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De-Cluttering Your Life

My staff people were chatting up the TV show Hoarders, about people who obsessively hoard stuff. I think you can’t really use the word “enjoy” or even “be entertained by” reality TV. At best the German word schadenfreude might apply, which loosely translates as “secret pleasure in watching the misery of others.”

Certainly the folks up to their nostrils in their accumulated things look pretty miserable. They also didn’t look particularly delighted at the end of one episode I watched when the clutter was cleared away (oops–spoiled the ending). My guess is that once the TV crew pulled out, they were back cruising garage sales and resale shops to fill the emptiness of their lives.

That’s some serious clutter. You’re probably a rank amateur by comparison, maybe a non-cook with two food processors and a bread-maker. Possibly your clothes are spilling out of every closet, threatening to take over your living space. You might even feel like a trailblazer as you wend your way through the stacks of books and papers in your office or reach for something in your car.

If this sounds familiar, you’re obviously no stranger to The World of Clutter. But clutter doesn’t just eat up space. It takes a big bite out of efficiency, too. Physical clutter makes it harder to find things when you want them, forcing you to spend time and energy hunting and searching, hunting and searching.

It also leads to mental clutter, that endless loop running through your mind saying, “Don’t forget to locate and return the DVD, find the credit card bill and pay it.” This leaves little space for quiet thoughts or long-range plans.

If all this describes you, let’s walk together down the de-cluttering path. For many people, tackling piles of papers and mountains of old toys (not to mention one closet) can be so overwhelming they never start at all.

So gather some boxes, trash bags, and labels, and let’s do it. These ideas will ease the way:

• Space it out. If the thought of de-cluttering an entire room makes your mind reel, focus on one area at a time. Start with your child’s desk, the kitchen drawer, your files, or the medicine cabinet. Spend just an hour a day at it. You’ll be amazed at how good you feel by clearing one small part of a larger task, and you’ll feel more inclined to take on the rest of the job sooner. Remember: an hour a day.

• Don’t use it? Lose it. First, set some guidelines for yourself: Get rid of any items you haven’t used or worn in the past two years. This means the suits with the big shoulder pads, the hair crimper that made you look like a cocker spaniel, and the treadmill that has 0.6 of a mile on it. Why not have a yard sale or sell clothing through a consignment shop? For faster riddance, donate items to a charity or give them to a friend who’s admired them in the past.

• If you can’t let it go, box it up. Put papers and other items you’re not quite ready to discard in a labeled box and store it in an out-of-the-way place. Six months from now, if you still don’t need the contents, toss the box without opening.

• Rotate cherished possessions. If you’ve weeded out as much as you can and still have too many tchotchkes on your shelves, put half of them away in a box. Now you have half as much to dust, and in six months you can swap out old for new and enjoy looking at something different.

• Police your desktop. In your office, keep on your desktop only those items that you use routinely. Everything else gets filed or put in a drawer or on a shelf.

• Junk all junk mail. Don’t even bother reading it. Toss it directly into the trash or recycling bin. The same goes for catalogs you aren’t interested in and free magazines. Let’s face it, you probably don’t have the time to read the ones you requested.

• Enlist an organizing pal. If your stress level soars from just reading about de-cluttering, invite a friend over to support you in throwing things out, and then do the same for her. You might also consider hiring a professional organizer to help you. Look for listings online.

• Fight clutter creep. Once you’ve de-junked your home or office, keep it that way. You’re dreaming if you think one de-clutter session takes care of everything. Schedule (yes, on your calendar) half an hour once a week to round up stray items. Keep a re-sale shop box or bag handy so you can add to it. Then do your de-cluttering–and nothing else–during that half hour.

Finally, a word about attention deficit disorder (ADD). I hate to tack a medical diagnosis onto your messy apartment, but chronic disorganization, having “piles instead of files,” feeling overwhelmed, and starting projects (like de-cluttering) but never finishing them are all red flags for ADD.

If you think I’m addressing this health tip to you (you know who you are), you might want to click here and take the brief online ADD screening test. If you discover you have ADD, at least you’ve got a good excuse for the mess.

Leave a Comment


  1. a dedicated reader says:

    Dr. Edelberg:
    I just finished your well-meaning column on the evils of clutter and I began to wonder if you thought about the reverse perspective, that “clutter” might not be all bad.
    The Chinese “yin-yang” approach to understanding our lives would argue that things are not completely black or white. Events, and this would include what you are dismissing as “clutter” evolve and interact in different ways during our lives. Today’s garbage is tomorrow’s treasure!
    Like many Chicago kids, when I was growing up, I read a lot of comic books and chewed lots of bubble gum. Now if my mother had not thrown away my Superman and Captain Marvel comic books and not disposed of my Honus Wagner and Mickey Mantle baseball cards, I would be on a sandy beach somewhere, sipping a Mint Julep, instead of working sixty hours a week as a Wal-Mart cart supervisor.
    Let me close this,Dr. Edelberg, with an old folk saying for your readers to contemplate;
    “Willful waste makes willful want;
    some day i’ll hear you say;
    boy I wish I had all that stuff
    that last year I threw away.”

    a dedicated reader

  2. evie says:

    Excellent article. One more suggestion to declutter one’s life- visit a third world country. You will come home wanting to downsize to just the basics. Americans have too much stuff.

  3. Karen Tucker says:

    ADD?? Maybe for some people. For most I think it’s an emotional issue. If you’re going to look at diagnoses, how about OCD or some other anxiety disorder? How about Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, or some other personality disorder? How about an attachment disorder?

    And if we get away from the medical model, how about progeny of people who went through the Great Depression? How about people who work at a job where they literally don’t have enough time to do everything that needs to be done, and filing falls very low at the end of a long list of priorities? How about people who don’t have too much going on in their lives without too many people coming over? How about people who have WAY too much going on in their modern complicated lives?

  4. kat says:

    Ha ha ha .. thank you for the well written article. I struggle a lot with decluttering! and coincidently I have ADHD.. still the “excuse” is not acceptable with my family members and the rest of the world that has contact to my messy ways. I wish it were easier.. I wonder if someone could temporarily hypnotize me so I could start tossing without thinking.. lol!! 🙂

  5. Regina Leeds says:

    Your article was a wonderful primer for anyone who wants to address the state of their environment … and make it better. I’ve been a professional organizer for 21 years. I started writing about it 10 years ago and my 8th book will be out February, 2011. Number 5 (One Year to an Organized Life) was a New York Times best seller.

    I’d like to address the note from Evie who wishes she had held onto stuff from her childhood because one or two items would be valuable today. What’s the old saying? Hind sight is 20 /20. We can’t know with absolute certainty which items will increase in value and it’s not possible to hold onto everything. We need to make wise decisions. The skill of decision making is at the heart of getting/staying organized. There can be many reasons for someone not having this skill under their belt and the most common is simply that no one ever taught them! A quality professional organizer won’t just do projects for you. He or she will teach you the skill so you understand how to deal with ‘stuff’ as it continues to enter your life.

    A far more interesting cause for clutter however is fear and there are many ways to manifest our fears. We’re afraid if we toss something we will be making a mistake. What if this item increases in value? What if I need it some day? On and on the reasons go … but fear is driving the words. I think it’s interesting to do some journaling and uncover the origins of the fear. You can’t let something go until you understand why/how it has enchanted you in the first place.

    Clutter is like ‘visual noise’ in our lives. It makes life more difficult. A calm, peace filled, organized environment will literally nurture you. It’s a choice we always have: do we live with difficulty or ease?

    Evie, please don’t think I’m dismissing you or dismissing your words. You offered a popular belief and it was expressed beautifully. I’ve devoted my life to creating order. I felt I had to offer my perspective on your thoughts. I’m not trying to make you wrong. I’m only offering another perspective. And I hope doing so with respect.

    BTW Feng Shui which came from China thousands of years ago holds that clutter will block our good from coming to us. The space is broken into areas that represent the areas of our lives: wealth, health, helpful people, relationships etc. Where you see clutter, you find the energy being blocked and unable to fully express in that area of life.

    Yin and Yang are the balance of the one creative energy. They are feminine and masculine energy. Within each lies a part of the other. I don’t think it’s accurate to use Yin and Yang as an argument for clutter!

    Blessings,
    Regina

  6. Pam says:

    I love this message. Ever since our house burned down when I was 16, I have had trouble with accumulating things I might “need” later. It was a difficult time financially for my family, and it was years before we had nice furniture or new cothes again.
    The thing that finally stopped me was, when we moved my mother, who has dementia, to assisted living, it fell to me as the oldest and retired, to clean out her house.
    OMG! Every weekend, huge contractor bags full of stuff. Every calendar or greeting card she ever received, that kind of thing.
    I decided right then that no one would have to come into my home and do that once I was no longer able to take care of my place.
    I started and it was very cathartic. I found I had finally had enough therapy, or CODA meetings, or growth, or whatever it was, to let go of lots of stuff. I felt like I had taken a huge step forward, and the release translated to relief, more energy, and a sense of freedom.
    I really hope my family appreciates what I did for them!

  7. Kathie Kluth says:

    Amazing that your e-mail came the day it did – the 2nd day into the beginning of the overwhelming task of “down-sizing”. Thirty-five years in the same house – full of stuff, and dust, and dusty stuff! It is a long sad story, but fact is that money was spent on auctions, garage sales, and thrift shops instead of movies, recreation & recreational vehicles, and/or trips (because of illness in the family which precluded socializing). When you spend $ on a movie, you don’t bring a box full of stuff home. Auctions, etc. are a different story. I have been putting this off for almost 7 years, since my husband died. I KNOW it has to be done, but I don’t have help unless I hire someone, and them not being family have no idea of what is important and what isn’t – they wouldn’t even recognize photos of my parents let alone me when I was a baby. Anyway – I haven”t read the article yet – I’m @the public library, so will print it and read it when I get home. Thanks Belleruth for sending me to this site, and for helping me sleep many nights with your comforting voice on your tape “Healing Trauma”…Kathie

  8. Laura says:

    I know part of my problem with clutter is that, in our house, any area that is clean gets turned into public space, including my bedroom! My housemates were far more respectful of my space when it was a desaster area. Neat and clean might be nice to live in, but it has ruined my alone time.

  9. wandering through says:

    And then there are those of us who just plain don’t care if there’s a bit of mess in our lives. Life is basically a messy business, generating experiences that can’t be pigeon-holed, feelings that defy categorization, and frankly stuff as a by-product of activity. Unless someone actually can’t get out of the house, or is living in a physically unhealthy situation (rats, cat boxes, rotting food, etc. are the things that come to mind here), stop judging them, and telling them they need help. Embrace the mess that is life, instead.

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