Clear Your Clutter, Find Your Life

It's hard to know where it all began (a pile here, an unsorted drawer there), but the slow accumulation of clutter can occur so quietly, so insidiously, we may not even notice until it's gotten out of control. And we're talking not just season to season, but also year to year. In time, our lives get so filled with the debris of the past -- from dried-up tubes of Krazy Glue to old grudges -- that it's a wonder we can get up in the morning, never mind go to work, or even just put one foot in front of the other.

As a life coach, I help people figure out not only what they want most, but what they need to let go of to discover who they really are. To do this, I use what I like to call the "Michelangelo method," based on a story about the famous sculptor. Legend has it that when Michelangelo finished the statue of David, a local patron of the arts, awestruck by the work, asked how he did it. The artist responded simply, "David was always there in the marble. I just took away everything that was not David." By using a similar approach to clutter clearing, we end up with more than a tidier, well-organized home; we get a clearer idea of who we are now and who we're becoming.

With warmer weather fueling the natural drive to spring clean, there's no time like the present to start chipping away at the "stuff" -- in your closets, your drawers, your attic, and so on -- that may be holding you back from the life you really want. On the following pages, I'm going to help you go room by room to figure out what's important and what's not, what you really need (that one great suit) and what you don't (those beads you got in Jamaica), what makes you feel heavy and draggy (that god-awful coat), and what makes you feel light and upbeat (your favorite green bag).

Sound exhausting? It won't be. With a little effort, focus, and the right approach, you can chisel your way through all the extraneous marble that stands in the way of your very best self. Are you ready? Let's roll up our sleeves and start on your plan for clearing out the old and bringing in the new -- one step, one decision at a time.

What You Need

  • Sturdy garbage bags and cardboard boxes (To start things off, label one "trash," one "donations," and one "sell." Designate another for old threadbare towels and T-shirts that you can use for cleaning.)
  • A box of gallon-sized Ziploc bags to store single items for giveaway or small items like jewelry
  • Masking tape to seal boxes or bags, mend tears, and secure notes to the bags or boxes
  • A pad of medium-sized sticky notes to label your bags
  • A waterproof marker


What Do You Want to Look Like?
Since who you are begins with how you see yourself, the place to start spring cleaning is your bedroom. After all, that's where you keep the clothes, jewelry, and accessories that collectively represent your identity to the world. How would you describe your style? What would you like to change or update? Finding (or in some cases, reinventing) your best self begins with identifying the "you" that you want to present to the world -- and that involves clearing out the clutter. You can always revisit some old looks later if the spirit moves you. But right now, we're moving forward.

Go for the Low-Hanging Fruit
We all have things that we know we don't want anymore but simply haven't taken the time to purge. What obvious clothing items, handbags, or dated cosmetics have to go? Start with unused or broken costume jewelry (if you haven't found the other earring, you probably won't anytime soon), mismatched or matchless socks and gloves, company shirts and hats from your last job, and shoes that haven't seen the light of day in a year. Gather up these things and put them in a pile.

Do a Wardrobe Walk-Through
Now peel away the next layer. Open all your drawers again and examine the clothes, shoes, and accessories you find there. Be honest: What do you tend to pass over (and as a result, haven't worn in years)? What no longer serves a real purpose in your life? What about those dated suits? Or those too-small sweaters your sister-in-law keeps giving you for Christmas? How do some of the items make you feel? We can't all run out and buy a new wardrobe, but we can gradually edit out the stuff that no longer makes us feel good. Identify these things and add them to the pile.

Sort It Out
Look at what you've purged and decide where it will all go. Mark boxes destined for Goodwill, reusing (old socks make great dusters), passing along (your friend Susie might like that old bracelet), or the trash, and sort the piles accordingly. Put shoes, old jewelry, and small accessories into boxes or Ziploc bags, and label everything with your sticky notes and waterproof pen. To avoid having the boxes sit around (more clutter!), go, right now, and deliver them to their respective destinations.

What Are You Hanging On To
Attics (or basements or any other storage area) are bittersweet places. That's why we spend years talking about how we have to go up there and throw stuff out but somehow never get around to it. The attic houses things we don't otherwise know what to do with, such as old mattresses and box springs, fading photographs, and mementos. But it's not just simple clutter; it's also chock-full of memories, items that call up good times and bad, all of which elicit emotions. Clearing out the clutter comes down to deciding why you're keeping what's there.

Keep the Good Vibes, Chuck the Bad
House only the positive memories. Anything that reminds you of a difficult or negative experience or a time when you felt bad has to go. I don't care how valuable it is. What we surround ourselves with -- even if it's stashed way up in the attic -- influences our thinking.

Give Each Item the Three-Question Test
Do you really love it? Do you need it now? Can you imagine yourself or anyone in your family ever loving or needing it in the foreseeable future? If you can't answer yes to any one of these questions, sell it, donate it, or recycle it.

Stem the Flow Stop clutter before it happens by checking yourself the next time you go in there to stash something new. Ask those same three questions. If it doesn't pass the test, rather than bring it up the stairs (or down), turn around and take it to the curb, where someone else can pick it up.

Kick the "Shoulds"
While it can be difficult to fight those voices telling you to hold on to things (especially the one that sounds a lot like your mother's), giving in to the notion of what other people think won't do your decluttering efforts any good. If you feel yourself caving under advice to keep that old, saggy bed or splintery shelf, dig in your heels and don't look back. Out it goes -- to someplace where it will enjoy a fuller life than it would have in your attic.


What Do You Want to Do
Desk clutter can prove physically and mentally overwhelming. Sure, you need a place to put bills, but your desk is also mission control for your life and your career. How much of this stuff has anything to do with who you are now and who you're becoming?

This is where your "brand" comes in. When you know who you are at your core and what distinguishes you, you can more easily let go of the stuff that no longer "fits." What's your brand's promise? What do you love doing, and what are you committed to delivering every time? Maybe it's your ability to come up with fresh ideas, to connect with people, or to solve the unsolvable. Anything and everything that doesn't fit with that description is ripe for the decluttering bins -- both mental and physical.

Clear the Decks
Start with the surfaces. What's taking up precious real estate that you don't need or even use regularly? Try removing everything and putting back only the must-haves, such as your pens, a pad of paper, your datebook, checkbook, calculator, stamps, and so on. Take a fresh look at the tchotchkes and photographs -- even the container you keep your pens in. If you no longer like them, share them with people who could use them, or post them on craigslist.org or freecycle.com to find others who want them.

Chip Away at What Isn't You
Next, look beyond your desktop. Go through each shelf and drawer and remove absolutely everything that detracts from your brand or drags you back to some old idea of yourself. This includes old files you haven't looked at in years; half-done projects you've lost interest in; books you never read and don't plan on reading. Let it all go -- straight into the recycling bin.

Streamline Your Records
Of course, some paperwork needs to stay: bank statements (only what you need for tax purposes); bills (one year); credit-card records (seven years); pay stubs (one year; then shred once you've received your W-2 form); tax returns and records (seven years). But feel okay with shredding the rest.

Go Digital
Consider reducing paper overload by digitally scanning and storing important documents, which ensures that they're accessible and safe (and out of the way). Check out sift sort.com, just one of a few companies that digitize your important documents and give you easy online access.

How Do You Want to Feel?
I believe we are what we surround ourselves with. And that goes for our bathrooms, which are jammed with things that may influence us in less-than-healthy ways. Take a look inside your medicine cabinet. Chances are you'll find some very old personal-care products and dried-out tubes of over-the-counter drugs whose expiration dates have long since passed. It doesn't seem healthful -- physically or mentally -- to keep this stuff around. Who wants to be reminded of old ailments?

So you have to decide whether you need to keep these things "just in case," or if you intend to be well and not need them again. If you actually intend to be well, then decide, right here, right now, how you're going to create that reality.

Check the Dates
After their expiration dates have passed, certain medications (both prescription and over-the-counter) may lose their potency and no longer work. Anything that's quite visibly old (crusty, sticky, oozing) should go. Don't flush pills down the toilet, as this could contaminate the water supply; ask your pharmacist about how to dispose of them properly.

Determine What Purpose It Serves
If you take those supplements daily or use the products every morning, you know they're worth keeping. But what about the Ace bandage from your knee surgery five years ago? Same goes for the gauze you took home from the hospital. If you don't need it anymore, pass it on to someone who does. Some charities and shelters accept hospital-supply donations. Call your local groups to find out more. If it's used or otherwise unfit for donation, then recycle or repurpose.

Tackle the Beauty Goo
Don't overlook the rest of your bathroom drawers and cabinet. Ditch the dried-up cans of hair spray, the used-up lipsticks, and old beauty tools (brushes, combs, and so on). Note, too, that some makeup, especially liquids and gels, can develop bacteria once exposed to air (particularly anything you use your hands to apply). Who wants a petri dish in her bathroom?

Host a Party
One fun way to get rid of cosmetics and other personal-care items you've never used is to invite your friends over for a beauty swap. Ask everyone to bring their unused or barely used items (the wrong color lipstick, perfume samples), and shop for free -- all while giving good products new homes.

Let Go Of...
Unhealthy Assumptions
We really do underestimate the power of our intentions. If we intend to be well, then we have to create that reality. What notions do you have about your health? Do you assume you'll never lose those last 10 pounds? That you'll throw your back out again? Write down all the things that stand in the way of your well-being, and let them go.

Feelings of Inadequacy
Let go of the overwhelming tendency to compare yourself with others. In fact, forget the phrase "as good as" altogether. Decide to appreciate who you are and what you contribute to the people and the world around you.

Old Regrets and Mistakes
We've all had those middle-of-the-night moments when we castigate ourselves for not knowing better, not trying harder, not being perfect. Throw out the word "perfect." You can't succeed big time if you're not willing to fail -- big time. Spend all your energy reliving things that didn't work, and you'll have no energy for finding new ways to be fulfilled.

The Need to Feel Secure
We all have those times when we don't know where we're headed or who we are. But you can't grow if you stay in your comfort zone. Step into the unknown. Release your need for guarantees. Your life will evolve into something better than you can imagine, if you give it half a chance.

Decluttering 1, 2, 3
How do you decide what to throw out? Keep these three key guidelines in mind:

1. If it (the pair of shoes, the hat, the picture, the memory) weighs you down, clogs you up, or just plain makes you feel bad about yourself, throw it out, give it away, sell it, let it go, and move on.

2. If it just sits there, taking up room and contributing nothing positive to your life, let it go. If you're not moving forward, you're moving backward.

3, If you agonize over it for too long, throw it out. Don't make the decision -- whether to toss it or keep it -- a hard one.

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