Does Your Clutter Survive the Disaster Evacuation Test?



Ivan ChanNote: This is a guest post by Ivan Chan. Ivan is the creator of Wealthy Without Worry, a Star Wars fan and a martial artist. In his latest quest, Ivan teaches professionals how to make smart money decisions that fit their lifestyles. Check out what he does here! (You might remember that Ivan previously shared 5 Devious Mental Blocks that Make You Procrastinate With Your Finances with us here at MvD!)

You probably have clutter in your home you just can’t seem to get rid of.

Some might have been given to you by a loved one. Some of it might be antique and could be valuable, someday. Some could become useful someday, but you’re not sure so you’re keeping it just in case.

Despite all this, you don’t think you’re a hoarder. After all, you do try to keep your home neat and tidy. And besides, you know people who are a lot worse than you when it comes to living with too much stuff.

Yet, every time you look at the clutter around your home, you feel a little guilty.

What will it take for you to finally tackle your clutter?

For most people, the challenge of de-cluttering is a lot like the challenge of dealing with money.

Simply having a list of tips on what to do or how to do something is NOT enough. You need someone to help you decide your course of action and then guide you through it.

That’s how I felt when I looked at my clutter. I was sick of having all this stuff gather dust around my home. But I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Do you feel the same?

A powerful thought experiment to help clear clutter

Forget just another list on how to de-clutter. I needed a way to help me decide what’s important and what I should dump from my life.

That’s when I came up with my Disaster Evacuation Test.

Imagine this scenario:

You’re about to lose your home to a fire.

You don’t know what’s going to happen to you or your family in the coming days. All you know is you have to leave your home immediately. You can’t possibly take everything with you. You can only take what you can carry.

Decide what is important enough to save and take with you. The rest, you will have to leave behind.

The clock is ticking.

Start the test by applying it to a single room first. Once you’re done, move on to another room. Do so until you’ve covered all of your living spaces.

Remember, you need to take this seriously for it to work!

What would YOU save?

I know this thought experiment sounds a little extreme, but it is meant to be so. A different perspective is crucial in waking ourselves up from the status quo.

The Disaster Evacuation Test forced me to look at my stuff in a whole new light. Up to that point, I did not have any clear criteria for deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. And since I have a hard time making up my mind, I ended up procrastinating on the whole exercise.

That’s why this test works. It provides you with a crystal-clear guideline to help you decide whether to keep something or throw it out.

By the way, the following is what I decided to take with me:

  • Passports and other important documents
  • Photos of loved ones
  • Wallet
  • Cell phone
  • My laptop

Did most of your stuff survive the “fire?”

Or perhaps, just like me, you now see your stuff in a whole new light.

The surprising realization (and 8 lessons we can learn)

This exercise of evaluating each item I own helped me realize something profound.

I can live just fine without the vast majority of my stuff.

Chances are, only a small fraction of what you own actually adds value to your life. The rest of your stuff is simply clutter taking up space without providing much benefit.

What else can we learn by applying the Disaster Evacuation Test?

  1. Your stuff isn’t your life. In the famous words of Tyler Durden, “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your f%^king khakis.” Tyler is right. Now, I like fancy gadgets as much as the next geek. However, material goods should not define who you are. You are more than just another designer label walking on the street among a sea of other designer labels. You know you are.
  2. Clutter costs you your life. Most of us have to trade our time for money. The next time you’re tempted to buy something on a whim, calculate how much this object will cost you in terms of time. If something costs $150 and you make $15 an hour, that works out to 10 hours. Is this purchase worth slaving away 10 hours of your life? How about 100 hours? How about 1,000 hours (roughly half of a working year)? You decide.
  3. You can’t take it with you. My mom told me I can obsess about stuff all I want, but I can’t take it with me when I die so I should just give it a rest. Being short-sighted and foolish, I didn’t listen to her when I bought my top-of-the-line Android phone on a 3-year contract. That stupid thing became obsolete 6 months later when a newer model came out. Wise money spent? Heck no. Wise lesson learned? Indeed.
  4. Even after you pay it off, your stuff will still cost you. Having lots of stuff means you’ll have to spend lots of time and energy maintaining and organizing it. The headache gets worse if your stuff gets damaged/lost/stolen. Do you still feel like hanging on to all that clutter around your home? Furthermore, studies have shown the happiness you get from buying stuff doesn’t last long. For all the money and time you spend, that sucks bigtime.
  5. Your stuff is holding you back. Remember how I said our human nature is to stash stuff away for a rainy day? While that habit can be useful, it can also backfire. That’s because the more you stash, the more reluctant you are to part with your stash. Yes, you’ve put in all this time, money, and effort to build it up. But is it really that important?
  6. Your stuff is money sitting around. I know not everything you own can be sold for money. But I’m sure some of it can definitely be turned into cash. If it’s just sitting around your home, then it’s idle money and it is doing you no good. During all this time, that money could have helped you pay down your debt or live your dream. Seriously, do you need any more motivation to get rid of your crap right this second?
  7. Life is too short to be chasing stuff. We all have a limited amount of time and money. Whatever time you spend on chasing material goods is time you wouldn’t have for doing other things in life. The thrill and happiness you get from buying stuff disappears quickly. Don’t get into a vicious cycle where you have to buy increasing amounts of stuff just to keep experiencing that thrill of purchase. That’s not a fun way to live.
  8. Stuff can be replaced. But you can’t do that with people. The people in our lives are way more important than any thing can ever be. As long as my loved ones are safe and sound, I know I can give up all of my material possessions if I absolutely have to. But if my loved ones weren’t around, then there would be absolutely nothing in this world I would want that could possibly make me feel better.

8 simple ideas to start clearing your clutter today

Now that you’ve decided what is really important to you and what is mere clutter, it’s time to take some action! Do the following to remove your clutter starting now:

  1. Start with 5 minutes. Leo Babauta suggests starting small when it comes to clearing out the clutter from your life. Not only is working in 5-minute sessions easy to fit into your schedule, it also removes the intimidation that often prevents people from getting started in the first place.
  2. Tackle one room/area/spot and STOP. This is as simple as it sounds. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to do too much at once. Limit the scope of your clutter-clearing missions and celebrate once you’ve achieved your objective.
  3. Get rid of one thing a day. Still can’t get started? Remember that taking action on one item is way better than intending to take action on a whole bunch of items (and never actually getting around to doing so). Consistency is the key. You can get rid of one thing today, can’t you?
  4. Remember to look at all places. It’s easy to focus on one area and forget about that nook or cranny around the corner. Make sure you don’t let any clutter hide!
  5. Give your stuff a time-out. If you’re just not sure if you can part with something or not, put it in a box. Label the box with a date that is a year from today. Put the box away and come back in one year. If over the next year, you did not have to touch that box once (or even remember what’s in the box), then throw the box out. Do NOT open the box to see what’s inside. Just get rid of it.
  6. Sell it already! Check here for all kinds of useful tips and advice.
  7. Give it away. You certainly wouldn’t get any money with this method, but at least you’re getting rid of your crap. Besides, perhaps someone else could put your clutter to better use than simply having it as massive dust magnets.
  8. Have a bonfire. Hopefully you wouldn’t have to resort to this. After all, it’s kind of hard to make money from your stuff after you’ve burnt it. But sometimes drastic situations require drastic measures. If everything else fails, this will be your ultimate weapon to rid yourself of clutter.

Don’t wait!

If you’re anything like me, you may be tempted to procrastinate at this point. Don’t. That’s not what you want to do. You didn’t read all this way just to click away and do nothing.

Putting your stuff through the Disaster Evacuation Test is the first important step. Now that you know what clutter is and what’s actually important to you, you need to take the next step.


That’s why I gave you all those tips above. You might not need them all. But try at least one today.

Trust me; you’ll feel a lot less guilty once you do.

And be accountable – tell us what you did in the comments!

Go, go, go!

25 thoughts on “Does Your Clutter Survive the Disaster Evacuation Test?”

  1. Great post! The psychology of clutter and how profound an impact it can have on our lives is fascinating. I still remember buying a laptop back in 2000, I used it a bit but not really that much and it became clutter. Unfortunately I kept this damned thing for close to a decade and struggled to get rid of it. I finally got rid of it and since that day it has been a lot easier for me to get rid of clutter (I’m still far from perfect but I know I can). Seeing this personally allowed me get past some of the psychological barriers that come with clutter.

    Great ideas for de-cluttering; they key is to not get discouraged.

    1. Thanks, Matt! Yeah, psychology definitely plays a big part in clutter, both in the accumulation of it and the difficulty in getting rid of it. As you’ve proven though, sometimes all it takes is a first step to get you rolling. Once you get rid of that first thing and realize it wasn’t so bad, then it gets easier!

  2. I have spent the last year right sizing my life. Got rid of a lot of stuff that no longer served me. I am down to a quarter of the living space I had just 13 months ago. It is so liberating.
    Were I to evacuate, the only thing I would grab would be our passports and photos.

    1. Ah yes, collecting… one man’s trash is another’s treasure, indeed! I wonder what your husband will think of the Disaster Evacuation Test then…

  3. I am so thankful today I found your website. It is posts like these that keep things in perspective for me. I obsess about the smallest inconsequential things and I use debting to make those feelings go away. I am trying to unlearn years of bad habits.
    So today…I give myself some compassion and my actions so far have consisted of filling out the assets vs debts excel sheet, putting the credit cards in my safety deposit box and only spending cash/debit on food & rent & living expenses (necessities not wants), making payments as soon as I get my paycheck, and giving up my $6 daily coffee habit.

    1. Thanks for being here, PT! We’re glad to have you join us! You deserve a big pat on your back for taking your first steps towards tackling your debt. It’s not easy to acknowledge one’s own shortcomings, so kudos to you for owning up to yours!

    1. Thanks, Rebecca! Yeah, isn’t that so true? I know I’m guilty of paying too much attention to material goods on a day-to-day basis. So it’s good to look at life from a different perspective sometimes to see what we’ve been missing.

  4. My husband is in the water and fire restoration business, so we see this daily as part of our lives. When people have to re-enter a home that has just been flooded, or is in the process of cleanup and dry out, they usually just want pictures, some clothes, and a few personal items. But the number one item that people want is their computer (desktop or laptop). Most floods and water leaks happen while someone is at work or away from the home, and many times it is while a family is on vacation (turn off your main water when you leave for a long period of time). Most of the time people do not get the opportunity to think about what they can or cannot take with them. Not only getting rid of the clutter is important, but make sure that your pictures and important documents are stored in the cloud, and also backup your computer somewhere. If your computer got washed away and everything you need is in it, this could be a major problem. I see this all the time. Even the insurance papers people need to see if the damage is covered is in the laptop that is in the room that is now flooded and destroyed.

    We just got a call on a property where the family had no flood insurance. They have now lost everything. In order to even get their house back in livable condition is going to be more money than they can afford. The statistics are that 1 in 10 homes have flood insurance, and many regular home policies do not cover personal possessions. If you are a renter, nothing you own is covered.

    On top of getting rid of the clutter, make sure you back up the important things, and take pictures and get covered for those things that you would want to replace. It breaks my heart to see how many people lose even those few items that they wish they could have gotten if they only had a few moments before the accident.

    1. Great point, Elizabeth, on backing up the important things in your life as much as possible. That should definitely be the next step after doing the Disaster Evacuation Test and getting rid of your clutter.

  5. I suppose my 6-year-old flip phone is “obsolete,” but why should I care? As long as it continues to work, it’s fine with me. Cell phones are made using conflict minerals, so saving money isn’t the only reason to not obsessively switch phones.

  6. Thank you so much for this post, and for the introduction to Ivan Chan. This was really helpful, and so is his website and the information he offers — perfect timing, much appreciated.

  7. This is a great post. So easy to keep buying or collecting then wonder a few years later, why we did it. Since I’ve been in the habit of getting rid of my belongings for coming up 3 years, I really enjoy doing it. Even better if I can turn it into cash in the process. I was actually caught in a house fire 10 years ago, when my upstairs neighbor’s place went up in flames, and I guess survival kicks in and you save what’s really important. That was, in this order…myself, my dog, my wallet and my keys. Nothing else mattered. I didn’t even put shoes on! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Claire! It’s amazing how, deep down, we all know what’s truly important when it really matters. Admittedly, there are just too many shiny “toys” beckoning for our attention on a daily basis that it’s easy to lose sight of the important things in our lives. Of course, shiny toys are nice and I’m not saying we should do without them. It’s just that we should be conscious on where to draw the line.

  8. I love the evacuation test and all of your tips for de-cluttering! I’m not too bad, but I definitely have some junk I can get rid of. I’ve been meaning to do it for a while, but because I keep thinking about the whole task, I haven’t taken any action. This post has spurred me into action. Thanks!

  9. I’ve had the same flip phone for 6 years. Living simply (so that others may simply live) involves not caring if something is “obsolete.”

  10. Awesome post Ivan. I think what really shapes how much clutter we have in our lives is our surroundings — where we work, what we do, etc. I find that my context often finds me pushing for more more more, so we need reminders like this to serve as pattern interrupts, to not get sucked into it. Honestly, it’s tough. Slippery slope and all that. Thanks for posting this on MvD!

    1. Thanks, Chris! I agree that our surroundings – especially our peers – have a huge influence on how much we tend to accumulate. It’s definitely easy to get sucked in and just follow what the crowd is doing.

      I guess it’s in moments like this that we should try and remember what Mark Twain once said: “whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

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