This post originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Austin Spotlight.
Do you have a corner or a countertop or a whole house that’s become a bit unsightly? Maybe the clutter has piled up for so long you can’t really be sure what it contains anymore, much less what to do with it all.
You’re not alone. 54% of Americans admit being overwhelmed with clutter, and an even higher percentage claim they don’t know what to do with it.
More often than not, starting a new project – like decluttering – can make you feel defeated before you even begin. Setting yourself up for success is paramount when trying to put order into your home. Your home should be your refuge, not a place that reminds you of all the things left to do.
We’ve all experienced that gung-ho energy to tackle a messy desk, only to lose steam somewhere between “This is going to change my life!” and “I have so many incomplete tasks, how will I ever…?!”
Decluttering can quickly get uncomfortable. We lose interest, lose focus, and feel overwhelmed. We leave the half-finished project there only to find it takes zero time for the clutter to come back, somehow bigger and worse than before. What gives?!
With a little bit of preparation – both mental prep and physical prep – you can avoid falling victim to the clutches of “organizing overwhelm.” Below are my top three pitfalls of home organizing — and my advice for how you can come out on top.
Pitfall #1: Unrealistic Goals
Decluttering any space will probably take longer than you think. After all, who knows what you could uncover? You might find documents or receipts or that lost book that belongs to your kid’s third-grade teacher, and those can all trigger a follow-up task that actually has nothing to do with your decluttering project (Read: distraction).
Or perhaps the pile/room/drawer is deceiving, containing loads more stuff than you initially assumed. You might find yourself knee-deep in chaos, exhausted, with a family now asking when dinner will be ready?
HOW TO WIN
Set a timer before you begin. Turn your phone to “do not disturb” and get to work. Commit to working in a single space until your timer/alarm/Alexa rings, and stop when it does. There’s no need to overdo it the first time around! Tomorrow, repeat. Think more along the lines of “I’m going to declutter for X number of minutes” vs “I’m going to finish this today!”
Pro tip: start with just thirty minutes or an hour. Even a small amount of time will make a big difference.
Pitfall #2: Distractions Aplenty
Clutter is defined as “a confused mass.” Another way to define clutter: a big, random pile of stuff that doesn’t belong together.
So when you start to declutter your space, you’ll find lots of things that need to be taken into another room (or another home). Some items will need to be returned to the store from which they came. Other items will feel urgent (it’s important to remember they are most likely not urgent and, since they’ve been stuck in this pile for some time, they can likely last another day or two without action). Suddenly, the task of decluttering has created a hundred more tasks! And you thought decluttering would make you feel good.
HOW TO WIN
Decluttering will feel good, you’ve just got to approach the project strategically.
Before you start decluttering, gather a few supplies and spread them out where you’ll be working. You’ll want to gather:
- a bag for trash
- a bag for recycling
- a bag for donations.
Also set up two more containers: one for things that belong in a different room in your home (if you wouldn’t go looking for said item in this space, don’t store it there), and another for things that belong outside your home (that book that belongs to your kid’s school or the pants that need to be returned to the store). Clearly label all of these containers/bags with a sharpie, a post-it, or whatever you have to help you quickly toss the item and keep moving.
Above all: stay in the room/space in which you are decluttering.
Pitfall #3: Emotional Sabotage
Consider this: every single item in your home has a story, and you know them all.
In fact, as you declutter, those stories will start playing through your head: where the item came from (or from whom), when you got it, why you got it, if you love it or hate it, that time it broke and you never fixed it, etc…the stories go on and on. In time, they will most likely trigger your emotions as they conjure up your memories. You might experience uncomfortable feelings of shame, sadness, or anger as you declutter.
HOW TO WIN
First, remember that while you are unique, your clutter stories are not. As a professional organizer, I’ve heard it all. I’ve learned from years of helping people declutter that the emotions clutter can stir up inside us are pretty much the same from person to person. We long to keep our memories close and intact. We really do aspire to finish that craft project. We fear throwing something out only to need it the next day. We hear the loop of others’ voices, shaming us for being wasteful, or insensitive, or neglectful.
It’s okay to feel these things, and it’s okay to listen to them. As you declutter, you might get to know a part of yourself that you’ve long forgotten. Try keeping your organizing project a “judgment-free zone.” Instead of feeling bad for where you are, give yourself a high-five for doing something about it. Your belongings — and what you do with them — do not define who you are at your core. In the end, it’s just stuff.
If I could leave you with a few cheers, here’s what I would say:
- Keeping something because you feel guilty for getting rid of it is emotional sabotage. Let it go, and vow to do better from here. (This includes gifts from your MIL!)
- Keeping something you haven’t needed in years for fear you’ll need it eventually is usually not worthy of taking up space in your home. If that day ever does arrive, you can buy (or borrow) it again.
- Holding onto something that just “isn’t you” anymore is not helping you become who you are meant to become. Let it go. (This includes clothing, aspirational projects, and fancy kitchen gadgets.)
- Deciding “keep” or “don’t keep” actually gets easier the more you practice. Stay with it. Use your timer, and keep flexing your decluttering muscle.
- Self-love goes a real long way here, no matter how big the pile is.
The satisfaction you will gain from decluttering is unlike anything else. No retail therapy, yoga class, or double-mocha latte holds a candle next to the relief you’ll get from finishing an organizing project!