The Onion Method

I have been decluttering my home for the past year using the onion method. I have found it to be the easiest way to approach family minimalism. Decluttering is a process which needs to be revisited again and again as you get a clearer idea of what you need and how you want your home to look and feel. The idea of revisiting spaces and working towards progress not perfection is built into the onion method and makes it one of the easiest ways to declutter both physically and mentally. So, let’s get started!

The main idea behind the onion method is that your home has layers of stuff in it and you work by peeling away those layers bit by bit. The big idea is to start with the lowest hanging fruit. Declutter something that is easy and obvious. Tackle a part of your home that has been bothering you and that you feel certain about. Joshua Becker suggests grabbing a basket and just going around your home and filling it with items you know you no longer need. Dawn from the Minimal Mom suggests starting in the kitchen as usually we are not emotionally attached to our cookware and it is easy to both make decisions in this area and it yields a high reward – a kitchen that is much easier to cook in and clean.

I have found that the way I have peeled my onion is to work on items that take very little mental energy (the outer layers) and slowly work my way towards the tasks that are more mentally and emotionally taxing. This method is very fluid and you will know where to begin. That being said, I will share with you what my onion layers have looked like over the past year to give you an idea of what you might do in your home.

Layer 1 – Obvious Items – Trash, Broken Things, Items That are Physically in The Way

This is a really satisfying stage of the declutter. You are just getting started and you get to purge all the things that you know are trash/recyclables. All the empty boxes, receipts and so on are gone. All the broken toys, electronics and ripped linens and clothing can go. Ripped books and games missing too many pieces to play can go. Get rid of the cracked or chipped glasses and plates and the rusty kitchenware. Also, get rid of the stuff that you have just been physically tripping over and running into like that pile of donations, the stack of mail, and the huge children’s toys that were abandoned a year ago. Clear it out and feel yourself and your house breathe!

Layer 2 – Outdated Items – VHS, DVDs, CDs, Old Board Games, Magazines, Old Electronics

These items can give you some grief because letting go of CDs full of songs you love and VHS tapes and DVDs full of movies you enjoy can feel strange. But, if you are already using digital media, let go of the physical copies which you either do not or cannot use anyways. You might be holding onto it all because you have calculated how much money you have spent on your collections which you no longer use. Whatever is holding you back just remember – you wouldn’t guilt someone for donating their cassette tapes which they no longer can use so why are you doing it to yourself?

Layer 3 – Non-working Items – Clothing that you don’t like or doesn’t function well, Toys that aren’t played with, Kitchen Gadgets that aren’t being used, Books that you don’t like

I once had a beautiful, black shift dress that was perfect in every way except that the back zipper was too heavy for the fabric so over the course of the day it would slowly unzip and need to be rezipped continuously. I finally stopped wearing this item after I had to ask a coworker to zip it for me because my hands were full of boxes and disaster was imminent. This dress did not work. I got rid of it along with other clothing items that I bought but just didn’t love or wear. You can involve your kids in this step by simply asking them what toys they don’t play with and want to donate to make room for what they will receive for their birthday or Christmas.

Layer 4 – Apocalypse Items – Items you are afraid to throw out

I have heard The Minimal Mom refer to these items as “what if” items. What if I need this? What if we do use this one day? I had a moment with a potato masher where I realized my “what if” was way out of whack. I held my masher in my hand knowing I hadn’t used it in years. “But what if there is a huge apocalyptic disaster and we no longer have electricity to use my blender and I need to mash my potatoes?” I thought. My rational brain replied, A.) “You will have bigger things to worry about than potatoes.” and B) “Use a fork.”

Layer 5 – Bossy Items – Items telling you to take care of them when you don’t want to

This concept has been popularized by Fumio Sasaki in his recent book Goodbye, Things . The idea is that certain items in your home are always telling you what to – scrub me, sort me, stack me, water me and on and on. This stage is really empowering because it is at this point you get to start bossing your house around. You have peeled away broken, unused, non essential items. Now, you get to look at what is there and ask yourself if you really want to take care of this or that. Do you really want to keep putting away 20 bath toys or could you live with 5? Do you really want to keep dusting all those knick knacks or could you do without them?

Layer 6 – Guilt Items – Gifts you don’t want, Sentimental Items, Stuff you spent money on and can’t part with because of the waste

This can be one of the toughest layers to peel back. Gifts from Grandma and Grandpa for the kids that you just can’t stand – like a loud toy or a bucket of slime. Gifts from family or friends that are sentimental but just not your style – like clothing or home d├ęcor. Or expensive things from decades ago which you spent money on but no longer like – like designer handbags. Holding onto this stuff will not get you your money back and getting rid of it is not a reflection of your relationships with others.

Layer 7 – Ideal Self Items – Clothing you want to fit, Books which you have been meaning to read for years, Hobby things you never use

This can be a tough category! For me, many of my books fell into this “ideal self” category. I bought them intending to read them and left them on my book shelf for years. I really liked picturing myself as an avid reader. I am finally accepting that I am in a phase of life (7 years and counting) where I only have the mental energy to reread my favorites. I got rid of a lot of my books by telling myself that if I do get back to reading a lot again then I can always visit my local library.

Layer 8 – Sentimental Items – Photographs, children’s art, wedding memorabilia, souvenirs,

I think the easiest way to begin dealing with these items is by a) digitizing what you can and b) getting a container/album and just deciding that whatever you keep has to fit inside of this container. Each member of my family has a container for sentimental items with their name on it. My hope is that over time I will find ways to bring out and enjoy more of these items in my home but until then there is at least a limit on the stuff and it is easy to find and enjoy now.

Layer 9 – “Meh” Items – Items that you can live without

This layer is what I think of as the refining layer. You will find yourself getting better and better at getting rid of what doesn’t add value to your life. I try to keep just what I really love not just what I am okay with. Some people might be able to do this in their first pass through their space but for me decluttering was a muscle I had to build up.

Have you found this to be helpful? What decluttering methods have you tried in the past?

Good luck!