Take the Clutter Cure

It’s not just about too many things—tackle the underlying issues to transform your relationship with your stuff

Face it, there is a morbid curiosity about people who can't help themselves when it comes to accumulating, collecting, okay—hoarding. We watch them on TV with horrified fascination and, probably, turn our gaze over to the piles of never-used wool for knitting projects that are still in the future tense and are relieved that we are not as bad. But even though your piles are not the stuff of reality programming, clearing them away—and stopping further accumulation—is more about prioritizing what's really important in your life than a clean shelf. So, instead of beating yourself up about the piles of magazines on the table and swearing to get them out to the recycling bin, think about reversing the merry-go-round of getting the paper, clothing and stuff down to a manageable level only to turn around to find the clutter is winning again. And with each rotation of the cycle, getting a little more discouraged.

Much of the issue with clutter isn't tied to the stuff itself, but to deeper issues, says Janine Adams, founder of St. Louis, Missouri-based Peace of Mind Organizing. Having too many things can be the result of misguided emotional responses or habits. To change the state of clutter, you have to address your emotions and approaches first. Here are five places to start.

Stem the Inflow

The Action Just as a bathtub won't drain if the faucet is still running full-force, purging is futile if more items continue to flow into your home. Of course, you can't stop buying everything, but it's important to be aware of the relentless drumbeat of consumerism in our society, says Stacy Erickson, founder of Seattle, Washington-based Home Key Organization.

The Emotion When you feel compelled to purchase something, "stop and think about why you want it," she says. Is it something you really need or are you using shopping as an antidote to boredom or other feelings? Stop shopping and get outdoors or go hang with your friends.

Enact a One-Year Rule

The Action Those scrapbooking supplies have been sitting there for eons—and you haven't touched them. Adams says you sometimes have to face down the hard questions, like "Am I ever really going to do this?" If you've haven't acted in 12 months, admit that it's just not going to happen.

The Emotion More important, let go of the guilt. When people tell Adams that they feel bad about throwing money away, she says, "The money's gone and the only way you're going to get it back is either selling the stuff or making a donation and getting a tax deduction. There is a real cost to keeping stuff that you don't need in terms of the space required to store it."

Create Physical Parameters

The Action A place for everything and everything in its place isn't just a platitude. Erikson suggests creating space boundaries for various items. Her shoes go on a bookshelf. When it's full, she forces herself to discard, give away, or donate a pair before she gets new ones.

The Emotion Adams says our first instinct is to start shoving items in drawers and cabinets when we see clutter. But it's important to first clear out the spaces where things go. Then, put away the items where they belong. While determining what should go in the designated space ask yourself why you really need to have more shoes than your sister? Is it a security blanket to resolve a childhood rivalry? It might be more empowering to have the perfect dozen pairs.

Make Clutter a Force for Good

The Action Instead of beating yourself up for wanting to give away grandma's dining room set, focus on how it could benefit others, says organizer Wendy E. Webber, founder of Life's Collections in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

The Emotion The item is not the person, she says. Use a journal to record how the item makes you feel and the memories it evokes. Take photographs to preserve the memory. Then, think about how another family might really need a dining room set or new clothes that are taking up space in your home. "You don't need to keep someone else's furniture for 50 years," she says.

Limit Organizing Time

The Action Instead of feeling you should be organizing all the time, schedule specific de-cluttering times during your week and stick to them. Tackle areas in manageable chunks—say, an hour to organize two drawers or a closet.

The Emotion Be sure you give yourself enough time to see the task through, Adams advises. So, if you end up with a box of items to donate, add the half-hour to take that box to the charity immediately. Be sure you give yourself the credit that's due. Instead of thinking of how much more there is to accomplish, stop and acknowledge the progress that you have just made.

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