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.
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.
What you gradually discover, as you begin to declutter the space around you, is that as your personal ecosystem changes, your choices broaden, life feels more manageable, and your surroundings become better suited to who you are now—and what you're aiming for in the future.
Ciji Ware is the author of Rightsizing Your Life: Simplifying Your Surroundings While Keeping What Matters Most. Find more tips on decluttering at her website, rightsizingyourlife.com.