When we say that cleaning house is loaded, we’re not talking about your dishwasher. We’re talking about how decluttering is hard, emotional stuff.
“We tie memories to certain items, which keeps us from letting things go,” says Lauren Jackson, a professional organizer, clutter coach, and certified KonMari consultant. “Having to make those emotional decisions that we don’t want to face means that we just keep putting it off.”
“Decluttering allows you to focus on the things that bring value and purpose to your life,” Jackson says. “And when you don’t do it, it takes a toll — in the back of your mind, you know it’s there, waiting. Once you’re able to do it, you feel a sense of empowerment, which then boosts you to achieve so many other things.”
Below are Jackson’s tips for dealing with clutter, which will help you find space for the life you want.
Start Out Easy
Take a page straight from the playbook of clutter guru Marie Kondo and start with the simple stuff. The reason: Because decluttering can be emotional, it’s best to begin with categories of items that are less spiritually draining to sort through. Doing this will get you used to getting rid of things. According to Kondo’s KonMari Method, that means kicking it off with clothes, then moving on to books, papers, and miscellaneous items, and ending with sentimental belongings — the hardest possessions to let go.
Take It One Step at a Time
To avoid a freakout, don’t tell yourself you’re decluttering everything. That has high potential for making you feel overwhelmed, Jackson says: “Don’t look at the overall process of what you’re going through.”
Instead, tell yourself you’re decluttering one category of possessions (see above for the recommended order). If even that feels like too much, break it down into subcategories — going through shoes, say, or outdoor gear. The point is to keep it approachable. You’re looking for the trees through the forest here.
Tune In, Zone Out
You know how more popular restaurants often play their music louder than the snoozier corner diner? That’s by design: Music makes time feel like it’s going by faster, leading to faster turnover. Apply that logic to your cleaning time by putting on some tunes.
Not that you have to stop there. “Do something that you truly enjoy when you’re going through things,” Jackson says. “Listening to music, listening to podcasts, watching a TV series — if you do something you enjoy while you declutter, it can help you get started, so instead of just laying around on a Saturday, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll put on a show on Netflix and go through my closet while I’m watching.’” Creating a positive association with something you dread can take the sting out of it. Think of it as binge-watching with a purpose.
Be Ruthlessly Honest with Yourself
People’s homes become cluttered in part because they’re holding on to ideas of who they want to be or who they once were, not who they are today. Taking a clear-eyed look at your possessions and being honest about whether they’ve served their purpose can help you figure out if it’s time to hang on — or let go.
“Sometimes people don’t want to let go of something they never wore because they spent money on it, and they feel like they’ve wasted money if they get rid of it,” Jackson says. In economics, this is known as the sunk-cost fallacy: an irrational reluctance to change course because of the resources invested in the current course. But as economists point out, by focusing on past investments instead of future opportunities, no matter the loss, you’re holding yourself back.
Try reframing those sunk-cost items that you’re hesitant to release, even though they no longer have a place in your life. “Maybe it was just fun to buy it,” Jackson says of the unworn outfit. “It’s OK to give yourself that grace.”
Consider Your Children — to a Point
“There are a lot of things that parents keep that are tied to our kids — homework, report cards, things like that,” Jackson says. “Maybe it doesn’t bring us joy anymore, but you hang on to them for your kids. But if they don’t care for it, then why are we keeping it?” Offer grown children an opportunity to take what they want. And if they refuse? Get rid of it.
If tossing all that macaroni art makes your heart hurt, think of it in terms of Swedish death cleaning: Getting rid of possessions now will make it easier on your loved ones to handle your estate after you’ve passed away. Morbid? Maybe. But there’s a reason The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter became a bestseller: It works.
Pay Attention to the Feelings
Enlisting the help of others — a spouse, grown children, a professional organizer — can help your cause. But they will never be able to tell you what’s in your heart.
Jackson shares the story of one client who did not want to part with her children’s baby teeth. As part of her professional obligation, Jackson gently pressed, and learned that the teeth held a strong association for her client in regard to her own childhood, reminding her of the attention her father paid to her in times of dental distress.
“It was so weird to me, but to her these teeth were like time travel,” Jackson says. “They reminded her of her father, who had just passed away. You can’t do that for every single thing you have any memory connected to, but nobody else can tell you what holds joy for you.”
Declutter on the Reg
The trouble with clutter is that it keeps on coming. “Doing one big declutter every five years is a lot harder than doing a smaller one every six months,” Jackson says. “It’s not so overwhelming for you that way. Instead of being this big thing you don’t want to do, it’s something you can just jump into and free your head to tackle other things that are important to you in life.”
And that’s the point of this all: clearing the way to appreciate the life you have now. “Allow yourself to enjoy the second half of your life clutter-free,” Jackson says. What does that life look like? Soon enough, you’ll have the space to find out.
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano has been writing and editing content for and about women for 25 years. Her book, Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives (Simon & Schuster, 2016), has been called “a valuable addition to contemporary feminist writing” and “smart, even-handed, and personal” by leading media outlets.