We all know how fantastic it feels to sit down to work at a clean desk, dive into a freshly-made bed or cook in an uber-organized kitchen: With things in their right place, life seems to work a whole lot better (and our brains thank us for the harmony and order).
Indeed, a surplus of stuff—whether it be paperwork, clothes, knickknacks or mail—can do a number on your mental health, making you feel drained, overwhelmed, exhausted and anxious. As Good Housekeeping reports, “According to researchers at UCLA’s Center of Everyday Lives and Families (CELF), there’s a link between high cortisol (a stress hormone) in women who own homes with a ‘high density of household objects.’
Translation: The more stuff you have, the more stress women experience, because they associate a messy home with failure.”) What’s more, clutter may breed germs and pests in your home, and lead to personal and professional mishaps. After all, how can you be on time for a meeting if you can’t find your keys?
With that in mind, here are five surefire ways to tackle your clutter so the process is as smooth and painless as possible:
1. Create time
Clutter in itself is overwhelming. Attempting to undo months of the accumulation of it in one fell swoop will only aggravate that overwhelm—and may spur you to ditch the whole attempt entirely. Instead, carve out a set number of hours over the course of a week or months and attack your stuff in increments.
Better yet, enlist the help of a friend to not only serve as a voice of reason (“when was the last time you really wore that dress?”) but to also keep you on task—and keep you from losing your energy. On that note…
2. Declutter for three hours max
Psychologist and writer Dr. Clifford Lazarus likens clutter to that of an “unpleasant drone”: “If the disagreeable noise is mostly steady, people usually adapt to it and it doesn’t always bother them on a conscious level. But when the steady, noxious sound suddenly stops (e.g., the refrigerator compressor turns off, the HVAC system cycles off, or the sound of lawn care equipment ceases), a palpable sense of relief, peace and quiet is dramatically experienced.”
Achieving a similar, much-needed sense of serenity, however, rarely happens in a single binge of a cleanse, particularly if you’re decluttering areas that are of deep personal significance (a drawer of photos, for example). To avoid strain and drain, limit yourself to three hours. Then stop, congratulate yourself on what you’ve accomplished and pick up where you left tomorrow.
3. Designate three piles
Last week’s newspaper. That wayward button; that wayward sock; that computer cord that belongs to—? You get the point. Busy lives tend to generate an abundance of things, some of which may have little relevance.
In the spirit of purifying for the sake of your sanity, create three piles as you tackle every nook and cranny of your home, garage, car and office: 1) it stays, 2) it goes and 3) it’s halfway out the door. Staying? Find a place for it—and keep it there. No longer of value—or good use? Donate it (or toss it in the trash if it won’t be of use to someone else).
Somewhere in between? Make a decision on it within that three-hour timeframe, whether it’s a third extra pair of earphones (perhaps stow a pair in your glove compartment or gym bag) or a book you’ve meaning to read (are you really going to get around to it?) Then do as you must, even if it calls for you to be ruthless.
4. Put a price tag on it
Say the word “clutter” and most people think only of the detritus that amasses from living: old towels and chipped mugs and outdated magazines. But, to borrow a cliché, what is one person’s trash is another person’s treasure—and it can be a whole lot easier to claim something as valuable than to figure out what to do with it.
Still, a truly clutter-free life demands some rigor—including from an economic perspective. Determine “how much each square foot of your home is worth and then see how much of that space is unused due to clutter,” author of Lighten Up: Love What You Have, Have What You Need, Be Happier with Less Peter Walsh advises.
“Simply take the current value of your home (make a rough estimate; you’re not trying to come up with the exact selling figure for real estate purposes so just obtain the general ballpark figure), and determine how much each square foot is worth.”
Then ask yourself what Walsh urges people to question: “Are you surprised at the value of the space you’re giving up to things you don’t use? Is it a big waste of space? A colossal waste of money for space that is lost to you and your family? Every month when you pay your mortgage company, a decent chunk of that money is paying for storage in your own home.” And with that in mind…
5. Keep only what you love
Presents, keepsakes, photos, books, clothes, shoes—all can be wonderful to receive and accrue, but all can do a number on the space in our homes and in our heads. In other words, be candid about your clutter. That ticket stub from a concert you relished with your best friend may stir up some fond memories, but do you need the physical reminder of the event? That jacket you rocked in the early 2000s earned you compliments, but given that you haven’t worn it in more than a decade, is it wholly necessary to have?
Much in the way that saying “no” to things that don’t genuinely interest you guards those big “yeses” that do, getting rid of things you’re wishy-washy about allows room for items you love to shine.