Spark Your Systems: Taking on Clutter

clutter closing in

I am asked a lot about clutter management.  While I am no organization expert and there are definitely cabinets/closets I do not want you looking in if you are in my home, I try really hard to resist clutter and, because of that, have come up with a few clutter decreasing strategies that I am happy to share.  So, if you are fighting clutter in your home, office, car, or calendar, try these starter steps to reduce the stress.

1.  Figure out what motivates your clutter.  Clutter is very rarely about the stuff itself.  It is often about what we tell ourselves about the stuff.  Years ago, I was helping my mom clean out her dresser drawers.  She had pajamas (and underwear, but she’d be mortified if I told you this so shh!) from before I was born.   When I held up one particularly threadbare and hole-y pajama and told her that we could not even donate it to Goodwill, it was in such bad shape, and moved it to the trash pile, she got upset.  “Mom, you don’t need this pajama,” I said.  She looked back at me with tears in her eyes and said, “But what if I cannot afford pajamas one day.  I may need those.”  My mom grew up as one of 10 kids on a farm in Puerto Rico during the period right after the Great Depression. She knows poverty.  Really knows it.  And she, in essence, saves for a rainy day by holding onto everything.  And though she knew this to be true deep down inside, I promised her that we (her three children) would never allow her to go without pajamas in order to move that worn pair to the trash (full disclosure: she couldn’t bear the thought of not recycling those pjs so we cut it into cleaning cloths).

What are you telling yourself about the stuff you collect?  Whether it is your kid’s artwork or clothing that is a few sizes too small or big, what is your why for keeping stuff?  Knowing your why will help you strategize around your clutter.

2.  Survey the Scene.  What clutter drives you the most bonkers?  Do you hate that your family doesn’t have a place to put things when they walk in the house?  Does mail begin to stack so high that it could smother you?  Could there be a body buried under laundry in your closet?  Are you overwhelmed by all the scraps of paper in your purse or by having three different calendars?  What are you decluttering priorities?  For example, I like an organized kitchen but don’t really care what the cabinet under my sink in the bathroom looks like.  Rather than insist on a total overhaul immediately, choose a critical area or process or two to get started.

3.  Create Systems.  Now, it is time to create the systems that will support you in your decluttering mission.  You have named your priorities and now you have to address them. If addressing them all by your self feels overwhelming, call a friend and ask for a trade– suggest that she help you (and be the voice of reason while you declutter or reorganize a system) and that, in exchange, you’ll do the same for her.

Curious about how to get started?  Let’s look at some examples from the scenarios above.

A.  The entry way of your home is a hot mess.  This was us for a long time.  We live in a snug little cottage that has a boatload of character and not much room– especially storage room.  We all come in the side door, off the driveway, which lands us in a little six foot space with our washer and dryer sitting there (no room for doors for them).  For the longest time, the washing machine and dryer got everything piled on them- mail, shoes, coats, everything.  It was a hot mess and driving me crazy.  I dreamed of those houses where everybody had a little cubby.  I wanted cubbys, darn it.  But there was no room for cubbys.  So here is what we did: we put in a few shelves to the right of the dryer.  They aren’t easy to reach so we use those shelves for seldom used items like the roast pan and back up paper products.  We put hooks on the wall for bags and cubbies and a calendar on the wall for mail and paperwork management. It is not Better Homes & Garden but it made our home better.

B.  Your closet is a crime scene.  Go ahead and set aside a good chunk of time to go through everything.  And then put your hand on every single item of clothing that you have in that closet.  What will you keep?  What can you give away to a clothing closet?  What can you take to a consignment shop?  If you like something okay and don’t have anything to go with it, give it away.  If you love something and don’t have anything to go with it, find it a match so it is no longer a closet orphan.  Are you waffling over sizes?  If you cannot bear to get rid of something that doesn’t fit now then, at the very least, get a bin and take it out of your closet and put it away for a bit (the attic?) so that you can see you are just fine without it.  Keeping clothes that don’t fit you in a space where you see them everyday is just a way of taunting yourself (and that is true whether they are too big or too small).  Once you have done all this hard work in your closet, adopt a new approach.  Whenever something comes in, insist that at least one item must go.

C.  Papers and calendars are driving you crazy.  If you have a smart phone, stop using paper and start using a notes like feature (Notes on the iPhone or the Evernote app for various systems) to take your notes.  Once a day or week, look over your notes and record them in the appropriate place.  If you don’t have a smart phone, then get a little spiral notebook and put it in your bag and write all of your notes on it rather than all over the place. In addition, once  a week, go through the receipts in your wallet and throw out what you don’t need and file the ones you do need.  As for calendars, have just one to track you but then consider one for your family to track everyone’s stuff there.  We use a paper one that is on the wall of our entry way at our house and I update it for the next week every Friday while I am doing the next week’s meal plan but I know a lot of people who swear by Cozi.

Whatever your issue is, start to think about solutions to it.  Need help? Feel free to share your clutter conundrums here and we’ll all pitch in to help you brainstorm!

4.  Be a bag lady.  Do you own one million carry-all bags? I do.  And I used to stare at each of them when I was running out somewhere and think Oh, which one should I take to the pool with us (0r wherever).  Then I had a better idea.  My bags got designations!  So there is a Circle de Luz bag that is loaded with all of my active file folders on my Circle work.  Happy is starting dance and soccer this fall so I am going to create a dance bag that has his dance stuff in it and a soccer bag that has his cleats, shin guards, socks in there, and so all we have to do is grab the appropriate bag and go when the time comes for lessons and practice.  I also have a teaching bag that has all of my professor stuff in it and a daily bag that keeps my to do list and calendars.  On any given day, all I need to do is grab by meeting specific bag and daily bag and I am ready to go.  This is such a helpful strategy!

5.  Start small.  Over the last couple of months, I have put 15 minute de-cluttering on my calendar on Saturdays.  I give myself fifteen minutes to declutter and organize a space that has been driving me crazy but that I haven’t had the stamina to knock out in one big chunk.  Sometimes, things go so smoothly that I work beyond the fifteen minutes but, mostly, I’ve just stuck to the 15 minute strategy and get a little pulse of satisfaction out of a small block of time making a big difference.

What are your clutter woes?  What systems do you use to combat clutter?  What are your favorite products or strategies?


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4 responses to “Spark Your Systems: Taking on Clutter”

  1. Emily

    What an awesome post, Rosie! Thanks for all of your helpful insight on the “why” and “how” behind clutter. I also appreciate the tip of putting a small time slot on the calendar to make sure that clutter stays managed.

  2. Jill

    POWER OF 10
    My closet is a throw & run terror that is dauting to think of doing all at once so I’ve been chipping away at it by hanging/dealing 10 things that I’ve thrown on the chair every time I go in it. A: it’s making a difference little by little and B: I’m shocked at how long I let things go before dealing.

    I also use POWER OF 10 on my kitchen counter or anywhere that is starting to look cluttered. It’s usually less than 10 things making the whole area look bad.

  3. Jill

    POWER OF 10
    My closet is a throw & run terror that is dauting to think of doing all at once so I’ve been chipping away at it by hanging/dealing 10 things that I’ve thrown on the chair every time I go in it. A: it’s making a difference little by little and B: I’m shocked at how long I let things go before dealing.

    I also use POWER OF 10 on my kitchen counter or anywhere that is starting to look cluttered. It’s usually less than 10 things making the whole area look bad.

  4. Cecile

    I’ve struggled with this topic for years… I found motivation and ideas throuh FlyLady and adapted to fit my life. I’ve decluttered a lot in the last years. There is still much to do, but I steadily will manage it too.

    I totally agree with your points, especially the “motivation behind”. Here are some of my tools:

    1) To me, “I don’t want to live any longer in such a mess” provides only short-time power. Better: get a positive feeling of the de-cluttered area. Imagine a clear, neatly organized closet. Imagine how I find what I want – within seconds. Imagine myself smiling. Imagine how proud I am. OK, now every time I work on that decluttering, I’ll keep in mind this good feeling of what I want to achieve.

    2) Be prepared to sort. What will I do with all these items that are too good to be tossed? I prepare a big trash bag, and bags labelled with their destination (e.g. caritative shelters, second hand shop,…). So I can immediately sort – and it is much easier for me not to hold on something when I know it will still be used by someone who needs it.

    3) As soon as a bag is full, I put it in my car. So I won’t forget to dispatch my bags.

    4) Items that keep memories but aren’t used otherwise – I make a picture of them. So I can still have the memory without the clutter.

    5) There is no such thing that “not enough time”. When I have 2 minutes left before leaving home/a TV show/…, I can at least sort one item. By the end of the week, one item and another etc… make a noticeable difference.

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