We've all heard the advice about decluttering your life. If you haven't worn it in six months, donate it; take a picture, then pitch it! Spend five minutes a day; spend an hour a week! Immediately go throw out everything that is: broken or out-of-date or just in your field of vision. None of it ever worked for me. I've always been a Keeper. A Clutter Magnet. A Person Of Stuff.
Recently, I tried to cure myself of this affliction. I spent an entire year cleaning out just one room of my house — a room so bad we called it the Hell Room — and I learned a lot about clutter-busting, in the process. I learned why many traditional techniques for getting rid of stuff often don't work with Keepers like me: people who are highly sentimental, deeply fearful of regret, and repelled by the idea of wastefulness. It's because often these tips written by people who are not Keepers themselves. It's like Pavarotti trying to teach opera to someone who is tone-deaf. And a fish. From the start, it's bound to fail, because the basic assumptions are fundamentally wrong.
So, over the course of my Year of No Clutter I developed some strategies which actually did work for Keepers like me. Here are five of them:
1. Set a kitchen timer.
Getting rid of things can be emotionally challenging and exhausting, because it's all about decisions: a million tiny decisions that have been deferred out of fear of making the wrong choice, of losing an opportunity, of being wasteful. Oh my gosh, I'm overwhelmed just thinking about it.
In order to combat this, I developed the "timer rule." I'd set a kitchen timer for, say, 15 minutes and vow to work for at least that long. When, the timer went off I'd be allowed to quit for the day. However, once I saw even small improvements — a cleared-off chair, a half-filled give-away box — I'd usually feel motivation to keep going. Inevitably, I'd keep working long after the timer had gone off.
2. If you can get rid of it: do.
Instead if focusing on what's worth keeping, instead focus on what you can possibly manage to get rid of. When making decisions about getting rid of objects, I am forbidden from thinking about how much the object cost or that it was a gift from my Great Aunt Peg or that it is still perfectly good. Instead I ask myself: Do I regularly use this? Had I forgotten this was even here? Could I live without it?
Lastly, I ask myself one more question: do I love it? If I love it, I have to keep it, of course. We're not monsters here.
3. Remember you won't live forever.
Cheery, right? But honestly, this thought was a great help to me in sorting out the heirloom-worthy from the "Yeah, I own this too." Think about the truly significant items that could get lost (our wedding portrait!) amid the piles of far less important clutter (every single rsvp note from our wedding invitations! Yes I still have those): if you keep it all, who will ever be able to sort out what was truly important or meaningful? Look at the object and think: honestly, who's gonna want this?
4. Be imperfect.
Perhaps the hardest part of decluttering for me is accepting that there will be "mistakes," moments of regret, big or small, when you find a sudden need for the something that you got rid of. Usually about four and a half seconds after giving it away. Ala: there's a school hoe-down and I gave away our cowboy hat — crap!
The moral of this story is that one single object isn't going to make or break your life. We improvise, we adapt, and sometimes the fact that we do so is actually even better in the long run. School hoe-downs — and other random exigencies — come and go, but meanwhile, you're enjoying the fruits of your decluttering efforts every single day.
5. Be the gatekeeper.
Ever since my Year of No Clutter, I've gotten frighteningly vigilant about what comes into my house. I didn't work all year cleaning out that Hell Room just to have it blocked up again by hand-me-downs from my relative who is moving. Sure it's perfectly good! Sure it's free! But unless that wind-up mechanical songbird or framed vintage travel poster is something you've always secretly coveted, resist the urge to help them out by taking the stuff they offer. Instead, visualize the person who will be delighted to find it at Goodwill for a dollar. You just made their day and thwarted clutter in the process.
Eve O. Schaub is the author of Year of No Sugar (2014) and the upcoming Year of No Clutter, available March 7, 2017. Join her during the week of March 7- 14 for the Week of No Clutter.