Curing the Clutter Epidemic

We live in a world of things, of junk, of stuff. This fact was brought home to me—literally—when I left my job after 17 years. I carted the contents of my office home in three garbage bags that sat around the house for the next six months. Every time I tried to sort through those bags and commit to getting rid of any of it, I became paralyzed by fear (Would I need this later? Would I miss that once it was gone?) and overwhelmed by the task at hand. And that was just three bags—most of it paper! How would I ever sort through all the other stuff cluttering up my home and my life?

It’s a question many Americans ask themselves every day. Thanks to an abundance of cheap goods, instant credit, and constant exposure to the persuasive powers of advertising, acquiring has in itself become a national pastime. And a national problem, as our closets, attics, and lives become overwhelmed in an epidemic of uncontrolled clutter.

“We’ve begun to buy and hold on to so many items that we’re 
now having to acquire more and more space to accommodate our clutter,” says Dr. David Kantra, a psychologist in Fairhope, Alabama who studies the clutter problem.

Birth of an Obsession

Paper Chase
One of the biggest sources of clutter in our lives is paper—bills, receipts, or the instruction manuals from all the stuff we’ve bought.

Here’s how to tame it:
• Gather supplies. You’ll need a recycling bin, garbage bags, file folders, a pen, and a shredder.
• Establish a sorting area. Set up a folding table or quadrant of the floor—you’ll need room to spread out.
• Ditch the obvious. Long-expired coupons or instructions for products you no longer have can lurk in a desk for years. Pitch ’em.
• Create four paper management systems for:
1. Action items—bills, timely paperwork
2. Essential paperwork not needed on a daily basis, such as bank or insurance statements
3. Vital records—birth certificates, Social Security information, various account numbers
4. Archives for tax returns, legal papers, and/or family memorabilia
• Maintain the system by scheduling time to file papers. Organization is an ongoing process.

The ready availability of merchandise of every stripe was something that didn’t exist throughout most of American history, but the problem of clutter traces its origins back further than you might think—all the way to the 19th century. The rise of industrialization and the mass production of products created a cult of desire that has survived the decades, through economic booms and busts, where accumulating goods was viewed as the road to happiness.

That idea became more pronounced in the 20th century, as the power of advertising linked products to a lifestyle. “The message became ‘you are what you own,’ ” says Dr. Lorrin Koran, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University Center. Retailers responded to that insatiable desire for ownership. Remember the general store? It used to stock about 1,000 items in three or four aisles with one lane for checkout: That was all we needed. Today, you could fit almost the entire contents of that old store into one aisle of a huge discount chain that sells everything from hamburger meat to motor oil to flat-screen TVs. The average super retail center carries more than 100,000 products in mega-stores that stretch the equivalent of nearly five football fields. Shopping malls have become veritable mini cities containing hundreds of stores, food courts, ice skating rinks, movie theaters, even hotels.

And there’s always the Internet. Last year, online shoppers spent $204 billion on merchandise: The auction site eBay alone reported sales of $59.7 billion on merchandise ranging from brand-new cars and homes to vintage collectibles and antiques.

Retailers aren’t the only ones who have catered to this acquisitional trend; the housing industry has, too. 
In the past 30 years, the size of the average American home has grown 
53 percent, from 1,500 square feet 
to a little more than 2,300 square 
feet. That’s an extra 800 square feet 
for stuff. But instead of becoming 
more organized with this space, homeowners have filled it up, rather than outsource to storage facilities.

“We’re at a point where people don’t know how to make decisions about quantities of things and whether items serve a purpose,” says Laura Leist, president of the 4,200-member National Association of Professional Organizers and the voice of a service industry that has sprung up to help people clear the chaos from their homes. They aren’t the only ones: More than 20 states have chapters of Clutterers Anonymous for clutterers in crisis.

Back to Basics

I wasn’t ready for a 12-step program yet, but it was clear I needed some help. So I consulted a local professional organizer, who helped me sort through my junk and discard what 
no longer had value. One of the first rules many organizers instill in chronic clutterers is: make the time. Just as someone trying to lose weight needs to set aside time for exercise, someone trying to shed stuff needs to commit to at least 30 to 60 minutes a week sorting through closets, files, and storage areas. Mark the time on your calendar and treat it as a standing appointment.

I learned other tips to help whittle away the clutter in my house and control what I brought in so that new junk wasn’t replacing the old.

I’m still working on the rest of the house, but I eventually got rid of that stuff I’d brought home from the office. Now, the only garbage bags on my floor are the ones that are on their way to the trash.

Cash for Clutter

What better way to rid your home of excess stuff than turning it into cash? But before you advertise your yard or garage sale, you need a strategy that maximizes your profits and puts the biggest dent in your clutter, says Barry Izsak, a professional organizer and author of Organize Your Garage in No Time.

Here’s your checklist:

1: A few weeks before the sale, give everyone in your family a box to fill with items they no longer want or use. If you’re not sure what to toss, Izsak offers three ways to decide: “If you don’t love it; it’s not useful; and you haven’t used it in several years, turn it into cash,” he says.

2: Schedule your sale of a Saturday near the first or 15th of the month, when most people get paid.

3: Scrub, wash, or polish your stuff. Make sure toys or electronics have all the pieces attached. Hang clothes on a rack. Use plastic bags to group children’s puzzles or hold hardware nuts and bolts.

4: Put price tags on everything. “People don’t want to ask you how much stuff is,” says Izsak. For small items, create a nickel-and-dime box.

5: Display your wares on a table or a board between two saw horses. Don’t make people bend down to look at your stuff.

6: Have an extension cord handy to show that appliances and electrical gadgets work.

7: Be flexible when it comes to price. “If someone picks up something you’re selling, be willing to deal with them right then and drop your price,” says Izsak. “They may be the only person all day who wants that item.”

8: Get rid of what’s left. It’s already out of the house, so keep it that way. Put unsold stuff by the curb, or cart it off for donation as soon as your sale is over.