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Be careful what you wish for

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Regular readers of this blog may remember that a few weeks ago I was wishing I had a clutter mountain so I could experience the uplifting sense of achievement and freedom that clearing it would give me.

Long-standing readers will also know that I declutter my house on a rotating schedule, sorting through one area a month and getting round the whole house once every three years.

Well, that’s how it usually goes…

This summer I’ve got behind. Until a couple of weekends ago, I hadn’t done any decluttering since May.

My excuse was that I’d been busy developing and launching Clear Your Clutter, Stay Clutter-Free and Live The Life You Want. There was more to it than that though. It was also (I finally admitted to myself) that I was avoiding the areas that I’d committed to doing this summer – three of the four sections into which I’ve divided my loft for decluttering purposes.

Why was I avoiding them?

Because I knew there were challenging decisions to be made. Those areas contained lots of clutter that I knew was going to be tough.

There was stuff that could potentially be useful one day – although it wasn’t clear when. Things I hadn’t used for a long time.

Swing bin

Keep or Freecycle?

Like three plastic swing bins. I used them to sort waste for recycling when I had big house parties. I haven’t had a big house party in a long time though, and if I did have one I could find another way to manage waste. I lent them to a community group a few years ago when they had an event, and it was conceivable I could do that again. Was that a good enough reason to hold onto them though?

On the one hand, they might be useful in the future. And they weren’t doing any harm in the loft. It’s not as though I actually need the space for something else.

On the other hand, they were just going to waste up there when someone else could be using them on a day to day basis.

There was stuff that needed action. Like two old computers, at least one of which didn’t work. When I replaced them, I put them in the loft in case I could use the components in the future. That was years ago though so it’s clear by now that I’m not going to use them. However, I couldn’t let them go without making sure the hard drives were clear of data, and I didn’t know how to do that.

Drybags

Drybags - going on ebay

There was stuff I was holding onto for irrational reasons. Keeping the results of bad purchasing decisions rather than face up to the fact that I’d wasted my money (in the same way as with the Kangoo Jumps I talk about in this video). Stuff like five drybags – watertight plastic bags that kayakers use to keep their gear dry. I bought them to protect my stuff when I was backpacking but they turned out to be unsuitable and I’ve never used them.

There was lots of sentimental stuff. Photos of childhood holidays, presents from ex-boyfriends, angst-ridden teenage diaries…

Most daunting of all, there were three storage boxes full of school exercise books and notes from my Psychology degree and my Masters degree in Social Research. Years of work went into creating them. Years of my life! And I couldn’t help wondering if some of them might be useful one day. I use statistical techniques on Papworth Research & Consultancy Ltd assignments and I had notes from three statistics courses  – my  Statistics A level, plus modules from both my degrees.

Phew!

At first, I got hit by clutter-overwhelm. I found myself standing in the loft with my hands on my hips, looking at it all, puffing out my cheeks and thinking ‘Where should I start!?’

Then I started cherry-picking. Wandering around the loft moving the odd item about or spotting something that could definitely go.

Then I realised that, if I was going to get this done, I was going to need to draw on all the coaching and training that I make available to you guys. Be systematic. Believe that I could get it done. Accept that I might not get it done all in one go. Break it down into chunks. Keep my promises to myself. Go easy on myself…

So I got stuck in.

As I was decluttering, I was mindful of what came up for me and how I experienced the process. And I noticed that I followed some elements of my own guidance, and not others.

Keep on top of it by decluttering regularly

Clearly, I’d slipped on this one. And it was interesting to note the effect of that. The more behind I got, the more reluctant I became to catch up. The task seemed more and more daunting and it was harder and harder to get started. Of course, as soon as I did get started, that feeling went away. The best way to shift that feeling of overwhelm is to get into action.

My office during the process - sometimes you gotta make a mess to create order

Don’t do more than two hours in any one go

Hmm. Once I’d got the bit between my teeth, there was no stopping me. I ended up spending two full days on it. I guess it was because I could see the end of the task so clearly. If I’d had much more to do, I might not have chosen to do it all in one go. I’d still advise others to do it in smaller chunks, though there’s no hard and fast rules about it. If you want to do more, go for it.

Take before and after photos

I didn’t. I wish I had now. Truth is, when I started I didn’t realise how much I would end up getting rid of, or how different the loft would look at the end. Since I finished, I’ve gone back up there a couple of times just to gaze in satisfaction on what I achieved! I wish I had taken a ‘before’ photo. Ah well, at least I took some ‘during’ photos.

Be gentle on yourself

Aha. Did this one. Discovering what was in some of the boxes was an emotional experience. All those old diaries, photographs and mementoes. I found a scrapbook containing my birthday cards from aged eight to eighteen, papers relating to a University Society I was involved in running (The Interesting Society – don’t ask!), a card given to me by a big bunch of friends when I moved away from an area many years ago…I let myself experience the emotions that all these things brought up and had a cry up there in my loft.

Allow yourself to be unsure

Tick. I kept stuff that I might let go of in the future. Like a teddy bear that my first serious boyfriend gave me. Sweet. Never was my kind of thing though. And I don’t need it to remember him. I’ve got Facebook for that! Maybe I’ll let it go next time.

Don’t cut corners

I did cut one corner. Although I encourage you guys to go systematically through everything, I passed over all those envelopes of photos from my childhood. Given that I was tackling so much, I decided to leave them until the next pass in three years time. I’ll go through them properly then. I’ll throw out the ones that are out of focus or lacking people’s heads, and put the ones that are worth keeping into albums that I’ll actually look through occasionally.

Be realistic

Mostly I was. But if there’s one thing I’m unrealistic about, it’s paper. I can’t bring myself to recycle paper until it’s been fully used. So I went through all those lever arch files and ringbinders (25 of them as it turned out) and all those exercise books, page by page, sorting the contents into:-

  • Fully used on both sides (recycle)
  • Blank on at least one side (use for printing)
  • Partially blank on one side (use for scrap paper).

Actually, I sorted the paper into even more categories than that and maybe I’ll blog about my paper systems another time…

Unlikely to run out of scrap paper

OK, I admit it, I’m bonkers about paper. I’ve probably got more than I can get through in my lifetime but I still can’t bring myself to recycle paper before I’ve fully used it.

Bottom line though? I have got somewhere to keep it without it getting in the way (it’s stacked under the desk in my office) and I keep it organised so I know what I’ve got and can use it when I want/need to.

Maybe in a future decluttering session, I’ll get realistic about it and recycle more of it.

See, this is why I love being a decluttering coach. Even though my house is tidy and my friends tease me for being super-organised, I understand the irrational reasons why we hold onto stuff ‘cos I do it myself. The reason my house is tidy, and the reason I can support you to manage your stuff is that I’ve learned, first, to limit what comes into my home and, second, to manage my irrational thought processes enough to keep my stuff under control.

Getting rid of files

So I was realistic enough to admit that I didn’t need all those school and college notes. I broke them all up and sorted out the paper, keeping just a few creative writing exercises and projects from school. My nephew, who is about to start University, will have some of the empty files (though he probably won’t want the ones I drew love hearts all over when I was 14!) and the rest are going on Freecycle.

Take/schedule the actions you identify

Tick. So far, I’ve recycled five shopping bags stuffed full of paper and listed a load of stuff on Freecycle and Freegle, some of which has already been collected. I arranged for a friend to reformat the hard drives of the computers, so I could get rid of them. I’ve scheduled taking the broken one to a household recycling site and the working one will be picked up by a Freecycler in a couple of days. And I’ve photographed the drybags, ready to list them on ebay next time there’s a free listing day.

Acknowledge yourself

Yep. I shared what I’d achieved on Facebook, which encouraged friends and family to acknowledge me. And I’ve been telling people what I did and allowing myself to be proud of it. Not to mention writing this blog post.

I feel relieved finally to have moved on some items I’ve known for a long time I didn’t need to keep. I’m pleased to be getting stuff into circulation so that other people can use secondhand stuff rather than buy new. I’ve got that sense of freedom, achievement and breathing space that comes when you clear a backlog of clutter.

Just shows though – we do need to be careful what we wish for.

Tell me. Have you still got your school exercise books? Comment below.

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  • Lynda

    Have you calculated how much of the partially used paper you use in a specific time period? If that’s your stash in the picture above, it may last you for one week or the rest of your life! There’s an acronym I found in the fabric crafting community: SABLE, which stands for Stash Above and Beyond Life Expectancy and it’s quite a useful measurement.

  • It’s a good strategy Lynda. If I was struggling to store it, I’d definitely take that approach. Thanks for commenting.

  • Linda

    Thanks for your blog Rachel. I must admit I was asking myself whether you practice what you preach but it is obvious from your comments that you do. At least you appreciate the emotions involved in making those “parting” decisions. Yes I still have some of my school exercise books (primary school!) and I am 63 … I also have my very first birthday cards (yes mine as well as those of my children) so this does not bode well. I argue that if my parents could keep them all those years, it is cruel to throw them away now. I never look at them so why is it so hard to get rid of them? Since we made space in our loft by streamlining a few boxes by a third, the kids have discovered there is space for things they need to store away, temporarily of course!

    • Hello Linda. Yes, letting go of things (for that matter just sorting through them) can be an emotional experience. And there’s nothing wrong with holding onto your school exercise books and first birthday cards if you want to keep them. When something’s been a part of our life for decades (even if we don’t ever use or even look at it), there’s a natural fear that we might regret it if we let it go. Well done for streamlining those boxes, even if the kids have taken advantage of the space. 🙂

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  • Ginny

    Thanks for letting us know you are one of us and understand the feeling of overwhelm. I appreciate the insight about the longer the clutter is there and the more of it then the harder it is to get started because it feels impossible. That is so true for me, glad I am not alone in this. I am taking small steps in the right direction, and feeling less overwhelmed.

    • Thanks for your comment Ginny. You’re definitely not alone! I think we all have the same irrational thoughts about ‘stuff’ and we all get overwhelmed sometimes. It’s a question of learning to manage it. Well done for taking action. Isn’t it great how even taking small steps reduces overwhelm?

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