How to Reduce Clutter Effectively by Discovering Your True Needs

You've probably gone through this creative cycle described by Leo Babauta, who blogs at Zen Habits.

Stage One – Inspiration
Something you read or hear about sparks an interest.

Stage Two – Addition
As you learn more about this new activity, and find new inspiration and ideas, you start to buy stuff.

Stage Three – Contemplation
At some point, you pause to consider and ask:  Is this really important to me?  If it is, what's the most essential part of it?  Can I pare down?

Stage Four – Pare Down
This is when you start to let go of things.  You figure out what's essential to what you have been doing and learning, and if you don't quit the entire activity (which can happen), you might keep just a few key things.  

For example, if you start playing chess, you might buy a couple of fancy sets, a game clock, a bunch of books and apps, and start visiting several websites.  But in the paring down phase, you might decide that chess isn't important enough to keep in your life, or if it is, you only need your favorite set, two really useful books, and one website or app.  The rest you let go.

How to learn and grow without drowning in clutter

If you're a minimalist, those final two stages are always included.  But if you're like most people, you keep repeating Stage One and Stage Two, which leads to an ever-increasing amount of clutter.

As you might guess, I think the last two stages are very important.  But the first two are also important, because they're about learning, growth, and creativity.  Curiosity and exploration are essential human drives, and we shouldn't suppress them.

But here's what I've observed:

The Inspiration phase is exciting, but sometimes it's just an impulse generated by a photo, article, or conversation.  When it leads to the Addition phase, it's possible to spend a lot of time, money, and energy on something that's ultimately unimportant.  

That doesn't mean we shouldn't try new things, just that we should slow down a bit and see if our interest has staying power.  We may find we don't have the commitment to really master the new skill, or that the payoff won't be exactly what we dreamed.

The Inspiration phase causes us to think we really want, even need, something.  We think the only way to meet our need is with the Addition phase.  But we might be wrong about that.

It's easy to go overboard in the Addition phase.  After all, you're excited!  I've wasted a lot of money in the past.  But it's possible to learn from that.

It's possible to start the Contemplation phase early, even before the Addition phase.  Pause to think about your motivation for pursuing this activity.  

  • Is it just a fantasy or is it truly meaningful?  
  • Is the reality going to be anything like your fantasy?  
  • Is there something more valuable you could be pursuing?  
  • What does your interest in this area say about your true needs?  What is essential?

The Paring Down phase is liberating.  You may feel some regret for spending so much money and time, but it's not a waste to learn or create.  So be thankful and let go.

The value of the creative cycle

There are three things we learn from going through the entire cycle a few times:

  • We learn about our interests.
  • We learn how to let go of things we don't really need.
  • We learn that most of the things we are attracted by are a substitute for our true needs.

That's right.  The interests we pursue are fun and engaging, but only a few satisfy something deep within us.  We experience freedom and relief when we let go of things that aren't crucial and focus on what has true significance.


Let me share some examples of ways that I've experienced this creative cycle to illustrate.

1.  Opera singing

I've been a singer for over 50 years.  I really enjoyed learning about my voice, using, controlling, and developing it.  But the competitive aspect of professional singing, and the thousands of hours you need to practice to get anywhere close to mastery, were demands I didn't want to meet.  I bought a lot of lessons and coaching, a lot of musical scores, and a lot of formal wear and jewelry, but ultimately I was unfulfilled as an opera singer.

My true need was for beautiful music and for increasing my appreciation of it, which I can do for free listening to a classical radio station.

Related article:  Declutter Your Fantasy Self

2.  Travel  

I traveled quite a bit as a young adult.  I enjoyed some wonderful trips, and thought I'd always want to travel.  

But travel can be expensive, and this was in the years before it was possible to work online and be a digital nomad.  I also noticed that I rarely visited Yosemite, only five hours away, even though it's a destination for people from all over the world.  I rarely went to San Francisco, only a two-hour drive.  

Eventually I discovered that visiting the non-touristy, hidden gems of northern California gave me the same enjoyment as more exotic travel had done.  My true need was for exploration, and I can do that without going broke or burning jet fuel.

3.  A home library  

Sometimes I've gone overboard buying books.  I love books, to be honest.  I love the anticipation of a great story or amazing insights.  But when my husband and I downsized to a small apartment, my hundreds of books weren't going to fit.  

My true need was for learning and variety, but I didn't need to own every book in order to get that.  I still buy some books, but I use the library far more than I used to.

Related article:  Preserve Public Works

In the end, going through the creative cycle gives us the experience to realize what we really need.  Once we understand that, it's easier to let go of things that only clutter and complicate our lives.

Updated March 2023


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