Simplify by Sarah

The Simplify Series: Your Common Space

The Simplify SeriesSarah Anne HayesComment

If your house is anything like mine was growing up, then the common spaces in your home — be it a living room, family room, TV room, or music room — are one of the biggest battlefronts in your ongoing war with clutter.

It may seem like a battle you're never going to win, especially if you have children. But the culprit behind messy common spaces is often a combination of two things — an excess of stuff and a lack of clarity for the space.

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CLARIFY THE PURPOSE

Over the last several years, I've lived in nearly a dozen homes, sometimes with family, but most often with one or more roommates. Those homes have had anywhere from one to three common spaces, some that stayed calm and uncluttered the entire time we lived there and others that made me twitch each time I walked into them.

In my most recent home, we had two main common spaces that we divided into three — a living room, an entertainment room, and a...something room.

Throughout the time we lived there, the living room and entertainment rooms rarely, if ever, saw clutter for more than a couple of hours. The "something" room, however, was quite a different story.

I call it a something room because the purpose for the room was never clearly defined. We put the keyboard in there because it fit, along with an extra table, and used the storage spaces available to house miscellaneous items like luggage and holiday decor.

But as far as what we'd use the space for? Well, we never really knew. Largely for that reason, the space became a magnet for all of the stuff we didn't know what to do with. Boxes of items we were planning to donate or sell, miscellaneous things that didn't have a clear purpose in our lives anymore, wall decor we didn't know where to put — it didn't really matter, you could just throw it in the something room.

This is the problem that so many common spaces have and why they become such magnets for clutter, and that's why the first step to simplifying those common spaces is to clarify the purpose for the space.

For our living room, the purpose was to have a space that was relaxing, inviting, and open — both in its feel and furniture layout — where we could spend time with our friends or relax with a book. This meant our bookshelves went in the room, along with a couple of couches and chairs, sufficient lighting, and a basket full of blankets for people to use whenever they wanted. We also kept the layout of the furniture open so we could easily add more seating in whenever we needed it. Nothing else came into the space for more than a couple of hours because it distracted from the purpose of the room.

Depending on the common space you're working with, the purpose for your room might be the same, it might different, and it might be a hybrid of a couple of things.

Do you want it to be a space for gathering as a family not just to talk, but also to do things like watch a movie or play a game? Then set up the room to the fit that purpose — don't feel bad about having games or a TV or DVDs in it. But if the purpose of the space is to connect as a family without technology, then keep the TV far away!

You get to decide what you want the space to be and what is essentially for accomplishing its purpose, but without a clear goal in mind, you'll likely find the room cluttered again, no matter how hard you to try to keep it clear.

CLEAR OUT THE EXCESS

Once you've decided what your goal for the space is, it's time to quiet your space again. Just like with the bedroom, clear out as much as possible and let the space sit for 24-48 hours before bringing items back in again.

Take this time of quieting the space to go through all the items you've removed and determine not only if they fit the purpose and should back in, but if they fit the purpose of any space in your home. And don't be afraid to get rid of the stuff that isn't a resounding yes — even if it seems like it fits the space.

Let's take board and card games, for example. If part of the purpose for your space is to play those kinds of games with friends and family, your initial thought might be to put all of them back in the space. But when was the last time your sorted through them? When was the last time you played some of them?

Even if an item fits with the purpose of the space on the surface, it's still a distraction if you never actually use it.

I love to play games with my friends and family, so I have a fair number of them that I keep in my home. One of the games I've had for the last several years is Apples to Apples. Lots of people love to play it, but it's one of my least favorite games, so I will always vote for something else when someone suggests it. What then, was the purpose in keeping it as part of my collection? I never actually used it and groaned every time someone suggested it. So even though I do love playing games with friends and family, that one left my collection because it didn't help fulfill the purpose of enjoying games with the people I love.

It's at this point that you will need to ask yourself some serious questions and really consider if you need all of those board games, movies, books, or whatever else.

I love to read, I love to watch movies, and I love to play games. But that isn't an excuse for never going through my books and asking myself if I actually love them all or going through my movies and asking myself if I watch it enough to keep in my collection.

Two steps might seem like an oversimplification of the process, but if done with care, they will result in a common space — or spaces — that are calmer and free from clutter because there's not only fewer things in the space, but you know exactly why the things that are in the space stay there.

Next week, we'll continue the series with one of the biggest magnets for paper clutter — your office!

A Simple Living Litmus Test

Simple LivingSarah Anne HayesComment

Over the last two and a half years, I've had a lot of conversations with people about minimalism and simple living.

No matter how you approach it or who you talk to, you're going to come across a ton of different ideas about what minimalism is or should be and what makes someone a "true" minimalist (whatever that means).

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Whether you call yourself a minimalist, a simple living advocate, an essentialist, something completely different, or don't use a particular label at all, a journey away from excess, busyness, and consumption toward slowness, simplicity, and calm looks different for everyone.

Everyone's journey has a unique starting point and while your motivations for simplifying your lifestyle might overlap with those of others, how you simplify, what you simplify, and why you simplify is going to be just as unique as you are.

Particularly in the United States, the overabundance of our consumerist culture leads many of us to feeling overwhelmed by the excess in our lives — both in our homes and in our schedules. Decluttering physical possessions is the most common starting place I've found amongst fellow minimalists and simple living advocates, but in order to move beyond the act of decluttering and simplifying to living a simplified life, there has to be a shift in mindset.

I believe the simplest way to start the shift in mindset is to create your very own litmus test.

A LITMUS TEST FOR LIFE

Chances are, you've heard of the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. It's an international bestseller and was the starting point for many people in their simple living journey.

While I did not personally enjoy the book that much, I understand why it resonated with as many people as it did and I believe it's because of Kondo's rather simple approach to ask yourself one question — does it spark joy?

By approaching the act of minimizing and simplifying in this way, it immediately takes you from the negative mindset of having to give up or lose things into a positive one. It shifts you from thinking this is about what you have to get rid of, but rather what you get to keep. It's not about decluttering the things that drain you, but keeping and further delighting in the things that energize you.

Whether intentionally or not, Kondo's encourages people to use her question as a litmus test for life.

If you're not familiar with it, a litmus test is defined as "a test in which a single factor (such as an attitude, event, or fact) is decisive."

The term was first used primarily in scientific experimentation, but it's principal applies perfectly to a minimal, simplified lifestyle. After all, the point of a minimal or simplified lifestyle is to clear out the excess from your life so you can focus on the things that are most important to you.

When employing Kondo's philosophy, if the item doesn't pass the test — if it doesn't spark joy — then it goes, period.

DEFINING YOUR PERSONAL LITMUS TEST

As I look back on my simple living journey over the last couple of years, I can clearly see how coming up with my own litmus test was one of the biggest contributing factors in me continuing down this path and not reverting back to my old habits.

Defining that question took me beyond just the what and the why. It caused me to take into account who I am as a person, the lifestyle I was currently living, the lifestyle I wanted to live, and to formulate a question that would help get me from point A to point B. And now, whenever an opportunity comes up, I filter everything through my personal litmus test before deciding if I want to add the new thing to my life.

Your personal litmus test may be like Marie Kondo's. You may ask yourself if it sparks joy, if it makes your heart sing, or if it makes your soul come alive. It might be a bit less abstract like is it essential or potentially even does it fit (into your physical space or your schedule)? Or it may be like mine — does it make your life easier, does it make your life happier, does it make your life healthier? Or it may be as simple as does it matter in the moment or in the long run?

The options are quite literally endless and your reasons for choosing your own personal litmus test will be as varied and unique as you are, but once you figure out what it should be, it makes those often difficult and agonizing decisions about what stays, what goes, and what comes in so much easier.

If it doesn't pass the test, it doesn't come into your life. Period.

The Simplify Series: Your Bedroom

The Simplify SeriesSarah Anne HayesComment

One of the areas of the home that should be filled with the most calm very often winds up a dumping ground for all sorts of odds and ends. Yes, I'm talking about the bedroom.

There was a time in my life where my bedroom made it seem like I lived in a studio apartment. Because of spacial constraints and the preferences of my roommates, my bedroom functioned not only as a sleeping area, but as an office, a music room, and a reading room. As you might expect, it led to many nights where I was up far later than I should've been doing work or something else because the space where I was supposed to rest was not designed for resting.

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REMEMBER THE PURPOSE

If you're like most people, your bedroom has probably ended up like mine. Maybe it hasn't turned into what could arguably be called a studio apartment, but chances are it's turned into something it was never intended to be. Perhaps it's a dumping ground for the random clutter throughout the house, a second family room, or an extension of the laundry room. Whatever it is, the first step to simplifying your bedroom is to reset it with one goal in mind — rest.

Unlike some other rooms in the house, where the purpose of the space can feel a little muddy at times, the purpose of your bedroom is simple — it is a space designed to help you rest and everything that you allow to stay in the space should help you toward that goal.

When simplifying your room, start by taking as much as possible out of the room — clothing, knick knacks, even furniture if you find it necessary. The Nester calls this process quieting the room and it's always the first step I recommend when you're taking on a new space and seeking to simplify it.

Of course, in order to do this, you'll need a staging area of sorts to put the clutter, so you'll have to be okay with some other area of your home dealing with a little extra clutter for a short period of time. But if your bedroom has become a holding space for a lot of things it was never meant to hold, part of quieting the room may be returning those items back to their rightful place like an office, family room, or laundry room.

If possible, leave the room quieted for 48 hours, but I recommend 24 at the very least. This allows you to take the time to breathe in the space and more clearly evaluate what you want to bring back in.

RESET FOR REST

After you've quieted the space and let it sit for a day or two, you can start bringing items back into the space.

Since your bedroom has a clearly defined goal — to help you rest — anything that you bring back into the space, with the exception of your clothing to put in a closet or dresser, should help you reach that goal. Don't be afraid to be ruthless and, just like with the items in your closet, if it's not an absolute yes, then don't bring it into the space.

It's worth noting that what helps someone rest is going to vary for each individual and each couple. If you're married, it would be helpful to have a conversation with your spouse and discuss what helps both of you rest so you're not unwittingly making rest harder for your spouse by returning a particular item into the bedroom.

Another thing to be careful of is allowing wishful thinking to get the better of you. Your fantasy self might find a particular item or activity particularly restful because you feel like it should be, but in reality, that may not be the case. For example, reading is something I find particularly restful, while for others it's the exact opposite. But even with my own self, I have to be careful because while certain books are quite restful for me to read and the perfect bedtime companion, others will wind me up and have the opposite effect (suspenseful thrillers anyone?).

When I finally had the opportunity for my bedroom to just be a bedroom, I limited not only the kinds of items I allowed in the room, but the furniture as well.

I kept a bed, two nightstands (with table lamps), a dresser, a bookshelf, and a floor lamp. Other than that, nothing else came into the room. I carefully chose the books that went on the shelf, the pictures that went on the walls, and I even tried to be careful about keeping my laptop out of the room. If I brought my cell phone in, I would put it in the nightstand drawer so it wasn't a distraction or the first thing I reached for when I woke up in the morning. Everything in the space — from the items I kept to the place I put those items aided in helping me rest.

AIM FOR COMFORT

When you start talking about minimalism or simplifying, there's often a general assumption that you must get rid of all "unnecessary" things like throw pillows on a bed, but the bedroom is one area where I tend to disagree with that logic.

Yes, if the pillow or whatever is truly unnecessary, then by all means, get rid of it. Particularly if having it in the bedroom distracts from your goal of rest. But part of resting well for most people is comfort and sometimes comfort doesn't look especially minimal.

I'm one of those people who loves to burrow into their bed, which means I always have at least four pillows on the bed, but my preference is six — and that doesn't include throw pillows. I also keep an extra blanket on there at all times, even in the summer, because it helps with my level of comfort, which helps me rest more effectively when I'm in the space.

Instead of having your room be the place you avoid, make it into a lovely retreat, a place that you are so excited to retire to at the end of the day because it's calming, relaxing, restful, and wonderful. You can even ((gasp)) add some things to it like pillows or candles that help aid you in making it a relaxing space focused on the simple goal of helping you rest. Just don't go overboard and let it turn into a clutter magnet again!

That's really all there is to it. When I first started decluttering and simplifying my life, the bedroom was one of the easiest places for me to start because, again, its purpose is so clear. I personally think your bedroom should be one of your favorite places to go in your home, so take this weekend and make it just that!

We'll be back next week with an area of the home with a purpose that's a little less clear — your common spaces!