Clutter-Taming Tips
May 2013
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Save Time, Money and Sanity

Labels abound: pack rat, clutter bug and hoarder. Just the thought of confessing that our clutter needs conquering can inspire shame, anxiety and dread. It helps to remember that it’s human to accumulate, divine to purge.

clutter-tips“We’re hardwired to be hunters and gatherers and feather our nests, but you have to consider the life energy you spend maintaining all those things. The trade-off is often huge,” says home organizing expert Barbara Tako, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, author of Clutter Clearing Choices.

Seventy percent of Americans feel buried under their clutter and can’t decide what to give up, according to an online poll by award-winning organizer Julie Morgenstern, of New York City. She has found that while the clutter may be physical, the process of shedding it is 80 percent mental. “Decluttering is identifying what is obsolete in your life and releasing it to make room to move forward,” advises the author of Shed your Stuff, Change your Life.

“Ask yourself, what am I clearing space for—more family time, a social life or inner peace?” That higher goal is a touchstone for what to keep and what to pitch.

Following are common clutter-based roadblocks and tips from professional organizers on how to get around them.

I’m so overwhelmed I don’t know where to start. Tako encourages clients to start with the visible clutter, such as junk accumulated in an entryway, and take 10 to 15 minutes to tackle the area. “People are always surprised by how much they can accomplish in a short time,” she comments.

Morgenstern recommends making a checklist, starting with the areas with the most obsolete stuff and the least sentimental attachments. “The first one is the hardest, but you’ll probably find a lot of opened space if you can get through a few areas; then there is a cascading effect as you move forward.”

I know I have too much stuff, but it all has sentimental value. Morgenstern recommends using tools to manage memories, such as photographing an object that represents a person, and then using that photo as a contact icon on your phone. She suggests considering, “Is this the best representation of that person or time of my life, or just another example?”

I might need this someday. Tako encourages people to enlist a clutter buddy, “an objective set of eyes who will set you straight when you hold up a skirt that’s out of style.” Morgenstern suggests asking, “What is more important to me… this object I don’t have any immediate need for or the space I’ll have by getting rid of it?”

I don’t have time to declutter now. Morgenstern acknowledges most people are “time-starved”, and cleaning out their closets is the last thing they want to do with precious free time. Yet clutter costs us time and money because, “You end up losing things, wasting valuable real estate and replacing things you forgot you had,” she notes. It also hinders our ability to focus and process information, because visual clutter divides and competes for a person’s limited attention span, according to a recent study by the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute.

For more motivation, imagine the joy of finding buried treasure. Morgenstern reports that nearly all of her clients find some form of funds, whether uncashed checks, objects with resale value or cash.

I sorted piles a few months ago and now they’re back. Los Angeles organizer and blogger John Trosko encourages people to be upfront with loved ones about holidays and special occasions, asking that they curtail gifts and instead give non-tangible forget-me-nots like gift certificates or favorite services. Trosko also suggests making a list before shopping and steering clear of megastores to keep impulse spending in check.

Tako and Trosko both discourage purchasing “unitaskers” such as a salad spinner that takes up significant space but rarely get used. Another good rule of thumb is, “one in, one out,” discarding something every time we purchase a new item.

Even armed with the best decluttering tips, the process can seem daunting. Morgenstern encourages us to suspend self-judgment while weeding through possessions and keep remembering our higher goals. “Your stuff is a reflection of who you are and what you aspire to,” she notes. “It’s a challenge to get it all in alignment, but an incredible opportunity,  too.”


To find a nearby professional organizer, contact the National Association of Professional Organizers at napo.net.

Connect with freelance writer April Thompson at AprilWrites.com.