A minimalist's view on decluttering your life
Joshua Becker, author and founder of the website Becoming Minimalist, recently joined The Washington Post's Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q. How do you go about sifting through a parent's possessions after they've died? My dad had an extensive book collection, and I'm not even sure how best to keep or sell them.
A. "Only the best" is the mantra that you should repeat. Keep "only the best, most representative" pieces of your parents' lives and the values they sought to pass on to you. Also, remember, the way you most honor your parents is living your best life. I don't know a single person who wants to burden their child or grandchild with their possessions when they die. Most people say: "Yes, sure, keep a few things to remember me. But I don't want my possessions to be a burden to you or your home. If you can't use it, find someone who can." That's how I view my things, and probably how your parents viewed theirs as well. So, keep a few books but find a place to donate or sell the rest.
Q. I've been decluttering for two years. We are getting ready to move, and I didn't know I had so much more to do. My husband has watched me but will not get rid of things, even ugly paintings that were kept in a closed room for more than 15 years.
A. There are, unfortunately, no easy answers to this question. I spoke with a woman once who said it took five years for her husband to finally understand why she was minimizing possessions. I do believe the benefits of owning less win out in the end and people eventually come around, but sometimes it takes a lot of patience.
My suggestion: Try to reframe the conversation. Whatever attracted you to minimalism may be different from what would resonate with him. So, give it some thought. What might draw him to the idea? More money for "x," more time for "x," more space for "x," more opportunity for "x"? Help him see that as best you can.
Q. How far in advance do you recommend ridding yourself of excess belongings before moving? We'd like to retire in five years or so and move to a smaller place. Any tips?
A. I would start right away, because owning fewer possessions will improve your life. When you own less stuff, you'll find you have more time, money, energy and focus, as well as less stress. There's no need to wait five years. And you'll be in a better place to make decisions about how much space you actually need in your new place. Minimalism challenges our presumptions about these things.
Q. To what extent is clutter a problem of disorder rather than of quantity? I own thousands of books, but they're in neat rows on shelves and I don't consider them clutter.
A. Clutter is mostly defined by the effect it has on us. Clutter is anything that is disorganized. Clutter is anything you don't need or love. And clutter is too much stuff in too small a space.
Q. I really like the idea of a more minimalist life, and we have less stuff than many others we know, but our big problem is kids' items. We have a preschooler and an infant, and our preschooler refuses to part with any of her toys and books. I periodically cull the toys when she is at school. Any tips on decluttering children's items?
A. First and foremost, make sure you are offering a good example for your kids by routinely removing your own items from the home. Second, I would work hard to include them in the process, rather than making toys disappear when they're not looking. Set a physical boundary for your children ("Toys must fit in this closet, against this wall, in this toy chest, etc.") and then empower them to make decisions about what to keep and what to remove.
Q. I live in a family of book lovers, myself included. What is your view on books?
A. I do not believe every book should be kept -- some, but not all. If you found joy or help in a specific book, the best thing you can do with that book is spread around the joy or inspiration by allowing someone else to read it, too. Giving books away to a local library or friends is a beautiful expression of generosity.
Q. What is the best way to store old family documents, pictures, etc.? Some date to the Civil War and I would hate to get rid of them.
A. The best way to store old documents, pictures, etc., is to scan them into a digital format. The reality is that physical documents and photos will fade eventually and are more susceptible to fire, flood and theft. There are many services online or probably even in your community that can help you.
Q. I am addicted to kitchen gadgets. In simplifying the rest of my house, I have tried the "haven't used it in a year, into the basement; two years and it gets donated" method. The problem in the kitchen is that I use most things at least once a year. How do I decide what to keep and what to let go?
A. Many of the kitchen gadgets you have serve purposes that can be accomplished with other tools. Mark Bittman in The New York Times wrote an article published in 2007 called "A No-Frills Kitchen Still Cooks." His point is that almost everything can be created by using this small list of tools. I found it helpful in minimizing my own kitchen. I used it as a starting point and kept a few things beyond his list.
Q. I have my father's World War I Navy uniform and clothes from the 1960s. I can take pictures, but would anyone actually benefit from these?
A. I would call a museum, local or national, and see if these are things they would enjoy receiving and putting on display.
Q. How do I handle sentimental items I am choosing to purge? I want to make sure none of our adult children want them, but I worry asking them will make them feel obligated to keep the items just because I once loved them.
A. I think you phrased the question perfectly right here. Copy it down so you don't lose it. If possible, invite them over at the same time and tell them the exact thing. Even use the opportunity to remind them that you never want them to feel burdened holding onto your belongings. People need to hear that. At that time, you can show them what you are getting rid of, and if they want to take items from the pile, they are welcome to do so.