How “Essentialism” Offers a New Take on the Way You Declutter Your Closet

published Jun 22, 2023
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Credit: Lula Poggi

“Have you ever found yourself stretched too thin? Do you sometimes feel overworked and underutilized? Are you often busy but not productive? Does your day sometimes get hijacked by someone else’s agenda?” Greg McKeown, author of the New York Times best-seller Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, poses these irksome questions. I picked up his book because I could answer yes to at least some (er, all) of them — and I was surprised by what I found. 

What Is Essentialism?

Simply put, essentialism is an approach to life that determines what is most essential and eliminates the rest. To paraphrase McKeown, essentialists consistently differentiate between the important few and meaningless many to craft a life that is focused and purposeful. 

This differs from minimalism, in which you intentionally live with less, as you are choosing to not only live with less, but also with the things that matter most, aka the essentials.

Essentially, McKeown’s book encourages people to do less to live more. “Less, but better,” a quote by the famous German designer Dieter Rams, is a frequent refrain. What I didn’t expect to find was McKeown’s explicit connection between essentialism and decluttering. 

“You can think of this book doing for your life what a professional organizer can do for your closet,” he writes. In this extended metaphor, he explains how when you don’t make the effort to go through your closet, it becomes overstuffed with items you hardly recognize. And when you do attempt to organize your closet, you can fall into the trap of either keeping clothes you hardly wear, accidentally giving away the ones you do wear, or storing clothes away for future donation.

Thankfully, McKeown offers an essentialist approach to organizing your closet (and really, our lives): Explore and evaluate, eliminate, and execute. 

Step 1: Explore and evaluate.

When choosing what clothes to keep and what clothes to pass on, you might ask yourself: “Will I ever wear this again?” McKeown claims that that is not an essential question. Instead, he proposes the following questions: “Do I love this? “Do I look great in this?” “Do I wear this often?” If there is even a whisper of a “no,” McKeown says to get rid of the garment. 

Step 2: Eliminate.

McKeown walks readers through a familiar situation: clothes on your bed are divided into piles of clothes to keep, donate, and toss. But are you willing to take the step to get rid of the unwanted clothes? The phenomenon of sunk-cost bias sets in. You value things you own more highly than they are worth. In Forbes, Dr. Margie Warell writes, “We can all fall prey to sunk-cost bias because we’re all innately loss-averse and, let’s be honest, who wants to take a loss or admit they wasted money, energy, or years of their life that could have been better spent?” The Essentialist’s antidote? McKeown’s simple question: “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to keep it?” 

Step 3: Execute.

Unlike other organizing approaches that boast one-and-done organizing, McKeown claims that having an essentialist closet requires daily practice. Closing out the closet metaphor, McKeown writes, “Essentialism is about creating a system for handling the closet of our lives. This is not a process you undertake once a year, once a month, or even once a week, like organizing your closet. It is a discipline you apply each and every time you face a decision and whether to say yes or politely decline. It’s a method for making the rough trade-off between lots of good things and a few really great things.” 

Essentialism, both in my closet and in my life, is intriguing because it focuses on the quality of a thing — a garment, an activity, an idea — and encourages me to take a hard look at its value. Unlike my experiences with minimalism, essentialism is not focused on having less for some aesthetic gain. Furthermore, essentialism is an approach I can apply to my life, not just my things. After reading this book, I find myself looking at my calendar: Would I love to do that activity? Or examining my to-do list at work: Is that task essential to completing my overarching goal? Essentialism is a way of saying yes to fewer but better as a way to live a more focused, less harried life.