Don't Be a Basket Case: Removing Your Life's Clutter

Do your piles of clutter defeat even the best organization system? Maybe it's time to look at the meaning behind the mess.
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Take a Hard Look at Your Bad Habits

I had never thought of myself as a clutterholic. Even with five kids in residence my house was tidy enough to allow for drop-in company with no major embarrassment, as long as guests didn't stray far from the living or dining room. But, oh, the secrets hidden behind closed doors: stacks of mail and receipts on the kitchen table; medicines, batteries, and old Christmas cards crammed into drawers; a laundry room that looked like the drop-off point for a rummage sale; and bedrooms that might be mistaken for the scene of a recent robbery. And that's not even counting the basement, the attic, and the garage, whose contents could have outfitted at least three other families.

Our skeletons were safely hidden -- until the kids left home and my husband and I decided to downsize. After Sandi, our real-estate agent and friend, toured the house, she promptly staged an intervention. Patiently but with unwavering resolve, she made me face the clutter -- and get rid of it. At the end of this painful process I found I had more than just an uncluttered house. Letting go of all that junk gave me a feeling of lightness and coherence, not to mention a sense of being in control of my life. I realized that the stuff clogging the closets and stacking up on every horizontal surface had also been cluttering my brain.

Sandi's cleanup campaign forced me to confront a hard fact: My struggle with clutter was never really about the particular items in question. Indeed, my attempts to tackle the ever-growing heaps of stuff by buying new shelving systems and pretty containers were like trying to bail out the Titanic with a paper cup. Clutter isn't a problem of space; it's a psychological issue. If you've tried repeatedly to get organized and it hasn't worked, you need a new approach.

Take a Hard Look at Your Bad Habits
The three handmaidens of clutter, experts say, are passivity, procrastination, and perfectionism. That first P was one of my biggest problems. I used to look at my crammed closets and imagine that soon -- very soon -- something would happen to change the situation. Plus I'd get mired in the feeling that it was just too big a project. Why even try?

The solution? Start small. Tackle the master bedroom first, advises professional organizer Peter Walsh, host of the television show Clean Sweep. Walsh believes the bedroom sets the emotional tone and drives the energy for the whole house. "What most people say they want from this room is peace, serenity, intimacy," he says. "That's the vision. But does an unmade bed reflect that?"

I took Walsh at his word. All my life I've considered bed-making an exercise in futility: You're just going to mess it up again. But the effect of making my bed the instant I get up was startling. When the bed is unmade, pretty much anything goes. Once it's tidy, I want the rest of the room to have that sense of order. It's hard to describe the feeling of serenity I get from walking into the bedroom and seeing my cat purring contentedly on a smooth, pretty duvet cover.

Conquering passivity alone won't cut the clutter, however, until you also deal with procrastination. "Eventually the effort to avoid a task becomes greater than the effort needed to do it," points out Sunny Schlenger, a professional organizer and author of Organizing for the Spirit. Besides that, she adds, every time you walk by the overflowing laundry basket or the pile of tax papers, you feel bad. Now you are dealing not just with clutter but with clutter guilt as well.

Rita Emmett, author of The Clutter-Busting Handbook, has a no-fail strategy for getting past procrastination. She recommends setting aside an hour for a task you don't want to do -- a real hour, which means gathering your tools in advance and no bathroom breaks, coffee refills, or quick e-mail checks allowed. Then set a timer for 60 minutes and go to it. When the hour is up you'll be so into the task you'll find it hard to stop. With luck you may even discover that you're finished with it.

Unless you are a perfectionist, that is, in which case you'll never be finished. If you feel compelled to read the newspaper cover to cover, for example, you may wind up with some very tall, unread stacks. "Paradoxically, perfectionists often hold on to clutter," says Sandra Felton, author of Organizing for Life. "They have to find just the right person to give their stuff to or the most environmentally correct way of disposing of it. It has to be done right or not at all." Unfortunately, she adds, it's usually not at all. If this sounds like you, start small, set priorities, and learn to live with "good enough" instead of striving for unreachable perfection.

Continued on page 2:  See How Shedding Sets You Free


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