How about an article about decluttering? I asked my editor. It’s the New Year! Lots of people resolve to declutter! I could look up decluttering tips and then try them out and see how they go!
Sure, she says. Sounds great. Do that one first.
I have now established that I will even resort to exercise in order to avoid decluttering. This is probably why nearly every decluttering article on the Internet starts with a pep talk. The pep talks go something like this: your clutter is sucking out your soul like dust-gathering material vampires. Look at these beautiful stock art photos of carefully staged living rooms that no one actually lives in and these images from Pinterest of upcycled wall racks on which someone’s imaginary children have conscientiously hung up their color-coordinated coats and hats! If only you get rid of the excess stuff that is weighing you down, your house would look just like this and your life would match.
Tip #1: Start small
Organized Home suggests that you “adjust your vision downward from the big (cluttered) picture, to zero in on one small, solvable clutter problem…Choose an item that nags at you daily.” This will help keep me motivated because I can then return to that spot to remind me of my goal. The unstated assumption here is that I will keep that spot cleaned up, which is a questionable assumption, but I’ll try suspending my disbelief.
I choose my desk. This works for several reasons. #1: it definitely nags at me daily. #2: I can’t pretend that there’s anything on here that is not my mess.
Currently on my desk: a peak airflow meter, a bottle of 3-in-1 multi purpose household oil, a bunch of broken china animals that I promised my children I would try to glue back together, a tape measure, a whole lot of books, a pin with a squirrel and the words “CONANT CUP” on it, a box of Kleenex, two empty boxes that previously held Kleenex, a small photo album. Also, a whole lot of paper.
Things like my desk force me to admit that my biggest problem is not so much clutter as an aversion to picking up after myself. I mean, for a bunch of this stuff, the proper place is the drawer right next to my desk. Or the bookcase behind my desk. And yet here it is, sitting on my desk.
After five minutes of cleaning, the stuff on my desk still includes a small pile of batteries I need to take downstairs to the bag of dead batteries that need to go for recycling, a portable recharger for my iPod that I think may not actually work but I’m not sure because I no longer use my iPod, a roll of duct tape with aliens on it, and a much smaller pile of paper. Also, the broken china animals are still here. I am sure that every de-cluttering expert would assure me that I should just throw them away without guilt because my children won’t even notice, but those experts do not know my children, who never forget anything.
Tip #2: Don’t stop de-cluttering to put stuff away as you go.
Real Simple quotes a decluttering expert to say that you should have a “goes elsewhere in the house” box to use as you declutter. When you find a misplaced item, toss it in the box, because if you go put it away on the spot, you’ll get sidetracked.
They’re absolutely correct about this; I took the batteries downstairs to recycle them and wound up sitting down for a half hour to eat lunch. Look, I needed lunch sooner or later, right? The problem with a “goes elsewhere in the house” box is that if you’re me, at the end of your decluttering section you have a (partially) decluttered room and a box full of miscellaneous stuff that will then sit somewhere in the decluttered room, continuing to accumulate increasingly random stuff.
My older kid suggested that the obvious solution here was to pay the younger kid to put it all away, which is actually an excellent thought and leads into the second problem: where does stuff like space alien duct tape go? I suppose the serious declutterers throw away their decorative duct tape. But, it’s duct tape. Duct tape is clearly useful. This is a conundrum and why my house will never be decluttered.
Tip #3: Got a dude in the house messing stuff up? Yeah, just resign yourself to the idea that he’s useless
Real Simple calls this advice “Divvy up the Duties,” and kindly informs you that even if your husband is incapable of putting the incoming mail in a consistent spot, “he sure knows how to arrange his baseball hat collection,” so just send him off to do that.
My older daughter narrowed her eyes when she read that over my shoulder. “That’s sexist,” she said. “That’s sexist in both directions.”
Fundamentally, though, there is no useful pithy little tip for the following problem: my spouse is a hoarder. Our house is massively cluttered and my partner will not let me throw anything away. Or even, our house is a wreck but getting rid of stuff we jointly own requires the consent of both people and my spouse/partner would rather have unanesthetized dental surgery than spend a Saturday afternoon going through this stuff. Or, we just don’t ever have time at the same time to sit down and do this. Or, oh my god if we’re both free and without kids bugging us for a few hours on a weekend afternoon we are NOT using that time to CLEAN.
In my house, I am not blaming the piles of stuff on the other resident given the state of the home office.
Tip #4: Shove everything into a box and deal with it later.
Organized Home calls this the “Box and Banish” method and I find it mildly surprising that they consider it a decluttering method rather than the procrastination technique it’s always functioned as around here. The idea is, you shove everything into a box, then pull stuff out to sort through it. Alternately, you just leave it to gather dust for a while, and if you don’t need anything out of there, dump it in the trash.
They acknowledge the inherent problem (“the effort stalls, the clutter remains, aging gently in the bags and boxes as it becomes surrounded by new layers of clutter”). On the plus side, this does at least get your clutter out of the kitchen / living room / other area you’re actually trying to use, and removes it to a closet, the basement, a spare bedroom, or the garage. On the minus side, that makes it vastly easier to ignore for long enough that you completely forget what’s inside it. I am pretty sure that when we moved in 2012, we brought with us several boxes that turned out to be mostly junk mail from 1998.
Tip #5: The Packing Party
This is maybe less a “tip” and more a road map to a personality disorder. The way it works: you pack up everything you own as if you are moving, and then get rid of anything you don’t unpack and use within a week. It’s a party because you invite all your friends over to help, because God knows it’s not sufficiently onerous to actually help people move when they have to move, and you should totally impose on your friends’ goodwill for an imaginary move.
Among the many things horrifying to me about this approach:
1. There are, in fact, things I don’t use every week that I still need. Off the top of my head: my computer scanner, my asthma inhaler, my toolbox. My plunger.
2. I moved two years ago. Moving is stressful and annoying. Also, I spent a bunch of money going out and buying stuff I couldn’t find in all those stupid boxes.
This tip, however, comes from “The Minimalists,” a couple of 30-year-old guys who threw away nearly everything they owned and quit their jobs to become inspirational speakers (about their minimalist lifestyle!) I will note a couple of things about these guys, before I go any further, because in some ways, they are living the lives suggested by the sort of magazine spreads where the pets match the throw pillows and nobody ever gets mail. When they open their drawers, you see three perfectly folded t-shirts that don’t touch each other.
Things I notice very quickly about people like this:
1. They don’t have children, pets, spouses/partners, or even roommates.
2. In addition to never clogging their toilets, they appear to never sweat (since they have less than one week’s worth of clothes and do not explain their laundry routines anywhere), they do not do taxes (since there doesn’t appear to be anywhere they save the papers that you need for your tax forms), and they do not use cash (since they don’t even have a change bowl for nickels and dimes).
3. I don’t think I like these people very much. I imagine them as that friend you get together with sometimes for lunch, and they are very picky about the restaurant because they’ve started a new diet (probably paleo, but raw vegan is also a possibility; for sure they’re not eating gluten, but it’s not actually because gluten was making them sick) and they look at you and your cheeseburger with open pity and tell you how “clean” and “energized” they feel and also they just took up some new form of exercise that’s much hipper than yoga.
Tip #6: You don’t have to keep those old computer cables
When the AARP talks about decluttering they don’t mean the garden-variety decluttering that most people need to do; they really mean downsizing, getting rid of those decades of accumulated cruft so your kids don’t have to sort through it all when you die.
Since I’m 41 and my kids are still kids, a lot of their advice wasn’t applicable to me, other than this one: go get your plastic bin crammed with wires and just throw it all away. Their clutter counselor notes that people are terrified to throw that box of stuff out — but if you ever need one of these cords again, you can just buy a replacement. Do I have one of these boxes?
Oh heck yeah.
The boxes of cables are a prime example of the “but I might need it!” problem. She’s totally right that I could easily order replacements of most of this stuff. The item in here that’s still in its package is a 10-foot-long USB 2.0 Printer Cable. I could replace it for $5.49 with free two-day shipping, and if I needed it, I totally would, because the alternative would be rooting through the Boxes of Doom for a thing that might or might not be in there.
But, I fundamentally don’t trust organizational gurus when they tell me I can just throw stuff away without looking to see what it is, so I conscientiously went through the boxes to figure out what stuff was. I found about 200 feet of networking cables, most of which had busted widgets on the ends. There was a set of speakers better than the one I currently had hooked up to my computer. There were a number of cables from the pre-USB era and a bunch of chargers for cell phones that haven’t been manufactured since sometime in the 1990s.
After six hours of admittedly not terribly disciplined decluttering, I have more or less cleaned off my desk, sorted through the boxes of old cables and thrown most of them away, recycled some batteries, upgraded my computer speakers, and thrown away six bags of trash. Not because I threw away six bags’ worth of stuff, mind you: because I took out the trash from my office. I am terrible at this.
Clearly next time I need to start smaller.
[Featured photo via Shutterstock]