Clearing That Clutter

I devised this exercise after I was incapacitated by a pulmonary embolism following a fall. I hadn’t realised it was that easy to die and I was in shock for some time afterwards, unable to do anything useful except write.

The thing uppermost in my mind was the thought that, had I indeed breathed my last, it would have been up to my sons to sort through everything I’d left behind — and that wasn’t a comfortable feeling.

How could I do that to anyone, leave them to deal with a large house full of stuff that might have been vitally important to me but to them would have been just a vast pile of stuff to sort and bin or recycle.

You’re going to need a large sheet of paper — preferably flip chart sized, if you have it — a pencil or pen and some blu-tac.

But, in the interests of having as much fun as possible, why not get yourself a lovely set of colourful pens and get in touch with your creativity?

You’re also going to need at least 30 uninterrupted minutes to begin with — it’s up to you how you work through this planning stage, whether in one blast or broken down into bite-sized pieces. Done conscientiously, this exercise is going to change your life, forever, so you’re going to need to pace yourself to deal not only with the practicalities but also with the emotional stuff that it brings up.

If you’ve been living in chaos for any length of time you’re going to have to do some hard work to turn things around. But it’s going to be hard work that’s hugely rewarding, I promise you.

Stage 1 Sit down somewhere comfortable and start to picture in your mind each room in your home. Start with the easy ones — bedrooms, living room, kitchen — but don’t miss out those areas that don’t quite fit anywhere else — porch, under the stairs — and don’t forget the attic, cellar, garage and garden shed.

Now take your piece of paper and draw a shape for each separate area, roughly in proportion to the contents, leaving the minimum possible space between each so you’re utilising the whole page.

Be creative — don’t just draw boring boxes. How about a fluffy cloud for each? Or a flower? A different colour for every room? You can start with a rough draft if you like until you’re satisfied with the lay-out. This master plan is going to live with you for a while to come so make it as beautiful as you can.

When you’re satisfied you’ve put down every individual area and named it give yourself a pat on the back. If you want you can stop for now and come back to it later, safe in the knowledge that you’ve started the process. In the meantime take your embryonic plan and stick it up somewhere where you can see it — on a wall, a door, anywhere where it won’t get forgotten, where you’ll pass it several times a day so your subconscious mind will be starting to work for you on the process of de-cluttering your life.

And put a note in your diary or on your calendar for when you’re going to resume work on your project.

Stage 2 Sit down somewhere comfortable again and picture in your mind’s eye, one by one, each room you’ve drafted out on your sheet. Let’s start with a bedroom. What furniture is in it? A wardrobe? A chest of drawers?

Write them down as headings. Now break down each of these in effect into their constituent parts so, for example, with the wardrobe you might note down ‘hanging area’, ‘top shelf’, ‘bottom shelf’ (or space), or you might choose to write ‘shelf 1, 2, 3′ etc.
You may have a bedside cabinet with two shelves — note them down.

A chair piled high with clothes? The aim is to itemise shelves and drawers that hold ‘stuff’ rather than pieces of furniture but how about you start to change your ways right now and put the clothes you’ve worn into the wash basket and the clean ones where they belong — and you could even devise a mantra for yourself, an affirmation such as ‘I am a tidy and organised person.’ Repeat it as often as you can — at least 20 times a day — and once more your subconscious mind will go to work and that will have a big impact on the process.

Once you’ve noted down every individual area containing ‘stuff’ — and don’t forget surfaces like ‘dressing table top’ — you might want physically to go to the relevant room and check you haven’t missed anything.

Planning is crucial to bringing about change and once you’ve completed your plan you’re well on the way — in fact I would recommend at this stage that you give yourself a treat, to reward yourself for your hard work. And it is hard work.

By now you have completed something much greater than simply devising your plan, something absolutely vital — you have confronted the reality of what you’re trying to achieve and that can be hugely challenging. But take heart. The rewards are enormous.

Stage 3 Now you’re ready for the next stage — actually sorting through things. Again, try to do this in a way that works for you. You can start logically from the top left hand corner of your plan or you can select something at random, as the spirit moves you. But to start with select one small shelf or drawer.

Take everything off it or out of it and examine it piece by piece. Is it something you use often? If it’s a book, do you refer to it, will you read it again? A tape or CD? When did you last play it? An item of clothing? Does it fit? Do you wear it? Are you hanging onto it in the hope that one day you’ll drop a couple of dress sizes — might it not be out of fashion by then?

If it’s a piece of kitchen equipment when did you last use it? Are you keeping it because you all might get together one day for a huge family christening, even though the children are barely out of nappies? If it’s an old bill or a guarantee are you confident you won’t need it again? With each item ask yourself ‘is it relevant to my life now, does it support who I am and who I want to be?’
Now do you see why you have to do this in bite-sized pieces?

Some decisions will be really easy, as in ‘Why on earth did I hang onto a book that I never read in the first place because it was so boring?’ But others are going to be hard. You’re going to have to be really courageous and occasionally you may put something back because, though in your heart of hearts you know you should part with it, you simply can’t bear to. That’s fine. This isn’t meant to be torture. Put it back until the next time and move on

A word of warning: DON’T go through your home like a tornado, throwing stuff out here, there and everywhere — only to bitterly regret what you’ve done once it’s all gone. (And of course it goes without saying that it’s not okay to get rid of anyone else’s stuff without their say so.) This exercise takes time and thought and patience. It may take a year to complete and that’s fine — the results are going to benefit you for the rest of your life.

Years ago when I left my marriage I carted loads of stuff around the countryside with me for three house moves before I finally let go of it all. In the end I realised it was more to do with some vague sense of security than anything to do with the things themselves. Gradually, as my confidence grew, I realised I didn’t need that stuff any more.

These days, having devised the exercise and actually practised it myself, I find it really easy not to accumulate things in the first place and I welcome the charity bags put through my letter box because there’s always a few things on their way out. But I wasn’t always like that. I simply discovered how liberating it is to be free of all that extraneous stuff that just needs to be dusted, or insured or moved when you decorate or someone comes to stay. And to be free of the anxiety of who would be left to deal with it.

So, now you’ve finished with that first shelf or drawer you can go to your plan, take a fat coloured pen and cross it off the list or put a big tick beside it. It’s done and when you feel ready you can move on to the next task, until gradually the whole plan will be a mass of ticks or crossings out — and won’t you feel fantastic then?

So what are you going to do with the stuff you’re going to get rid of? These days there are so many opportunities. There’s the aforementioned charity bags — though we can’t feel as smug about recycling clothes as we might once have done, now it emerges that the clothing trade in developing countries is being badly damaged by the West dumping our waste on them.

So I guess worn clothes have to go in the bin, or be turned into dusters, but good, saleable ones can be offered to clothing agencies or charity shops or sold on e-Bay, as can a whole host of other items. Freecycle, if there’s a group near you, is another opportunity that’s gathering momentum where you can give away useable items you no longer want. In my home town of Lancaster we have Furniture Matters, a local authority sponsored charity that recycles suitable furniture and white goods and, in addition, trains young people in furniture renovation and refurbishing skills. Recycling is seriously in vogue now so there’s never been a better time to be really creative about getting rid of your unwanted stuff.

Stage 4 You’ve sorted your home from top to bottom and become positively minimalist in the process. Now how are you going to guard against ever slipping back to how things were?
The best way is to have a regular review. It could be annual or it could be more frequent. Decide what works best for you and put it in your diary or on your calendar.

That way you don’t have to bother remembering — it’ll be there, factored into your life. I used to have an annual review of how my life was going though I’ve now amended that to a quarterly one, timetabled into my diary. But in fact this exercise has actually become a way of life for me. These days I sort and chuck with hardly a thought — and I’m confident that, should that double-decker bus catch up with me any day soon, there’ll be a lot less clutter to be dealt with afterwards.

This exercise isn’t an instant cure-all, a swift one-off — it’s more along the lines of painting the Forth Bridge, an on-going process to incorporate into your life so it becomes second nature, a way of ensuring you never again feel overwhelmed by your clutter.