On Monday, I shared my most recent closet inventory. I revealed that I have approximately half the number of clothes as I did when I started my blog in January 2013. While that represents amazing progress, I know there are others who have pared down their wardrobes far more rapidly. In truth, I have also purged things from my closet more quickly in the past, but my smaller wardrobe never seemed to last very long.
I’ve come to understand that I have a sort of closet “set point,” a wardrobe size with which I’m comfortable and come back to time and time again. In today’s post, I share my closet set point theory and the insights that have enabled me to reduce the size of my wardrobe over time. I also offer some tips to help you lower your closet set point.
What is a Set Point?
Before I delve into my thoughts on closet set points, let’s look at what a set point is. I’m sure many of you have heard this term in relation to body weight and dieting. The weight set point theory postulates that each human body has a specific weight range at which it is comfortable. This set point is based upon a number of biological and genetic factors, many of which are outside our direct control.
If a person diets down to a weight below her set point, her body will automatically regulate hunger and metabolism in order to reach that level once again. That’s a big reason why it’s so difficult to maintain weight loss over the long term and why we often reach plateaus while we’re dieting.
Weight set point is not completely set in stone. In fact, it often increases with age and hormonal changes, as many older women reading this may be able to attest to. It can also be impacted by activity level, the types of foods we eat, and how much we sleep.
What is a Closet Set Point?
Now this is not a weight loss blog and this isn’t an article about body set points, so let’s get back to the topic of our wardrobes. I believe that much like we have weight set points, many of us also have set points related to the size of our wardrobes. Of course, these set points are not determined by our genetics or our biology. Rather, they are impacted by a number of psychological factors, including our history, our environment, and our emotional needs.
I believe the biggest determinant of our closet set points is what we are used to. For many of us who have a history of overshopping, a jam-packed closet has been a longtime way of life. Even if we periodically purge unworn pieces, we shop so frequently that it doesn’t take long for our closets to once again burst at the seams. Even those who don’t overshop tend to keep their wardrobes at a fairly consistent size. They may not bring as many items in or purge pieces at a very high rate, but they still maintain a relatively stable closet count.
The Ups and Downs of Wardrobe Size
At times, we may reach a high level of frustration at the burgeoning proportions of our closets. So we spend a few hours pulling out all of the pieces we don’t wear and pass them on to loved ones, charity, or consignment. We may fill bags upon bags with our cast-offs and feel extremely pleased with ourselves for our efforts.
But such contentment doesn’t last long for many of us. We start to feel an internal angst and restlessness – or even a sense of panic at what we’ve done. Our smaller wardrobe feels foreign to us and far too tiny for our comfort. So what do we do? You know the drill… We head out to the stores – or log on to our computers – and buy new clothes, shoes, and accessories to restore our sense of homeostasis.
The shopping we often do following a wardrobe pare-down is very similar to the binging many dieters do after weeks or months on a restrictive eating plan. The dieter has likely dipped down below her weight set point or challenged it dramatically through her behavioral changes. We have done something similar in radically reducing the size of our wardrobes over a short period of time. We have done too much too soon and our psyches aren’t able to handle it. The shopping we do alleviates our anxiety and allows us to feel calm in the closet once again, at least until we feel frustrated at our packed wardrobes the next time around.
The Vicious Cycle – and Breaking It
What I have described is a vicious cycle that I’ve experienced many times over the years. I’ve often reached a point with my closet (or for many years, closets) where I was disgusted with how many clothes I had accumulated. On two occasions, I hired closet consultants to help me pare down my wardrobe. Both times, we filled numerous bags with ill-fitting, worn out, and no longer loved pieces. I felt great and very satisfied with myself – for a time. Then I increased the intensity of my shopping, and you know the rest of the story…
I love the following quote from Albert Einstein:
Insanity: doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.”
I had been there, done that with my closet more times than I care to recount. So when I started this blog last year, I decided to take a different approach. I opted to pare down my wardrobe more gradually and deliberately in the hope that I might achieve better lasting results. I didn’t do this in a vacuum, however. I also put some parameters around my shopping to “stop the bleeding” and slow down the influx of new pieces into my closet. I didn’t stick to my rules 100%, but having them in place definitely helped me to shop less often and more purposefully.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race!
My wardrobe pare-down has happened so slowly that I had plenty of time to emotionally adjust to the changes. At least that’s how it mostly went down. On several occasions, I purged a bit too quickly and thus experienced a few shopping binges as a result. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had gone too far below my closet set point, which led to a bit of a panic. Going back to a slower approach enabled me to get back on track and continue the general down-trend in the size of my wardrobe.
Just like with our body set points, it is possible to reduce our closet set points over time. I’m sure you all know people who have slowly lost weight, at a rate of one to two pounds per week, and have been able to keep it off. Conversely, you probably know people who have gone on crash diets and lost a lot of weight really fast, only to put those pounds back on weeks or months later. Well, the same principle can be applied to our wardrobe size reduction. Slow and steady wins the race!
Some Tips to Lower Your Closet Set Point
Now that I’ve gotten the theoretical stuff out of the way, it’s time to share some concrete tips for lowering your closet set point. No strategy will work for everyone, but hopefully at least one of these tips will be effective for those of you who would like to experience lasting results with your closets.
One In, Two Out
I often read about the “one in, one out” recommendation in relation to preventing household clutter. That’s an excellent approach for those who are happy with their current level of possessions. But what if you want to decrease the number of items you own? If you keep bringing in the same number of items as you release, you’ll never be able to downsize. Therefore, a better strategy is to adhere to a “one in, two out” principle.
The beauty of “one in, two out,” especially when combined with some restrictions on your shopping (i.e. an item limit and/or a budget), is that you’ll be paring things down, but not at a very rapid pace. You don’t necessarily need to put two items in the donation bag each time you bring something new into your home. But if you keep track of what you bring in, every month or so you can do a mini-purge and let go of approximately double that number of pieces.
That’s roughly what I’ve been doing over the past year and a half. Although I’ve still been buying new items, I’ve been letting go of approximately twice as many things as I bring in. This has resulted in a gradual downsizing of my closet over time. I do feel it’s important to slow down the pace of bringing new pieces in, though, as you don’t want to be purging existing items just for the sake of it. The items we let go of should be things that we no longer love and wear.
Use a “Hidden Holding Zone”
Instead of immediately sending our cast-offs out the door, it can be helpful to temporarily store them somewhere in our homes (what Angie of “You Look Fab” calls a hidden holding zone). We can hang them in another closet, pack them up in boxes, or house them in an attic or garage. The purged items live in a sort of purgatory for a time, which allows us to adjust to their not being in our main closets. It also gives us time to “rescue” some pieces if we find ourselves missing them for whatever reason.
If we find that we were a bit overzealous with our purging, we can re-add some of our cast-offs to our wardrobes and reevaluate them at a later date. This may seem like a step backwards, but I think it’s better than rushing out to re-fill our closets due to anxiety from moving too quickly with downsizing.
I have used this strategy on multiple occasions during the past year and a half. I would say that I’ve only added 10-15% of the holding zone items back to my closet. Emotionally, it helped me to have an interim period of adjustment to living with fewer clothes. Sometimes the pieces I rescued were “diamonds in the rough” that I ended up wearing and enjoying later, but other times they headed out the door not long afterwards. However, the important thing is that I was less compelled to shop to fill in gaps in my closet.
Take On a “Dress with Less” Challenge
It may seem counterintuitive, but doing Project 333 really helped me lower my closet set point. Doing that challenge caused me to step way outside my comfort zone, especially the first time I did it. I went from close to 300 garments down to 33 for a period of three months (I actually took everything else out of my closet!) and it was definitely difficult for me! However, it also showed me that I didn’t need nearly as many clothes as I previously thought. Although I felt that 33 was far too few garments for me, I knew that my previous wardrobe was much too large.
Even during my Project 333 term, I was able to pare down my wardrobe. I tackled it a bit at a time, but my pace of purging was accelerated quite a bit over what it would have been otherwise. Pushing myself to dress with less increased my comfort level with having a smaller wardrobe, so it was easier to let my mediocre closet pieces go.
You don’t have to do something as drastic as Project 333 if you don’t want to. You can select a larger number of items to work with (perhaps 50 or 60) or you can do the challenge for a shorter period of time, such as a month or two. The key is to stretch yourself and get a bit uncomfortable in the process. Just like stepping up your exercise can help decrease your weight set point, dressing with less for a period of time can lower your closet set point.
Set Small, Doable Pare-Down Goals
My final tip for lowering closet set point is to set small and doable pare-down goals. Instead of saying you’re going to let go of 100 items within the next month – or even the next year – start with a smaller goal. Perhaps you can set a target of releasing 10 pieces this month. Focus on that goal, make it happen, and then pause to celebrate your success. Then take a month off, regroup, and set another small goal.
Going back to the theme of “slow and steady wins the race,” these little, periodic goals will help you make lasting changes. You have time to get used to a slightly smaller wardrobe before progressing down to the next level. Of course, you also need to make sure you’re not bringing more items in than you’re letting go of! Using this strategy in tandem with some limitations on your shopping will ensure your best chance of success.
I hope the insights and tips I shared above will be helpful for you. Again, this is just my perspective and it may not apply to all of you. Now it’s your turn to chime in… Do you feel you have a closet set point? Have you been able to successfully lower your set point over time? If so, what advice do you have for those who are looking to do the same? As always, I am open to your input and I welcome your insights on this important topic.