Nobody starts out by meaning to create a cluttered home. Whether we’re starting afresh after the end of tenancy cleaning and a carpet cleaning, a New Year’s resolution or a move, we all have visions of clear spaces, tidy shelves and floors and order. But we all know what happens before long if we’re not careful: chaos, clutter, mess and all sorts of oddments piled in the most peculiar places (example from this writer’s house: jelly beans collecting in the laundry).
How does this happen? According to British decluttering expert Sue Kay, ten bad habits prevent us from reaching our mental goals of order. Break these bad habits and you will see a dramatic reduction – or even elimination – of clutter in your home.
Habit 1: Procrastination. You know how this goes. “I’ll just pop this on the kitchen bench for now and deal with it later.” “I’ll find a home for that eventually, but in the meantime, I’ll put it on the bedside cabinet.” “You can give that a temporary home behind the sofa until we find a better place for it.” “Put it in the spare room to be fixed when I get around to it”. In a perfect world, we would always be able to put things away straight away and fix things as soon as they break. In the world that we do have, assigning some time to mending, sorting and dealing with temporary arrangements is a better way to stop the “just for now” piles building up.
Habit 2: Neck or Nothing. One of the big obstacles that often gets in the way of people having a decluttering session (or even calling in an expert) is a fear that minimalism is the goal and that the expert will leave you with a set of possessions that would make a monk’s lifestyle look lavish. This is not the case.
You do not have to reduce your worldly goods to subsistence level. While you may have to get rid of the out-of-focus photos, you don’t have to get rid of the old daguerreotype of your great-great-grandparents. While you may have to offload ancient magazines and the books your children grew out of years ago and hate the sight of, you don’t have to get rid of your favourite copy of Lord of the Rings. It’s not all or nothing. It’s about getting rid of inessentials.
Habit 3: Everything is equally valuable. While this principle is true of people in society, it isn’t true of the things cramming your storage space. While one person’s trash is another person’s treasure (and I therefore won’t presume to tell you what items of yours are to be treasured), sometimes trash is just trash. Prioritise your possessions. Keep what’s valuable, but get rid of the things that you honestly are never going to do anything with.
Habit 4: Getting distracted. You’re sorting the books, the junk mail or the old magazines. Something catches your eye. Next thing you know, you’ve spent half an hour reading that ancient magazine and have made no progress. Or you’re going through your clothes and you stop to try on half a dozen outfits and spend ages seeing how all your accessories go with it. In The Screw tape Letters, C.S. Lewis had the senior devil Screw tape recommending this sort of behaviour as an excellent form of tempting humans into wasting their time and energy so they do neither what they ought to do nor what they want to do. To fight this temptation, set yourself a time limit to achieve a reasonable goal, and/or enlist a friend to help you or to whom you can be accountable.
Habit 5: Self-sabotage. If someone has been pressuring you to declutter, you’re in a bad mood or you don’t really want to get rid of things (possibly because of Habit 2), some people sabotage the efforts they do make. They throw out something that really is valuable which they later regret – and use this experience as a reason for never touching the clutter again. Or they set themselves impossibly hard goals. They call themselves names. All this will create a bad association with decluttering. Instead, set yourself reasonable goals, be honest and give yourself little rewards (but not by buying more unnecessary stuff) for achieving these goals. Suitable rewards can include temporary things such as a nice bunch of flowers, dancing in the space you’ve managed to clear, having a moment of nostalgia reading old love letters or just sitting back for five minutes listening to music and contemplating the view out of the window once you’ve cleared all the junk off the windowsill.
Habit 6: Multi-tasking. This is an asset in all other aspects of life, but don’t try to declutter and talk on the phone/deal with kid’s homework/vacuum the lounge. It is better to do a little bit of concentrated decluttering lasting ten minutes than an hour of trying to declutter and other things simultaneously. Rather than testing and chucking out dead biros and stationery while talking on the phone, do this while you’re waiting for an anti-virus program to finish running (the operative word there was “talking” on the phone. If you’re on hold, however, this might be an excellent time to delete old emails or test biros while you doodle).
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