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Clutter busting 101

One bright side of our consumer-driven U.S. economy is that it's created demand for a new career: the professional organizer.

An organizer helps people gain better control of their lives. Most often, this means helping to purge possessions: overflowing closets, shelves, cupboards, desks, file cabinets, and even recipe files.

Self-storage facilities have mushroomed along interstates and even in small towns. Do you ever wonder what is stored there, for how long, and why?

Professional organizers and storage facilities may be just the ticket if you're downsizing from the family home to a smaller house, or moving a parent into a nursing home. Some professionals will take care of every aspect of an estate or tag sale, from organizing and pricing items, to promoting the event.

One alternative to hiring a professional to help organize and declutter is to work with a friend. Set aside a couple of days for each of your houses, decide on the hot-spots you want to tackle, and work through them together. We often become blind to the clutter in our own homes or have hang-ups getting rid of certain items, and having a friend's perspective can help. It's also more fun to have someone to talk to while you work.

Some people prefer to hold regular garage sales to purge their possessions or join town-wide rummage sales. Others prefer to donate items to local shelters, churches, or groups. For example, 4-H groups will likely be more than happy to take those bolts of fabric you never did anything with. Scout groups would love fishing or camping equipment.

How do you keep clutter at bay under normal circumstances? The root of the problem is that we accumulate too much stuff. Some people like to shop; others have trouble letting go.

Technology can help declutter

Technology may rescue us from drowning in a pool of possessions. These days, many recipes or books can be found online.

How will future generations ever recognize our standby recipes without splotches and stains on the page to prove it? There's also something to be said for having recipe cards in your mother or grandmother's handwriting. While scanning those can let you share them electronically with other family members, there's nothing wrong with keeping at least a few originals.

Technology may make a clean sweep of our bookshelves, as books are downloaded onto Kindles, Nooks, and iPads. Downloaded movies and streaming apps free up shelf space from kids' movies.

Pinterest, a popular site for pinning up home improvement and organizing ideas, crafts, and recipes, is a potential space-saver replacing a folder of magazine clippings about home renovations and decor.

One speed bump along the superhighway, however, is computer clutter. Our digital lives also suffer from information overload; some organizers specialize in reducing computer clutter.

Technology can also be useful for selling or giving items away. Local buy-sell-trade groups are all over Facebook, and specific groups bring together like-minded collectors of niche items from around the world. Find a group to try and sell that collection of milk glass or those toy tractors you've inherited or collected over the years.

Clutter is emotional

It's tempting to keep items that might be useful to someone else: 4-H project idea files and ACT study guides, for example. Sorting items for Goodwill, neighbors, the school, or recycling requires much more organization and time than pitching stuff. 

No doubt, clutter with emotional attachment is the most difficult problem. Experts say it's important to address the underlying emotional reasons for clutter. Their advice is to approach it from the inside out.

It can be tempting to hold onto everything that once belonged to a loved one you've lost. Keeping and actually using or displaying a few of their cherished items may be a better way to honor them than keeping everything in totes or a storage unit. Use your mother's favorite mixing bowl every time you make pancakes. Frame your grandmother's crocheted handkerchief and hang it next to her photo. Use your grandpa's mug as a pen holder on your desk. Put your dad's signature seed cap on a bookshelf.

Consider returning items you've received from adult children to them if you're looking to downsize. It's hard for parents to get rid of things they remember their children wearing or playing with, but when presented to the adult kids, they'll often say they don't remember or care enough to keep them. Save just a few of the most special items and let the rest go.

Tips for decluttering now

Still need more motivation? Here are some tips:

  • Start with the area that causes you the most pain.
  • Include a deadline for completion.
  • Tackle one small area at a time.
  • Set aside time weekly to work on it.
  • Finish one area before starting another.

Here are five questions to ask yourself as you declutter:

  1. When is the last time I used this?
  2. When (and why) would I (realistically) need it again?
  3. Is it replaceable?
  4. What's the worst thing that would happen if I got rid of it? Would I forget the person it belonged to?
  5. Is it beautiful, useful, or loved?

If you need further guidance as you sort, place each item into one of three categories:

  • Trash: Do not pass go, do not collect $200, these items go straight into the trash. Dispose of them as soon as you make up your mind so there's not second guessing and you stay on task. This is often the best way to get started. Walk around the room with a garbage bag and get the trash out of the room before making decisions about other items.
  • Treasure: This beloved category of items needs to find a designated home that makes sense for the item and brings you joy. If something is to important to get rid of but you really don't want it or have a place for it, offer it up to other family members. If nobody else wants it, you shouldn't feel obliged to keep it either.
  • Transition: These items still have value, but may be more useful to someone else. Consider donating these items to a local school or charity. Items in this category may be appropriate to recycle as well. 

The first step is getting started!

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