Clear the Clutter Out of Your Life

Organize and simplify your life for better emotional health.

From the WebMD Archives

Simi Nwogugu of Brooklyn, New York, felt that her life was filled with clutter. Her drawers were filled with old notes and books from business school and years of paid bills. Toys that her sons had outgrown still littered the house. In fact, she felt so mentally cluttered that she couldn’t do the one thing she wanted: write.

To get out from under the clutter, the founder of HOD Consulting rented an expensive New York City office. Problem was, the clutter followed her. Finally, she stopped trying to escape clutter and began to organize it.

“I know where everything is and it is so much more pleasing to work from home. Most of all, I am writing again,” she says. Even her aching back and shoulders feel better.

When you can’t find things, you can feel frustrated, angry, and unproductive, says Kelli Ellis, an Orange County, Calif., design psychologist who’s appeared on TLC’s Clean Sweep television show. “You see that person who has papers flying out of files, or you see their handbag, and you say, 'I know exactly what your car looks like or what your home office looks like.'” Clutter spills over into every aspect of life.

Clutter, both mental and physical, can do a number on our productivity and eat away at our time. Think of all the minutes we waste looking for items that aren’t where they should be. Plus the sheer stress of a cluttered life means we may miss deadlines, work longer hours, and lose important stuff. Clutter equals stress. Where to start simplifying?

The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Clutter

Between a zillion to-dos, work and family life, errant worries, and obligations, it’s no wonder you have a cluttered mind. Start by learning to let go.

“To be truly happy, sometimes you must eliminate unhealthy people and situations from your life,” says Alex Lluch, author of Secrets to Love Life and Be Happy. For instance, if you feel stuck in a dead-end job, resolve to make a change.

Or if there’s someone in your life who constantly brings you down with a negative attitude, find a way to disentangle yourself. “It may take some courage to eliminate this stuff from your life, but you will feel much more fulfilled once you are able to concentrate on the people and things that do make you happy.”

Lluch advocates clean sweeping your thoughts with a hot bath, a meditation practice, a long walk, a phone call to a friend -- whatever works for you. Spend at least 15 minutes a day in a pursuit that allows you to decompress, clear your mind, and rid your thoughts of the mental chitchat that clouds your creativity, passion, and productivity.

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De-Clutter Your Desk and Work Space

Whether you work from a home office or a tiny cubicle, there’s no way you can be totally productive in a space that doesn’t function for you. “I have never actually met anybody who is extremely successful who works in absolute chaos,” says Ellis.

Sure, everyone has a junk drawer or a messy desk on occasion, but if your clutter is taking over, it’s time to scale back.

When Nwogugu tackled her home office with a very organized friend, they compiled three separate stashes: what to keep, what to shred (sensitive information), and what to just throw away.

Follow a similar routine working from desk to files to shelves. Clear everything off and sort into appropriate stacks. Use file folders, three-ring notebooks, or magazine sorters to hold important papers. And immediately pitch what you don't need. Get creative with containers. Coffee mugs and decorative boxes hold everything from paper clips and tacks to business cards and pens.

Look toward vertical wall space as a new storage solution. “We tend to make piles,” says Ellis. But piles are hard to address and papers within them become hidden. You can’t pay a bill or return an important message if it’s hidden at the bottom of a stack on your desk.

Instead, option wall space. Set bills in a hanging bin, keys on a hook, magazines in wall hangers. Now you can see and reach items easily.

Clean Out Clothing Skeletons in Your Cluttered Closet

If closets are your nemesis and yours could rival Vogue’s accessory closet, you’ll need to spend some time getting down and dirty. The first step to cleaning a closet is to take everything out. Then you can see what you have. Often you’ll need to purchase storage boxes or organizing bins, shoe holders, or shelving. Don’t forget plastic garbage bags for trash and donations. Have a few bins or boxes for items that don’t really belong in the closet but will be moved elsewhere. Be realistic. Do you really need or want each item?

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Ellis’ mantra is, “If you haven’t seen it, needed it, or worn it in one year, get rid of it.”

Nwogugu’s friend had three questions when they came to every piece of clothing: Does it fit? Have you worn it in the last 12 months? Is there some sentimental value strong enough to keep it? If the answers are no, toss it in one of three options -- in a bag for charity, to sell at a garage sale or on eBay, or for the trash heap.

Nwogugu went through the same procedure for her husband’s clothes and shoes as well as her children’s. “By the time we were done with clothing, we had over 15 hefty trash bags of stuff for Salvation Army.”

Organization Tips for Your Clutter-Free Action Plan

Here are more steps to help you clear clutter from your life:

Organize in bite-size bits:If the thought of getting organized completely overwhelms you, set a timer for just 15 minutes a day. Knowing you won't spend hours working on an organizational project might make working in small nuggets easier to manage.

Mainstream email: Instead of checking email with each ding of the inbox, read your emails on a regular basis only twice a day. When you open an email, answer it immediately and don't save it for later.

Handle snail mail only once: Create a special time and place to read your snail mail regularly. During the appointed time, open the mail and immediately take action on it. File it with bills, shred it, toss it in the trash, etc. Commit to touching each piece of mail immediately and only once.

Avoid horizontal piles: When possible, avoid putting paper in horizontal stacks in your home or office. Save time and frustration by categorizing and finding a home for paper as soon as it comes through the door.

Purge regularly:This applies to every room in the house but don’t forget the kitchen and bathroom. Check expiration dates regularly on medicines, vitamins, supplements, and cosmetics. Stick to the “when in doubt, throw it out” rule. If you can’t remember when you purchased it, let it go.

The first day after Nwogugu de-cluttered she walked around her apartment, remembering why she loved it. She no longer felt the need to escape. She looked forward to writing. "All around, I feel much better,” she says.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 29, 2010

Sources

SOURCES:

Simi Nwogugu, Brooklyn, New York, founder, HOD Consulting.

Kelli Ellis, design psychologist, Kelli Ellis interiors Inc., Orange County, Calif.

Alex Lluch, author, Secrets to Love LifeandBe Happy.

Perri Kersh, MAEd, Neat Freak Professional Organizing, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Susan Shumsky, New York, author, Divine Revelations.

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