Decluttering For Dummies
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Decluttering doesn’t mean you only need to keep one item of clothing or furniture, or that you have to commit to a minimalist lifestyle.

Some of us can easily declutter and get rid of everything we don’t need immediately without giving it a second thought. But for most of us, decluttering is not that easy and goes much deeper into our emotional need for stuff due to our consumerist society. According to the Huffington Post, there are more storage facilities than McDonald’s restaurants in America. At the end of 2014, there were 48,500 self-storage facilities in America compared to 14,350 McDonald’s. This further proves that getting rid of items is so difficult for us that we’d rather pay to store them!

People who have excessive clutter stashes can also become hoarders, and approximately 19 million Americans fall into this category. The American Psychiatric Association defines hoarders as people who “excessively save items that others may view as worthless. They have persistent difficulty parting with possessions, leading to clutter that disrupts their ability to use their living or work spaces.”

I am using the term clutterbug to describe someone who lets clutter build up over time and hangs onto items for reasons that are more emotional than practical. However, holding onto clutter could eventually lead to hoarding, which is why you should take decluttering seriously and commit to it regularly. Whether you are detail-oriented or a big-picture thinker, you should know your clutter style like you know your blood type to gain a better understanding of yourself and how you can maximize your life.

Answer these questions honestly to start thinking about your clutter style:

  • Do you constantly hunt for things you’ve misplaced in your home?
  • Do you put things into stacks or piles?
  • When you look at your flat surfaces, such as your desk or kitchen counters, are their piles of things on them?
  • Do you end up buying a second or third item for use in your home because you can’t find the one you already own?
  • Do you use shopping as retail therapy rather than shopping only when you really need something?
  • Do you not have room to put away some of the stuff you own?
  • Are there clothes lying on the floor?
  • When you reach for a pen, do you have 50 to choose from but sometimes end up with one that doesn’t work?
  • Do you keep every single Christmas card you’ve been given?
  • Do you keep every plastic food container you accumulate but find that matching lids are missing when you need them?
  • Does your home make you feel stressed out because of all the stuff in there?
If you answered more than half the questions with a yes, you are most likely a clutterbug or on your way there. If you are feeling overwhelmed by clutter right now and you answered yes to several of the preceding questions, you may have some habits that are causing you to head down a self-sabotaging path. Houses with too much stuff in them can be physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining, and that takes away your peace of mind and joy of heart. Don’t worry; there’s always room for improvement. The first step is recognizing that a problem exists in order to take steps to create your best, decluttered life.

Don’t get discouraged or angry with yourself for your clutter habits—life can be busy and hectic. Setting up a decluttering mindset takes work and dedication. You’re not alone.

The next step is to tackle the mental and emotional aspects of being a clutterbug so you can begin to create and maintain new habits that will help you experience clutter-free joy.

There are several different types of so-called clutterbugs. You may fall into one category, all categories, or none of them, and that’s okay. I added the clutterbug types in hopes that you may see yourself in the different categories and begin to envision a plan of how you can overcome your own barriers to decluttering. These visions will help move you forward on your quest to declutter.

Whatever your clutter personality, many people say, “I will deal with this tomorrow, next week, next month, next year,” and we see how this pattern can escalate. No matter what type of clutterbug your personality reveals, you cannot put off decluttering any longer. If you defer this task, it only gets bigger, making you even less likely to deal with it. From paper to tech gadgets to piles of clothing, the task will only get bigger daily. I often also say that people who defer this task are also the ones who end up being the most stressed about clutter.

The emotional clutterbug

The emotional clutterbug is the most common type and is characterized by emotional attachment to items that have sentimental value. The emotional clutterbug prioritizes feelings over practicality. It’s difficult for this clutterbug to get rid of things, and she often purchases items to fill a void or out of pure boredom.

This clutterbug may also be someone who saves sentimental items due to the powerful emotions they evoke. Most people have sentimental items, and that’s okay! They bring joy and serve as reminders of happy memories. You don’t need to get rid of all your sentimental items; however, you have to set a limit. If you don’t have a limit on sentimental items, it’s easy for the amount to get out of control, causing clutter in your mental and physical space.

Here are a few strategies to help get you started dealing with sentimental items:

  • Commit to regularly evaluating your sentimental items. If you own a box of concert shirts that are tucked away but you never look at them, why keep them? After committing to regularly evaluate your sentimental items, you may be ready to part with them.
  • Repurpose sentimental items. For example, you can frame your favorite concert shirts to make them visible all the time, and then you can discard the rest. Doing so can bring you more joy and less clutter. Plus, having your favorite items on display can help bring more positivity into your life.
  • Keep only a small dedicated space for sentimental items. Have a space in your home that is precious real estate and dedicate this space to your sentimental items. This will help you be more conscious of what resides there.
  • Envision the joy of being able to actually enjoy the true sentimental items you do keep. When you surround yourself with items that bring you joy and positivity, they are no longer clutter. Ensure that you can make use of every item and get rid of the rest. Trust me, you’ll feel so much lighter once you know that every item you own has a purpose — even if that purpose is simply to bring you happiness!
What’s important is that you set limits because you want to be able to enjoy your sentimental items, and finding them quickly is key for that. Keep them in a labeled box or on display so they can be viewed, not stored away in an attic where you will forget about them.

sentimental storage box Photo credit: @avalonmohns

An example of a sentimental storage box.

The just-in-case clutterbug

Just-in-case clutterbugs keep things they may need “someday” or to ensure they have them “just in case.” This clutterbug is the type of person who keeps the box a microwave came in just in case he has to return it in ten years. Whether the item is a blouse, a kitchen utensil, or an extra lawn mower, this clutterbug operates from a scarcity mindset and a lack of trust or awareness around items he already has.

Clutter is not restricted to size, value, or even whether or not it’s tangible. Clutter is defined by anything you own in excess that is no longer practical. The benefits of decluttering outweigh putting it off any longer.

The “I’m not a clutterbug” clutterbug

We’ve all been in denial at some point of our lives, and the “I’m not a clutterbug” clutterbug is familiar with this feeling. This person may be stressed and overwhelmed but has difficulty determining the cause, even though on some level she knows she has too much stuff. This causes the clutterbug to accumulate even more clutter because she isn’t even conscious of her actions. Many people who aren’t aware that they’re a clutterbug carry subconscious stress and don’t know where their anxiety is stemming from. I’ve seen many people become less stressed and anxious once they admit that they own too much because they can then create actionable steps toward a decluttered and happier life.

Maybe you secretly know you’re a clutterbug but don’t want to admit it because you are a perfectionist, and you plan to spend the entire next month organizing and decluttering perfectly. Perfectionists can be perfect at some types of jobs and tasks, but they usually have an all-or-nothing philosophy. If you’re one of them, be careful — you may never be able to get started because the task is so overwhelming. You don’t need to be 100 percent decluttered instantly, and I know for a perfectionist that may be hard to hear. Take the pressure off and start small. Remember that progress is better than perfection.

The “I’ll do it later” clutterbug

Along the same lines as denial, the “I’ll do it later” clutterbug procrastinates decluttering. It’s easy to do because often we don’t equate decluttering to being fun. I find this clutterbug to be one of the most common types.

Constantly putting off decluttering results in the clutter becoming too overwhelming to deal with, and that’s why you probably haven’t started or just say, “I’ll do it later.”

The “I can’t decide” clutterbug

Here’s a fun fact: We are actually wired to acquire clutter, which makes it even harder to decide what is clutter and what isn’t! Our instincts say that we should store resources for times of scarcity. Have you ever watched a squirrel gather food for winter? This is exactly that mindset, and they’re so focused on it that they don’t even think about deciding what to keep.

Couple this instinct with our insatiable need to consume and buy new things — because shopping splurges produce dopamine, giving us a happy rush — and it’s even more difficult to decide what to declutter. You may often feel sad, stressed, or overwhelmed thinking about what to declutter, and it may feel easier to not decide altogether. However, the inability to decide can cause greater stress in the long run, and it’s always best to get out of this mindset and create a plan.

The decision about what to toss can be stressful, and that’s why it’s a good idea to give yourself timelines and tricks to help minimize the painful decision process. For example, if you really can’t decide on which frilly shirts to donate, turn the hangers the opposite way. If after a season you haven’t worn them, make a commitment to get rid of these items.

The “techie” clutterbug

Techie clutterbugs have so many cables, cords, and tech gadgets they don’t even know where to start decluttering, what works, or what goes with each device. This is not an uncommon type of clutterbug, and with today’s fast-moving technological changes, it’s easy to fall into this category. We are so intimately connected to our tech gadgets that we naturally keep their accessories because we can’t imagine not being able to operate without them.

Think of tech gadgets as the worst type of clutter to hold onto because with the speed of advancements, tech gadgets become useless faster than most other physical stuff. Plus, tech gadgets are more widely available, and new versions are always ready for sale. Just as with all types of clutter, there is no need to hold onto what is no longer practical. Pay attention to what you no longer use and have the courage to part with these items to create more physical and mental space in your life. Once you’ve sorted the gadgets you don’t need any more from those you do use, organize the keepers in an easily accessible fashion as shown.

Organized tech cords. Thomas Kolnowski / Unsplash

Organized tech cords.

The knowledge clutterbug

Today, limitless knowledge resources are at your fingertips, and what you keep for your knowledge database should be a decision you make based on practical and future reasons. For example, if you purchase the newest edition of a textbook, the previous version should be recycled. Start small if you fall into this category.

Knowledge is clutter until and unless it is properly organized in a way that makes that knowledge accessible. My parents have every single National Geographic dating back to 1969. After I had a surgery with two weeks’ downtime, I took the time to organize every single one by year and put them into slipcovers. The joy that this brought my parents was unbelievable — their memories of reading them, the knowledge they brought them, and the beautiful pictures that are still astounding today. These magazines are filled with knowledge you could find today on the internet; however, their sentimental value made them extra special. Now that the issues are properly organized, my parents often read editions from past years.

If you have stacks and stacks of reports/papers and have no clue where a specific one is, that’s clutter. If they are organized so you can reference them, they can be useful and are no longer clutter. To put it simply, get rid of anything you don’t use, or declutter properly so that the items are usable.

Important digital, mental, or printed knowledge needs to be dealt with properly. Sensitive information should be destroyed or shredded. Perhaps some knowledge needs to be passed on to the next generation or teams. Important documents should be housed in several locations to avoid losing them. Before getting rid of any knowledge, make sure you evaluate it first and determine appropriate steps. For example, I always back up my digital items as well as store them in a digital cloud.

The collector clutterbug

I’m pretty sure all of us have collected something sometime in our lives, from stamps to dolls to watches to baseball cards. Anything that can be collected and cherished can also lead to clutter. Remember the days when you used to collect CDs? Well, now most people don’t even have CD players. For those folks, CDs are no longer usable and are therefore considered clutter.

The key is to really understand whether you’re a collector, hoarder, or clutterbug. Hoarders are not able to let go, and this is a serious issue. Collectors take pride in what they have collected, whether it is worth something or not. The collection becomes clutter when it becomes bothersome and inconvenient to manage. It turns from collection to clutter when embarrassment, shame, or secrecy surround keeping the collection. Clutter is the result of accumulating items that you don’t have the time and energy to deal with. Knowing how and when your collections reach this point is an important but difficult task and should always be monitored by you and your friends or family to help with the process.

The “I can use it someday” clutterbug

My grandma was the perfect example of an “I can use it someday” clutterbug, which speaks to how society has shifted and how the era you grew up in makes a big difference. My grandmother lived through the Depression and still had that scarcity mindset of rationing. She did not grow up in today’s consumerist society with the ability to have one-day shipping. So, her affinity for her stuff was different and almost natural. That said, the era you live does not dictate how much of a clutterbug you become. The “I can use it someday” clutterbug of any age or generation can think like this.

I believe this type of clutter is a real problem because it can lead to hoarding. All the clutterbug types can become hoarders, but this one seems the most likely to. Hoarding can be rooted in deep-seated insecurities, whether financial or emotional. Deep down, hoarders feel like they will never have enough resources, and they fear letting go of anything because they believe that they truly will use that item one day. Even if items are useless, worn, or broken, this type of clutterbug hangs onto any and all items.

Depending on how severe your “I can use it someday” tendency is, a good start is to mentally reassure yourself that you will be able to find this item again if and when you need it. You can either buy, borrow, or repurpose the item. You have to give yourself the security that more egg cartons will be produced, more Old Navy black sweaters will be knit, and more magazines will be printed. Resources are and will continue to be available.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Jane Stoller is a compulsive organizer who turned her passion into a profitable business, Organized Jane. She travels the world helping individual clients revamp a single space or guiding corporations in overhauling entire businesses. A speaker as well as an author, she also lectures on management skills at Canada's Vancouver Island University.

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