I’ve lived in the same apartment for twelve years. Two small bedrooms, a small bathroom, a living area, dining area and small kitchen. It’s seen me through two husbands and through my daughter growing from an excitable, joyous six year old to a young woman verging on eighteen. I’ve always been what I call a “closet slob”; you could knock on my door any time of the day or night and be ushered into a dust free, clutter free, fairly well decorated abode (sure, most of the decorating came to me second-hand, but I managed to blend everything into an interesting, eclectic look). Just, dear Lord help us, don’t open a cupboard or look in a closet. Though the apartment does lean toward the smallish side, it is also blessed with plenty of storage areas and so, being the closet slob that I am, why put a towel/book/toy back carefully in its place when I can just open a cupboard door and fling it back there somewhere? And since I’m short, and a lot of the cupboards are tall, I do mean fling! Take a step backward, take good aim and swoosh! The towel/book/toy is efficiently relegated to ‘somewhere up there.”
About two years ago I married my current husband. Two households blended into one. Suddenly there were four TVs, four phones, five desks, two computers, two microwaves, two coffeepots…you get the idea. What’s worse, my new husband, for all that he dresses like a college professor, talks like a lawyer and carries a Masters Degree in Political Science, is a slob. And not a closet one either. Every room he lingers in for even a brief period of time ends up looking like a “Walt Explosion” happened; he leaves bits and pieces of himself everywhere. His wallet over here, keys over there, shoes who-knows-where. His dirty clothes get thrown at the closet door from across the room at night. His unopened mail, stacked on the kitchen counter, once reached a height of about a foot. And I was the one who stacked the mail, otherwise it wouldn’t have been a foot-high stack; it would’ve been a one inch layer spread evenly across the entire surface of the kitchen counter.
So what does this have to do with de-cluttering? Well about two months ago the apartment complex changed hands. One of the improvements offered to us was new carpeting. I’d been living with the same vomit-colored, butt-ugly carpet for 12 years so of course I jumped at the chance for new. The carpeting could be done in two stages; complete emptying of both bedrooms one week, then complete emptying of the living room and dining area the next week. No problem. Except that my once surface-neat apartment had turned into a storage unit/dumpster/giant Salvation Army bin. Last year I started an online vintage jewelry website so my inventory was carefully placed in sectioned plastic bins – all except for the overflow which was packed in larger boxes, strewn on the dining table for photographing or by the computer for describing. Since the sectioned plastic bins didn’t have a home yet, then were on the dining room floor, stacked about 8 high, along with my own 8 inches or so of loose paper which constituted my business records. My husband has a two drawer vertical file for his work files; it’s very nice with a deep cherry finish, except for the overflow files/pending files/files in progress, which were on the dining room floor, on the dining room table and on the kitchen counter, keeping the unopened mail company.
Since my husband is a voracious reader, there were about two hundred books – cookbooks, paperback novels, hard back biographies, etc., stacked about two feet high and about a foot deep which was the first sight to greet any visitors to our place. That was in addition to the books which were two-deep in the three shelf barrister’s bookcase we have. And since we’re both the frugal type (or perhaps “cheap” is a better word), any Priority Mail box, cardboard box, packing material and/or Styrofoam peanut which crossed our path and appeared to be in decent shape had been saved (for my jewelry orders). And this isn’t all the clutter, of course, and we haven’t even talked about the furniture. I mentioned the five desks; also two full-size sofas, a coffee table, microwave cart, telephone table, three floor lamps, an old recliner, TV cart, a queen bed, a double bed, a full dresser…you get the idea. And an endless amount of knick-knacks, dust catchers and gewgaws.
How did this happen? I’d ask myself that question, sort of daze-like, when I’d look around and remember how thing used to be…I had more energy, keeping the place neat was more important, there were only two people to keep up with rather than three…now I would just look around and I could feel the clutter and crap sucking the energy out of me, draining me of even the will to care about taking care of it. And now I was confronted with this task that had to be done – de-cluttering on a time line and also getting the furniture moved.
I’d like to tell you it was daunting and frustrating and a challenge but those words are too mild for what I felt. I’m not a weenie-whiny gal. I don’t burst into tears; I don’t stamp my feet and I don’t collapse. I’ve been through two bad marriages, unemployment, alcoholism, the death of my father and even been hit by a car (I was the unlucky pedestrian), and still managed to keep a decent perspective on life and my sanity and my sense of humor. But I can’t lie to you: Having to go into my apartment, to pick up every single thing I came in contact with and either toss it or pack it, felt insurmountable. I felt hopeless and wanted to cry. Literally everywhere I looked there was a pile of papers/supplies/doodads that not only weren’t at least resting on a flat surface like a table, but had been laying in a corner or on the floor for so long that we no longer saw them. They had squatter’s rights and were just as much a part of the apartment as its windows and walls. My daughter is here only sometimes – her father and I share custody and she has band and a part-time job and school. My husband is here only sometimes – his job requires him to be out of town three to four days a week. Though both are capable of making full-time clutter and chaos, in effect neither one was going to be around for the side-splitting good time of packing this stuff up. It should’ve been a party we were all invited to and instead it was a shindig where I was not only the guest of honor but the sole attendee as well. And I wanted to cry.
So what did I do? I’d like to tell you that I knocked some heads together, rallied the troops and inspired the masses (my husband and my daughter would be “the masses” in this case) to roll up their sleeves, pitch in and, by golly, a good time was had by all in the process. Ha! What world do you live in?? The first thing I could think of was plastic bins. I wasn’t up for trying to scrounge large size, sturdy cardboard boxes in addition to what lay ahead of me so I went to Wal-Mart and bought six Sterilite tubs with lids. I had no idea what size to buy and these things come in all brands, all sizes, opaque, see-thru, designer colored, etc. I bought the cheapest but sturdiest ones I could find; I believe these ran me about $5 or so each, plain grey. I think these are 18 gallon but I’m not sure; they measure about 18 inches high, about two feet long and about 18 inches or so deep. My reasoning was this: The stuff I’d have to put in them needed to be protected somehow (our garage, where they were destined, has a wet floor sometimes). Also, my goal was to reuse these bins to repack Christmas decorations in as well as store away some of the knick-knacks for reuse later. And though it was really tempting to buy the largest bins I could find, I also realized that the odds were very high that I’d be the one hauling these fully-packed babies up and down the fifteen stairs to the apartment, then halfway down the length of the building to the garage. I do a weight lifting routine with four pound dumbbells each morning, do ‘man-style’ pushups and run and aerobicize, but frankly, I didn’t need this project to cripple my physically- what it was doing to my spirit was bad enough – and so I stuck with the slightly smaller bins which I reasoned would be easier for me to maneuver.
And so I would say that the very first step to de-cluttering is a mental one: Have a plan. Notice that I didn’t just wander into room and open a drawer and start hauling stuff out and around. Pretend that I did. Now what? So the stuff’s out of the drawer or off the shelf. Do I have a place to put it? Or do I just pile it on top of the bed, creating even a bigger mess than there already is. It’s going to be hard enough to keep you mind straight and clear on your goal (de-cluttering, remember?) when your knee deep in the middle of it unless you have a plan of action.
I find the best one for me is to pick the room I want to start in first. It doesn’t matter whether my choice makes logical sense as much as it matters that I feel good about it. Say my daughter’s room is the logical choice ’cause it’s the worst, but I want to start in my room ’cause it’ll ease me into the de-cluttering state of mind and I’ll feel much better about tackling my kid’s room once I’m in the groove, so to speak. So, since it’s my project and I’m the only one whose input counts (since I’m the one who’s going to do the work anyway), I’d start in my room first.
The next step would be to pick a direction, and by that I mean, literally, a direction. Do you work better in a clockwise direction? Counter-clockwise? Work the borders first and edge in toward the center of the room, or vice-versa? Again, make the choice which feels best for you. For myself, I pick the area immediately to my left as I enter a room, then work in a clockwise direction. That means if the closet’s the first thing to my left, I tackle the closet. After that, if there’s a desk, then it’s next. And so forth.
And speaking of what works best for you: If there’s a TV or a radio or a CD player or such in the room, by God, turn it on and make the whole miserable experience a little more pleasant for yourself.
Another part of the plan, for me anyway, is establishing areas for my four piles. Actually, they’re not really piles but that’s the way I think of them. The four piles are this: A pile of giveaways, a pile of trash, a pile to be put away and a pile to be stored away. I’ve already mentioned that I used plastic bins. But in addition, I also hauled in a pile of paper grocery bags and three or four kitchen size garbage bags. The paper bags get filled with clothes, books and knickknacks which are destined for Goodwill or the Salvation Army. And the trash bags are for trash. I ended up hauling out about 4-5 kitchen garbage bags full of paper – old receipts, old bills, magazines, old owners manuals for electronics we no longer have, etc.. Any thing which belongs somewhere else (like a dirty bowl hidden under a bed), gets put away where it belongs. And anything for storage goes into a bin.
One more thing you’ll probably need is cleaning supplies. Nothing too fancy ’cause it’s very easy to get caught up in the minutiae of, say, re-oiling the old wooden desk, and next thing you know it’s two hours later and your desk looks great but who can tell ’cause it’s buried under the clutter you were supposed to get rid of two hours ago. Just stuff like Windex, Endust, paper towels and a dust rag or old sock should do it.
So once you have your piles established and know in which direction you’re working and have some good music or your favorite show, then dig in. Pick up the first thing you see – book, dirty sock, candy wrapper, you mother-in-law’s picture – and make a decision. Toss, give away, put away or store. Then do it. And that’s it. Just be prepared to pick up everything or nearly everything you encounter. That’s all de-cluttering is, really. Just picking something up and making the decision. And doing that over and over and over and over until the room is done or ’til you’re insane.
But wait! That’s not quite all. Since you have the whatever-it-is in your hand already, and especially if it’s a put-away item, clean it first. Squirt it with some Windex, slap the feather duster on it, whatever’s appropriate, before you put it where it belongs. Then put it where it belongs. If it belongs in a place that’s not itself dusted or cleaned yet, don’t worry. You’re working your way through the room and you’ll eventually come to it. This leads to another thing. If you’re de-cluttering a table top, don’t forget to clean the table top. You’re there anyway and it’s best to make this whole operation as efficient as possible. And efficiency isn’t accomplished if you first de-clutter a room then have to go back and pick things up again in order to dust. The goal is to handle everything only once (twice, at the most) and get you the heck out of there so you can enjoy yourself.
Now don’t expect to get it done in one fell swoop – in some mind-numbing, sweaty marathon of frenzied de-cluttering. If you do, good for you! Just don’t expect to. Be mentally prepared to leave your halfway de-cluttered room overnight or even for a few days if you have to – remember, it’s a work in progress. If you’ve had to live with their clutter for a long time (“their” would be your kids, husband, parents, significant other, roommates, etc.), it certainly ain’t gonna kill them to live with the temporary mess you’ve had to create in order to get things in order. And you know what? If you do have to leave it mid-stream you’ll quickly find out that it bothers you a lot more than it bothers them. After all, they’re used to living their lives in clutter and chaos. You’ll be gnawing at your fingernails, knowing that your piles are just sitting there, waiting for action. Those around you, meanwhile, will carry on as usual. They always do.
One other trick I use is the trick of selective vision. When I’m running a big, painful hill, I manage it quite well provided I don’t look up too much. Same thing goes here. When you’re smack in the middle of your de-cluttering efforts and the piles are getting bigger but the mess seems to be getting worse, remember to focus on the immediate – on the thing which is in your hand. I can’t tackle the whole hill at once; I can only tackle the step in front of me. Same thing goes for your room. Only tackle the next thing in front of you. Sometimes seeing the whole picture is an exceedingly good thing; seeing the whole room (or the whole hill) and seeing how far you still have to go, can be not such a good thing.
Also, especially with respect to the give away pile, don’t be surprised if you need to go through it a couple of times. Sometimes I’ll find that the give-away pile turns out to be very, very small – I’m just as much a pack rat as the next person. Especially when it comes to books and clothes. And so I’ll need to revisit my newly de-cluttered room with a more mercenary eye. Do I really need to keep the white Calvin Klein jeans I’ve had since I was nineteen (I’m forty-five now). Probably not. The good part about this is it’s a lot easier to do this revisit now that the room is substantially de-cluttered.
And if something has great sentimental value to you, keep it, and keep it safe. It only has to make sense to you. I designated a whole bin just as my “memories bin.” It has things like my daughter’s kindergarten shoes, my father’s obituary, my daughter’s report cards, most of her toddler wardrobe, her first letter to Santa and probably every greeting card I’ve ever received from good friends and family. It’s not stuff I haul out every other day and so it doesn’t necessarily need to be in my immediate vicinity. But it’s important to me and that’s all that matters.
If you think about it, though I’ve written specifically about de-cluttering a living area, these basic tips can be applied to virtually anything which needs a little order restored. Your desk, your car, your files, your purse, your yard.
One other thing you should know. I’m no de-cluttering guru. Yes, I managed to get rid of a lot of the clutter and junk and yes, the carpet installation went off without a hitch. I only had a very minor back strain and on both installation days my husband and I moved the larger items together and we didn’t even argue. But I must confess: It’s two weeks later and as I’m writing this I can look across the room at the lone bin which still isn’t unpacked. I’m a decent de-clutterer but I’m an even better procrastinator