Clutter Control: You’ve Got This Handled

Depending on your occupation and circumstances, summer may be a time of relaxation or very hard work, but it’s definitely not a time to let clutter slow you down or clog up your life. Let’s explore where clutter originates and consider some ideas to limit it on the way to cultivating a more streamlined, calm life.

Where does clutter come from?

Clutter is anything that’s lying around, getting in your way, restricting your physical movement or impeding your psychological progress. It can be:

• items that you once (or maybe never) needed, used or loved that you definitely don’t need, use or love now

• projects that have gone unfinished for a long time

• supplies that go with a hobby or pursuit that no longer interests you

• memorabilia that no longer holds sentimental value or meaning for you

• things that represent or honor the person you used to be but are no longer (which may be painful)

• a collection that you no longer enjoy

• gifts or other things that were given to you that you just plain don’t want

• objects that are affiliated with someone who caused you pain, have negative or unpleasant connotations or make you feel bad about yourself

• multiples of items that may be beautiful or useful, but you just have too many of them

• decorative items that bore you

• useful objects that could use updating

• objects that are not your responsibility (or within your authority) to put away or get rid of

• items that are broken, torn or stained beyond repair

• things that you admit you will not get around to repairing

• crazy-making objects that drain your energy (in my case, a spritz cookie press that drove me to distraction)

Once you identify clutter, what can you do about it?

Clutter often refers to physical objects, but it can apply to too many activities and commitments crammed into your days and weeks as well. Here are some ideas to create more breathing room in your spaces and schedule.

• Know that “getting organized” is never about perfection. It’s about becoming more effective, efficient and content in your home, workplace and life.

• Consider the “big three” criteria – do you need, use or love it? – when deciding whether to keep something. It’s fine to keep an object that isn’t “useful” if you love it (but, obviously, loving everything will perpetuate clutter). The goal is to clear out what you no longer need, use or love to make lots of space for what you do need, use and love.

• Use systems and tools that mesh with the way you think, work and live. Systems don’t have to make sense to other people if they work for you, and tools don’t have to be fancy or pretty if they function well for you. Bend the systems and tools to you and your preferences, not the other way around.

Create defined areas that make it obvious where things belong generally, and within that, create homes for things very specifically. This is the old “a place for everything, and everything in its place” chestnut. You can’t be expected to put something away consistently if you’ve never designated a home for it. For starters, put your purse, keys, wallet, phone and glasses in the same spot every day so you always know where they are.

Get rid of paper as soon as you reasonably can, and when possible, don’t let it into your life in the first place. Getting off of mailing lists permanently rather than just recycling junk mail is a good place to begin. • Schedule frequent “administrative sessions” to deal with paper, and make them enjoyable! Sit in a pleasant, comfortable space; add music and a beverage if you like; and have all of the necessary office supplies and files handy. Things can’t pile up if they’re processed frequently.

• Plan regular times (daily is best) to put away belongings that have wandered away from their designated homes. A good motto is “Don’t put it down; put it away.”

• Use more vertical storage methods to eliminate some of your horizontal surfaces, which are notorious clutter magnets.

• Listen to the Buddha: “Learn to let go; that is the key to happiness.” When you’re about to buy something, ask whether it’s need or desire that’s driving you. If it’s desire only, try to let go of that desire and the object right there – before it crosses your threshold. Once things enter your home and life, they can cause a false sense of security and abundance that may make them harder to get rid of later.

• Figure out how many of something you actually use; choose your favorites among what you have; and let go of the rest. Just because something is beautiful or useful doesn’t mean that it’s beautiful or useful for you, right now. Letting go of something doesn’t diminish its inherent worth; it just puts it in the hands of someone who will use and love it right now.

• And when do you do all of this letting go? Don’t gasp when I say that I recommend an annual purge of everything in your living space. (I do my house purges semiannually because I have such a good time, and there’s less to consider each time you do one.) Obviously, this takes commitment, but breaking it down into very small, very manageable chunks will get it done. It’s not a race, so take your time – but do keep at it. The invigorating liberation you’ll feel from opening up physical (and psychological) spaces should be a great motivator.

• “But I paid good money for this!” may be a true statement, but holding on to the item will not bring your money back. You may be able to recoup a portion of what you paid, however, if you sell, consign or get a tax deduction for donating the item.

• Shift your mindset from quantity to the best quality and most loved. Keep whatever is most precious to you, regardless of its original price tag.

• Everything you own requires something of you in terms of time, money, effort or emotion: desiring it, earning the money to buy it (how many hours did you work to get enough to buy a particular thing?), schlepping it around, storing it, tripping over it, cleaning it, maintaining it, repairing it, insuring it and eventually getting rid of it (which can sometimes be harder than it seems). Is the thing worth what it’s costing you by all of these measures? If not, it may qualify as clutter.

• Consider whether you’re trying to meet the universal human need for love or self-esteem with an overabundance of tangible, symbolic substitutes. Letting go may become easier when you understand what you really want and need and look for a way to get it.

• Things don’t pile up by themselves, although people often speak as though they do. This perception implies that our possessions are ganging up on us, which creates a sense of powerlessness. Take charge instead.

• Be realistic about how long things take so that you don’t overschedule your day. Putting 20 items on a to-do list doesn’t get them done; it just causes frustration when you can’t get them done. Accept that maybe far fewer are actually possible in a day; then choose which are your priorities.

Write everything down in an organizer or notebook or electronic device of your choice. This takes the pressure off your memory; details won’t fall through the cracks; you won’t miss deadlines; and you can eliminate those stray reminders that are lying around, hanging on the fridge or being ignored on bulletin boards.

• Acknowledge that to-do lists are really only wish lists until you make those tasks a priority by scheduling when, specifically, you’re going to do them. If something is worth doing, it’s worth scheduling. And getting things done eliminates mental clutter.

Identify clutter in your spaces and schedule; consider how it’s negatively affecting your life; and be the boss of your stuff and your time. You can make positive changes to streamline your life and create more serenity.

Paula Apfelbach, the former owner of Breathing Room Professional Organizing in Madison, is now the copy editor at the Pulse and Door County Living.