Expert advice on how to declutter, organize and create a serene home
When you take a deep breath after walking into an airy hotel room, replete with all-white furnishings and only the sparest number of tchotchkes, you know the relief that’s possible when clutter goes by the wayside.
But before you can get rid of clutter in your home, the experts suggest that you track its origins.
“Ask yourself if your clutter mirrors the home environment you’re familiar with, if no one ever taught you how to get organized or if you’re rebelling against a ‘neatnik’ parent who made organizing distasteful,” suggests Regina Leeds, aka the “Zen Organizer” and author of Right Size…Right Now (Da Capo, March 2015). “Things could also have begun to unravel after a death in the family, a child going off to college, a new job with added responsibility or even the loss of a job. Good things and bad things can equally upset the apple cart.”
Turns out, all that stuff piling up in your home is doing more than attracting dust bunnies. Clutter is, in actuality, tied closely to your mood, your emotional state and, even, your health.
“When we talk about clutter, we talk about being unable to breathe in a particular room or that we’re paralyzed when it comes to knowing where to start to toss things out,” says Peter Walsh, an organizational design expert and author of Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight (Rodale, February 2015). “We use that language and instinctually we know that too much stuff metaphorically sucks the life out of a space.”
For Walsh, a person’s piles usually come down to two types of clutter. One is memory clutter—the stuff that reminds you of an important person or achievement or the stuff you’ve inherited from family. “It’s the cheerleading trophies or it can be what I call malignant memory clutter,” he says. “That can be stuff that takes you to a bad place when you look at it, like the files from a vitriolic divorce.”
“When you cut down the clutter, you’ll also introduce a massive level of mindfulness into your life that will change you forever.”
The other clutter is what Walsh calls the “I might need it one day” kind.
“That’s the fondue pot on way-up-high shelf in your kitchen that you need because you think you’ll one day throw one of the best fondue parties in the world,” he says. “It could be the wood piled up in the garage that your husband plans to use for a building project.”
See yourself in these clutter profiles? Read on and prepare to make some changes.
“While there’s nothing wrong with remembering the past or preparing for the future, if these things are paralyzing you in the present or stopping you from being prepared for the future, the stuff is robbing you of what you have, which is to live today,” Walsh says.
The insidious side of clutter
What we know about clutter is that it isn’t just about the stuff. It’s actually a real thing in your home that can prompt all sorts of stress, from social stress (you’re embarrassed to have people over because of your stockpiles) and spiritual stress (you never feel at peace in your space) to financial and relationship stress.
“If there’s clutter, there’s always a money issue somewhere in the mix,” Walsh says. “And there are almost always arguments about the stuff if one member of the family is stockpiling it.”
What we’re learning more about every day is the fact that clutter can be bad for your health.
“You can’t make your healthiest choices in a cluttered, messy, disorganized home,” says Walsh, citing research which shows that 77 percent of people who are overweight live in cluttered environments. “We’re also finding that the stress of clutter raises cortisol levels in our bloodstream that puts immense stress on our heart and brain.”
Clutter is actually something of a protective mechanism.
“As human beings, we are creative that way and ‘fat’ and ‘stuff’ are two of the most popular ways we protect ourselves,” Leeds says. “They form an unconscious buffer between whatever is causing us distress and our true self. But, when my clients fearlessly declutter, they’ll call me in a month and announce that they’ve lost five pounds.”
Conquering the chaos
Anyone can start clearing out the clutter. And, if you’re ready to shed, the experts recommend that you start in an area of your home that doesn’t scare you too much.
“Closets, kitchen and paper are the three most important trouble spots in any home, but the one that will be most difficult varies by individual,” Leeds says. “A woman might have multiple sizes in her closet and be too attached to start there, but, for her, the kitchen is a neutral place to start.”
For others, memorabilia and files can be the biggest challenge. “For this person, paper can be the demon that sends her screaming into the night,” Leeds says. “It helps to move through the house with the guiding principle that you want to move seamlessly from room to room being nurtured and supported by your environment at every turn.”
To achieve this, consider doing a room-by-room vision quest exercise, Walsh suggests. This means looking honestly at your space and asking yourself what vision you have for each room.
“Start with the master bedroom since that room sets the tone for the house,” he says. “If you share that room, ask your partner to think of three words that describe what he or she wants from the perfect master bedroom.”
With those agreed-upon words in hand—let’s say those words are haven, sanctuary or oasis—you can then speak honestly about the look (and feel) of the room.
“If the first thing I see in that master bedroom is a desk, a computer and a workstation, I have to ask if those items give you calm, serene, oasis,” Walsh says. “If I see a chair with clothes thrown on it, again, you have to honestly answer if that gives you the feelings of calm, serene, oasis.”
The end result should be a serene home you want to come home to.
“You’ll cut down the clutter and, by doing so, you’ll also introduce a massive level of mindfulness into your life that will change you forever,” Walsh says.