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Clear Your Clutter

Body+Soul, April/May 2005

Our life coach helps a reader see all the ways that having too much stuff is boxing her in.

Believe it or not, clutter is a pretty fascinating topic. If it were just a matter of stocking up at the Container Store and putting better organizing systems in place, that would be one thing. But the truth is there are powerful insights to be had when we learn to see our environment as a reflection of something more than just the accumulation of "too much stuff." A jumble of unfinished projects might reflect a fear of making decisions, for example. But if there's one deeper, universal clutter truth, it's that clutter can prevent us from letting anything new into our lives. If you think of your life as a container with a finite amount of emotional and physical space, you'll start to get the picture.

All of this came to mind when I started working with Nicole, a 47-year-old single woman who lives alone (with four beloved pets) in a small farmhouse outside of Atlanta. "My home is cozy," she said, "but filled with 'organized clutter' -- knickknacks and photos on just about every table, plastic bins of paperwork scattered around, stacks of books -- and my closets are filled with clothes I haven't worn in years." How did this make her feel? "Seeing so much stuff when I come home is overwhelming," she said. "I end up feeling unmotivated to do anything about it, so the clutter just keeps growing."

Our goal was clear: Declutter Nicole's home and see what surfaced in the process. So we dove in and worked together over a four-week period using a three-phase plan. For Nicole, there were several crucial insights during the process and, at the end, one out-and-out life-changing revelation. See what happened when she started making space.

Text by Cheryl Richardson

Getting Started
Given what I've come to learn about clutter, I didn't want Nicole to immediately jump in and start clearing up the mess. The initial phase of our plan involved getting her to shift her perspective -- to see her clutter as an ally, a messenger with valuable information. So first I had her answer this question in writing: If my environment were a reflection of what's going on in my life and in my head, what would it be saying? Part of her answer was very straightforward -- "My home is a reflection of a busy, chaotic life." True enough. She works full-time at a stressful job, she's developing a part-time consulting business, she's the president of a local professional organization, and she has four pets. But as to how her environment reflected what was going on in her head, Nicole had a deeper insight: "I think I've been adding things to my life in an effort to fill the emptiness I feel at not expressing my full creative potential." Progress already!

Next Nicole took a hard look at some of those things she'd added by rating items in a contained area using these questions: Do I love it? and Do I need it? This helped her start to get a more objective view of what was taking up space.

Now Nicole was ready to look at what she did want in her life by answering the question, If eliminating things from my life would make the space for something more important, what would I want? "This part is easy," she said. "I want a more fulfilling job, greater financial security, and two new clients for my practice."

Once Nicole had begun to get an objective, clear-eyed view of her clutter, we were ready for phase two -- no, not clearing out, but planning. Specifically, making a plan to prevent future clutter and a plan for moving out existing clutter. It's pretty simple: First, determine where clutter is coming from and shut off the flow.

For Nicole, a lot of space was taken over by gift items from family and friends she felt guilty letting go of. To avoid future unwanted gifts, I suggested she ask for gifts of pleasure like theater tickets or a massage, or ask that donations be made in her name to her favorite charities.

Next, she needed to find a home for categories of items she knew she'd be clearing out but that were too valuable to pitch in the garbage. Her solution? She lined up her local library for books, a consignment shop for clothes, and a women's shelter for houseware items and toiletries.

Now we were ready to roll on actually clearing space. Ahh, phase three! Most people find that the energy generated during this part propels them forward, but to avoid feeling overwhelmed at the outset, Nicole worked in one contained area at a time for 30 minutes a day -- more if she wanted, but no less -- to sort through the clutter.

Armed with trash bags, boxes, and the mantra "When in doubt, throw it out," she went at it, weeding through her stuff with the intention of getting rid of anything she didn't absolutely love or need. One 30-minute session snowballed into two, and suddenly Nicole was in the zone, feeling charged up and motivated to get the job done. As her physical space cleared, she began to experience one of the biggest perks of clutter clearing: a feeling of greater emotional and mental space -- a sense of greater ease, of having more time and less stress.

We assessed Nicole's progress at the end of our four weeks: In our humble opinion, pretty amazing. Her cozy farmhouse now had a spacious living room, an organized office, and a bedroom that felt like a relaxing oasis. But the changes went much deeper. She felt better about herself -- she had more energy, felt more "together," and just felt more enthusiastic about life in general -- which led her to put out feelers and make some calls and, voila!, a potential new job appeared that would use more of her creative talents and pay her more.

And then there was that full-fledged revelation. During one of our last conversations, she said, "The other night I was sitting in bed looking around at the room, and I had this utterly unexpected thought pop into my head: I now have more space for passion, sex, and intimacy.' It caught me totally off guard. I honestly didn't realize it before, but I might be ready for love."

See what happens when we make the space for something great?

Common Obstacles
Here's advice on handling three common obstacles you may encounter while clearing out your clutter.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the task at hand. When you find yourself tempted to slip into procrastination mode, try "micromovements," a great idea from Sark, author of "Make Your Creative Dreams Real." These are tiny steps -- five minutes or less -- that will move you toward completing your project. Want to clean out a file drawer? Start with three folders. Anxious about tackling that chaotic cabinet? Focus on one shelf.

The Paper Trail
Other than certain financial and legal documents (rules vary by state), there are very few papers we need to hang on to. Yet most of us become overly attached to all kinds of information -- unused recipes stuck in a file, old magazine articles (you know, "Top 10 Hikes in Tuscany"). With access to just about anything on the Web, challenge yourself to let go of questionable papers.

The Past
People often avoid going through their stuff out of a fear of reliving emotional pain. There are the notes that represent dreams gone by, or the divorce papers that conjure up old wounds. But hanging on to these items keeps us attached to the past. Ask yourself, What do I need to do to complete the past and let go? Maybe it's burning old letters from a painful relationship or making a list of lessons learned from a lost job.

Cheryl's Declutter Plan
Choose one or more areas that need to be cleaned and organized, then dedicate the next four weeks to making space using this three-phase plan.

Phase 1: Stop, Look, Listen
Resist your impulse to dive right in; first, take a deeper look at your clutter and listen to what it's telling you. Answer this question in a journal or notebook: If my environment were a reflection of what's going on in my head and in my life, what would it be saying? Write down everything that occurs to you, no matter how crazy it seems. The answers may point you in the direction of positive life changes.

Next, review the items in one small, cluttered area of your home (a desk, a nightstand, a corner in the living room) for 15 minutes. Using a pad of paper, rate each item on a scale from one to three:

- I love it and/or absolutely need it.
- I'm not sure if I love it or need it.
- I don't love it or need it anymore.

This will help you get a more objective perspective on your stuff and give you an idea of what will need to go.

Finally, write a wish list of three new things (possessions, opportunities, or experiences) you'd like to bring into your life using this question as your guide: If eliminating things from my life would make the space for something more important, what would I want? Hang your list near the bathroom mirror so you have a daily reminder of what you want to make space for.

Phase 2: Make a Plan
Before you start cleaning house, you'll need a plan to prevent future clutter and a plan for moving out existing clutter.

First, to eliminate clutter at its source, take a hard look at where it's coming from. If you have a tendency to buy too many clothes or knickknacks, you'll need to rethink those purchases. You might use the following question as a guide: Is this item worthy of taking up precious space in my life? To buy the item, the answer needs to be a resounding "Yes!"

Next, find a new home for categories of valuable items you know you'll be getting rid of. For example, before you start going through closets, locate a nearby consignment shop or homeless shelter. Or find a health club, nursing home, or hair salon for those stacks of magazines.

Phase 3: Clear It Out
Now you're ready to act. Choose one area and schedule 30 minutes a day to sort through the stuff. When going through items, keep the mantra "When in doubt, throw it out" at the forefront of your mind. Challenge yourself to keep only the items you absolutely love or need (remember the rating system!).

When you can't decide whether to keep something, ask yourself the "Is this item worthy of taking up precious space in my life?" question. Unless the answer is an absolute "Yes!," let it go.

Comments (19)

  • jackie65 29 Sep, 2010

    Great article on clutter. It really gets to the core problem and not just the surface symptoms. It got me motivated to look at my environment without beating myself up
    about the mess. I can also see that this is not a one person show. Three other people share this house and can contribute to the clean up!
    Good luck Ladybugzmom! Take it slow and take care of yourself. Prayers for you and your family : )

  • Ladybugzmom 5 Apr, 2009

    Clutter is one of the reasons my husband wants a divorce...clutter has taken over my life because I have been so depressed for so long...this was helpful and insightful for me...I am slowly working on de-cluttering my home and my life...I only hope it isn't too late to fix our marriage too...pray for us! Thank you!

  • bakerwannabe 2 Jan, 2009

    This was an amazingly informative article for me. It was emotionally spot-on. My husband and I are de-cluttering a few minutes a day and this will help with the reasons behind the clutter. Thank you!

  • kernscot 11 Oct, 2008

    This is the best clutter clearing article out of dozens I have read over the last 40 years. I especially like the beginnig stage of preparing your mind. That is the essential element.
    Nancy K.

  • nrayher 11 Sep, 2008

    I have the same types of clutters as Nicole. Thank you for these comments; it will help me to de-clutter. I plan on starting immediately with 30 minutes a day, and work on it til I feel a sense of accomplishment.

  • tjander 7 Sep, 2008

    I have inherited so much from my mother's home

  • bunnyann 4 Sep, 2008

    About three years ago I purged after my 88 year old father died having married two months following his death. Nothing had been changed our thrown away in more than three decades. I changed all that! I sent a housefull of early 19th century furniture to auction, along with 3,000 pieces of depression glass and various art objects to auction. We decluttered, refurbished, modernized, and ordered a houseful of furniture from Ashley Furniture and the Amish all the way up in Pennsylvania. We redid the kitchen and even replaced the three year old appliances with what we wanted and last weekend my new steam washer and dryer arrived. I cannot tell you how good it feels to finally, at 50, be living my life my way on my terms. Our home truly belongs to us. Purging is a wonderful experience. My greatest new benefit. I have space for my sewing, which my father hated. I now have two small areas specifically dedicated to sewing and about 8 weeks ago I bought a new Babylock Quest and Eclipse Surger and my husband helped me to pick them out and has helped pick out fabric. So give off with the old to let the new into your life this article mentions. It is such a remarkable experience.

  • kelsker 3 Sep, 2008

    Thank you! I'm inspired! I love the focus on prep work questions before digging in to clear the mess. Work first on why! Thanks again!!!!!

  • Experimenter 3 Sep, 2008

    Thank you so much for all of you who pointed to IKEA. Luckily, there is one within driving distance. Soon I hope to take a look.

  • craftyfingers 3 Sep, 2008

    Very inspiring article. I appreciate that you focused on what clutter really represents in our lives. Easier to fix the problem if you understand the cause.

  • Postalady 3 Sep, 2008

    I've seen the shelves @ IKEA

  • quiltheart 2 Sep, 2008

    This is a very inspiring article, with good insights and self-reflections into the causes of clutter accumulation. Thanks Martha and Cheryl

  • Isilwen 2 Sep, 2008

    Experimenter: They look like Ikea's GORM storage system range. I use their IVAR range in my kitchen. Budget, neat, versatile, attractive.

  • bcan50 2 Sep, 2008

    When I declutter the kitchen eating bar, my husband comes in and camps out with newspapers, mail, computer, tools, breakfast.....same with garage, I clean out, he fills it back in. Help!!!!!!

  • sknapka3 2 Sep, 2008

    We have similar shelves pictured in this article that we purchase at IKEA.

  • jenn4262 2 Sep, 2008

    I second the wood shelving question... it's beautiful!

  • Almeda 2 Sep, 2008

    Thank you for this ultra-useful article. I'd love to see more of these that solve practical problems, but also get into the mental or spiritual underlying causes.

  • jillmurtagh 2 Sep, 2008

    Experimenter: I believe the shelving is available at IKEA.

  • Experimenter 2 Sep, 2008

    Where can I find/purchase the lovely wooden shelving pictured for this article?