Friday, March 12, 2010

Extreme De-Cluttering: Yes, it's morbid, but it works for me

I love reading articles like this one from the Washington Post about housecleaning. I especially like reading about de-cluttering. It’s the lure of preaching to the converted, I realize. I’m good about anti-clutter. In fact, I’m almost to the other extreme. A new acquaintance visiting our house for the first time once used the word “barren.” I prefer to think of it as minimalist, or Shaker, but the fact remains that my spouse and I both favor clean, bare surfaces rather then clever arrangements of knickknacks.

But I still love reading decluttering tips. I always think maybe I’ll pick up yet another one that will make it even easier for me to keep picked up. And sometimes I do. In early January, I read an article that discussed the value of putting aside just fifteen minutes a day for little household projects rather than stockpiling them for a rainy day. “With fifteen minutes a day, you could finish 30 projects by the end of the month,” the article proclaimed. I didn’t keep count, but I did find it useful. Now I spend 15 minutes each month clipping out articles I’ve had published and putting them in plastic sleeves, one 15-minute session putting photos in my photo album, one 15-minute session each week entering credit card receipts into our electronic checkbook, and so forth.

I have one more de-cluttering tip to add to the list. I concede that it’s a little bit severe, but it has served me well. If you were to die suddenly, would you want someone else to have to deal with this particular mess?

The first time I remember thinking this way was one early evening when I was taking a run around our old neighborhood in Framingham. That neighborhood was full of smallish houses close to the street, and one day I happened to glance over and see what must have been a two-foot-high stack of dusty and faded folders piled lopsidedly against the window. I didn’t know anything about the house’s occupant, but at that moment the thought came so clearly to me: “Whoever those folders belong to is never going to sort through them or do anything productive with them. No one is going to touch those folders until their owner is dead and someone else is charged with cleaning out the space.”

Of course, I couldn’t have known this. Maybe the owner of the folders had every intention of sorting through them, or maybe they were the kind of records that you are supposed to keep for a prescribed amount of time and then discard. Even more likely, maybe the owner was nowhere close to his final years and would sort through them himself upon the occasion of moving out of the house, rather than dying.

Maybe. But for some reason, the sight of those folders had a lasting effect on me. Now, whenever I come across a pile of unsorted or out-of-use items in my own house, I ask myself the same thing: am I just leaving these here for some distant day when someone else has to decide what to do with them? Sometimes the answer is no, such as the kids’ school papers, which I store in paper bags but weed through occasionally to keep what I think best represents their work for any particular year and recycle the rest. Same with books: I might stockpile them for a few months, but then I pull out the ones I don’t want anymore and bring them up to the library’s yard sale. But other times I find items like clippings of travel stories on destinations I’d love to visit and think, “No; these could sit here forever.” And then I try to get rid of them.

If this was a sport, would we call it Extreme De-Cluttering? Probably. No doubt there are more upbeat ways of decluttering that don’t dwell on morbidity, but for me, this provides the last and best measure of what to keep and what to toss. And our closets, shelves and file drawers are a lot tidier because of it.


  1. Interesting. I wish I could say our apartment looked sparse. I think a good way of looking at objects in the home with regards to their value also, is to ask "would I buy this now". If you wouldn't then trash it.

    I am also intrigued by this article you read regarding the 15 minutes a day. I think I will try this. I guess when you are thinking of the size of the project, it is important not to have projects that are too large. I know you were mentioning projects around the house, but I wanted to see if I could apply it to some writing projects and other things. If you are choosing projects which are too big, then you would know by the end of the month (by the lack of any being done, I suppose), and you could break them down.

  2. You're not wrong. My house would be even worse except for this thought. My mother died completely unexpectedly leaving hundreds of thousands of things in her house. We had three different auctions (for high, medium, and low items) and still filled a construction dumper. Worse, I discovered in our basement furniture that had come from great-grandparents' houses that had never been used again. And it wasn't even from my mother's side of the family! So while I am prone to be a keeper, I do think about an untimely demise as I plan: are my important papers filed and findable and up to date? Would this be easy for my loved ones to deal with when I am gone? And in some cases--yes. They will. Because they mean nothing to my kids or relatives but are valuable to me. So (and here's morbid for you!) I actually have containers marked "Can be recycled/trashed when I die." I've done the sorting. I know what's in there (my mother's grading books from teaching, papers of mine or my kids, etc.) that I enjoy. But will they be worth anything to anyone else? Nope. Never in a million years. And I figure, at least no one will need to question that!

  3. I use this tactic too, which is possibly weird, since I'm 28 and I might have more years ahead of me than behind. I feel the most motivated by the prospect of someone else dealing with my crap, and my second favorite decluttering tactic is the 'living in the present instead of the past' bit. I suppose living in a studio apt with my b/f already means I have less than most people but I still have much to do ;)