The good news is that you don’t have to do anything that doesn’t work for you in order to declutter successfully but it’s understandable that people think so.
From years of “teacher knows best” attitudes in school and “boss knows best” cultures at work, people dread similar treatment from a decluttering guide.
I worked with a delightful client recently who needed to unpack and reorganise her clothes after a house move. Each step emerged naturally and the work flowed really well.
At the same time, however well we were doing in the moment, the client kept fretting about the next steps, thinking about – as she put it – “the bit when we have to throw things away”.
Fears will arise, it’s human even if not… accurate
I marvelled at that dread because we got on like a house on fire and she did well clarifying what was important to her. Tidying things up as we went was happening easily too.
Also, we discussed the project being about what works best for her rather than any kind of “shoulds”.
What she wanted was to unpack and sort through her clothes so that they wouldn’t sit in piles of bags on the bed which was needed soon to accommodate a house guest.
She also wanted the space to be tidy and feel happy. A lovely goal for a new house.
We acknowledged the anxiety that was present because it was there. And, we gently got on with what was possible to do next. Way to go!
Keep your eyes open for gentle, helpful tweaks
Looking at what the client hoped for and the space she had to play with, we soon spotted that the room where the clothes were piled up to start with, could be rearranged to look and feel more spacious.
You can see that there was only a narrow, somewhat squashed piece of the floor remaining and there were those piles of big plastic bags on the desk and the bed.
A cable was running across the remaining strip of the floorboards: to charge the laptop on the desk.
The room looked like this:
Don’t panic, chunk it all up into really easy steps
We chunked the work up into simple, doable pieces starting with sorting things into bags of the same categories: a bag of hats, a bag of socks, underwear, trousers, skirts, etc.
There was nothing to throw away at this stage other than a few things that the client herself suggested to bin, such as a sock that long since lost its partner or an item or two that were too damaged to be of any use.
Then, we considered the best layout for the room and the best location for her clothes.
Choose the storage that makes simplest, easiest sense
We realised that the built-in shelves in the couple’s bedroom would be the storage for her clothes. The wardrobe seen in the picture contained all clothes of her husband.
It emerged that the wardrobe would fit AND look better in the husband’s office (or “the man shed” as we affectionately called it). Moving the wardrobe there would liberate the room seen here to become the woman’s craft space come guest room.
We also discovered that the bed would fit across the back wall, to enable a more spacious feel to the room. It was possible to shift the bed with a few, relatively simple modifications.
No throwing things away yet, by the way
Instead, we found some cushions and a bed throw that were waiting to be unpacked after the move. Those made up a lovely guest bed come craft room “sofa”.
We found another socket to plug the laptop in so that the cable wouldn’t drag across the floor.
We drew the layout of all the shelves available in the couple’s bedroom to see what storage there was to contain her clothes.
The drawing looked like this:
We copied the categories of clothes she had onto post-its and arranged and rearranged them on the paper plan until we could see which garments should live where.
We wondered out loud how many items of each clothing category would fit the available storage space and at the same time would feel like she had more than enough for all her clothing needs and occasions.
Still, no throwing things away
We printed small sticky labels to mark a clear “home” (i.e. storage location) for each category of clothes.
We sorted through hangers and cleaned the drawers and shelves ready for the garments.
We had cups of tea, coffee and nibbled on snacks. Musn’t forget about the fuel!
We talked about a good way to honour and reuse anything that might no longer be needed but still could be used by someone, somehow.
Somehow, we are not throwing things away still
We talked again about how the woman used her clothes and how she wanted to feel about them. We discussed what she would do with clothes that were damaged or no longer fitting her size.
We considered what was possible to repair and wouldn’t be too much to plan to repair.
Again, the conversation is NOT about throwing stuff away
We talked about overwhelm and how it arises in the “putting a cart before the horse” kind of way.
If you tried to analyse each item’s merits and think about pros and cons of keeping each piece, the job might never be done.
It’s possible to argue for ANYTHING you think of and you can always imagine a scenario in which you might need something “one day”. But this won’t help you create a happy, uncluttered and well functioning space you want.
Rather, you’ll want to arrange stuff so it works well in the life you are actually living.
The idea is to reflect what’s true and helpful for YOU
So we talked about how she uses her clothes. What would be easy and helpful when it comes to clothes in her life and in her new house.
We named all the various clothing occasions that she wanted to have outfits for.
And then we looked at the first clothing bag.
I think they were socks and we started with checking if there was anything that needed repair or repurposing.
A red pair of socks was pronounced by the client as “the colour I never wear” and was placed in the previously identified bag for stuff to “give forward”.
There were a few socks that looked worn out and washed out and they made it to the “rug bank” pile.
The rest was neatly folded into the newly labelled “Socks” drawer.
They looked happy and tidy in their new home, at least to this biased observer.
It helps to be super clear which items live in each storage unit
We proceeded in this way, category by category, remembering that there were no “shoulds” to satisfy, only needs to understand and care for.
For instance, there seemed to be particularly many skirts which felt “too lovely to let go of” to the client.
As I acknowledged what was so for the client, she suddenly thought of a way to work with it, without getting stuck.
She VOLUNTEERED to prune another category of clothes more, so that she could enjoy the skirts.
This was her idea and a sign of her realising that she would need to keep the volume of clothes she had shelves for or accept clothes being stored in plastic bags or in the shed in an overwhelming kind of way.
Fab alternatives to throwing stuff away
An out-of-the box solution to keep some beloved items was to reuse them in a way that didn’t overcrowd the clothing area.
We used fabric from one skirt to decorate a storage box.
Another became a small table cloth.
A bag too many became a container for other items, such as plastic bags in the kitchen.
And yes, we did decide to move some things on but together and on merit (after checking if they were meeting her needs).
Don’t forget to have fun!
It was lovely to try garments as part of the process, for both of us. And it was very useful to review what was flattering and what was no longer so for the client.
There was also a chance to name particularly sweet memories connected with some items and an opportunity to stop keeping things that generated less happy feelings.
And the guest room was ready in time for the visitor and the clothes lived snug and happy in their new, tidy homes.
Why decluttering is not about throwing things away
Don’t get intimidated by TV dramas showing “Extreme Cleaners”. They represent exceptions to the decluttering process, not what it’s about.
The same week as working with my client, some friends were visiting MY new home where I recently moved and started decluttering for myself.
My new space is twice as spacious as where I lived before and looking around at the boxes waiting to be unpacked, my friends were surprised.
“How did you manage to keep this much stuff in your old place?”, they asked, knowing from their visits that my old home wasn’t looking crowded at all.
As I considered what came to say in response, I realised that this was also an explanation why decluttering is not really ABOUT throwing things away or minimalism as such.
(Hint: it’s about what best works for your needs and in the space you’ve got!).
Instead of dreading decluttering, think about this
If you opened a person’s belly and measured the length of the inner tubes stored there, you’d be astounded how long they are (25 feet!) yet there is no overcrowding.
Everything is very well organised in there. Everything has very clear location and room to function well.
And so it was with my client and with my own space.
Yes, there was a few bags to take to charity shops in the end.
But the process was not ABOUT the bit where you throw things away.
Decluttering is about creating obvious, spacious, easy to look after “homes” for each category of your stuff and none of the decisions are the declutterer’s choice of what “should” happen.
It is possible and recommended to have support AND choice, spaciousness AND sentimental value when you declutter.
Just look at the space we created for my client.
It now serves her needs well and is just lovely. Even if I say so myself.
What do you think?
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