Throughout my childhood I was famed for my messy bedroom. My possessions formed a pseudo-carpet which caused nothing but daily inconvenience, yet the idea of tidying prompted such a negative response in me that I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
At various intervals the mess would become so ridiculous, so comical, that I would be forced by my parents to tackle the mess and restore order. We would take to my room with a bin bag (or five) and start by removing all the rubbish. A few empty coke cans, out of date cosmetic products, piles and piles of papers accumulated from school. Next we would go through my clothes, trying them on in turn to see if they still fitted and return them to the wardrobe neatly folded and colour coded. At times we would even venture to IKEA (gulp) and seek out a clever new storage system which would help me to keep my possessions in check and room tidy.
Each time we finished, I would hoover my newly found floorspace, make my bed with clean sheets and marvel at how different the space was. I wouldn’t really know what to do next, because of the constant mess, I was used to always having the task of tidying at the back of my mind as something I should be doing. So when the task was finally completed, I didn’t know what I should do. I loved the look and feel of the tidy room but I didn’t know how to use it.
As I would begin to use the space in the days to follow, the mess would start to creep in. Pulling out a t-shirt from the bottom of the colour coded pile and trying two different pairs of jeans with it before making a selection would leave the neatly folded colour coded garments slightly askew, and the next day a bit more, until by the end of the week they would be completely demolished. Packing my bag for school I would remove my P.E kit and maths text-book and replace it with my English books but where was I meant to leave the P.E kit? I was bringing destruction to my sanctuary, as if I had some sort of Midas touch which turned everything to chaos.
It was a frustrating cycle that I didn’t understand. The habit of untidiness paints a picture of an unorganised, lazy child but this couldn’t be further from the truth. I had good grades, was a successful athlete and had worked part-time since I was 14. I felt guilty that I couldn’t keep my room tidy and frustrated that I was constantly living in mess.
Throughout sixth form the need for a tidy space became even more pressing, I was working 16 hours a week, training and competing around 10 hours a week and completing 4 A-Levels with the hope of attending a good university. Often I would travel to work straight from school then eat dinner in the car on the way from work to training, sometimes completing homework tasks when I got home at night before doing the same the next day. My solution was to tidy constantly. Every few days I would embark on a micro-tidy where I would sort laundry, file school papers, fold clothes and return items to their homes.
While I used this solution for around 2 years, it was not without its drawbacks. Firstly, there simply wasn’t enough space for all my possessions, not everything had a home and I would resort to cramming items into drawers and behind the bed to make them fit. In my effort to give every item a home I brought a trunk into the room for storing my training kit, a bookcase for my school books, mini drawers for toiletries. My large bedroom, though easier to tidy, had shrunk. Secondly, I still loathed tidying up. I felt like I was constantly returning items to their homes and I couldn’t understand how people maintained a tidy, uncluttered room never mind a whole house.
A shift began to happen when I went to University. I packed up everything I thought I would need and squashed it into the boot, back seat and footwells of my mum’s car. Even when I had packed everything my room was still full. shelves were still adorned with trinkets, books and keep-sakes, there were still plenty of clothes in my wardrobe and drawers. Living in halls meant that I had to completely empty my dorm room at Christmas and Easter, then again for the summer. When I got my own car and suddenly found myself unloading my possessions by myself, I naturally began to pack less stuff. I developed a routine of packing my clothes into one bag, books and study materials in the other and filling my rucksack with miscellaneous items and valuables such as my laptop.
In my second and third year this routine became even more sparse. I carted the same few items to and from Nottingham every few months though my rooms at University and at home remained well stocked with possessions. As every student and former student will tell you, being at university means you are financially challenged and you don’t have money to spend on clothing and other luxuries. This meant that during my time as a student I didn’t acquire many items.
In my final year as a student athlete I was extremely focused on study and competing and as a result I didn’t really drink much or go out – I still don’t. This meant my budget management was slightly different to the typical student experience but I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by like minded people and we would consult each other on whether we should splash out on some meat, or the ingredients to bake something. I had started to live a more simple life of routine and frugality, and was focusing on the things that were important to me during that time, namely sporting success, my studies and my relationships with people. Living away from home, I happily talked to the most important people in my life via telephone or Skype everyday and although I desperately wanted to be home in Essex, I was contented with the knowledge that university is a temporary experience in order to enable me to have the life I desired.
The summer I moved home was a dream, I was happy to be surrounded by my family and friends, not to mention my long-term boyfriend (now fiancée!) who had patiently supported me throughout university and had endured the inconvenience of distance alongside me. I began training to be a teacher on a course funded by a government bursary equivalent to a graduate salary and the financial pressures of university began to melt away.
I felt empowered to make whatever purchases I wanted, I didn’t have to consider carefully whether I really needed new jeans or not, I could just buy them. I began to take the approach that money is just…money, use it to make you happy and as such went on a number of holidays, went shopping almost weekly and ate out constantly.
I loved the freedom I was enjoying but as the year progressed I began to become aware of the great weight of the things I owned. I had enjoyed the ease of keeping a small number of possessions tidy but this tidiness just didn’t seem achievable anymore. The move to Hong Kong presented itself as the perfect opportunity to confront my possessions once and for all. I would pack only what I needed and discard anything I didn’t.
I read articles, blogs and books about how best to edit my possessions and decide what was truly important and set to getting rid of anything I didn’t want or need. The result was car loads full of donations to charity, one storage box in a garage full of winter coats and useful items that I wouldn’t need to bring to Hong Kong and two suitcases ready to depart.
I had envisaged the packing process to be a nightmare where I would be cramming items into my suitcases and sitting on top of them trying to close the zips but as I began to consider each item I owned honestly, the process became easier and I actually had space left in my cases. The reality of transporting each item quickly revealed its true worth and it became clearer to me which items I genuinely used and which were just accessories that I was laden down with.
I was brutal in the interviews I held with each item, clothing which didn’t sit right, was of a material prone to showing sweat marks or staining, had a label which itched my neck, didn’t match my other clothes or I simply didn’t love didn’t make the cut. Even sentimental items had to put forward a convincing argument in order to make it into storage and not find themselves filed under “B” for bin. The more I purged, the more liberated I felt. I began to look forward to the move not only as a chance to experience a different culture and country, but to be free from my excess of stuff.
Starting from scratch in our apartment we were confronted by a carcass of an apartment. We started by buying the things we needed most to survive in the apartment – a mattress and bed, cooking equipment and a sofa. In the second week we added a bedside table and wardrobes, a TV and a cupboard. We mused about the items we might add next month now that we were furnished enough to function day-to-day. A rug perhaps, and maybe a second bedside table. A piece of furniture to make the bedroom less sparse, maybe an arm-chair and a coffee table.
Experiencing the space of our apartment for a month has made it clear that we don’t need these things, and we won’t be buying them. Operating successfully with what we already have has shown us that we enjoy the space of our apartment more than we desire somewhere to stash more possessions, or another surface to fill. Instead we have filled out apartment with laughter and love. We have filled it with ideas for travel destinations and plans for visits home at Christmas. We have filled it with Skype conversations with family and great meals shared together at our small table. We have filled it with the frustrations experienced during moments in Hong Kong lost in translation but we have also found space for our love of our adventure in the city.
Our experiences are what define us, not our possessions. Though a shadow of a hoarder still roams within me, I hope to purposefully make a shift towards collecting experiences in place of things and embracing each day in this crazy city.
Interested in making the “things” in your life more intentional? Marie Kondo’s book is a fantastic place to kickstart your decluttering, Erin Boyle’s blog is great for daily inspiration on managing a small space, and check out the minimalists for loads of information on a whole lifestyle shift.