I was once responsible for tidying up my grandmother’s house after she passed away. The responsibility fell on me because no other family members were game enough to take it on, because my grandmother was an incurable hoarder and clutterer. After this experience, I vowed that this would never, ever happen to me and that I would not even let my house get as cluttered as hers. Well, that was my intention anyway. But accumulating clutter seems to be a human weakness (or at least a family weakness) and I still seem to be waging the clutter wars. And if you are reading this, so are you.
The first step in reducing clutter in your life is to look at your spending habits. Much of the stuff that clutters up our houses is stuff we have purchased but don’t really need to. This was a particular downfall of both my grandparents – they both shopped as a hobby. Not that they spent large amounts (my grandfather frequents second-hand bookshops; my grandmother was known by sight at all the second-hand clothes stores in town). But before you buy anything, train yourself to think whether you really need it or want it (The pre-Raphaelite designer William Morris advised that you should own nothing that “you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful). Could you borrow or hire whatever it is? Could you make do with what you already have? Change your habits – retail therapy is bad for your budget and creates clutter.
The next step is to purge out what you don’t need. Don’t try to tackle the whole house at once. Set yourself small target to reach. What about starting with the bathroom cabinet? What about sorting out a drawer in the kitchen? Start on the smaller places and get some satisfaction from doing this before moving on to the big ones like garages.
To de-clutter a target area, begin by pulling everything out and dumping it somewhere you can sort it – on the bench, on the bed, on the kitchen table. Out of the resulting chaos, begin by finding the things that you know you use often – you’ve used it within the last six months (for more season-related things such as Christmas decorations, skis or swimming pool accessories, this use-within period should be extended to a year). Next, get rid of anything broken or out-of-date. If the item is fixable or if it is something that can be used even if it is out of date (clothes or tools), then put this somewhere to give away to charity or a resource recovery centre.
At this point, you may also discover duplicates. For example, you may buy something, believing that you don’t have something when, in fact, you do and the one you own is buried at the back of the cupboard. Or you may find it easier to go down to the shops and buy a new one rather than go to the effort of hunting for the old one. Put the duplicates in the giveaway pile.
Next, get rid of anything you haven’t used for a year (or more). You are unlikely to use it if you haven’t done so within this time. The exception here, however, is items that have sentimental value (e.g. wedding dresses, photos of deceased relatives) or items that you hope you will never have to use but need to keep on hand, such as a first aid kit or emergency medications.
Obviously, you need to throw away rubbish. It’s astonishing how often absolute junk gets stored or kept. I’m always astonishing myself and thinking “What on earth did I keep that for? It’s useless!”.
The biggest trap to beware of when decluttering (and the source of much clutter) is the “it might come in handy” syndrome. The golden rule here is to think what the object, whatever it is, will come in handy for. For example “I’ll keep this old sheet to make polishing rags/bedding for the dog/teaching the children how to sew”. If you can’t think of anything, get rid of it. If you really think it’s useful, take it to a charity or a recycling depot. Also watch the amount of useful stuff you keep. Yes, old ice-cream containers are good for frozen food, but how many do you need to keep? Do you really need fifty?
Have decluttering episodes regularly – this is something that always needs to be done, as humans seem to be inveterate hunter-gatherers who store stuff “just in case”.