Frugality/ Wellness

How To Declutter Your Life (With a Frugal Minimalist Mindset)

December 7, 2020 (Last Updated: December 8, 2020)

The benefits of decluttering aren’t just reserved for our physical environment, but can greatly improve other areas of your life as well. By harnessing a value-focused, frugal and minimalist mindset you can declutter your life, gain clarity for your mind, and reduce the mental load from overuse of your digital devices.

Text on a background image showing two large green leaves in a vase of water.

As our journey of frugality continues, minimalism has become a natural extension of our lifestyle. By trial and error, and choosing to become aware of what brings value to our lives and minimising the rest, we’ve slowly been able to streamline our daily lives. This has not only helped us to feel calmer, clearer-headed and happier, while incidentally helping us leave less of an eco-footprint on our planet – but more about that in another post no doubt.

Vicki Robin sums this all up perfectly with her definition of frugality:

“Frugality is enjoying the  virtue of getting good value for every minute of your life energy and from everything you have the use of.”

Vicki Robin, Your Money or Your Life

When you clear out the clutter and cut out unnecessary consumption, it creates space for new, healthy and intentional habits to form.

From taking time for self care, to slowing down and making mindful use of your time, and opening up space for the magic of optionality, there are a whole heap of lifestyle benefits to gain through the practice of a frugal, minimalist mindset.

A quick note before we get into it: While we highly value minimalism as a mindset / principle, we are far from strict about it. To us, minimalism is about finding the balance in retaining the items, habits or processes we value, which serve a purpose or bring joy. Anything that doesn’t, gets the chop. Here’s how we do it.

Physical Minimalism (Decluttering Your Environment)

We’re big believers in the idea that a clean, clear environment leads to a clearer mind. That goes for bigger spaces from your home and car, to little areas like your desk, wardrobe, fridge or pantry.

How often do you walk into a room and think ‘I must get around to that one day’, or peek into the fridge and wonder ‘how long has that been there?’.

By clearing out these spaces, not only is your environment cleaner, but your mind will no longer be filled with those small but constant, energy-sapping thoughts. This creates space for your mind to remain in the flow of your intentional activity rather than in a state of continual distraction.

I was a pretty messy kid growing up (sorry Mum). I’d think nothing of an unmade bed or clothes on the floor. Thankfully I grew out of that habit and have become a much neater adult. Two little intentional habits definitely helped bring about this change:

  • Take 1 Thing With You – When leaving a room, bring one thing with you that doesn’t belong in that zone. For example, if I’m heading to the kitchen, I’ll bring my teacup back with me. Heading to the bedroom, I’ll grab the shoes I kicked off next to the couch earlier.
  • How Does It Make You Feel? – Learning to become aware of emotions and thoughts that pop up when you look at each item can help you decide if you want to keep it or remove it, and thereby free yourself from any emotional weight it carries. Marie Kondo’s book (and Netflix series) ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’ was a huge influence in developing this awareness, and has helped reduce feelings of guilt or anxiety from holding onto items or gifts I’d been given but didn’t actually want.

How to Declutter

Since Sarah and I first got together, we’ve gradually created a decluttering style that works for us. It was no doubt helped by a year of travelling and living out of a backpack, then returning and realising our values towards unnecessary ‘stuff’ had totally changed.

Instead of sorting items by category like the KonMari method, we like to work on a per-room or per-zone basis. For example, one day we’ll tackle the kitchen – or just the kitchen cupboards, or just the fridge. Another day it might be the laundry cupboard, or the hallway storage cupboard. Another time it will be our wardrobes, the office, or the shed.

First we’ll take everything out and give the target zone a thorough clean while it’s nice and empty – much easier without stuff in the way! Before anything goes back, we review to decide if it will stay, and if not, what should happen to it next. Should it be thrown out / recycled or donated, or could it be used in a different part of the house for a different purpose?

As an example, I once bought a bag that I loved the look of, but didn’t love using because it was so rigid. One day I realised it would be perfect to store our current library books, journals and notebooks that live next to our couch. Because it’s so stiff, it holds its shape perfectly for this purpose and now I love the look of it next to our lounge. 

An iPhone and iPad on a table next to a pot plant and rope bag.

How to Let Go

It’s not always a simple thing to let go of items. Many times there will be layers of emotion or guilt associated with an item, especially if it was received as a gift. Here are a couple of strategies to help you work through the process:

  • Be Grateful – One idea from Marie Kondo we love, is to simply say thank you. Express your appreciation for the item out loud, in your mind, or even give it a hug. It sounds silly, but it can be a huge help. I like to go one step further and visualise it going to a new home where it is used and valued, rather than gathering dust in my cupboard.
  • Start Small – Just like any skill, decluttering gets easier with practice, so we recommend starting with a small zone. It could be your desk or bedside table drawer. Notice the effect of reducing or organising the items there. Do you feel lighter, calmer or happier? 
  • Don’t Get Rid of Stuff Immediately – That might sound counter-intuitive, but if the idea of letting go of an item makes you feel stressed or anxious, don’t immediately get rid of it. Instead, consider it ‘on probation’. Pop it into a bag or box and place it out of sight. Review in a week or a month and see how you feel. Also, if you didn’t need it during that time, or you can’t even remember what’s in the bag/box, it’s a good chance these items no longer serve and you’re ready to let them go.

What to Do with Items You Don’t Want

We’re strong advocates of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ and always encourage you to think outside the box before sending an item to landfill. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure – a cliche, but the best advice always is! These days it’s easier than ever to help your item find a new home. Ask yourself:

  • Can I donate it?
  • Can I gift it on a local Buy-Nothing group? Or regift it to someone who would appreciate it more? 
  • Can I sell it on Gumtree (Craigslist) or eBay? (and invest the earnings!)
  • Can I reuse it / create something new out of it / up-cycle it? 
  • Can I recycle it?
  • If it’s food, bamboo or some other organic, can I turn it into worm food / compost, or pop it in the organics bin?

We’re continually learning about new ways to reduce, reuse and recycle, so the amount of things we send to landfill has reduced to a fraction of what it was. Our kitchen bin is now a small yoghurt tub that we empty into the big landfill bin so rarely now, I’ve actually forgotten when we last put it out for collection.

The Benefits of Decluttering

Having a clean, clutter free environment will help you feel calmer and less anxious when you’re in that zone. It also feels amazing knowing that each item you keep is curated, useful, makes you happy or brings good memories to mind. 

You have permission to remove anything that bring feelings of sadness, guilt or painful memories. You don’t have to hold onto these things out of a sense of duty or expectation from someone else.

We’re really open with each other about how we feel, so even if its a gift one of us has given the other, if it’s not being used or we don’t like it anymore, we allow the other to get rid of the item without adding stress or guilt. 

P.S. A decluttered wardrobe makes it so much easier to get dressed in the morning. Not only that, but keeping only the clothing you actually wear, that makes you feel confident and happy, means you never have to worry about what you’re going to put on in the morning. While our clothing isn’t at super minimal, capsule-wardrobe levels, we do regularly sort and remove items we don’t love or wear for whatever reason.

Having a regular practice of cleaning, sorting and getting rid of items that no longer suit feels so liberating!

Mental Minimalism (Decluttering Your Mind)

A clear mind is a hard thing to maintain in today’s culture of constant connectivity. Every day we are assailed with ads, emails, messages, and ‘news’ headlines that make life feel like an emotional and mental whirlpool.

Our first step towards intentionally disconnecting from our devices was to give our TV to Sarah’s brother and his girlfriend. We’d been using it less and less, and felt like we were receiving less value for time spent using it. This gave us some much-needed mental space and clarity during a busy time (planning our wedding!), and helped us learn how to tune out to tune in and recharge.

This (along with a bunch of books on self development) has made us more aware of our inner mind chatter. You’re probably familiar with it even if you’re not always aware of it. It’s that mental voice (or voices) that blabber an unstoppable stream of thoughts, judgements and narrations.

It loves to rehash old memories sparked by the environment around us, comparing this moment to other experiences and judging it as lacking. Other times it’s yearning or worrying about some future ideal moment. Either way, it can feel unceasing, exhausting, and very hard to switch off.

This growing awareness and understanding of my own mind chatter coincided with an increase in personal practices of yoga and meditation, which help interrupt negative thought patterns to get me out of my head and back into the present.

Yoga & Meditation

Yoga is one of the ultimate forms of self-care for your physical and mental wellbeing. And it goes hand in hand with a regular meditation practice, both helping to bring about a calmer, clearer, decluttered mind.

There are lots of resources out there if you’re interested in starting a yoga and/or meditation practice. I’ve shared a few tips in our rituals for self care post previously, so check it out if you’re keen.

It’s a great idea to experiment with different times – even if it’s just 5 minutes before bed – and find what works best for you. I practice both yoga and meditation in the morning to set the tone for the day ahead. But it’s also an amazing way to wind down after a busy day. If you’re feeling foggy or like your head is full of cotton wool, just hit the mat, do some stretches and breathe it out.

I feel naturally calmer and more clear-headed after the physical movements of yoga. Concentrating on the alignment of each pose brings about a more focused state too, so it’s a great way to start the day. Yoga releases stress-reducing endorphins and just feels GOOD, so it’s usually pretty easy for me to hop on the mat and just do a few simple stretches.

Meditation on the other hand, can be harder to sink into, especially as a beginner. The easiest way to start is to sit quietly in a comfortable position, close your eyes and focus on your breath. That’s your main goal – focus on the in breath and the out breath, and the sensations they cause in the body.

However, this is where your mind will try to hijack your attempts to calm it. You’ll no doubt be swept away by a constant stream of thoughts, but that’s perfectly okay. The other main goal of meditation is to become aware of those thoughts. Bring your awareness back to the breath each time it wanders. Notice when your mind has taken you completely out of the moment, and come back.

The more you practice bringing your thoughts back to the moment through meditation, the more it will happen naturally in everyday life, too. You’ll start to notice the tricks your mind plays, and become freer from them.

For example, you’ll start to notice when you’re planning a response instead of listening to someone with complete attention. You’ll be able to consciously let that old habit go, and replace it with focussed attention. You may even notice your relationships with others will deepen as a result.

Get Outside (and Be Present)

If you find yourself with a very cluttered mind, my biggest tip would be to get outside, away from your usual environment, and breathe. This is a quick and easy practice to help get the blood flowing and clear your mind.

All you need to do is take three deep mindful breaths in and out, paying attention to the sensations this causes throughout your body. Then start to pay attention to your surroundings. What’s the sky like today? Are there any clouds? Can you hear or see any birds? What about trees or grass? Give yourself 5 minutes to just BE and take it all in. Practice noticing thoughts as they arise and letting them go. It’s a wonderful way to stop and appreciate the present moment.

Practice as much as you can, until you have more moments throughout your day where you can be here now rather than letting your mind wander back into that cluttered state.

A golden sunset with a blue sky and dark reeds in the foreground.

Digital Minimalism (Decluttering Your Devices)

“Digital Minimalism: A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimised activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

Cal Newport’s book on Digital Minimalism really opened our eyes to the insidious ways our devices can influence our behaviour in every day life. One thing he made us aware of was how digital clutter can sometimes feel just as overwhelming as physical clutter. Perhaps even more so, since the potential capacity for digital storage just keeps growing…

By digital clutter we’re referring to all the files, email, photos, videos and music etc that live on our computers, phones, dropbox accounts and even watch lists on Netflix or YouTube. You know, those files you keep because you ‘may need them one day’ or have just never gotten around to sorting successfully.

If you’ve never had any sort of organisational strategy when it comes to your digital files, this can seem overwhelming at first. Usually it’s just a matter of starting. Once you have a filing structure and a solid habit of digital minimalism in place, it’s much easier to maintain as you go.

We believe that just like life in general, it’s worth investing time in keeping your digital life under control. It not only makes it much easier to find exactly what you’re looking for when you need it later, but leaves you feeling calmer and more organised as well.

No matter if it’s a photo of your dog that makes you laugh, or an important tax document you need to send off, there’s a place for every (digital) thing, and everything in its place.

Desktop & Computer Files

Do you find yourself saving downloads to your desktop (or downloads folder) for short-term convenience, then realising later on that there are about 100 pdf’s and images covering your screen?

Our recommendation is to have a One Touch approach to files. Download the file, do whatever action is required (use it, send it, review it, whatever you need to do), then clear it away. That might mean deleting or moving it to a proper folder for permanent storage.

For bonus points, immediately empty your Recycling Bin folder once you’ve finished your sorting session.

Keeping on top of this as you go means you’ll never get to that point of visual overload, where you’re no longer sure what your desktop background image is.

These days the only icon on my laptop is the one that automatically appears when my external hard drive is plugged in. My downloads folder is cleared and all files are sorted and stored on the external, and/or uploaded to our dropbox folder as an extra backup incase the physical drive fails.

Emails

Inbox-zero is a concept Sarah brought into my life – before that, it wasn’t unusual for me to have around 50+ emails in my inbox. They were probably things I needed to do that day, informational updates, newsletters or marketing emails I knew I needed to unsubscribe from but always found easier to just delete.

These days we combine our email minimalism approach with our to-do list so that nothing is forgotten or overlooked. Most days we’ll have inbox-zero across our multiple business and personal email accounts, with tasks added to our Todoist App.

Tips to Keep Emails Under Control

  • Check Emails Only Twice a Day – okay we break this rule a lot, but it really is the key to staying on task according to our own intentions, and minimising the distraction and interruption of requests from others.
  • Use the One Touch Approach – when an email comes in, do one of three things:
    1. Delete it
    2. Action it straight away (if it will take less than a minute to do so).
    3. Create a to-do list item to action the task later if it will take longer than a minute. Download any necessary files and archive the email to get it out of your inbox straight away.

Clear inbox = clear mind and no stress or worrying about whether something has been forgotten. That means more mental capacity for you to focus your valuable time on things that matter the most.

How to Archive Emails

Any emails you want to keep definitely don’t belong in your inbox. We recommend moving them to an appropriate folder based on categories that make sense to you. This will make it much easier to find them again later without them interfering with new emails.

Some common folder categories we use are:

  • Business (anything that relates to the growth of our business)
  • Clients (anything that relates to client work)
  • Receipts
  • Personal
  • Tax

These are just a few folder categories we use across our different email accounts. What labels would suit you best?

Four white flowers on a stem, with a pink centre.

Images

Digital images may not create physical clutter but looking at all those files labeled with random letters and numbers can feel pretty overwhelming.

When I first started decluttering images I’d collected (over at least 10+ years of owning a smartphone and digital camera), there was A LOT to go through. It took quite a few sessions to work through the chaos and bring about order and structure.

Similar to emails, I created folders and subfolders for categories of images like Family, Holidays, Us (pics just of me and Sarah), Pets, Hikes etc etc.

Minimalism pays off when it comes to decluttering your images – rather than keeping 10 shots of the same scene from different angles, I now trim it down to 1-2 of the best images that I love.

You have permission to delete the images you don’t like or that don’t make you feel good. Just like physical clutter, digital images can carry a lot of emotional baggage. Instead, whittle them down until you can look through your images and smile.

Apps

Apps can be a huge time sink. Having them all on your main phone screen not only feels cluttered but also leaves you open to temptation. Do you ever find yourself opening your phone to look something up, only to spend the next 10 minutes scrolling Facebook or Instagram without realising it?

Since reading Digital Minimalism we’ve become aware of how habit can so easily take over without us even realising.

To address this, I reduced my phone’s homepage and second app page to only the most essential tool-based apps. These include Weather, Camera, Calculator, Libby (Library app) and Settings.

Everything else (undeleteable iPhone apps, Government/ID or Banking apps, Music apps etc) lives in the iPhone App Library.

regularly review and delete any apps that have been auto-downloaded after a system update, apps I’m no longer using or apps I intentionally don’t WANT to be using anymore if they don’t align with my values.

Removing these apps isn’t just about keeping it visually clean and minimal. It’s also about minimising the temptation to keep using my phone. The less fun, bright and sparkly apps are on there, the less risk of temptation to pick up my phone.

I also try to avoid having the same apps installed on my phone or iPad, so that I don’t close the app on one device only to open it back up on the other. The only exception to this is the Libby app, so I can read books on my iPad at home, or on my phone when out and about on public transport.

Social Media

Last but not least, social media! I won’t go into too much detail because this topic is covered so well in Digital Minimalism. Add it to your reading list for some excellent tips on how (and why) to reduce social media use or digital addiction!

Back in March the gals at Modern FImily set us a digital detox challenge involving quitting social media for one month. You can read more about the detox experience here, but one thing it taught us was to become aware of those automatic impulses to pick up our phones and scroll through Facebook.

During the challenge, we completely removed all social media apps and saved passwords from our phones and iPad. I won’t lie, they do make their way back on occasionally for one reason or another. Although I intentionally make it less convenient to log in to avoid the mindless scrolling effect.

By unliking or unfollowing people, groups or pages that I no longer truly need to be following, I’ve reduced my interactions with social media to a valuable minimum. Instead, I use it to interact with family, close friends, or groups just for food blogging or yoga. A decluttered home feed makes for a very short scroll before I’m up to date once more.

Conclusion

Woohoo! If you’re still with me, well done for reading this far – I know this was a huge post, but I hope you found it useful.

If it all seems overwhelming, please know that developing healthy habits and a frugal lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight. It’s taken us years of reading, learning, tweaking and evaluating. There’s also been failing – but most importantly, keeping at it – to get us where we are today. And there’s always something new to learn.

The key is to take some distraction-free time to consider your own values when it comes to your environment, your health and your attention. Decide what items, practices and habits (physical and virtual) bring value and meaning to your life. Embrace those intentionally, and give yourself permission to minimise the rest.

Now, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?

P.S. I’d love to hear what you thought about these ideas. What do you value the most and what do you want to start decluttering from your life? Do you have a method already or are you just thinking about getting started? If you have some cool decluttering ideas to share, please leave a comment below or get in touch.

Laura x

2 Comments

  • Reply
    Court @ Modern FImily
    December 8, 2020 at 2:05 am

    Great post Laura! So much great info in here. I feel honoured to be even mentioned in the same post as Cal Newport and Marie Kondo haha. They really are amazing resources in the world of decluttering. Love the ideas you brought up about decluttering your email – that’s something I definitely need to work on! We’re looking forward to doing another group social media detox in the new year 🙂

    • Reply
      Sarah & Laura
      December 8, 2020 at 3:28 pm

      All credit to you and Nic – so much of this stems from that single afternoon during the detox when you encouraged us to just stop and BE for 30 minutes. It has truly changed how we approach our days and opened up deeper conversations about our values and life goals. 🙌🏻💞

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