This post is the first in our new Simplify Series, which focuses on strategies for improving your health and outlook by simplifying various aspects of your life.
It’s February, and the famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, has seen his shadow. Chances are the forecast for the foreseeable future will be stuck on cloudy with a chance of snow, sleet, or freezing rain, and you will likely be spending a considerable time indoors. As you look around and take in your immediate environment, what do you see? Clothes and books on the floor? Mail and papers piled high on the kitchen counter or your desk? An attic or spare room that requires a road map to navigate through it? A closet and dresser drawers that are filled to overflowing? How does what you see make you feel? Stressed? Embarrassed? Overwhelmed? Frustrated? All of the above?
According to researchers, there’s good reason for those feelings. A cluttered environment saps your mental energy and increases your anxiety. You end up losing things and wasting time looking for them. It is distracting, drawing your attention away from important matters and disrupting your concentration. It becomes an irritant, a constant reminder that your work is never done. You can’t relax – or feel you shouldn’t – when everything around you silently screams chaos. You may even berate yourself, using labels like procrastinator or lazy slug.
Sounds pretty toxic, right? If any of these descriptions ring true for you, now is a perfect time to rid clutter and its nagging negativity from your life so you can reap the benefits of a more focused, productive state of mind and a calmer, more pleasant environment.
What is Clutter and Why Do We Cling to It?
In a sense, clutter is the physical manifestation of a decision that has been postponed. We may feel that we don’t have time to deal with the mail that’s piling up, or we don’t have a space or container that is suitable for storing an item, so we put it aside. And then there’s the fact that society places such high value on materialism. From a young age, we are assailed by ads that tell us that acquiring the right stuff will translate to better health, greater beauty, more success, and happiness – all of which makes us really good at rationalizing why we need to hang onto so many things.
What complicates those decisions further is the fact that many of our possessions carry emotional ties, signifying comfort, status, security, or love. Our possessions say something about who we are, so giving them away or discarding them can feel like we are giving away a body part. And, as it turns out, our reluctance to get rid of our stuff also has a physiologic basis. In fact, Yale researchers have reported that two areas of the brain that are associated with pain perception are also stimulated when we let go of items that are meaningful to us and to which we feel a strong connection. No wonder decluttering is so hard!
Clutter is also evidence of a mindset that’s rooted in fear and guilt. Getting rid of those “skinny” jeans or the treadmill that’s collecting dust in the corner would mean admitting defeat in your battle to lose weight, wouldn’t it? Tossing those beautiful but outrageously expensive and ill-fitting boots that you had coveted for months would be a waste of money, no? That tattered blanket evokes so many memories, how could you possibly part with it? And what if you need that jacket or that file someday, or finally find time to read that book? What if you throw it out and regret it later?
Enough! Clearly, decision paralysis has set in, so it’s time to be rational and take action to declutter your life. But how do you get started?
A Step-Wise Approach to Decluttering
Basic Ground Rules
There are a few general ground rules to follow if you are to unclutter your life successfully. First, be realistic. You won’t be able to tackle your entire house at one time. In fact, studies suggest that as we make more and more decisions, decision fatigue kicks in, and we may become increasingly impulsive or avoid making choices at all. Second, break the task into manageable pieces. Maybe you just tackle one drawer or closet, or perhaps you set aside a certain timeframe – an hour at a time, for instance – so you don’t get so overwhelmed that you abandon the task altogether. The third, very important rule is sort first, organize later. There’s no sense organizing things that you’re going to throw out. That wastes both time and decision-making capacity! And lastly, make the easy decisions first and act on them. By getting the easy decisions behind you, you give yourself the psychological advantage of having to deal with a smaller pile of stuff, effectively reducing your decision load and your stress level.
Eight Steps to Successful Decluttering
Ready to break free of your clutter? Let’s begin, one step at a time.
Maintaining Your New, Uncluttered Normal
It takes a concerted effort and a considerable amount of time to declutter your home or office environment, so you will want to keep clutter creep at bay once you’ve achieved a sense of order and organization. This preventive maintenance takes practice until it becomes a habit. Here are a few strategies that may be helpful:
Perhaps it’s time for all of us to consider how, by decluttering our environment, we might enrich our lives, reduce our stress, improve our health, and contribute to the good of others and our fragile planet.
Where to Donate Items in the Capital Region
There are a host of charitable organizations in the Capital Region that accept new or gently used furniture, clothing, footwear, books, and toys, as well as household supplies, personal care items, and food. You may also consider donating items to your local school, prison, church, library, hospital, senior center, or nursing home. Before you donate, though, check the organization’s website or call them directly, as some restrictions may apply.
The following is just a handful of charitable organizations in our area that welcome donated goods: