[ Home | Advice | Bicycles | Books | Cookbook | Declutter | Fiction | Reproduction | Travel ]

In Which We Declutter

I'm 44. I've been a few rounds on decluttering. The first rule of decluttering is, no matter how good a job you do, and no matter how well you maintain, something will happen to force you to do it all over again. Here is a short list of a few of the possibilities:

  1. A household size change: a new arrival (pet, child, roommate, significant other) or a departure (death, divorce, breakup, kid goes to college, etc.). You might think a decrease in household size would help with the clutter, but what it really does is remove one of the decision makers, and possibly make you really sad.
  2. Change in location (moving to a bigger or smaller place, or even one the same size but elsewhere)
  3. Change in financial status (more or less income, more or less wealth) -- again, you'd think that more would make things easier, but more money can lead to more stuff and may be associated with less time available to deal with it

The unifying reason for needing to declutter is time. With time comes change, even the subtler changes like clothes, furniture and gadgetry wearing out, files filling up and hobbies and other pastimes changing. In theory, maintaining a decluttered household would involve consistently sorting through and repairing or replacing clothing, furniture, gadgetry, purging the files and winding down/starting up hobbies in a completely orderly fashion.


I've read a half dozen (possibly closer to a dozen. I'm not telling.) on decluttering, personal organization, simplification and related topics. I've done a bit of googling. And that's the extent of my expertise. What follows is episodic narration of what I have done, what has worked, then stopped working, and what it got replaced with, also what I am currently experimenting with.

Project Zero: Accessing Our Digital World

Very, very, very little advice exists currently for organizing and decluttering our digital world. If anything, the organizing/decluttering advice is moving clutter from the physical world to the digital world. A typical piece of advice suggests scanning physical files into a computer and destroying the original, then adds that these files should be regularly backed up and important ones should be archived in secure storage, with a safety deposit box mentioned. There are several problems with this advice. First, there's no matching purge process associated with it, which implies the storage would continue to grow over time. It does not appear to recognize that storage media deteriorates over time -- faster if stored poorly, but inevitably, and generally faster than paper storage (with the exception, obviously, of electrostatic paper, which is why advice to keep credit card receipts for years is hilarious since the paper frequently won't be readable after a couple of years).

When I was first online, there was no world wide web. It was the late 1980s and I had an e-mail address and access to some vaxen and, slightly later, unix workstations through the University of Washington. A little after I graduated, the web started to replace ftp sharing of files via newsservers. After I'd been working for three years, I changed jobs to a company offering software to enable ordinary people to access the web and a year after that, I went to Amazon.com, which had been up and running for less than a year. While it was absolutely possible to conduct some amount of business online well before this time frame, it was not possible to manage an ordinary bank account electronically or pay bills online and similar until the mid 1990s and later. Online account management became widely available after 2000, but companies persisted in reverting electronic access to paper access whenever anything untoward happened (an e-mail alert bounced, say), for quite a while after that. It is only now, in the 201xs, that companies are seeing a bottom line benefit to moving business online. Because enough people would prefer to do business online, IT systems have matured enough to be convenient and reliable, mobile devices have universalized access (across economic groups and enabled people to access their information wherever they might be), and other factors, the paper and mailing savings are achievable and meaningful.

Until a few years ago, periodically, or even frequently losing access to one's accounts by forgetting they existed, forgetting user name, forgetting password, etc. was annoying but had little real world impact other than for computer professionals. The social repercussions could be managed, and there weren't going to be any legal or financial consequences. That is starting to change.

Further, as more and more account management moves online, it is no longer a matter of a credit card account or a bank account or similar; it is a matter of access to health records, children's school records, all of one's credit card accounts, the telephone (whether land line or mobile) service, and, increasingly, other utilities. The requirements and limitations on selecting a userid and/or password have also proliferated, and horror stories about identity theft as a result of password reuse are amplified by media which advocates all kinds of insanity to avoid Some Bad Thing happening to us.

I think the concerns associated with identity theft are overrated. Back in the 1980s, when computers were unbelievably unreliable but people thought they could do no wrong, identity errors in criminal justice systems resulted in the wrong person being cuffed and jailed for days if not years. Now, an identity error is not appreciably worse than losing a wallet or purse was decades back -- possibly less bad, as laws have been passed limiting our individual responsibility for abuse of our credit and debit cards by criminals. However, losing 5 minutes to an hour every time I cannot remember my userid or password to pay a bill is an incredible drag on my psyche -- the sort of thing I was very good at avoiding in the paper world was increasingly dogging me in my digital world, which was otherwise much more convenient in every way.

I got a password manager. And every few days, I say again to my husband that getting a password manager (in my case, LastPass, but I have friends who swear by OnePass and there are others) was one of the best decisions I have ever made (working at Amazon and marrying him are still better).

A password manager stores your user id and password for accounts at websites. It can also do form filling (so you don't have to keep re-entering your name, address, credit card number and so forth). Some password managers require you to store the data (and back it up). Other password managers will store your data for you. Many password managers will allow you to access their data at multiple devices (your laptop, phone, work computer, etc.). If they store the data for you, they generally manage the synchronization and charge you a subscription fee. If you store your own data, you have to manage the synchronization through a service like DropBox, or when your various devices are all connected to your own secure network or similar.

Getting a password manager did three things for me. First, I quit reusing the same passwords everywhere, which may have been an improvement in security. Second, I quit forgetting my username and password, because I only had to remember the one master password for LastPass (and another pair for my primary email account), thus saving me between five minutes and an hour, depending on whether I could remember it after several tries or if I had to do the password recovery email dance to get it back. That savings occurs every single time I access a less-frequently used account online. I have dozens of accounts -- you probably do, too -- so while each account may be less-frequently used, this was happening daily, sometimes more than once a day. Finally, it made me much less reluctant to open a new account, thus enabling me to finish moving paper-ful accounts online. The downside of that increased willingness to open new accounts means I now have well over a hundred accounts. On the other hand, my paper mail is largely irrelevant at this point.

Making it easy to create and access accounts online is incredibly important, because it supports a reduction in incoming paper to the house and a reduction in what you need to file. Most online accounts maintain access to months if not years worth of records for you, so you don't need to keep them yourself. For bank accounts, this is often the only way to access images of canceled checks. Not only do you avoid processing and maintaining a lot of paper records (or digitized images of same), with a password manager, it may well be faster to access these records than getting them out of your own paper filing system (assuming you had one in the first place -- if you didn't, it's definitely faster).

First Things First: Tidy

It is possible that your space is already as tidy as it can get: you can't fit any more paper into your files, clothes into your drawers or closet, dishes in the cupboard, etc. Yay. Move right along.

It is difficult to declutter in an untidy space, so Step Zero is tidying. Put things away that can be put away. Clean things that are dirty. Etc. Run the dishwasher, the clothes washer and dryer, move all the contents of dirty clothes hampers along. Fill one, run it and while it is running fill the next; repeat until everything is clean. It's probably better to put clean things even in the trash to avoid the smell and Attracting Undesirables.

If this seems like a huge task, hiring a cleaner might make sense. If you cannot afford a cleaner and there's reason to believe the task truly is enormous (e.g. people have proposed a position for you on an official hoarding scale), consider signing up for FlyLady.

Your Routine Needs to Work for You On Your Bad Days

A routine which only works for you on your Very Best Days is not a routine which is going to help you. Your routine needs to keep things functioning on bad days (not bad as in, in the hospital, but bad as in, have an awful cold and/or just had a nasty argument/breakup/lost your job sense). A good household routine ensures that your basic needs are met even when things are slow, unpleasant or chaotic: you have food stored safely and a way to prepare it (peanut butter crackers protected from shattering do, actually, count towards this goal, if you like peanut butter crackers), clothes that are appropriate to the time of year and in a wearable condition (yes, picking up sweats off the floor and ensuring they pass a sniff test do count towards this goal, if that won't cost you your job or a partner you love), a bill paying approach that ensures you have water, power, heat, etc., or at least that fraction of services which you believe to be important and/or necessary, and so forth. If you are an adult and if you do not have dependent children or pets, you get to define (for the most part) what your needs are and how they will be met. But if you discover that you have to leave the house when you don't want to or spend money that you don't want to to meet those needs because the stuff you already own has been damaged or is inadequately maintained for the task, your routine is failing you (that is, unless the damage is the result of an unexpected event like a hurricane dropping a tree on your house).

Some advice givers subscribe to the do-all-the-laundry-at-once school; others believe in do-a-load-a-day. Either strategy can work, but you should pick one and stick with it, because the strategy you choose has implications for the amount of clothing you need to own. If you do-a-load-a-day and pare down (in the name of simplicity) to clothes that must be washed nearly every day or you run out, and then you stop doing a load a day, you have a problem. If you do-it-all-at-once but then delay too long, likewise. Doing a load a day, but having enough laundry for a week is a strategy that survives well in the face of a multi-day disaster (catching the flu, power outage), especially if you also try to "catch up" by doing all the laundry currently waiting whenever you have the time and energy for the project -- but you then have to maintain and store a much larger volume of clothing. There is no Right Solution -- only what works for you currently.

The same set of observations can be made about dishes: a tiny number that must be handwashed to use again, a larger number but which can be run through the dishwasher daily with no problem, or delaying until absolutely everything you own is in the dishwasher and then pulling things out and handwashing them because you don't have the time to wait for the dishwasher to cycle (and handwashing after it has run because you overloaded it and it doesn't clean as well then).

A strong value placed on sustainability or other environmental considerations (saving power, water, reducing chemical use, etc.) can destroy a routine. If you consume media which advocates for a change in your routine to reduce your impact on the environment, remember that you will have to pay extra attention for a while after that change to make sure the effort to preserve the larger environment does not destroy your own local environment.

Reduce the Incoming Flow

Virtually every advice giver on this general topic advocates for some form of incoming flow reduction. Simplicity advocates have a bunch of rules (freeze your credit cards to make it harder to use them, create a 30 Day Wait list for new purchases, etc.) designed to reduce the amount of stuff in your life. Organizers/declutterers do the same thing with a slightly different rationale, as they are more likely to advocate one-in-one-out cap rules than outright reduction. They all have suggestions to reducing the amount of junk mail coming in the door, and in the process of following the advice to sign up at CatalogChoice.com, I stumbled across their mobile app, MailStop. While it adds a step to getting rid of unwanted mail (I used to sort it in the garage, with catalogs never even making it into the house), in that I have to pull out my phone, open the app, take a photo and press a few buttons, it doesn't add much time and is much, much faster and more convenient than tracking down the 1-800 number in the catalog, calling, navigating the voice menu to the option to turn off catalogs or find an agent and talk to them about same, etc. The digital version I've adopted is to unsubscribe to absolutely everything, on the premise that I can find their website. True, this does reduce the number of coupons and other offers you receive in email and might have saved money by using, but it turns out I'm not really interested in any coupon worth less than $10 anyway and those are rare. Managing coupons is more trouble than it is worth to me; your mileage may vary.

It should be obvious from the description of password managers that I'm in favor of reducing incoming flow by shifting account management online wherever possible.

Pay Attention to the Hardest to Put Away Things

The tidying process should draw your attention to things that are difficult to put away, because they do not have a home, or because their putative home is otherwise packed full. Make a note of the first three of these things you run across. As you run out of things to pick up and put into a machine to clean, identify one of the Packed Storage Locations and declutter it. A drawer, a cupboard, a closet, a bookshelf. Start with a trash bag, two crates, something to dust with (paper towels work, swiffer is more effective and rags are more environmentally friendly if you already have some). The trash bag is for things you are throwing away. One of the crates is for recyclables; the other is for things that don't belong in what you are decluttering. If you are the kind of person to replace watch batteries, reattach buttons and so forth, you may also want a third crate for needs-repair. Get enough out of the space in question to clean it, then put back what you intend to store there.

Put the trash in the trash. Put the recycling in the recycling (or, if it is to be donated, at least one step closer to the donation location -- by the door, in the trunk of your vehicle, etc.), put away the easy choices from the doesn't-belong-here box and leave the rest for later. Rest and be happy. Come back later.

If you make a habit of this -- picking off a drawer or shelf every time you move the dirty dishes and clothes along, and then putting the second crate's worth of stuff somewhere, or just staging it in the crate for Later -- you will wind up with orderly drawers and cupboards and so forth and a lot of crates. (If you have a third crate, you should also make progress on the repair projects you are generating, which is hopefully less physically taxing than running around cleaning or vigorously decluttering.) You should probably do something with the crates. People like to give stuff to other people, charities, consignment shops and so forth. You can also just give up and put the contents of the second crate in the trash or recycling. Your call; I am not going to judge.

Do not tell yourself, I will become the kind of person who reattaches buttons and figures out how to replace watch batteries and so forth. If you are not that kind of person, love who you are, and trash, recycle or donate your needs-repair items. My husband and I are repair-type people, and every single time I sit down and calculate the value saved by doing the repair (value of resulting fixed item less cost of parts and cost of our time), it isn't actually worth it. The button has been reattached, but the article of clothing is generally still either cheap or very worn. The battery has been replaced, but the watch could use a new strap and the crystal has been dinged up. The Waring blender is finally clean again, but it took a couple hours to clean it up, it still needs a new jar assembly. Etc. If you feel compelled to repair, or you enjoy repair, it's not an immoral hobby, but there isn't a lot of value, so don't beat yourself up about it if you just buy a replacement.

The Basic Unit of Clutter and the Basic Unit of Organization are the Same: a Pile

Organization disguises piles, so we don't necessarily recognize them for what they are (apologies to anyone who immediately thinks of hemorrhoids when they see the word piles). Filing cabinets are a bunch of piles of paper, segregated into folders and aligned neatly on their side. Clothes closets are piles that are suspended, aligned. Chests of drawers are supposed to contain piles of folded clothing, altho any individual drawer may not, but rather contain an unaligned pile. That is, unless it is a tool chest, in which case it'll have trays and boxes and so forth, each containing sorted and organized sub-piles of tools or parts of tools. And so on. Usw. Etc.

Thus, if you have clutter, you have piles which are insufficiently aligned, inadequately housed, or you have good housing and alignment, but more than the containers can hold, or you have good housing, alignment and it fits in the containers but more than your house can hold, or you have good housing, alignment and it fits in your space and you're planning to move and you don't want to pay to bring it all with you or you are moving into a smaller space. Clutter is just matter-out-of-place that looks less obviously ready to be thrown out than the classic matter-out-of-place which we call "dirt".

Most of us have a default order and containerization scheme. A lot of people who do organization as a business seem to approach it from a filing background: they want to label everything and arrange it alphabetically. Store-where-used is the most "natural" organizational element, but other people organize or sub-organize by color, shape, etc. If you have a default order and/or containerization scheme that is something other than a paper filing system, it's worth trying to identify what that is and developing it metaphorically to apply widely. Adopting other people's style tends not to stick as well as developing your own in enough detail to apply wherever you are likely to need it. This will also help you better understand principles widely agreed upon within the business (color-coded files, optically clear plastic containers, etc.) and predict whether they actually matter to you. I don't even see color when I'm engaging in order, so color-coded files are not visible to me. I generally don't need to see what's in a bin to remember what is there, however, if I'm not the only one touching the contents, it can be useful when I'm failing to find something in the places I expected it to be. Etc.

Recognize When You Have a Big Project and Break It Up Into Smaller Pieces

Spaces like garages and basements which have never had order imposed upon them by storage furniture (kitchens, many bathrooms and some bedrooms have order pre-imposed by the storage furniture generally found in them -- cupboards, vanity, chest of drawers, closet, etc.) may require a different approach. My husband likes to buy metal shelving and plastic bins. Then he takes the piles of boxes and so forth in the middle of the floor and puts them on the metal shelving. Loose items go into the plastic bins. Voila. Order imposed. Decluttering is now a matter of going through the basement crate by box by odd item stored on a shelf.

Cynthia Ewer at organizedhome.com calls some versions of this Box and Banish, and applies it from the shelf level to the entire space. Banishing is getting rid of things; boxing is sorting into containers. She advocates having a plan for where things are stored so you can remember and find them later, and you won't be tempted to just tuck something unrelated in because it'll fit. She’s right: Tucking unrelated items in because they fit is a search disaster waiting to happen. If tucking something in where it fits physically, but not within the storage schema never generates a panicked OMG where did I put it hour of trashing the current organizational scheme while searching for it, you should not have kept the item in the first place. That’s your best outcome. And yet people keep doing it, because it is natural to do so.

The basic process for decluttering is, essentially, the same as tidying, but it steps things up a level: rather than just putting away, you look at the things already put away and rethink whether you should even be keeping them. Rather than just putting away, you create new places in which to put things away. You also assign a specific location to things which do not already have an assigned location. Decluttering can be basically either of these activities, is usually both, and most advice givers suggest separating the two activities, as a rigorous getting-rid-of will tend to reduce the amount and kind of containers you have to buy for what you ultimately choose to keep. But remember, this isn't a one-and-done project (see above). You'll be doing this over and over again for the rest of your life.

Keep Things Moving Out of Your Space

If you've really stuck with this, and work on it daily (you should consider treatment for hypomania, probably), you may find places that will take your second hand stuff -- possibly for money -- but you need a place to put it while it is working its way out the door. The best places to put this stuff are where you will see them as you head out the door, so they don't just stagnate in a basement or attic. Alas, these are the best places to put just about everything, so there will be competition. Formalizing your staging and managing the workflow of getting stuff to the consignment shop (and retrieving your checks), charity (and filing your receipt for tax deduction), and so forth will tend to make it work better.

Many items that you currently own and have used recently may need to be repaired. But if you don't know how to get it repaired, it won't do you any good (failed watch batteries are a classic). If you are okay with them exiting your life and becoming someone else's problem, again, I'm not going to judge you. If you are going to keep them, however, you will need to devote time to identifying a way to get that repair done, deciding whether you still think it is worth it, and then executing. That will require staging and scheduling as well.

At about this point, it will probably become clear to you that one of the best reasons for letting clutter build up is that we are Far Too Busy to do what needs to be done to deal with all those Seemingly Small But Surprisingly Large Tasks. I am usually seduced by time management/workflow management articles and books at this stage in the process.

More Examples of Seemingly Small But Surprisingly Large Tasks:

Resist Advice to Create a Complete Inventory

There are a couple versions of this. In decluttering, it is "take everything out and sort through it", which is probably okay if executed on a very small scale (one shelf at a time, type of thing), but wildly dangerous otherwise (you can take a functional but messy space and render it dysfunctional very quickly and the operation might not be reversible). In workflow/time management, it is "create a list of everything you have made a commitment to". Everyone who gives this advice promises you you'll feel So Much Better once you finally have that all out of your head and down on paper. Two problems: it's incredibly anxiety producing getting it all out of your head and your life may be such that a bright, reality-based view of it all at once might be permanently damaging to your psyche; more importantly, it's so time consuming and awful, you might fail to make it through the process. Or you might make it through, but then start forgetting things because you finally got them out of your head but failed to capture them in a way you can work with in whatever you dumped them into (GTD, Personal Kanban, Personal Organizer, Microsoft Outlook, etc.).

I'm telling you Just Don't Do That. Pick things off -- not purely reactively, but identify small, completable things that are important to you and focus on finishing them. It'd be nice if they were also urgent and important to people who are nagging at you, but the crucial thing is that they are small, completable and important _to you_. If you keep doing this without sacrificing existing functionality in your life (that's why I said small!), you'll eventually start to catch up, if only because so many of the unaddressed commitments will expire.

Essentially, this is the decluttering version of a debt snowball. Rather than picking off the highest interest debt to reduce first, a debt snowball picks off the smallest account to reduce to zero; once gone, the next smallest is the next target. Ideally, this provides ongoing motivation. However, it is possible to bog down in perpetually unimportant and not particularly urgent decluttering projects, while much more important and/or urgent patches of clutter continue to dog us. A more prioritized approach -- without getting sucked into a comprehensive inventory of Everything That Needs To Be Done -- can be an improvement.

I think most of us know where our real clutter resides. We cannot necessarily attack it head on -- denial is too powerful. But we may be able to chip away at it. In addition to things which are hard to put away mentioned above, things which we rely upon, but which chronically frustrate us or break down are can be very rewarding to tackle, e.g. identifying a drop zone and using it; clearing piles of things You Need to Take Care Of; making sure our address book and bill paying systems are organized and functional.

Plucking: an Incremental, Iterative Strategy

Many decluttering/organizing strategies advise taking everything out and sorting through it. As I have noted, this is dangerous as it can take a messy but functional arrangement and convert it irrevocably to a disastrous, non-functional arrangement. Many of the snowball approaches involve picking off small targets (a shelf, a drawer, a square meter), getting it perfect, lather, rinse, repeat. There are other approaches which you should probably use, either early on because there is no underlying organization that you are attempting to recover, or later on because you have established basic organization but still have categories of Stuff that is resistant to being put away.

We had photos all over the house, partly because they arrive in the house in a variety of ways: people mail us photos of their children, we get photos that we buy from a family photographer, photos arrive home in backpacks from school, we bring home photos from vacation (or receive some later in the mail), etc. Neither my husband nor I have much faith in photo albums: with rare exceptions, photos deteriorate faster in albums than they do if you leave them in the envelope you got them in (or, better, a photo storage box). I don't scrapbook. We do periodically put photos in frames on the wall. Fortunately, more and more of our photos are created and live a primarily digital life (including through AppleTV and a Digital Photo Frame, in addition to Facebook and similar). However, in an effort to make the paper photos we own more available to share with others, and to create a location to place more of the same, we have created binders with photo pocket pages as a compromise between box storage (which we still consider the safest for archival purposes) and albums/scrapbooks (which are far and away the most fun to look through). Binders, albums or a similar semi-permanent and displayable location (that isn’t framed and on the wall) makes it possible to enjoy your photo and similar flat possessions, and provides a destination for new samples as they enter the house.

We had a photo album from my grandmother that she had never used (old enough to be from Montgomery Ward!): leather with black construction paper pages. I did not trust it for actual photos, but liked it enough to want to keep it. I have been putting kid art in it, since with a 4 year old and a 7 year old, a lot of kid art comes into the house. As some of the art looked good enough to want to keep long term, I also got a portfolio to put some of his work in. Before that, we had a bin with kid art, and before that a stack. It is important to think incrementally with decluttering and organizing.

Photo organization (and kid art decluttering) started by plucking stashes from around the house. They came out of my files, off shelves where they were to have lit briefly but instead parked long term, out of drawers, off of piles on top of filing cabinets and so forth. The best thing about a plucking strategy is that when you have picked the right kind of object to focus on, you can tell right away. Persistent clutter abruptly disappears from throughout your space as it goes to hang out with its kin in a newly designated -- and hopefully at least somewhat organized -- location. A bin, a specific pile, a specific drawer or shelf is really all you need to get started. Once you have enough of the item in question, you'll be able to apply your usual organizational strategies to purge, sort and display.

Plucking can also be used for purging: wander around and pick up items that can be thrown away, donated, recycled, etc. and send them on their way. While this is unlikely to get a single area to Perfect, it will incrementally improve your space and is also crucial to maintaining organization once established.

Insert Collectors into the Flow

Just about everyone has a laundry collection scheme (as simple as a basket or bag for collecting the piles off the floor when heading to a machine in one's home, complex or at a nearby laundromat). Even people who don't have a laundry collection scheme have a garbage collection scheme, whether it's one trash can or many, recycle bins or a zero waste strategy with layers of composting and worm bins and reuse and upcycling and so forth.

The same principle of inserting collectors into the flow of stuff in the house can be generalized. Advice givers from office backgrounds speak in terms of inboxes, but I tend to think in terms of bins. You can put a laundry hamper everywhere laundry is generated, not just bedrooms: you can put one in the bathroom for towels or in the kitchen for towels and cloth napkins and rags. With collectors, the process of moving things along is broken down into smaller pieces, and in a large house with many people, that can make a big difference. Collectors can also create batches: collecting enough of the same item to make it efficient to deal with them all at once.

Collectors to contemplate: bills to be paid (if you haven't gone paperless), then to be filed (ditto), toys-books-CDs-DVDs-etc. to be moved to another location (either to use or to put away), laundry, projects-in-process (whether crafts, repairs or other). Special collectors can be designated for daily or frequent in-and-out: backpacks for school, bags for work, bags for the gym, dojo, pool or other exercise location, etc. There should be a designated spot where the contents of your pockets live between being in your pockets, whether that is overnight or as soon as you come home or other.

Organization, decluttering and so forth are essentially a matter of collecting individual items into piles, and then processing those items from one pile to the next. While it's easy to think of these things as having an ultimate destination, anything that goes somewhere and sits forever is actually a candidate for extraction and reprocessing for that reason alone (purging a filing system, getting rid of no-longer-used toys-books-CDs-DVDs-etc., out-of-date clothing, etc.). Your stuff is an economy or ecology; circulation is an indication of good health, even if it is a bit exhausting at times.

Your Home Ecosystem

A lot of environmentally conscious housekeeping tips focus on Not Throwing Things Away. Some focus on Not Buying New Things. The ones least likely to damage your life are the ones which focus on cyclical re-use. We all reuse some things (outside of Jenks in the Rachel Morgan series, I know of no one who throws away toothbrushes after a single use; I know no one who wears underthings once and then throws them away, etc.), and those things have a cycle of use: wear, wash, put away, wear, wash, put away, etc. (where the put away may be taking it out of the fresh laundry bag or the dryer and immediately putting it back on). Everyone has to eat to live, so we all deal with single use items, even if we are careful to buy them in bulk, bring them home in reusable bags and so forth. It is relatively easy to replace some single use items, such as paper napkins, paper towels, with reusable items, such as cloth napkins, kitchen and bath towels. However a household with an overloaded laundry facility, or one which has not yet stabilized, will have difficulty even with this simplest of transitions.

Switching from plastic, disposable bags at the store where you get the merchandise that needs to be put in a bag to reusable bags is an incredibly difficult transition for many people. The bags need to be acquired (and it is not obvious what the right mix of sizes is), maintained (unlaundered reusable grocery bags can be a disease vector) and stored (if you cannot find them when you need them, or do not remember to bring them with you or take them out of the trunk of your car, you’ll still wind up using disposable bags). People who successfully transition from disposable to reusable bags may discover that along the way, they got so good at reusing disposable bags (to line small trash cans in bathrooms or similar) that they now are tempted to buy a replacement disposable item.

Yet the advice to make the switch does not seem to take any of this very common, shared experience into account.

Part of the difficulty lies in the inaccuracy of the distinction between disposable and reusable. Toilet paper is clearly on one end of the spectrum, and a granite countertop very clearly on the other end. Cloth towels may last longer than paper towels, but some paper towels tolerate a limited amount of reuse (altho why anyone would bother is beyond me); nevertheless, cloth towels wear out as well. Once the spectrum is welcomed and the dichotomy dismissed, it should be a little easier to transition, and to compare the costs and benefits on each side more honestly. The liner for the waste basket is a great example. As long as disposable plastic shopping bags are overwhelming the house, it makes sense to save the trouble of washing the trash can by lining it with one of these ubiquitous bags. But it does not make so much sense to buy bags for this purpose, if we remember to have easily washable trash cans in places that attract messy trash (the bathroom and kitchen) and safe the less readily cleaned, more aesthetically appealing trash cans elsewhere (wicker in the home office). There are a lot of things that we do because they are easy to do. If through our choice or others, our environment makes that thing more expensive or more difficult, it makes sense to stop and think for a few moments about whether there is another, cheaper and/or easier solution in the new environment.

Keep Pretty Things That You Like

A whole lot of decluttering advice aims to speed objects out of your life: to the trash, recycling, donation, consignment shops, etc. There's a bunch of pop-psych and not-very-well-understood-pseudo-Buddhism invoked.

If you like something, if you think it's pretty, but it isn't useful, or you haven't used it, or you could live without it or it has no particular sentimental value or whatever -- but it's pretty and you like it and you're not tired of it and looking for an excuse to get rid it -- don't immediately speed it out of your life and space. Towards the end of this cycle of decluttering, and at strategic points within the process, you will discover newly freed up space: on walls, on the tops of shelving, in the middle of shelving, on the tops of furniture, etc. This newly freed up space is like a recently exorcised host of demons, er, sanitized, germ-free surface. If you don't introduce a protective colony of decorative items, the demon, er, stuff will return with 7 more friends. So hang onto the pretty things that you like, so you can plop them down in the middle of newly cleared space as a way of deterring the arrival of More Crap. If you have a bunch of smallish things, you can cluster them. Think about reframing pictures (and possibly clustering them as well), and consider box-framing small items with sentimental appeal as a way of keeping them for decoration.

If you already have a knack for design, you don't need to be told to do this. If you don't have a knack for design, but you get in the habit of putting pretty things that you like in newly freed up space that you do not want to attract Crap, should you ultimately hire someone with a knack for design, they'll immediately have a sense of what you think is Pretty and what you Like. If they try to throw it all away, you'll know to fire them and find someone else. The good ones will take it all in, re-work some of it into a larger scheme, and suggest Even Better Things that you Truly Love for the rest of it.

Best of all, if you hang onto some of the pretty things that you like looking at and use them in the decorating/benign biofilm portion of the project, you'll be less tempted to go out and buy a bunch of pretty things during that phase, some fraction of which (possibly large) will then become clutter, because you don't actually like it and it doesn't work that well in your space.

Peter Walsh's Room Functions

Peter Walsh advocates identifying what you intend a room's space to be, then identify what goes with that purpose (and what doesn't). This becomes a guide for what to remove and what to keep, and it also clarifies the goal state for the room. A goal state for decluttering is important, or you can wind up down the same hole that cleaning can go: continuing to destruction. With cleaning, that's usually scrubbing away the functional surface in addition to any putative dirt on it. In the case of decluttering, it may be getting rid of things that you will need to replace.

Spot a broken link or other problem? E-mail me. Have fun.

[ Home | Advice | Bicycles | Books | Cookbook | Declutter | Fiction | Reproduction | Travel ]

Copyright Rebecca Allen, 2012.

Created: 23 October 2012
Updated: 19 July 2013