how decluttering helped me (re)gain presence

Spray bottle spraying vines

Illustration by Kailee Vanderwoerd

They say that absentmindedness has no cure. And I believed it.

Whether it’s misplacing things, forgetting about meetings, walking into poles, or daydreaming during class, my past self had done it all.

But I have good news.

A year ago, I discovered and dove into decluttering: removal of what’s unnecessary, followed by organization of what remained. I found that by tidying up my surroundings, my memory and focus improved. Better yet, I no longer had items go missing, unexplained absences, or embarrassing crashes. Most surprising of all, anime characters stayed clear of my notes.

And all that goes to show something: Being absentminded is curable.

 

 

Objectively assessing objects

First, Hideko Yamashita’s book 人生を変える断捨離, which translates to “life-changing cut-off” (Google Translate) or “life-changing abandonment” (Microsoft Translator). Interestingly, although the book appears to come in French and German editions, no English version exists, to my knowledge.

This book revealed that keeping a minimalist lifestyle can create opportunities for focus and introspection. It also taught me to select what to save— and what to discard—by evaluating possessions from three angles:

1. Is it essential—that is, is it used?

2. Is it (still) suitable/comfortable to use?

3. Does it bring me joy?

I approached my closet first. Immediately I was face to face with bleak reality: Over several months, I only wore three of the many shirts I had—and two out of my four hoodies.

My disappointment from reviewing my clothes sank to despair when I studied my bookshelf. I had quite a display, with the likes of Oliver Sacks and G. K. Chesterton. Unfortunately, I never (fully) read half of the books. And the books I had read just sat there like ornaments, never revisited.

Finally, I confronted things of sentimental value— many items no longer useful or, for that matter, usable. They included my duvet from before pre-school. The gentlest shake would liberate feathers through the seams and onto the floor. I also had a pair of leaky boots, broken electronics, a damaged water bottle, and more.

Clearly, my room was storage for the unused, the unusable, the uncomfortable, and the non-pleasing. So, purgation it was.

 

Bidding things goodbye—with thanks

Before discarding items identified for removal, I took photos to remember them by and thanked each of them for having been there for me—I had learned
this from another book on decluttering: Marie Kon- do’s Spark Joy.

With this gratitude, I donated a slew of books, removed clothes that couldn’t be (or hadn’t been) worn, tossed out hangers (I vowed to fold the few clothes that remained), and recycled electronics. I discarded notes and handouts I was never going to reread. I also chucked empty boxes, such as those previously containing desserts from friends.

Following all this elimination, I felt refreshed. Cleansed. All at once rejuvenated, as though I’d lathered on five layers of SK-II.

Then, I felt upset and irritated.

If I’d discovered decluttering sooner, I could have dodged the heavy lifting when I moved out of campus residence (each trip threatened a visit to the chiropractor). But, within moments, I realized two things. One, regret is unnecessary as no one can change the past. Two, maybe I wouldn’t have understood the principles of decluttering back then.

So, I eliminated those feelings as well.

 

Beyond decluttering

Ever since I read Yamashita’s and Kondo’s books, life has felt lighter, my mind clearer. Maybe it was because I had fewer things to keep tidy; maybe it was the newly gained space. Or, perhaps, it was through both reflection and removal that I found what I truly cherished.

Whatever the explanation, learning to declutter has transformed me. To this day, I keep few possessions. Items are categorized. Clothes are folded. Books are arranged.

And there’s a bonus. I’ve also been able to apply the decluttering principles beyond room organization—from more quickly distilling lecture content to editing for concision. Most of all, I have learned to treat what I do own with care and appreciation— and I am more in the present, more (dare I say?) present-minded.