Zen Cleaning (plus tips) – an adventure in letting go

Most people call it Spring cleaning, but why not call it – alternatively- Zen cleaning?  The difference, to me, is that the goal of Spring cleaning is to feel accomplished for having cleaned while Zen cleaning the aim is more about keeping life balanced by letting go of what no longer serves you.  What ‘no longer serves you’ can be dust or a disorganized closet. But what if you take the time to go through your things with intention, and decide what stays and what you can let go?  Zen cleaning helps me to clear things out to end up feeling better, and somehow “lighter.”

I don’t know about you, but I was never motivated in the Spring to clean.  The fresh air and newly warm air was always too tempting. Summer cleanse or Fall refresh weren’t my cup or tea either.

Other Declutter Methods

Does this Clutter make my Butt Look Fat cover

You can order this book through my affiliate link: https://amzn.to/2RPzj0c

When I worked at Weight Watchers, I remember reading an article (based on the book “Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat?”) about how cleaning the clutter out of your home would help you lose weight.  That seems like a good motivation – but it wasn’t enough for me to do much. 

There are also articles (maybe proven research) about how less clutter helps you think clearer.  And then there’s the thought of dying, and what the people left behind would have to clean up.  That part is definitely shame-based motivation – I mean, would I want my kids to discover…”that”? The problem I have with the “Death Cleaning” is the thought “Why do I care what others think, cuz I’ll be dead.”

Netflix provides inspiration with the series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo”  Her methods might work for you.  I found parts of it overwhelming.  The advice I used was asking if a piece I was undecided about “sparked joy.”

Everything’s temporary

I had a boss once, and maybe you know people like this too, who would make sure someone knew about all parts of his job – just in case “he was hit by a bus.”  Although he did this as a way to delegate, I found it a funny/odd way of showing how life is short. 

The other thing that stuck with me over the years was the question: “If your house was on fire, what would you save?”  In my thoughts, my kids & dog were not in the house when this happened.  With family safe, what object(s) would I value so much I’d dare to make sure I dragged it out of the house.  Photos.  That’s been my answer.  Even more so before digital image storage.  Now that we have that, the number of photos to bring out with me is much smaller.  Thank you cloud storage!

At Burning Man one of the main principles is immediacy.  This is based on how temporary everything is – even the Man is burned at the end of the event.  I feel I had already learned this lesson when my mom’s barn had been burned down when it was hit by lightning.  I was in college at the time, and had stored boxes of things from over my childhood.  The only thing that was saved of mine was my high school yearbook (soggy, crispy edges so not worth keeping) and my varsity letter.  Those letters from my very first crush?  They are in my memory, and probably better than re-reading the real thing decades later.

Zen Cleaning for Downsizing

With the confluence of factors leading me to decide to sell my house and downsize for my next big adventure (think “location independent business” and “living tiny”), I thought it would be a breeze to get my home prepped.

Downsizing is a lot different than just cleaning and packing for a new home.  Fortunately, I’ve watched enough of those tiny house shows where they show families what it means to live in much smaller spaces to know I must get rid of just about everything.  What I didn’t realize was how emotional it would all be!  The serenity aspect of Zen cleaning was put to the test as I purged my stuff to be able to go from 1800sf to…possibly 200sf or less!

zen cleaning my white stucco with blue trim house

It’s not the Royal Palace, but it was just the right size for my family.

blue and white skoolie much easier to zen clean

This is about 225sf! A Skoolie that I toured at a tiny house exp (called Ellie the Skoolie). This was motivation for my extreme zen cleaning.

Zen Cleaning Tips

Deep cleaning and organizing your home and all your “stuff” can be emotionally draining and overwhelming. Here are some tips that I learned along the way that could help you too:

  • You are not your things. Your worth as a human is not dependent on “keeping up with the Jones’”, or the size of your house, or the cost of your car.  Or how gold your toilet.
  • Let your friends and family know that you are going to be downsizing, and that you will need them to be emotionally prepared for all the sentimental journeys you’ll be going on as you sift through it all. (My sons and mom got the brunt of my weepy times.)
  • Do you have any friends who are great at organizing? See if you can rope them in to helping you.  Having a “third party” who is not attached to your stuff is very helpful.  I had a friend who helped me organize a lot of things into a one-day “free sale.”  We gathered things and put them out on the lawn for people to take.  One ad in Craigslist and most of it disappeared by lunchtime.
  • Don’t buy into the yard sale myth and think you can make a ton of money off your stuff. Everyone says it is no longer worth the time or effort.  Yard-salers want a deal, and will negotiate beyond the already good deal in front of them.
  • Sell your things online. If you’re good at eBay, awesome.  I don’t have experience with them, and was not inclined to wanting to ship things.  I used Craigslist, Facebook groups/marketplace (there are a few specific to my area, and one for the vintage magazines I have), and apps (I used LetGo , dcluttr for electronics, and my friend Chad told me about OfferUp).  Keep in mind that some people buying from these services can be flaky.  (And of course, take precautions to keep you safe!)
  • Find lots of places to donate. Many charities offer receipts, but with the new tax laws, going for the deduction will most likely not be the reason to donate.  In my town, we have four excellent centers – Goodwill, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity ReStore and The Humane Society.  In surrounding towns, there are churches that take donations to help others.  It’s easy to just drop off even though some of these non-profits are in this for making money.
  • Go one step further with donations. Find places that take donations who work directly with people who really need your excess stuff.  I found a place that takes furniture and assorted household items and allows people in transition (from homelessness, or aging out of foster care and into their first apartment) to come in and “shop” for what they need (no money is exchanged).  Thanks to volunteer work my son does, I discovered that my town has a homeless shelter which takes care of up to 80-90 people! This place received all the coats collected over the years I no longer wear (but are still good) as well as the extra household/kitchen items.  I was amazed how much I could let go knowing that I only needed enough for two people, instead of the 4+ in the past.
  • There are websites (www.freecycle.com) that you can describe what you’re offering up for free. Craigslist, NextDoor and the FB group also have “free” sections.  If you’re lucky, you have people who seem to drive around just before garbage pick-up day looking for objects they think they can somehow re-sell (even for scrap metal).
  • “Re-Home” your belongings. My first step with this was my extra sheets and blankets.  I knew I’d never need those specific X-long twin sheets college dorms require.  I brought these to my local ASPCA.  Dogs and cats like the smell of humans, and my sheets have been used well enough that they have leftover human smell.  It makes me feel good to give a little critter some love.  My next step was checking in with friends.  I thought carefully about this, which items would be ideal for which friends.  I had to be okay with them saying no.  Which happened.  I liked the word “re-home” so much better than “get rid of your shit.”  It made it easier to detach to many of my better items knowing they were going to a good home.
  • Give yourself permission to be sentimental. But don’t get stuck in the past. Remember, it’s all temporary anyway, and you’re doing this for a good, personal reason.  One piece of advice I heard was to thank the item for being in your life.  Appreciate it, and the memories.  If you need to, take a photo of it.  It can be a way of holding on to it, without taking up all that space.  I had a hard time packing my books, selecting which ones to keep.  I ended up journaling my feelings, and knew it was ok to gift the pleasure of reading to others. (Read about saying goodbye to your book-friends “Learning To Let Go Of Books).
  • Do not buy new things to take up the space of the stuff you let go! Enjoy the minimalism. See how long you can go without these things in your life (partly because real change doesn’t happen instantly).  Move what’s left into a new position, and see if that change feels good.  It probably will!

Before & After the House Stager

To help sell the house, the realtor hired a stager.  I know myself well enough that I don’t have the designer gene.  My style, on a good day, would be “eclectic.”  Others may call my style “chaos mixed with comfort.”  Both styles are too specific and won’t help the family that will buy my home to see it as theirs.  It’s funny/odd seeing the results.  All my stuff, but put together in a way I would never have imagined.  I admire those with this talent, it’s magical.


Messy living room with dog before zen cleaning

BEFORE PHOTO: My living room is not normally this cluttered – I was packing for Burning Man – but you can guess the chaos.


After zen cleaning a staged living room with wood floors and blue walls

AFTER PHOTO: The stager worked with my furniture and accessories, even from other rooms.


Dining room filled with friends and crafts before zen cleaning

BEFORE PHOTO: My dining room as a crafting gathering spot


after zen cleaning the dining room with wood floors and dining table

AFTER PHOTO: The dining room looks so much bigger (especially with 2/3 of the furniture gone!)

Zen Cleaning is On-going

Once the house sold, I followed a friend’s advice – , I held an “estate” sale.  Locked up one room with what I’m saving, and sell the rest.  What didn’t sell, I already have great places to donate.  I’m sure that I will be going through the bins I have in storage, and “re-homing” again, and I’m okay with this.  It’s all a process. 

Zen cleaning isn’t about torturing yourself, it’s about making life less cluttered and peaceful.  The adventure is to take the risk of making changes, being okay with letting go, and enjoying the serenity that comes with having less.  What do you prefer – Spring cleaning or Zen cleaning?

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  1. Sharon McHugh

    When my kids were young, I used to make cleaning into a game – the Cinderella game – where they could be Cinderella or one of the mice, (I was always “Gus”, the fat mouse!) and we had to hurry and clean the rooms before the evil step mother came home. One of our neighbors recently sold their house after they retired and bought a conversion van to travel the country. They had a giant yard sale and sold just about everything. My daughter is a school bus driver. I can’t imagine living in one but am amazed what people do with the limited space! This is quite an adventure – and it probably is a “freeing” experience by not having all the extra “stuff” that we really don’t need! Enjoy the process!

    • Stacey Newman Weldon

      I love the idea of playing Cinderella! Did any of them get to wear the fancy Cinderella outfit? I suppose the big skirt of her ballgown would get in the way…lol. When I was at the Tiny Home Show recently, I was touring one of the “skoolies” and two women bus drivers were touring too! It was so funny to hear their comments. They agree with you – they couldn’t imagine living on one either! My partner and I have both lived on boats in our pasts (not together), so we have an idea of what it’s like to live in a small space. But the converting part is what really intrigues me. That, and seeing America in this unusual way.



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