As I write this from my home in Birmingham, Ala., my in-laws are coming to visit in four days. My first thought is, "This place is a mess," followed by, "Time to cram everything in the closets." That's because I subscribe to the Carrie Bradshaw Cleaning Method, named for the way the "Sex and the City" character stored her sweaters in the oven. This worked for Carrie because she had tons of sweaters and never cooked (and hello, it was television). I have tons of . . . clutter.
It doesn't help that I live with two other cluttery types: my teacher husband, who nightly covers our dining room table with stacks of papers to grade; and our teenage daughter—well, enough said there. Let's be clear: I'm not talking about hoarding, which, I learn, is a real mental disorder. "The difference is a matter of degree," says psychiatrist Dr. Walter Brown of Brown University's Alpert Medical School and Tufts University. "I have T-shirts from 20 years ago and magazines I haven't read. They don't interfere with my life, though. Hoarding affects your life and your health."
No, I'm talking plain old messiness. Yet even casual clutter can stir up powerful emotions. "Throwing things out for good can be painful," says Shaun Chavis, a magazine editor who hired a pro to organize her office (it didn't stick). Kristen Tyler, a New Jersey art therapist, says she's sometimes felt "guilt and shame" about her home's disarray, especially when she sees friends' houses "looking like Pottery Barn." Mess means stress.
The recession hasn't helped, either. For many folks, spending money on a housecleaner or organizer is out of the question. Throw in frustration over job-hunting or poor cash flow, and clearing clutter sinks in priorities. Until things get desperate, that is. Laura Leist, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, tells of one client whose home went into foreclosure. "She was facing bankruptcy and felt overwhelmed," Leist says. "We helped her figure out which things to sell to make ends meet. It was heartbreaking."
Maybe I haven't reached a clutter crisis yet. But I have a choice: I can keep cramming things into closets, or I can get organized. Experts say to start small, so I tackle a kitchen drawer. That feels so good, I move on to the stacks of papers in my office. Before I know it, I'm deciding which mementos are keepers (daughter's kindergarten artwork, postcards from Paris) and which aren't (bridesmaid's dress with the poufy sleeves? Consignment shop.) I'm even matching my socks straight from the dryer instead of minutes before I head out the door.
I doubt I'll conquer my clutter problem before my in-laws arrive. But that's OK. At last, I'm getting to the bottom of things. And I don't just mean a stack of old magazines.
"Clutter keeps us from living the lives we want," says Peter Walsh, author of It's All Too Much. Try his tips for de-junking.
- Double-bag it. Set aside 10 minutes before dinner each night. Give family members two trash bags—one for trash, one for charity. Go room to room and fill them up.
- Banish gadgets. Dump the contents of a kitchen drawer into a box. Each time you use an item from the box, return it to the drawer. After a month you'll see which gadgets you use, and which you can get rid of.
- Get one, give one. Each time you buy a new book, give one away. This works for CDs, kids' toys and just about any other collection.
- Clear your closet. Hang all your clothes with the hangers facing one way. After wearing a garment, replace it with the hanger turned the other way. This trick will help you see what clothes are worth keeping.
- Lose the object, not the memory. We hang on to sentimental things because they remind us of a person, an accomplishment or event. Find ways to honor that memory without the clutter.