How to Get Rid of Clutter: A Five-Step Plan

Clear out your clutter and uncover a more peaceful self

| May-June 2001

It happens all the time. I’m racing out the door when I remember I have to pay a bill. No problem. I riffle through the latest pile of unread mail, scattering it over the dining room table. Nope, not there. Striding through the house, I scrutinize every paper-strewn surface. Nothing. Five minutes of very bad language later, I find the envelope in my purse, where I put it to remind myself to pay it. The stamps I track down in a folder on my desk tucked behind the file marked "Kitchen remodel." Of course I have pens, but they’re all dry. By the time I leave the house, I pretty much hate everyone, most of all myself.

Like most clutterers, I get fed up periodically and blast through the house tossing out aging mail, broken space heaters, almost-usable answering machines, and perfectly good skirts I haven’t worn since the Reagan administration. "There," I say firmly. "Never again." Within days, the clutter creeps back, oozing across the dining room table, over the guest room floor, and onto the spare bed.

I’m not alone. Many of us are drowning in a sea of junk, as waves of consumer goods and computer-generated paper roll into our homes. Catalogs, exercise bikes, pasta makers, and sweater vests drop in for a visit and never leave. One study showed that junk mail increased 13 times faster than the U.S. population in the 1980s, and it’s getting worse. More than one professional organizer––a field that has grown as fast as junk mail in the past 15 years––says she’s walked into homes so jammed with stuff she’s had to thread her way through stacks of paper to get to the kitchen sink.

Whether you need a complete overhaul of your current organizing system (if you laughed ruefully upon reading "organizing" and/or "system," this probably means you) or just a few spring-cleaning hints, there are methods to end all forms of clutter madness. "It’s not rocket science," says professional organizer Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out (Owl Books, 1998). And it only takes between one and three working days per room.

Three days? Who wants to spend three days elbow deep in dusty papers and old clothes? We do, Morgenstern says. The rewards are worth it. There’s the considerable time and aggravation you save when you know right where to find what you need and can get to it easily. But most important, eliminating clutter clears a path to the soul by creating a serene space in which to foster your dreams and plans.

Personal coach Cheryl Richardson, author of Take Time for Your Life (Broadway Books, 1998), underscores this concept with her clients, whom she counsels to start the organizing process by hanging up a detailed list of what they want most––love, travel, a different career––in the middle of the house. As you clear your clutter, Richardson says, “little by little, what you want will begin to show up.”

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