Clutter. It can build up so quickly. Whether you’re naturally neat and averse to clutter, or have a more tolerant and laid-back approach to your surroundings, most people have a limit. A point at which too much ‘stuff’ becomes a problem.
There are myriad ways to go about tackling this – and everyone is different. One thing I think is incredibly important is finding your own most comfortable way of decluttering, which is why I don’t like to be too prescriptive. A common theme, however, is categories – and for good reason.
It was Marie Kondo who first popularised the idea of clearing by category, something she first incorporated into her own client work and then popularised internationally with her book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up‘. Going by this approach works fantastically well for many people; working methodically through from Clothing (which she considers the easiest category to start with), through Books, Papers, Komono (the broadest category, that can really be considered ‘miscellaneous’) and finally Sentimental. Some choose to go about things in a different order, but the principle remains the same.
The most troublesome category is often ‘Sentimental’. Kondo herself deliberately put it as the last category because the process of working through each group of items is designed to build up the habit of decluttering and make discarding easier; the idea being that when you reach that final category you will have become adept at knowing what really ‘sparks joy’ for you and what you can let go of. Certainly, your relationship with sentimental items can be quite telling about many things – your state of mind, your stage in life, your hopes and fears for the future… But that’s not what makes it such a tricky one.
Maybe it’s a cultural difference, but at least in our Western culture we seem to be sentimental about a much broader range of things. It’s no longer simply about whether we need to keep all the letters from our spouse or our kids’ drawings; it’s whether to keep the mug from our uni, or a keyring a friend gave us, or an obscure ornament that we strongly associate with our grandparents’ house. It’s this that complicates the process. Letters, journals, photos… Many people could fit decades worth of memories in one or two unintrusive boxes. It’s the chunky, physical sentimental stuff that encroaches on our living space far more.
It’s also not a category that can be rushed, though. We don’t make decisions about our possessions based on cold, hard logic. We actually make far fewer decisions based on logic than we would ever like to admit – so in many cases, trying to do so can be a recipe for regret and remorse. It’s good to be reflective enough to realise when something falls outside of a functional category – like ‘clothes’ – and into a sentimental one, to be considered and processed accordingly.
I’ve come across, and sometimes used, the slightly simpler category system that is the four box method. When decluttering, you have four different clearly-marked containers: Keep, Give Away, Throw Away, and Undecided. Sometimes it’s tweaked so that instead of ‘Give Away’ you may have ‘Sell’ instead, if recouping some of the cost is a high priority. The thing is, ‘Undecided’ almost invariably ends up filled with the aforementioned sentimental trinkets. It’s much easier to admit that you’re never going to use something kept “just in case” than it is to get rid of something tied to a memory that feels utterly irreplaceable. The other thing that experience has taught me about such categories is that they introduce an extra decision into the process: assessing the value and condition of each thing that you are willing to part with. Since decluttering is, fundamentally, a decision-making process, adding extra steps like this is likely to frustrate, confuse and fatigue you that much earlier.
My solution? Simplifying further.
I like to work with three categories: Functional (or ‘Necessary’, if you prefer), Superfluous, and Sentimental.
Functional is pretty self-explanatory. Some die-hard adherents of the KonMari method might throw out their colander if it didn’t spark joy, even if it means straining hot pasta with their fingers until they find a suitable replacement. The point of functional is that it works, it does the job, and it’s used on a regular basis. There can be a fine line with some things that do get used frequently enough to warrant keeping them, but infrequently enough to question how truly necessary they are – in which case they can be kept and reassessed at a later point. In general, though, it’s a fairly clean way to divide up things that are vital for daily life and things that may have outlived their usefulness.
Superfluous stuff isn’t junk, per se. It’s the extra things that just don’t fit your needs or tastes anymore, both of which are constantly evolving. Excessive duplicates would fall into this, depending on the person and situation; having one or two pens per room in a designated place may be functional, while ten would fall into superfluous. I own two slotted spoons; one has holes in it that make it totally unsuitable for serving peas, while the other is metal so isn’t ideal when using non-stick pans. It’s a duplication, but the same item each serves a different need. This is the realm of broken things, “just in case”/”one day” things, and things that have just seen better days. Rather than add extra decisions, though, something is either useful – and therefore staying – or it’s superfluous, and going. Those decisions about whether to sell, donate, give to a friend, or bin… They can wait until you’ve got through the task at hand. They do need to be made, and soon, but it’s generally a lot easier to make those decisions with a clear head once you’ve already decided that everything in that category is going. If something is really giving you a dilemma, though, then it’s probably…
Sentimental. As I’ve previously outlined, this is a BROAD category. Your own feelings of attachment will dictate to what extent certain things are sentimental, and it’s important to be firm but kind to yourself with this stuff. When you put things in this sentimental category, you are acknowledging that you have a particularly strong connection to each object. By putting it aside, you are neither giving it a free pass to gather dust in your home forever, nor are you committing to get rid of it; it’s about understanding yourself and processing things. How strict you have to be with yourself will depend heavily on how much is sentimental to you, your available storage, and your tastes when it comes to decorating your space. I neither advocate nor condemn total minimalism; it works for some, while for others it would be masochistic to even attempt it. Clutter is in the eye of the beholder, and for some people, a cosy ambience surrounded by trinkets and keepsakes they have accrued over a lifetime is a goal rather than an affliction. It’s about quality of life, and being purposeful.
‘Tidy’ and ‘cluttered’ are seen as opposites, when that isn’t always the case; the former is about how things are stored, ordered and maintained; cluttered suggests disorder as well as volume. Libraries contain more books than most people will ever own, yet they don’t feel cluttered; all books are categorised and returned to their rightful place. There is adequate storage for everything. A keen example of the distinction is shops; one I hadn’t considered until I recently visited a cluttered shop.
The shop in question was a cookshop, with an attractive window display; the interior did not match the exterior. Narrow walkways carried the threat of knocking something breakable off the shelf at every turn. There were items that caught my eye, but the amount of things to step over and around to get to them put me off even trying. I left after a few frustrating minutes, wondering how anyone managed to find what they wanted in there. Similar to libraries, shops are rarely cluttered spaces; again, the right amount of storage and a system to keep things in their rightful place is key. By definition, though, shops keep multiple duplicates of the same item… See where I’m going with this?
Having 25 mugs doesn’t necessarily make you a hoarder. If each one tells a story, makes you happy, and genuinely adds to your home environment, then knock yourself out. To go with this example, the difference lies between those 25 mugs being haphazardly crammed into an over-full kitchen cupboard, falling out on guests and regularly breaking ( destroying those cherished memories), and those same mugs being stored and displayed in a way that keeps them safe and ordered, such as in a china cabinet or on attractive hooks. Distinguishing between those that you use on a daily basis and need near the kettle, and those that you just aren’t ready to part with yet.
If you feel you have really serious difficulty letting anything go, then it’s best to get help with that first before going through that decluttering process, something I’ve come to call ‘clutter counselling‘. For most people, though, the take-home point today is to be kind to yourself. You’re not a robot, and you don’t have to be in order to have a tidy and welcoming home.