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"Why do we have all this stuff?"

Every person who has moved to a new home has asked this question. When plans are first made to load a moving truck, the process seems simple enough. We say something like, "All we really have is a refrigerator, beds, the couch, and a couple of TV's. This should be easy!"

Then the packing starts.

We remember the dresser drawers full of workout clothes with the tags still on them. The rusty grill. The broken weed eater. The shelf in our pantry full of "As Seen on TV items." The dishes, and the other dishes we hardly use. The boxes in our closet that never got unpacked after the last move. Everything we've ever purchased from an antique mall. And, of course, the dreaded junk drawer.

What seemed like a simple move suddenly turns to chaos. And it's all because we don't realize how much stuff we actually have until it's time to put everything in the back of a moving truck.

AMEX (American Excess)

If this sounds like you, don't worry. You're in good company. Did you know: 

  • There are 300,000 items in the average American home (LA Times).
  • The average size of the American home has nearly tripled in size over the past 50 years (NPR).
  • 1 out of every 10 Americans rent offsite storage—the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades. (New York Times Magazine).
  • 25% of people with two-car garages don’t have room to park cars inside them, and 32% only have room for one vehicle. (U.S. Department of Energy).
  • British research found that the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys but plays with just 12 daily (The Telegraph).
  • 3.1% of the world’s children live in America, but they own 40% of the toys consumed globally (UCLA).
  • The average American woman owns 30 outfits—one for every day of the month. In 1930, that figure was nine (Forbes).
  • On average, American homes have more television sets than people. And those televisions are turned on for more than a third of the day—eight hours, 14 minutes (USA Today).
  • Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion) than on higher education (Psychology Today).
  • Americans spend $1.2 trillion annually on nonessential goods— items they do not even need (The Wall Street Journal).

As you can see, Americans buy a lot of stuff, and, if the trend continues, we'll just keep buying more despite growing less satisfied with our lives. 

IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS

But remember those college years when everything we owned fit in the back of a 2-door sedan? How did we go from so little to so much in such a short time?

There are plenty of reasons, but these are two primary factors:
in college there is little  pressure to "keep up with the Joneses,"
and material possessions played little - if any - role in achieving what we wanted while in school.

Everything fit in the back of that 2-door sedan in college because everybody's things fit in the back of a 2-door sedan in college. Few people go through undergrad with enough stuff to fill a moving truck, which made "keeping up with the Joneses" almost entirely irrelevant. The competition to maintain some imaginary status with our peers might still exist in college - GPA, relationships, athletics, etc - but rarely in the area of material possessions. 

Also, in college we focus on everything but material possessions. We are so consumed with study groups and part-time jobs and hanging out with friends and road trips to the lake that the thought of buying more stuff rarely enters our orbit. Our desires are different, and that affects our buying behavior. 

WHY DECLUTTER?

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As adults, even though our buying habits grow, our brains still instinctively know that we don't actually need everything we own.

Any good realtor will say a decluttered home is more appealing because buyers are more inclined to consider a clutter-free home in which they can see themselves living in minimalist tranquility. A home that has only essential items - as a opposed to one full of useless junk - gives an immediate sense of freedom because less stuff equals less stress. "Life would be so different in this house!" we tell ourselves.

Our brains inherently know that less truly is more.

According to Psychology Today, a cluttered life has a direct impact on self-control. When we lose the discipline to keep our physical spaces tidy, discipline also declines in other meaningful areas. 

We are more prone to eat unhealthy foods.
We get less sleep and less exercise.
Productivity declines at work.
Relationships suffer.
Those with active religious lives tend to feel less connected to God and their faith community when things are cluttered.

Ridding ourselves of excess helps reverse these negative effects. When we are intentional about improving one area of our life, it tends to have a direct impact on other areas as well. If you are intentional about the possessions you buy, you may discover an inherent need to be intentional with your diet too. Also your budget. And your relationships. And your work. And your spiritual practice. 

REDUCE EXCESS WITH PRACTICE

As with most things, a decluttered life requires practice. The dirty little secret of American Excess is that no matter how much you buy, your stuff will never satisfy you like you think. So, with a little practice, you can rewire your brain and train yourself to be content with what you have, and stop incessantly trying to fill a bottomless bucket with stuff.

Here are a few things to try:

  1. DAILY PRAYER OR MEDITATION - In as little as 10 minutes per day, our brain can train itself to be satisfied with the present moment exactly as it is, without worry over the past or fear of the future. Whether a prayer or meditation session is "good" actually doesn't matter. By making time each day for silence and connection, we increase our capacity to see life from a wider perspective, which helps us see that our momentary cravings are not as urgent as we think. People pray and meditate in different ways, so find one that works for you. 
     
  2. THE OPRAH WINFREY CLOSET EXPERIMENT - Oprah did not invent this practice, but she made it recognizable. When you hang up your clothes, turn the hanger backwards. When you wear that particular item of clothing, turn the hanger back around. If you notice that certain items in your closet go unworn, get rid of them! There's no sense in having a closet full of clothes you rarely wear. Clothing is a significant part of our American Excess. Getting rid of unused clothing items is good for our mental health.
     
  3. THE FOUR-BOX METHOD - Joshua Becker from becomingminimalist.com suggests this method that he and his family used. Go room to room with four boxes labeled TRASH, GIVE AWAY, KEEP, RELOCATE. Every item goes into a box and soon every room becomes better organized and less cluttered. 
     
  4. FASTING - Hang on, don't skip this one! Our stomach's are deeply connected to the craving centers in our brain, and much of the disorder in our life stems from an inability to suppress our need for instant gratification. We've trained our brains to find solace in food, specifically fast, convenient, unhealthy food. Fasting on any scale creates intentionality with what we eat, and therefore puts us back in control over our cravings. When we learn to be disciplined with our food, it expands to other areas of life as well.

Ultimately American Excess is the result of what we want, not what we have. Therefore the goal is to live in a way in which we actually want less. While there are hundreds of ways to practice this, the important thing is that we commit ourselves to the regular habit of saying, "I have enough," and no longer waste time and energy on things that ultimately never satisfy us.

So put down your phone, grab a box, and go show that junk drawer who's boss!