Books started the process, which expanded to everything. I viewed books like everyone else: They showed people who I was, they added to my home, were useful for reference, etc.

I went through an experience that changed that. It started innocently. I decided to get rid of only my useless books--the ones I wouldn't miss and had for no good reason.

Looking at my shelves, it was easy to pull the junk from those worth keeping. Actually, there were some borderline ones, which I decided to be conservative about and kept. I still got rid of about a quarter overall, selling them to a nearby bookstore.

Some time later, I found, as expected, I didn't miss any of the books I got rid of. Unexpectedly, however, I saw that without the junk I got rid of, the formerly borderline ones seemed more junky.

I decided I had been too conservative and got rid of some of the marginal books. As I got rid of them, I found some previous keepers now seemed marginal. Staying conservative, I kept all the newly borderline books.

Some time later I found, as expected, I didn't miss any of the books I got rid of. Unexpectedly, however, I realized that without the junk I got rid of, the formerly borderline ones seemed more junky.

I decided I had been too conservative and got rid of some of the marginal books. As I got rid of them, I found some previous keepers now seemed marginal. Staying conservative, I kept all the newly borderline books.

If you didn't notice, I repeated a couple paragraphs. That's because I repeated the process in my life.

I iterated several times over the course of a couple years. I'm down to a few books, mostly references like Strunk and White, some school texts, and The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

The experience led me to unexpected discoveries:

  • I missed the books less than I expected, if at all
  • My attachments to other things decreased
  • I use the library more. No matter how many books I had, the library has more
  • I learned about attachment, especially to things I thought I couldn't part with
  • I read as much as ever
  • My apartment is bigger
  • I experienced how a book is not what it communicates.

The Big Lessons

The process was easy. People make a big deal about simplifying. There's a world of apps, books, etc. on the subject. So many that it seems complicated. This process was simple. I didn't have to plan, buy anything, tell anyone I was doing it, etc.

The process applied everywhere in my life, including my junky thoughts and worries, which I can more easily get rid of as a result.

It taught me my values. The more I valued a book, the more I learned about myself in letting go of it. Which leads me to the biggest thing I learned from the experience: I had earlier viewed getting rid of books only as losing something. Instead...

I gained freedom, both physical and mental.

Not that this is supposed to be deep or anything. It's the same freedom I get from letting go of attachments to anything, but I used to value books so much that I gained a lot of freedom in this case.

I still value knowledge, learning, and what books bring, but I don't attach those things to the physical book.

I connect with people on values more than material stuff. More people in my life live by their values.

You Can Do It, Too

All you have to do is get rid of a few things each time.

If you think it's harder for you, it's hard for everyone who gets rid of stuff.

I used to love my books. I was so proud of them.

My father is a history professor, which meant I grew up with them everywhere. I considered them part of my identity.

Now I consider my newly discovered freedom more a part of my personality, which I share freely.

Having heard my experience, my brother-in-law is starting to give me his huge collection of books to sell to the bookstore. We call the process "putting the books back into circulation."

Enjoy getting rid of your clutter--both physical and emotional.

Published on: Aug 29, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.