Susan K Perry Ph.D.

Creating in Flow

Clear Thinking About Decluttering: 8 Insights

Managing the First World problem of our excess stuff.

Posted Jul 13, 2016

Cheryl Empey/FreeImages
Source: Cheryl Empey/FreeImages

So much has already been written about why and how to remove the excess stuff from our lives. Still, there must be many others like me who are suckers for any inspiration we can get to simplify our lives and homes. Thus, new declutter books appear with regularity.

Sure, it's a worthwhile dream that getting rid of your parents' and grandparents' tchotchke, not to mention many of your own now-regretted impulse buys, will free up more time and energy. Sometimes I wonder, though, if decluttering itself can become an obsession to the point where the declutterer's to-do list is never-ending. That alone can cause a lot of marital discord. (Ask me how I know.) Realistically and ethically, there is a limit to how much you can get rid of without the agreement of its owner, a.k.a., your mate or your kids.

I bounce between longing for clear counters, space on my shelves, fewer duplicates of stuff, fewer items being kept for decades just in case, and believing I should be grateful to have this silly problem, toss the list, and get on with what matters. The fact that the latter action feels impossible probably indicates I'm obsessed. And frustrated because no matter how hard I work at it, stuff accumulates via my spouse's hobby purchases and the boxes of stuff from our parents.

Thus I devoured a couple of new books in this crowded genre.

HOW DOES CLUTTER HAPPEN?

Junk: Digging Through America's Love Affair with Stuff, by award-winning journalist Alison Stewart will not tell you how to get rid of your excess household goods, but it will give you plenty to think about. She spent three years investigating such popular television shows as Antiques Roadshow and Pawn Stars, as well as learning about a few solutions to the national problem, like FreeCycle, Repair Cafe, yard sales, and so on. She rode along with trash removal teams like Trash Daddy, Annie Haul, and Junk Vets.

Stewart writes with disarming honesty and uses creative nonfiction techniques to make the book fun to read, as in this quote:

For me junk became a very personal issue—one that led to this book. Looking back, if I could have poured a truckload of cement into that basement, filled the room to the ceiling, and claimed I had no idea what happened, I would have done so. It took me eight months to clean out that house. Junk removal took over my life.

She also writes the following:

1.  Cleaning out your own decades-long accumulation can be overwhelming, as your progress will seem very slow. Sometimes you need help, including professional help.

2.  It starts this way, explains Stewart, describing a common thought process while handling a Bud hat at a yard sale.

At that moment I saw the lure of things you don’t need but could trick yourself into believing you do. One, the item had some usefulness. It was a hat after all. Two, it had some special meaning. My husband loves his hometown so much and his mother worked for Bud for years. It didn’t matter that you can see Budweiser advertised pretty much everywhere except Babies“R”Us; somehow this Bud hat was special. Did he need it? No. Would he likely wear it in Greenwich Village, NYC, where we live? Unlikely. Did it come home with us and was my husband thrilled? Yes. Was it junk? I am not sure.

3. Although approximately 2-4 percent of the population are hoarders, writes Stewart, "there are many people whose lives aren’t endangered by milder similar actions. And while those lesser actions may not be destructive, they can be problematic in everyday life."

JOY OR ADDICTION?

The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Guide to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify, by Francine Jay, a.k.a. Miss Minimalist, gave me fresh ideas and had me tackling areas of clutter I hadn't considered before. Whether that's always good for me or for you, I can't say.

Here's how Jay describes her joyful feeling:

Nothing prepared me for the rush I felt when that first bag of discards hit the curb. What I expected to be a tedious and rather onerous task turned out to be exhilarating. I was instantly addicted. I decluttered in the morning; I decluttered in the evening; I decluttered on the weekends; I decluttered in my dreams (really!). When I wasn’t actually decluttering , I was planning what I could declutter next. It’s as if I could feel the physical weight being lifted from my shoulders. After I’d been particularly productive, I’d twirl around in my newly empty space with a huge grin on my face.

Meanwhile, before you ponder how far to go declutter-wise, here are some of Jay's tips and insights on the subject:

1. The items you decide to keep (Treasures, per Jay) must pass a test:

Make sure it has a good reason for being part of your household: you use it often, it makes your life easier, you find it beautiful, it would be difficult to replace, it’s multi-functional, it saves you time, it’s a cherished part of your heritage or family.

2. Don't keep a bucketful of paperclips if you can't envision yourself ever using that many. How many safety pins, rubber bands, envelopes, do you need? Apply the same principle to socks, t-shirts, coffee cups, plastic containers, hand towels, and anything else you have in abundance.

3. Surfaces are not for storage, insists Jay. Rather, surfaces are for activity, and should be kept clear at all other times.

4. Save only your favorites from your collections. It's too easy to find new items for any collection on e-bay, so really, if you're aiming for a less cluttered life, give up trying for completeness. 

5. Ditch paperwork and supplies related to past projects so you can focus on future goals. That includes papers you wrote in high school or college.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel