This is the fifteenth article following The Irony of Quitting My Job to Take a Sabbatical, the first in a series on what I learned and what I’d recommend from quitting my job to take a six-month sabbatical (without another job in sight). This week, I expand on how decluttering helped change my life by sharing the 9 main areas of focus.
“Simplicity involves unburdening your life, and living more lightly with fewer distractions that interfere with a high quality life, as defined uniquely by each individual.”
– Linda Breen Pierce
When you’re busy running from one thing to the next, it’s easy to miss a lot of things.
Clutter tends to hide more clutter.
That’s what happened to me. In spending the majority of my waking hours in a draining job I didn’t like, I never felt like I had enough time or energy for even the basics. It was difficult to go beyond surface-level life maintenance.
As I slowed down during my sabbatical, I started seeing the excess and waste in areas of my life. Some areas were more difficult than others to declutter. There’s an aspect of letting go required—letting go of misplaced loyalty, comfort, short-term reward, responsibility, guilt or fear.
But after managing through the tough spots, I never looked back.
The act of simplifying your life allows you to better focus on what truly matters.
You’re unburdened—free from the crap no longer serving you so that you can see more clearly, make room for better things to come, and have more time to spend on meaningful work and activities.
Towards the end of 2014, I embarked on a decluttering journey of the physical and abstract across 9 main areas. A couple of these areas are still in process today.
I credit the act of decluttering with my ability to live my life in more alignment and with less stress—a high quality life defined uniquely by you, as Linda Pierce says—more so than I’ve ever been able to do before.
Here are 9 areas to declutter for a high quality life.
1) Physical belongings
The decluttering started with physical belongings, a common area to begin for many. My husband and I both played minsgame (short for the Minimalist game) in December of 2014, collectively donating, recycling, selling and throwing away a total of 992 items from our home.
Although we didn’t officially play minsgame after December, we continued purging into January and February. Doing so allowed us to spend less time organizing, tidying, cleaning and doing laundry. The little laundry room, which used to be an embarrassment with boxes and stuff piled high, slowly got streamlined and organized. As we played one more round of minsgame in late 2015, even our garage got a trim and facelift.
In the midst of the early days of decluttering, it was overwhelming. Boxes of stuff tucked behind doors threw up contents all over the room, laying bare the amount of stuff rarely touched or used.
As we went along, it got easier. We got better at the continuous process of simplifying and keeping a home sanctuary. With less stuff, it was much easier to organize, clean up and maintain our home. We both felt so much lighter and freed up. Once you get used to the calm, you don’t want to go back.
Another area I focused on was food. Having limited pantry storage in our house reduced food clutter, but our refrigerator used to be four times more fully stocked. We’d often have to dig around to find what we were looking for, and many times we’d find it too late, and it’d end up in the trash or compost.
It all changed around when I was forced to address my health during my sabbatical. As part of my more limited diet when I was dealing with recurring hives, the grocery list was shorter and as a result, our fridge contents were more streamlined. I used to think a sparser fridge and pantry meant we had no food, but over the course of several months, I found I enjoyed seeing white space and having just what we needed for the week.
A fridge with some white space was liberating.
Being able to clearly see everything we had also significantly reduced waste from spoiled food. Buying less and more intentionally gave us more flexibility in buying healthier and higher quality food. These days we very rarely waste any food—a big difference from even two years ago.
Even though we primarily cook and eat at home these days, our fridge and pantry are less full than they were when we were eating out three to four times a week. It truly goes to show that you don’t need as much as you think. Home-cooking our food is now a primary way that I take care of my husband and myself; in addition to being healthier, it’s also cheaper and more satisfying.
We became more intentional about buying things. This was partially due to our lower household income without my corporate finance job, but that wasn’t the only reason.
The pain felt from removing practically brand-new items out of the home helped with not buying as much stuff. I used to buy things on sale, simply because they were cheap and cute. When I see something on sale now, I’m no longer tempted to stop and peruse through. Instead of buying on whims or during flash sales, I buy things when it’s a need that I have that I’ve identified—and if it happens to be on sale then, that’s just an added bonus.
Although I shop very infrequently now, I’ve started buying higher quality products since quitting my job. You may think it’d be the opposite, but the items I used to absentmindedly buy on deal have hidden costs. Any item you introduce into your home has a cost, a tradeoff of space and the possibility of something else. I’ve realized these hidden costs of lower quality and quicker wear and tear often times outweigh the benefits of the deal.
4) Social Outings
Social outings got more intentional as well. As mentioned above, we cook and eat at home most of the time, so there are not as many dinners and happy hours out.
It doesn’t mean that my husband and I don’t go out to social gatherings anymore. It just means they’ve changed slightly. We’ll host game nights or have people over for coffee instead of meeting at a coffee shop. Or we’ll drop by their house for a quick visit.
For getting out of the house, there are many options beyond the typical restaurant, bar or coffee shop. I’ve enjoyed inviting friends to walk around the lake or park, go to a free event or go to the gym or an exercise class with me. It gets cold up here in the north, so the local conservatory is an excellent option and refreshing relief from the dead trees and lack of green outside. The old-fashioned bookstore is another favorite of mine.
We’ve found that being social doesn’t need to cost money.
We still have our favorite spots though. We’re simply more intentional, so if we’re going out somewhere, it’s for a special occasion or a specific treat.
Luckily the majority of people I had in my life were primarily positive influences. However, there were a few people that fell farther away in my life during my sabbatical and post-sabbatical, and some of them were not by my choice.
I can only speculate, but it appeared the ones who grew distant were skeptical about the leap I took, and became even more uncomfortable as I started building Uncoveries towards the end of 2014. What we used to share in common was further downsized with no corporate job and a lower-consuming lifestyle on my end.
As anyone who’s leapt could relate, the leap and the following first year generally aren’t easy. I personally went through a tough time (more on that in the next section) in the first few months of 2015. During that period, I was moody, preoccupied and most definitely in a rut. As an introvert, I conserved my energy for the simplest and basic of tasks and didn’t talk much with others aside from my husband and family. In this state, I was also very sensitive to any negativity or judgment (however subtle), and found myself distancing myself from select others as well.
As such, I fell out of touch with some people.
While the overall experience certainly sparked more self-doubt around what other people were thinking, it was for the best.
The reality is this: you can only have the truly great relationships with a handful of people. Even with good friends, quantity comes at the sacrifice of quality. I’d rather invest my time in a select few who are truly positive and supportive people. While I was sad to see a couple people fall to the wayside, I was better able to appreciate the quality of those who remained.
6) Mental Clutter
In preparing myself to take the leap of quitting my job to take a sabbatical, I had to fight through some mental clutter. I thought those battles were bad, but boy was I wrong. A year later, I battled even bigger and nastier baggage post-sabbatical. It turns out the mind saves the best arson for last.
The list was long, but just to provide a few examples, the clutter included: unproductive thinking patterns, outdated and negative beliefs, spiraling what-if scenarios, paralyzing self-doubt and imposter’s syndrome. There were moments when I wondered what the hell was I doing, and moments when I turned against my intuition while interviewing for jobs I didn’t really want (more on this in my next article). It was during this time that I realized how much easier it is to advocate for others than it is to do that for yourself.
What the mental clutter all shared in common was their drain on my energy and claim of having my best interests at heart, when that really wasn’t the case at all. I noticed there was grasping gravitation for certainty in these negative behaviors and thought patterns.
The more you hold on the certainty, the more you limit and tie yourself down. Learning to disconnect from certainty is where freedom lies.
But in taking the time to understand and clear the mental clutter I carried, they diminished over time. There are still weak spots, but I’m better able to identify them and use certain strategies to reign in the worst parts.
The benefit of going through the pain and discomfort of clearing mental clutter is the greater energy and quality of life you’ll have afterwards. My down periods now are fewer in numbers and intensity than they used to be. I’m able to apply more energy and time productively in advancing meaningful progress in my life.
7) Someday Aspirations
Most of us have unfinished projects and works-in-process on the back burner, those someday aspirations we tell ourselves we’ll get to when we have the time.
I used to have them too, and they sat safely stored in the back of my mind. Then, I realized the act of telling myself I’d get to the projects someday only made me feel better because they were draining my energy in the first place.
These generally longer-term aspirations sitting untouched and ignored for months and years are not productive. They take up mental space and energy, and even more when you feel the guilty pang from remembering that you still haven’t done anything… yet.
Make a decision on them. For those that are truly important to you, something you want to do within your lifetime, start today or set a date. Slot out at least five minutes a day to work on a big project, and you will make progress more quickly than keeping it on the side. Pick a year or as specific of a date as you’re able for a trip or a bucket list item.
Maybe you’ll decide that there are items that were important once upon a time, but no longer. For those, let them go.
One such thing for me was skydiving. I used to think I wanted to experience it. The idea of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane doesn’t appeal to me anymore, so now it’s officially off my list. For the ones I’m keeping, I try my best to make regular, if not daily, progress towards them or slot them in a certain year or date.
8) Tasks and Activities
We all have tasks and activities we don’t mind doing and others that drive us mad. When decluttering your life, you start taking away the actions that do not bring you joy or add to your life in a positive way. I’d already started in this area in a big way when I quit my job. I continued on.
Cleaning was a pain point. While I like to keep a clean house, the act of dusting, vacuuming and cleaning the house generally had me miserably sniffling and sneezing by the end due to my allergies. We now outsource the heavy cleaning to someone else once a month.
My husband and I stopped activities that don’t serve us. A few years back, we cut our cable and stopped watching TV. We’ve since replaced the time with working on our projects, writing, reading, spending quality time with each other, and making healthy meals.
It’s up to you what to cut out from your life and add in its place. We have friends who, unlike me, don’t like to cook. The act of cooking after coming home from work was stressful for them, so they signed up for healthy, high performance meals that they simply pick up after work from a local company.
The benefit of decluttering unpleasant tasks or activities is you have more flexibility, time and energy to focus on what matters.
9) Digital Clutter
The digital realm is overfilled with clutter. This is the biggest front I’m tackling right now. The process of reducing digital clutter has been slow.
In the past year, I got my email inbox from over three thousand to nearly zero. In addition to deleting most of them and archiving the few that I needed to keep, I also minimized my email subscriptions to only value-added sources. While not perfect, my email is more manageable these days.
My photos, on the other hand, are currently all over the place. A good chunk of my files are stored on a hard drive from my previous laptop. On my current laptop, there is still organization needed for the photos I’ve taken. And then there’s all the physical photos that I’ll eventually digitize and organize. I’m working on the huge project of organizing and naming all of my photos. It’s a slow process, but since I don’t take pictures every day, the regular organization will add up. Along these lines, I’ve found I’m much more intentional and relentless on duplicates on the photos I take.
Notes on books I’ve read, observations and ideas are spread out across digital documents, cloud-storage websites and physical notebooks. My goal is to digitize and organize all of them into a system. Right now, I’m figuring out what works best for me as I take notes on the books I’m reading now. Once I establish a system, I’ll go back and review old files and input the ones that are still relevant.
Decluttering the digital realm will likely be a multi-year process. With increased organization, there will be greater efficiency of finding what I’m looking for, and keeping track and building upon research and content.
What has been your experience in decluttering for your unique, high quality life? What areas did you focus on?
Clutter tends to hide more clutter. Quitting a job that wasn’t right for me was my first big step. These 9 areas to declutter for a high quality life followed shortly after for me. Once you begin simplifying one area of your life, you’ll likely find that others will soon follow.
The final article of the sabbatical series details the lessons learned in the year after my big leap.