The Psychology of Decluttering: Three Life-Changing Tips

One of my heroes – Don Aslett, bestselling author of more than 30 books on cleaning, decluttering and personal organization – once estimated that half of all cleaning is caused by, or directly related to, junk and clutter.

If my own home is any barometer, I’d say he’s absolutely right.

The reams of papers the kids bring home from school… the never-ending deliveries of catalogs and credit card offers and other unwanted junk mail… the contents of a purse thrown onto a desk to make room quickly. All of that (and more!) could easily bury me.

IF I were to let it.

When Don’s book Lose 200 lbs. This Weekend came out about 15 years ago, I wasn’t yet married and hadn’t yet had kids. Still, it changed the way I managed things.

And, now, there’s the wisdom of Marie “KonMari” Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo’s book is as much about psychology as it is about cleaning: an unwillingness to let something go, she writes, is either “an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

Here are three of my favorite takeaways from these two books, the practical oldie-and-goodie and the modern manifesto. I hope they’ll shape your thinking as much as they’ve influenced mine.

  1. The real price of clutter is life space, not living room space. Most of us, Aslett says, view clutter’s main evil as takes over a room. But losing the floor space isn’t the worst of it, he says; the real killer is the mental and emotional space it takes. “Clutter crowds and smothers kindness, romance, commitment, organization, freedom, almost everything. If we used only a quarter of the ingenuity, resources and rationalizing power that we use to purchase and preserve our stuff on our health, family, job or spirituality, we’d all be saints in seconds.”
  2. Discard anything that doesn’t spark joy. If you’ve tried this method even a little, Kondo says, you understand that you only have to touch something to know whether it brings you joy. And in those moments when you come across something that doesn’t spark joy but that you just can’t bring yourself to throw away, she advises pausing to consider: “Am I having trouble getting rid of this because of an attachment to the past or because of a fear for the future?”
  3. Do it now, not later. “There are three approaches we can take toward our possessions: face them now, face them sometime, or avoid them until the day we die,” Kondo writes. Some people think that tidying never ends. [I say] do it once and get it over with.” Aslett agrees: “Clutter doesn’t get any better with time. It breeds and multiplies, simply by being stored, tended, thought about and talked about. Ignoring it for ‘just a little longer’ is just setting yourself up for a slow strangulation of your time, space and emotions.”

So as you look at your junk, look at it not just as “stuff” but as something with real emotional consequences. Keep only what makes you truly happy. And attack it with a sense of urgency.

Happy organizing!

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