How decluttering helps ease mind and heart

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While some people consider decluttering as a stress-relieving activity, others feel that it’s an ordeal they don’t want to experience. —PHOTOS BY CHARLES E. BUBAN

Who wouldn’t want a house that’s free of clutter? Why not dispose of the things that have been gathering dust and eating up space for years and years? Easier said than done, of course, because what might be clutter for others is a trove of special memories for you.

Many of us have heard of Marie Kondo and her “simple but effective tidying method, ensuring you will never again relapse to clutter.” Through her “KonMari” method, “You are not choosing what to discard but rather choosing to keep only the items that speak to your heart … .”

I had often given serious thought to decluttering, and each time hoped I would be successful. Like many others—long before the KonMari method became popular—I’d tried my best to declutter, but failed. Minus the dust and cobwebs, all the boxes, recyclable shopping bags and plastic containers were still filled with things I couldn’t discard.

12 155-liter plastic containers

In 2021, when my husband and I left the house in which we had settled, to return to the then-vacant one owned by my mother and her siblings, we came to a sobering realization:  Aside from a couple of bags and small boxes we brought with us, we also had 12 155-liter plastic containers filled with items that we accumulated in a span of four years, and many others besides.

Some of the bags, boxes and plastic containers were stashed in the exact areas in the house where my husband and I had left them. Maybe we were then too dumbfounded by the idea of collecting so many things and lugging them to a house that was many times less the size of the house owned by my mother and her siblings. Or we simply felt that having to decide which ones to keep and to discard was an ordeal we both didn’t want to undergo. 

Early this year, we were told that my mom, aunt and uncles, all based in the United States, were flying to Manila to attend to family matters. I thought it was the best time to give decluttering another shot and, as Kondo says, to “keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy.” 

But certainly, decluttering can be done without waiting for years to get started. Liezl Quintos-Millan did it in seven days, with satisfying results. “I treat my house the way I treat myself,” she says. “As the saying goes, ‘A house reflects the personality of the people living in it.’”  

Quintos-Millan runs a restaurant with her husband Jun in New Jersey in the United States, and makes it a point to maintain an organized schedule and a space for herself where she can chill. “I want time to take off from work and relax at home,” she says. “I need time, I need space to be off from crowded places and enjoy the peace and quiet which would not be possible if the home is cluttered and messy.” 

She emphasizes that a home needs space for one to be able to breathe and an uncluttered environment to retreat to after long hours of work.

Letters

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Inside these bags and boxes are memories that we can keep or let go.

I realized that it was a mistake to let the years pass without even trying to declutter. But what to do with memories? 

When I opened one of the plastic containers that housed my stuff, the first thing I saw was a handwritten letter sent via snail mail in 2002 by a reader of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, where I worked for a long time. The reader was in her 80s and she was thanking me for helping in the publication of her letter on her ailing husband’s concerns with a government institution. She said she would love to see me when she got the chance to visit Manila. She never got that chance, but it made me happy to know that I was able to be of help to someone. Of course, I kept the letter. 

I also kept a 2014 page printout on which a letter-writer who lost family members in the sinking of the MV Doña Paz on Dec. 20, 1987, was featured. I clearly remember that before 2014, she always sent a letter via email a few days before the commemoration of the sea tragedy. She wrote of missing her loved ones badly and also of God helping ease her and her family’s pain and instilling joy and peace in their hearts at Christmas. 

Those are two of a few letters that were spared from my decluttering, and I’m happy that I decided to keep them. It made me breathe easier, not just because discarding the other things in the plastic container yielded needed space in the house but also because rereading the letters warmed my heart. 

Less stress

It’s good to note, too, the relationship between decluttering and stress. Says Dr. Au Acevedo-Bendebel, a family medicine specialist based in Cebu: “Clutter for me is anything that gets between me and how I want to live my life. It can be in the form of negative thoughts or physical things.” 

Acevedo-Bendebel says that decluttering has a positive impact on her. “It reduces stress … and the feeling of organizing my ‘clutter’ helps me relax mentally while I am doing the physical activity of removing and reducing clutter.” She adds that decluttering increases her productivity because she is more focused on daily tasks: “It is actually therapeutic [because] I am removing things/thoughts that I know can cause stress or worry in the future.”

It’s difficult to declutter, especially when you feel that giving up an item also means throwing away something special in your life. That’s probably why others feel the need for “decluttering consultants” who help them decide what to keep and what not.

Quintos-Millan, who says decluttering brings her satisfaction and inner peace, has her own way of dealing with this dilemma. Before discarding certain items, she says, “I ask my husband if he still needs it. [We also discuss] if a certain item is worth keeping before throwing or giving it away. I don’t throw away anything if it is still usable. If we no longer need it in the house, I simply give it to someone who can use it, or donate it for a cause. I only throw away things that are no longer usable.”

Weighing importance 

It was hard for an asthmatic like me to endure the dust that comes with decluttering, but it was an experience that taught me to weigh the things that are important and those that I can live without in my life. 

What treasures I found! The photographs transported me to the past and brought life to those who have gone ahead but whose smiles have been frozen by time for us to cherish. 

I saw my kindergarten uniform and couldn’t believe how tiny I was back then, when life was simpler and the only problem I had was convincing my parents to buy me ice cream when Mamang Sorbetero did his rounds in the neighborhood.

I saw the Fisher-Price music box that my aunt Babie Vales gave me on my third birthday. It is still functioning albeit emitting a very slow “Happy birthday to You” tune, which, I think, suits my knees—weakened by a biking injury and always threatening to give up on me while I’m walking long distances.

Acevedo-Bendebel says the only time she felt negatively about decluttering was when she was cleaning her late mother Ester’s room and had to fold her mama’s clothes. I had the same experience when I was sorting out boxes and saw the one labeled “Yaya Neria’s stuff.” Yaya helped my family raise me and tended to me from the day I was born until she passed on at the age of 82.

In an Insider article, professional decluttering consultant Julia Williamson wrote: “Here’s the one rule I think we should all live by when it comes to decluttering: If looking at that object makes you feel bad, get rid of it. Life is too short. You deserve to be surrounded by things that make you happy.” 

Like I said, decluttering is easier said than done. But maybe a bit of soul-searching, a healthy discussion about it with family members and friends, or even simply heeding Williamson’s advice, would make it a cinch to accomplish.

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