Happier at Home…Or How You Can Make Your Surroundings Friendlier

 

We’ve said often that getting rid of what we don’t need can add to our happiness. But what do we do with the stuff that we have chosen to keep? Three authors explain how making small changes at home can lead to a greater feeling of contentment.

Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons From the World’s Happiest People, has traveled the world researching what makes people happy. He has discovered three strands of happiness—pleasure, purpose, and pride—gleaned from what he calls the world’s happiest places.

I understand how having a purpose in life makes us happier and how we need to experience pleasure or enjoyment, but pride was the one that kind of threw me. Buettner’s focus is on improving our surroundings. He says, “There are small things [we can do]. One facet of happiness is a sum of positive emotions. So I like the idea of a “pride shrine”—a place in your house that you pass a lot where you put pictures that trigger pleasant memories. Or diplomas or awards that remind you of accomplishments.”

Gretchen Rubin, author of Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon Self-Control, and My Other Experiments in Everyday Life, says, “Of all the elements of a happy life, my home is the most important.”

Two stories that Rubin tells in her book speak to both the importance of a comfortable home to her and to the truth of our mantra, “Keep the memories, toss the object.” She also calls these set-ups “shrines” and shows how one item or a grouping of a few can make us happier.

Of the many items that Ruben had that belonged to her grandparents, she treasured most two small ceramic birds. She decided to put them on a shelf in her home office, a place where she would see them every day, and this enabled her to get rid of the rest the inherited things.

Ruben’s two daughters were accomplished ballerinas and Ruben kept the tutus from their many recitals in storage under their beds. The tutus soon outgrew the space available and Ruben agonized a bit over what to do about the costumes even though she had many photos of the recitals. She chose to set up a “shrine” in her foyer: several frames with photos of the events. She kept additional recital photos in a drawer in the hall table so she can swap them out from time to time. These photos are the first things Ruben sees as she enters her home.

Leo Babauta, author of The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…in Business and in Life, writes about how to streamline your life by identifying the essential and eliminating the unnecessary, freeing you from everyday clutter and allowing you to live a better life.

In a recent blog post, he wrote about lowering your life’s requirements. He explains: he was walking through an airport in early morning and wanted a cup of coffee but the long line at the coffee bar made him change his mind. He didn’t need the coffee to be awake. His thoughts were, “What are your requirements, things you can’t do without?…What happens when we let go of these needs, and just keep them as a ‘nice-to-have’ option?”

He and his wife joined a no alcohol challenge, “just to push into the discomfort of not relaxing with a glass of wine at night.”

Babauta concludes, “The fewer requirements we have, the less of a burden these requirements become. The more often we have the same thing every day, the more likely they are to become a requirement.”

To make our homes happier, we can create small monuments to important aspects of our lives – “shrines” to our accomplishments, to our family, and to our favorite activities. We can also rethink our habits, what we do every day without thinking, whether it’s making coffee first thing in the morning or keeping too much stuff simply because it belonged to our parents or grandparents.

Is it time to rethink what makes us happy? These authors suggest that we can let a few things, a curated few, tell the story we want to tell. We don’t have to keep everything, or hold onto everything, whether it’s an item we inherited or a habit we have cultivated.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

 

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On My Reading List: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson

the-gentle-art-of-swedish-death-cleaning-9781501173240

Well, this “coming soon” title has definitely caught my eye, not only because of my Swedish-American roots, but because the title of the book seems—to me anyway—ever-so-slightly ironic/sardonic, as well as obviously quite provocative. (Those Swedes, they don’t mess around! 🙂 )

Reviewed this week by Jura Koncius in the Washington Post, the book, which is scheduled for publication in the U.S. in January, sounds like yet another gentle pushing back at—or at least moderating influence over—the Marie Kondo “magic of tidying up” tidal wave that has swept the nation in the past few years. The publisher describes The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning as “a charming, practical, and unsentimental approach” to downsizing and decluttering, which sounds either helpful or frightening, depending I suppose, on one’s perspective—that is, as we have discussed in our book, on whether the reader of the book is a “keeper” or a “thrower.”

It’s interesting to me that this book comes from Sweden. I have often thought about the fact that within a few short generations my ancestors, who arrived in the U.S. with nothing more than a couple of trunks, a lot of courage, and the determination to succeed in a new land the way they hadn’t been able to in the old one, ended up with big houses, garages, attics, barns, and so on, crammed full of stuff that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren tended to feel very attached to, but were not quite sure what to do with. I have wondered if it is in part the fact that there was that lingering and painful historical memory of having had to leave everything behind in Sweden that fueled part of the fierce resistance to letting go of things that is very familiar to me as a Swedish-American Minnesotan.

So the explanation in the Washington Post article that “death cleaning”—that is, doing most of the getting rid of things before you die, so your survivors don’t have to it—is a very Swedish thing (“almost biological” says the Swedish ambassador to the U.S.) and the author’s view that it’s “not fair” to leave that task to others to me feels on the one hand surprisingly un-Swedish (that is, the getting-rid-of-things part), and on the other hand very Swedish indeed (the-importance-of-fairness part).

In any case, I’m looking forward to reading this book. And I imagine we’ll be letting you know more about how well it complements our approach to downsizing—or doesn’t?—later. So stay tuned for more…

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Fix Your Broken Window and Other Great Tips for Feeling Less Stressed

There is a social science theory that one broken window on the block can lead to the downfall of a neighborhood. Broken-window policing, the practice of combatting minor offenses in an effort to deter more serious ones, was popular in many cities and former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, for one, was a strong supporter.

Today that practice is somewhat controversial as a police policy but it may have a place in our arsenal against clutter. It can be a new way of looking at small messes in our home. Rather than seeing the mess and feeling overwhelmed by it, we can fix the small things.

As Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, says, even something as small as a stack of unsorted mail can feel defeating. She continues: “Maybe your broken window is dirty laundry, a sink full of dishes, clutter on your counter. Whatever it is, it undermines your goals because it gives you a sense of chaos. The act of fixing broken windows, however, is liberating. The task takes on symbolic weight. It doesn’t just feel like you’re sorting the mail you’ve been meaning to sort—it feels like you’re taking the first step toward doing everything you’ve been meaning to.” So fixing small messes means they’re less likely to become big messes.

Another tip is to be prepared. Yes, the Girl Scout motto comes in handy for adults, too. When you don’t have the time to do a complete job – of any household task including battling clutter – the more you prepare ahead of time, the more you can get done. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, of his command of the troops in World War II, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

A Navy Seal reminds us: “Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.” Let’s look at our training at home. You have a mail sorter and wastebasket near your front door? Your mail never has to become an unwieldy pile. You’ve posted important phone numbers on your refrigerator? No need for a frantic search when you need one in a hurry. Bought fruit and vegetables at the farmer’s market this weekend? You’re halfway to a healthy meal after a stressful day at work. Systems that are firmly in place often reduce stress.

Remember to appreciate the small things in your life. Do you have a painting you love to look at? Make sure to hang it in a prominent spot away from clutter or other distractions so you can enjoy it. You love to read but find your books are always in a jumble? Make it easier on yourself by straightening up your bookshelf so you can find the titles you want. You love your grandmother’s china but never have an occasion to use it? Hang one plate on the wall so you see it every day. Live with the things you love.

Learn something useful. So much of life today involves paperwork or using technology, or both, which is so disheartening. To combat that feeling, learn to do something useful. You can share your expertise with a friend and ask her to teach you something. Ask your grandmother for tips. Or take a course, if you like. But be useful. Grow vegetables. Knit a hat. Fix your toilet. Bake a cake. Paint the porch. The results of a first try may not be as wonderful as you would like but you’ll feel like you’re contributing to your home. You’ll empower yourself.

And, lastly, help someone else. Lend a hand. Do a good deed for someone in need. As Woodrow Wilson said, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

Do you have a favorite stress-buster? We’d love to hear from you.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

12 (or More) Surprising Ways Clutter Is Ruining Your Life

Our friends at MakeSpace (https://makespace.com/los-angeles/) have come up with this infographic to illustrate ways that clutter harms our lives. Here’s what they have to say about it.

Clutter and its causes are in a constant game of ping-pong with each other.

A distraction at work causes chores to go unfinished at home. The mountain of plates in the sink causes tension between you and your partner. A disagreement with your spouse makes it difficult to complete that home improvement project together. And back and forth we go.

If the game continues, it could have a seriously detrimental impact on your life. From your physical and mental health, to your relationships, career, and finances, clutter can negatively affect you in a myriad of ways.

This clutter infographic from MakeSpace, (with offices in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Washington, DC) helps us determine if clutter is, in fact, ruining our lives, and how to get back in control.

What other ways can you think of that clutter impacts your life negatively? Does having too much stuff in your life hinder you from moving forward? Here are a few more ways that clutter interferes with…well, with just about everything.

You miss out on family gatherings.

You can’t ever host a family gathering.

Your kids don’t learn that everything has its place because there are more things than places.

Your morning routine with your kids is fraught.

You arrive at the office in a frantic state.

Your evening rituals are taken up with finding the things your kids need for school the next day rather than reading to them.

Your friends are upset because you’re always late because you can’t find the clothes you wanted to wear.

Your library books are always late.

You seldom get to read the library book because you’re always behind on your chores.

You can’t make the meal you wanted to make because you’re missing one key ingredient, which you thought you had but can’t find in the pantry.

You have clothes in your closet from a decade ago, or more.

You have shoes that don’t fit alongside shoes that do fit.

You have so much stuff around that you hate to dust. (Okay, everyone hates to dust.)

You are late paying the bills because the bills due are mixed up with other papers.

You forget to make a follow-up doctor visit because the card the doctor’s office gave you is lost in a pile of other papers.

You missed your friend’s dinner party because you mislaid the invitation.

You put off exercising at home because you don’t have the space on your floor to do sit-ups.

Your sister’s birthday card is always late, not because you don’t remember her birthday, but because you can’t find the stamps.

You haven’t written a will because you can’t find the necessary financial papers.

You’re reluctant to get rid of anything; you want to keep it, just in case.

What other ways does having too much clutter interfere with your life? What’s on your list? We would love to have you share it with us.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

A Poetic Response to Hoarding

 

Every month, Goodreads, a social network for readers, and the ¡POETRY! group host a poetry contest. They feel it’s a great way to discover and support the work of emerging poets.

The June contest winner, Susan J. Raineri, wrote a thoughtful poem about hoarding.

 

The Hoarder

People let her down,
time after time.

In the empty bed,
where people left spaces,
things piled up.

Her life became choked
and crowded with stuff
that stayed put.
Rooms filled to their brims
up to the ceiling.

Until, she could barely
walk amongst it all;
more things, more and
more things.
At least, she could
count on these things.

They sat there
and collected dust,
but, they never left her.

She could choose
what to keep
and what to throw out.
Mostly, she kept.

We are all hoarders
of something;
holding on to memories,
collecting love and hate,
saving up envy
for other people’s lives,

 

The poet says in a note about the punctuation that the comma at the end is on purpose so that the reader can add whatever they think.

Do we hold onto our things because they make us feel secure? Yes, indeed, says the poet but that sense of security is illusory. Do we hold onto them because we are troubled by the spaces they will leave behind if we give them away? Spaces in our homes and in our lives can be challenging. Do we hold onto the stuff because we are afraid we’re throwing out our memories? It’s so difficult, as we say in our book, to “Keep the memories, toss the stuff.”

How do you think the poem should end? What is the last line you would write? Share your thoughts with us in the comment box.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Spring Cleaning: 50 Things to Get Rid of Right Now

Roz Chast’s wonderful take on the burden of too much stuff, from her book Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Spring cleaning. For some people, it means cleaning and scrubbing. For many, it means changing closets from winter clothes to summer clothes. And for a lot of us, spring cleaning means clearing out things we no longer need.

Lists of 50 things-to-get-rid-of appear regularly online or in shelter magazines. I have seen them and often think I should come up with a list of my own.

At a talk I gave last week, I asked each person in the audience to come up with 5 items that they could get rid of right away. Many of them came up with difficult items: a mother’s much-loved china service or a dear friend’s paintings. I suggested they were making things more difficult for themselves by starting with the challenging items rather than the easy ones.

So what are the easy things? Here’s my list of 50 things to get rid of right now. And some suggestions as to where to donate, recycle, or pass them along.

1. Magazines you haven’t read

Give magazines to doctors’ offices or hospital waiting rooms.

2. Old phones

Here’s where you can donate old phones.

3. Plastic leftover dishes without lids

You should replace your plastic containers regularly. Toss if they are scratched or cloudy.

4. Old hangers

Give wire ones to your dry cleaner.

5. Costume jewelry you don’t wear

Donate the jewelry to a thrift shop, give larger pieces to a nursery school’s dress-up corner, or donate to an art class.

6. Used-too-many-times workout gear

Recycle the fabric and treat yourself to new duds.

7. Plastic grocery bags

They can’t be recycled so take them back to the store.

8. Books: best sellers you have read

Or ones you never will: give them to friends or donate at one of these places.

9. Books: old reference books

Most of the information in reference books is dated or can be found online. Donate to one of the places listed here.

10. Old calendars and day planners

Record any necessary information, pull out pages with sensitive information so they can be shredded, then toss them.

11. Your children’s artwork

Take photos of your kids and the work, then toss the work. Here are some other suggestions.

12. Business clothes

If you don’t wear them or no longer go to the office, donate them to Dress for Success.

13. T-shirts

Especially the ones you keep around just to wear at home. Use them for rags or take them to fabric recycling.

14. Supplies from a hobby you abandoned

Give them to friends who are interested or donate them to an art teacher.

15. Worn out sheets, mattress pads, pillows

Take them to an animal shelter.

16. Old remotes

Recycle the old ones; here are some suggestions.

17. Blurry photos

Or ones where you don’t remember the people, or duplicates: offer them to an art teacher or just toss them.

18. Digital photos

The ones that are taking up too much space on your phone. Edit them.

19. Dead or leaking batteries

Here’s where you can recycle them.

20. Travel-size toiletries

Donate them to a homeless shelter.

21. Old paint

Dispose of it responsibly through help from Earth 911.

22. Specialty appliances

That special sandwich press, the Mickey Mouse waffle maker, the yogurt maker: recycle any appliance that you never use.

23. Clothes that don’t fit

Donate to your local thrift store.

24. Shoes that hurt; sneakers that are worn out

Here are ways to recycle and dispose of shoes.

25. Old greeting cards

Repurpose some of them into gift tags: donate the rest to the Girl Scouts or the YMCA or St. Jude’s Ranch for Children.

26. Frozen leftovers

Or containers of leftover food in the refrigerator: toss them all.

27. Damaged plates or cups

Anything with a crack or a chip on the rim should be tossed for safety reasons. You could donate them to a high school or college art teacher.

28. No longer current forms of entertainment

Recycle the VHS tapes and the CDs.

29. Old towels

Donate them to an animal shelter.

30. Kitchen utensils

Clean out that cluttered kitchen drawer and give away what you don’t use.

31. Plastic utensils and straws that come with take out food

Just toss them.

32. Prom dresses

And bridesmaids’ dresses and other evening wear. Donate them to girls in need.

33. Used medical equipment

This isn’t always easy but here are some suggestions.

34. Old medications

Check to see if your local pharmacy participates in the DEA’s Prescription Drug Take Back Day.

35. Used baby clothes

Donate them to your favorite charity.

36. Recipes you cut out and never use

Just toss them. You can look up recipes online.

37. Pens and pencils

Toss pens that don’t work and pencils with dried erasers.

38. Office supplies you don’t use

Donate yellow pads, post-it notes, paper clips, and anything you no longer use to the office of your favorite nonprofit organization or religious group.

39. Old spices

Just toss them out and buy new ones.

40. Old condiments

Toss them and anything else that’s stored on the refrigerator door.

41. Sports equipment

Here are some suggestions for donating and recycling items you no longer use.

42. Old makeup

Toss all mascara, blush, base, even nail polish.

43. Decades-old papers

File necessary medical and financial papers where you can find them or scan them, and then toss or shred what’s not needed.

44. Old keys

Give them to an art class for a collage.

45. Junk mail

Try to get rid of it before you come into the house.

46. Credit card receipts

Toss ones you don’t need to keep, especially those for consumables like food and restaurants.

47. Loose change

Wrap in wrappers and take it to the bank – or donate it!

48. Multiples – of anything

Keep one or two, give away the rest.

49.Things that belonged to your parents

See our book Moving On for help with letting go.

50. ___________________

What should the 50th item be? Let us know in the comment box below what’s on your list.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Q&A with Eve Schaub, Author of Year of No Clutter

A few weeks ago, while I was immersed in my own continuing downsizing saga, I made an absolutely wonderful discovery. Eve Schaub is what we call in our book, and on this blog, “a keeper.” She is also a writer who describes herself as “a serial memoirist.” In 2011 she wrote a blog about her family’s attempt to live for a year without any added sugar in their food, which later became the book “Year of No Sugar.”  This spring, Eve published the “Year of No Clutter,”  which describes her struggle to transform herself from a self-described “clutter-gatherer” into “a neat, organized person who can actually walk through every room of her house and does not feel the need to keep everything…” 

With refreshing–even brave–honesty, with sensitivity and self-deprecating wit, Eve tells the story of how that year went, and how her family helped her–more or less–achieve her goal. Her book is not only entertaining–in fact, often laugh-out-loud funny–and deeply insightful, it is full of practical ideas that will be helpful for the keepers of this world who are trying to talk themselves into getting rid of things, and the loved ones who are either helping them, or looking on in horror and trying not to interrupt. 

Eve recently returned to her Vermont home after a book tour, and was kind enough to answer my questions about the “Year of No Clutter” via email.  Her husband, Steve, and their two daughters, Greta and Ilsa, who were intimately involved in the process, also agreed to answer a couple of questions. Many thanks to the whole family for sharing their inspiring, and (mostly) successful story of dealing with the mountain of stuff in their “Hell Room.”  Janet Hulstrand 

JH: Steve, the book begins with a foreword by you that makes it abundantly clear what a tolerant, understanding, supportive, and forgiving person you are. How did you find the kindness and the generosity of spirit to be so supportive of  Eve and so patient with her, and with the situation in your home, throughout the Year of No Clutter? And do you have any thoughts to share with other husbands (or wives) who live with someone for whom dealing with clutter is a constant struggle? In particular, how do you keep the demon Anger from rising up, and make room for more productive emotions to emerge? 

Steve Schaub: Eve and I have a very giving and loving life together, and we’re both creative people, so solving this issue in a creative way (through writing about it) made total sense to me. I think the first thing is to be aware that the person you love is in a struggle and getting angry is the wrong approach. Trying to win an argument about what is of value, or what is or is not clutter is also the wrong approach–-you don’t win in a situation like this. You compromise, you listen, and you try to be aware of how very hard this is for someone you love.

JH: Eve, was there one particular moment of awareness, or event, that caused you to decide to launch into your attack on the challenge of decluttering the room you called your Hell Room? 

Eve: I describe in the book one especially memorable moment in which, in order to do his job, the energy assessment guy had to poke around the atrocious Hell Room–which was my nickname for the large spare room in our house that took up the slack for my extreme-keeping-behavior. Over the years, this room had gone from being a regular room, to a very cluttered storage room, to a giant sponge–while everywhere else in the house was relatively okay, this was the room that absorbed everything. Eventually there weren’t even paths through the stuff anymore, and knowing what was there, finding things, keeping things from being ruined, were activities that were getting harder and harder to do.

So here’s this poor energy-assessment guy, trying to get to the far corner of the room, stepping over piles, literally wading through the horribleness and I was utterly mortified. Up until that moment I had been able to remain in denial about how bad things had gotten. But now I was forced to see the room–and me–through his eyes, and I did not like what I saw one little bit. I wasn’t sure if it was possible to change–or rather, modify–the sort of person I was, but I realized for the first time that I wanted to try.

Year of No Clutter Room Photo Jan2015 Before.jpg

The “Hell Room” Before the Year of No Clutter. Photo by Stephen Schaub.

JH: What was one of your happiest moments in the process? The saddest, or most difficult? The most enlightening?

Eve: The happiest moments were the moments in which I felt I had achieved a clear mark of progress: the times I came home from dropping off a car full of things at the charity and consignment shops with a blissfully empty car, or the times when I was, for the first time, able to sit down and use a space that previously had been filled up with piles of stuff. Just sitting down in a newly cleared-off armchair to read a book became a small but significant triumph.

Of course, by contrast, the most difficult moments were those in which I felt I was spinning my wheels and getting nowhere: when I’d start out with a pile and get stymied halfway through, unable to make decisions or discard much of anything. Life has a way of getting in the way of decluttering with more pressing tasks like eating and sleeping and changing the cat litter and it’s sooooo easy to get sidetracked. When this happened I’d be very hard on myself and start to lose hope that anything would ever really get accomplished. The only remedy for this was to keep going– sooner or later there’d be some small victory again to make me feel back on track.

As for sadness, at some point I made the decision that regret/sadness was just going to be part of the bargain for getting control of my house and living space back. Because I had experienced loss so keenly in the past over things I had gotten rid of, I fully expected the process to be a very sad and upsetting one. Surprisingly, this time it wasn’t. I attribute this largely to two things: first, I had a newfound sense of what was at stake in this process, and that larger purpose helped me overcome that tendency to get bogged down in regret. The second thing was simply practice. I realized that the getting-rid-of-stuff muscle in my brain had lain so long unused that it had atrophied. So using it more and more, making lots and lots of decisions all the time, seemed to inoculate me to a degree against the tendency to obsess over one thing or another.

JH: At one point you write, “I’ve come to realize that the Stuff conundrum is one that people in our culture feel quite keenly, even when it isn’t on an epic scale…helplessness is the key emotion I hear [among people who talk about their issues with Stuff] and on some level I’m coming to see it as an issue of empowerment…” Can you say a bit more about this? What is the nature of this helplessness, and how can people who feel it begin to take control of the situation and become empowered? 

Eve: It really is all about empowerment: who’s in charge around here anyway? Me? Or my Stuff? Taking control for me meant giving myself a certain degree of permission in a very conscious way. I mentioned that I made a decision to accept that a certain measure of sadness and regret were going to figure in to my decluttering. I also knew the Murphy’s Law of Clutter: “If you get rid of an object, exactly forty-seven seconds later you will suddenly discover that you desperately NEED it!”

So I knew that sooner or later I would get rid of something and soon thereafter wish I hadn’t. In fact, I realized that much of my cluttering and keeping was based in a deep-seated fear of making a mistake, doing something that I would perceive in hindsight as being wrong. I was so averse to the idea of making a mistake that I’d end up making no decisions at all.

This brings me to what I arrived at as a definition of clutter. I wondered: how is “clutter” different from “a mess”? I realized that a mess is pretty straightforward. The kitchen is a mess, so you go in and clean it up. It’s pretty common sense: you wash things, you put things away. In fact, someone else could probably do it for you. But clutter? No one can solve your clutter for you. This is because clutter is about deferred decisions- items that don’t really go anywhere because we haven’t fully decided where or if they fit into our lives. Once I realized this distinction, I found it very helpful and empowering- the key to cleaning out my clutter was making decisions…thousands and thousands of decisions. If I made enough of them, one day I’d get my room–and the sense of control over my life and my living space–back again.

JH: One of the traps for people who have difficulty getting rid of stuff is the aversion to getting rid of the “perfectly good…[fill in the blank]” Can you share with our readers some of the things that helped you feel better about getting rid of perfectly-good items in your Year of No Clutter? 

Eve: At one point in the book I describe helping my father have a tag sale at his house in preparation for his move from New Jersey to Kansas. Now, my Dad is a big-time keeper– his level of clutter makes my petty one-room nonsense look like nothing. In fact, it was only once I was a grown-up and stood back and looked at the way my father and some other members of my family lived with their belongings that I began to see a pattern and started to wonder if all this cluttering and hoarding was genetic.

As you can imagine, having a tag sale with a tremendous keeper like my dad wasn’t going to be easy. I vividly recall at one point having a rather animated conversation over a brand new roll of shelf paper, still in the plastic, that had been lying around for at least a decade, unused. Dad objected to me selling it on the grounds that it was, of course, “perfectly good.”

“But Dad,” I found myself saying, somewhat desperately, “I’m pretty sure they have shelf paper in Kansas.”

What I tried to convince my Dad of, and what I tried to convince myself of (somewhat more successfully), was the idea that every item we own comes at some sort of cost. It’s a small cost, almost infinitesimal at times, but it’s there nonetheless… it’s the cost of owning that object, taking care of it, allotting space for it in your living space as well as in your brain. Sometimes there’s monetary cost too- such as when we have a storage locker.

When we get too many items under our jurisdiction–unless we are lucky enough to have a museum staff at our disposal to sort and organize and protect all our things–things start to happen. Not only do you not have the full, functioning use of your living environment, but you also can’t take good care of the things you care about most–there’s just too much stuff to be able to care for it all properly. And things begin to happen: the piles topple and your wedding album gets stepped on. The mice move in and begin eating your collection of baby clothes. There’s a cost.

So in a way we can think of decluttering as a process of prioritizing what we are willing to take care of and devote some time and energy and space to keeping. So then the decisions become easier: things that are replaceable, like shelf paper, or a “really great box,” or an extra lamp nobody really likes or needs, can all be dispensed with, so that we have more resources in our lives for the items that can’t be replaced, such as the baby clothes, the wedding album, the old notebooks from college and so on. The bonus is that items that are easily replaceable (i.e.,the perfectly good lamp) are often things somebody out there can use and would be delighted to have. So you avoid the dreaded landfill, clear out some much-needed space, AND make someone else happy in the bargain… it’s a win-win-win.

JH: Toward the end of the book, you talk about your “revelation” that “despite my knee-jerk tendency to keep, keep, keep! there were many things that I could, in fact, get rid of…” How important do you think it was the YOU were the one who was given the time and space in which to learn how to “give YOURSELF [my emphasis] a good stern talking to” and do what had to be done, rather than someone else “helping” you do it, or threatening you if you didn’t do it, or simply trying to shame you into doing it? 

Eve: Prior to my Year of No Clutter, it had happened at least twice that I’d had a friend over who said, oh, I can help you with this! And they’d start putting things in boxes or bags, holding things up and asking me questions. Both times I was uneasy, and ended up saying,” Okay! That’s enough! Thanks for your help!” I wasn’t ready, and therefore, no matter how good their intentions were, they weren’t able to be helpful.

I think it was absolutely pivotal for me that this was not a process that was imposed from without, but rather something I realized I really wanted/needed to do, and that I initiated and carried out. While researching for the book I learned that hoarders who have been forced to clean out, or who have had the cleaning out done for them, have a significantly higher propensity to be depressed and/or suicidal.

So I think that reality shows like Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive can actually be harmful, not only potentially to the people they are often forcing to clean out, but also to the people who watch these shows and think that forcing their friend or family member in a direction they’re reluctant to go is “for their own good.”

 JH: What would you say to those reading your book who are reading not because THEY have an issue with keeping too much stuff, but because they live with someone, or care about someone, who does. How can they be helpful to their loved ones who are struggling with the problem of Too Much Stuff? 

Eve: Although I’m the one in our house with the biggest “stuff problem,” it turned out that my husband had a significant amount of stuff in the Hell Room as well. So even while dealing with my own demons, I was also in the position of trying to convince someone else to confront their own.

My husband is kind of the opposite of me in how he deals with clutter: he has a tendency to want to simply throw everything away without even looking at it, just to get the process over with as quickly as possible, like ripping off a Band-Aid. But this can present other problems: once my husband donated a wallet with his social security card inside to the Salvation Army! (Fortunately a kind soul found and returned it.)

But the boxes in our Hell Room had things like photographic negatives and valuable camera equipment in them (my husband is a photographer), so we really did have to go through them. After lots of resistance from him to come look at the boxes, I finally brought all the boxes full of his stuff downstairs, into the dining room and let them sit there on the floor. They sat there for days, and quietly drove him crazy, because he couldn’t ignore them anymore. Finally one day after lunch he said “Okay, fine. Let’s go through a box.” After that every day we’d go through a box or two making decisions, emptying them out, putting things in proper places or discarding them. After only a few days it was all done and it seemed amazing that it had ever presented a problem at all.

What I found over the course of this year is that different strategies work for different people, so sometimes you need to experiment. Patience is key. Making sure the person feels respected in their choices and in control of their belongings and living space is too. I know I pushed the envelope a bit with my husband’s boxes- quietly confronting him with something he didn’t want to deal with–but ultimately it did work, perhaps because I let him work it out in his own time.

JH: Are there one or two key things you hope people who struggle with the problem of “too much stuff” will take away from reading your book? 

Eve: First, I really hope people who struggle with stuff come away from the book with the feeling that they are not alone. I’m amazed at the fact that every person I talk to about my book has a connection to the problem of too much stuff–either they have a stuff problem, or someone they know does. It’s a much more common problem than people think.

Another important realization I came to during this project was that decluttering isn’t something you have done–and then it’s over. Rather, it’s something you do–it becomes a part of the way you live your life. Although decluttering might come naturally to some, for a “too much stuff” person like me it is a conscious, carefully considered decision I make to part with some things while keeping others, realizing that I only have so much space and energy and time to give to my things.

Just like making your bed in the morning or brushing your teeth, decluttering has now become a part of my regular routine: discarding things, bringing clothing to the consignment shop with every new season, books to the library sale, and so on. Sometimes it shows up in the form of a small new habit, such as, when I come home from a play, recycling the program right away, or deciding not to feel guilty about giving away a gift that I know I’ll never use. Above all it means making decisions, not deferring them, and knowing that my decisions won’t always be perfect, but that it’s worth it in the long run, because it means I will get to use and enjoy my objects and my home much, much more.

I’m not “cured” of cluttering, and I’ll probably always struggle with stuff on some level. By no means is my house going to be featured in the next issue of House Beautiful either, but it’s so much better and more functional than it was. No matter how frustrating decluttering seems, I’d say: don’t despair. I’m living proof that change is possible.

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The “Hell Room” After: No Longer a Hell Room! Photo by Stephen Schaub.

JH: Since this project was really a family affair, if Greta and/or Ilsa would like to add a short, one-sentence summary of how they feel about the outcome of the Year of No Clutter, I think it would be nice to give them a chance to share their perspective too. I guess what I’d really like to ask them is, what is the best thing that happened to, or for, your family, in the Year of No Clutter?

Greta (age 17): The rediscovery of family heirlooms, and being able to use them again.

Ilsa (age 12): I guess that the best thing would be, the discovering of old treasures and heirlooms, but also being able to walk in the room that you cleaned and not feeling guilty about not have cleaned it, and being able to feel that you did the right thing. Maybe something you no longer needed and gave away is in the hands of someone who truly needs or appreciates that item more than stuffing it in a box or throwing it in a pile.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. You can learn more about Eve Schaub on her website. You can also take a short video tour of the newly decluttered “Hell Room” here