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A cluttered desk can affect productivity
A cluttered desk can affect productivity

How to win the war against clutter

An expert explains how to conquer the emotional minefields that come with tidying up: ‘It’s all clutter and it’s all connected.’

To conquer the clutter in our homes we must also be ready to deal with the many emotions buried in it, says Jes Marcy, a professional organizer in Poestenkill, N.Y. Ms. Marcy leads online classes on how to get rid of unnecessary items and on social media runs a private support group for people trying to organize their homes, a process that can be fraught with stress, guilt, resentment and grief, she says.

Ms. Marcy tells clients that when they start to unclutter their homes of physical possessions they inevitably will find connections to emotional, financial and relationship issues in their lives, too. “It’s all clutter and it’s all connected," she says.

Ms. Marcy discussed how to navigate decluttering landmines, why you shouldn’t buy anything to get organized and how to deal with boxes of items that could draw tears. Edited excerpts:

How has the pandemic affected people’s relationship with clutter?

For some people it has sparked this idea that we need to stockpile. Others say “I’m going to lose my mind if I have to look at this stuff any longer." There comes a point where stockpiling is more hazardous than not stockpiling. Physical hazards exist with clutter because you can trip, it creates dust and mold and it can be a fire hazard. Anybody who has lived through a natural disaster or any sort of emergency will attest that skills are more important than stockpiles. We’re also realizing the importance of having functional space. We don’t tend to look at our space, except maybe our kitchen counters, as functional space. For years we’ve been converting space in our house to storage. Then we take away that ability to add a desk when we need to, for example.

Why do people today struggle with clutter in a way that their parents or grandparents didn’t?

Clutter is a modern challenge. Hoarding is an evolutionary advantage that we have relied on as a species to succeed. Even 100 years ago we needed to hoard food and firewood to get through winter. Then, in a millisecond, life completely shifted because there is so much inexpensive stuff in our world now and we have removed every barrier for things coming into our house. We don’t have to produce a credit card or even leave the house: Stuff just shows up on the doorstep. On top of that we’re taught to keep and cherish everything that’s been given to us, that’s the Depression Era mindset. We feel that if we throw something out we’re a bad person. It’s such a dramatically different world now.

What mistakes do you see people make when tackling their clutter?

The biggest mistake is buying things for organization. Decluttering shouldn’t cost you money. Most people have clutter because they have more stuff flowing into their house than flowing out. If you had a clogged toilet, you wouldn’t use that toilet until you’ve cleared the clog. Clutter in your house is a clog. I ask people to commit to not bringing anything into their homes while we’re working together, except for essential items like medication or produce. We have to increase the flow of stuff leaving our homes and decrease the flow coming in until we’re living within our space.

Why is decluttering emotional?

Often when we’re clearing a space we come across a decluttering landmine. That could be a box of papers, a shirt or anything that has a deep emotional tie to an event in our past. Then we get sucked into the emotional journey that this object sparked for us. It either stops us in our tracks and we can’t move forward or it adds emotion to a simple project.

Is that why it’s easy to procrastinate?

That’s part of the reason. Another is that decluttering is delayed decision-making. For example, every single sheet of paper represents a transaction in your life. Mostly it’s a financial transaction, sometimes you gave your time to get this sheet of paper because you went to a conference, or it’s a very emotional transaction like divorce or death. With every single thing that you touch you replay the transaction and the emotion attached to it. All those boxes of divorce papers are reliving and rethinking that decision. You need to decide whether to keep it. If you don’t know where it goes in your house, that’s another decision. The more decisions you have to make the harder it is to make a decision.

What if you don’t know how or where to start?

Start anywhere. Say you walk into a closet and feel overwhelmed. Close your eyes and touch something then make a decision on whether you will deal with this now. Start with anything that is emotionally easy. If it’s not emotionally easy, go to the next thing. Keep going until you find that one thing you can deal with.

How do you suggest tackling sentimental clutter, like photos or inherited items?

Sentimental items should always be left for last because you have to build your decluttering muscle, your skill set, before you get to the really emotional stuff. Put sentimental items into one specific spot, that way you can control your interaction with them. If you know that there’s a box in the back of the closet that will make you cry, and you can’t go into the closet because of that box, take it out. When you have the support that you need, then you can start dealing with that box.

How should people deal with items that are tied up in grief?

Know what support you’re going to need while you declutter these items. If you’re going to need a therapist, schedule that so that it coincides with the project. Tell a friend or your spouse that you’re planning on dealing with these items and will need support. Maybe you need to order dinner, or you need a massage—whatever it is, know what’s going to give you support that you can count on to help you get through this emotional process.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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