by Susan Caplan McCarthy
I’ve heard it before. Someone is holding an item that they’ve just admitted they haven’t used in ages and don’t foresee themselves using anytime soon, when they say, “Well, I might as well hold onto it – I have the space.”
This is a variation of, “I should hold onto this, just in case I need it.” In fact, noting that you have the space to store something, kind of gives you permission to keep those just in case items. But, this thought doesn’t really help you get or stay organized.
My parents were forever complaining that the house was cluttered because it was small. They bought freestanding cabinets, bins, and boxes to store – and organize – everything they felt that they needed to keep. All these organizing tools allowed them to keep more stuff … but, because it was hidden in a box or behind a door, these items became invisible.
Even when they used some of the things they had squirreled away, they used only a fraction of what they owned. And, when they acquired more stuff – and decided they needed to organize it, they’d identify a bit of empty space where they could put a new cabinet or stack of boxes. But, these cabinets and bins took up valuable floor space, making small rooms smaller.
The Benefits of Extra Space
Empty space encourages a mindset of welcoming possibilities – Think of empty space as breathing room or potential (and by ‘potential’ I don’t mean ‘potential to be filled with something’ but more like the mindset of looking down an open road and thinking, “ooh”).
Empty space can also be practical – Think of how much easier it is to clean an uncluttered counter or find an outfit in a closet that isn’t crammed with clothing.
Empty space can help you feel calmer – Instead of looking at stuff that’s demanding to be cleaned or (re)organized, or fixed, or even used, you see clearer spaces. All those potential demands on your time, energy, and attention just aren’t there.
Declutter and Create Space
So, how do you avoid the thinking error of, “I have the space” and end up keeping things you don’t need, use, or even like? Unfortunately, there’s no secret tip or trick to do this. Ultimately, you need to catch yourself thinking that you have the space to hold onto something, stop yourself from putting the item on its shelf, and question whether you’d keep the item if you didn’t have the extra space.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Several years back, I opened an Etsy store. As a yarn crafter, deciding to market my projects meant that I COULD BUY AS MUCH YARN AS I WANTED! I hadn’t heard of minimalism and I was still of the mindset that as long as I kept things organized I could have as much yarn as I wanted. Because, you know, it was a business expense.
I had boxes and bins of yarn that fit into a spare closet. The boxes didn’t even take up all the space in the closet, so, it wasn’t that much.
A few times, I’d go online and order one skein of yarn in EVERY color of a particular yarn. I still get giddy thinking of that. It’s embarrassing to admit, but, damn, it was fun to open a box and see all those colors.
I made dozens of different items. Four different style fashion scarves. Crocheted necklaces and bracelets. Coasters. Washcloths. Coffee cup sleeves. Little round makeup remover cloths. Zippered pouches. Phone covers. Tablet covers. Hats, fingerless gloves, winter scarves. I opened a second Etsy shop to sell crocheted cat toys – balls, mice, pretty things to tease your cat with, fish, twisty spirals, and other catnip-stuffed items. I’m probably forgetting some things.
I lined part of a wall in the second bedroom that acted as my office with 18 and 30 qt. plastic storage bins that were well-labeled with the specific category of items in each bin. Like I said, I was organized. I wasn’t paying attention to all the stock I’d created. I’d taken to heart the advice I’d read about keeping my shop well-stocked.
Along with the Etsy shops, I rented space in three different gift shops and spent weekends at craft fairs. After a few years, I burnt out. Other things demanded my attention. I pulled out of the rental spaces and the craft fairs. I closed the Etsy shop with the cat toys. And, then, I closed my main shop. I gave away the items that were left.
For a few years, I tortured everyone I knew with gifts of crocheted food and animals. I made a hundred hats, donated them to charity, and started working on a new batch.
And, then, this summer, I thought of re-opening the shop.
But, this time, I didn’t want to go crazy.
I decided to stick with beanie-style hats crocheted with two strands of multicolor yarn held together. I go all relaxed and meditative with this pattern, so there’s a bonus for me. To keep things simple, I created a list of rules to follow.
When I wrote a series of four articles about decluttering, organizing, storing, and then maintaining art and craft supplies … and then still had enough to say for a small book, I was coming from a place where I knew what a lot of art and craft supplies shoved into a room looked like.
I reopened the shop, Wee Cat Creations, a couple of weeks ago so I can be all smug about following my rules so far. However, I know that I’m coming at running a craft business from a different angle than before. Simpler doesn’t equal boring. More doesn’t equal better. Organized doesn’t equal useful. Right now, I’ll go for less equals more.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
When I started cleaning out my parents’ house, several years ago, I knew it would be a lot of work. They were hoarders who couldn’t get rid of anything that was potentially useful … even if they never used those things.
So, although I knew they had a lot of stuff, I had no clue as to exactly what they had. When I went up into the attic, I was flabbergasted by the number of sets of dishes I found. I found bags filled with blankets, bedspreads, sheets, curtains, and towels, many which I could never remember us using. I realized that my parents had allowed their home to become a repository of other people’s stuff.
Every time a relative moved, my parents received all this “useful” stuff. Perhaps the relatives decided that since my father was one of those frugal New Englanders, those pink blankets, curtains, and towels would be useful. (I have no clue whom the ‘pink’ relative was but these items didn’t exactly coordinate with the 1970s color palette of the house.)
I also found three tea sets, numerous sets of flatware, enough glassware to stock a bar (my father drank beer from a can; my mother didn’t drink), numerous serving platters, and ten or so sets of dishes. Oh, and there were tchotchkes galore. Were any of these things more special that the others? I had no clue.
One afternoon, I returned to my apartment and started chatting with a neighbor about the dishes and knickknacks, I said that I didn’t know what to do with it all.
She suggested that I wrap up everything and move the boxes to my storage space in the apartment’s basement until the day when I had my own house.
That comment snapped me out of my doubt about what to do with all my parents’ stuff.
Yes, transferring boxes of stuff from my parents’ house to my home would save me from making decisions. But, I’d found items wrapped in 40-year-old newspaper. My parents had obviously moved the items into their house and never looked at the stuff again. If my parents felt any of these items were important, I couldn’t tell.
If I boxed up these items to take to my own home, I would subjugate the items to another forty years in a box. Leaving it to whomever had to clear out my estate to wonder if this stuff was important to me. I decided to break the cycle.
I wish my mother had heard of Swedish Death Cleaning, but her idea of organizing was to put things in boxes until walls were lined with boxes … and then complain about the small house.
The experience of decluttering my parents’ house led to a personal decision. Except for holiday decorations, I refuse to put anything in a storage box. If I have it, it is on display or it’s stored in a dresser, cabinet, or closet, ready for use. I constantly revaluate the things that I own and know that useful doesn’t mean used.
I realized that I had to make the decisions my parents hadn’t been able to make with the piles of stuff stored in their home. It took four 20-yard Dumpsters, a yard sale, and countless trips to the local donation center to make those decisions.
Have you been able to get rid of items that you felt obligated to hold onto? Please share your story in the comment section.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
We get caught up in clutter conundrums when we hold onto items that we think we need to keep … even though we know we don’t use them.
Some of the trickiest stuff to declutter (next to sentimental items) is aspirational clutter. Aspirational clutter includes the books, courses, equipment, supplies, and so on that would allow us to be someone different. To do or learn about something new that would change our identity (even subtly).
You buy a stack of books on astrology. You purchase skis and the appropriate clothing for skiing. You get a kayak. You sign up for a wine-of-the-month club. You buy an elliptical machine or treadmill as motivation to exercise.
You envision yourself as the person your friends go to, asking for advice based on their horoscope. You’ll be the person who heads out each Friday afternoon during the winter with plans to go skiing … or, in the summer, to paddle down a local river. People will ask for your advice about what wine to serve with dinner. You’ll get thin and fit.
If we used the items that would allow us to reach our goals, well, yeah, perfect. However, how many items get shoved into the back of our closet or hidden in the garage, attic, or basement to hide our disappointment with ourselves for aspiring but not doing?
Reviving Aspirational Clutter
List 10 things that you already own but that you don’t use. Are you ready to sell these items or give them away? If not, make a note in your calendar when you’ll use each of these things. If you can’t make yourself do this, this is your answer – you can let the item go.
If you are thinking, “I spent so much money on this stuff,” how much dust does it need to collect to justify the money you spent? It just doesn’t work that way. See if a friend wants this equipment so you can enjoy the vicarious experience of knowing someone is using the stuff.
What Do You Really Want?
Consider why you haven't decluttered items that don't represent who you are. When you look at your list of the aspirational clutter you have around the house, ask yourself how you thought you’d feel when you owned – and used – those items. Would you have felt smarter, more athletic, more confident, more spiritual, more free-spirited, happier, cooler, whatever?
Do you notice a pattern with how those aspirational items would have helped you to feel? If you focus on one of these key feelings that popped up a couple of times, can you think of five-to-ten things you could add to your life, that wouldn’t cost a penny, but that would help you to feel the way you want to feel?
If you want to feel more free-spirited, maybe you could schedule fewer activities on the weekends and find time to take a walk out in nature. If you want to feel smarter, you could listen to podcasts and attend free talks at your local library or at local shops. If you want to feel stronger, do push-ups, squats, and other body weight activities that don’t require a room full of exercise equipment.
Beware Future Aspirational Clutter
I’m not suggesting that you should never try anything new. However, find out if you can borrow or rent supplies from a friend or business before buying anything. Also, plan for when you will use the stuff. I know I’ve been guilty of buying things thinking that owning them would magically create time for me to use the things.
When you think of something you want to do or learn that requires equipment or materials, engage in some creative thinking and consider how you could do that thing without acquiring something new. Could you take a snowshoeing class (that supplies the snowshoes) and see if you enjoy the activity enough to invest more time and money into it?
Holding onto aspirational clutter can be discouraging. You end up frustrated that you failed to develop an interest, hobby, or aptitude. Releasing these objects (that you may have been holding onto for years – or decades), not only frees up space in your home, but allows you the mental energy to pursue new interests.
What piece of aspirational clutter are you ready to release? Share your decluttering story in the comments below.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
If you’ve ever dieted, you know that at some point what you’ve been doing stops working. The number of the scale stays the same and your frustration with yourself mounts. The same thing can happen when you’re decluttering. You look around the house, see more work that needs to be done and feel discouraged that you aren’t yet “done.”
If you’re stuck on a decluttering plateau, you can look at this as an opportunity to step back, reevaluate your goals, and, then, maybe, decide that you need to push through and just get going.
Take Photos. Chance are that you’ll forget how things looked, even a month ago. You get used to seeing clear spaces and focus on what you’ve yet to do. Even if these won’t be true “before” pictures, take some pictures so that if you feel that nothing is getting done, you can look back and see what you’ve accomplished.
Tackle a Difficult Space. Is there a small area that you’ve been dreading working on? A stack of papers to sort, the area under the sink, the junk drawer – someplace that an hour of focused work would allow you to check this space off your to-do list? Set a timer for 60 minutes, put on some high-energy music and go at it. Sometimes pushing through a dreaded task can boost your motivation for other tasks.
Define ‘Done.’ How will you know that you’ve finished decluttering? Be specific – one plant on the bedroom dresser, only placemats on the kitchen table, 10 short sleeved tops, nothing on the desk but the laptop and a pencil cup, and so on. If you’re feeling frustrated with how things look now, identifying what you want the space to look like will clear away that vague sense of dissatisfaction and not having enough done.
Give Yourself a Break. For one, don’t be so hard on yourself. I know, you find articles online with headlines like, “I Decluttered My Home in a Weekend – Here’s What I Learned” and you wonder what your problem is. Let’s face it, either this person didn’t have a lot to declutter, they weren’t attached to any of their possessions, or they bribed everyone they knew with pizza and beer if they’d help them empty the garage. A lot of people work at decluttering their home over two or three years. Years. Not days. Not months.
And, two, do something fun for yourself. Go to a museum for an hour or two. Sit in a coffee shop with a book (and not your phone). Take a walk along a nature trail. Allow yourself a couple of hours of binge-watching a favorite television show.
Do something that doesn’t involve shopping (or browsing through stores). We tend to hold off treating ourselves or giving ourselves a reward until we’re finished with a project. However, a treat can be a much-needed acknowledgement of the progress we’ve made.
When a Plateau is Something Else
You are not on a plateau if you are contending with a chronic illness that saps your energy. If a project at work is going to gobble up your free time over the next few weeks, you are not on a decluttering plateau. Dealing with sick kids or ailing parents doesn’t put you on a plateau.
Life happens. You’re not stuck, you have other priorities. Acknowledge that your attention has shifted. In a month or three, reevaluate if some of your time and attention can go back to decluttering.
If you’re stuck because you can’t decide whether you need to keep some items, work through your decluttering indecision. And, even if you are on a plateau, continue to do a 10-minute tidy-up each day so you don’t lose the progress you’ve already made.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
If you’ve been decluttering your stuff, at some point, you may offer to help someone declutter – your significant other, your child (at any age from three through adult), a parent, or even a friend – whom you know is overwhelmed by their clutter.
My question to you is, has that person asked for your help or said that they want to declutter? The big rule of decluttering is that you can only declutter your own stuff, so no telling the person that you’ll do the work and make the decisions for them. It won’t work.
Talking to Someone about Their Clutter
Find a time to talk to the other person. This doesn’t have to be prefaced with the scary, “We have to talk, let’s order in pizza or go out to lunch someday,” but find or make time for this conversation.
Talk about your own decluttering efforts. Discuss problems the person you are talking to is having because of disorganization – not paying bills on time, losing important things, spending money on things they already own but can’t find, spending money on a storage unit, not being able to use rooms in their house, or do things like sleep in their bed.
If the person goes on the defensive or doesn’t see a problem with the way they live, end the conversation by telling them that if they decide they want some help, you’d be willing to open this conversation again.
If you live with the person, explain that you are bothered by the clutter and create a compromise where they can keep their stuff in certain rooms or spaces but that you need to declutter and organize some of the spaces that you both share, for example, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room. Explain that you’’ll declutter these spaces with or without their assistance. Give them a week or two to remove any items they feel they must keep.
How to Help Someone Clear Their Clutter
1. Determine your commitment to helping them. If you can devote two hours on Thursday evenings for the next three months, that’s your decision. Don’t ask an open-ended question such as, “When do you want my help?” Remind them that they will also be able to work on their own time. You may want to sit down with them and help them identify regular times they can schedule for decluttering.
2. Suggest ways to make decluttering more enjoyable (or tolerable). For example, they can listen to a podcast while decluttering and when it’s over, that signals that they are finished and they can take out the trash and move donation items to wrap up their session.
3. Tell them that they can’t buy or accept anything for free for the next 30 days. If they need milk, bread, shampoo, gas for their car, etc., that’s fine. No shopping sales. No browsing stores. No flea markets or picking up stuff on the side of the road. (As the 30 days draws to an end, ask if they want to extend this so they aren’t bringing new things.).
4. Find a local donation drop-off center or a charity that will pick up at the house. Schedule a pick-up as an incentive to declutter – someone is waiting for your items.
5. Establish some decluttering rules – toss anything damaged, broken, stained, worn out, etc. even if they think they could use the item in another way or fix it; pick the best of duplicates and donate the rest; get rid of anything they haven’t used for a year and that they can’t tell you a specific date when they’d use it in the next six months.
6. Start small, say a drawer or a cabinet. Empty the contents, pick up one item at a time and decide whether it is trash/recycling, an item to donate, or something to keep. Sometimes, it is easier for the other person to decide what to do if they have someone else hold up an item and ask what they want done with it than for them to handle their own belongings. If they can’t decide, try this tactic.
When to Call in a Professional Organizer
If the person says that they need to keep things, or keep things in vast quantities, because they insist the items are useful, but they can’t explain how they’d use what they have, they may need to work with a professional who specializes in hoarding issues.
If they can’t use parts of their home or there are only narrow pathways to move through their home, and they seem to fight you on getting rid of anything, you can explain that you don’t think you can help them declutter, but you will help them find a professional that they can call.
How to Empower Them to Declutter on Their Own
On the other hand, if you hear things like, “This was a gift,” “This cost a lot of money,” and so on, think about the questions you asked yourself while decluttering – Is this useful, Do I like this item, Will this item help me live the life I want to live? – and ask them to consider their answers. Although you may view an item as clutter, it may fulfill one of their needs.
At the end of a session, immediately take out the trash and recycling, drive to the donation center, or tape shut any boxes and label them for their donation pick up.
Assign them the next drawer or space to clear on their own by a certain date (closer deadlines are better than a deadline with a lot of wiggle room). If they don’t do the task, be ready to help them again within the guidelines you are willing to commit to.
Although it may be tempting to sneak a few things into the trash or donation box, remember that this is a guaranteed way to lose the trust of the person you are helping. Helping someone else declutter may not be easy, in some cases, it’s even impossible. (My parents argued with me over two bags of used dryer sheets that were ‘useful’ but never used.) However, if you can help them clear space in their home, they may start to see that they can work toward other potential dreams as well.
These articles offer more tips on decluttering.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Are you a morning person who accomplishes most of the things on your to-do list early in the day? Or, do you struggle to go to bed because you get a burst of energy that lets you get more done in the last three or four hours of your day than you feel you did all day?
You know that your energy fluctuates all day, but do you take advantage of the times when you have more energy? Tie-in the most important activities you want to accomplish to your highest energy levels during the day and you’ll feel a productive high.
For example, I know that at three-thirty in the afternoon I’m dragging both physically and mentally. This frustrates me because this seems like an opportunity for a final push to wrap up tasks and get things done. But, doing anything that requires creative or critical thinking is a slow-go. I’ll get things done, but oh so slowly. What should take thirty minutes can take nearly ninety. Not very productive. I’d be better off reading and taking notes than writing or trying to create something during this low-energy time.
Create an Energy Map
If you aren’t certain how your energy runs during the day, you can track it for a few days until you notice a pattern. (I’ve included a downloadable energy tracker here.) If you never hit level 10 energy or you feel there’s just a marginal difference between your highest energy and your average “yeah, I can get some things done but don’t expect any miracles” energy level, don’t worry – your age, health, how much sleep you got, eating too much or too little at your last meal, dehydration and all that stuff is going to affect your energy.
However, you’ll probably notice a pattern. Look for a couple of blocks of time, three-to-five hours long, give or take, when you seem to be more alert and energetic. Your energy doesn’t have to remain consistent, but you won’t face a big dip. For example, between 9 a.m. and noon, you may stay at a 6 or 7 only to dip to a 4 during the next hour or so.
Be More Productive
If you notice that you are more alert and get more done between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., it doesn’t make sense to go to lunch at noon just because eating at noon is a habit (particularly if you aren’t hungry then). If you get a burst of energy at 10 p.m. until 1 a.m., but you still must leave the house at 8 a.m. to get to work, can you shower, make lunches, and do any other prep work for the next day in the evening – before your most energetic time – so that you can sleep a bit later in the morning?
In some cases, you are stuck with a schedule you have to follow. You must sit in a meeting during most of a peak energy time. You’re required to take your lunch break during a time when you are the most focused. You’re exhausted in the evening, but you have a list of household chores to tackle.
Because your energy fluctuates throughout the day, you may miss one peak but then you can aim to get important tasks done during another crest in energy. This also means that you can plan to do tasks of a lower importance during times when your mental energy slips.
Noticing how your energy fluctuates also means that you want to decide what tasks are the most important for your sense of accomplishment. If you can tie in high energy to high importance activities, you’ll feel – and be – more productive.
Help someone boost their energy by sharing this article with them.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
If you woke tomorrow morning and discovered that your home was decluttered and organized in the ideal way for your and your family’s needs, what would your home look like?
If you’ve notice that in your ideal home you don’t have something that you’ve felt you couldn’t let go of in the physical world, do you notice a sense of panic or loss? Or, is envisioning your home as the type of place you want to live in soothing away the rougher feeling of loss or the nervous need to something just in case?
In your vision, you are walking through your ‘what if’ home and you see everything you need and want.
Hold onto this image in your mind. Every day for a month, while you are brushing your teeth or making the coffee, envision walking through this image of your ideal home space.
Now, during your day, when you walk by something in your home that doesn’t fit with your vision, pick it up and remove it. Put it in the trash or a donation box.
Think of Michelangelo’s statement, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Consider that under the clutter is your ideal space. It is your task to discover it by removing what doesn’t work.
Find other visualization exercises in these articles:
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Susan Caplan McCarthy
I'm a professional organizer-coach with 26 years' experience as a teacher. I believe that an organized home isn't your destination but a step on the path toward the life you want to create. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; and speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.