in my life. You’re here because you want to do the same for yourself…

I hope you are ready to free yourself from what you own.

How do you get rid of all that stuff? Here’s the process I used to reduce my five boxes of clutter down to two.

Step 1: Prepare Mentally

Getting home from the road trip, my first instinct was to throw all my boxes away without even peeking inside.

I realized on a few levels, that would be irresponsible. I do have some things that I’d end up buying again out of necessity once I’m back into an apartment. Other things I could make a few dollars on if I sold.

So, sorting through boxes it was!

Here are the principles I stuck to while going through everything:

  1. Act Immediately. If your first reaction is “I can throw this away”, just throw it away. Have a trash bag that you can’t see through and just stick it right in there before you can second guess yourself.
  2. Think Twice. The exception to the above rule is when your reaction is “I can keep this.” Instead think, “Have I used this in the last week”. If the answer is “No, but BLAH BLAH BLAH” then you need to throw it away or sell it.
  3. Keep Moving. Even if you’re taking a break, get up and walk away from the pile. Thinking about it will only lead to justifications, backtracking, and feelings of being overwhelmed. If you’re working, pick up the next thing and don’t stop moving.

When you first get started, it takes more time than you expected. Old memories will bubble up and it takes emotional strength to power through.

I’m not perfect, but I’d say if you’re down by at least half when you’re finished it has been a great success.

Step 2: Open the First Box

I mean this figuratively as well is literally. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

Maybe you don’t have boxes you’re repacking, but take your section of stuff and settle down. It is most important to be ruthless for that first box, as it sets the tone for the rest of your session.

Think of yourself as a museum curator. Each piece should have a great contribution to your life as a whole. Only the best can stay.

Anyways, there’s no need to waste boxes! You have to make room in the first box for the rest of the stuff you end up keeping.

So open up your box and start moving.

Step 3: Set Up Sorting Piles

Now that you’ve started the process, you need a way to organize. You’ll have a few piles and then a trash bag. Take out the trash as frequently as possible so you’re less likely to slide on your decisions.

I recommend this setup:

  1. The Keep-it Box (a small one to encourage being pickier)
  2. The Give-it Box (a big one to encourage being liberal)
  3. The Sentimental Box
  4. The Trash Bag (do NOT pick a see through bag)

Sort your items into the Keep-it and Give-it boxes, which can hang out near you.

Remember: The trash bag should be glued to your side and emptied as regularly as you can manage it.

My rule for the sentimental box is don’t overflow it. Take pictures of the less important things for keep sakes.

Most of all: Keep moving.

Animated gif: Clutter on the floor disappearing

Step 4: Visualize Your Reason

The reason I told you so much about my personal story in this earlier was to give you an idea about my motivations. I wanted the freedom of owning nothing, needing nothing.

As I fought through these boxes, I visualized the freedom that comes with less belongings. That was my motivation.

While you’re working, you’re going to feel disproportionately attached to everything.

Fight it.

What is your motivation? Cling to that. Let the freedom of not owning anything course through you. Keep only what you need.

Can you even imagine that? It’s an amazing feeling.

That visualization can make the difference and give you the clarity you need. Yes some things are worth keeping. But not as much as you think. Throw it away, and keep moving.

How did you do?

When I first began this post, I was still repacking to move into my new apartment. Since then, I’ve moved in! Even though I threw out over half of my belongings, I still have way too much.

Who knows? It’s a 6 month lease, maybe I’ll be able to pull off the one-car move by the time this is over.

What about you? What have you uncluttered from your life recently?

First published September 11, 2012

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