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Confessions on De-Cluttering a Big Old House

21 Mar

Hello again!

Given the fact that the world is in crisis on so many fronts; and watching a tragic, 24 hour news cycle can plunge even the most resilient human into a state of helpless despair, we thought we'd acknowledge this hard truth, send our deepest sympathies and best wishes to those who are suffering, (not to mention a check or two); and then address an issue we all can do something about with immediate, visible results - clutter.  We ran this piece once before, and it got a tremendous response.  Now we do it again, in hopes it proves even more therapeutic during these tough times.

Here are some great tips to help manage clutter, and reduce stress (from Dr. David Edelberg’s WholeHealth blog).

Gather some boxes, trash bags, and labels, and let’s do it. These ideas will ease the way:

  • Space it out. If the thought of de-cluttering an entire room makes your mind reel, focus on one area at a time. Start with your child’s desk, the kitchen drawer, your files, or the medicine cabinet. Spend just an hour a day at it. You’ll be amazed at how good you feel by clearing one small part of a larger task, and you’ll feel more inclined to take on the rest of the job sooner. Remember: an hour a day.

  • Don’t use it? Lose it. First, set some guidelines for yourself: Get rid of any items you haven’t used or worn in the past two years. This means the suits with the big shoulder pads, the hair crimper that made you look like a cocker spaniel, and the treadmill that has 0.6 of a mile on it. Why not have a yard sale or sell clothing through a consignment shop? For faster riddance, donate items to a charity or give them to a friend who’s admired them in the past.

  • If you can’t let it go, box it up. Put papers and other items you’re not quite ready to discard in a labeled box and store it in an out-of-the-way place. Six months from now, if you still don’t need the contents, toss the box without opening.

  • Rotate cherished possessions. If you’ve weeded out as much as you can and still have too many tchotchkes on your shelves, put half of them away in a box. Now you have half as much to dust, and in six months you can swap out old for new and enjoy looking at something different.

  • Police your desktop. In your office, keep on your desktop only those items that you use routinely. Everything else gets filed or put in a drawer or on a shelf.

  • Junk all junk mail. Don’t even bother reading it. Toss it directly into the trash or recycling bin. The same goes for catalogs you aren’t interested in and free magazines. Let’s face it, you probably don’t have the time to read the ones you requested.

  • Enlist an organizing pal. If your stress level soars from just reading about de-cluttering, invite a friend over to support you in throwing things out, and then do the same for her. You might also consider hiring a professional organizer to help you. Look for listings online.

  • Fight clutter creep. Once you’ve de-junked your home or office, keep it that way. You’re dreaming if you think one de-clutter session takes care of everything. Schedule (yes, on your calendar) half an hour once a week to round up stray items. Keep a re-sale shop box or bag handy so you can add to it. Then do your de-cluttering–and nothing else–during that half hour.

Here is my own story about conquering clutter. When I was getting ready to sell my big, old, Charles Addams-esque house in Cleveland Heights (designed for relentless entertaining from when my husband was a grad school dean), I was taken firmly in hand by my real estate agent and told that clean surfaces, open spaces and orderly closets would be the sine qua non of unloading that sucker.

Now, mind you, this was a huge house with lots of hidden spaces.  You could stash something useless away (for later? for what?) and forget you ever had it, because you’d never see it again.   The living areas would still look pretty good.  I had boxes on the third floor and in the basement that hadn’t been opened since our last move from Washington DC (where I had unopened boxes from the move before that from Watertown, MA...).  You get the picture.
 
This was one of the few times I can remember that I just didn’t know where to begin. (The correct answer, by the way, was anywhere!)  I enlisted my adult kids, who graciously took turns showing up and helping me toss stuff each weekend.  I had one son who, like his father, looked through the stuff, got lost down memory lane, and, in a flood of activated nostalgia, would opt to keep it all.  My daughter tossed everything with ruthless efficiency, like some kind of avenging angel - to such a degree that I had to retrieve stuff the others still wanted.  (This was quite a sight in the neighborhood: me picking through my own trash on the tree lawn, frantic to find some photos that got axed, before the garbage truck came.)  My other son walked the line between the two extremes.  Without my offspring, I don’t think I could have gotten through that huge houseful of useless stuff.

Each Monday, from April to July, there’d be - I do not exaggerate - 25-40 giant bags of trash waiting for pickup. That doesn’t count the truckloads of clothing, furniture and tchochkes we gave to charity, nor the gifts to family and friends, nor the stuff we sold. It was simply astounding, what came out of that house.

We finally did it.  It took a long time and a lot of work. The sight of all that needless stuff and the experience of getting rid of it had a profound effect on me.  I was repulsed by all the needless junk we’d accumulated.  It really did feel a little obscene. (Trust me, I’m a social worker. It was not lost on me that many people do not have enough stuff.)
 
I loved giving it away and I loved tossing it.  It felt great.

Since that time, in my new place, I don’t let stuff accumulate.  It’s not such a struggle - the mail gets to a certain level and I’m on it, tossing and sorting. I now seem to have a trip-switch for accumulation, and I’m so enjoying the clean, open spaces.  The aesthetic is very pleasing to me, and it soothes me in some basic way.

Nowadays, I start hyperventilating when well-meaning, unsuspecting friends bring me momentos and goodie bags.  I give them back, with apologies, but with firmness too.  I toss regularly. Those four months of tossing seriously, permanently and profoundly changed something in me.

If you feel discouraged with your progress - or even feel that things look worse, now that you’ve begun (that often happens - at first it looks messier), refocus your attention on the number of trash bags going out. That will carry you until such time as you see the improvement in the room.

OK, take care, de-clutter, and be well.



 

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award