Updated: Apr 17
This diplomatic life is complicated enough without being worn down by things, beliefs and people that do not serve us anymore. It’s time to declutter and rid ourselves of what’s holding us back.
It’s a continuing thrill and honour to live and work in a foreign city and country for a few years. This changes our experience from feeling like an observer or tourist to a resident.
One of the downsides, however, is the logistical exercise that is moving house and moving countries every few years. Not only is moving itself a stressful undertaking, moving into a new house and office with varying configurations and storage options is also stressful. We play Tetris to fit everything in.
Like me, many of you may have lived and worked in many countries. Like me, you may know where something was kept in an apartment three postings ago but have no idea where it is now. You may have your own finely tuned moving system, perfected over the years and many moves. You may also let chaos reign and have no system at all (which, ironically, is a system).
My approach to moving was revolutionised by the concept of minimalism. Not only do I cart less stuff around the world with me, but I find great comfort in the simplicity of only having things in my life that I need and know to be beautiful. I want to share this with you.
What is minimalism?
You may think that minimalism is only having that in your life which ‘sparks joy’ and requires cuddling your belongings to see if they speak to you before you donate them or throw them away. You may also think that minimalism requires living in hollow spaces, which are austere and devoid of personal warmth. Not so.
Minimalism is a way of living in which we know everything that is in our lives serves us. Let me explain.
For me, minimalism is deeply personal. I work to surround myself with those people and things that nourish, sustain, inspire and calm me. Minimalism looks different for me as it would for you.
Minimalism is simple. It requires regular decluttering. And, to prevent re-cluttering, it requires consistent, mindful decisions before allowing anything into our lives.
Before I continue, I want to make an announcement: My name’s Phil and I am a reformed hoarder. I say reformed, as like anyone else with an addiction, I will always be a hoarder and have to be mindful every day in my recovery.
My hoarding took many forms: from clothes to boarding passes to books. I don’t mean to say that keeping things is bad, it’s just that I didn’t need to keep the textbooks and readers from first-year linguistics at university and cart them around the world. Nor did I need to cart around dozens of novelty ties from the 90s that I hadn’t worn since 1997 but had somehow survived eight house moves over the years.
I had a lot of shit cluttering my life.
A looming posting and the need to go through the house and clear out the junk lest we be over our shipping allowance had me clearing out my closet on a very hot New Year’s Day in 2015. Our poor car groaned under the weight of the clothes that filled it as I drove to whatever op shop (thrift store for North Americans) would accept them.
It was confronting. It was also addictive. Having less stuff really did feel like I was carrying less into the world. It turned out that clearing out my excess clothes was my entry point to minimalism.
Only having clothes in my wardrobe that I knew fitted me, were useful and that suited me was liberating. I looked for, and found, other areas of my life that needed the same treatment.
Soon, bookshelves were being cleared and donated to charity. Old photos were sorted. Those photos that brought back good memories were scanned and saved electronically, before they joined those photos that didn’t make the grade and were shredded.
Toiletries that had long passed their expiration date or weren’t being used were given away or discarded. Linen closets were sorted. The garage wasn’t spared, either. The study was a major undertaking, with papers and stationery filling the available storage to capacity needing to be sorted and removed.
I want to say that I kept my new-found enthusiasm for decluttering to myself. I really want to. But I didn’t; I turned into that guy. Some well-deserved corrective observations delivered in a loving way by my family helped put the enthusiasm back into perspective.
I realised that I we all declutter in our own ways. This is tricky when we share our lives with people – especially kids (more on that in a moment).
What I did realise was how easy it was to be an unconscious consumer and let all manner of things into my life. I gave away clothes that I’d bought on an idle Saturday at the mall, but had never worn. There were books that had been bought, but never read, or were read once and would never be read again.
The amount of money I’d spent on needless shit or on aspirational purchases astounded me. But it was the impact on the planet that really floored me: not only the resources taken to make it and get it to me, but what it took to cart it with me around the world [Diplomacy and living the diplomatic life has a high environmental cost when we think about it. More on that in the future].
I know that what survived the cut, and the regular purges thereafter, serves me. I’m surrounded by that which makes me smile, makes me feel safe and at home and brings happy memories or otherwise restores me. I feel freer, lighter. It also makes moving house so much easier, especially when different houses and apartments have different storage configurations.
Keeping on top of things
I go through my belongings twice a year: in April and October. Clothes that I haven’t worn or no longer fit me are donated. Clothes that have been worn out get replaced. One item comes out and a replacement only goes in if I know it is needed.
Each item also gets a critical assessment: is there an alternative?
Books that I wanted to keep but I didn’t want to take up space became books on my Kindle.
Subscribing to a music streaming service means that there aren’t any more CDs taking up shelving space.
Apps on my devices get turfed if I’ve not used them or no longer have a need (I don’t need to have my Seoul subway app anymore, for example).
Having kids in the house makes decluttering more challenging, but far from impossible. Toys that have been outgrown or are no longer played with are donated after the kids have decided what’s staying and going. This took a few years to work through as having their stuff around them helps the kids feel at home wherever we are in the world, but they have always been heavily involved in the process and are champion declutterers now. We all go at our own speed.
One final thought
Only having that in my life which I know to support, energise and sustain me not only helps the moving process but helps me be grateful for what I have, not what I want. This profound realisation completely reframed my outlook on life. Rather than wanting more, I needed less and I found that I had everything I needed within me and around me.
What can you do?
For me, having less stuff in my life creates more room for what’s important for me. This requires me to build and maintain boundaries so what I allowed into my life and into my home serves me, not me serving it.
Could your life, and where you spend it, do with some minimising and decluttering?
Joshua Becker, ‘Becoming Minimalist’ (www.becomingminimalist.com)
Courtney Carver, ‘Be More with Less’ (www.bemorewithless.com)
Marie Kondo (www.konmari.com)
The Minimalists (www.theminimalists.com)
Courtney Carver, ‘Soulful Simplicity’ (www.bemorewithless.com/soulful-simplicity)
Marie Kondo, ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing’ (amazon.com)
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.