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11 tips for Angelenos who want to declutter their lives

Illustration of a person looking at an overwhelming pile of boxes, bins and other clutter.
(Lively Scout / For The Times)
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L.A. is the promised land of reinvention, right? However, it’s pretty tough to find your best self when it’s buried under all the possessions from your past — like all the cooking wares you bought a decade ago because you were going to open a catering business and the piles of fitness gear from when you were going through your personal trainer phase, plus the sketchbooks, fabric and idle sewing machines from when you wanted to be a fashion designer.

That’s why the first step to a new you is getting rid of the old. Not everything, of course; history and sentiment count for something, even among Angelenos, but a relic reminder from our past is way different — and far more meaningful — than the boxes of who-knows-what we haven’t opened in years, clogging our hallways and costly storage units because we just can’t throw them away.

So if we’re out to make 2022 the year of reinvention, it’s time to strategize about decluttering our homes, our closets and, yes, our rides. You know what I’m talking about. Most Angelenos spend hours driving every day. Our vehicles are a huge part of our identity. Now answer this: When is the last time you saw the floor in the back seat of your car? Do you carry groceries home in your passenger seat because there’s no room in your trunk?

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It might be excusable if your trunk was full of emergency rations for the Big One earthquake, but if you’re like me, your trunk is probably full of stuff you never found the time (or place) to put away: boxes from the office, clothes you’ve been meaning to return, gifts you never wanted or jackets you forgot you owned. Cleaning out the car might improve your day-to-day life, if only by reducing your embarrassment, so why is it so hard to start?

Because many of us haven’t considered how getting rid of things can improve our lives, including reducing our stress levels, says Joshua Becker, founder of the Becoming Minimalist movement. “We live in a society that constantly tells us, ‘More is better.’ So we fall into this trap of believing if we have more stuff, our lives will be better. We don’t change until we have a lightbulb moment and something strikes us about how our lives could actually improve — how we’d have more energy, time, focus and less stress — if we had less stuff.”

Becker’s epiphany moment came after he spent an entire Saturday afternoon cleaning his garage while his young son played in the backyard alone. “I realized all the things I owned were not making me happy, but even worse, they were taking me away from the things I loved most,” he says.

Along with opening space for a reinvention, decluttering can also be a way to create bonds with other Angelenos, including those neighbors next door or down the hall you still don’t know. That’s the guiding principle behind the Buy Nothing Project, which started in Bainbridge Island, Wash., in 2013. Liesl Clark and her friend Rebecca Rockefeller started a Facebook page with the idea of reducing the amount of waste in our lives by sharing items within your community — a “hyperlocal gift economy,” Clark says.

“We posted it as a question to our friends and neighbors,” she says. “We called it ‘Buy Nothing Bainbridge,’ and we said, ‘Before you go to the store to buy that item, consider just asking for it here, among your trusted neighbors. For instance, if you’re going to buy Legos for your kids, see if anyone has some they want to give up because they’re done using them,’ and lo and behold, people just started giving things over and over again.”

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The idea was to build relationships within a community while recycling items no longer needed. The goal is to create communities of people who live within one to six miles of each other — the greater distances for areas with less density.

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“It’s hugely helpful for people trying to downsize,” Clark says. “We have a lot of people in the simplicity movement who are taking stock and getting a handle on their lives, and certainly this time of year, we see a huge uptick in the amount of items being offered.”

Are you inspired and ready to take the plunge? Here are 11 tips from Becker and the Buy Nothing gang to help spur you toward less clutter and more time for the things that matter.

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Why do you care?

First, determine your motivation, Becker says. “I always tell people to answer this question: ‘I desire to own less so I can ...’ And then fill in the blank. You need to have a why behind decluttering so you’re not just decluttering to declutter but to be more present with your children, or to have more peace at home, or to get out of debt, whatever works for you.”

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For example, fewer clothes means easier decisions about what to wear in the morning and less guilt about the “skinny clothes” in the back of the closet that you still can’t wear because you haven’t lost the necessary weight to get there. Less clutter on your side tables means you don’t have the stress of looking at it every day or pushing piles around, trying to make room for a glass or something else you actually use. Then there’s all the self-berating that happens when you walk in the door and step over a box that’s been there for ages because you can’t figure out a place for its contents to go.

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So what’s his overarching question for leading a less cluttered life? “Does this item help me become the person I want to be or fulfill my purpose in life?” Becker says. “Not everyone knows what their purpose is in life. It’s about discovering the life I want to be living. But nobody ever says their greatest desire is to own as much stuff as they possibly can. ... It’s wanting to become great parents or help the world instead of wasting our time buying and accumulating things we don’t really need.”

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Start with your fave space

People should start in their most lived-in space and finish there before moving to another space, Becker says, whether it’s your car, your walk-in closet or your living room. “A lot of people go to the garage first. They spend a couple hours there, see no difference and get frustrated and stop. But if you spend an hour or two clearing out your living room where you sit every night to watch TV, things are going to feel calmer there when you’re done, and you’ll feel more motivated to keep going.” The same goes with removing all the items you don’t need in your car, he says. (Like all those empty fast-food bags and rejected scripts!) “You’ll really feel the difference of how a decluttered space helps make you feel calmer.”

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Fill a bag

To get the ball rolling, Becker recommends that beginners grab a bag and then walk through their home and fill it with items they no longer need or want. “You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can fill a bag or box,” he says. With this technique, “you’re not facing any hard questions or tackling drawers or sentimental items in boxes; you’re just filling your bag or box with items you should have gotten rid of already but haven’t yet.”

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This is remarkably effective. I walked through my house with an empty cardboard box and within 20 minutes had filled it with an old candy dish and figurine I no longer wanted but hadn’t bothered to move; a couple of decorative baskets I’d gotten as gifts but didn’t have room to store (because of the 20 other baskets already on shelves); six kitchen towels; and four wooden spoons (which barely made a dent in my towel and wooden spoon collection).

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Get rid of duplicates

Another easy way to start is to eliminate duplicates, Becker says. On his website, he has a list of 101 items that are easy places to start. For example, “if you have 20 towels in the linen closet, you can easily get rid of half of them without having an issue,” he says. “You’re not getting rid of your last towels or spatula or pair of jeans. You’re just getting rid of duplicates. A lot of people can make real progress this way without being forced to deal with the question, ‘What if I need this someday?’” That means you can finally let go of the extra seven pairs of garden hand clippers and half of those unused teacups and saucers gathering dust in the hutch.

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But do you really need it?

At some point, you will have to face the tough question of “What if I need this someday?” This often manifests as the “skinny clothes” in your closet that you’re keeping for when you finally lose 30 pounds — never mind that those clothes will likely be out of style or full of moth holes when this miraculous weight loss occurs. Becker says he has heard the excuse that “skinny clothes in the closet motivate me to lose weight” so many times “that it tells me this excuse isn’t actually very motivating.” In these cases, you need to ask yourself two questions: “Do I need this?” and “Why do I have it?"— the question he uses when he’s looking at a closet of shirts, for example, “that I bought because they were on clearance or they were in style at the time, even though I never wore them. Or I got them as a gift, but I never liked them or wore them.” Therefore, those midriff-showing “going-out” tops you bought in the mid-aughts when you first moved to L.A. really should go.

And then there’s the sentimental stuff — the things we hold on to because they came from people we love who, in many cases, aren’t with us anymore. When Becker and his wife were cleaning out their world, they came across two boxes filled with items that belonged to her beloved grandmother. The items were special, but they’d been sitting in a box in a basement for years. In the end, his wife chose three items from those two boxes to keep: her grandmother’s Bible, which she keeps next to her bed; a pin, which she put on her winter coat; and a favorite candy dish, which they display on a table.

The rest of the items were donated, Becker says, but it didn’t mean her grandmother’s memory was any less cherished. Bringing a few select items into their daily lives “brings more value to our relationship than in boxes in the basement,” he says.

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Try the hanger trick

For cleaning out a clothes closet, Becker’s website mentions another trick: Put your clothes on hangers all facing one way, and when you use an item of clothing, change the hanger to face the other direction. After the season is over, take a good look at the hangers that never moved. There’s a good chance you can eliminate those unnecessary clothes without feeling their loss.

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What would you use instead?

Becker recalls helping a woman who wanted to clean out her overstuffed kitchen cabinets. “I pulled out this red Santa tray, and I said, ‘Do you need this?’ And she said, ‘Oh, yes! I use it every Christmas Eve to hold cookies for Santa.’ And I said, ‘What would you use if you didn’t have this red Santa tray?’ And she said, ‘Oh, I guess I’d use this red platter.’ So the point is, just because you use something doesn’t mean you actually need it.”

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Push past sentiment

Getting rid of sentimental items may be the most difficult — and important — task for people who are trying to change. “A big reason people hold on to stuff is they have a hard time moving past a season of their life,” Becker says. Examples are parents who can’t part with baby clothes although their “babies” are long grown or adult children who can’t eliminate the boxes of knickknacks, clothing and other stuff they collected from their deceased parents’ home.

Those items represent “a season of their life they really enjoyed. They still want to be in that past season of life, but they can’t be, so they hold on to those things instead. They say, ‘This was all my parents’ stuff, and I can’t let it go.’ But think about this: If you pass away, do you want your kids to keep everything you owned? No. Your parents want you to live your best life, and you can’t do that if you hold on to too much stuff.”

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When Becker’s grandfather died last year, he says he walked through his house with the following question: “Which one or two of these items most represent the person I’m missing?” His grandfather had been a sheepherder when he was young and a pastor when he was older. He was a pivotal person in Becker’s life (“I named my son after him”), but he ended up keeping only one item, a figurine of a shepherd boy, because that was the one thing that represented his life to me. I put it on a shelf in our house, and I see it every time I walk in the door.”

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Discard based on need

If you’re having trouble getting started, Becker and Clark of the Buy Nothing Project recommend getting motivated by someone else’s needs. Becker suggests identifying your favorite charities, such as a group that supports single mothers, refugees or adult foster children, and asking them what they need. “Maybe they need kitchen items or linens or baby furniture, and suddenly you’re motivated because your stuff can make a difference,” Becker says.

Clark says her members often get motivated to clean out their closets when they see someone post items they need. “A lot of people never post an ask; they’re just waiting to give something they’ve been holding on to and hope someone will ask for,” she says. “Everyone likes to be perceived as a giver, but the only way gift economies can thrive is if you have both sides of the equation.”

This is more than just filling a bag with discards and dropping it anonymously in a contribution bin. “What’s really unique about our philosophy is we try to encourage individuals to reach out to each other,” she says. “We want giving and receiving to be person to person. When you give directly to a neighbor, it’s much more meaningful than the traditional charity model where you just drop the items off anonymously.”

This person-to-person approach might help you let go of some early pandemic buys, such as your three-year supply of toilet paper and canned beans, or your extensive collection of loungewear, most of which has never been worn.

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Discover your community

One of the best ways to reinvent yourself in Los Angeles is to find new friends who won’t constantly remind you of who you were. That’s one of the benefits of joining the free, nonprofit Buy Nothing Project say Clark and Chin-Yee Chew, the group’s downtown L.A. co-administrator. Your discards not only simplify your life, they help you connect with neighbors and potential new friends. Most members find it easier to get rid of their stuff when it’s going into the hands of neighbors, Clark says.

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One of the big parts of the Buy Nothing Facebook posts are the notes of gratitude and recognition, Chew says. “You get to know people through their posts, when they share a touching memory or fun tradition, and you feel seen when you ask for something you need and someone takes the time to provide it to you.”

Chew says she made a close friend through an item request. “It turned out she lived just two doors away from my apartment, but I never would have known she was there without Buy Nothing.”

People interested in joining a Buy Nothing community should make sure they are working within their own community, she says. There are 235 active groups in L.A. County, plus another 116 in San Diego County and 153 in other parts of Southern California. Chew’s group is getting so big — about 1,400 members — that they’re considering creating a second downtown group to make the experience more personal and hyperlocal.

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Learn how to trust

There’s a certain element of trust involved in giving up something you never use but might someday need, Chew says, and in that respect, the Buy Nothing Project can help you let go.

The trick is to remember that it’s a give-and-get community — “sometimes as simple as asking your group if they have any scallions for the salad you’re making for dinner that night,” Chew says.

“You start to believe that when you need it, the community will be there for you. I had a juicer from my college days that got me through this huge weight loss. ... It was very sentimental to me, but I’m not using it anymore. It’s just sitting in my closet, so I gave it away to someone who needed it for health reasons, and it was a great feeling. And I feel like, if I ever need a juicer again, I can just ask my community. It’s not like shopping — you might not get it right then, but if you’re mindful and do some planning, you’ll get it eventually, and that can be exciting.”

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It’s a way to make something good out of the tangle of things that are cluttering and clogging your life.

“There’s an enormous sense of joy and dopamine with every gift you give away, especially when someone is so excited to receive it,” Clark says. “It just comes back to you in spades. You know you’ll always be taken care of by your community if you just let go of the things you don’t need.”

And in the process, you just might find the “you” you’ve been looking for.

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