by Susan Caplan McCarthy
A Year of Decluttering - September: Storage Spaces
Decluttering storage spaces can be intimidating. Attics, garages, basements, sheds, spare rooms, and other areas can get filled with items that you’ve delayed making decisions about. You know, “I don’t know what to do with this, so I’ll stick it in a corner of the garage. I’ll figure out what to do with it later.”
And, so, we end up with spaces in our homes that are filled with items from outgrown interests, inherited items we feel obligated to keep (even though we don’t want them), items we use a couple times a year, seasonal decorations, and even some items that we want to store in that space.
Over time, one stack of boxes gets stacked in front of another stack and the next thing we know, years have gone by and we have the vaguest of ideas about what’s in some (many) of those boxes.
Start Decluttering Your Storage Spaces
When you start decluttering a storage space, ask, “What do I want from this space?”
Stay Focused While Decluttering
Knowing how you want to use the space can help you sort through the items you have stored there. What’s more important, passing along the camping equipment you haven’t used in seven years or having a space in the garage for the kids to park their bikes?
Do you want to leave boxes of unimportant items for your adult children to sort through someday in the future? Or do you want a cleared guest room that your grandchildren can use for visits?
Do you want to pay to move boxes that are filled with items you haven’t looked at since your previous move? And prevent yourself from parking your car in yet another garage?
When you encounter stored items that you don’t know what to do with, consider how they support your vision for using the storage area.
Keep Your Vision in Mind
Now, obviously, storage spaces are there so you can store things that don’t get used all the time. But, if you store things that will never again get used, you’re limiting your ability to use that space in a way that works for you and your family.
Decluttering unused items – donating, trashing, or selling them – makes your storage space more effective.
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by Susan Caplan McCarthy
A Year of Decluttering – September: Storage Spaces
Chances are that while you’re decluttering you encounter items that you don’t know what to do with. You know that you haven’t used it. You might even be clear in the knowledge that you don’t like or care for the item. But …
You can’t make yourself put the item in the trash or the donation box. You think, “What if _____?” and decide that you should hold onto this unwanted item “just in case.” And you tuck it away in the attic, basement, garage, shed, spare room, corner of your laundry room, or … back where you found it.
You’ve decided to hold off on deciding. Although, really, you did decide. You decided to keep an item that you don’t use or want.
Reasons We Hold onto Unwanted Items
There are many reasons for holding onto an item as opposed to tossing it, giving it away, or donating it.
Storage Spaces Hold a Lot of Emotional Baggage
When you delay making a decision about an item and put the item into storage, you are filling that storage space with emotional as well as physical baggage.
This makes storage spaces challenging areas to declutter. You’ve already handled these items and decided that you weren’t going to decide. And that delayed decision creates an open loop.
Think of a circle with a gap that prevents the curved line from becoming a circle. You want to close the gap and complete the circle. When you delay making a decision, these open loops call out to be closed.
That’s why walking into one of your storage spaces feels so draining. You already know that you held off deciding and that if you start decluttering this space then you’ll need to face those items again.
Decide to Eliminate Clutter
Holding onto items that you don’t like, use, or even want traps you in the past (including the future that you had hoped for in the past). These items clutter your view of the life you are living right now.
There is no easy way to carry out decluttering these items. Start by picking up an item and ask why you’ve held onto it. Next, turn that reason around.
Now, these responses may seem somewhat laborious, and in the beginning, it can take some time to untangle yourself from an item. However, once you come up with a response, you can use it again for other items. “Oh, here’s another item that I thought that I’d use more often than I have. Oh, well, I haven’t used it and I can’t see myself using it now, so I’ll pop it into my donation box.”
Currently, I have open spaces in my one-on-one program for DIY organizers seeking accountability, advice, and support so they can complete their decluttering projects. To learn more about Declutter Your Way click here.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
March - Spring Cleaning
Storage spaces include attics, basements, garages, sheds, and that extra room that was supposed to be the home office or guest bedroom, but you gave up years ago thinking of it that way – now, you call it “the junk room.”
You don’t move into a house or apartment thinking, “this will be a great space to fill with all my crap.” The creep of stuff was more insidious. “I’ll just leave this here until I decide what to do with it.” Unfortunately, the only “decision” you made was to put more stuff in limbo until you find yourself facing a wall of stuff.
The consequences are varied: You go out an buy a new screwdriver because you can’t reach your tool box. You notice the box of handmade quilts you took from your grandmother’s home has water or rodent damage which bothers you, but at the same time, you never really knew what to do with them.
Storage spaces are filled with delayed decisions. It’s not just the stuff that holds us back from tackling a task, it’s the thoughts and emotions attached to these items.
Before You Start Decluttering Your Most Stuff-Filled Spaces
Before you break out the trash bags or hire a Dumpster, take a deep breath and ask yourself (and other invested adults), “How do I want to use this space? What do I want from this space?”
Get clear on your vision for the space. Do you want to park your car in the garage? Store only holiday decorations in the attic? Keep the guestroom open for frequent visits from the grandkids?
The answers to these questions not only serve as motivation, they are important to clarify your intentions so you can make honest decisions about the items in this space.
How to Start Decluttering a Wall of Stuff
Chances are that you can’t easily move around this room. Work with what you can see and excavate as you go, carving your way into the space. Although it may be tempting to think that you should drag everything out of the space and start fresh, unless you have a crew of people helping you and you’ll be tossing most of the stuff without debate, leave everything where it is and deal with what’s in your hands.
This technique limits the decisions you have to make. Pull everything out of your garage and you’ll have to deal with neighbors stopping by to see what you’re doing, people asking if you’re having a yard sale, and your own brain yelling at you to get the project done before nightfall. Too many thoughts, too many decisions.
Instead, look at what’s immediately in front of you and ask, “Is this trash or recycling?” Toss what you can. (Don’t reach or climb over stuff, deal with what’s at arm’s reach.)
Next, go through the same area and ask, “Who can I give this to?” Can you donate the item to a charity? Give it to a friend or relative? Sell it? Give it to the person who actually owns the item? Pop the stuff into well-labeled boxes.
If you’re considering keeping an item, ask, “Does this item help support my vision for this space?” If you want to park your car in the garage, can you keep the treadmill and comfortably fit the car in the garage? If you want a space for yoga and meditation, is it helpful to have a wall of boxes filled with paperwork from your previous career?
What to Do with “Useful” Stuff
You may find potentially useful items like jars, boxes, old tee shirts (for rags), etc. that you’ve held onto because the item seemed like something that could find a new use. Group like items together. (For example, put all those glass jars near one another.) This will allow you to see how many you’ve collected.
Now, consider how many you use in the course of a month. If you feel that you should hold onto some of these items, define a space to hold the items and only keep that number. For example, you can keep a single box of jars or the fifteen that fit on a shelf. No more than that. If you use an item, you can replenish your stock, if you don’t go beyond your designated space.
Examining the Possessions that You Want to Keep
Remind yourself of your vision for what you want from the space you’ve been decluttering. How do you really want to use the space?
Look at the items you feel you should keep and ask:
Continue Working through the Storage Space
Whether you can give the space 20-minutes a day or 20-hours over a long weekend, continue decluttering the space until you feel that it holds the things you use, want, and love. It may take a few rounds though the space before you feel comfortable releasing some things, and that’s okay.
Sometimes, repeat viewings of an item helps you realize that you have no reason for holding onto it.
So, although storage spaces are overwhelming to declutter, it is possible to carve away at the clutter and free the space.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
My parents lived in an 800-square-foot ranch. To reach the attic, you’d pull the folding ladder down from the ceiling of the hallway. Over 39 years, more and more stuff went up into the attic. When I finally climbed the steps to the attic to empty it there was a narrow band of walking space around the opening and along most of the length of the attic (I was afraid I’d fall through the opening as I squeezed my way past boxes).
I can’t tell you how many hours I spent emptying the attic. I can tell you that heat and cold does nasty things to trash bags and many were disintegrating. Most of the time, I’d toss soft stuff through the opening and use that stuff to cushion other items that I tossed down. Then I’d climb down the stairs and wade through the stuff on the floor, taking it to the dumpster or moving it into my car for a trip to the donation center.
There were brand-new towels from the discount store that my father bought before deciding we could keep using the old towels. There were old pots and pans, blankets, curtains, bedspreads, and shower curtains from relatives who moved and thought we could use their hand-me-downs. There were boxes with decades of old bills and checking statements (all the way back to when they got married in 1964). There were boxes of carefully labelled car magazines. There was a rack of the business outfits my mother wore in the 1950s and early 1960s.
In all of this, there were items that were probably family heirlooms – dishes, tea sets, knickknacks; but it had all been stored in the attic, piled under empty boxes and broken toasters and was completely meaningless. At the yard sale, one woman said, “That must have belonged to your great-grandmother when she was in the old country.”
Maybe. Probably. But, which great-grandmother? What country?
The vase my mother always told me was an antique that “would be worth something” (but not who owned the vase), was an antique … that I was offered ten dollars for.
There was so much stuff in this attic, that when I asked my brother if he and the young guy he had helping him could pull the few pieces of furniture left the attic, he called me to tell me that there was more shoved stuff into the eaves. How much could there be? Enough to fill the floor space of the house – every room – and make it look like I hadn’t already emptied its contents.
My takeaway from the experience? When my husband and I moved into a house I told him that under no circumstances would we put things up in the attic. One, we needed to drag a ladder into the house to get into the attic and two, we were middle-aged and hopping off a ladder and into an attic (while carrying boxes of stuff) just wasn’t going to happen. The Christmas decorations could live in a corner of the basement.
Decluttering Your Attic Storage Space when You’re over 50
How often do you go up into your attic to get things you use? Do you have a regular staircase into the attic? A pull-down ladder? A hole in the ceiling that requires manipulating a ladder into place? Chances are that carrying boxes up and down a ladder or staircase isn’t the easiest thing to do.
Plan on emptying your attic storage. You may have to hire someone to carry boxes down to you, then you can take some time to sort through the contents of those boxes before having your helper back to get more boxes for you.
Chances are that your attic is filled with a lot of just-in-case stuff. Do you really need those extra blankets and towels for guests? And, if you do, do you really want to rummage through the attic in July looking for them?
If you find things that you saved from your adult children’s childhood, snap some pictures of the items and ask if they want them. If they don’t, don’t second guess them and decide to hold onto things you’re certain they’ll want someday. They won’t.
If you are storing heirlooms in your attic, consider that this is not the way to honor sentimental items. You may feel that you are preserving these items, but when your children find these items hidden in a box, under other boxes in the attic, they won’t think these things were very important because you treated the items like clutter by shoving them into a dark corner.
It might take you a year to sort through everything in attic, a box a day, particularly if you’ve lived in the house for twenty or more years. Start now.
Decluttering Your Attic when You’re under 50
Use your attic to store seasonal clothing and decorations. Make sure the boxes get opened and sorted every year. Don’t use your attic as a place to stow things you don’t know what to do with. If you think you should hold onto an item just-in-case, designate a specific reason for holding onto it and keep the item in a more appropriate location.
If those blankets and sheets will be useful if you have guests, keep the items in the guest room. No guest room? Where will your guests be staying then?
Question everything you think should go in your attic storage space. Are you simply delaying deciding to give away unwanted items? And, when I’m telling you to avoid putting things in the attic, that isn’t permission to store it in a shed, garage, or basement instead.
Be honest with your reasons for wanting to store items that you won’t use. Are you frustrated with the money you spent on a little used item? Then try to sell it or donate it for a tax deduction.
Whether you are 30 or 60, emptying your attic can be one of the best things you can do for your family. If you move, you’ll have already gotten rid of a lot of items you weren’t using anyways; and, you won’t leave adult children with the task.
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.