Clutter Clearing Trends

Organizing methods that work for people with mild clutter are not helpful for people who hoard or have longstanding clutter and can be harmful by creating false expectations, lowered self-esteem, and dashed hopes. Marie Kondo's books, which have become popular in recent years, are a case in point. She tells people to lay everything from their closets or drawers on the bed to evaluate them and only keep those they really love. Peter Walsh’s method is similar: drag a person’s belongings into the yard or warehouse, then abandon him or her to sort it out. 

There are many problems with these methods:
1. People who hoard think they love everything they own and people with long- standing clutter may no longer be able to tell whether they love a given item or not. Both groups are likely to have confused and conflicting emotions that make figuring out how they feel challenging.

2. Taking everything out of the closet or drawers increases chaos in a space that has a painful level of chaos already. Increased chaos heightens emotionality and stress which makes figuring out how one feels about anything more difficult.

3. Creating a big pile on the bed creates pressure to sort and clear it all before bedtime, or for the yard, before neighbors start to complain. Most people who hoard or clutter have difficulty making decisions and pressure to make decisions increases stress and difficulty.

4. The Kondo and Walsh approaches encourage making one-by-one decisions – the opposite of what is needed when there are large volumes of items to clear.

5. Many people who hoard or clutter struggle to prevent depression from taking over their lives. Anything that increases stress makes avoiding depression more difficult. Once depression takes hold under circumstances of heightened chaos, pulling out of it is likely to be harder than usual. Worse, avoiding self-blame may be more difficult as these methods are popular and presumably effective, so if they do not work for you, the tendency is to assume that it is your fault, which will make depression worse.

6. The issue that needs to be resolved is not whether an item is loved but whether living with the consequences of loving so many items is bearable. What matters is not how much an item is loved but whether it is USED. Not whether it could be used but whether it will actually be used by a given date.

7. The bed is already piled up in many hoarded homes; piling more items on top of existing items makes the situation harder to resolve and won’t lead to improvement.

8. Piling everything on the bed or in the yard requires substantial energy. Making decisions requires much energy and our capacity for making them becomes depleted quickly. Unless you get rid of most of your things, putting items that are staying back in the closet or house takes nearly as much energy as taking them out. Doing all three tasks in a single day may be fine for strong young people but older or disabled people need more time to recover from the energy outlay, and may need much more than a day to do it all. In the meanwhile, where do you sleep? What happens if it rains or birds poop on or animals get into your things?

These turn-a-problem-into-a-crisis approaches might work for people who hoard or clutter AFTER they have conquered their demons and only need to clear out. As long as your demons are still in charge (i.e., you are anxious about getting rid of things, or think any of the thoughts covered in the Transforming Thoughts that Perpetuate Hoarding chapter or feel any of the emotions or states in the chapter Transforming States that Perpetuate Hoarding in “Overcome Hoarding and Transform Your Life”), you would be better off not using these instant-crisis approaches. Some states, such as anxiety, depression, and perfectionism are sure indicators that such drastic methods are not likely to turn out for the best.

While emptying the closet or dresser may eventually be needed, the beginning of clearing out a room or home is not the time. There are better ways to begin:

A. Understand the reasons why you keep things you do not use before clearing out. Once you commit by hauling everything out, it will be a lot harder to be calm and understand and manage your feelings.

B. Organize your mind before clearing out:
1. Stay calm above all else.
- Breathe from your diaphragm and let your breath gradually slow itself down – do not force it.

- Relax your body. Scan your body to look for tight areas and release them (it may help to tighten an area for a moment, and then release the tension). Read my paper  Learning Deep Relaxation.

- Maintain a slight smile on your face all the time. Start with a big smile, hold it for a few minutes, then slowly release it into just a little smile that stays there all the time.

- Straighten your posture. Focusing on your posture keeps your mind from going off into non-beneficial areas.

2. Reject negative thinking, especially worries. Worries are a waste of mental energy. Instead of worrying, take constructive action. (P.S. clutter is never the right solution for any worry.)

C. Begin sorting by putting like things together, then decide how many of each you need. So if you sort all your T-shirts together and discover that you have 50 identical white tees, you likely do not need 50 white tees; if you wear a clean one every day and do laundry every two weeks, then you need 14 tees plus a few extras to allow for ruining some that you have. Discard the stained and ripped ones and donate the rest. You might think that it would make sense to stash the extras in a box and tuck it away somewhere for when more are ruined, but fabrics, like paper, turn yellow with age, be infested by insects, worms, or rodents, or become so musty that the smell cannot be washed out.

D. Work on clearing in short shifts – 15 – 30 minutes – so that your ability to make decisions will not be over-taxed. Work for whatever period seems best for you, then take a break and do self-care or at least something that requires no mental or physical effort or at least different efforts.

E. Use functional cues such as “have I used it in the past year?” rather than emotional cues like “do I love it?” No matter how much you love it, if you do not use it in any form, you will likely be better off without it. Even stopping to specifically admire an object intensely might count as use, but if you have many objects that you love or admire they will still make life difficult. Other functional cues might be “do I have similar items?” and “how many do I actually need?”

F. Start by clearing areas that will give you an emotional boost, such as your bed (and put on clean linens for an extra boost!), clearing the dresser or nightstand, or clearing areas that will improve functioning, such as your desk or the kitchen counter.

G. The best approach to hoarding and clutter is to make wholesale rather than retail decisions. Instead of deciding on each item individually, identify categories of items that can be discarded or donated such as "all clothes that do not fit" or "all papers or magazines more than a week old, whether they are read or not."

H. Clear surfaces and visible areas before tackling closets or drawers unless it is necessary to sort and reduce the storage areas to put away things in piles. If you must clear storage areas first, brace yourself for a bigger task, have resources like enough boxes and bags ready, and arrange for support so you do not get upset. 

I. Staging areas for sorted items is a good practice, but the bed is not the best place for that activity. Line up boxes or bags for things that are leaving and sort directly into them: Discard for damaged items, Recycle for items that can be re-used, Donate for things in good condition that can go to Goodwill, Give to _____ for items going to specific people, and Sell for items that have a sure market. Work should be organized so that it does not render essential functions impossible until you clear a bigger mess than you started with. As you take each item out of the closet or dresser, if you are not keeping it, drop it directly into the box where it should go.

J. When you are ready to tackle your closet or drawers, sort one small section at a time. That way you won’t commit to a larger energy outlay than you can really do or make a greater mess than you can cope with.

Ideas are not necessarily good or sensible just because they are popular. The world has seen many fads come and go and there will be many more. People can get excited about a lot of things that are not really good ideas. In organizing as with most other areas of life, it is a good idea to submit everything to skeptical inquiry.

On the other hand, a student mentioned “UnFuck Your Habitat: You’re Better Than Your  Mess” by Rachel Hoffman and it is the most honest, practical, sensible and delightful book on this subject in a long time. Don’t let the salty language put you off – she knows her stuff.

Read “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It” by Kelly McGonigal to understand this more.



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© Gloria Valoris, 2015

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