Cut the Clutter
By Christine Richmond
MarthaStewart.com in Body + Soul, Green Living
September 2006 It doesn’t seem so bad at first. A stack of bills (or your kid’s latest artwork) sits on the kitchen table, and some old photos amass on the floor by the bed. Somehow, these innocent-looking piles proliferate, as if by their own free will. In mere days, a few contained cases of clutter morph into utter mayhem—and you have no idea how.
The mysterious ways of clutter, it turns out, have everything to do with who’s making the mess. “Your belongings carry significance,” says Sunny Schlenger, a professional organizer and author of Organizing for the Spirit. Your decision to keep or toss an object, conscious or not, is inextricably linked to your emotions, attitudes, and personal history, she explains.
To quell the surge of stuff for good, you need to identify your personal reasons for allowing the clutter to accumulate in the first place, and then take steps to change your approach (or lack of one, as the case may be).
With advice from Schlenger and Lanna Nakone, author of Organizing for Your Brain Type, we’ve identified six major clutter types to help you recognize your weak spots. You may discover that you share none (or maybe just one) of the traits profiled—or you may be appalled to find that you fall into every single clutter-type category. No matter what you uncover, use the following simple yet effective strategies to impose a measure of order on the chaos and keep those pesky piles from creeping back into your space.
These sentimental types save things for memory’s sake or out of obligation, whether to the giver of a gift, a deceased relative (to respect their passing), or even to the idea of a hobby they’ve long since given up.
Set limits on the space you devote to your nostalgia, says Schlenger. Tackling one room at a time, categorize your sentimental items into three large boxes. Items you enjoy regularly (such as seasonal decorative items or framed photos) go in the first box. In the second box, put items you’ll use at specific times of the year (like Fourth-of-July flags) or heirlooms you plan to pass on to young relatives; store this box away for now. Put everything else in the third box—the volleyball trophy, the Eiffel Tower snow globe—and prepare to part with it. Need a push? Think of it this way: Memories don’t take up any room, and by moving items out of your physical space, you’ll be making room for clear thoughts and new experiences. Since nostalgics are “big on connections,” says Nakone, ask a friend to cheer you on while sifting through belongings.
Reevaluate your stuff yearly and ask yourself whether your possessions are helping you grow. If what you’re holding tethers you to the past in a way that’s more limiting than meaningful, let it go.
Waste-nots hesitate to get rid of “perfectly good” objects despite the fact that they’re broken, out of style, outgrown, or unused. Some do so out of concern for the environment (not wanting to add to the landfills), and others equate clearing clutter to throwing cash away.
Recognize the difference between functional and useful, advises Nakone. Just because an item works doesn’t mean it belongs in your life. That new-but-never-worn blouse that gives your skin a bluish cast? Not an asset. Determine how long you’ve been hanging on to items like this and how often you actually use them. If you haven’t worn a pair of pants for the past couple of seasons, out it goes. That photo album you don’t like that sits empty? Time to let it go. Waste-nots find it easier to part with things if they’re going to a good home, Schlenger says, so either donate that dusty guitar and barely-worn ski jacket to charity or sell them at a yard sale or online. Web sites like craigslist.org, freecycle.org, and eBay.com are invaluable for this purpose—and you may end up with something you like (think: cash or good karma) in return.
Repeat the process at the start of every season to keep your closets from filling up. Keep a “sell or donate” box in a visible place to encourage you to streamline.
Darting from room to room in a flurry of activity, Time Crunchers leave themselves little time to stop and put things away properly.
The key to getting organized when you’re busy is to consider how much time your current habits may be wasting, says Nakone. You may have every intention of cleaning up, but by scrambling to do 10 things at once, nothing gets done. Time Crunchers need to focus on a single task. Devote just 15 minutes right now to folding your laundry, for instance, and you won’t have to fish through the basket for clean socks. Another technique? Give everything a “drop spot,” putting your keys, cell phone, and bag in the same place at the end of the day. Make organization a natural habit—one you infuse with a sense of focus—and you’ll save timein the long run.
Schlenger suggests devoting five minutes a day—and only five minutes—to putting things back where they belong. Do this as soon as you get home at the end of the day, before you’ve settled into relaxation mode. Bring your full awareness to the task, and move from one area to the next. (Better yet, have family members tackle different areas of the house at the same time.) You’ll find that five minutes fly by, and the clutter begins to disappear.
Procrastinators let everyday things like laundry and dirty dishes accumulate. They’ll also put off bigger tasks like cleaning out the garage or putting the summer clothes in storage, opting to deal with them “later.” Later rarely comes.
Piles of mess can sap your energy and make it hard to focus. For the big cleanup jobs, Nakone suggests writing out a plan of what to tackle when. Work in stages, committing to one large clutter-related task (such as cleaning out your car, organizing your attic) each week until you’ve minimized the mess. (And when you have only one task each week, it’s harder to make excuses.) As you complete each of your goals, reward yourself with an activity, says Nakone, such as a movie or a dinner date—but not shopping, she cautions.”You’ll just bring more clutter into the house,” she says.
To keep dirty clothes, grimy pans, and other forms of daily deluge from building up, make maintenance a habitual task. Sort through your mail each morning while you drink your tea; do the dishes while you listen to the day’s news on the radio each night. “Anything you make routine becomes easier,” says Nakone. And by keeping the little stuff in check, the big, tedious cleanups will never be necessary. (That fact alone can bean excellent motivator.)
These ambitious individuals keep catalogs, class schedules, pamphlets, business cards, and other informational sources around the house, planning to delve into them later. They’ll also save unread magazines and newspapers for months, not wanting to “miss” anything (but never finding time to read them).
Think in terms of shelf life. Recycle any newspapers more than a week old and magazines more than a year old. If you’ve been saving entire issues for one article, tear out the article and paste it into a portfolio. Include in your portfolio any informational papers (such as that registration sheet for tennis lessons) and plan to look through this folder when you have free time to fill, such as riding on the subway or waiting for the dentist. Toss any catalogs more than one season old. “If you haven’t read them by then, you’re not going to,” Schlenger says. (They’re probably outdated anyway.)
Keep stray bits of information (the number of your friend’s electrician, the name of that great travel Web site) in a personal sourcebook. After you jot down the useful information, toss the associated paper. Group entries by type, such as home (plumbers, pet sitters), personal (doctors, yoga studios), kid-related (day care, activities), leisure (vacations, classes), and work contacts.
Letting go of bank statements, pay stubs, receipts, warranties, and other financial documents is nearly impossible for these accounting types, so the paper piles up endlessly.
Eliminating the paperwork cluttering your desk will actually make it easier to focus on your finances. Pull out the files you haven’t glanced at in years and reorganize them so that you can locate frequently needed documents quickly, suggests Schlenger. Don’t stress about your filing technique; you can use color coding or an alphabetical approach, but avoid making a “miscellaneous” file, as it serves the same function as a junk drawer. If you’re ever audited, the IRS could ask you for bank statements and other receipts, so keep anything you’ll need (1040s, mutual fund statements, insurance records) for three years, bundled by year. Tech-savvy types can scan and save information on CDs, but boxes (labeled and dated) also work.
Using online bill-payment services can drastically reduce the amount of mail you get. (You can still print monthly statements to keep track of your account.) Manage “little” paperwork proactively: Shred credit-card offers as soon as they arrive, and send in product warranties and rebates the day you bring home the new item. You’ll find the pile grows much more slowly.