Part 2 in a 5-part series on Living Simply
A 90-day excursion in a 35-foot fifth-wheel created in me a desire to declutter and simplify the things we owned, the things we displayed, and the things we kept just because. We had lived for 90 days without many things I thought I NEEDED, and I found that I didn’t miss any of them. I didn’t miss all the miscellaneous artifacts of our previous trips, my numerous inherited knick-knacks, and the multitudinous number of dishes. I didn’t miss the shelves of cookbooks or the bulk of our movie collection.
In the first article of this series, “Living Simply: How to Get Started Living Intentionally,” I explained how life gets so complicated that clutter seems to sprout from nowhere just like mushrooms and toadstools can do in your yard after too many rainstorms. In fact, when I was in college, my parents’ home was broken into. During the police investigation, my mother had to explain that my room always looked like a tornado had moved through it. I was a busy person with way too much stuff in way too small a space. When my space enlarged, my stuff multiplied like an uncontrolled rabbit population.
That 90-day experience opened my eyes. I finally realized that I needed to downsize – to only keep what was essential or emotionally valuable. If I didn’t know the person in the picture or the family history of an item, it needed to go. I finally came to the stark realization that my clutter and stuff were the main cause of my stress and lack of motivation to do much of anything. If I couldn’t get organized and get stuff put away, how could I complete other projects I wanted to do?
In a 2015 survey, the National Association for Professional Organizers found that over one-third of its readers were overwhelmed by their clutter.
NOTE: If you have a gift for organizing, you may be interested in becoming a professional organizer, a career field that has developed over the past 30 years. You can even become a Certified Professional Organizer.
Why I Don’t Want a Professional Organizer
For several years, I have watched home improvement and home makeover shows. In many cases, the homeowners felt that the home they were in just didn’t work for them anymore. There was clutter everywhere. There was too much furniture and stuff in every room. When the project was completed, the homeowners, in many cases, couldn’t believe they actually had room for all their stuff. They hadn’t been able to develop an organizational plan or even see that some kind of organization was needed.
PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZER: Wouldn’t it be great to hand over your chaos to someone who will organize it?
PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZER: Why?
ME: Why? I feel like I need to be the one to organize my space. I need to take ownership of the chaos I created, or the chaos I let happen. I need to read and learn about the whys of organization and decluttering and find the best ways for me to get organized. If I don’t tackle this myself, it will just go back to the chaos it was. I need to take ownership and learn in order to make a change and simplify my life. Is it time for you to do the same?
The Stress of Clutter
Consider this: In an article by Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D for Psychology Today, there are 8 reasons that mess causes stress. (You can read that article HERE.) In a condensed form,
- Clutter distracts your focus and causes your senses to work overtime.
- Clutter makes relaxation difficult because we feel our work is never completed.
- Clutter creates anxiety, guilt, and embarrassment because we feel that we should be able to live in an organized home like those in magazine spreads or on television shows.
- Clutter wastes time and inhibits creativity and productivity.
My Clutter Has a History
I grew up knowing why there was a huge ball of tin foil in a plastic bag in my grandmother’s kitchen junk drawer.
I grew up with the idea that
- if you put something on your plate, you ate it.
- food not eaten at a meal became leftovers for the next couple of nights.
- what I owned required me to take care of it.
- if something broke and could be fixed, it needed to be fixed.
- if something broke and couldn’t be fixed, but wasn’t essential to everyday living, it wasn’t replaced.
- if something broke, the parts were saved to repair something later or the parts were saved to combine into something entirely new.
- if I lost something or purposely broke it, the item wasn’t replaced. No questions asked. No whining. No complaining.
I grew up with the value of a can of condensed tomato soup impressed upon me. I grew up knowing that the value of a vintage newspaper or magazine could buy that can of soup for dinner if there was nothing on the shelves or in the fridge.
These lessons have made it difficult to go through the massive amount of stuff I have purchased, inherited, or been gifted. If I don’t want the item, I could sell it later and use the money for my next meal. If the item is broken, it could find life as something else.
For years, my mother sold things at garage sales and peddled items at antique shows and booths, but it wasn’t until I cleaned out her house after she passed away that I learned just how she operated.
Where to Start? Start with a Plan.
Before you tackle that first pile or first box or first drawer, stop and prepare your game plan.
Take a few minutes to sit in each room quietly and write down what needs to be done. If there is no room to sit, stand. I use index cards for this. I drew a basic floorplan of the room with the furniture where it stands, not where I want it to go.
On a second index card, I list long-overdue repairs, replacements, and tasks other than routine cleaning that need to be done. Please note that just because it is on this list doesn’t mean it will get repaired or replaced anytime soon.
I put little post-it notes on the top of furniture with drawers and storage areas so I knew what was there. (Imagine my surprise when I realized that I had greeting cards stored in three different places.)
I also listed on a sheet of paper the surfaces to clear. For example, bedroom: my dresser, hubby’s dresser, my bedside table, hubby’s bedside table, floors.
When I finished the first room, I continued to the second, third, and fourth. (And yes, include the bathroom because you have no idea how much decluttering you can do on the countertop of the sink or around a bathtub.
Choose a Room and Deal with the Stuff
STEP ONE: Everything needs a place.
If you didn’t identify a home for like items inside your dwelling, you need to begin there. Use post-it notes and stick them to the drawers and storage spaces in that room. I transfer that to my floorplan card. I’ve gotten so meticulous in my methodology that I number drawers and storage spaces on my floor plan and record the number and contents into a spiral notebook. This was what helped me realize that I had greeting cards stored in three separate spaces.
Determine if everything in that drawer or storage space truly belongs there. You aren’t going to pull everything out of that space at this time, but if you have summer shorts, for example, in two different drawers and they could all fit in one drawer, move one of the stacks. Now you have an empty drawer for later in the process.
STEP TWO: Set up a series of relocation boxes.
Before I set up my relocation system, I would pick up an item off a surface and place it right back down. Or worse, if I didn’t know what to do with an item, it would go in a box I labeled “what should be done with.” Without a concrete plan of where stuff would go, I was a useless organizer.
Enter the relocation boxes.
Through my research, I found lots of cool organizational and storage containers. But purchasing any of those would add to my clutter and need to be discarded in the end. A waste. So I started with piles outside of the room I was trying to tame and a paper grocery bag for my trash. As my piles grew, I needed some type of containment system. The liquor store has become my friend because after they stock the shelves, the sturdy boxes are free for the taking. A handy dark permanent marker wrote the end destination on the box: Goodwill, DAV dropbox, the crafters’ recycling center, sell, and repurpose in the future. The sell box became two boxes: sell to a resale book store or sell through my Etsy store.
Having these boxes OUTSIDE the room I was working on gave me a sense of the clutter leaving the space.
Items that belonged in a different area of my home found themselves on the dining table to be deposited in their homes when I was done with the specific surface I was taming.
STEP THREE: Pick a surface to clear and continue to completion.
In my bedroom, I started with the surface that was the most decluttered. Starting with a surface that you can finish quickly gives you a sense of accomplishment and the motivation to move forward with the next surface. Leave the most complicated surface for last. Several little wins will make that monumental task seem doable.
Look at that surface. It might even be helpful to remove everything from the surface. Seeing a blank canvas, you can make important decisions.
Pick up ONE item and ask the following questions. If your response is NO, move to the next question. When you get a YES, pick up your next item.)
- Does the item I am holding NEED to be on that surface? (If yes, put it on the surface.)
- Is it trash? (If yes, throw it away.)
- Does the item belong somewhere else in the room? (If yes, put it where it belongs.)
- Does the item belong in another area of the home? (If yes, put it on the table to be delivered to the correct area when you are done with that surface.)
- Do I NEED this item? (If yes, put it on the table so that you can give it a home.)
- If I don’t need this item, do I WANT this item? Why do I WANT this item? (If you can come up with a response other than “It might be useful someday” move it to the table.)
- If I don’t NEED or WANT this item, what should I do with it? (Put it in the respective box or pile.)
Let’s take a look at this in action. I started with my bedside table. I moved everything on it to my bed and wiped down the glass top. I picked up the tissue box. It needed to be there so I returned it to its place. The TV remote I needed there. My hair ties from the previous four nights? Those needed to go in the little box in the bathroom vanity, so home they went. The earrings I took out in the middle of the night? To the jewelry drawer. The tags from the new shirt I bought? In the trash.
STEP FOUR: Check that surface off the list.
Placing a check by the surface I just decluttered feels good. It’s an accomplishment. If you haven’t been overwhelmed, pick another surface.
When you get to larger surfaces or even the piles on the floor, set a timer for an hour. When the timer goes off, take a break.
What about you?
How do you deal with your clutter? Please take a moment to share your thought and ideas in the comments below.
Until next time . . .
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