Making Space to Live: Clutter and Living Rooms

What do you see when you imagine a living room? Most likely, you think of an organised and stress free room for being with family and entertaining guests. A place to put your feet up, make memories with the ones you love, and not have to be tidying every five minutes. Yet living rooms are usually the one room people overwhelmed by clutter most want to do something about. Magazines, letters, kids homework, books, kids toys, DVD’s, games consoles, spare cables, shoes, trinkets and photos, are all stuff which tend to take over most living rooms. And with so many things, there’s usually many pieces of furniture to accommodate it all, leaving little space for living.  Quite often magazines, books, letters and small miscellaneous items such a toys or pens end up strewn all over the coffee and dining table, so it becomes a like a game of chess, negotiating your next move so that you can place your cup down or make space to eat.

However, before you read any further in this post, I want you to think once again about why you are minimising. I’ve listened to so many people rejoice in having tidied their living spaces, only to throw their arms up in despair when they’re back to the same old mess in the space of a week. “I give up!”, they say. “It’s a waste of time and energy!”. This is because people tend to tidy and organise, but don’t confront the main issue: too much stuff. Precious spare time gets spent on cleaning under and around objects, maintaining them, and tidying up again and again and again. Meanwhile, invitations and other more fulfilling endeavours get turned down because things inside the home end up taking priority.

Think about what it is you want from your living space? What does it mean to you? What value will the increase in space provide to you?  Why have you been holding on to the objects that keep taking over your space? Without answering these questions, you’re likely to end up throwing your arms up in despair once again as your space gets taken back over.

Back when I was renting a house,  I used to have several consoles hooked up and video games displayed in the TV unit -there was nowhere else for them to go.  I had a bookcase which was so full of books, the books started acting as a shelf for more books, and so many DVDs and Blu-rays that I ran out of space. Yet I rarely watched or played any of them. My window ledges were lined with too many photos and candles. Cleaning took forever because I had to move and manoeuver under and around all the stuff I owned. The one place that was always clear, though, was the dining table, because as an adult I’ve always strongly believed that families should be able to come together to eat. Growing up, the only time my own family tended to use the dining table to eat together was at Christmas;the rest of the time everyone would just gather around the TV and sit on the sofa to eat.  As you know, before I was forced to confront my hoarding, everything was rammed into drawers and cupboards – anywhere that was out of sight. I started to clear up my act but hadn’t yet discovered minimalism, and as a result, I still had far too much stuff. That much became apparent when my family moved from renting to owning our own home.

When we bought our home we entered into the unique situation of cohabiting with my parents. So that everyone continued to have their own space, we had a 2 storey extension built which would be our living room and bedroom. Those rooms now occupy where the side of the house where the garden sheds used to be, so as you can imagine, they are long and very narrow. At the time, all our excess belongings were being stored in the attic until we had furnished the rooms. Where on Earth would I put all of this stuff?

When I was searching for new furniture for our living room, I saw so many photos and showrooms of beautiful living spaces, and I always thought ‘Why can’t mine be like that?’. I’d gaze at the photos or walk around the showrooms and imagine myself totally relaxed on the sofa with a book in my hand, and with a clear mind, then I’d look at all my unpacked books, DVD’s and trinkets and come back to reality, thinking,  ‘It’s for show, of course it isn’t realistic, my living room’s too narrow, and it’ll never fit all my stuff’. I was wrong.

My problem was, I was more focused on the decor and on the furniture pieces themselves, than on the real reason these rooms were so appealing; the airy amount of space that was being showcased. Dressers with nothing on them except for a small lamp, coffee tables with a single decorative piece or nothing on at all, a bookcase with just a few books which were shown off by carefully selected ornaments. The rooms were completely clutter free.

It took me so long to figure out that simple concept because I was still so attached to my things that I couldn’t imagine being without any of it. While I’d successfully cleared out the relics of my childhood, I couldn’t imagine my shelves and surfaces being completely clear of all the mugs, soft toys, books, DVD’s, gothic figures, candles, and Disney snow globes that lined them. And it was horrific for me to even think about parting with any of my books. All I could think was  ‘I need a bigger room so that I can get more furniture to space my things out more’. I was stuck in a consumerist trap, looking to buy the illusion of more space instead of create it.

It was while I was researching the best way to organise my stuff yet again, that I discovered the term ‘minimalism’. Fascinated and delving further into it, I came across a whole plethora of books, websites and groups dedicated to this way of living. Excited and intrigued to discover that there was a much simpler and fulfilling life to be lived, it wasn’t long before I found myself filling up bag after bag with stuff for the charity shop. I didn’t need all those candles and every single photo on display. Nor did I need the sheer amount of books I was keeping, most of them yellowed with age. That familiar feeling of weight lifting from my shoulders, of being able to breathe like I’d never breathed before was immensely exhilarating. And I found that the more I donated, the more stuff I realised I didn’t need.

At first, that set of statuettes on your window ledge may not seem like clutter. But when held in the hand and evaluated, you realise that not only do they not match your current theme, you bought them on a whim in an ‘end of year’ sale. Those books which are using the books below them as a shelf: how many of them have you read? Did you enjoy them and will you really read all of them again? You can enjoy a great sense of accomplishment by donating books you won’t read, or books that are pre-loved so that somebody else can enjoy them. I found that by donating so many of my books, I was actually reading more than I’d ever done with three shelves full. Now I only keep the books I will read again that added something special to my life. The rest I either buy on Kindle or do the ‘one in one out’ method where if buy a book I get rid of an older one or I donate it when I’m finished. It’s the same story for DVD’s. In an age where most movies are available digitally, do you really need five shelves crammed with them? When was the last time you put a disc into your machine? And do you intend to watch them again? If you do, and your joy comes from being a movie buff and showing off your collection, that’s totally fine. But if you said ‘someday’, realise that word is one of the top reasons people end up overwhelmed with their possessions. Magazines are another thing which can turn into unruly piles. You can get rid of old issues, but if there’s a series you can’t bear to part with you can buy magazine cord binders which will keep your collection pristine and like a giant book. I did just that with my Writers Forum collection, now it sits proudly on my bookshelf where I flip through for occasional bouts of inspiration.

Part of my living room. Since this photo was taken, I removed one of the photo frames on my room divider so that I was only displaying the photos most important to me and moved the nut bowl (which was being kept away from my dog).

Remember: minimalism isn’t about getting rid of the things you love, but about only keeping the things which add value to your life in the present day.

By going through every object in your living room, it’s possible you might end up not needing as much storage or as much furniture as you first thought.Through evaluating and donating so many of my possessions I was able to get rid of two large pieces of furniture which were being used for storage and display. Now, despite the living room being so narrow, there is plenty of airy space to relax, to be with family, to pursue hobbies, for my son to play, and to entertain guests. And there’s nothing I like more than to put my feet up at night, light a candle and read a good book. None of that would be possible if I still had all of my possessions from before. What’s more – cleaning and tidying is effortless and takes a third of the time it used to.

You may be wondering where the ‘how to’ guide is in this post. The truth is that living rooms are such personal spaces that it’s hard to write a specific ‘How and what to declutter’ guide. Walking into our living room, one can instantly tell that I love books, specifically books about writing. One can also instantly tell that we love our family and our space. It is my hope that you will come away from this post better equipped to think about what is truly important to you, and therefore, discover what isn’t. Only then can you make true and lasting progress.

In my next post, I will talk about the bedroom, and how to make it into a haven of peaceful sleep and relaxation.

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