There’s a line in the film Fight Club where Tyler Durden tells The Narrator, “The things you own end up owning you.” This is later reinforced in the Chuck Palahniuk novel/David Fincher movie when members of the chaos-driven group of radicals Project Mayhem are instructed that two black shirts, two pairs of black pants, a pair of black boots, two pairs of black socks, and a black jacket are the only personal effects a person needs in their life.
While Project Mayhem was a destructive group of anarchists, something about that quote always stuck with me. That isn’t to say I’ve lived a minimalist lifestyle since first watching the film. Rather, I’ve noticed how I rationalize keeping things that I don’t really need, much in the same way Edward Norton’s character dealt with his insomnia through retail therapy. More often than not, when life gives people problems, they reward themselves with things. But ultimately, these items will never fill the void in your life.
Over the years, my closet became particularly problematic. I discovered that most of my wardrobe was a series of uniforms for tasks, social situations, and bygone eras that no longer reflected who I am.
When therapists start to counsel those hoarders who collect to extremes, their cognitive therapy begins with simple, non-judgmental questions such as, “When was the last time you looked at that newspaper?”
I figured that was a good jumping-off point for my closet clean-out. Instead of asking, “Do I like that piece of clothing?” — which opens up feelings of guilt based on where, when, and from whom I acquired an item — it was more valuable to ask, “When’s the last time I wore that piece of clothing?”
Here are the other major takeaways for those wanting to hit the reset button and clear out their closet.
Rule 1: Accessibility is key
One of my earliest revelations was that I was only wearing about 10 percent of my clothes. And not surprisingly, they were most often on the shelves and hangers closest to the front, meaning I prioritized how easily I could access something over what I actually preferred. Put simply, if you like something and you want to keep on wearing it, place it front and center after your closet clean-out.
But people should be aware that ditching items isn’t as easy as it seems. In 2012, researchers at Yale discovered that two areas in your brain associated with physical pain — the anterior cingulate cortex and insula — are also impacted by ditching clutter (even unwanted clutter). That isn’t to say the initial purge was like getting my finger jammed a door. It was more a feeling of emotional ineptitude for having let my closet get into such disarray in the first place.
Rule 2: Ask yourself, “Where do I go?”
If you go to the gym every day, it would make sense to have lots of athletic-type clothing. Conversely, if you’re a lawyer, it would make sense to have more suits than the average Joe. Once you recognize where you go with frequency, it’s easy to understand what you actually need.
There was a time when I went to an office five days a week. While the atmosphere was decidedly casual, it still required a bit of dressing up. Many of my shirting options were traditional Oxford button-downs in a variety of different colors. But when I ditched the office job, the Oxfords still kept their place in my closet despite no longer being a “uniform” that matched my lifestyle. For a while, I reconciled that those shirts still had a purpose, when the truth was, in the back of my mind, I figured I’d once again have to slink back into office life when freelancing didn’t work out.
A 2011 study by the Journal of Consumer Psychology reveals that objects you struggle to get rid of are likely tied to your self-worth. In my case, the notion of “stability.” Sub-consciously, the shirts were a reminder of what I could go back to, instead of what I wanted to do moving forward. While we often think of items in our closet as being sartorially dated, even stylish contemporary pieces can become “old” depending on your situation.
So I’ve now learned that when a life milestone occurs, your closet should reflect that.
Equally problematic is the opposite feeling. Whereas much of my clutter stemmed from my past, psychologist Kit Yarrow has suggested that another leading cause of unwanted clothing is a “misperception, or self-deception, [which] allows us to psychologically rationalize the purchase of products that would otherwise seem inappropriate or foolish.”
Yarrow wrote, “When we shop, we visualize our future selves. That’s why so many people love to shop — it’s an exercise in preparation. Shopping stimulates our imaginations. As we consider different items, we imagine how others will respond to us, how we’ll feel wearing it, and so forth.”
Rule 3: “Multiples” can crush you
Many publications that dish out fashion advice often add “get multiples if you can” as a way to illustrate the timelessness of a piece and how several color choices would be a wise investment. Items like jeans, crewnecks, polos, bombers and so on all fit the bill.
This was probably my biggest problem. I’d found pieces I really liked and then took the idea of “multiples” to the extreme. I had unwittingly become a collector. In turn, I often found myself feeling like I was always wearing the same thing. I now understand that just because something is a different color, it doesn’t mean it warrants a purchase.
Rule 4: You need fewer pairs of pants than you think
When packing for a trip, I often go overboard on shirts but rationalize my pants selection by saying, “I can get away with the pair of jeans I’m wearing to the airport and an emergency pair in case I spill something on them.” This attitude shouldn’t be reserved for short excursions, it should be the mantra for your trouser game, period.
Jeans don’t need to be washed regularly like other items. A single pair can keep its place in your rotation for several weeks. Mix in another pair of jeans, a pair of chinos or two for diversity, two pairs of slacks, and a guy should be fully equipped for all social occasions with just six pairs of pants.
Rule 5: Give up the gifts
Whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, or a birthday, there are several events a year when you can expect to receive gifts. Even if you and your loved ones swear off anything major, smaller items such as T-shirts, socks, or other accessories are still pretty common gifts — especially if you’re lacking inspiration.
This was another huge problem for me when dealing with my closet clean-out. Gifts are problematic on two levels: they come unprompted and they’re picked out by someone else. This creates a scenario in which you feel obligated to keep something when there’s also a good chance you probably don’t even like the item to begin with. This is the perfect storm for clutter. And as research suggests, clutter competes for your attention and leads to decreased productivity and unwanted stress.
GQ has even suggested that a person should take any unwanted gift and “hide it in a closet somewhere if you can’t get rid of it and also can’t bear to use it.”
A better suggestion would be to consider asking for “experiences” instead of things. Go out to eat or to a movie. Strengthen your bond with someone who values you enough to show you a token of their love or friendship.
Rule 6: Donate
More and more, we’re moving toward a concierge-style economy in which people are placing convenience above all else. Charities such as The Salvation Army were collecting donations many years before ride-sharing and deliverable groceries became all the rage.
Those who have successfully completed their closet clean-out can simply schedule a pick-up. Box or bag up your unwanted goods — although I recommend skipping on the old underwear, socks, or items with permanent stains — and leave them by your door. Not only is an act of charity good for the soul, but it’s also tax deductible.
If you believe that your unwanted clothes warrant a return on your investment, consider looking into options on how to resell hyped goods, exploring the sneaker aftermarket, and identifying the proper marketplace for used items.
Tips moving forward
1. If you’re unsure about how much you actually wear an item of clothing, arrange all your hangers so they’re facing in one direction. When you wear something, turn the hanger in the opposite direction. After a month, you should have a good sense of what has made the cut.
2. Follow the “one in, one out” rule. If you buy something, the natural reaction should be to get rid of or donate something to balance it out.
3. Would you buy it again? Pretend you’re shopping in your own closet. If you love something so much that you’d buy it again, keep it.
4. Closet upkeep should be a weekly task. You wouldn’t clean your bathroom once a year or vacuum once a month. While there is decidedly more change in terms of household cleanliness per week, you can also use that time to reassess your closet. Perhaps you’ll realize that the shirt you thought you wear all the time hasn’t passed your hanger test. Perhaps your shoes have been knocked around and need to be rearranged. Take five minutes while you’re already in cleaning mode and you’ll never have to do a major closet clean-out again.