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How to Declutter Your Life

We usually approach this task in the wrong way. Here's how to truly make a dent in life's clutter.
Buzzle Staff Jul 18, 2020
If you "Google" the topic "declutter your life," you'll get no less than 780 links to the "most relevant" Web sites on this topic. Clutter is such a prevalent problem that the hoarding syndrome has garnered its own name: disposophobia. (Get it?) The syndrome even spawned a hit stage play (called The Dazzle).
With all these resources at our fingertips, why write this article about decluttering? For the simple fact that I think we start in all the wrong places.

A lead-in to the 'declutter' phenomenon

Don't get me wrong - if you can't beat a path to your front door because of head-high clutter in your way, then you have a serious problem. (I once lived a few doors down from someone whose living room was overrun with stacks of newspapers that high. That's one way to dodge answering the door on Halloween, but it sure makes it tough to get your mail.)
Plenty of sources will tell you to keep on a counter or desktop only what you use each day. True enough. Keep that lemon zester in the drawer. And keep your Post-it notes out of reach from those who have yet to learn their alphabet. Other sources will tell you how to organize your files. Color coding is great, as long as you remember the color key - and don't ever run out of the appropriate color. To me, that's like making sure you never wear white after Labor Day.

Those 'lists' and results ensuring wheezes! Why do we even get there?

There's the ubiquitous "to do" list. Some people say this is counterproductive; it makes us feel guilty about the things we don't finish. A newer twist is the "perhaps list." Less commitment and less guilt involved if things get shoved to the next week or month.
Lists get more complicated if you branch out from grocery lists and simple reminders. Think about a "to do" list with categories for physical, mental, spiritual, spousal, friend, and business-related items. (That's one organizational guru's suggestion.) Do I have time to make a list that long? I call that endeavor a point of diminishing returns.
Software products claim to help you find anything you need within seconds - far more efficiently than filing. But what about the time to install the software and set it up to meet my needs? Sounds a lot like work to me.

Where does the real 'clutter' emanate from?

Who hasn't kept that pair of jeans that they'll never fit into again? Something about the buttons or the style carries too many terrific college memories with it. OK, maybe keep the jeans. But clutter collects dust. Less clutter = less stuff to dust. That's a good time-saving strategy. But we forget to do one important thing first: declutter our brains.
What's buzzing around in your head? If it's cluttered with too much thinking about, worrying about, wondering about, you'll never get to the material decluttering. (Or worse - you could toss someone else's prized possession - and they'd hang that over your head for the next 20 years.)
It's more palatable to clean a closet than clean our brains. Why? We're a culture of "doers." All of life's problems are resolved in a two-hour movie or a one-hour sitcom. Sports competitions are played to completion in a couple hours. (OK, four hours if you're the NFL, NBA, or some other group that gets interrupted every eight minutes for commercial breaks.)
Try starting a conversation with a friend by saying, "I have this problem. I was wondering what you thought ..." Chances are, you'll barely get the explanation out of your mouth before a well-intended friend jumps in to the said conversation with unsolicited suggestions. There's a time and place for doing. But when you tackle the world of decluttering, the mind is usually the most cluttered place of all. Instead of "doing," focus on "being."

It is time to have a tête-à-tête with 'you' and the 'voice in your head'

Are you so worried about next month's house payment that you can't enjoy your youngest one's soccer game? Does your mind still spin from work politics when you eat supper? What slice of your mental energy do you save each day to share with your spouse or roommate?
The secret to decluttering your brain is to figure out what you can and can't change. Maybe the only thing you can change about certain situations is your attitude. For all the worrying we do as parents, our children can still get hurt even if we're standing beside them.

Because 'knowing' is half battle won

Ask yourself what overwhelms you. Figure out what you can do to avoid situations like that or keep them from escalating. You don't have to get sucked into a maelstrom just because one is whirling around you.
This mental inventory requires some soul searching. Maybe writing some things down will help you. Gosh, no, not a list - just some cues to help you think: "I worry most about _____." "What I fear most is _____." "The single most important thing in my life is _____." "If I could change one thing in my life it would be _____." If I didn't have this job/this house/this [fill in the blank], I would _____." "If I channeled some of my free energy into one worthy cause, it would be _____."
On a larger scale, this helps you learn what's most important to you. If you are honest with yourself, you may be surprised at what you find. Mostly everyone will say they value their families and friends. But our heads may be cluttered with what that truly means.
We may value the status we have at work. We may feel good about being around coworkers because we know we're well-dressed and well-regarded for that. We may feel entitled to a certain standard of living because we work hard for it.
Our self-esteem, pride of accomplishment, sense of stability - and the accompanying mental clutter - may be wrapped around all of this more tightly more than we imagine. Letting go of this is much harder than letting go of outgrown clothes or a well-worn easy chair.

A leaf from my book

For years, we worried about money. In the "excessive '80s" when everyone seemed to be spending money on vacations in Cancun, we were opening IRAs. We felt good about how carefully we handled money. Then we watched almost all of it disappear five years ago in a series of disasters: first with our house, then with our health, then with our jobs. We worried ourselves sick for about nine months.
Then we realized we couldn't work any harder than we already were; no amount of financial planning could have shielded us from those events or their consequences, and we'd done nothing wrong.
In addition to weathering serious illnesses and multiple surgeries, we lost our house, half our possessions (including all our clothes), most of our life savings, and every photo, award, or piece of memorabilia we'd ever owned. (Note what's in that list? What are your "treasures"?)
As stripped-down as our material possessions suddenly became, our minds were still cluttered with way too much "stuff." Yes, we adopted a much simpler lifestyle out of necessity. But more importantly, we learned how to truly cherish our family. Squabbling became so clearly silly that we just didn't do it anymore.
People whom we thought were friends abandoned us. We learned the meaning of true friendship as we rebuilt our lives. Our newly decluttered minds had a sharper focus of what's truly important and what's not. And let me tell you: the "what's not" list is a whole lot longer than the "what is" list.
Decluttering your mind is the ultimate "letting go." It's a necessary part of self-care that we rarely acknowledge, let alone do anything about. So keep the lemon zester, the one-eyed stuffed dog, and Aunt Alma's kitsch. Ditch the worry, the frustration, the anger, and anything else that's cluttering your mind's closet. You'll be glad you did.