Overwhelm is the hardest part about clearing clutter. Once we start seeing it for what it is – an excessive amount of unnecessary stuff – we start noticing how many individual items there are. Each one was brought in, one at a time, but the decision-making process of choosing which things to let go can take much more mental effort than it took to choose to bring them home. We’re also evaluating years or decades worth of stuff, and trying to reverse the tide in a (hopefully) shorter time period. Decision fatigue is a serious issue. That’s why it helps to make top-down decisions before getting out the bags and boxes.
Systems take the mental strain out of everything. For instance, we don’t need to apply mental effort to brushing our teeth or using a fork. We know how it works and we’ve done it thousands of times. What objects belong in the house, or don’t, can also be an automatic assessment. We build a framework. Dishes belong in the kitchen, clothes belong in the closet, books belong on the shelf, goats and chickens belong outside, recycling goes in the bin, etc. Clutter comes from two places: Either we brought it in without a plan for how to use or store it, or someone else did. Either way, decisions have been delayed. Dozens or hundreds or thousands of them. Now it’s time to cut through the fog and gain some clarity.
One of the games I teach is called How Many Shirts? We sit down with pencil and paper, and do an exercise. Assuming we find ourselves in a parallel universe where everything is the same, except that all our clothes have mysteriously vanished, how many shirts would we need? We come up with an estimate that factors in work, exercise, hot and cold weather, and formal occasions. Then we do the same for pants, shoes, etc. Armed with this information, we then count the existing shirts, pants, shorts, kilts, skirts, dresses, jumpsuits, Halloween costumes, tutus, etc. Generally, there are at least five times as many of each category as we decided we needed. That tends to include a lot of stuff that doesn’t fit, doesn’t go with anything else, or is just dated or stained. Say I decided I need ten sweaters, and I have 23. All I have to do is to choose my ten favorites and bag up the rest.
Here are some of the minimalist heuristics I use to keep clutter out of my house.
Bring in new things only when there is a specific, immediate need for them.
Can I afford it? Where will I store it? How will I clean it? If I don’t know, it doesn’t come home.
One in, one out.
Dishes must be safe for both the dishwasher and the microwave.
Clothes must be machine-washable, must fit and look flattering right now, and must go with at least two other garments.
All books must fit on the available shelves in a single row.
Paper-free whenever possible.
Tabletops and counters are work surfaces; they are not available for permanent storage.
Floors, chairs, couches, and beds are not storage areas.
Torn, stained, broken, rusty, expired = trash.
Consumables must be consumed. That includes food, toiletries, cleansers, socks, magazines, books… Most objects have a “useful lifespan,” after which they become clutter (or trash). This is a real sticking point for a lot of us. Just because it’s useful, doesn’t mean it’s useful to me. The minute it’s irrelevant in my life, it needs to move on, either to someone who can use it or to be recycled or remade into something else. Our homes are not landfills, and we’re not the Island of Misfit Toys. It’s not our responsibility to take care of orphaned stuff. On the contrary! It’s our responsibility to LET GO of everything we don’t use, so it’s available to be used for another purpose. It’s not our job to figure out what that purpose is. Donate it, give it away, recycle it, compost it; just let it go. It goes back to The Stuff Place, where it has an actual chance of being useful.
Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to get away from the stuff and make decisions in a neutral location. Bring a notepad to the park or a coffee shop or the public library, and free-write or make lists or drawings of what you want for your home environment. Try to make a complete inventory of everything you own, and then go home and get rid of anything you forgot you had. Try to estimate how many boxes are in your storage unit, and then cull down to that number. Tell yourself it’s okay to let go of things. Make a list of guidelines for your stuff that works for you. Then go back and put them into practice.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.