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  • An Important Lesson

    “Throwers” relish clearing out and will empty a house quickly; “keepers” want to preserve special things as well as memories, and will linger over the process. People who balance these attributes have come to the realization that the most valuable thing in a house is the life that has been lived there. Read more about how “keepers” and “throwers” work together to downsize and declutter.
  • Press for our Book

    “…a downsizing bible” Oregon Home
    "...some items have special sentimental meaning... Huffington Post
    "clearing out the clutter...a wonderful gift to your family..."USA Today
    "sharing tips for getting the job done..."PBS’s Next Avenue
    "Downsizing: What to do with all that stuff?" Forbes
    “…discussions [help] avert misunderstandings…” The New York Times
    “…creative ways…of maintaining peace while dividing the family heirlooms” BloombergBusinessweek
    “practical suggestions for sorting through a lifetime of items…” The Washington Times
    “…about memories, feelings and people…” Chicago Tribune
    “tips on preserving relations and memories while sorting clutter...” The Salt Lake Tribune
    "lessons from two who have 'been there, done that'..."Your Organizing Business
    “…a useful resource...” Senior Living Institute
    “…help is on the way…” Illinois Public Media
    …the only book mentioned in the Comprehensive Checklist for Downsizing a Home Organize and Downsize

  • On Our Bookshelf

    Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home by Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand
    Buried in Treasures by David F. Tolin, Randy O. Frost, and Gail Steketee
    Caring for Your Family Treasures by Jane S. Long and Richard W. Long
    Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern
    Organizing Plain and Simple by Donna Smallin
    Sell, Keep, or Toss? How to Downsize a Home... by Harry L. Rinker
    Who Gets Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate? by Marlene S. Strum

  • Our Favorite Blogs

Living by Design, Not by Default

When I read the introduction to Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, a book about best business practices, I immediately thought that what the author was writing about could also apply to downsizing and decluttering.

And then in the first chapter McKeown does, in fact, make the analogy: Just as our closets get cluttered with clothes we never wear, so do our lives get cluttered with well-intended commitments and activities.

Yes, this is an author from whom I want to learn more.

McKeown goes on to show how an Essentialist, his word for someone who practices essentialism or living by design, not by default, would approach that closet.

  1. Explore and evaluate. “Do I love this? Do I look great in it?”
  2. To deal with the ‘maybe’ pile, he suggests asking: “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?”
  3. To keep your closet tidy, you need a regular routine for organizing it.

His approach sounds so similar to what we’ve suggested over the years as best practices for downsizing and decluttering.

McKeown begins each chapter of his book with a quote and many of these relate to decluttering, too.

It is the ability to choose which makes us human. ≈ Madeleine L’Engle

The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away—it can only be forgotten. We cannot forget that we can make choices, that we must make choices.

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything. ≈ John Maxwell

Very few things in our lives are exceptionally valuable. That’s a hard lesson to learn when you are downsizing the family home and want to save every precious-to-you item left by your parents.

Without great solitude no serious work is possible. ≈ Pablo Picasso

Take your time. “Take a breath, look around, think,” says the CEO of a marketing company. Good advice for downsizing, too.

No is a complete sentence. ≈ Anne Lamott

The freedom of setting boundaries is so important, with our possessions as well as our commitments. We can identify what doesn’t work for us, but we also have to eliminate it. McKeown reminds us that the Latin root for the word decisioncis or cid—literally means ‘to cut’ or ‘to kill.’

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. ≈ Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

Have a plan.

Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow. ≈ Doug Firebaugh

Mark your progress. Start small and get big results. What I say in my talks is: Work for 20 minutes a day three times a week. Set a timer. Do what you can in 20 minutes: empty one drawer, one bookshelf, sort through one category of clothing, shoes or scarves, for instance.

Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition. ≈ W.H. Auden

Having a routine, the right routine, one that “enshrines what is essential, making execution almost effortless,” is a powerful tool. It’s what McKeown calls “the genius of routine.”

Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply. ≈ Thick Nhat Hanh

Staying in the present moment, not thinking about what happened before or what may happen in the future, helps us keep our focus. What’s important now?

Greg McKeown concludes the book by saying, “As these ideas become emotionally true, they take on the power to change you.” We can become a different, better version of ourselves.

We can certainly endorse working towards a better version of ourselves, of our closets, and of our lives.

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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‘Tis the Season to Give…with Gifts That Make a Difference

You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.  ~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

In this season of giving, there’s no better gift than giving back. Keeping in mind that most of us have too much stuff, really, way too many material things, we relish the idea of giving gifts that can be consumed, or used up, or ones that will help others.

Here’s our guide to what we call alternative, maybe subversive gift giving – subversive in that they don’t accumulate in your house later.

Family items

One of the people we interviewed for our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, told us how her mother gave family items, family heirlooms, as gifts for birthdays and anniversaries. She said she didn’t want her family members to wait to inherit them from her and preferred that they enjoy the items now. We agree, and think it’s an idea worth considering for the holidays. And don’t forget to share the stories behind the objects.

Food and drink

We love to receive gifts of homemade food or something we wouldn’t necessarily buy for ourselves. Things like good chocolate, wine, home-baked banana bread, homemade pickles, a jar filled with dry ingredients and a favorite soup recipe, a make-your-own spice mix, an assortment of tea or coffee, a hot chocolate kit. Who doesn’t love food made with love.

And you could make a recipe book, a compilation of family recipes handed down over the years, for each member of your family.

Experiences

Giving a gift of an experience lasts far longer than a new scarf or gloves. Gifts of outings such as a camping trip or dinner at a lovely restaurant, a horseback ride, a massage, a museum membership, a bike rental, a yoga class, music lessons, or a workshop in their field of interest.

Sharing your talents

Use your skills like knitting, crochet, and woodworking, to create one-of-kind gifts. Or, your skills are more modest, you could frame a loved one’s wedding announcement or diploma, get seeds or bulbs for an avid gardener, or create a photo album commemorating a family event this past year.

A gift of time

Homemade gift certificates allow you to offer to help others in a festive way – and you get to spend time with friends and family while getting some chores done. You could offer to help with yard work or planting, make a dinner, bake a cake for a special occasion, offer babysitting to new parents, or take your grandkids out for ice cream, or help someone sort through their clothes or books.

Adopt a family

You can help those less fortunate by purchasing gifts of clothes and food for those in need, or adopt a soldier who is serving overseas and send notes and gifts.

Make a donation

Donating to a worthy cause is a gift that gives back. There are so many places to give but here’s a list of a few to consider.

A good place to look for creative programs is New York Times’ columnist Nicolas Kristof’s annual gift guide. Here’s this year’s list.

Reach Out and Read is a literacy program for the disadvantaged that uses doctors to encourage parents to read to their children. During checkups, doctors hand out free books and “prescribe” reading to the child.

The Environmental Defense Fund helps to find climate solutions. They “create solutions that let nature and people prosper.” Their $1-for-$1 gift match offer, in effect until the end of December, doubles the impact of your gift.

The National Audubon Society’s Adopt a Bird program will send a plush toy bird as a gift for adopting a bird.

Heifer International helps make an impact on world hunger and poverty by finding sustainable solutions. You can donate an animal, help promote women’s empowerment, provide basic needs, or fund a project.

Help domestic animals by giving to the ASPCA.

It’s difficult to feel festive when you’re hungry. Feeding America supports a nationwide network of Food Banks and is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity. For every dollar donated, the Food Banks help provide 11 meals to people in need.

The best way to celebrate the season is to practice gratitude. Be happy and thankful for what you have. Recently spotted on a T-shirt: “Happiness is homemade” and I think that’s a great attitude for the holidays. Someone will always have more than you do. You could always have more than you do. But studies have shown that being thankful for the things you have, for friends and family, is mentally freeing, makes you calmer and more loving, and leads to a more peaceful life.

Wishing you and your family a peaceful holiday season.

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

When Is Storage a Good Choice?

Deciding whether to store items can be difficult. On the one hand, you don’t want to simply defer decisions – decisions like the answer to “Do I really need this?” On the other hand, temporarily storing some items can be a good interim step for many of us. Here are some things to consider in helping you determine whether using storage is a good choice for you.

Before you even think about storage…

Before you think about storage, sort through what you have and eliminate as much of it as possible.

It’s easy to get lost in a swirling sea of sentimental items, but keep the best and give away the rest. Give things to family and friends, donate to charity, toss or recycle the unusable stuff. You want to simplify: downsize, declutter, eliminate what you don’t need, and purge, purge, purge. Go through everything, whether it’s a drawer or a carton or a closet, before you decide what will go into storage.

It’s best to use offsite storage less like a warehouse where you put things away and forget about them, and more like a second garage where you store things until you need them, or can decide what you’re going to do with them, or who will get them.

When it’s time to find a storage space, think about getting the smallest space you can—one that suits your needs but not one that you will be tempted to fill indiscriminately. It’s better to think about how and when you will remove things from storage, than to think of the space as somewhere to keep putting things.

Smart questions to ask…

Here is a list of questions to ask yourself to help you determine whether using storage is the right step for you.

  • Does the item have practical value? Sentimental value? No value? Are you waiting for it to go up in value?
  • What is the cost—personal as well as financial—of renting a storage space?
  • Is everything well labeled? Have you created an inventory, a list to keep at home, of what’s going in storage? Have you taken photos of the items that will go in storage?
  • Are the conditions in the storage place appropriate for the items you want to store? Will wood warp? Will paper deteriorate? Will fabric rot? Climate-controlled storage space is more expensive, but for some items it’s the only safe way to store things for more than a short while.
  • Do you have a plan for the items? Are you storing them until you can have a yard sale, sell them at auction, or sort through them with another person? Is the plan open-ended, or do you have a specific timeframe in mind? (Hint: It’s best to have a specific timeframe!)
  • Be honest. Are you storing items simply because you cannot make a decision about them? If so, will having more time really help you?

When storage is a good option…

There are times in life when using off-site storage makes sense. Here are some life events where it seems the right thing to do.

You have a business commitment away from your home base for a year or maybe two, and you have to vacate your apartment. You need to store all your stuff until you come back.

You have a new thoughts about what you want your home to look like, and some of your stuff does not quite make the cut. You are actively working on a new plan and will decide what you will keep and what you will eventually give away—by a specific date!

You inherited some valuables, like a china service for 12, a huge stamp collection, or a large painting, and you want to store the item until you can decide what to do with it.

You’re living abroad for the time being and need to store the contents of your entire home until you decide where your permanent home will be.

Your parents passed away suddenly and you want to store their things so you can sell the house. Then you’ll deal with the household items.

You’re a student and need to store stuff over the summer or during a semester away.

You are the caretaker for your parents’ collections, for example your father’s record albums from the 1950s and 60s, or your mom’s comic book collection, and you want to keep them safe.

You have a lot of seasonal stuff: soccer balls for the fall, down coats for winter, sports equipment like skis or boating paraphernalia or camping equipment for the summer, and you want to keep it safe and out of the way during the off-seasons. Or you are planning to have another child and want to keep all the baby-related paraphernalia in storage for now. If your main living space is really limited it may be worth the cost of keeping a storage space long-term for these purposes.

What you should NOT put into storage…

Your important papers should also always be kept at home, not put into storage.

Most storage units have rules about what is not allowed to be stored on site. Be sure to follow those rules: most of them are aimed at maintaining a safe and secure environment, and preventing various kinds of environmental hazards.

Once you have made the decision that storage is right for you, choose a place that is convenient for you to get to, has a helpful staff and convenient hours of access, is climate-controlled if that’s important in your case, and is generally going to provide a pleasant experience for you. You want a place that is clean and well maintained, where your things will be well cared for, safe, and secure.

Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand are the authors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, and creators of this blog.

 

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

 

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

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