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?

Post-Declutter Stress Disorder

Okay, I made that title up. But it isn’t too far from reality!

Most people get a sense of euphoria after decluttering. Some, however, do not. In fact, they feel horrible. They are anxious and miserable, dwelling on decisions made and wondering if they made mistakes. If you’re one of those people, you may be wondering why you don’t get as excited by the results as others do.

Here’s a few reasons why you might feel that way after decluttering:

1) Attachment happens in your mind. Physically removing something does just that; it’s physically gone. If you are still attached in your mind, the fact that it’s gone is not a relief.

2) You haven’t trained your brain to stop panicking yet. Every time our brain gets a reinforcement, it is told to continue that behaviour. So when you try to throw something away, then panic, then keep the item to make the panic go away, you’re telling your brain that panic is the appropriate response when attempting to discard something.

3) The future is more unknown with less stuff. No longer can you safely predict what might happen (ie right now you can predict you will have 2 spare can-openers to grab should you lose your favourite one). Instead, if you only have one can opener, you can’t predict the outcome of losing or breaking it. Unknown stuff can be scary if we allow ourselves to think of the negative consequences.

4) You worry that you’ve made a mistake. Your brain predicts a total catastrophe should it become apparent you’ve thrown out something that later becomes needed. This fear of the catastrophe has you dwelling on what mistakes you may have made when culling.

5) You feel you are losing a part of your identity or your past. Your past and your stuff are related. We store patterns in our neo-cortex of things we see, hear, smell and feel. Our brain cross-references these patterns and therefore creates an association. If you part with one of those “pointers” and it’s outside of your control and exists only in your mind, perhaps you’ll end up with memories in your brain that can’t ever be retrieved again.

6) You’re grieving lost opportunities. There are now things you may never see again, do again, think about again.

7) You did it for someone else. When you declutter to keep someone else happy, you’re less likely to enjoy the results. It’s not unlikely, just a little less likely.

8) You’ve forgotten about your goals. You’re thinking about what you’ve “lost”, not what you’ve gained. You have either not focused on your goals, or you have forgotten about them.

9) You just love your stuff too much. Whether you have hoarding disorder, or another mental health condition that fosters a very strong bond with physical belongings, your brain simply won’t let you let go.

This is why there is so much more to decluttering than just getting rid of stuff. It actually requires changes in mindset that without them, you won’t be able to be completely happy with the result.

Declutter your fears first, then your stuff.

How (and why) your thoughts sabotage you

one way

When you want to make a change, you need to take action. You know that you need to do something, and you want to do something. There’s a problem though; sometimes our brains are just not on our side. It’s usually our subconscious that’s the culprit.

Our subconscious is there to keep us safe and working – it keeps us breathing, helps us to do up our shoelaces when we’re not looking, tells us the way to drive home when we’re off with the fairies, and enables us to respond quickly to danger.

Any time your subconscious perceives a threat, it propels us into an action of some kind (like the “fight or flight” reflex around danger you may have heard of). When you’re decluttering and find something that you consciously want to part with, and therefore make a change, your subconscious kicks in and immediately tells you to keep it. It perceives the possibility of future stress and sets off the panic alarm. That panic alarm floods your conscious brain with thoughts around that item and all the reasons why you need to keep it.

But they’re not real. Those reasons are invented as an automatic response to an automatic reaction.

Every time you reinforce those thoughts (“Danger! Danger!”) with the behaviour that they’re prompting (you keep the thing even though your logic tells you you shouldn’t), you’re telling your subconscious that it’s on the right track, and that it needs to react in the same way next time. And so it gets stronger and stronger.

To help to short-circuit this wiring, you need to listen to the thoughts, acknowledge them, feel the anxiety, but DO NOT act the way it wants you to. Eventually, you’ll find that little voice screaming “Keep it!” goes away because your subconscious gets evidence that you are safe without that action, and it stops trying to make you do it. Anxiety goes away eventually – your body is not designed to stay at heightened levels for long periods. Your brain will eventually kick in and essentially give up on trying to get you to act because it receives no reinforcements.

Tell your subconscious that you’re okay, that it’s all okay. That you know what you’re doing and in this circumstance, you don’t need it to keep you safe.

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!

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“.

 

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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