Minimize Your Possessions to Live a Focused Life (Step-by-Step Guide)

Last summer, I had to move apartments. Twice.

As I sat there, hour after hour, putting everything I own into boxes, one question kept arising: How did I end up with so much stuff?

Given that the average American moves 11.4 times in their lifetime, you’ve probably experienced a similar feeling at some point.

I don’t even own that many things. In early 2016, I sorted through everything I owned in an effort to minimize my possessions.

That first minimization was a great start on my path to minimalism. But the clutter in my life has made it clear that I still owned far too many things. It was time to take action.

The Case for Functional Minimalism

Life is filled with noise. Emails, news, push notifications, endless streams of information at your fingertips…

Noise makes it difficult to focus, and focus is one of the greatest gifts of all.

  • Focusing on your work helps you get more done in less time, which frees time for other things you like to do.
  • Focusing on other people enables you to be helpful to others and forge stronger interpersonal connections.
  • Focusing on your priorities helps you have fun and feel fulfilled on a regular basis.

Without focus, life gets cloudy. It’s harder to stay present, get quality work done, and cultivate a peaceful mind.

Functional minimalism is a mindful approach to purchasing, owning, and organizing physical goods.

It operates on one central tenant: You should only own things that you value. Keep what matters to you, and get rid of the rest.

It’s simple in theory. But in execution, it’s difficult! Owning fewer possessions flies in the face of our natural behavior patterns. We acquire things, get more stuff, and hold onto it for years and years.

It makes sense that we act this way. Consumerism is the backbone of our economy. Everywhere you go, you’re encouraged to buy more things.

But despite this reality, the truth is clear: Owning more things doesn’t lead to lasting happiness and fulfillment.

Pursuing Minimalism: How to Minimize Your Possessions and Live a Focused Life

If you’re ready to break the cycle of mindless ownership, and cultivate a simpler life focused on what truly matters to you, this article is for you.

I recently went through the process of minimizing my possessions once again. To see inside my process, watch this video.

Otherwise, keep reading for a complete step-by-step process to minimizing your possessions.

I’d be remiss without giving a shout out to Marie Kondo and her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. I leaned heavily on her teachings do deepen my understanding for this second go-around of minimizing.

If you want even more detailed instructions, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book.

If you just want a process to follow, I created a step-by-step checklist you can use when doing your own minimization.

Download the Step-by-step Minimization Guide

Live a more focused life by pursuing minimalism with this in-depth guide.

You'll also get weekly emails with mindful strategies to live well. Powered by ConvertKit

Rules for Minimizing

  1. Minimizing is about deciding what’s worth keeping. Not just what to get rid of.
  2. Minimize completely, all at once. Like removing a band-aid, it’s only temporarily difficult. But it’s the most effective way to minimize.
  3. Use a consistent evaluation process.
    Ask yourself: “Does this item spark joy in me?”.
    The goal is to keep the things that bring you energy and happiness, and discard everything else.
  4. Minimize one category at a time. It’s easy to get distracted while minimizing. This structure will keep you on track.
    1. Clothes
    2. Books
    3. Papers
    4. Miscellaneous stuff (electronics, toys, kitchen stuff, makeup…)
    5. Mementos/Sentimental stuff
  5. Trust your gut. There’s no universal “right” amount of things to own. Be brutally honest with yourself when asking if it sparks joy, and let that be enough.

Rules for Organization and Storage

  • Don’t scatter storage spaces. Keep items of the same type in the same place.
  • Use what you have to store things (e.g. boxes, shoebox lids, bags…). Don’t waste money on “home organization” products.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Avoid piles by storing items vertically. This applies for everything from books to clothing. Vertical storage makes it easy see everything at once, quickly access what you need, and put less pressure on your items.
  • Designate a place for each thing. Once an item “has it’s place” it become easier to tidy later on. You create a system that works and stick to it, instead of reinventing the wheel every time you put something away.

The Phases of Minimizing

Minimizing your possessions happens in 5 big phases:

  1. Preparation. If you aren’t minimizing immediately, take time to get prepared.
  2. Sorting. Deciding what goes and what stays.
  3. Storage. Putting everything in it’s place, and organizing it well.
  4. Elimination. Getting things out of the house.
  5. Maintenance. Maintaining clarity, focus, and tidiness moving forward.

Phase 1: Preparation

Getting ready for your minimization process.

Preparation Checklist

  • Schedule a day to do your minimization. Put it on your calendar! You’ll need at least half of a day to do this. Probably more. Block a whole day to be safe. I promise it’s worth it.
  • Start collecting items in advance.
    • Get a large bag. This is your “to get rid of” bag.
    • Put items in the bag when you notice something that doesn’t spark joy. 
(Perhaps you haven’t worn it in months)
    • Add more items to the bag in the days leading up to your minimization. 
(This is all an effort to “practice” the mental state of identifying things that don’t spark joy in your life, and eliminating them.)

Day-of Checklist

Have these things before starting.

  • Dedicated time: Give yourself at least half of a day.
  • Boxes and bags:You’ll be getting rid of lots of stuff. Make sure you have something to put it in.
  • Recycle and trash: You’ll be throwing some stuff away.
  • Clean clothing: Do your laundry ahead of time, so it’s all clean and ready to be sorted.
  • A smile: This is real work. It can be emotionally difficult and boring at times. Bring a good attitude to the process and you’ll benefit from that. 🙂

Phase 2: Clothes

Minimizing and organizing all the clothing you own.

Minimizing Your Clothes

  1. Place every item of clothing that you own on the floor. Yes, every item must be on the floor of your house before continuing onwards.
  2. Double-check if you have everything. Check storage spaces, suitcases, closets, the car, etc.
  3. Go through each item one-by-one. “Does it spark joy?”
    If yes: Keep it.
    If no: Put it in your discard box

What to do when it’s hard to let go of something

  1. Revisit the initial purchase/acquisition. Why did you buy it? What was it’s purpose?
  2. Thank the item for the role it played in your life.
  3. Let that item go, and continue moving forward!

Storing and Organizing Your Clothes

  • Hang items that feel like they should be hung.
    Note: Hanging items takes up more space than folding. Don’t try to hang everything.
  • Organize hanging clothes so they rise to the right. Heavier, longer, darker items go on the left. The opposite go on the right. It creates an upward sloping line, which signals positivity and is pleasing to the eye!
  • Fold everything else and store vertically. This reduces wrinkles and makes it easier to access.

(See more animations like this on Goop’s blog post.)

Phase 3: Books

Minimizing and organizing all those pages you read.

Minimizing Your Books

  1. Put all of your books on the floor. 
(If you have too many to do at once, go by category.)
    1. Novels / fiction / stories
    2. Practical nonfiction
    3. Visual
    4. Magazines
  2. Pick up each book one by one, but don’t read it! Does it give you a thrill of excitement when you touch it?
    If yes: Keep it.
    If no: Put it in your discard box

When you’re struggling to decide…

  • Books you haven’t read: Accept that “I might read it sometime” means “This isn’t a priority for me to read and I’m never going to read it.” Get rid of it.
  • Books you’ve already read: If you’ve read it, only keep it if it belongs in your Book Hall of Fame. Most people don’t re-read books very often.

Storing and Organizing Your Books

  • Reduce the visual noise of your books by turning some books backwards on the shelf. Keep books that you want to be reminded of facing forward.
  • Store vertically, never in piles. It’s easier to access things, and puts less pressure on your items. This also applies for clothing, papers, and anything else.
  • (Optional) Consider putting your bookshelf in the closet. If you’ve freed up enough space by minimizing your clothing, you can create more space in your room.

Phase 4: Papers

Minimizing and organizing the papers and forms you have stashed away.

Papers are the easiest to keep and say “I might need that one day”, but most of them are useless. Note: Save sentimental papers for that category to avoid getting sidetracked.

Minimizing Your Papers

  • Gather all of your papers in one place.
  • Go through each folder/file/pile one-by-one.
    Dispose of anything not in these categories:

    • Currently in use
    • Needed for a limited period of time
    • To be kept indefinitely

When in doubt…

  • Just discard it. 🙂
  • Take notes on your laptop for work/learning-related notes. Then you can get rid of the paper copies.
  • For resources/guides, ask: Could I easily find this again on Google if I need it? If so, get rid of the paper.

Storing and Organizing Papers

  • Keep all papers in one spot only.
  • Use vertical files and accordion folders. (Don’t stack papers in piles!)

Phase 5: Miscellany

Minimizing and organizing all your electronics, makeup, knick-knacks, and doodads.

Since so many things fall into this category, follow this order to stay on track.

  1. CDs/DVDs
  2. Skin care and makeup products
  3. Accessories
  4. Electronics/appliances (cameras, cords, etc.)
  5. Household equipment (office supplies, sewing kits, etc.)
  6. Household supplies (medicine, detergents, tissues, etc.)
  7. Kitchen goods
  8. Sport/hobby equipment
  9. Anything else

Minimizing Miscellany

  1. Put everything in one place.
  2. Go through one by one: Does it spark joy?
  3. Stay patient. There are a lot of categories here. Depending on what you own, this may take a while. You can do it! Stay focused. 🙂

Storing and Organizing Miscellany

  • Give every item a permanent home.
  • Store like items together.
  • Keep it simple! Don’t overthink it.

Phase 6: Mementos

Minimizing and organizing personally significant items, papers, journals, etc.

Minimizing Mementos

  • Gather these items together. Lay them all out.
  • Go through one-by-one: Does it spark joy?
  • Be honest with yourself. This is a difficult category. It can feel like you’re losing a part of yourself. But minimizing is about eliminating noise so you can live in the present. If a memento is preventing you from living fully in the here and now, get rid of it. It’s served it’s role in making you who you are today. But that time has passed. Onward!

Storing and Organizing Mementos

  • Give every item a permanent home.
  • Store like items together.

Phase 7: Elimination

An important and oft-forgotten step in the minimization process.

Guidelines on timing

Get rid of as much as you can on the day of minimizing.

Once you’ve decided to get rid of something, it’s dangerous to keep it around.

Set a hard deadline by which you need to deal with everything else you’ve decided to keep. There’s no reason it should occupy space in your house for more than 10 days.

Eliminating Clothing

Sort your “giveaway” clothing into three categories

  • Consignment: In good shape, in-season, and on-trend. Sell these.
  • Donation: Perfectly wearable clothing. Off-season, off-trend. Donate them at your nearby Goodwill, charity operated thrift store, or Salvation Army.
  • Toss: Not in good shape. Throw them away, or use as rags to clean/dust.

Eliminating Books

  • Sell to your local bookstore. Call ahead to schedule a time. Think like the bookstore: Are your books in good condition? Will others want to buy them?
  • Sell online. eBay and Amazon work well.
  • Donate them. Search “donate books near me” to find a location

Eliminating Papers

  • Shred anything with potentially sensitive information
    If you don’t own a shredder, put in the sink with water and soap. Let it soak for a while, and tear it up afterward, or go to town with a scissor.
  • Recycle the rest.

Eliminating Miscellany

There are lots of options for this. Here are a few ways I’ve gotten rid of things in the past.

Electronics

  • Glyde is a great marketplace for used electronics. You pick the price to sell it at, they match a buyer, and even send you a box to ship it in. Pretty convenient setup!
  • eBay to sell in an auction format.
  • Craigslist to sell locally.

Big items (bikes, outdoor equipment, kitchen appliances…)

  • Put it on the curb or in the alley with a “free” sign
  • Buy/Sell Facebook groups. They have them in most cities. Search for one near you.

Phase 8: Moving Forward

Buying new things

  • Consider all purchases carefully. Use the same lens you used to decide what you kept in this process: Does it spark joy?
  • Create rules for yourself. For example, after I minimized the first time, I knew I still had too much stuff. So every time I acquired an article of clothing, I made myself get rid of 2 items to make room for it.

Keeping Tidy

One of the best parts about minimizing your possessions is that everything has a specific place in the house, and logic for why it goes there.

This makes it 100x easier to stay tidy on a regular basis.

Clothes have an organization structure. When you take something off, it doesn’t just go wherever you decide to put it. It goes in it’s place.

The same can be said for everything else that you own. It’s a very satisfying feeling, and removes little decisions from daily life like “Where should I put this?” or “Where did I leave that…?”

Focus on What Matters to you

Now that you’ve completed your minimization, you’ll be hooked!

And your possessions are just the beginning…

Where else can you apply the same level of focused rigor in your life?

Where can you eliminate what no longer serves you, to make space for what does?

Hint: The activities you spend your time on is a good place to start.

Wishing you focus, clarity, and joy in your newly tidied home! 🙂

Download the Step-by-step Minimization Guide

Live a more focused life by pursuing minimalism with this in-depth guide.

You'll also get weekly emails with mindful strategies to live well. Powered by ConvertKit