My partner and I are in the process of moving house. I’ve moved a lot throughout my life and each time I seem to have more stuff to move. When I moved out of my childhood home I simply tossed my belongings into the back of my Datsun 1200B station wagon, the next time I borrowed a friend’s trailer, then I needed a small van, and the last time I had to hire professional removalists with a 10-tonne truck.
Sound familiar? A study of Australian homes by the Australia Institute found that one in five people had built a shed or garage to store excess things, while one in eight had even moved house to accommodate their superfluous stuff. And among those who had moved, 26% of them had up to 7 boxes still unpacked six months later. Crazy.
It’s entirely natural to collect some things as we move through life. The problem starts when we surround ourselves with stuff or clutter that we either don’t need or don’t use. Make no mistake about it, clutter can have a major impact on your daily health and wellbeing. The Australia Institute study found that 40% of Australians say they feel anxious, guilty or depressed about the clutter in their homes. Also, Dr Eva Selhub, an organisational expert, reported that women who described their homes as cluttered or full of unfinished projects were more depressed, fatigued, and stressed than women who felt their homes were relaxing and restorative. Being surrounded by excess items not only wastes your time as you search for things, but it also promotes the consumption of comfort foods, reduces sleep quality, limits creativity, and makes you more indecisive about which of your daily work or household tasks to carry out. Plus, and this is the big one, clutter and the obsession with accumulating unnecessary stuff distracts you from the more important things in life that you should be focused on such as clarifying your purpose, pursuing your goals, and nurturing your relationships.
Okay, so what types of clutter do you have? Recognising the main categories of clutter, based upon why you hold on to certain things, is the first step in getting rid of excess junk from your life. Here are the most common categories:
1. Just-in-case clutter. Things you hold onto for fear that you may need them one day, even though you haven’t used them, if at all, in months or years. Things like that favourite woollen vest that is now 2 sizes too small, a stack of National Geographic magazines, the bottle of Paul Newman jam hiding out at the back of the fridge, a remote that doesn’t seem to operate anything, a rusted mountain bike, and 10-year old bank statements.
2. Nostalgic clutter. Things with sentimental value that remind you of a special time in your life, but you struggle to discard because of the guilt you would feel. Includes items such as photos from your first marriage, your high school blazer or communion dress, shoeboxes full of old cassette tapes, a decapitated Six Million Dollar Man action figure doll, and your child’s earliest drawings.
3. Freebie clutter. Things you were given by family, friends, or give-aways. Oddly, you have difficulty parting with them because you still savour the thrill of getting something for nothing. Includes items such as an office chair found on the side of the road, hand-me-down linen from your mother, miniature flashlights, tiny bottles of shampoo, and unused garden tools.
4. Impulse-buys clutter. Things you bought on impulse or because they were on sale but you never use them. Rather than take them back you resolutely hold onto them hoping that one day you may be able to either use them or give them away as birthday presents. Things such as electronic gadgets you don’t need, bags, picnic sets, diaries and books, and kitchen implements.
5. Aspirational clutter. Things you bought or collected which you aspired to use but never do. You keep thinking that maybe one day you will get around to using them. Includes items such as a pristine classic guitar, rock climbing equipment, foreign language CDs, and board games.
Getting rid of clutter is a sure-fire way of increasing your happiness. Decluttering your environment will clear your mind, lower your stress, allow you to better relax and unwind, give you less housework, raise your productivity through improved attention, boost your creativity, and even increase the value of your property.
This week have a go at decluttering one area of your home, perhaps your bedroom, your walk-in wardrobe, or the spare bedroom that has become a storage shed. You may even like to start smaller with a closet, a chest of drawers, the kitchen pantry, a bathroom, a shoe rack, or your car. As you gain confidence you can move on to larger areas of your home.
1. Use the 3 Box method
Start by gathering 3 boxes. Proceed through the area you wish to declutter inspecting each individual item. For each item make a decision to: keep the item (leave it where it is); throw away the item (place in Box 1); give away the item to friends, family, or charity, or sell the item (place in Box 2); or store the item because you are uncertain whether to keep it or not (place in Box 3). The following ground rules will help you stay focused and on task:
- For each item ask yourself: “Do I need it? Have I used it in the past 12 months? Would it help someone else more than me? Can I replace it if I dispose of it now?”
- Choose what to keep, rather than what to toss – Don’t ask “Can I use it?” but “Will I use it?”
- Every item must have a place where it ‘lives.’ If you can’t see the item living anywhere then toss it.
- If you have not used an item in a year place it in Box 1 or Box 2. Always remember that many items are easily replaceable if you need them later.
- Dispose of any duplicates.
- With magazines tear out a selected number of articles you want to read and recycle the rest.
- Instead of keeping an entire box of old university assignments, choose one or two that you’re most proud of and throw out the rest.
- Rather than keep a library of photo albums, digitise a selection of the best shots from your most memorable life events and toss the albums.
2. Dealing with Maybes
Sometimes you will be unable to decide whether to keep a particular item or throw it away. In these situations remember these ground rules:
- If an item is too good to throw away, but you know you won’t use it, then make another person happy by either selling it on eBay or giving it to your local charity shop. Focus on what another person will gain, and not on what you will lose.
- Many people feel obligated to keep their grandmother’s silver service set, even though they never use them, simply because they belonged to a relative. Ask yourself, “Would granny want me to keep this unused in a cupboard or would she like someone to use and enjoy it?”
- Consider inviting over a friend to act as an arbiter. Their impartiality will help you make the tough calls.
- If you are still undecided about certain items, place them in Box 3 for storage. After six months, go back to the box — and if you haven’t used anything from the box in that time toss them or pass them on to someone who may be able to use them.
Which area of your home did you declutter? And what was the most useful method you found for discarding items?
Please leave your comment below.
(Selected comments will appear anonymously in my upcoming book The Happiness Challenge.)