How to Declutter
Unruly stacks of papers, magazines, bills and letters lying on desks. Wardrobes and drawers crammed with clothes. Linen cupboards groaning with superfluous towels and sheets. Kitchen cupboards filled with mismatching crockery, unused gadgets and containers with missing lids. Old kids’ toys, unwanted gifts and redundant electronic items stuffed into storage areas. Out-of-date medicines languishing at the back of bathroom cabinets.
Does any of this sound familiar? Many of us are guilty of allowing clutter to accumulate in our homes, taking over valuable space and giving the impression of barely controlled chaos.
The problem is it tends to creep up on us and by the time we deem it a problem there is an awful lot of material to sift through. And we’re too busy, so it’s easier to keep clearing the surfaces and shoving other things into cupboards. Decluttering your home is often perceived as a time-consuming, confusing and overwhelming chore.
Indeed, ‘I don’t know where to start’, is the most common complaint that professional declutterer, Lynne Trevail, of Sydney-based company Unstuff ( hears from her clients.
‘People often tell me they are drowning in their belongings’, Lynne says. ‘They feel like they are suffocating.’
Where To Begin
Decluttering, the experts say, is like losing weight. You need to decide on your goal or vision, find the motivation and put in steady work to get there. Sometimes, a personal trainer, aka a professional organizer, can help.
‘Our job is to question people as to why they are holding onto this stuff,’ says Lynne, who says her job is more akin to a life coach. ‘It tends to be emotional things like clothing, which they might say they paid a lot of money for and haven’t worn enough, even though the items are no longer the right size and they were bought 20 years ago. Questioning the client about it gives them an opportunity to loosen the bonds.’
Useful questions that you can ask yourself as you go (especially when re-evaluating the NOT SURE pile) might include: are you really going to read that book again? Do you have space for that object? Do you actually use that piece of gym equipment?
If attachment to your possessions tends to cloud your judgement, says Lynne, choose an area that’s not emotional, like the bathroom. ‘Set the timer for 15 minutes, only do one drawer at a time, do the time and go away,’ she advises. ‘It’s small and often, rather than one really big job.’
Emotional Territory
Once you move into emotional territory, some deeper introspection and lateral thinking may be required. ‘I decluttered a woman’s house the other day,’ says Lynne, ’and she’d held onto all her kids school workbooks. I asked why and she said, ‘I feel guilty because I was working and I wasn’t there for them. I want them to know I care’.
The solution was that she photographed the workbooks and kept one book from each year.
Family heirlooms and gifts are another tricky area. ‘People buy things of their own, but also have the stuff their grandparents or relatives have handed down to them,’ says Lynne. ‘It’s stuff they no longer want, like crystal, crockery and figurines, but they feel too guilty to give it away.’
A solution may be to pick one favourite item to remember them by and donate the rest.
Interestingly Lynne doesn’t encourage her clients to sell items at a garage sale or on online sites such as eBay. ‘Clients tell me they will sell something on eBay,’ says Lynne, ‘but then I’ll come back a year later and they haven’t done it. Usually the amount they would get for the items wouldn’t be worth the time they spend selling the items. They’ve got to lay it out, photograph it, put it up, write descriptions, sell it and post it. It’s too much hassle for most people.’
The Joys of Decluttering
The benefits of decluttering, promise the experts, can be life-changing. In a nutshell, you’ll save time because you can find things, you’ll feel calmer because everything looks orderly and you’ll save money because you will stop buying stuff you already have.
So now you are enjoying all that space and serenity, how do you prevent stuff from building up again?
When it comes to your wardrobe, there’s a one-in, one-out rule. ‘If you’ve bought something new, like a white T-shirt’ says Lynne, ‘don’t keep your previous T-shirt with marks on it. Throw it out.’
Having a permanent charity bag by the front door is one of Lynne’s favourite tips: the perfect disposal, for example, for clothing that your kids may have grown out of.
Yet perhaps the most important issue of all is the fundamental question of whether we need to be acquiring all this extra stuff in the first place.
‘We live in a consumerist society’, says Lynne. ‘In previous generations, you bought your new dining set and you had it all your life. ‘Now we go into shops where things are cheap, we’re exposed to a lot more images and we change our look more often. We upgrade all the time.
‘We have more money at our disposal and we like to spend it on shiny, new things.’
Maybe next time, we should think twice before buying yet another scented candle, discounted dress or super smoothie maker. Spend your time doing things rather than having things!
1. Break down the stuff. If you don’t know where to start decluttering, break the process down into small, manageable chunks – focus on one cupboard, pile or corner at a time.
2. Donate STUFF. Have a ‘GO’ charity box permanently by the front door.
3. Unstuff Together. Create a routine for decluttering, like spending the first day of each school holidays tackling the kids’ bedrooms with them. Then take them out for ice-cream.
4. Replace. If you buy a new item of clothing, be sure to discard an unloved one at the same time. You’ll feel better for it.
5. Purge Stuff. Don’t fall into the trap of shopping up a storm for ‘storage solutions’. Purge the ‘stuff’ first and shop later.