10 tips for winning the war on clutter

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I previously wrote about the tyranny of stuff, how one’s life can become controlled by clutter. I don’t pretend that Pam and I have ended our own war against clutter; in fact, we’re still in the early stages. But we have a strategy now, and we’ve already won a few skirmishes. Here are some tips we’re following that we’re confident will lead to victory.

1. Figure out why you’ve accumulated so much stuff and why you’ve been unable to get it under control.

I’m assuming that you want to get rid of stuff in order to simplify your life. How did you get to where you are now? Are you a pack rat by nature? Did you have to do without when you were younger, and are you afraid you might fall on hard times again someday, so you’d better hang onto what you have, just in case? Are you a practical person who looks at each item you own and thinks, “I might need this someday, so I’d be a fool to get rid of it”? Are you a sentimentalist who attaches memories to your stuff? Do you equate owning lots of possessions with success? Are you a collector—and, if so, why do you collect?

2. Find a story you can tell yourself that will enable you to part with stuff.

Let me guess: you’ve wanted to get rid of excess stuff for a long time, but you always tell yourself the same excuses for why you can’t. The practical side of me wasn’t able to part with stuff because I might need it someday, and the sentimental side of me felt that giving something away would be disrespecting it, the person who gave it to me, or the person who made it. The story I found that addresses the former is, “If I need it again someday, I can buy another one, but I haven’t needed it in years, so odds are that I never will.” The story that addresses the latter is, “I’m disrespecting the stuff by keeping it hidden away in boxes, and I’m also being selfish because there are people who could use and appreciate it.”

3. Form a battle strategy.

There are two basic decluttering strategies with which I’m familiar. The most common one is to tackle your home room by room. Japanese organizing consultant and author Marie Kondo, in her popular book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, recommends tackling your stuff by type—that is, go through all your clothing, then all your books, then all your kitchenware, and so on. Either way works. You might end up combining both approaches. Also, decide beforehand what you’re going to do with the stuff you get rid of. If something is potentially useful to someone, I can’t bear to throw it in the trash. I give it to a friend or to a charitable organization such as Goodwill.

4. Divide and conquer.

Taking the room-by-room approach can be overwhelming. Break a room down into smaller components, and focus on one component at a time. For example, your master bedroom might consist of a closet, a dresser, a headboard, whatever you’ve shoved under the bed, and the drawers and cabinets in the en-suite bathroom.

5. Resist idling your engine on Memory Lane.

This will derail your project more reliably than anything else: reminiscing about each item as you come across it: “Oh, my gosh—this is the balaclava my friend Naomi gave me when we went to that ski lodge in Vermont back in college! It was so cold there, and I’d forgotten to buy my own ski mask, so she stopped by a little shop that was next to the restaurant they had in the lodge. I hate to get rid of this… Still, I live in Phoenix now, and I haven’t skied in 30 years… Let me put this in the ‘maybe’ pile, and I’ll get back to it later.” One item down (sort of), a few hundred left to go. Photos are the worst derailers. Tell yourself you can reminisce later—right now, your job is to declutter.

6. Purge ruthlessly.

Don’t think too hard about most items. Unless something really speaks to you, throw it in the give-away pile, and move on to the next item. If you haven’t missed it until now—especially if you’d forgotten you even own it—it’s a good candidate for flinging.

7. Accept that it will get worse before it gets better.

You’ve hauled out five tubs of knick-knacks and spread them out on your couch, dining-room table, and living-room floor. You were certain you could go through everything in a couple of hours. That was five hours ago. It’s Sunday evening, you’re tired, and you need to get up early for work tomorrow. You certainly don’t feel like putting stuff back into tubs at the moment. You wonder why you even began this stupid project; perhaps you’re doomed to be a hoarder. Relax—it’s okay! Your home currently might look like a tornado hit it, but that’s temporary. Next time, you’ll start on Saturday, and you’ll only bring out two tubs of stuff at a time.

8. Digitize what you can.

Why keep file cabinets full of old papers? These days, most smart phones and tablets have inexpensive apps that let you scan documents and save them on your computer or in a cloud-storage system such as Dropbox. Scanning old photos can be a fun project. A few years ago, I used a flatbed scanner to scan all my photos that were worth keeping, and I removed dust and scratches with one of the many photo-processing programs that are available. Be careful, though: digital clutter can become as much of a problem as physical clutter.

9. Figure out what you’re going to do with the stuff you keep.

Presumably, your goal is to simplify your life, but not to the point where your home looks like a monastic cell. Decide how you want to display the decorations you decided to keep. What about storage for items that aren’t meant to remain in the open? You don’t want to put that stuff back into containers so that you forget what you have, or so that you’re unable to find something when you need it. Since you’ve gone to all the trouble of decluttering, make sure you organize the things you kept in a way that makes sense to you.

10. Hold the line.

Now that you’ve decluttered, resist the temptation to revert to old habits. Don’t start accumulating new stuff you don’t need, just because you have the room. Deal with mail as it comes in, rather than letting it pile up on a table. Schedule a time to vacuum, dust, take out the trash, and perform other decluttering maintenance tasks. Be proud of yourself, and enjoy the extra simplicity you’ve brought to your life!

What about you? Do you have any favorite decluttering tips?

Featured image at top: Our peaceful, uncluttered guest bedroom

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