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“I have nothing to wear.”

You’ve thought it, I’ve thought it, and, if you are like me two years ago, all the Pinterest-pining (not pinning, but pining after the perfect everything in the pictures) has done little to actually give you more options in your closet, no matter how many clothes it contains.

In an effort to make do with the clothing I already own, I checked out the capsule wardrobe pins—12 ways you can style this scarf, that vest, those booties, etc. But I continued to feel stymied when I stood in front of my clothes hangers before the sweatpants-need-not-apply events in my life.

Then, sometime during the great dumpster fire of a year that was 2020, my friend Rachel suggested I check out “The Minimal Mom,” a YouTube channel she had stumbled upon and loved. The Minimal Mom is Dawn, a Minnesota mom of four who together with her husband Tom embarked on a “minimalism journey” roughly seven years ago. And while I’ve always been more organizer than minimizer, with a goal of arranging things better rather than working to pare down my possessions, I was curious when I read the title of her video, promising to help me “create a simple wardrobe from the clothes [I] already have.”

One moment in, I could tell her advice extends well beyond just relating to moms (although moms may feel more overwhelmed by the weight of managing clothes for multiple people!).

“Most of us are already wearing a minimalist wardrobe,” Dawn said. “We just don’t call it that. We’re just surrounded by a bunch of clothes that we don’t actually wear. . . . A lot of clothes does not give us a lot of options.” When she promised that her method worked quickly and for everyone, I was skeptical but intrigued. What she said next was the difference between her video being just an audiovisual version of Pinterest that I passively consumed versus something I could take action on.

Rather than telling me to touch every clothing item I owned to assess whether it sparked joy, she said to dump out all my in-season clothes on the bed (bonus points for having just done the laundry so that I really was looking at everything). Then, she said to pull out all the things I would actually wear in a two-week period for three categories: dressy clothes, workout gear, everyday wear.

All the other clothing, whether due to not fitting, not coordinating with anything else I owned, not being flattering, being stained, etc., was essentially visual noise because time and time again I would pass over those clothes for something that fit and I felt confident wearing. All the left behind clothes got sorted into one of two boxes: the sell/donate box or the “time will tell” box, aka the quarantine box. The quarantine box should not be made of clear plastic that I could look into at any time, but rather of cardboard or some other opaque material so that the contents really were out of sight, out of mind. If after three months (the time frame most clothes are in-season) I hadn’t missed the items in the quarantine box, I could safely donate them without fear of regretting my decision later on. The gaps created by this wardrobe simplification could guide my future purchasing decisions.

I followed her directions to the letter, and the results were magical. Each time I opened the closet I was faced with only my favorites. I hadn’t anticipated the emotional freedom that came when I wasn’t facing the clothes that made me feel guilty, i.e. the ones that no longer fit, on a daily basis. Nor had I expected how much lighter I would feel by jettisoning so many clothes. Being able to devote minimal mental energy to getting dressed each day meant that I could redirect that energy elsewhere.

Reducing the mental load

That was just the beginning. Since that first time, I’ve watched dozens more Minimal Mom videos. I’ve found the central message of the minimalist wardrobe video is the core concept each MM video circles back to—our possessions are so much inventory we are constantly managing and expending energy on. If you imagine all your things stored individually in an Amazon warehouse, you can see how quickly that amount of inventory would feel overwhelming. The question each viewer is encouraged to ask themselves is—how much do I want to manage?

Answering that question started with sorting through clothing, but my focus has widened over time to include my kids’ clothing, toys, home decor, kitchen gadgetry and dishes, and more. For example, looking at my young children’s clothing through the lens of what I want to manage, especially since at their current ages I am the one doing all the laundering and most of the folding, has led me to purchase their new clothes with intentionality. My four-year-old daughter’s wardrobe last summer was 7 everyday tops, mostly in shades of pinks and blues, with 6 coordinating patterned shorts or skirts plus 5 church dresses. She grew in independence because she could pick out her own clothing each day, and I was completely willing to let her do so because everything looked good with everything else. Since “managing” inventory also includes considering how much care and maintenance our things require, I shopped at the secondhand store and consequently didn’t worry about anything getting ruined by rough-and-tumble play.

The inventory-management mindset shift also led me to let go of many things I’ve held onto for years because “someone gave it to me,” even if I didn’t prefer, say, the sweater and consequently never wore it. Dawn’s videos gave me the confidence to recognize that operating from a place of gratitude for the gifts we’ve received does not necessitate keeping things we don’t need or have use for out of fear of offending the gift-giver. As a result, I’ve gradually become more and more comfortable “editing out” anything that feels like excess in my life, even if the item is something I bought and later realized was not a good fit. Rather than living out of a place of guilt about wasted money (within reason!), she consistently encourages viewers to give themselves grace and the freedom to figure out what looks good in their house, looks good on them, and so on.

What’s been liberating about these minimalizing habits is that I haven’t felt burdened to label myself as a certain type of minimalist, to decrease my possessions by a certain percentage, or drastically change my life. I’ve felt the benefit of adapting certain changes that fit into my home and lifestyle. I’ve found that an attitude of willingness to let things that don’t serve us go combined with a determination to make careful and purposeful purchases has led to manageable levels of inventory even as we’ve recently added another family member, received an influx of birthday and Christmas presents, and so on. And the best part is I’ve gained a spirit of intentionality that is here to stay.