A Guide to Stress-Free Decluttering

by Dana Reder | Lifestyle

“Outer order contributes to inner calm.” —Gretchen Rubin

Despite having landed in adulthood with a fairly neat and orderly sensibility and an interest in decluttering whenever I can, this was not always the case.

While living in a tiny NYC apartment in the early 2000s I developed a habit of strategically accumulating clothes and stuff. Basically, I was mindlessly hoarding fast fashion and other people’s stoop discards.  A move abroad forced me to winnow my belongings to a fraction of their original state and my life as an aspiring minimalist began.

Flash forward to today: I have a basic uniform that really only varies by season.  I also try to only bring into our home things that serve a specific purpose or need and that add beauty and joy to our everyday lives.

Sounds simple enough, right?

In reality, minimalism is a mindset. It also takes effort and is best thought about as a process rather than a destination. And Pete and I find ourselves with unaddressed clutter on a regular basis.  Like we say at Winnow & Bloom, life is busy; things pile up; and change can be really hard.

If this feels familiar, you are not alone.

Living with clutter

An article published in the LA Times in 2014 suggested that “the average U.S. household has 300,000 things, from paper clips to ironing boards.”

“Clutter is an overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces,” said Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago who studies the causes of clutter and its impact on emotional well-being. And a cluttered home, researchers are learning, can be a stressful home.” NYTimes

Of course, it is not always just as straightforward as ‘having too many things = stress.’  More often than not, clutter accumulates because of unaddressed challenges or unproductive habits.  And clutter can be both physical and mental or emotional.

Understanding the ‘why’ at the root of the clutter accumulation can be THE thing that propels you to make lasting change.  It can also lead to stress reduction and overall improved life satisfaction.

However, this level of self-reflection is a serious undertaking and can make the process of decluttering feel overwhelming.  Never fear – I will address the emotional side of decluttering and how to work through it in a future blog post.

For now, I have four easy to follow practices to help make the decluttering process simple and stress free. 

Focus on a category – not a room.

You may look at your office, playroom, or kitchen and think, “Today is the day.  I’m not leaving here until this place looks like Marie Kondo came in and waved her magic wand.”  But this is probably biting off more than you can chew and you’ll likely find yourself, hours later, more frustrated than you were when you started.  You might also find that unpleasant emotions arise when you try to assess why the clutter is there in the first place.

The answer: Start small.  

Instead of trying to tackle an entire room, focus on a specific category of items or one small section of a space.  

Break the project into manageable chunks.

Kat Boogaard (@kat_boogaard) reminds us that “Productivity is personal – what works well for one person might backfire for another.” (Trello Blog, 1.3.19) While one person might be able to sit for an hour and plow through an entire project like this, most of us do best when we split up a project into smaller individual tasks.

Here is the process I like to use when I tackle a decluttering project:

  • Step 1. Take everything out.  When you can see everything you are dealing with you will get a better sense of the scope of the project.  You will also be able to make decisions more easily.
  • Step 2. Clean. If you’ve been ignoring the stuff in the space you have probably also been ignoring the space itself.  Now that it is open or empty, take a few minutes to clean it up.  
  • Step 3. Sort and winnow. Identify sub-categories (i.e., types of socks, toys, make-up, etc.) and determine what is still functional or useful; what is in good enough condition to keep; and/or what brings you joy. 

And set a timer.  This is especially important if you have a short period of time.  Set that timer for 15-minutes and get to work.  

Show gratitude for what you have – and that you have.

This might seem a little “woo woo” but it can make the final step (the letting go part) that much easier, especially for something that is harder to discard because you’ve held onto it for a long time, it brought a lot of joy, or there is a special memory attached to it.

In these circumstances, a quick “thank you” or note of appreciation before you toss it aside can be really meaningful.

Additionally, in her book The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living With Less, Christine Platt (@afrominimalist) encourages us to “remember that having the choice to live with less is a privilege.”  

Even if winnowing or decluttering is hard, take a moment during the process to acknowledge the privilege of having so much stuff that you need to declutter.

Let go – it is a gift.

My basic rule is if you haven’t used it in a year or if you are no longer happy with something, it goes.  Pratt breaks it down even more simply.  As you consider the items you have sorted, only keep those you “need, use, and love.”  Things have to meet all three criteria in order to stay.

By decluttering and letting go of stuff that doesn’t meet the criteria you are simplifying your life in a way that creates room to breathe, think, and grow.  All good things, in my opinion.

Where will you begin your decluttering journey?

Dana Reder
Founder | Organizational Consultant at Winnow & Bloom

I’m Dana, an organizational consultant and the founder of Winnow & Bloom. I am also a psychologist and educator with 20 years of experience and I bring each of those lenses to the decluttering and organizing process.

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