How To Declutter Your Home

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Lovely kitchen organization by Yiming Wang, which turns showing off the storage into something attractive (from The Big Book)

CAVEMAN CLUTTER

Clutter is a natural fact of life and the problem started with our Caveman ancestors. Way back in those Cave Days you needed to accumulate as much food and supplies as you could in order to ensure your survival. Life was simple. You dragged it all into your cave. This was SMART and IMPORTANT to do. Otherwise you might DIE. But times have changed since then.

We've progressed a great deal since those early days, and food and materials for survival are much easier to come by, but we all still harbor a little voice in our heads that wants us to hold on to stuff "because we might need it."

Don't believe it. It's that ancient caveman survival voice, and it's not going to help you now.

Now, we run the greater risk of suffocating our life under an accumulation of small and large possessions (and their attendant upkeep) that no longer serve us in our daily lives.

(Note: Our stuff has changed a great deal since those early days as well. Back then, everything was biodegradable and disappeared rather quickly so that clutter buildup was less of an issue. Much of our stuff now will outlive us.)

In addition, we now live in a world that is based on consumerism, so there's a good deal of advertising that still wants us to stock up and buy new stuff, so it's really hard not to end up bogged down by a certain amount of clutter.

We're all much better at shopping than un-shopping.

MAKING SPACE FOR NEWNESS

The secret to dealing with clutter and changing your life is to realize that 1) you don't need as much stuff (you are no longer a Caveman, after all), and 2) that by having less you are opening your life up, lightening it and creating an environment that will allow you to flourish and reach your greatest potential. It's not just about letting go, it's about realizing how much more life you can have.

One of my greatest sources of inspiration is Karen Kingston, who wrote Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui. She helped me see something as simple as collecting books (a great source of clutter) totally differently. While books are great resources and markers of of experience, we all tend to hold on to more than we actually use. And many of us hold on tightly! In order to declutter them, we need to realize that books are collections of memories and OLD THOUGHTS, not new ones. As she says, "Holding onto old books doesn't allow you to create space for new ideas and ways of thinking to come into your life."

I would even take this further. Holding onto ANYTHING that doesn't have a working role in your home won't allow you to create new space for ANYTHING new to come into your life — things, jobs, people, opportunities, etc. Even as we bring new things in, we need to bring old things out. In this way, we ensure a vital life flow in our lives.

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There's a lot in this tiny bedroom by Jen Chu, but it feels light and airy because she's taken care to only keep what she loves and to leave breathing room (from The Big Book).

THE GOLDEN 10%

So, the secret to decluttering is to create a pleasing and efficient organizing system for each of your areas (clothes, shoes, books, cookware, etc) and then never allowing them to fill up. You always want to leave at least 10% empty space. That's your space for newness to come into your life.

Which means that depending on how big an accumulator you are, you'll need to declutter more or less often. To help you in this, I heartily recommend establishing an Outbox, which you use to provide a halfway house for those things you are considering letting go of.

SECOND-GENERATION CLUTTER CLEARING

The Outbox is your ally as you declutter. It works because it uses a two-step process that allows you to figure out if you need something without having to decide what to do with it immediately.

Most clutter clearers will tell you to sort through your belongings and move a certain amount to the garbage, to recycling, or to the giveaway pile. This is a first generation clutter-clearing approach. It focuses mainly on identifying clutter that will immediately be taken away. The problem with first-generation thinking is that it doesn't take into account that there are really TWO problems: how to sort out the clutter and how to detach from it. I've found that separation anxiety is by far the biggest problem.

When faced with the two anxiety-provoking decisions — where something should go (its value to the world) and whether one can separate from it (its value to me) — most people get stuck and simply hold on to things as a default. Second-generation clutter management unhitches these two decisions. It deals with separation first and decides how and where to get clutter out of your home later.

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This amazing wall by Michelle McCormick stores books and shows off a good deal of artwork in a tasteful and considered way. Collections can be art not clutter when well arranged (from The Big Book).

THE OUTBOX

Choose a space that is clearly defined. This area should be out of the way of daily activities and be a place you can comfortably allow to get messy and chaotic for a short while. A closet or guest room is perfect for this, but any small area or corner near your front door will do. Designate this your Outbox. The Outbox is not garbage, nor does it need to be an actual box; it is a halfway house where things sit while their fate is being decided. You should never be afraid to put something in the Outbox.

Once an item has sat in the Outbox for some time, it releases its hold over the owner and becomes just and ordinary object that one can easily decide what to do with. One client compared it to the phenomenon children experience when they fall in love with a rock that is wet or under water. Later, when the rock has dried off and is no longer shiny, it becomes just a plain old rock again and the child's attachment to is suddenly lessens.

As simple as it is, the Outbox has proven to be extremely successful in allowing people to clear out and heal their homes efficiently on a regular basis.

OUTBOX RULES

1. Anything can go in the Outbox
2. The Outbox is allowed to get messy
3. Everything must stay in the Outbox for at least one week
4. After that time you have several choices
a. Take anything back out
b. Leave anything you are undecided about for one more week
c. Dispose of the rest by moving to the garbage, recycling bin, or giveaway pile

Once you get used to separating first and disposing of later, you'll find that clearing clutter gets easier and easier.

Go for it.

(All ideas drawn from the original Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure. All Pics from The Big Book of Small, Cool Spaces)

Re-edited from a post originally published 10.20.10 - JL

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Maxwell left teaching in 2001 to start Apartment Therapy as a design business helping people to make their homes more beautiful, organized AND healthy. The website started up in 2004 with the help of his brother, Oliver.