You may well have an overstuffed wardrobe, a collection of old birthday cards you can never get rid of but haven’t read since opening them, or a garage full of decade-old junk that serves no purpose.
Look, we’re all human. We attach objects and items of clothing to valuable memories and feelings. But building up too much clutter can seriously mess with your life. And when it reaches that point, you’ve moved from being a bit sentimental to full-on hoarding.
Perhaps you’ve still got the shirt you were wearing when you met your partner, even though you no longer fit in it and it has holes. And that’s good — your clothes should mean something to you.
Meanwhile, you’re moving house and arguing with the very same partner about what to keep from your ever-expanding wardrobe. And they’re the souvenir you should really treasure. So what gives?
Finding it difficult to give away possessions is a complicated issue that sometimes has to do with fears about letting go of the past, worries about being wasteful, or just not knowing where to start with organizing your mountain of possessions.
But it’s possible to overcome those obstacles and get rid of absolutely all (or fine, maybe just half) of that extra stuff.
Stashing away everything we’ve ever bought, touched, or blown our nose into can contribute to serious stress, and stressful life events can also be the cause of hoarding behavior.
For one thing, a cluttered desk can be distracting and overstimulating when it’s time to buckle down.
And constantly having to look around at all the stuff that really belongs in the nearest garbage truck, or in a donation box headed toward those who really need it, can provoke feelings of guilt and anxiety.
(You don’t always need to feel guilty about avoiding chores though — Sofa Sunday can be the one.)
Hoarding disorder, according to the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is a diagnosable condition.
It falls under the umbrella of obsessive-compulsive and related disorders and can often coexist with OCD. And it’s not how it looks on the TV.
Researchers estimate that 2.5 percent of people in the U.S. have hoarding disorder, keeping them from fully using their living space and interfering with their daily lives.
Prevalence of hoarding disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31200169/
(We’ve got plenty of tips for maximizing a small living space if you need them.)
But for those who don’t live with this psychological condition, getting rid of extra stuff can be liberating and energizing. Some organization experts say difficulty throwing stuff away isn’t about selfishness: It’s often a way to avoid change.
A house full of clutter may also reflect the procrastination habits of a person who’s just too distracted or unmotivated to get rid of old ticket stubs and used garbage bags.
Whether you have hoarding disorder (and you should seek a consultation with a psychological health professional if you feel like you do) or simply need to strategize how to unclutter your life, allow us to give you the full walkthrough.
Being tidy and having OCD are not the same thing at all — we clear up the difference here.
It can sometime be hard to tackle physical messes before tackling mental and emotional clutter and letting go of the past.
A newly cleaned room feels peaceful and spacious — not to mention fully functional, now that the 15-year-old treadmill-turned-clothes-rack has been sent to a better place.
But clearing clutter is a lot easier said than done. There are lots of excuses we use to weasel our way out of cleaning up, like not having enough time, being too tired, or thinking we’ll use the stuff at some point.
(Maybe that broken pen could be a hair accessory! Maybe that 2016 calendar will be useful on the other timeline! Maybe I will listen to that K-Fed album again! Clue: None of these things will happen, and probably for the better.)
Luckily, we’ve got some suggestions to make the task just a little bit easier. Try these 12 tips and watch the clutter vanish, no English governess required.
1. Set aside about 20 minutes every day to clean
That way, you don’t have to worry about the clothes closet swallowing you whole and regurgitating you in Narnia, or starting a job you’ll never finish. You might not get it all tidied up, but you’ll get into a healthy habit, and it won’t seem so intimidating a task.
We found 35 ways to work healthier habits into your day.
2. Question your reasoning
Ask yourself: Are you keeping this item because it makes you happy? Or because you think you should keep it?
If it’s the latter, throw that broken Tamagotchi in the trash. Then you won’t even have to clean up Tamagotchi poops. That’s a tidy-up within a tidy-up. Cleanception.
The best reason not to throw stuff away is reducing food waste — here’s how.
3. Tackle the “maybes”
When going through items to give away, make a pile of items you “might” need and hide them somewhere for a month. Or, if you live with someone else, get them to do it.
If over the course of that month you find that you don’t need them even once, they’re probably not essential enough to keep. To the trash (or recycling) with them.
4. Remember your memories aren’t in physical objects
They’re in your mind. It’s hard to give away sentimental items like a great-grandparent’s dish set, but holding onto the dish set doesn’t mean you’re forgetting about the great-grandparents.
Plus, whoever you’re memorializing would hate to think that hanging onto this physical object was causing so much distress. Maybe put aside some time to really sit with their memory, rather than hoarding and forgetting about valuable objects attached to it.
And if you’re still hanging onto your ex’s old sweater, you need to forget about them pronto.
5. Dump the stack of old magazines
If you haven’t already read them, you probably won’t. If you’ve read them already, you’re unlikely to browse them again. Instead, keep a folder of your favorite magazine clippings, and donate the rest of the collection to a local library (or recycle).
6. Refresh your wardrobe
Try this trick: At the beginning of a new season, turn all the hangers so they face right.
After you wear an item once, turn its hanger around to face left. Once the season’s over, keep only the clothes on the hangers pointing left. (So long, Spice Girls costume from Halloween ’98! Friendship never ends.)
If you venture into your underwear drawer for a cleanup, you may want to ask yourself these five questions first.
7. Steer clear of danger!
Chances are there are some expired medicines and old makeup hiding in the bathroom cabinet. Avoid an accidental dose of 20-year-old Tylenol and throw that stuff away. (Follow these guidelines for safe disposal.)
Expiration dates are important. We looked at what they really mean.
8. Digitize it
Throw away old receipts you don’t need for tax day or items you’re not returning. Then scan the rest of the receipts, bills, and other financial papers, and store them in cyberspace. You can even just take a picture on your phone — job done. Those papers don’t need to hang around.
9. Make some money
Use that old blender sitting in the attic to whip up a cash smoothie. Try selling unused items (that still function properly) online or in a yard sale instead of just dumping them in the trash.
10. Donate items to charity
You might use that pancake spatula at some point in the next century, but there’s probably someone who needs it right now.
You can even donate old cars that are taking up driveway space to be sold for parts.
The buzz of knowing you helped someone out (both the charity and the person who needs a cheap pancake spatula so bad they buy it from Goodwill) is a good substitute for the reassurance you get from hanging on to old objects.
Here’s how to sell your junk and get organized.
11. Hire a professional organizer
Getting help from a cleanup pro can be costly, but if clutter is a serious issue, it might be worth it if you need a serious head start on years’ worth of bric-a-brac. There’s also certified KonMari consultants if you want to learn more about the *art* of decluttering and find what truly brings you joy.
However, this will be for nothing if you don’t maintain that uncluttered state, so make sure you take strides toward a clearer headspace before dropping dollars on a professional.
You can have a go at organizing your refrigerator yourself. Here’s how.
12. Set up a system
Going forward, try to deal with clutter on a regular basis, and get rid of old shopping bags, used batteries, and ugly gifts right away.
Donate a bunch of unwanted stuff every month, or even every week. And keep your bedroom from overflowing: Every time you buy a new item,an old one. Don’t deprive yourself of shiny new things, but make sure they don’t transform into a pile of musty old things overnight.
Clearing clutter is one of the easiest ways to generate extra bandwidth in your brain for calm and focus — once you start.
The real trick is making it seem less intimidating than it really is and working out what objects truly mean to you now, rather than what they might mean to you in the future.
If you feel like hoarding is actively disrupting your life, you might have hoarding disorder. This is a diagnosable health condition that requires active treatment, so seek a consultation with a healthcare professional.