Letting go without context

Some people struggle to declutter because they need context. Without it, they feel they can’t let go.

By context I mean that someone is decluttering their study and they find an egg-flip. The person doesn’t know if they have any other egg-flips, or how many they have, so they can’t make a decision to discard that egg-flip. They keep it, and then weeks later have the same dilemma when they find another egg-flip somewhere else. Was it the same one? Do I only have one? Or do I h…ave more, and can I safely donate this one? Usually the uncertainty is too high so they choose to keep it.

There is one obvious solution to this – declutter by category. Grab all your egg-flips, put them in one place and then declutter. Marie Kondo has borrowed this method for her book and it can be very helpful.

Unfortunately, it’s only helpful for people with low-to-medium levels of clutter or for relatively organised homes (ie, all your items are contained to one to three rooms per category, like clothes or toys). It’s completely useless for people with high or hoarding levels. I mean, how on earth do you find all of your batteries in the whole house when you can’t even open the cupboards or see the floor?

So my poor clients are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can’t discard because they fear discarding too many or the wrong ones, and they can’t find the rest to help facilitate the decision-making.

The solution I recommend (understanding how hard it is) is to just forget the context. Forget the others, forget the maybes, just declutter as much as you possibly can, knowing that if you make a mistake, you’ll still be okay and your main goal of being in control of your belongings is more important than trying to avoid having to buy a $3 egg-flip from KMart.

That’s the key – knowing you’ll still be okay no matter what choice you make. Because you will, I promise.

We all hoard stuff. Yes, even you.

We all hoard to a certain degree. That’s “hoard” with a lower-case h. I’m not talking about Hoarding Disorder (another post, another day!).

I have a friend who has a well-organised, substantial hoard of travel toiletries. I have more staples than I’ll use in the next 5 years. And I have amassed quite a collection of iPhone cables.

We do our hoarding either passively or actively. If we actively hoard, we are aware of the volume of stuff we have, and we continue to acquire them and choose to not discard any (shoes, notebooks, pets, furniture, craft supplies and books come to mind).

When we passively hoard, we accumulate relatively mindlessly (as part of everyday life) and don’t have the corresponding habit of discarding established. And so we gather a little collection without realising. My friend recently went through her junk drawers and found several boxes of staples and no stapler. I think they’d also accumulated several rolls of tape. She was surprised – she had no idea they had that many.

First Aid, anyone?

First Aid, anyone?

That’s passive hoarding and you’ll see it manifesting in things like pens, tape, broken things you intend to fix, cassette tapes and VHS tapes, cords and cables, placemats, old paperwork, coffee mugs, plasticware, water bottles, stubbie-holders, vases and platters.

You don’t realise until you go to declutter just how much you’ve accidentally kept!

If you’re passively hoarding stuff, it’s a good idea to establish the habit of regularly going through those areas and having a quick cull to keep the volume at bay. Another good habit is to have a quick review whenever you bring a new item into the house and see if anything needs to go to make room for it or to maintain the current volume.

What do you find that you passively hoard?

Practice makes perfect

Many people who struggle with clutter have difficulty “de-owning” their stuff. They get anxious at the thought of parting with it because all the fears crowd their mind with a billion “What if..?” scenarios.

If you are one of those, you’ll be pleased to know that your first goal is not to part with items. Your first goal is to reduce your anxiety around letting go. It’s not about the item, it’s about the discomfort. It doesn’t matter WHY you want to keep it, it’s about anxiety itself.

If you can expose yourself every single day to the behaviour of letting go (starting with really easy things) then your brain starts to back off. You will realise that your anxiety isn’t as high anymore.

Initially, for the first thing you let go of, it will hurt. You’ll feel very anxious. Don’t give up – the pain doesn’t last as long as you’re anticipating. The next one will hurt too, but the one after, and the one after that will all hurt less. This is proven.

You’ve built up your “letting go” muscles and the workout won’t hurt as much anymore.

Be careful – if you cave to the pressure and practice the avoidance behaviour (the keeping) instead of the behaviour you’re trying to encourage (the letting go), it reinforces your brain and takes you straight back to the beginning. A psychologist once told me that if you give in just one time, it will undo a fortnight’s worth of letting go practice.

That’s why it’s important to focus on an easy category of items – so that you are more capable of pushing through the anxiety. After you’re no longer uncomfortable with one category, you can work your way up the line to the harder ones.

Consistency is the key – if you don’t do it EVERY SINGLE DAY you’ll be wasting your time because your brain will revert very quickly and you’ll undo all your good work.

Letting go of useful stuff a necessity for some

When I’m coaching clients through the process of decluttering and letting go, I use these questions initially:

  • “Do you NEED it?”
  • “Do you USE it?”
  • “Do you LOVE it?”

These questions help people decide if they really are going to keep the item.

Sometimes, though, you can have such a high volume of “stuff” that an item can fit that category but still need to go. It might be used, it might be needed, it might even be loved, but it can still need to go in order for you to achieve your goals.

It’s a very hard concept for people to get their head around, but if you want your house to have less clutter, it’s just going to have to happen.

Celebrate your achievements

All ready for the RSPCA

When I went to see my client yesterday, we started off as we usually do, chatting about what he’d achieved in the fortnight since I’d last been.

He was disappointed in himself, and complained that he hadn’t achieved anything. He had been too busy working (he works shift work).

Then through more probing on my part I discovered that he had cleared out a great deal of his bedroom and there was a big expanse of carpet on display (yay! I did a little dance in it to show him how big it was). He had also delivered a load of old towels and sheets to the RSPCA, and decluttered and cleaned his bathroom.

Now, for someone who is a hoarder and is crippled by procrastination, that is a LOT achieved!

I told him so, and he agreed. So the lesson here is don’t be too hard on yourself. Any progress is a step forward.

Don’t forget to celebrate your achievements, or at least NOTICE them!

Will it stay or will it go?

When you’re trying to reduce your belongings, it can be hard making the decision to keep or discard an item.

Here’s what I ask my clients:

1. Do you NEED it? This one is relatively easy to answer once you get the hang of it. If it’s a bike bell and you don’t have a bike, you probably don’t NEED it. Notice I didn’t say “want”. Be careful you don’t confuse the two – western society has a pretty warped sense of need these days.

2. Do you USE it? If you don’t need it you still might use it. I don’t NEED a white coat and a brown one, but I do use both of them regularly throughout winter.

3. Do you LOVE it? Is it neither a necessity nor used? Is it a teacup that belonged to your grandma’s special set? Not needed, not used, but certainly treasured.


If it fails all these tests, then it has no place in your life. Period.

 

Be careful: it’s at this point that the “other” criteria pop up in your head because fear kicks in….

“I might need it one day”

“I really should finish that project; I’m a failure if I just discard it now”

“What if Cath notices the frame that she gave me isn’t on display anymore”, or

“But I spent good money on it and now I’m wasting that money by giving this item away”.

None of these are good enough reasons to keep something. Don’t let the fear take over.

If you don’t need, use or love it, it’s making life that little bit harder for you. That little bit more cramped, that little bit more complex. Let go of the fear and experience the freedom!

 

Embrace the idea of less stuff so you can have more of life.

 


Where do I start?

The most common question I get is “Where do I start?”.

starting blocks

For people with a clutter problem, it’s not a simple problem to solve.  It can induce a lot of anxiety and many simply throw their hands up in despair and declare it an impossible task.

You have two ways to start:

1. The cull

2. The sort

If you have a highly cluttered space and no room to sort, you need to cull first. That means grabbing a few boxes or garbage bags and assigning them roles – “Rubbish” “Donations” “Give to friends” “Staying” and “Elsewhere in the house”.  Then you start at the pile closest to the door and work your way around the room, putting things in their appropriate boxes.  Don’t look at the whole space – focus on ONE ITEM AT A TIME ONLY. This will help prevent you getting overwhelmed. If you find it impossible not to ‘see’ the whole room and get anxious, engage a friend (or a Professional Organiser!) to help. You can be in the other room with the boxes, and they can bring you 1-3 items at a time to make decisions on.

If you have a moderately cluttered space, you can sort first. Sorting first helps you make better culling decisions because you can see where you have duplicated and the total volume of ‘stuff’.  Keep the culling boxes as outlined above, but sort your items into “like” groups first, then cull. Once you’ve culled you can then find storage appropriate with the group of items and the space you have for them.  Again, just start at the first pile you see and work on one item at a time to avoid getting overwhelmed.

Dedicate a small amount of time every day, one item at a time and you’ll get there.

As Lao-Tzu said (not literally, but this common translation and interpretation is the one most suited to this circumstance!)  “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step“.

 

What excuses do YOU use?

There are many reasons why people keep too many things; I hear them every day. Some are valid (ie, they need, use or love the item) but other excuses need to be challenged if people want to move forward with a simpler, less cluttered life.

Here are some of my favourite counter-arguments and challenges in response to some common excuses:

1. I might use it one day

This is the most common. I always remind people that for every item you keep for this reason, you are adding to your ‘To Do’ list. After all, if you do actually use it, it’s something to do, isn’t  it? Do you really need MORE stuff to do?  And if you’re keeping it out of obligation (“I really should finish that project”) then it’s not even going to be an enjoyable activity! Why do that to yourself?

When exactly WILL you use it?  How long have you been ‘meaning to’ use it? How is it affecting  your life right now? If you’re pretty sure you will use it, give yourself a deadline. If it’s not used by then, it is a negative effect on your life and it needs to go.

I also ask clients to ask themselves “What’s the worst that could happen if I get rid of this item?”. In most cases, you’ll just need to borrow one off someone else, or buy it again. And that’s the worst case! You can live with that, can’t you? You’ve certainly been through worse. Most  likely, you’ll forget it existed and be grateful for the peace of mind.

2.  I plan to fit into it again

Okay, so you have a few items of clothing that you love that don’t quite fit – fair enough. However, you need limits on how many you keep.  After all, you will most likely want to go shopping again if you lose weight, won’t you?

And the tough question – how likely are you to actually lose weight?  How long have you been that size? It does get less likely as time goes on.  I always encourage my clients to focus efforts and space in their wardrobe on clothes that they can use, and that make them feel fabulous in the size they are, instead of resenting their size.  If skinny clothes could talk, all they would do is call you fat anyway. You wouldn’t keep a friend that called you fat!

3. I spent a lot of money on it

The money is gone – it’s not coming back. If you wasted the money, it’s already wasted; what you do with the item will make little difference to that. Accept the loss and move on. If you don’t use it, you’re wasting both money, space AND sanity. Why not consider selling it or donating it to someone who will get a lot of use out of it?

4. Someone gave it to me

Your affection for someone should not be directed towards items, it should be directed towards the person. Love the person; get rid of the monstrosity that stresses you.

5. It’s a waste if I get rid of it

It’s far more of a waste to keep it and not use it! Donate it to someone who will appreciate it and get use out of it.

6. We’ve always kept that type of paperwork

Just because you’ve always done it does not mean it’s appropriate anymore. Challenge your habits and rationalise your decisions with some logic. Do you need it? Can you reproduce it if you really do find you need it one day? If it’s available anywhere else, get rid of it and simplify your life. Less paperwork = more smiles!

What excuses do you think you need to remove from your decluttering experience?


Love me, love my stuff….all 5 tonnes of it…

You have a problem. Your partner/mother/son/aunt/neighbour has a lot of stuff. They have more stuff than you think is necessary. Their life seems to revolve around their stuff.  You’ve watched Hoarders and Oprah and have seen what hoarding does to people. You’re worried about your loved-one.

However, how do you know if they’re a compulsive hoarder, or just chronically (or acutely) disorganised? According to one of the biggest hoarding experts in the world, Randy Frost, compulsive hoarding is the “acquisition of, and failure to discard, possessions which appear to be useless or of limited value“.

I get calls from worried family members and friends a lot; wondering what they can do to help.  Before I can help, however, we need to establish the level of hoarding, and whether they are indeed a compulsive hoarder.

I personally attempt to identify compulsive hoarders with three main lines of questioning:

  1. One of the biggest characteristics of a compulsive hoarder is their denial of the condition. If they frequently lament that everyone is against them, that noone understands how important their belongings are, and that they don’t need to change (in fact, everyone else does!), and if they have pushed away family members and friends that have tried to help, then they may be compulsive hoarders.
  2. Next is their emotional state when asked to discard items. If they get very upset (aggressive, highly emotional or even hysterical) whenever anyone touches, moves or removes their belongings, they may be compulsive hoarders.
  3. Another key indicator, as previously touched on in Randy Frost’s definition, is the volume of and type of items that they keep. Are there excessive amounts of them? Are they of little value? Do they include such items as newspapers, rubber bands, ice-cream sticks, pipe-cleaners, or plastic bags, toilet rolls or something similar? Are they possibly animals or old food?

So how do you help if it appears they are very likely a compulsive hoarder? I won’t sugar-coat it – it’s not at all easy. Few compulsive hoarders successfully overcome the condition. However, you can certainly try.

Before I tell you what to do, I want to make it very clear what you shouldn’t do. What you should NEVER do with a compulsive hoarder is send them away while you go and clean up. Never, never, never. NEVER.

The first thing those with the condition need to do is recognise that they have it, and that it is unhealthy and possibly (especially with food and animal hoarders or those with fire hazards) life-threatening.  At best it threatens their personal relationships. One experienced psychologist I spoke with on the condition suggested asking them to read a book (Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding) in the hope that they may recongise themselves in it.

If you manage to get them over that step, the next is to convince them to undertake therapy with an experienced psychologist.

Finally, when they are ready to begin culling and starting their life anew, you can call in the Professional Organisers to help hold their hand and provide physical and technical assistance in the road to recovery.

And if you recognise yourself in this post, well done – you are on your way to a better life already 🙂

 

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