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The Joys of Decluttering

Regardless of how big or small your home may be, it’s easy to wind up with more “stuff” than you really need. But how much is too much, and where should you begin the sometimes-emotional process of letting go of what you don’t have a use for? (After all, it sometimes means giving away those family heirlooms you always thought you’d need but have never once touched.)

Organizational expert Dana White is here to help. Her new book, Decluttering at the Speed of Life, offers strategies for tackling head-on the project of getting more organized. Below she shares some of her top ideas for leading a less cluttered life.

How do you define clutter?

In essence, it’s anything that consistently gets out of control in your home. In that sense, it’s different for everyone. By the way, it’s natural to collect clutter, especially if you have a growing family. Stuff comes in at every stage of life, and we struggle to let go. A lot of clutter is aspirational, which means it sounds good at the time we first bring it in, but then realize we don’t really need it after all.

Some people reading this may say, “My house is big enough to hold everything I own, so I don’t really have any clutter.” Would it still be beneficial for them to follow your advice?

If you have the space for it and you’re pleased with how your home is functioning overall, you’re probably okay. But if you’refrustrated by having some out-of-control areas or rooms, you probably have too much stuff. Interestingly, I get lots of email from people with huge homes who still find things are out of control. In the book, I write about what I call the container concept. This is really a game changer for deciding whether you have a problem. The notion is that space should be the natural limiter for how much a room or area can hold. Once you exceed that limit, it’s time to declutter. So if you have a bookshelf, for instance, once it is full of books, don’t add any more until you start to get rid of some titles to make additional space. Or if your closet can’t hold any more clothes, it’s too crowded.

What’s the best way to start the decluttering process?

First, don’t think of it as one big project. You’ve got to break it down into steps to avoid what I call decluttering paralysis. Get started by looking around for anything that’s truly trash and needs to be thrown away. You’ll be surprised by how much that alone can help. Then move on to the easy stuff, which is anything lying around that shouldn’t be there. Maybe it’s clothes that need to be put away, or it might be something you really don’t need and just want to get rid of.

How about items — say, from childhood — that you don’t really need but have a sentimental value?

It comes down again to the container concept. Keep anything you want as long as you have the space for it. I’m a sentimental person myself, but my decluttering strategies take out the emotion when making decisions. No matter how much I love something, if there’s no space for it, it goes.
Once someone has made a decision to declutter, what’s the best way to get rid of items that still have value?

I have come to the point where I almost exclusively donate everything. I don’t give it away to friends or find other outlets because that takes a lot of time and coordination. Instead, I look for an organization that will take everything, from clothes and kitchen items to furniture. I just make one call, and they pick everything up.

Lately, there’s been an increasing trend toward minimalism — the notion of removing everything from your life other than what you value most. Is that similar to what you espouse?

Not really. For me, it’s more about the realization that I function better with less stuff. I look at minimalism as getting rid of anything you absolutely don’t need versus accepting the limits of your space and decluttering to the point where everything is comfortable and easily under control. The two have a similar goal, but I’m less about sacrificing and more about making sure you need everything you have — and that it all fits properly in your house.

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The above article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Quarterly Insights magazine.