The Beauty of Boundaries

Some boundaries are so clear we have to obey them, like the "Do not enter" sign on a one-way street, or the bar that comes down just before a train goes through a crossing.  Other boundaries are more subtle, such as the amount of space we leave between ourselves and the person in front of us in line, or the fact that you may shake the hand of a new acquaintance, but you would never hug him.

Boundaries help us.  They keep us safe, preserve our personal space, enable us to cooperate with others, and keep most of our interactions polite.  And boundaries can do even more, if we will take the time and effort to erect and preserve them.

Add friction.

Minimalists often create boundaries which help them enjoy more space in their homes or preserve time and energy to do what is most important.  Boundaries are especially useful when replacing an unhealthy habit with a better one.

Since habits are facilitated by familiarity and the path of least resistance, we need to introduce some friction in order to learn a new habit.  As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits,* explains, "For many of us, a little bit of friction can be the difference between sticking with a good habit or sliding into a bad one."

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

Artificial boundaries and arbitrary deadlines are two ways to add friction.  For example:

  • Courtney Carver's Project 333 involves choosing a limited number of clothing items, boxing up the rest (creating an artificial boundary), and then setting a date to open the box again (an arbitrary deadline).
  • In Digital Minimalism, author Cal Newport recommends a 30-day digital declutter process (arbitrary deadline) where you take a break from "optional technologies," and then slowly reintroduce them mindfully (setting an artificial boundary).

How boundaries help with decluttering

We may not feel any urgency to do something about our clutter until we are up against a boundary such as a physical limitation or an urgent deadline.

A frequent excuse not to declutter is "If I have the space, what's the big deal?"  In the U.S., the average home size has doubled since I was born in 1960, while the number of people in the average family has declined by almost 25%.  So the only time we may actually feel pressed to do something about clutter is if there's a fixed deadline, such as moving.  Otherwise, we can convince ourselves to hold on to things "just in case" simply because we have the room to store them.

This explains the popularity of downsizing among people whose children have grown up and moved out.  Now that the kids are self-supporting, parents have more time and money than they've enjoyed for a while.  And by moving into a smaller home, they may save even more money while reducing the time and energy they need to spend on home maintenance.  This brings a huge sense of liberation and relief, and opens the door for new goals and experiences.

Minimalism can help you achieve that same freedom, even if you were born in the 1980s.  You don't have to wait until your "golden years" to downsize!

So even if you have a huge walk-in closet, why not limit certain types of clothing to a definite amount of space?  You could "allow" only 6, or 8, or 10 pants (trouser) hangers, for example, or one shoe caddy that can hold 12 pairs of shoes.  Why is it that we can allocate one drawer for socks, or one drawer for night clothes, but other types of clothing can explode in our closets just because there's room?  Set a boundary, curate your wardrobe, simplify getting dressed, and enjoy every piece of clothing you own and the uncrowded space in which you store it.

Take a break.

Blogger Emily McDermott reminds us that "If you're not ready to get rid of certain items or behaviors in your life, it's ok to take a 'break' rather than 'break up.'"  

When we think we can't possibly do without something, taking a temporary break can help us understand what we gain by removing it from our lives, rather than fret about what we are losing.  Whether that means taking a digital sabbatical, boxing up clothes, toys, books, or dusty kitchenware, or cutting out dessert or alcohol for the next 30 days, we have a chance to get clear about what is really valuable and essential.  And since we're only "taking a break," we can mindfully and intentionally reintroduce those things if we choose.

Boundaries make room for the life you want.

Living at full capacity is exhausting, and it makes us less effective.  When a phone or computer gets close to its limits, it may start acting strangely.  Apps may close without notice, crashes are more frequent, the battery drains more quickly.  

We are the same.  When we're overloaded and overwhelmed, our energy is drained.  We have less patience and flexibility.  We're so bogged down by what we've accumulated in the past that we have no heart for what comes next.

When we decide what we can do without (temporarily or permanently), something amazing happens.  Where before we could barely keep up, now we have the capacity to focus and pay attention.  We can use our precious resources of time and energy in ways that bring us the greatest fulfillment.

The answer to lightening your physical and mental load isn't more square footage, a smart gadget, or a better organizing system.  It's found when you look closely at what takes up your space, time, and energy and offload what you no longer need.

Create boundaries for your belongings and activities, and you'll find yourself with more freedom and success.

Updated March 2023


  1. I 100% agree Karen. I really don't understand the "have more stuff" thing. On another note, I do wish that I had understood another type of boundary - personal boundaries, beneficial safe protective ones, when I was younger.

    1. Hello again, ratnamurti. You're fortunate that you've figured out that having more stuff won't necessarily make your life better. And you're right, we do need personal boundaries that keep us from being hurt or taken advantage of by others. It sounds like you had to learn that from sad experience, but I'm glad you're taking care of yourself now.
      Best wishes


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