For some people, a three-step plan for a decluttering system results in a neat and cozy home within a few months. For others, decluttering is an arduous journey. It’s not because of busyness or not having a system in place. Behind stacks of clutter, hidden spiritual and emotional issues lurk. If we’re honest, we admit that sometimes it’s just easier to keep those issues hidden in the piles of clutter.
Here are some hidden reasons for clutter:
Pleasing other people
Clinging to the past/reliving our mistakes
Poverty mindset—fearing the lack
Depression/anxiety clutter cycle—If we’re constantly in the emotional part of our brain, we can’t use the logic part (where we make decisions).
Some of these reasons are chronic, while others are situational. In 2014, my eyes were opened to a long-time clutter problem in my own house.
A few months after my dad passed away, my siblings and I traveled from three different states to his house. It took us four days to clean it out, working from early morning until late evening, when we were too tired to move.
I lost track of how many giant, industrial garbage dumpsters we filled. Time and again, a driver would load it onto his truck, empty it at the dump, and bring it back again.
Anything you could think of, we threw away. (We gave a lot away too. A charity came and took what was useable to help needy families.) Stacks of old magazines, mattresses, bank papers from before I was born, and an entire drawer full of keys to who-knows-what. Sixty-seven years’ worth of stuff, and I don’t think Dad ever tossed anything besides old food.
For me, it was like looking into my future.
When I arrived home, I saw everything I had piled around my house. Even some stuff I didn’t want but kept anyway, for fear of offending the relative who gave it to me. If I didn’t do something now, I realized, my kids were going to be saddled with loads of useless stuff to deal with upon my death.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t ever learned a practical system for being clutter free. One of the books in my many stacks was Kathi’s The Get Yourself Organized Project. I’d read it and even written a review for a newspaper article.
So how did I get from cluttery mess to (mostly) decluttered and organized home business owner?
Here I share five crucial elements on my clutter-free journey.
Here’s the main difference between then and now: Today I really can’t stand clutter and work the systems from Clutter Free daily to keep it out of my house. Before, I didn’t notice it or care that my house was cluttered. I lost time, money and sanity because of my clutter, but I tolerated it because it just seemed normal to me. I didn’t consider there might be a better way to live. This is the simplest—and also hardest—of the steps.
2) A new safe space.
Since clutter is often accompanied by feelings of low self-worth, we must redefine what feels safe to us. It’s a big mind shift to feel worthy of the time it takes to improve our living spaces. Making change is hard; it’s easier to just stick with what we know. Gradually, I accepted that my new way of living was the actual safe space, and not the unhealthy condition of an overly cluttered house. Instead of making ourselves feel better by buying more things, we can enjoy the calm, peaceful feeling of an uncluttered home.
3) Treat yourself like the treasure you are.
Once I became aware of my clutter problem, I worked to keep my thoughts about it positive. I changed “I’m such a slob!” to “I’m working through Kathi’s steps to get clutter free; I didn’t get here overnight, and I won’t be rid of it all overnight, either.” If we’re constantly berating ourselves, we’ll stay stuck in our low self-worth mindset. Kathi’s mantra of decluttering being a lifestyle and not a “one and done” became my mainstay. The more kind and gentle you can be with yourself, the more progress you’ll make.
4) Deal with specific issues you’re hiding.
Among my stacks of books, I had one titled Not Marked that deals with childhood sexual abuse. I had purchased it with several other titles and dumped them into my other piles of books. At that point, I hadn’t told anyone I was suffering from PTSD flashbacks to childhood trauma. Not even my husband knew about the abuse or that I was trying to cope with overwhelming memories. Other places to hide our issues might be ridiculously messy pantries to hide eating too much junk food or crammed-full closets to hide a clothes shopping addiction. It starts with telling one friend you can trust (or a therapist) and getting to the source of whatever’s eating you.
5) Celebrate your wins by enjoying that decluttered room again.
Once I got all the piles of books out of my living room, we bought some pretty pictures and couch pillows to make it cozy. Since it looks so nice, I’m really hesitant to leave anything that doesn’t belong out in the living room. One by one, as you conquer the specific areas of your home, decorate and personalize them so that they feel complete.
Whether your hidden reasons for clutter are chronic or situational, there is hope. Establishing a system for decluttering and recognizing the hidden reasons behind the clutter is the first step. Remember, give yourself grace for whatever you’re struggling with; even if it takes longer than you hoped, you’ll get to the place where you can live peacefully in your space again.
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“I’m overwhelmed. I just need a break!” I said to my counselor. Minutes later, I left her second story office and hurried the length of the deserted hallway. I glanced at my phone while descending the stairs. My phone was dead, but I knew it was close to 4:00. I had just enough time to get to school and pick up my kids before their practices ended at 4:30. As I took the next step, I missed the stair and tumbled forward. When I came to a stop, I heard a loud “pop.” The pain was unbearable.
Tears came fast and furious and I cried out for help.
No one heard me.
I tried to push myself up to stand, but my left foot refused to bear any weight.
I cried for help again, thinking there must be someone nearby.
Again, no one heard me.
I tried my phone a second time in vain. My husband was in New York on business. Picking up the kids wouldn’t wait. I gritted my teeth and pushed myself up from the base of the stairs. I could stand on my right foot, but my left was completely useless. With great pain, I hopped to the car, frequently banging my left foot against the pavement. I managed to get myself into the car and drive across town to the school, sobbing the entire way.
The “break” I needed
I’d love to tell you my injuries were minimal and I healed quickly, but that’s not what happened. Instead, I got the “break” I needed in the form of broken bones and multiple sprains in my foot and ankle, six months of pain, restrictions, physical therapy, and a complete overhaul of my demanding pace of life.
Before my fall, I was at a breaking-point. Maybe you’ve been there too.
I had taken on too many responsibilities – running a nonprofit, serving as team mom, leading a Bible study, making play costumes, and so much more. I spent the previous year moving at record speed. I like to keep busy, but I was over-committed, under-rested, and probably not the most pleasant person to be around.
We don’t have to live that way.
Count the cost of yes
What I learned through my ordeal was that I’m capable of only so much. I’m learning to live within my limits. That means I only commit to a certain number of activities, projects and responsibilities. When my plate is full, I must eliminate an item before adding another. I guard my time and energy or they’ll be swallowed up by my desire to say “yes” to more than I can sanely accomplish.
If I hadn’t been rushed and feeling overwhelmed, I’m sure I wouldn’t have missed that step. I likely wouldn’t have even been in counselor’s office that day. The cost of over-commitment was high.
One of the things I contemplated during my recovery was that Jesus never rushed. He moved at an intentional pace. His time of ministry on earth was very brief, only three years. If anyone had a reason to pick his pace and do more than humanly possible, it was Jesus. But, he didn’t.
I’m learning to follow his example.
Luke 14:28 reminds us to count the cost, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”
When we’re tempted to say “yes” and add one more thing to our busy schedules, pause and acknowledge that “yes” will cost us something. At the very least, it means we have to say “no” to other opportunities.
What will saying “yes” cost you? Will it cost your peace? Dilute your focus?
When we commit to pause and count the cost before taking on another thing, we are empowered to manage the opportunities that come our way. We focus on what we’re meant to do, the things most important to us. We walk in freedom, unhurried and confident.
What are you doing to follow Jesus’ example of walking out your life intentionally and unhurried? How have you learned to live within the limits of your time and energy?
Elizabeth M. Thompson is a writer and speaker. Prayer is her super-power and she loves helping women develop meaningful prayer lives. She and her husband have three children. They live, bike, kayak, and hike along the American River near Sacramento, CA. Stop by her website for a free download of “Jumpstart Your Stalled Prayer Life.”
Do you feel mental overload? Do you wonder if you’ll ever get your home or office organized? Maybe you think if you just work overtime, or if your kids could stay at Grandma’s for a week, you could finally get it together.
What if I told you working harder or having a child-free home isn’t the solution?
I’ll venture to say 75% or more of our clutter problems aren’t because we don’t work hard enough, or that our homes are too small or our children are messy. Most of our problems start because we can’t think through what needs to be done. We can’t get our minds under control. We can’t make decisions. We are on mental overload.
Do you know that feeling?
How to deal with mental overload
For years, I lived with an ongoing sense that I should be doing something all the time. It ate at me. Even when I focused on something important, there was a latent unease about what else I should be doing. It was an underlying anxiety that hung around, even when there was no pressing deadline or responsibility.
It caused stress and lack of sleep.
It wasn’t until I read David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, that I discovered a reason for this tension. It seems our brains aren’t designed to store and manage all of the information, deadlines and demands that swirl around us at all times.
Allen writes, “The big problem is that your mind keeps reminding you of things when you can’t do anything about them. It has no sense of past or future. That means that as soon as you tell yourself that you need to do something, and store it in your RAM (your mind), there’s a part of you that thinks you should be doing that something all the time.”
It was a head-slapping moment when I read those words. That was it! Allen goes on to explain that the first step to finding a solution is to get everything out of your mind and store it somewhere safe. Not the “safe” place you stored an important document at home, and now can’t find. But somewhere close at hand.
The right to-do list
I realized my mind tried to manage more stuff than it could hold. One to-do list wasn’t the answer because it wasn’t keeping things in safe places.
With that in mind, I’m going to ask you to do something painful. Not as painful as stepping on a scale, but close. I want you to take a personal assessment of all your responsibilities, projects, priorities and tasks. Everything. Get it out of your mind and onto one document. This could be a paper notebook or digital file, it doesn’t matter. If you have multiple to-do lists, combine them into this one list. Leave this list where you can see it morning, noon and night for a few days.
On this list write down everything you need to get done. You might start with your home and add repairs, cleaning projects or laundry.
Put down things you need to do for your family, such as make a dentist appointment, write a letter to a teacher or take clothes to the dry cleaning.
Then move on to other areas of your life: church, community involvement, sports teams, etc. Include big projects and little things, like errands and emails that need to be sent. Nothing is too small to include.
You might want to dedicate one page for future projects, such as planning this summer’s vacation or researching colleges with your daughter. Another page might contain things you want to do years from now, but you don’t want to forget.
This process will take you days. If it helps, you can organize this list however you see fit if it helps you remember things. Or just write things down as they come to mind. Whatever works for you.
It’s okay if there is no order to it. Actually trying to organize it now might hinder you if you are a perfectionist. You might not leave yourself enough room in a certain category and then you’ll be frustrated.
For now, capture it all. Don’t be surprised if you feel a bit panicky at how much you have to do. Just take a deep breath and ask for God’s peace.
I promise you feel a sense of relief soon because finally, maybe for the first time in your life, you have everything in one place.
There are many things you can do with this master list. You can organize it in to tasks (one action) and projects (more than one action). You can organize it by area of your life or deadlines. You can sort it by things that need to be done today, this week, next month, in six months, etc.
Hold on to that list. Add to it. Next month, I’ll share how to create a project management planner.