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Clear Space, Clear Mind–Mastering the art of decluttering

There are few things more distressing than decluttering—perhaps a root canal. Having been a professional organizer for years, I have seen homes where even showers had been turned into clutter containers.

A friend shared, “When guests come I throw things in the closets, drawers, and kick them under the bed.” Clutter accumulates because of delayed decisions and not enough places to put things. When closets and drawers are full, clutter migrates to tables, chairs, and eventually the floor.

Difficult emotions arise when decluttering: being overwhelmed, fear of making a mistake, shame, guilt. All of which will begin to lessen as you take action.

Dr. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in economics, has a theory that explains our attachment to clutter. He called it “loss aversion,” meaning people are extremely reluctant to give up their possessions, even clutter. This concept can be reframed if you tell yourself the positive things that can happen: you’ll have more space, find lost items and have peace of mind.

Nagisa Tatsumi who wrote The Art of Discarding, which has sold two million copies (Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, credits her as her inspiration), states that these are our things. They are part of us even if we desire with all our hearts to be rid of them. It’s hard to let go of even the green dress that makes you look like a giant pea. (“If only I could find the right scarf,” you think.)

Scientists say clutter can trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which can increase tension, anxiety, and depression. Living in a mess causes stress, and stress can cause you to live in a mess. This is not the circle of life The Lion King envisioned. The human body consists of thousands of integrated and interdependent systems without which our bodies would disintegrate into chaos. We naturally crave orderliness in our environments. Our brains love order. While clutter is damaging to our mental health, it can also be a threat to our physical health. The centers for disease control states that falls in the home claim 6,000 lives a year.

There are more than 50,000 self-storage facilities in the country, more than all the McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts stores combined. The productivity and organizer profession is an $8 billion a year industry. These statistics may put things in perspective.

There are two parts to reducing clutter: one is sorting and the other is deciding where things are going to live. When sorting, put items into piles of: Throw Out, Keep, Donate, Decide Later. Put the Throw Out pile in the garbage ASAP and the donate in the trunk of your car immediately. Small accordion files are helpful as you go along rather than waiting to use a filing cabinet. If you get stuck on an item, take a picture, and let it go. You can talk to your future self, “Forgive me if I get rid of something that we might have needed some day.”

Where are the Keep items going to live? Put them in containers. Research shows we only use 20 percent of our things so what about the other 80 percent? Reduce, reduce, reduce. Make it as enjoyable as possible: play music, listen to audio books. Research originated by Dr. Roy Baumeister states that if you’re working on a boring project your will power runs out quickly, but it doesn’t if the project is interesting. Work in small blocks of time–ten or 15 minutes–with small amounts of clutter. Give yourself rewards for any progress. People often say you should be “ruthless” when getting rid of clutter. I prefer another term: brave.

When trying to make decisions anxiety may set in. In the movie We Bought A Zoo, the father, played by Matt Damon, explains to his son: “sometimes it just take 20 seconds of insane courage and something great will come of it.”

It helps to have a sense of humor about clutter. This is a portion of Shel Silverstein’s poem “Melinda Mae”: “tiny Melinda Mae ate a monstrous whale. Thought she could, said she would. She started in at the tail. And in 89 years, she ate that whale because she said she would.”

You too can eat that whale.



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