How To Declutter

Piles of clothes

Clutter is a problem of the new millennium.  We own so many things that we feel lost in the very place that we should feel most nurtured......our own homes.  Even if we already own an item, we might not be able to find it in the what do we do?  Buy a new one, of course.  We are left feeling overfull, overstressed and overstimulated. Here are a few tips to understanding how we got into this mess in the first place and some strategies on how to get out of it. 

  1. Start small.  The amount of decluttering that needs to be done can be overwhelming at first.  So you need to start small.  Divide one room into grids and work on one grid at a time.  The grid can be as small or as large as you want it depending on your time and motivation level.  The trick here is to create momentum and a sense of success.  Once you have one grid decluttered, even if it is as small as one shelf of one bookcase, then you have a place to rest your eyes, to remind you of how the rest of the bookcase will look when you're done with it, and how the entire living room will one day be navigable.
  2. Ten minutes per day.  Ten minutes per day doesn't sound like much but it adds up.  Pick a time slot and stick to it every day-whether it is when you first get up in the morning or after you come home from work-so that decluttering will become a part of your regular routine.  Find a time that works for you and stick to it.  So what exactly are you doing with these ten minutes?  Read on.   
  3. Assess each object.  Create four piles.  Pick up an object from your area of clutter, assess it and decide which pile the object goes into.  Use both your brains and your feelings in this assessment-if the object doesn't feel good to you (even if you inherited it from so and so), it is time for the object to move along.  Your four piles are:
    • Throw Away - If you haven't used something in over a year, throw it out.  If it is junky, cheap, broken or annoying to you in any way, trash it.  One glitter-sprayed pine cone that didn't make it into the Christmas boxes six months ago gets tossed!   You'll need to develop some ruthlessness in your decision-making.
    • Store - If it's paperwork, then file it, Christmas ornaments, then put them in the boxes labeled "Christmas" in the attic. No rationalizations are allowed.   "Well, once I create the storage system I have planned, this will go there." Uh-uh. 
    • Donate - This category is for those things that aren't junky and broken but still aren't being used.  The new baby gift from Grandma that little Joey never took to, the pair of platform shoes that squeeze your feet.  While you might feel guilty throwing these things out, giving them to someone who will appreciate them absolves you of the guilt at the same time that it gives you some headway into the clutter.
    • Return  - This pile is for the toys that belong back in the toy box, the needle in the sewing kit, the screwdriver in the toolbox, the bicycle tire patch in the bicycle repair kit and so on.

    You'll notice that "undecided" is not one of the piles, and for good reason!  Overcome the temptation to create an "undecided" pile that will remain on your living room floor for the next thirteen months.  You need to be strict with yourself.  Once you pick an object up, don't put it back down until it has been placed into one of your four piles.  And of course, you'll need to dispose of or put away the piles as appropriate once you've finished sorting.

  4. Assess your excuses.  You might need that piece of wood for the tree house you've been planning to build for the last decade or so......but wait, your child just turned eighteen.  Assess your excuses for holding onto something by thinking how those same excuses would sound to you if they came out of the mouth of a clutterful friend.  Would you secretly be mumbling to yourself, "Yea, right," or would you think that she had a good strategy?  Sometimes it's easier to identify faulty reasoning in others than within ourselves. 
  5. Emotional attachments.  Sometimes there are emotional attachments to objects that make them difficult to let go of-perhaps the personal effects of a spouse who has passed on or of a child who has moved away. Because of the associations that go along with the object, getting rid of it can seem like closing the door on that person forever.  You will have to be prepared to deal with some of the unresolved emotional issues that may be attached to your clutter.  As difficult as it can be, letting go of these attachments makes us available to create new ones.
  6. Identity issues.  Since many people equate what they buy with who they are, eliminating those things that we have purchased can on an unconscious level feel like you are giving up on a part of yourself.  Many people run into this problem as they age; when you finally decide to give away that pair of Levis that hasn't fit you in ten years, you may also feel that you are giving up on your youth, sex appeal or ever being thin again.  Once again, by being prepared for these issues to come up, you should better be able to forge your way through them.
  7. Best medicine.  If after trying all of these strategies, you are unable to eliminate clutter, you may need to up the ante.  Visit a few estate sales and observe the mountains of clutter than can accumulate over a lifetime.  You're not trying to shame yourself into anything here but to understand what you are in for if your tendencies continue unchecked.  Or invite an organized friend to help you with one room and let her loose.  You don't want to end up like this Washington woman who died beneath piles of her own clutter.

If you are unable to put a dent in your clutter, it is possible that you could suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder or another mental illness.   If you're in over your head, please seek appropriate help from a mental health practitioner.


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