Clear Your Clutter

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.

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Comments (19)

  • mjonasse 3 Mar, 2009

    I too have a lot of emotional stuff I can't dispose of - things that belonged to loved ones who have passed away-my parents, my sister and husband. I keep saying when I get rid of the clutter I can put my house for sale and move into a small more convenient home. At the rate I am going this will never occur. I keep reading articles and buying books on organizing and getting rid of clutter but none really get me going. What I need to accept is that these things are not the people who are gone .

  • mmacd 31 Dec, 2008

    In response to kittyp, you are sooo right ! I too am approaching 60 and I can't believe all the stuff I have kept from my mom and dad's home. In addition to that fact your opinions reminded me that we are victims of aggressive advertising and todays economic times may be our reason to turn it all around and embrace simplicity and clarity. Happy 2009 to all.

  • kittyp 26 Aug, 2008

    In this country clutter is a way of life for most of us. We like to own stuff. It defines us. And most of it is just junk we don't need. As I approach my 60th birthday, this stuff is taking up too much of my precious time. I am on a mission to get rid of everything that has no use before my 60th birthday rolls around. Memories aren't stuff. Memories are in the heart and mind. I've found that smells evoke more memories than anything else. So I am getting rid of so much stuff.

  • JackiM 2 Jul, 2008

    This article gives me the incentive I need to clear clutter from my life. Thank you!

  • Sharon Carbine 12 May, 2008


  • SandeeSandee 16 Apr, 2008

    This was VERY helpful. And, so true. Thank you!

  • Sharret42 14 Apr, 2008

    Because of my lifestyle as an Army Brat living abroad and later again living abroad as a Civil Servant and in the Foreign Service, my frequent moves were always a time to declutter and I welcomed the opportunity. Now, I'm moving yet again (at the age of 66) and have made several trips to Goodwill, Manna Food Bank, and my condo community resale shop plus called a junk-hauling service. I held on to a lot of my mother's thins after she died but now I have pared those down to a few memento's.

  • cutiepiejanice 14 Apr, 2008

    when i first lost my mother i didn't want to get rid of ANYTHING including her clothing that nobody could wear. for some reason i assumed if i kept all of her things

  • htowngal 14 Apr, 2008

    I completely agree with the comments listed. I have a lot of stuff...I will not deny it. I am the kind of person to look through a magazine and cut out articles if I find them interesting. I am a pack rat, but at least I am an organized, sentimental pack rat. Ironically enough, I cut out an article that said that people who are pack rats are actually more intelligent because they find creative uses for those random items that most people simply toss. I am proud to be a pack rat!

  • natrang 28 Feb, 2008

    You know, I tackle clutter just like everyone else; I just donn n n n n n t obsess about it. Most people are not going to stop buying things. So like cleaning, clutter is something theyn n n n n n ll find themselves dealing with again and again. Clutter isnn n n n n n t necessarily bad, though itn n n n n n s become a negative word. Like everything else, it depends on your perspective, your personal taste and what works for you.

  • natrang 28 Feb, 2008

    I do not want to let go of memories. I like to reuse/remake things. I enjoy visual displays. I like changing my environment seasonally. I do not want to store everything digitally. And I refuse to feel bad about any of this. When I worked in an office n n n n n n mine was one of the messiest cubicles. But I was also one of the top producers and contributors of ideas, and rose up the food chain. I also worked with people who had spotless offices - many of whom accomplished way less than I did.

  • natrang 28 Feb, 2008

    Nicolen n n n n n s story made me think of weight loss ads, which always run the tiny statement, n n n n n n results not typical.n n n n n n She got a new client and felt ready for love just because she cleared out some clutter? Most people will just wind up with more space, and yes time, which probably wonn n n n n n t end up revolutionizing their lives. If you are worried about clutter n n n n n n memorize the three rules in this article n n n n n n they appear in every clutter article. As for me, I like my stuff, and make no apologies for it.

  • Esmeree 27 Feb, 2008

    In the 50 plus years of my life, my experience has consistently been that I am in dire need of the item I threw out last week but had no clue until this week! I am an off again on again artist and junk has value. I suspect that my problem is I need to be more organized in its storage.

  • Chatte 13 Jan, 2008

    I liked the idea of planning before disgarding items and thinking about the future and where the clutter comes from. Amarge's comment is true. I realize that I now have to help my husband, who has a disability, with not being able to bend and pick up items or hold bigger items.

  • dembidj 4 Jan, 2008

    Thanks for including the whole person in this article. Cleaning and organizing a house full of clutter are the first steps to a vicious cycle of clutter, clean, clutter, clean- unless we deal with the reasons why we collect clutter, or fear getting rid of things.

  • amarge 3 Jan, 2008

    Having read this article and dozens of others like it, buying all kinds of books and magazines on how to de-clutter (which are now adding to my clutter), I have never seen any mention or suggestions for anyone who have any physical disabilities such as not being able to bend or lift and no one to help them. My clutter has piled up since I am no longer able to perform the above mentioned tasks.

  • sormusic 3 Jan, 2008

    I will reread this article, as my home can beome clutted after a few months of being very neat. This is a daily endeveavor. I like the outcome in the story of Nicole and I would like to feel that good about myself too. Yes, I will reread the article (I have already printed it out) However, I will then throw it away! :)

  • sandyr 10 Nov, 2007

    I enjoyed the article on clutter and clearing it out, please keep them coming, it always helps to refresh our thinking.

  • Jgaullivengood 8 Nov, 2007

    Thank you for repeating this clutter articles. I have missed it previously. I now
    have a plan,

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