|Winter Issue Spring Issue Home Page Summer Issue Autumn Issue Bookstore|
Did you ever feel, by winter's end, that the walls are closing in on you? That your rooms seem more claustrophobic?
Perhaps what you are feeling is not a symptom of cabin fever, but a call for spring cleaning. More precisely it can be an internal call for decluttering your home of unneeded stuff.
At times this past winter, I have stumbled over another pile of research reports, reference books and old files and photos and swore to burn the lot during the next cold snap. Instead I pushed them to the edge of the desk and concentrated them along the walls. Hmm, was the Great Wall of China built for military defense or the covering of centuries of accumulated junk from the Chines bureaucracy.
Two summers ago, I counseled a woman in her bid to win the clutter war in her apartment. While her situation was not unique, the fact that she chose late summer rather than late winter to begin the task was a bit unusual. She explained to me that she could not face another winter engulfed in stuff. She knew that the forecast of a hard, snowy winter was all the engulfing she could handle.
To her, the task was daunting, however; she had been a pack-rat for nearly half a century and had hoarded things, spurred by her mother's experiences during the Great Depression of the 1930s combined with the Dust Bowl years. Inga had also spent many years teaching the lower grades and had accumulated boxes and boxes of old magazines, clippings, postcards, paper scraps, etc. that she always felt might come in handy someday.
Without a doubt she had me beat. When I began my big decluttering adventure, I was moving out of a house that once held three generations of my family and into a much smaller house. Inga had lived in her apartment for nearly three decades and planned to stay.
In our first session, we sat down and made a list of the categories of stuff that she wanted to reduce or purge from her possession. I told her to make the list without judgement about the content. Time for judgement would come later. Now, we just wanted to see in what areas she felt clutter abounded.
After about an hour, her list looked like this (in no particular order):
I then asked her to take the list and prioritize the items starting with the items she felt were the most difficult for her to discard.
Books, and photographs quickly topped the list. Half an hour later, clothes became the penultimate item, making art and craft supplies by default the item with the lowest degree of difficulty. Therefore, this item we tackled first.
Inga had assumed that decluttering meant throwing away, and she confessed that the idea of relegating still useful things to the city dump abhorrent -- part of the reason she had procrastinated for so long. I agreed. Nothing of use should be sent to a dump to be buried alive. So our next order of business was to consider alternatives to the dump.
Inga rejected the ideas of garage sales and flea markets, so thrift shops came first to mind. Then we took a different look at the problem and thought about who could use the arts and crafts materials. Two came quickly to mind. Needle crafts, yarns, etc. would be welcomed mostly by women, and we decided that these would go to a local senior's home, believing that many of the residents had limited finances to buy such materials. The painting and drawing materials could be useful to the new youth drop-in center that catered to underprivileged children.
Armed with that charge, Inga went home, promising to report back in a week.
By prioritizing the list of items to declutter and starting with the easiest, I gave Inga the full opportunity to be successful on her first decluttering venture. I feel that initial successes, however small, give birth to continued future successes. I have always felt that baby-steps lead to big accomplishments and few regrets later.
Seven days after our first interview, Inga had not disappointed me. She not only had succeeded in decluttering the art/crafts supplies from her apartment and her life but was positively bubbling with the joy of the experience.
"The youth center was appreciative of the donation, but nothing compared to the senior's home. When I brought the boxes into the common room, several of the residents became like children on Christmas morning, opening and looking into the boxes. All went away with something -- including one gentleman who took a rug-hooking project. And, they invited me back for tea next week!"
Step One accomplished, Inga and I looked at Item 2 on the list: Clothing.
"This one should be easy since it was time to change summer wear for fall and winter clothing. As you go through your summer clothes, make three piles: one for clothes you will keep; a second for those that can be donated; and a third for those threadbare pieces that we can send to the recycling center. When you go through, immediately "discard" any items that you did not wear this summer."
"And, when you have finished there, I want you to go to that closet were you keep all those work clothes, items which you consider too tattered to wear in public, but which you have been saving to wear when doing dirty work. Throw at least half of those away!"
"How did you know I have that stash?"
"Because we all do. And unless you are a car mechanic, professional house painter, or pig farmer, you will never use half of them. If your stash is anything like mine was, most of them won't even fit!"
Inga grinned and promised to do so. We agreed to meet mid-week on this one.
Wednesday evening Inga's greeting "Mission Accomplished" was served with a big hug. I knew she was on her way to successfully decluttering all she desired, but two more step were needed to build a successful foundation.
The first two items on the list were taken care of, a good start to the decluttering process. To have advanced past the first item is not that unusual. Completing the second takes a little more initiative and is a must to keep the momentum for true accomplishment. Item 3, in any process, is often the one that allows break-out.
Item 3 was originally school materials but Inga felt she would rather tackle the next item kitchen utensils and dishes, because a friend had told her about a fund-raising event by a local charity and kitchen items were on their needs list.
I agreed to the change in the order and then placed one additional assignment to her homework: to come up with a reward to herself for the successes to date in her decluttering tasks. When she looked at me a bit funny, I reminded her that as a teacher she had often rewarded her students with gold stars and such for completing difficult assignments.
"The problem is," she confessed, "I have always rewarded myself in the past with a shopping spree. I guess that is out."
"Definitely," I smiled. "But you have said that you like hiking, perhaps there is a special place where you would like to hike. Fall can be especially beautiful with all the tree colors."
"But back to your main assignment. For this one, I want you to again make three piles of stuff. One will contain your necessities -- those items which you cannot and will not discard. The second will be the pile for donation to the charity sale. And the third will contain those items which you feel you cannot part with at this time but use rarely. For example, I had a bun warmer dish which I had kept in case I gave a big, fancy dinner. I never did use it."
"Place these items in a box and put it in storage for six months. If at the end of this time, you have not opened the box, take it directly to the thrift shop. Don't even bother to look inside, that may only make you rethink the decision. If you haven't missed the items all winter, you likely never will.
Ten days later we met again, Inga was pleased with her success in reducing the content of her kitchen. And she had picked a reward: a hike along the lakeshore at the peak of fall colors in mid-October. She asked me to join her.
We continued the process of decluttering through the Fall. Not all went as well as the first weeks but that was to be expected and the reason for my plan of attack on the stuff mountain. Had the first weeks been as difficult as the last few, Inga might have been discouraged. But by starting easy, she had her confidence strengthened, and she knew that she would succeed at each step along the way...eventually.
Photographs proved to be the hardest for her to reduce because each held a memory. This is often the case with very personal items and why I generally relegate them to later in the process. I agreed to help her on this one, using my "professional" advice (I had for many years been an active photographer) to critique the shots technically.
Books were difficult, but not the most difficult as originally envisioned. When I asked her why the change in expected degree of difficulty, she told me: "By this point I realized that I would never read most of them again and by finding good homes for my precious books, I felt much better in freeing them."
The easiest of the latter categories to tackle turned out to be her multiple boxes of teaching materials.
"I heard about a group that was sending books and magazines to schools in underdeveloped countries. I called them and explained my situation -- retired school teacher, much "archived" materials, "no room at the inn" -- and they were happy to do the sorting for me in exchange for the large donation. This emptied half my storage space and two-thirds of my office in less than two hours. I felt so great to be helping others that I did not even shed a tear when the truck filled with my boxes drove away.
Inga capped her decluttering program with an interesting twist. She gave her three nieces the furniture that had once housed her stuff: dressers, cabinets and bookcases. They were quality pieces and wonderful, welcomed Christmas gifts to the three families.
Inga and I have remained friends since completing the counseling sessions. Last week I asked her about the box of kitchen utensils that she had put into storage.
"I was going to tell you about that. I never opened the box and even forgot what was in it. Last week I sent a friend down to the storage room to get the picnic cooler. He asked me about the box he had moved to get to the cooler which said KITCHEN STUFF. He explained that he had a friend who had just separated and needed some kitchen tools and dishes and perhaps there might be something in the box which he might find useful and that I might be willing to part with. I told him about your assignment. Since I had not missed anything in it, I said his friend was welcomed to the contents provided he promised never to return any of it to me. And now I know that if I really did miss anything, I know where it now lives."
I believe that my decluttering advice worked well with Inga (and others) because it follows a basic formula that I have found to be successful in many endeavors. Here are the basic steps:
1. Make a list: Preparing a list and checking it twice works well for Santa Claus and will for you too. Just remember not to judge items on the list as you are preparing it.
2. Prioritize the list: After you have finished making the list is the time to judge its contents. Toss out those items which were silly or impractical such as getting rid of the dog -- who only got on the list because he had angered you by tracking mud across the carpet that day. Your prioritization criteria may differ with the purpose of the list. For example, in the case described above, I ranked items from the hardest task to easiest.
3. Start with the easiest tasks initially: Thus is the most controversial of the points. But I definitely feel that in the beginning of a new venture by assuring a high level of success, you establish a pattern of success. This does not mean avoiding the difficult ones -- just not doing them in the earliest stages of the project.
I use an analogy from sports. If you were, as a novice tennis player, asked to play five matches with world-ranked players, your confidences would likely be pretty low after the matches -- watching serves rocket by. But if you began playing against other beginners and won a few games, you would have the chance to develop confidence in your game. By developing the mind set that you can succeed, you sow the seeds for continued improvement and success.
4. Take small steps at first and do not rush: Like Number 3, small initial steps help build your confidence and prepare the field for continued success.
5. Reward yourself: Reward yourself for your successes. This is important because it is your way to acknowledge to yourself that you have been successful. Just make sure your reward isn't a step backward for your decluttering program.
6. Build on success: By starting small and easy, you provide yourself a foundation of success to build further upon. Continue the progress slow and steady, and before you know it, you will have completed your desired task.
A final note. You may find that you need the support of someone as you go through the process
of decluttering. A friend of mine has called such a person an accountability partner -- someone
who you can talk with about your project but who will not judge you if progress slows or stops.
If you need someone for such a role, seek out a professional lifestyle counselor or a good friend.
It can be well worth the effort.
Spring DeCluttering by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©1999, All Rights Reserved.
I have recently added many of my lifetime collection of photographs and art works to an on-line shop where you can purchase notecards, posters, and greeting cards, etc. of my best images.