Lose the clutter

Decluttering tips

Time to get rid of some stuff! The thought may cross your mind when you find yourself pushing past piles of clothing in your downstairs cupboard to unearth that great sweater — and realize they haven’t been your size for five years! Or it may be precipitated by an illness or a decision to downsize to a smaller home.

Whatever the cause, confronting your own clutter can be a difficult and overwhelming task. We offer some practical tips as well as some issues to consider if you’re considering “getting rid of that junk” but you’re not sure where or how to start. And as home decorating and lifestyle management shows and courses promise: it will be worth it in the end as you enjoy your new, clutter-free lifestyle.

She or he who dies with most toys wins?
Many of us have been raised to be frugal and set items aside for a rainy day. We also thrive on the ‘high’ of acquiring things — adding another great find from a garage sale, completing a collection, or having materials and supplies for just about any project. And there’s nothing so awful about that!

When storing things becomes an issue is when you find that your things are interfering with your ability to enjoy them. Moving items in order to clean them can make chores stretch on for days. Having to spend hours looking for something behind stacks of something else is annoying. And visual clutter — either loose things, or two many storage units for your room – is tiring.

If you find yourself unable to relax in your own space, embarassed to have friends and family over, or shutting the door on several problem rooms, it may be time to let some things go. And if you’re moving soon — you almost have no choice!

Before you start
Decluttering can seem like an enormous task. Not only is it tiring to sort through closets and storage areas, many of the items that we come across bring up old memories and associations. It can be all too easy to get overwhelmed and shove everything back into boxes.

It’s a good idea to take some time before you start to focus clearly on your goal: a home full of things that you love and use, and only those things that you love and use. If you are downsizing, be realistic: if you are moving to a space that is 2/3 the size of your current home, you will be trying to let go of 1/3 of your belongings, at least. Setting a ratio will help when it comes time for individual decisions.

If you just want your current home to look better, make some clear statements: “I want a spacious hobby room where I enjoy sewing” or “I want room enough in the garage to park another car.” You can also post inspiration pictures from magazines on your fridge or another prominent area to keep in mind.

Also, take time to consider how you’ll handle broad categories of things:

The “someday it will be useful” quandry. Be honest here: when you start a new project do you go to your own garage first, or do you inevitably end up at the local lumberyard? If you haven’t repaired something in the last two years, it’s not likely that your need for it is so urgent that you will fix it up. And if you did lose that 20 pounds, wouldn’t you want to celebrate with some new clothing? Let go of your fears that you won’t have enough later on, and let these things pass out of your life.

Lifestyles change over time. If you have a collection of things you once adored by really haven’t thought about in a long time, or equipment for sports you once practiced but no longer really do, you may be able to clear out a whole bunch of space in a short time. You enjoyed it at the time; be glad!

A home for all generations. One thing that people in the sandwich generation find is that their home tends to fill up with inherited belongings on the one hand — mum’s china, for example — and stored belongings for their kids – old school notes or furniture for when they finally buy that first home.

Remember: you are not responsible for keeping a museum or a supply depot. Don’t make the mistake — and leave the family a legacy — of mistaking belongings for connection or affection. That doesn’t mean you have to pitch out all the family photographs or anything truly special to you. But reconsider whether you are letting the past and future interfere with the present.

Ask your kids what they would like to have, and figure out with them where it should be stored (preferably in their own homes), and how to handle anything else that you find that you are keeping for them. Select a few heirloom items and let the rest go to people who will use them the way they were intended — it’s very unlikely your grandmother bought her tea set in order to have it gather dust in your basement in perpetuity.

A plan of attack
There are two schools of thought on decluttering. Some people prefer to do small amounts over time. The advantage to this plan of attack is that you’re less likely to get overwhelmed and decluttering may become a habit. The disadvantage is that you may find your energy for taking things to charities or lugging them out to the curb may wane over time.

Other people prefer to have it all over with at once. The advantage to this plan of attack is a big payoff at the end as your space is transformed. The disadvantage is that you may get overwhelmed and find yourself in a worse quandry than you started.

Whichever way you go, many of the principles are the same:

Have three or at the most four categories: Keep, toss, and give away. A fourth possible category is sell, but beware the pitfalls of this category: it tends to take time and energy to decide how and when to sell things. If items are not very valuable, you have already enjoyed their worth in acquiring them — and you can enjoy the satisfaction of passing them on to those who really need them in a generous way by donating them.

• Have a bin or box for each category (for keep you may want to designate an area) – garbage bags may work, but it can be frustrating if you are tossing very heavy things or things with sharp edges.

• If you can recruit a helper to do the carrying and lifting, this will leave you with more time and energy for decision making. It’s a great weekend job for a grandchild or neighbour’s child.

• If you are tackling things in short bursts of sorting, take a bag and select 20 things to throw out. Then take another bag and select 20 things to give away, both as quickly as possible.

• If you are working for a longer time period, set a time limit for the day — remember, it took a long time to get here and will take several days at least to tackle. Start at one side of the room or area and go through the room beginning with the surfaces. Then start with drawers, bins, and closets. In larger areas, like closets, do one shelf or half at a time — don’t dump everything out onto the floor; it will look intimidating!

• Take frequent breaks and stretch and have a glass of water. Put on some inspirational music to keep your spirits high.

• Keep the key questions in mind: do I love it?, is it essential?, have I used it recently? and, does this fit into my plan?

• Don’t get stuck on one item — if you really can’t make a decision, keep it. You can always do a second round of sorting. However, if you are finding every object falls into this category, it may be time to take a break and think again about your overall goals.

• Use half your time in the sort. Then remove the toss and give away items — preferably straight to the curb for pickup or down to the donation centre for a favourite charity. The longer you let things stay in your home the more chance they have to just become part of the problem again, so take action right away. For the rest of the time, put anything that goes to another room in a clearly labelled bin or box. Then enjoy reorganizing the things you have decided to love and keep.

Attacking your space methodically and with an eye on the clock will ensure that at the end of each sorting period you have an area to newly enjoy. And once you’re done you’ll find your space and mind are freer — and who knows where that kind of energy can lead.