Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 6 December 2019

Whittling down 1,000 pieces of clothing: what I learnt from an overdue decluttering

When I realised that in 10 years, I'd spent more than double a deposit on an apartment on just 'stuff', I cried

There are only so many accessories one girl needs; the rest can be gifted or donated for a bit of good will. Sonali Kokra for The National 
There are only so many accessories one girl needs; the rest can be gifted or donated for a bit of good will. Sonali Kokra for The National 

What is a normal reaction to the prospect of an exciting new job overseas? I suspect most people would suggest something akin to excitement or jubilation. My reaction was panic. Stomach-churning, bone-melting panic. Not because I didn’t want the job or was too scared to take the leap of faith. The panic was entirely the result of stuff. Or the amount of it I owned, to be precise.

Allow me to explain. I’ve won what residents of most major cities would call a “real estate lottery”. I did nothing to deserve it, except being born to parents who made a couple of smart property investments, but what that means is, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had a place large enough to fit some of my friends’ more modest apartments in.

The point is not to complain about my diamond shoes hurting my feet. It is this: when you have that much space in which to simply exist, things have a way of getting away from you. I’d like to say that my road to decluttering started with a lightning bolt of divine wisdom, but that would be grossly untrue. The first thing I did after that job interview was reward myself with a bag I’d been looking for a reason to buy. Assuming 250-odd days of work, if I carried it every day for a year to my new job, it would amortise to a little over Dh20 a day. That’s less than the cost of my cold brew at Starbucks.

The second thing I did was dump the contents of my five cupboards on to the floor to get a head start on what I was going to take and what I’d leave behind. I didn’t even know whether I was going to get the job and I’d already started mentally shopping and packing for it in anticipation. If that sounds dysfunctional to you, you may be right, but I prefer the term eccentric to irrational.

And that’s when the first wave of panic hit. Every part of every surface of my 46-square-metre room was covered in layers of clothes, bags, boxes of accessories and all the flotsam and jetsam of a consumerist life. How on Earth was I going to pack all my possessions up and cart them off to a country where I’d likely only be able to afford a matchbox sized-­apartment? And who was I, minus all my beautiful belongings?

One way to stop yourself buying more is do the maths on how much you've already spent on similar-looking shoes, bags, clothes et al. Photo: Getty 
One way to stop yourself buying more is do the maths on how much you've already spent on similar-looking shoes, bags, clothes et al. Getty Images

So I did what every overindulged millennial in my situation does. I plonked myself in the middle of my junk and cried. It was the first time in my life I was taking stock of exactly how much I owned. It boiled down to this: I had close to 200 bags, 150 pairs of shoes and well over 1,000 pieces of clothing. It made my head spin.

When I did the maths on how much money that much stuff had cost me in the decade since I’d started earning, I was horrified to realise that even if I’d kept half of the money I’d spent – and that’s still far more than one person needs – I’d have saved enough to put a deposit on a not-too-shabby apartment. I cried some more.

A famous study carried out by researchers at Princeton University in 2011 said that having clutter within your line of sight can make it difficult to focus on anything. That was true for me. As long as I couldn’t see the physical evidence of my hoarding problem, I was fine. But now that it was all piled up in front of me, I was paralysed.

In six weeks, I painstakingly sorted through my goods and chattels, keeping only what was of actual use and discarding and donating the rest. It wasn’t easy. When you’ve been hoarding for as long as I was, parting with things – even when you know you’re never going to use them again – can leave you feeling unmoored. I knew I had no reason to hold on to a dress from when I was seven kilograms lighter, or the denims I wore when I was 10kg heavier, but the idea of losing them still gave me separation anxiety.

As supportive as my parents were trying to be, watching me fill sacks with expensive possessions I’d barely used felt to them like writing blank cheques to strangers. It led to several bitter fights. Marie Kondo-ing your life might result in tearful happy endings on TV, but in reality it unearths long-buried resentment that requires a lot of patient listening to resolve.

The good news is, it gets better. Segregating is the most upsetting part of the decluttering process. Everything that follows is simpler and curiously satisfying. I loved the looks of delight on the faces of my friends and cousins when I tried to match items with new owners by recalling who complimented what in the past. An unexpected fringe benefit was that it helped me rekindle several friendships that had fallen by the wayside.

As I made my way through the piles of things to give away, I started to feel lighter, almost as if I had put down a weight I’d been carrying, without even knowing it. Making so many rapid decisions made me trust my instincts more and therefore made me far more confident in my choices. It also improved my health and because my room hadn’t been given such a thorough cleaning in a long time I ended up finding treasures I’d thought were lost for ever, such as the silver and pearl comb my grandmother left to me.

Decluttering can help you unearth lost or forgotten treasures, such as this writer's silver and pearl comb. Photo: Sonali Kokra
Decluttering can help you unearth lost or forgotten treasures, such as this writer's silver and pearl comb. Sonali Kokra for The National

While I was doing all of this folding and sorting and tossing, my brain was deep in what neuroscience calls the “incubation period”. That is the time during which the mind wanders and rests. As a result, I was writing better and feeling more creative than I had in a while.

A conceptual commitment to minimalism is easy to make, but one of my biggest challenges was resisting the temptation to fill up all my newly cleared space with newer, shinier stuff. The fact my phone was loaded with apps that could instantly satisfy my need for a dopamine hit was almost my undoing. How many times have you gone on a shopping app to buy “just that one thing I needonly to end up maxing out credit cards or burning crater-sized holes in your savings? I know I have more times than I care to remember.

A more fiscally responsible friend urged me to delete them, with insistent reminders of how much of my savings I’d lost during the past decade, and held my hand to offer support as I removed each app in rapid succession. It’s only been six weeks, but my bank statements are already looking healthier and happier. I’m curious to see the amount I have saved at the six and 12-month marks.

Decluttering and scaling down to the essentials was a long, desperately dark tunnel, but I’m at last seeing the light at the end of it. Now if only I’d get the job, already.

Updated: November 25, 2019 10:23 AM

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