What would you do if someone threatened to take away almost all your most precious possessions? More than 95 per cent of your photos, clothes, shoes, books, entertainment equipment, old sports gear, gifts and everything else you have held precious?
Imagine instead that it was you who was choosing to give them all away. All the things you have received, everything you have collected, bought, stored and worn for years. The “stuff” you have moved around with you and accumulated throughout your life. As a psychologist, I wondered what it would be like. And then I went ahead and did it: I gave away, recycled or donated almost everything I have dragged around with me, from the day I left the home I grew up in. Ninety-five per cent of it is now gone.
I have just given away, recycled or donated almost everything I have dragged around with me, from the day I left the home I grew up in. Ninety-five per cent of it is now gone. So how have I ended up here, at 48 years old?
So how did I end up here, at 48 years old? It all started after I watched The Minimalists, a Netflix documentary. It dawned on me that, far from being a hoarder, I was actually a minimalist. I think I always suspected it, but now I had the confirmation. So I decided to go for it.
Next came the tricky part: to show my wife the documentary and encourage her to get on board. Thankfully – and I say this with the permission of my wife – she loved the idea, especially as she will openly admit she is a lot worse than me when it comes to accumulating stuff.
With three young kids – aged three, six and eight – we still had everything from Moses baskets to party frocks, old suits and oh so many shoes (in my wife’s case, most of which had not been worn for nearly a decade.
Before Christmas we bought our forever dream home and agreed, as a couple, to embrace a new lifestyle of less. We will be moving to our new house at the end of this month, and will be “winter cleaning” with gusto. We have both binge-watched shows about minimalism, decluttering and living with less in order to be ready.
So, with a moving date confirmed, our preparations got under way on New Year’s Day. Everything we deemed nonessential went first. I have learned that, to be a minimalist, you have to be a little ruthless, and be able to make decisions quickly.
First to go were the old baby clothes, the toys and the winter jackets, summer tops and shorts that hadn’t been worn in years. Next to go were most of the photographs and the framed newspaper articles from my time as a show-business reporter for the Sunday Independent.
But it was certainly not all of them: I have kept a photograph of me with Bono, taken on his 40th birthday, at an art exhibition by his friend Guggi. It was the first time I really got to chat with him. I kept it because it’s Bono – if my father had met Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, I would have loved him to have proof.
How many people get to dance with Michael Flatley? I kept a photo of me and him backstage during one of his shows in Budapest. I was flown over by his great PR man, Chris Roche, who died shortly afterwards. I worked so much with Flatley – and have great memories.
Not for keeping, though, were books, old office equipment, the trampoline from the garden, and so many broken things that had just been hanging around. Things that you plan to fix and use again but never manage to get around to.
Then came the drawers full of batteries, wrapping paper, used candles, broken pens, elastic bands, cooking utensils (never used for cooking), house-warming presents, unused birthday gifts, novelty glasses and even my old motorbike, which has been parked outside and not driven for months. It all went.
Some things made their way to charity shops; other items were offered up to Facebook groups for people in need of household items. I gave my old PA system, from my days performing as a singer with the Irish Rat Pack, to a church group, while our old cot, buggy and dresser went to two young families who needed them. Most of the clothing went to the clothes bank. Carloads of boxes and bags filled with yet more stuff went into the huge skip at our local recycling centre.
While that might sound sad to some people, for me it was quite the opposite. Rather than regret the loss of my possessions, each time I hurled a bag into the skip I felt better. I felt lighter.
Next it was the turn of the kids’ playroom and bedrooms. With kids’ toys, everything that we had been tidying up every evening, only for it to be dumped all over the floor the next morning, was for the chop. We ended up with two big boxes of everything from toys the children didn’t even know they had. They had dozens of free McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, trinkets we had brought home from funfairs, and long-missing puzzles and games.
The kids were all asked to have a look in their remaining individual boxes of toys and to take out anything they wanted to keep. In the end, they only had a few toys that they actually play with every day, so they were happy to say goodbye to the rest.
We have vowed that in the new house there will be no ornaments gathering dust, no pointless objects filling up space, no “good” items kept in storage. On the contrary, we have some beautiful pieces that we have been “saving for guests” that have never seen the light of day. Now they will.
When you think about the price we pay for the place where we live, and the amount of space taken up with the storage of things, it’s easy to see we are paying rent and mortgages to simply store stuff, most of which we don’t even use.
The kitchen clearout was next on our list. The plan for the new house is to have a clear countertop. No big, ugly wooden block for the knives, no spice rack for the spices that will only end up being out of date, and no cup tree. We’ve got rid of all of it. We have even asked the kitchen supplier and electrician to put open shelves in our new units with sockets in the wall, so the kettle and toaster will be hidden from view.
Overall, the experience of decluttering and the expectation for our new, minimalist lifestyle has reduced my sense of anxiety. The goal I am pursuing is to keep only the things I will use or wear on a daily basis. Having young children has, of course, made this more difficult in recent years, but they too are now on board.
My final aim is to embrace life with my family around me, to hold on to some of the things that I value the most, but otherwise to own nothing more than the bare essentials, money in the bank and a passport. You can either own your stuff and get rid of it, or it will end up owning you.