How to Conquer Clutter

Do you have a clutter problem? If you answered yes, you’re not alone. One in four people have problems with clutter resulting in stress, anxiety, and exhaustion.

Professional organizer Linda Samuels has tremendous compassion for people struggling with clutter challenges and she’s passionate about helping them find solutions. When she spoke to our GaGa Sisterhood in March, she explained that our perception of clutter is quite diverse. She started her company, Oh, So Organized 30 years ago and learned from her first two clients that everyone has a different tolerance for clutter. One called and said: I have so much clutter I can’t even get in my front door. The other one said: I have so much clutter I can’t even think.

One person’s mess is merely another person’s filing system.  ~Margo Kaufman

At the first client’s home, there was so much clutter she could barely walk from the front door to the couch. At the second client’s home, she could not see the clutter and had to ask him to show her. His problem was making decisions about what to keep and what to throw away.

Linda also helps clients with life transitions and time management in both home and business. Since COVID, she has pivoted to only working virtually with clients all over the U.S. She specializes in working with clients who are chronically disorganized and whose quality of life is impacted by their disorganization.

Where does clutter come from?

Clutter is anything we don’t need, want or use that takes our time, energy or space and destroys our serenity. Here are some sources of clutter:

  • Full Life – when you live a full life, you accumulate clutter
  • Reminders – we love to collect reminders of what we’ve done or where we’ve gone
  • No Designated Home – when things enter our house and don’t have a place to be filed or stored
  • Collect & Don’t Edit – we need to evaluate whether an item is worthy of keeping
  • Procrastinate – I’ll deal with that later
  • Might Need Someday – articles and information are the  most common types of clutter
  • Many Interests – interests can generate clutter and may no longer be relevant
  • Irreplaceable – they just don’t make things like this anymore
  • “Acquire More” Message – we’re influenced by advertising to get the newest model
  • Gifts – we may feel obligated to keep things we don’t really want
  • Mind Clutter – not physical clutter but thoughts in our head keep us from thinking clearly

Questions to help you decide whether to keep or toss

  • Do I want or need this?
  • Does it fit?
  • Is the space it occupies worth the real estate and emotional energy?
  • Is it still relevant in my life?
  • If I haven’t used it in 5, 10 or 15 years, is that an indicator it’s time to let it go?
  • Has it overstayed its welcome?

Why is it so hard to let go?

  • Possessions Define Us – if we let go of them, we may feel we’re losing a part of ourselves or someone we love from the emotional attachment
  • Guilt – we feel like we should keep a gift but as the keeper, we’re the owner and can decide
  • Perfectionism – can be paralyzing in getting rid of clutter; for example, where to recycle properly
  • Overwhelm – #1 reason people contact Linda – it’s hard to know where to begin
  • Emotional Attachments – a common problem – it helps to work with someone who can hold up an object so you don’t have to touch it
  • Conflict – our family may not be so tolerant of getting rid of things
  • Not Ready – hoarding behavior is an extreme situation of not being ready for change and may need to take more time
  • Treasures – it’s hard to let go if you value something
  • Fear of Unknown – when we start letting go, we venture into the unknown which can be unsettling

What can we do about clutter?

First, you must ask yourself whether clutter is a challenge or not. If you’re experiencing a life transition such as an empty nest or the loss of a loved one, you may be facing a clutter problem. Sometimes a safety or health hazard can force you to deal with clutter. Clutter can make us feel stuck or overwhelmed and prevent us from enjoying life. It’s also important to consider whether you’re taking responsibility for your possessions or leaving them for family members to make decisions.

Clutter solutions

  • Embrace “Less” Mindset – the less you have the easier it is to manage – 80/20 rule means we use a lot less of what we actually have
  • Create Homes – when items come in, make sure there’s a place for them and that they’re worthy of space
  • Complete Cycle – developing mindfulness is a process of paying attention to what you’re doing; for example, you bring in the mail and recycle junk mail; you cook then put dishes in the dishwasher
  • Clean Slate – all systems require maintenance; getting things back to their home at the end of the day or every few days helps
  • Establish Boundaries – if you have ten pairs of black pants, pick your favorite four and the rest are going; if you have lots of magazines, just keep the last six months and recycle the rest; creating boundaries will help keep clutter at bay
  • Use Minutes – you can declutter for 10, 20, or 30 minutes and be more productive than doing nothing; small time slots won’t seem so overwhelming
  • Provide “Safe Passage” – when you find a place to give an item, it can be easier to let go and reduce clutter
  • Purchase Consciously – before you buy something, think about where you’re going to store it and whether you’re going to use it
  • “Fall Awake” – Jon Kabat Zin’s concept – sometimes we don’t even notice clutter – instead of postponing the decision to get rid of something, get curious and ask how it makes you feel; how would it feel to have no more and no less?
  • Brain download – mind clutter can be just as stressful as physical clutter.  Get the thoughts out of your head and write them down. Once they’re out of head you can start to organize and prioritize.
  • Enlist Help – We can feel stuck by ourselves but if we ask a family member, friend, or professional, we can make more progress; find an organizing buddy

Sometimes our possessions hold us back and we don’t even realize. When we let go of them, it’s amazing how much lighter, clearer, and less encumbered we feel. When we start to question why we’re holding on, it can help us to let go. Then it opens things up for growth and peace of mind giving us a calm we couldn’t have anticipated.

5 thoughts on “How to Conquer Clutter”

  1. What a joy it was to talk about clutter with your wonderful group! Thank you so much, Donne, for inviting me, for recapping in your post so beautifully what I spoke about, and for being such an engaging host. The GaGas are an inspiring group!

  2. I am a self admitted ” Tosser”. My family member will set down a glass and remind me they are coming back for that glass! And I clean out my closet on a regular basis. This last month I did an even deeper dive into other bedroom closets. It amazes me how much can creep back into one’s life….. things I never knew I had collected. I wonder why some of us are tossers whiles other s are collectors. I DO know I feel ‘refreshed’ after a cleaning. And, someone else can enjoy whatever I have not been using.

    1. Congratulations to you, Irene for developing the “tosser” mindset. I’m afraid I fall into the collector camp but I’m always looking for at least one thing to give away.

    2. I so identify with what you said, Irene. When my son-in-law visits, he uses a special polka dotted water glass. It’s my visual cue to NOT pick it up because he’s still drinking from it. Kind of an inside joke, but it works.

      You asked about “tossers” and “collectors.” It’s an interesting question. We have different preferences for the amount of stuff we hold in our lives. For some, we feel more settled with less clutter around and get great joy in letting go. For others, our “stuff” brings us comfort and feel anxious in bare spaces. These opposite responses exist to varying degrees- minimalists on one end to hoarding behavior on the other. It’s not an either or, but a spectrum of reactions around the stuff in our lives.

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