Everyone hates clutter, but so many of us just can’t seem to get it out of our lives. Our guests discuss how we end up with full closets and basements, how to start weeding out the good stuff from the junk and how adopting a minimalist lifestyle not only keeps our homes neat, it also helps to de-clutter our thinking and maintain focus on those things that are most important to us.
Dr. A.J. Marsden, a psychologist and assistant professor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida; Francine Jay, a-k-a “Miss Minimalist” author of the book, The Joy of Less: A minimalist guide to declutter, organize and simplify
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Clearing Out the Clutter in Our Homes and Heads
Marty Peterson: Clutter bothers just about everyone, whether it’s made by them or by others. There’s something unsettling about seeing personal items strewn around the home, covering every table and countertop, stuck in the nooks and crannies of a room, the basement, office or garage. That’s why many people make time to “spring clean” and get rid of the stuff they no longer want to look at or trip over. Decluttering isn’t just a way to make more room in a living space, though. It’s also a way to ease the mind and bring clarity back to your thoughts. That’s the feeling of Dr. A.J. Marsden, a psychologist and assistant professor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.
Dr. A.J. Marsden: If your home is cluttered, your house is cluttered; your rooms are cluttered that negatively affects your mind. So I like to say that, you know, if your physical space is cluttered then your mental space is also going to be cluttered. They negatively affect each other. Essentially, clutter takes over our mind as well and starts to overwhelm us and we start to stress about it, which can ultimately have very negative effects on our mental well being and our physical well being.
Peterson: How do we end up with so much stuff to begin with? It seems like it takes on a life of its own, slowly seeping into our lives and our habitats almost imperceptibly. Marsden says that it can sneak up on us because we don’t realize that we take a lot of things in but very little finds its way out again.
Marsden: Well first, people start to basically “get” stuff. So you get your friend a little something that you think is fun for their birthday, and then they reciprocate and then you just slowly start accumulating this stuff and then, before you know it, several years have gone by you go to put one more thing in that box in the basement and you realize, “I have 10 boxes down here full of junk that I’ve gathered over the years.” And then you start to get overwhelmed, “Man, I really need to clean out the basement but I don’t want to clean out the basement,” so you keep putting it off, and putting it off and you end up just accumulating more and more stuff.
Peterson: Not only are the sentimental things hard to throw out or give away, so are the things we think we might “need” in the future. Like those jeans from 10 years ago that you vow you’ll wear again…as soon as you lose the weight.
Marsden: That one I hear a lot. “Oh, I kept those jeans because you know I’m trying lose 20 pounds. And once I lose that 20 pounds I’m going to be able to fit into those jeans.” Really, what you’re doing, is psychologically torturing yourself. Every time you see those jeans you think, “I need to lose weight,” and then you feel guilty because you’re off your diet, or because you didn’t exercise that morning, or because last night you had ice cream. That’s all you’re doing by keeping those jeans is torturing yourself. So it really is time to just let go.
Francine Jay: That is keeping things for your “fantasy self,” and I’ve been guilty of that as well.
Peterson: That’s Francine Jay, a-k-a “Miss Minimalist” and author of the book, The Joy of Less: A minimalist guide to declutter, organize and simplify.
Jay: I say keep things that are appropriate for your life right now, and especially when it comes to wardrobe – stuff that fits, stuff that flatters you and stuff that fits your lifestyle. When I first started decluttering I had a closet full of fancy cocktail dresses and I never went out to fancy parties. But that’s what I thought my life should be like, and letting go of those clothes was actually letting go of a certain image I had of what my life should be like. And it was actually quite liberating and quite empowering to see that go. And I think it’s the same way. If you have “skinny” clothes and in your closet, there’s always that pressure and that bit of disappointment when you look at that or try it on, like, “Uh…I just can’t fit in that yet.” So I say reward yourself with new clothes after you drop those pounds. It’s such a great incentive to get out there and work out.
Peterson: Jay says that decluttering will give your life a boost, and you’ll find that you suddenly have more time for those projects that are really important.
Jay: When we have so many things, whether they’re physical objects or too many commitments vying for our attention, we tend to get distracted and we’re almost drowning in minutiae and we can’t focus on what really matters to us, what really sets our souls on fire: pursuing our passions or being with our families. When we have so many things taking away our attention we really lose focus on what matters most to us. When we declutter we tend to restore that balance. We put those things aside, we clear out some space so that we then have a clarity, and we then have the focus to really explore what makes us tick, what makes us happy and we have the time and energy to actually pursue those things.
Peterson: So how do you begin? Marsden says that starting is the tough part, and you have to be resolved that you’re not going to let your feelings for your “stuff” get in the way.
Marsden: You have to go through your stuff one item by one item and be brutally honest with yourself. “Do I really need these pants from five seasons ago? Am I really going to lose that 10 pounds to get back into these pants?” You have to be brutally honest with yourself and say, “You know what? It’s not going to happen. It’s time to let go. And by the time I do lose the weight I’m probably going to want new pants anyway.” So you have to be honest and allow yourself to not get sentimentally attached to it and let it go. If you have a lot of stuff, it’s going to take, you know, maybe a couple of weeks even. Just do a little bit at a time. Once you start getting stressed or frustrated stop, go do something else, and then come back to it when you’re ready.
Peterson: Some people like to dive in and clean the whole house, basement, and garage in one long project, and that’s fine. Jay says, though, that if this is your first foray into decluttering, maybe that’s not the best way to start.
Jay: I think that when you’re just starting decluttering, sometimes it makes a lot of sense to start small and really build up those decluttering skills. Because it really does get easier as you go along. And the first piece of advice I give to everyone who starts decluttering it so pick that space that you’d like to work on, whether it’s a drawer or closet, file cabinet or a room, and completely empty the contents. That is such a key concept because one you empty everything out; you actually have to choose to put those things back into your space. And I think it’s a lot easier to declutter when you’re choosing what to keep rather than what to toss.
Peterson: Jay uses a “glass half-full” approach to decluttering, focusing on the “space” rather than the “stuff.” She works on decluttering using her “streamline” method – an acronym for “Start over; Trash, treasure or transfer; Reason for each item; Everything in its place; All surfaces clear; Modules; Limits; If one comes in, one goes out; Narrow it down, and Everyday maintenance. The one cluttering behavior that so many people engage in without even thinking is filling counters and tables with all sorts of stuff they bring in—and just leaving it there.
Jay: If it’s temporary – you’re putting it down there for the 15 minutes after you come home – that’s okay. And what I advocate doing each night is evaluating those surfaces and making sure they’re clean. So, say you brought in the shopping and you put it down on your dining table or your kitchen counters, just make sure everything is put away when you do what I call the “Evening Sweep” at night. It’s basically looking at the counters, making sure there’s nothing on them that shouldn’t be there and if you do that, clutter really doesn’t have a chance to build up. There should be a place for everything so that when you do unpack those bags there’s somewhere for everything to go.
Peterson: There are those keepsakes that we talked about at the beginning that are just so difficult to give up. Jay says that if they’re that important, you should show them off; Marsden suggests that you pass them on.
Jay: A reason to keep something is that you find it useful, it makes your life easier, it saves you time, you find it beautiful, it brings you joy or it just has a very special meaning to you. And if it does have a special meaning to you, it should be displayed prominently in your home where you can see it and enjoy it. I think anything that’s packed away in boxes in the attic, or the basement or the garage, it’s hard to make an argument that has special meaning to you.
Marsden: I’m a big fan of don’t keep it, but if you really are sentimentally attached to it pass it on to somebody else in your family, and then you don’t have to worry about it anymore and you still have that satisfaction of at least it’s in the family.
Peterson: There are many ways to keep from getting back into “pack-rat” mode after you’ve spent time cleaning up. Jay says that one is to set limits on your space for each type of item.
Jay: And I think that’s important because it is so easy to acquire things and to take on more commitments and to really fill our lives with a lot of unimportant, trivial things. But when we set limits, when we say, “I’m only going to have the amount of books I can fit on this bookshelf,” or “I’m only going to have the amount of sweaters that fit into this box,” then you’re actually giving yourself a little break actually. It takes the pressure off to keep acquiring, to keep doing. It really is like a little breath of relief in your life to know that you don’t have to continually acquire and buy and purchase and get new things.
Peterson: Cleaning up your own stuff is one thing, but what about the clutter that belongs to a spouse or kids? Marsden says that you need to have a talk with them to find out why they hold on to stuff that they really don’t need.
Marsden: You have to tell that person to be honest with why they’re holding on to it in the first place, and sometimes they don’t want to address those issues. Sometimes they don’t want to tell you why they’re holding on to something for so long. But you have to kind of force them to be honest with you and be honest with themselves. Pack rats, a lot of times, don’t want to be honest with themselves. They think, “Well, I’m keeping this because I really am going to use it someday.” You have to kind of break past that thinking and force them to break past that thinking and really analyze “Why are you holding on to this?”
Peterson: Jay says that one way to help family members pare down their stuff is to give everyone their own area to keep whatever they think they need.
Jay: It’s very important because your family members might get very nervous when you say, “Let’s declutter.” They think, “Oh, no. My stuff is going to go away.” But what we’re actually doing is declaring “family space” to be a clutter-free area, and giving them space for their own stuff. So each member of the family has “personal space” for their stuff, whether that’s a child’s bedroom or a spouse’s office or storage areas, they need to have a designated space where they can keep their stuff.
Peterson: Finally, Jay says that you need an easy way to keep stuff moving out of your house. She suggests that you use the same method for your stuff as you do for your work.
Jay: I recommend setting up what I call an “outbox,” that’s to counteract the “inbox” effect. And basically that is a cardboard box that you put in a very convenient location, such as a hall closet, and let everybody know anything you’re not using that you don’t want anymore, just put it in the box. Oftentimes we come across things that we don’t necessarily use or want, and we don’t know what to do with them. What should I do? Stick it in the corner? It’s just easier to shove it back in the drawer or closet and deal with it later. But if there’s a specific spot – an outbox – for everybody’s stuff to leave the house, it’s much easier. It kind of makes decluttering the path of least resistance for your family.
Peterson: Both Jay and Marsden say that parents who learn to declutter and maintain it in their home set a good example for their kids, and it’s more likely that the children will learn that less stuff and more space makes for a more comfortable home and a clearer mind. You can learn all about the art and science of decluttering your space in Francine Jay’s book, The Joy of Less, available in stores and online. You can also visit her on her website at MissMinimalist.com. To find out more about Dr. A.J. Marsden and her work, log onto BeaconCollege.edu. To find our more about all of our guests, log onto our site at viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.