We don’t need to tell you that Americans have a lot of clutter. It fills our closets, our basements, our desks. In addition to the stress that can cause, our overstuffed lives present environmental dilemmas. We need bigger homes than our parents and grandparents did, even though our families are smaller. And when we can’t find that seldom-used punch bowl amid the mess, we run out and buy another one—not exactly the most prudent use of our world’s resources.
For a clutter-free house, we need to let go of our “stuff,” organize what remains and avoid acquiring more stuff to take the place of the old. Seems so simple. Why is it so difficult?
Step 1: Lighten up (purge)
Get rid of things you no longer need or want. Sort these items into boxes labeled Recycling, Thrift Store, Friends, Garage Sale. Finding new homes for your items means putting resources in the hands of those who truly need or want them.
Ariane Benefit, a professional organizer from New Jersey, says many people don’t realize how much they really own. “I’ve seen people who have seven coffee makers, 43 pairs of jeans or 12 opened bottles of cinnamon,” she says. In such cases, it’s easy to get rid of the excess. Benefit also says to eliminate:
1. Things that don’t work
2. Things that annoy you (e.g., a rickety old file cabinet with a stubborn drawer)
3. Things you’re keeping because someone gave them to you
4. Things that bring up negative thoughts such as I was so stupid to buy it, but I paid a lot for it, so I’m keeping it. “This is a terrible thing to do to yourself because it brings you down every time you look at it!” Benefit says.
5. Excessive amounts of freebies, such as all those pens you’ve collected.
Before you keep something that might not be worthwhile, Benefit recommends you ask yourself:
1. Do I really love this?
2. How does this item make my life better or easier?
3. Have I used it in the past year?
4. Will I really ever use this again?
If parting with particular items is stressful, Benefit suggests putting them in a closed box for a trial separation. “A year from now, if you haven’t used anything in the box, donate it without even opening it,” she advises.
Step 2: Sort it out (organize)
Once you’ve eliminated the excess, sort items into laundry baskets or large boxes labeled by purpose: Craft Supplies, Toys, Garden. Employ smaller baskets, hampers and boxes to organize the little stuff.
Store things you use daily or weekly in the most accessible spaces, such as on the middle shelves of your closet or pantry, in the front. Seasonal and holiday items that come out once a year can go in the harder-to-reach attic or top shelves.
Step 3: Keep it up (maintain)
Maintaining a clutter-free life gets easier as you establish new habits. Avoid the urge to buy more stuff; as time goes on, you’ll find it’s second nature to ask, “Do I really need this?” Try these ideas for cutting back on purchases:
1. Have your children give a toy away to a charity each time they get a new one.
2. Set an example: For every new piece of clothing you buy, donate a gently used one to charity.
3. Whenever possible, fix things instead of tossing them. Look on the Internet to find parts (even eBay is a resource).
To sell or not to sell
Garage sales, auctions and even consignment arrangements are a lot of work. Consider how many hours you’ll spend, then calculate the value of your time at your usual wage per hour. Will you get a justifiable return for your effort? If it’s doubtful, consider donating your items to worthy causes.
Storage that protects your belongings and the Earth
Plastics, including polystyrene (Styrofoam), bubble wrap, and PVC or vinyl tubs and bins, are made from nonrenewable petroleum, which can outgas harmful odors and chemicals into the environment—and onto the stuff you store in it. This could discolor linens and clothing or damage photos and documents.
The best way to keep your keepsakes? Avoid storing them in basements or crawl spaces where they might get wet or damp. Steer clear of plastic containers and wraps altogether—especially those made of PVC. Always use acid-free, dye-free papers and boxes if you’re protecting valuables, such as antiques, or packing away household items made from porous materials, such as cloth, paper or wood.
Instead of: Bubble wrap, packing “peanuts” or Styrofoam
Use this: Tissue paper, recycled newspaper, old towels, worn-out T-shirts
Storage tips: Wrap fragile holiday table settings and décor in holiday linens.
Instead of: Large plastic or PVC storage bins and tubs
Use this: Cardboard boxes (especially those with recycled content)
Storage tips: Used computer or copy-paper boxes are sturdy and often have handles.
Instead of: Plastic crates or modular pieces
Use this: Metal modular furnishings, or those made from wood or other fibers
Storage tips: Steel or aluminum modular furnishings or stackable storage bins are sturdy and ultimately recyclable. Or look for modulars made from either Forest Stewardship Council–certified wood or wood substitutes, including bamboo, wheatboard (made from wheat stalks) or Kirei board (constructed from sorghum stalks).
Instead of: Plastic zip bags
Use this: Cloth bags or canvas bins
Storage tips: Tote bags, cloth laundry bags or canvas bins are ideal for storing clothing, towels, linens and craft supplies.
Instead of: Plastic laundry hampers
Use this: Baskets
Storage tips: Look for fair trade baskets made from all-natural or recycled materials.
More of what matters
Need to let go of some belongings? Here’s inspiration from architect Sarah Susanka, bestselling author of The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live (Taunton, 2001).
“We are all hunting for more meaning in our lives. And the way that we do that is extremely ineffective. We buy more and more stuff, believing that the stuff is going to give us that feeling of satisfaction. There’s always this longing for something we don’t have.
We end up in this cycle of accumulation of things that are supposed to make us feel better, but with multiplicity, we end up overwhelmed and incredibly dissatisfied––overwhelmed with what was supposed to be this life-enhancing thing that has become this albatross. And the more we have, the more of an albatross it is.
What we really want is meaning. And we can’t get meaning with stuff. In the same way stuff is a surrogate for meaning, a bigger and bigger house is what we think is going to make us feel at home. In fact, it has the opposite effect.
An awful lot of the stuff we have—and I’m not talking about one or two things, I’m talking about 50 percent—we literally never use and are never planning to use again, but can’t let go of. They are basically objects in which we’ve invested dreams that didn’t happen. It’s very difficult to let go of the dreams, even though we know that they didn’t actually bring us the satisfaction we were hoping for.
What I recommend is: Get a self-storage unit. Give yourself a year. Take the things that you are not using right now and know that if you really miss something, you can go get it. And then after the end of that year, see if you actually even remember what is in that storage unit. If you don’t, that’s The Stuff—you need to have a big garage sale or estate sale.”
In her book due out in May, The Not So Big Life; Making Room for What Really Matters (Random House, 2007), Susanka delves into ways to find more meaning in daily life. For more information, visit:
SkyBlend formaldehyde-free storage systems
The Container Store
bamboo drawer organizers
fair trade Vietnamese-made baskets
deck box and storage bench madefrom recycled-plastic lumber
recycled hopper boxes
FSC-certified birch “Jigsaw” bookcases
wood-scrap crates finished with nontoxic oil
The Shelving Store
recycled-plastic shelf bins
“basket” locker made from old gym lockers
bins made of recycled flip-flops
National Association of Professional Organizers
Clutterless Recovery Groups
nonprofit organization run by clutterers, for clutterers