When Anthony and I first began our minimalism journey, we had no idea what to expect. It felt challenging at first to declutter our things but it got easier as time went on. Over time, we realized that clutter goes far beyond physical things. Clutter exists in digital, emotional, mental realms, and the list goes on. And whether it’s physical or not, one of the most difficult categories to declutter is what I call aspirational clutter.
The Easier Stuff, What You Don’t Want
When we initially started decluttering, our efforts focused on physical things. The idea of going through all the items was overwhelming at the beginning. Also, the decluttering process definitely made the home situation worse before it got better.
It was difficult back then to get rid of things that would be easy now. One item at a time through playing minsgame, I steadily got more comfortable. I went from counting old business cards as items at the start to donating barely-worn clothing and basically-new appliances towards the end. We both did multiple rounds of minsgame that first year, and soon, we began decluttering organically and periodically as we saw fit. I got used to decluttering the things that were no longer adding value to my life, whether utilitarian or sentimental. It got to the point where I didn’t feel like I had many more things to declutter.
So I began focusing on the other areas. Cleaning up, organizing, and deleting old digital files that were no longer useful. Diving into emotions from the past I was holding onto so I could release them. Working to let go of unproductive mindsets and beliefs that kept me from trusting myself and building more confidence.
Aspirational Clutter, What You Do Want
Along the way, I realized there was a whole other category to declutter. One that was vastly different from the things I didn’t want anymore in my life. And that was aspirational clutter. It’s one thing to declutter items that you don’t want anymore. It’s a whole different game to declutter the things that you do want (or think you want).
Aspirational clutter is the excess of what we hold onto for our potential selves instead of who we are and what we’re able to do in the present.
Aspirational clutter can take shape in different forms. It can be the yoga mat you buy (the false first step) after envisioning yourself balancing on one foot under a tree on a beautiful spring day—even though you’ve never tried yoga before. It’s an idea in your head of who you could be if only you had this or that. Maybe it’s a belief that feeling happy all the time is the gold standard and anything less isn’t good enough. It could be a vision of what success looks like to someone else, not your personal definition of success.
Underlying Feeling and Weight
The underlying feeling of not-enoughness that results in holding onto the item or idea is what aspirational clutter causes. Aspirational clutter stems from a (sometimes unconscious) belief you are not good enough. Another form is the belief that you’re not doing enough as you are. So you cling to the physical item, idea, or to-do list item, even though it’s not adding anything beneficial to your life. You may feel a sense of failure, guilt, or shame whenever you see anything that reminds you of what you’re not doing.
There’s also an emotional and mental weight to the aspirational clutter, whether you realize it or not. It’s similar to when your coffee table is cluttered with many different items. You may not notice the stress that the physical clutter is adding because you’re gotten used to it. But once you’ve cleared the table is when you realize how much lighter and more focused you feel. Similarly, aspirational clutter adds additional stress so we’re not as able to focus on what’s going on now.
When we hold onto aspirational clutter, we think about other things when we are doing another thing. We expend energy feeling not-enough and feeling like we should be doing more. Ironically, we can mistakenly think that these are good things. We may think the clutter is good since they are often in the name of personal growth, an increase in social status, or some improvement.
Examples of Aspirational Clutter
Things that used to be aspirational clutter for me were old notebooks filled with my notes from past courses that I thought were important. There were also books that I held onto for later reference, but realistically, were more for who I wanted to appear as than an actual need.
Beyond physical things, I had hundreds of unread emails that I meant to read—of the latest news or research in a field. It wasn’t feasible to read all of them, but I held onto them because what if there was some piece of information in there that could really benefit me?
Aspirational clutter also included definitions of success based on others who were completely different than me. Additionally, I held myself to standards in the past that weren’t for me because I didn’t know who I really was.
Merging the physical, digital, mental, and emotional, was my aspirational list of what I wanted to get done for the day. I’d start each day with so much aspirational clutter that it probably would’ve taken me weeks to do all of the things. Therefore, I’d get two or three things done out of a list of ten things at the end of the day. It’s no wonder I constantly felt like I was behind and that I never had enough time. Even if I didn’t put the thing on my to-do list for the day, I still was thinking about it. I would be reminded of certain things and think about them while working on something else. I didn’t fully realize at the time just how much aspirational clutter was weighing me down.
An Ongoing Process
I’ve since gotten rid of old notebooks and many books. I’ve also unsubscribed from and deleted thousands of emails over the years. Examining my beliefs and ideas is something I’ve spent a great part of the last year doing. Nowadays, I’m much more realistic about what I’m able to take on each day and month. However, it’s an ongoing battle.
Managing aspirational clutter is an ongoing process because there will always be new interests and more things that I want. It’s part of the natural evolution of what it means to be human. As social beings, it’s difficult not to be influenced by others and by what we see. It’s easy to compare and feel like you’re not enough, especially with social media and advertising.
What’s Not Aspirational Clutter
Aspirational clutter doesn’t include the long-term goals you’re working towards or your vision of where you’re going. It’s also not something that you have a use for in your life. It can be tricky at times to tell what is what, but one distinction is whether it’s fully aligned with what you actually want—not what you wish you could be. The other distinction is if you have space in your life right now or an intentional plan for later.
If you have space for and make time in your life to do yoga, even if it is only periodically, a yoga mat is not aspirational clutter. When you have an intentional plan around creating space for a new hobby, it’s not aspirational clutter. I’ve compiled a list of questions I ask myself to help me identify what’s aspirational clutter and what’s not.
Intention is Key
Perhaps, after some reflection, you realize you do have space to take action on the thing. Or maybe you really don’t have the time right now. It’s okay to have ideas and physical items on the back burner for when you do have space. Whatever you end up deciding, setting your intention is key to releasing the aspirational clutter.
When you have a clear intention to postpone, the thing no longer has any weight or feeling of obligation. It can be beneficial to avoid the false first step until you have space in your life. That way, you won’t have un-used items sitting around for months or years reminding you what you aren’t doing.
One other thing to keep in mind is, not all ideas are meant to be yours. Just because you have an idea or a physical item that you want, doesn’t mean you need to keep it or do something with it. Even if something seems cool or interesting, it may not be a true fit for you.
Release the aspirational clutter so you can better focus on what’s going on now. However, pay attention to the ideas or things that come to mind again and again. There may be a reason they keep on coming back to you. It’s worth thinking about making an intentional plan of how and when you’d have space to act on these recurring items.
Another Way Forward
So how do you know what’s aspirational clutter and what’s not? And what are the steps you can take to deal with the aspirational clutter that’s weighing you down?
As mentioned earlier, identifying aspirational clutter can be difficult. Doing so requires a level of awareness and being honest with yourself. I know firsthand, easier said than done.
I’ve come up with questions I ask myself that help me identify the aspirational clutter. Additionally, I go through a step-by-step process to release this type of clutter. Given the nature of aspirational clutter, the process is different from decluttering the things you don’t want anymore.
Life without all the aspirational clutter is a lot less stressful. We all have periods of time that are busier. But if you constantly feel like there are too many things to do and not enough time, there’s likely aspirational clutter weighing you down. If you’re feeling overwhelmed on a consistent basis, it’s worth asking yourself what is the aspirational clutter in your life. Know that there is another way forward, one that I’ve found to be more beneficial and where I’m more at ease.