You walk into your home, or maybe into a certain room. You look around, scanning the entire space, and suddenly feel so heavy. You feel tense and tired. You feel powerless and helpless. You feel disappointed in yourself.
Your eyes immediately zero in on the piles of random paperwork, and the mountain of random stuff. On the boxes and bills. On the cards and magazines. On the jackets and hats and extra furniture.
And you realize, as you’ve already realized so many times before, that this is evidence of the many things you’ve left undone and unfinished. This is clear-cut, plain-as-day evidence, you think to yourself, that you can’t keep much (if anything) together. And you start berating yourself, as you always do when you open the door to your home, or that spare bedroom that resembles a storage unit.
How did I let it get so bad? What’s wrong with me? It’s not that hard to get organized! I always over-complicate everything. I hate this place.
“Physical clutter can create mental clutter,” said Rachel Rosenthal, a professional organizer and founder of Rachel and Company, which offers in-person services in Washington D.C., and an online organizing course.
Our stuff can create “a feeling of weight on our shoulders or anxiety,” and it’s not until we deal with that physical clutter that we can release those soul-sucking feelings, Rosenthal said.
But right now you feel too overwhelmed to even start. You are paralyzed. And it all just feels so daunting. There’s just so much stuff. And I don’t have much time. Where do I actually begin? How do I decide what to actually let go of?
Below, you’ll find the answers to these questions—and hopefully you’ll see that while decluttering isn’t effortless, it can be easier than we make it out to be when we’re feeling especially bogged down.
Start with your values. “All our choices really come back to our values so the more familiar we are with these, the easier our life becomes,” said Rachael Walden, a psychologist in Australia who helps smart, health-conscious professionals unlock the life they want. “This is decluttering our brain in its truest form—the ‘white noise’ of indecision is gone and we can just solve the immediate issue with a minimum of fuss.”
In other words, knowing our values provides us with a roadmap for making decisions. It makes it easier to know just how much stuff we want to declutter, and how much time we want to spend doing so. It makes it easier to know what to keep and what to let go.
For instance, right now minimalism is all the rage, and when something is trendy, we can start to feel like it’s something we must and should be doing. But if your filled-to-the-brim garage doesn’t bother you, then by all means leave it as is. On the other hand, maybe it’s very important to you to give to charity, which includes donating nice items you’re no longer using to people who can actually use them.
In another example, maybe you value quality clothing and fair trade principles, so you decide to get rid of your collection of poor-quality, mass-produced T-shirts, Walden said. If you value heritage, and your grandma’s vase represents an aspect of her life, you decide to keep that item and feature it prominently on your shelf, she added.
Take some time to identify your values, along with what each value means to you. “We all have different interpretations of values: Honesty for some people is complete transparency; for others it is not telling an actual lie,” Walden said.
In other words, identify your values, and then consider if the items in your home fit those values.
Get support. When we’re alone, it can be easy to get inside our heads—and stay there, dwelling in the negativity, indecision and overwhelm. When we’re alone, doing anything can feel impossible.
Rosenthal stressed the importance of having a support system: Declutter and organize with your spouse, a family member, a friend, or hire a professional organizer. The key is that the person who joins you can be positive about the process, and motivate you to start and keep going.
Schedule your session. “Like you would for a dentist or doctor, schedule in your organizing time,” Rosenthal said. “If you don’t make an appointment with yourself, you are bound to put something else in its place.” So take out your planner, right now, and pick a date and time to do your decluttering. Carve out that space, even if it’s just 30 minutes.
Create a priority list. What areas are bothering you the most? What’s creating the most chaos, and organizing it would help your days to feel lighter and function more effectively? According to Rosenthal, start there. That is, list the areas in your home in order of importance, and move down your list.
Think tiny. Maybe your kitchen tops your priority list. But decluttering and organizing the entire space just feels like too much. This is when starting tiny can help. Rosenthal suggested starting with a kitchen drawer—or a bedroom drawer or a linen closet. Start with your entryway table, or a shelf on your bookcase, where everything seems to pile up.
“Once you’ve seen the results, the momentum from the positive progress will help carry you to the next area to tackle,” Rosenthal said.
Go one room at a time. “[T]ouch every item in that room to determine how it should be categorized,” Rosenthal said. “Remember, while the item might not take up much room in a box, you will eventually have to find a place for it…” That’s because it’s important to give items a home (this way you can actually find what you’re looking for). Rosenthal suggested relinquishing anything you don’t love or use on a regular basis.
Make decluttering into a game. When we’re overwhelmed, we have a tendency to get very serious, and taking any action feels like we’re moving through mud. What can help is to make decluttering fun and interesting and creative.
Joshua Becker includes a list of 10 creative decluttering ideas in this piece on Becoming Minimalist. For instance, you could give away one item per day for a year. You could give yourself 5 minutes a day to create a spot for incoming papers, clear off a counter or pull out clothes you don’t wear (as you’re picking out your outfit that morning). You could see how quickly you can fill one trash bag (with actual trash or donations).
Delve deeper. Sometimes, it can feel like we’re spinning our wheels. We aim to declutter and to organize a space, but we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. It seems like we take stuff out and then promptly put it back. That’s when it’s vital to dig deeper, and get curious about why you’re holding on to certain things.
In this piece on Inc., therapist and author Amy Morin, LCSW, cites a 2011 study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology that found that we tend to hang onto items because they’re tied to our self-worth.
As Morin writes, “If you place a lot of value in success, for example, you may have trouble getting rid of anything that serves as a tangible reminder of your accomplishments. A plaque from your last job, an expensive watch that no longer works, or a stack of old college transcripts may represent your achievement.”
She also notes, “If however, you value your relationships above everything else, you may have difficulty getting rid of gifts from other people. Donating that shirt that never fit, may lead you to feel like you’re being disloyal to Grandma. Or, getting rid of that book your friend gave you, may cause you to feel like you’re giving away a little bit of your friendship.”
What items are you holding onto? What do they represent? Can you process the underlying reasons (perhaps by talking to someone) and let go?
Sometimes, decluttering feels daunting because we’re exhausted and sleep deprived, or we’re going through a difficult time. Maybe we’ve lost someone, and we’re in the midst of grieving. Maybe our depression is deepening. Either way, as Courtney Carver points out in this piece, sometimes it’s just not the right time to declutter. And that’s OK. Because instead of getting rid of a bunch of stuff, what you really need is a big dose of compassion, understanding and gentleness.
You can always return to decluttering when you’re ready.