Decluttering Your Life

A hiker overlooks the sunset. Text "Not all classrooms have four walls" appears on the graphic.

Clutter is not just physical stuff. It’s old ideas, toxic relationships and bad habits. Clutter is anything that does not support your better self.

- Eleanor Brown

Are you overwhelmed by the clutter in your life?

Do you suffer from C.H.A.O.S. (Can’t have anybody over syndrome)?

Is your housekeeping style best described as, “There appears to have been a struggle?”

Do you hold onto stuff for years and end up throwing it away a week before you need it?

Do you often say, “My house is not dirty. I just love to have everything on display. Like a museum.”

If you think your workspace is messy, you should see the late British painter Francis Bacon's studio in London. Bacon, whose Triptych 1976 sold for $86 million in 2008, reportedly could not work in tidy spaces. Old photos show every floor and table surface drowning in a sea of debris—papers, paintbrushes, wood, clothing, champagne boxes, and more—leaving little room to even stand. After his death, the scene was lovingly dismantled and reconstructed in a museum in Dublin, where it took three years to re-create the mess.

I remember passing by someone’s desk one day and noticed a sign, “Messy works for me.” There will always be people who will try to defend being messy. Albert Einstein mused: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign of? Having presented time and stress management workshops for over 40 years, I can vouch for the fact that ‘messy’ does not work for most people. There may be an occasional exception but oh so rare! And just because you know where everything is, what do other people do to find things if you are absent for some reason. Studies have highlighted that people with cluttered desks can spend up to four hours a week looking for things that they have lost or misplaced within their immediate reach.

It’s important to distinguish between hoarding and just being messy or cluttered. You might be a hoarder if:

  1. Much of your stuff is useless or trash.

  2. You have an inability to throw anything away.

  3. The thought of discarding anything causes you severe anxiety.

  4. You are overly sentimentally attached to your possessions.

  5. You deny that you have a problem.

  6. You procrastinate to the point that you become paralyzed with inaction.

  7. You have a suspicion of other people touching your items.

  8. You have obsessive thoughts and fears about running out of an item or of needing it in the future.

  9. You are a compulsive shopper.

  10. You own more pets than you can reasonably care for.

  11. You feel safer surrounded by your stuff.

  12. You can no longer use certain areas of your home the way they were intended.

  13. You regularly check the trash for accidentally discarded objects.

This lesson is not intended to treat hoarders. If you suspect you are a hoarder, reach out to your family physician for help. They will be able to refer you to a specialist for assistance.

I would also be remiss if I did not discuss ‘Minimalism’ and debunk some common misconceptions about it. What is minimalism? My personal definition would simply be, simplicity. Keep it simple! David Bruno states: “When we crave simplicity, we are not after an easier life. We are after life.”

Joshua Becker writes: “Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we value most and the removal of everything that distracts from it." It is about having a clear understanding of what you value most in life. This can mean things that can take up your space and time, then intentionally removing anything in your life that gets in the way of what you value most. Using this definition, minimalism will look different for everyone. Minimalism is not getting rid of everything you own. It’s about making room for more of what matters. Zina Harrington adds: “I don’t want my kids to think of minimalism as getting rid of everything they own. I want them to see it as the exact opposite. I want my children to learn the power of surrounding themselves with people and things that bring them absolute joy.” Minimalism is not restrictive nor does it make life harder. It does not mean you can’t collect things or have hobbies. And it does not mean you have all-white rooms with little furniture or decor. Minimalism is all about finding the right amount of stuff for you. The key is keeping only what adds value to your life and removing the rest. As long as everything in your space is something you either use often or absolutely love-that’s minimalism. Depending on how you personally perceive or define minimalism, there is lots for you to mull over in this lesson.

This lesson is really aimed at the average Jack or Jill who are constantly challenged by clutter in many aspects of their lives and would like to find remedies for their malaise.

It’s about making room for more of what matters.

I participated in a very good personal development program many years ago. It was entitled, Context: The Pursuit of Excellence. There were numerous learnings I tapped into in this program but perhaps the most meaningful principle I learned was what they called, “Scrubbing Your Space.” A regular program of decluttering in many aspects of your life opens up space for newer and exciting opportunities. If you are hanging on to old and outdated habits and continue to fill your mind and hands with yesterday’s stuff, opportunities will just pass you by.

What is clutter?

Clutter defined: noun. A collection of things lying around in an untidy mess. An untidy state.

Clutter is not just the stuff on the floor. It’s anything that gets between you and the life you want to be living.

Clutter is anything unfinished, unused, unresolved or disorganized.

Clutter is anything that does not support a better you, even if it is organized.

Perhaps my favourite definition of clutter is the one used to introduce this lesson. Eleanor Brown defines clutter:Clutter is not just physical stuff. It’s old ideas, toxic relationships and bad habits. Clutter is anything that does not support your better self.” Clutter is not just about stuff; it’s also about bad habits, chronic procrastination, toxic relationships, holding grudges and an inability to forgive, over-scheduling, a busy mind (‘the monkey mind’ syndrome), negative thoughts, and unrealistic expectations of both others and yourself. To be your best self, there are some critical things you should never tolerate: an unhealthy life style, draining or toxic relationships, a disorganized living space, negativity, too much stuff, and living without fun.

This lesson will focus on three specific areas in helping you to declutter. We will address (1) Too much stuff. (2) Toxic people and relationships. (3) Cluttered mind (the monkey-mind syndrome). Holding grudges and an inability to forgive, chronic procrastination, bad habits, and others will be addressed in future lessons.

A place for everything and everything in its place.

Have you ever found yourself wondering: “How did I get so much stuff? I heard this statement in a recent interview when the topic of ‘stuff’ came up, “At this point, I have ordered so much stuff, I don’t even know what’s happening any more. If UPS shows up with a llama tomorrow, it is what it is.” We feel the weight and burden of our clutter. We tire of cleaning and managing and organizing. Are you aware that four out of every ten North Americans rent offsite storage? And a large number of people who have garages in their home don’t have room to park cars inside them. Melissa Michaels adds: “Clutter wants to take over your home and make you feel defeated. It wants you to think your house is a wreck and you are powerless to conquer it because every day it’s there, taunting you. Don’t let your stuff control you.”

No discussion on stuff would be complete without the musings of George Carlin. He wrote: “That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all a house is-a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. And when you leave your house, you have to lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with the crap you’re saving. All they want is the shiny stuff.”

Coat hangers are a wonderful metaphor for stuff. Dr. Friswell Freeman writes: “Coat hangers are a wonderful invention: They don’t cost much; they’re universally available; and they almost never wear out. Yes, coat hangers are terrific, until you acquire more than you need. Then they create chaos in the closet. If you’re closet becomes overloaded with unused hangers, you’ve created a nightmare. Extra coat hangers become tangled up in everything. Before long, you’re spending more time untangling hangers than you are selecting your wardrobe. Most things in life are like coat hangers. There’s a right amount, and there’s too much. Find the right amount and life becomes a little easier. Become overloaded, and you’ve got a mess on your hands. And, what about cardboard boxes? One thing no one ever talks about when it comes to being an adult is how much time we debate keeping a cardboard box, because, it’s, you know…it’s a really good box.

Here are some signs that you have too much stuff:

  1. Every surface in your house is cluttered.

  2. You can’t find what you need when you need it.

  3. You end up buying replacements for things you already own because you can’t find the original.

  4. You and other people in your house don’t know where things are.

  5. Things in your house don’t have a place where they belong.

  6. You have things stored somewhere other than your house.

  7. You frequently make excuses for the way your house looks.

Live by this rule: A place for everything and everything in its place. Make sure everything has a designated location or a ‘home’ and return things to these designated places when you are finished with them. It’s amazing that we won’t take 30 seconds to return things to where they belong yet spend 30 minutes searching for them later. It’s all a matter of self-discipline and establishing good habits.

Here are some reasons you struggle to declutter:

  • Keeping items ‘just in case.’

  • Keeping items to use ‘someday.’

  • Feeling you are wasting money by getting rid of things you spent a lot of money on.

  • Feeling wasteful getting rid of items that are still useful.

  • Feeling guilty or obligated to keep an item.

  • You have a sentimental attachment to it.

  • It’s something you used in the past and letting go is hard.

  • You are saving things for family members (who may or not want it).

  • Having lots of stuff makes you feel safe and secure.

  • Thinking you need to organize, when really you need to declutter.

  • Feeling like you don’t have time to declutter.

  • Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work to declutter or not even knowing where to start.

Tisha Morris adds: "There’s a garden variety of reasons we have clutter. Uncontrolled consumer impulses, emotional sentiment, memories of the past, fear of a future need, guilt or obligation, and hope for a future change are some of the most common. As emotional beings, we have the tendency to infuse our belongings with emotion. In many ways, we perceive these items as being a part of us or an extension of ourselves."

Here are some hard truths about clutter:

  1. Nothing you own is ever really gone; it will continue to exist…somewhere.

  2. The best way to clear clutter is to reduce what you bring in.

  3. Many of us shop to escape our feelings.

  4. Every, single thing you own is something you have to take care of.

  5. Clutter has been linked to depression.

  6. The longer you keep something, the more attached you become.

  7. Eventually, someone will have to decide what to do with every item you own.

Paradox of Possessions: The more things you have, the less you have time to enjoy them.

Rules of Decluttering

You get to decide what goes and what stays. If you love it, and you have enough space, that may be enough reason to keep something.

  • Declutter one area at a time.

  • Duplicates are (usually) unnecessary.

  • If you haven’t used it in 6 months, it can probably go. Make exceptions for seasonal items.

  • If it costs more to store than the value it brings to you, let it go.

  • Don’t allow other people’s ideas of what is important to dictate what you keep or declutter.

  • If someone else thinks something is particularly special, maybe they should store it instead of you.

  • You can choose to sell something but it’s also OK to give it away if that’s easier.

  • Not everyone has the same tolerance for clutter. It’s OK if you desire more or less of it than someone else.

  • Most things can be replaced if necessary.

  • Keeping something for somebody might be holding you back from living now.

As emotional beings, we have the tendency to infuse our belongings with emotion. In many ways, we perceive these items as being a part of us or an extension of ourselves.

It is critical for you to ask the following questions to help you declutter. Let’s put a little fun into these fundamental questions. Personalize this process and have a meaningful conversation with your stuff:

  1. Do I need you?

  2. Why do I have you?

  3. How long has it been since I last used you?

  4. Am I keeping you out of obligation or expectation?

  5. Am I holding on to you for sentimental value?

  6. Am I saving you just in case?

  7. Do I have more than one of you?

  8. Do you still fit?

  9. If I was shopping today, would I purchase you?

  10. Do you work properly?

  11. Am I holding on to you to repair or fix-up one day?

  12. Could I use your space for something else?

  13. Would you like to have a new home?

Take some quality time to reflect on these questions and be honest with yourself.

This is very hard work. Remember, less stuff really means less to organize, less to clean, less to store, more room to breathe, less stress. I would recommend you do a slow declutter, in other words, clear out the stuff without overwhelming yourself or making a bigger mess.

Erica Layne writes: “You know that dopamine hit you get when you click to buy something online? I get that same hit when I find something in my home to donate. So lately, when I get the itch to shop. I go to my closet and find something to pass on instead.” She adds: “Most of us who are weighed down by mental clutter, the to-do lists and calendar events in our brains-find a shocking amount of relief when we cut back on physical clutter. If you’re environment is less chaotic, your mind will be too.”

Obviously, to end the clutter problem, you need to stop bringing stuff into your home. From this point on in your life, practice the one in-one out rule. If you bring something into your house, one item has to leave. Some people I know, who are in the downsizing or simplicity mind set, practice the one in-two out rule. Remember, these are rules!

If you want your space to stay clean, always remember these ‘Four Unbreakable Rules':

  1. Everything has a home.

  2. Use it or lose it.

  3. Never ignore or pass anything that needs to find a home.

  4. Use little minutes to tidy any chance you get.

I would highly recommend you search out the works of Peter Walsh. He is a world leader in decluttering stuff and his how-to wisdom is just so practical and easy to use.

Now, Let’s look at the subject of toxic people.

Toxic People

In life, you must realize there is a role for everyone you meet. Some will test you. Some will use you. Some will love you and some will teach you. The people in your life should be a source of reducing stress, not causing it; the ones who are truly important are the ones who bring out the best in you. A true friend is like having a second self. You cannot hang out with negative people and expect to have a positive life. Maturity is learning to walk away from people and situations that threaten your peace of mind, self-respect, values, morals, and self-worth. Not everyone will make it to your future. Some people are just passing through to teach you lessons in life. Hans F. Hansen writes: “People inspire you or they drain you. Pick them wisely.”

What you see in the world around you is a reflection of who you are. Your diet is not only what you eat. It is what you watch, what you listen to, what you read, and the people you hang around with. Be mindful of the things you put into your body emotionally, spiritually and physically. Life is really a mirror.

Toxic people you should just get rid of:

  • Those who spread negativity.

  • Those who criticize you all the time.

  • Those who waste your time.

  • Those who are jealous.

  • Those who don’t care.

  • Those who are self-centered.

You don’t have to feel guilty about removing toxic people from your life. It doesn’t matter whether someone is a relative, romantic interest, employer, childhood friend, or a new acquaintance - you don’t have to make room for toxic people who cause you discomfort or try to make you feel inferior.

It could even be someone in your immediate family, I was visiting Victoria, British Columbia during one summer where I met two sisters wearing matching T-shirts. Their message was: sisters by circumstance, friends by choice. Over coffee, we had an interesting conversation. Seems at one point they were estranged and did not contact each other for a period of over 10 years. One of them finally initiated contact and over a period of time, they mended fences and actually became very good friends, Unfortunately, not all stories have happy endings like this one. While it may be uncomfortable, it may be necessary to cut toxic family members out of your life. Blood isn’t necessarily thicker than peace of mind.

You cannot hang out with negative people and expect to have a positive life.

Sometimes you let go of people without even noticing. You stop thinking of them every day. You stop waiting for them to reply to you. You stop allowing them to take up so much space in your life. You move on, you go about your day without worrying about them. You accept that they are no longer a part of your life. You just let them go, simple as that. It’s so nice when toxic people stop talking to you. It’s like the trash took itself out.

Will Smith writes: “Stop letting people who do so little for you, control so much of your mind, feelings and emotion.” Never let someone with the significance of a speed bump become a roadblock in your life.

Make sure your enemy is not living between your own ears. Sometimes you are the toxic person. Sometimes you are the mean, negative person you’re looking to push away. And that doesn’t make you less worthy. Keep on checking yourself. Mistakes are opportunities. Look at them, own them, grow from them and move on. Do better, be better. You are human. It’s OK.

Never let someone with the significance of a speed bump become a roadblock in your life.

Finally, let’s look at calming the mind.

Calming the Mind

Have you ever been subjected to the ‘monkey mind’ syndrome? This is when your mind is going a million miles a minute and the more you try to will it to turn off, the faster it starts spinning. One way to create the monkey mind is to clutter up your schedule so tight that you have to fit things in. You are in the crazy-busy cycle. You allow no breathing time between appointments. You must squeeze out the most from every minute. You can’t say no to anything. Are you a human being or a human doing? The definition of effective time and self-management states: to get the most from yourself in the time available that you can comfortably sustain. We will be looking at this in depth in the time management lesson. Remember the words ‘comfortably sustain.’ You must learn the art of saying no, with tact and diplomacy, without offending others or feeling guilty. Quite a challenge!

It’s important to know how to slow down or even stop those thoughts. A good way to do this is by completing a brain dump. It helps declutter our minds so we can give ourselves space to think. To do a brain dump, all you need is a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Your goal is to write down absolutely everything that comes to mind. You want to focus on recording your thoughts without worrying about what to do with them. Just write down every thought on paper. Don’t fret about it being messy, and don’t try to organize it. You will process it later. By getting your thoughts onto paper, you can see everything all at once and assess the best way to organize it. And then you free up the space in your mind for the task currently at hand.

How many of us could go without our cell phones for an extended period of time? We have even heard some people developing anxiety withdrawal because they left their smart phone at home or the office. Take an occasional technical time out: turn your phone off or put it on airplane mode when not expecting contact. We are all so used to having our phones on, in our hands 24/7. The constant checking of email, twitter, texts and the like put our response systems on constant edge. So, if you’re enjoying an afternoon with family or friends, or just taking some personal down time to relax, put your phone away. The act of actually turning off the receiver lets you brain know the phone is not a priority right now and it can relax.

Some people have a need to overthink. Overthinkers have trained their brains to focus on uncertainties because they are trying to solve them. Their brain is like that of a two-year old constantly seeking answers. Overthinking can cause the mind to experience “emotional hangovers” which can lead to depression. Signs of overthinking: second guessing everything, analyzing things to death (paralysis by analysis), expecting the worst, delaying making important decisions, not letting things go, criticizing yourself a lot; all may result in feeling like you can’t turn your brain off.

Let me introduce you to the principles of mindfulness. It’s a pretty straightforward word. Have you ever noticed children while they are playing? They are often so involved in what they are doing, that they seem to be in another world. Mindfulness suggests that the mind is fully attending to what’s happening, to what you’re doing, to the space you’re moving through. No more multi-tasking. That might seem trivial, except for the annoying fact that we so often veer from the matter at hand. Our mind takes flight, we lose touch with our body, and pretty soon we’re engrossed in obsessive thoughts about something that just happened or fretting about the future. And that makes us anxious. Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, totally aware of and accepting the current moment for exactly as it is without judgement or trying to change it.

Some final thoughts

The more you say ‘no’ to things that don’t matter, the easier it is to say ‘yes’ to things that do.

When you own less stuff, you will find more money, more freedom, less stress, and less worry.

It’s amazing how 3 minutes with the wrong person feels like an eternity, yet 3 hours with the right person feels like only a moment.

Look around. All that clutter used to be money.

Sometimes you don’t know the weight of something you’ve been carrying until you feel the weight of its release.

The unused shoes sitting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes.

You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.

Think of your closet space as valuable real estate. Don’t allow items to dwell there without paying rent. If you don’t wear it, evict it.

If you’re not using the stuff in your home, get rid of it. You’re not going to start using it more by shoving it in a closet somewhere.

It’s not an empty nest until the kids get their ‘stuff’ out of the basement.

Beware of impulse buying based on stress, time crunches and fatigue.

Shopping has become a hugely popular leisure activity that often has nothing to do with need.

Don’t get so thirsty for opportunity that you drink from every cup handed to you. That’s how you get poisoned.

Ridding your life of clutter and baggage will teach you this: It’s amazing what you can let go of and not even miss.

Just because something made you happy in the past, doesn’t mean you have to keep it forever.

Nobody ever said, "I regret decluttering."

Food for Thought

Do you sometimes feel you are drowning in your stuff?

What one thing can you do this month to simplify your life?

From this point on, practice the one in, one out rule. If you bring something into your house, one thing has to leave.

Each day for the next month, give away, throw away or donate at least one item.

Choose one quote every day or perhaps one or two every week if you like. How do these quotes speak to you? What applications do you see in your life? Share your chosen quotes with a family member, a friend, a business colleague. Create a ‘quote of the day’ club at work.

Life is really simple but we insist on making it complicated.

- Confucius

If I had known what it would be like to have it all, I might have settled for less.

- Lily Tomlin

You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?

- Stephen Wright

Later is the best friend of clutter.

- Peter Walsh

Progress is discovering what you can do without.

- Marty Rubin

Clutter is a weight that has built on top of you so gradually, you don’t even realize that it is holding you down.

- Mary Johansson

Never underestimate the importance of removing stuff you don’t need.

- Joshua Becker

It’s not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.

- Bruce Lee

When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.

- Marie Kondo

Clutter is the physical manifestation of unmade decisions fueled by procrastination.

- Christina Scalise

If you want to improve your life immediately, clean out a closet. Often, it’s what we hold onto that holds us back.

- Cheryl Richardson

The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.

- Marie Kondo

It’s not your salary that makes you rich, it’s your spending habits.

- Charles A. Jaffe

Be a ruthless editor of what you allow into your home.

- Nate Berkus

We need much less than we think we need.

- Maya Angelou

In today’s rush, we all think too much, seek too much, want too much and forget about the joy of just being.

- Eckhart Tolle

Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.

- Oprah Winfrey

You don’t let go of a bad relationship because you stop caring about them. You let go because you start caring about yourself.

- Charles Orlando

Your home should be the antidote to stress. Not the cause.

- Peter Walsh

If you’re tired of organizing stuff, stop buying stuff.

- Joshua Becker

Clutter is nothing more than postponed decisions.

- Barbara Hemphill

My dog and my cat have taught me a real lesson in life. Shed a lot.

- Susan Carlson

Opening up your closet should be like arriving at a real good party where everyone you see is someone you like.

- Amy Collins

Getting organized is a sign of self-respect.

- Gabrielle Bernstein

The first step in crafting the life you want is to get rid of everything you don’t.

- Joshua Becker

Decluttering is infinitely easier when you think of it as deciding what to keep, rather than decoding what to throw away.

- Francine Jay

Clutter is the enemy of clarity.

- Julie Cameron

Next Lesson: There is No One Single Definition of Success

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