Clutter is a mischievous beast. It innocently enough starts with a few pieces of mail on the counter or clothing on the floor. At the start, we are completely and well within our realm of organizing comfort, so we might ignore the mail or step over the clothes with the knowledge that we can address those items later. The problem is that sometimes later doesn’t happen for a really long time, and during that time, the few pieces of mail grow to mountainous levels and the clothing piles up and spills out into the hallway. The clutter gets bigger, it seems to take over, and stress ensues. At some point, at the tipping point, that innocent clutter takes on a life of its own. It becomes ominous and overwhelming.
Sounds scary, right? However, have no fear if this situation has happened to you. There is an answer, and although you might be standing overwhelmingly in front of this mess in the current moment, I’ve got some simple steps that will get you back on track to a less cluttered state of living in no time!
First, breathe! Take a deep breath and recognize that your clutter, your mess, does not own you. It is not a reflection of your talents, capabilities, level of motivation or personal character. It is just simply a pile, or maybe many piles, of inanimate objects. It’s just stuff and it has no life, no feelings, energy or power. I recommend that you find a friend to help, when possible. Whether you engage your husband, mother or a set of hired hands, conquering large tasks with others makes the entire process feel more manageable.
If you are tackling this clutter by yourself, you must recognize that you are one person, with 2 hands and feet, and only so many hours in the day to accomplish the clean-up. Regardless of the size of your team, scope out the scale and variety of mess and decide on a preset time-period each day to tackle a portion. If you have an hour a day to spare, set your timer on your phone for an hour and get to work. When the alarm sounds, what is done is done. Walk away and get on with your day. There is always tomorrow to continue your efforts.
Find a good staging location close by. Clear out some floor or table space to stage and sort the clutter that you plan to address. If the mess is large, you might need to find multiple places to stage sorted items. If the weather is nice, take it outside temporarily onto a tarp or blanket. Isolate a few plastic bins or garbage bags to place items in as you sort through and categorize.
Work in zones. Pick one spot, any spot (let’s call it Zone 1), to get started. Don’t look around. Don’t get distracted. Don’t give in to your urge to skip from place to place. Just put the blinders on, hone in on that zone like a cave man on a hunting mission and get that one spot cleared out. If you address one portion or zone of an overwhelmingly large project at a time, you will find that the stress and overwhelm is greatly reduced. Your feeling of confidence, control and capability will increase as you go.
Once you have set your time limit, cleared a good work area and picked a zone to start, get to work sorting the contents of that zone into the area or areas that you just cleared out. Ask yourself what each item is and what category it falls into. Where and how is each item used? As an example, if I am looking at a pile of pens, magazines, mail and miscellaneous supplies, I might start by separating everything into 3 categories: office supplies, magazines and mail. I will also likely have a trash can or bag nearby to throw out items that are no longer working or needed.
As I move through the clutter from one zone to another, I might find new categories of things, so I will just create more piles or bins to contain them as I go. Don’t get too caught up in the categories as you sort but remember to keep them limited and at a high level. If you overthink it, you will have so many categories set aside that you will have just moved the clutter from one area to the next with little to no progress being made.
Once the entire mess has been sorted into different categories, it is time to find homes for everything and put it away. Once it is all sorted, I can decide where each one of these categories currently lives or should live in my house. For example, I will put the office supplies back where they belong in the bins in my office, the mail will be opened and filed accordingly in my mail management system (this is another lesson altogether), the outdated magazines will go into the trash, and the latest editions will be put into the basket in my living room.
There are always going to be those items at the end that are different from the rest; the ones that you don’t know what to do with. My advice is two-fold for these situations. First, if the item is something you regularly use and/or love, you will need to find a new home for it somewhere. I would try to keep it close to the area where it is used or can be most treasured. Secondly, if the item doesn’t fall into one of these 2 scenarios (use or love), get rid of it! I don’t care if it was expensive, given to you by your dead grandma or if you are determined to pass it onto your children someday. If you don’t use it or love it, it has no business living in your home. It will continue to be a source of clutter and/or stress and is not worth your time or energy when there are bigger fish to fry. There is no rule that requires you to keep items that are gifted from or for others. I can assure you with almost 100% confidence that God has not made it your purpose to be the keeper of everyone else’s things, so do not let the guilt set in, even for a minute.
We all know that the best way to control clutter is to never let it get out of control in the first place, but sometimes life happens. We get busy, distracted and pulled in many directions, and clutter appears despite our best efforts. If you just take a deep breath, isolate some portion of each day to focus on the mess, and bite off one chunk at a time, you will find that even the largest and most unruly mountain of clutter is conquerable.