Sign up for our monthly Lifestyle newsletter for entertainment news, healthy living tips and more.
by Ciji Ware, AARP The Magazine, January 2010
A hallowed New Year's tradition occurs each January, when millions of us start kidding ourselves. We vow that this will be the year we keep the one resolution that invariably appears on our personal to-do list: Clean out the clutter in our basements, attics, closets, and home offices. We can't even bear to think of what's stashed under beds or in the borrowed storage space in a relative's garage.
I'm a recovering clutterbug myself, and the subjects of clutter and decluttering are close to my heart. Several years ago my husband and I made a move from 4,000 square feet of living space to 1,200. Much of the excess "stuff" I was able to dispatch without a qualm, but certain items hit me hard—the chair I had rocked my infant son in (he's now 38), and the 26 cartons of radio scripts from 17 years of covering health and lifestyle topics as a radio commentator in Los Angeles.
The "Things" in Our Lives
We all have cherished possessions that are freighted with meaning, and until we understand what that meaning is, we resist dealing with the messes that surround us. Remembrance of things past can be a real deterrent to moving forward. So can what I call future syndrome: "I might need this again sometime." But once we find a way to clear out what is no longer relevant to our lives—whether that be objects, activities, or even people—we open a path to look at all the parts of our lives and determine what matters to us now, not in the past or in the future.
So how do we let go of all that irrelevant stuff? The most effective way in my experience is to face the practical and emotional aspects of the problem at the same time. That approach worked well a few years ago when I was helping a childhood friend organize her new, much smaller home. She greeted me clutching a shoebox full of shoulder pads from the 1980s, squeezed into a nest of even larger ones from the 1940s. "Just tell me the reason you don't want to give them up," I said. "The big shoulder pads were my mother's," she replied. (Her mother, a Depression-era baby, had imbued her daughter with a "Save everything" philosophy.) "And the other ones are mine from when I had that great job," she admitted. Once she understood that the shoulder pads were part of her past, she could keep a token pair and let the rest go.
The most ingenious way I've heard yet to compact the belongings of a life-time without losing a thing was devised by a woman who came to one of my workshops. She explained that when her husband announced he was retiring and they were moving from their spacious home to a much smaller house, her life was thrown into turmoil. Their house was an architectural gem they had saved from dereliction when they were first married. "Every single piece of furniture meant something to me, every restored wood panel, every hand-rubbed finish," she said. Inspired by the memory of Jackie Kennedy's televised tour of the White House in 1962, the woman hired a wedding videographer. He created a DVD of her walking through her home, noting changes she'd made and why various objects were important. "From then on, I could leave it all behind," she said.
Where to start
If you're not ready to clean house that drastically, there are less radical ways to begin the decluttering process. Set aside a firm, two-hour window each week devoted to the task, then start in—room by room. The dot system can be an effective tool to tackle a room and to avoid disputes among family members. Each person gets to stick white adhesive dots on objects they cherish and use daily. From white dots, proceed to green dots, for items used weekly; yellow dots, for objects touched in the past month; red, for those handled only once in the past year. Use this system as a visual guide for making your decisions, but here's the rule of thumb: if there's an item with no dot, get rid of it. If you've given something a red dot, you probably should say goodbye to it, but let your family weigh in first. Once you've made decisions about the other stuff—be tough!—start tossing. Label sturdy cartons or large bags Trash, Keep, Donate, Gift, Recycle, Sell, Repair, and (my personal favorite) Don't Have a Clue for Now. This last is for items that would halt the decluttering process if you had to debate them. Use clear plastic bags when it's important to see what's inside, so you won't throw out good things by accident.
All those memories of things past can be a real deterrent to moving forward.
Discarding "important" papers is another big challenge, but the 80/20 rule generally works: you can safely let go of 80 percent of the papers you've kept—college notebooks, old newspaper clippings, defunct travel brochures. If by mistake you throw out something you need, such as insurance policies or appliance instructions, in these days of the Internet you can often retrieve that information online.
The process of purging and paring was one of my family's most liberating experiences. When the unneeded possessions were gone, I felt that we had cleared space not only in our house but in our lives.
Please leave your comment below.
You must be logged in to leave a comment.
Visit the AARP state page for information about events, news and resources near you.
Members save 10% off the best available rate
TV show reviews, news and celebrity interviews
Members save 15% on pick-up orders placed by phone
AARP members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change.
You are leaving AARP.org and going to the website of our trusted provider. The provider’s terms, conditions and policies apply. Please return to AARP.org to learn more about other benefits.
Your email address is now confirmed.
You'll start receiving the latest news, benefits, events, and programs related to AARP's mission to empower people to choose how they live as they age.
You can also manage your communication preferences by updating your account at anytime. You will be asked to register or log in.
In the next 24 hours, you will receive an email to confirm your subscription to receive emails
related to AARP volunteering. Once you confirm that subscription, you will regularly
receive communications related to AARP volunteering. In the meantime, please feel free
to search for ways to make a difference in your community at