Set Your “Clutter Bar” High

Keeping your home or office clutter-free in today’s accumulation-oriented world is a tough job. Several years ago, after hauling yet another trash bag full of stuff to my local Salvation Army, I made the resolution to be more diligent about what I allowed to come into and have a permanent place in my home. 

I’ve also become much more selective about the paperwork that I keep in my office. My husband and I have tried to establish the yearly tradition of cleaning out our household and business files every January. Last year it didn’t get done because we moved twice and just couldn’t access everything that we had temporarily stored. However, this past weekend, we finally purged two years of accumulated personal and business paperwork. Whew! It felt great, not only to identify what was still important, but also to open up more file drawer space for stuff to come in as it inevitably does over the course of time.

I also realized in the process that so much of what I was saving, business paper-wise, I haven’t even looked at for almost five years. It had become irrelevant, outdated, or I have it stored on my computer, or I generally seek out the same, more current information online these days. We felt lighter and more organized, realizing we had a better handle on what we needed and where to find it. I teased my husband, who was the catalyst for this year’s paper purge, because I was the one who instituted it many years ago in the face of his ENORMOUS resistance! He was a bit of a pack rat, but has become a new convert for traveling and living lightly! (I told him I’m tempted to write a book chronicling his journey and call it, “From Pack Rat to Purger!”)

Even with our dedication to buying and keeping less stuff in our lives, it’s still a real challenge to resist the urge to accumulate things, especially what my friend affectionately calls “tchotchkes” – those beautiful, decorative items that increase the clutter in my home, and the dusting chore along with it! I’m also an information junkie, so saving magazine articles, online print-outs, books, and paper in general is tempting for me, too. But I’ve resolved to only bring in and keep things of real significance. I call it setting my “clutter bar” high.

What if we made it as difficult for material goods and papers to get into our homes and offices as tough as getting over the pole vaulting bar at the Olympics? (current record is 20′ 2.5″. Wow.) Just consider it. William Morris (a British designer, artist and writer from the late 1800’s) said it well, “Never have anything in your home that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Those are high standards, but worth striving for. Consider how valuable your living space is.

Take your monthly mortgage or rent payment and divide it by how many square feet of living space you have. That’s how much you pay each month (at the minimum – without factoring in expenses like insurance or utilities) to live in each square foot of your home. Now consider whether what you store in that footage is worth what you’re paying to store it, and if that space could not be put to more useful, or more beautiful purpose. If you’re holding on to something because you spent a lot of money on it, or because someone gave it to you, or because you might use it “someday”, but it’s not something that you use or like, you’re allowing that thing to occupy valuable space, both physically and mentally. I find that many of my clients hold on in particular to huge amounts of memorabilia of past events or loved ones (every paper their child ever touched!) because “it reminds me of ________________, so it’s important and I have to keep all of it.”

My question to them is always the same, “If this holds such an important place in your heart or memory, then why is it buried under piles of stuff, boxed up in the attic or garage, stuffed in a drawer or a closet where you never enjoy it, even look at it, and have forgotten you have it?” How does that honor that person or event? It’s far more respectful and enjoyable to keep a few significant things and preserve them in a way where they can be viewed and treasured on a regular basis.

And as for all the stuff and paper that threatens to overwhelm our homes and offices on a regular basis? Keep your standards as high as the Olympic record! Set the bar high for what comes into your home and office and is permitted to take up permanent residence there. With the holiday season finished, the temptation to keep everything that came in over the past month is overwhelming. Decide what’s most important, and only allow that in. Junk mail, plastic yogurt containers, outgrown, out-of-style clothes, broken stuff, plastic “tchotchkes” (think birthday party goodie bags…), old magazines, outdated print-outs – none of this stuff deserves a place in your functional, beautiful home or office.

When your sister-in-law offers you bags of her discarded clothing, it’s okay to just say, “no thank you!” When your child brings home yet another spelling test, worksheet or coloring book masterpiece, it’s okay to admire, then recycle. When you face the temptation to print out yet another interesting article you’ve found online, bookmark the page on your computer instead. You get to decide what comes into your home and office and whether you want to allow the clutter to occupy that mental and physical space. Make it as difficult as vaulting 20 feet into the air!

You deserve the best living and working space you can possibly have, and to derive pleasure from every square foot of it. Set the “clutter bar” high, and you will move closer every day to having nothing that is not useful or beautiful in the space you call home or work. And I think that’s better than winning an Olympic medal!

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