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Christian Science Monitor Magazine: Tired of All That Clutter?

January 05, 2009




Tired of all that clutter? This may be the year to get organized.

By Yvonne Zipp | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor from the January 5, 2009 edition

If you’re one of the many Americans who can’t park your car in your garage because of the mounds of stuff lurking inside, fear not. Cherie Turner of Tallahassee, Fla., can relate.

After she started dating a man whose house was “always immaculate,” Ms. Turner vowed to rid herself of years of accumulated clutter – starting in her garage. “I opened the door and lugged everything … into the front yard. People were driving by and going through my stuff.” Turner says. She had to keep telling disappointed bargain hunters, “No, really, I’m not having a yard sale.” Three weekends later, her garage was clutter-free, and she started on her closets.

Turner credits support from the online community at The Clutter Diet with getting her all fired up about the process. (The website, which charges a $14.99 monthly fee, treats getting organized like a diet, monitoring progress with “clutter pounds lost” and assigning weekly tasks that are divided into a “meal.”) She believes that if she can get organized, anyone can.

“When I first moved away from home, my daddy came to stay [overnight] in my little apartment. The first thing he said to Mom was, ‘You know that room she used to have? Well, she has a whole apartment like that now,’ ” she says, laughing. “So, this has been a lifelong thing for me.”

It’s a lifelong thing for many Americans, say experts. Getting organized is a perennial on the country’s Top 10 New Year’s resolutions, right along with quitting smoking and exercising more, says Donna Smallin, a professional organizer in Phoenix, and author of several books, including the just-published “A to Z Storage Solutions.”

Part of the reason is that, thanks to mass production, we have far more stuff than in generations past, says Ms. Smallin. So finding a place for everything is a more monumental task than 40 years ago.

People often throw themselves into organizing with a frenzy of energy and then give up, exhausted, when they realize their house will never make the cover of House Beautiful. The quest for perfection just sets people up for failure, says Lorie Marrero, a professional organizer and the founder of The Clutter Diet, who is a big believer in the concept of “good enough.”

“I’m not perfect,” says Ms. Marrero. “My house is not a museum.”

Being organized doesn’t mean living in a showplace, both experts say. They define the term as being able to find what you want when you need it in a reasonable amount of time.

While you can spend hundreds of dollars on fancy units to hold your stuff, Smallin suggests slowing the flow before it gets into your home. Cut back on catalogs and magazines that end up in a pile, for example. “How would you like to catch up on your reading in one minute or less?” she asks. Dump everything in the recycling bin and start fresh. When shopping, “before you actually hand the cashier money, really think about what you’re buying. Do you maybe have something at home that would do the job just as well? Also think about, ‘Where am I going to put this?’… If it doesn’t have a home when it gets home with you, it’s going to end up being clutter.”

To create permanent change, she says, look at who you are now and allow yourself to let go of items – even if they were expensive or a gift from a relative – that no longer fit your lifestyle. “Instead of thinking about all the stuff you need to get rid of, think of all the things you absolutely love and that you use. They’re part of who you are today.”

Smallin suggests following the advice of William Morris, British craftsman and designer: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

“Then,” she says, “I think it becomes easier to let go of everything else.”

Looking for an excuse to get started? “There are lots of good reasons in this economy,” says Ms. Marrero. “We once found $5,000 in undeposited checks and cash in one client’s house.” You probably don’t have $10s and $20s lying around, but “you may find unused gift cards, rebate opportunities, or a few dollars in an old purse.”

And Smallin says a big payday isn’t out of the question. She cites an eBay survey that found that the average American family had $3,000 worth of items around the house that they could sell.

If you don’t feel like dealing with classified ads, Craigslist, or a consignment store, you can donate the items and take a tax deduction. (Check values at the website ItsDeductible Online.)

Start your organizing in the kitchen and utility room, Marrero advises. “Those are the hub of the home…. Everything else can branch out from there.”

If organizing doesn’t go smoothly at first, forgive yourself, she says. Look at changes over time, and you’ll be less likely to quit. Try getting a motivation partner: “If you have a goal and you don’t tell anyone about it, you can’t disappoint anyone – except yourself.”

Other tricks include rewarding yourself for doing a particularly dreaded task and setting artificial deadlines. Throw a party, suggests Marrero, and see if the thought of all those people in your house doesn’t inspire you to tackle the clutter.

To deal with nagging worries that you might need something again “someday,” says Smallin, “put the things in a box. Put today’s date on the box, and put it in a basement or garage or attic. In six months, if you haven’t used anything in the box, you know you don’t need it anymore.”

Smallin also suggests training yourself to ask, “Is this where this belongs?” before setting things down. “If you start throwing stuff down, it gives everyone else permission [to do the same], and it quickly becomes a problem.”

She recommends quick cleanups every night: “Clear the kitchen counter. Clear your desk. Go through the mail. It’s a lot easier to clean up than catch up.”

Use small chunks of time to organize, she advises. “The average American watches 20 to 30 hours of TV every week. Just think of all those hours of commercials.” Grab a drawer and sort through it in front of the TV. Then “put it back during the next commercial and get another one.”

But what if the mess isn’t yours? If you have family members who are pack rats, there are strategies beyond nagging – or throwing out other people’s stuff. Smallin suggests having clutter-free zones, such as the living room. “Tell the family, ‘This is the way this room looks. If you leave anything out, I put it in a donations box. If you want it back, you can do a chore.’ ”

But if you aren’t organized, she cautions, it’s not fair to expect your kids to be. “Work on yourself first.”

With a spouse, both experts recommend setting aside a room to be his or her space and shutting the door when company comes. If the clutter is creeping into shared areas, such as a bedroom, “I find negotiation works pretty well,” says Smallin. In exchange for them taking care of the mess, ask, ” ‘What is something I can do that’s maybe driving you crazy?’ Then set deadlines for yourselves.”

And if all else fails? Throw that party.

Need help getting organized? Here are 3 ways we can help:


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