Decluttering for the Truly Disorganized and Overwhelmed

Minimalism is trending; every other YouTube video or Pinterest post promises to help you declutter your way to clarity, space and a new, improved you. I think I’ve clicked on just about all of them. Even though I’ll never be a minimalist, I’m drawn to the idea of living more simply, streamlining our possessions and having a calmer, clutter-free space.

But.

And it’s a rather big but, to be honest. Just between you and me, I’ve always been messy. At this point I’m going to jump right in and blame it on ADHD, but maintaining a tidy, organised space has always been beyond me. Most of my possessions spent their lives spread across my bedroom floor when I was a child, and yet I knew where everything was. What looked like an atrocious mess to everyone else – particularly my horrified Mum – was to me a structured series of themed islands with clear stepping points in between.

I’ve always been stunned by people who have perfect kitchens, with empty, gleaming counter-tops and not an appliance nor wooden spoon in sight. I’ve gazed around in amazement in friend’s real-life Perfect Homes, literally unable to comprehend how they’ve achieved it. One thing is for sure; they don’t have as many books as I do.

Let’s see if any of the following sounds familiar;

There are so many things you’d rather be doing than tidying, and you run out of energy long before getting round to it. You’re sure you’ll put it away later, deal with it later, sort it out later… but later never comes and the mess begins to build. You can think of 101 uses for every single item you pick up, from used wine corks (stamp-carving, anyone?) to battered old books (could be re-purposed as an art journal, maybe I could even start selling them on Etsy?) – the Creative in you sees the potential in everything. Once you’ve put an item down somewhere, it’s like it ceases to exist and you don’t really see it as clutter any more, oh that’s just the old radiator that I need to take to the tip, I don’t need to worry about it. Clutter attracts clutter, more mess quickly joins the original out-of-place item and breeds until an unruly pile is formed. Nobody around you is pulling their weight and helping. You don’t have enough storage. So Much Paper, (seriously, having a child with special needs involves entire rainforests of paperwork,) what are you supposed to do with it? Sentimentality forbids you from throwing out anything the kids have ever made for you, you save every drawing they’ve ever done, keep the outgrown clothes and toys, because to get rid of any of it feels like you’re throwing away parts of your children. You just can’t be bothered, it’s so hard to get started. You feel completely overwhelmed and don’t know where to start or how to organise any of it. You have plans for all of it, eventually. You can’t get rid of things in case they come in handy – if you throw them out and then realise you need them, you’ll regret it. It seems so wasteful to get rid of things, and you can’t bear the thought of things ending up in landfill. You could probably sell some of it, but you’re not sure where – eBay, car boot sale? – and it’s such a faff to organise, but you don’t want to just give it away.

Maybe you’ve also studied the endless posts and videos about decluttering, quickly realising that they all pretty much say the same thing; get a box for Donate, one for Sell, one for Trash, one for Keep. Anything you’re unsure about, put it in a box, seal it up and leave it in the garage, and if you haven’t used it in a year then take it to the charity shop without opening it. Get a friend to help you. Stay hydrated. Tackle one small area at a time.

If you’re anything like me, none of this advice is particularly helpful. It sounds great in theory, but when you’re confronted with stacks of paper and assorted miscellany, all of which seems to have a purpose, it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps if I really did have three sets of wedding china, several coffee makers and a novelty monkey lamp, decluttering would be easy. Ah yes, we’ll keep the Limoges, junk the Nespresso on environmental grounds, and give Aunt Susan’s lamp the ceremonial burning it truly deserves. Instead I’m left wading through piles of papers about benefits claims, hospital appointments and divorce, not knowing whether it needs to stay or go; I’ve already learned that you really don’t know what you might need in the future, especially where Court is involved. Throw in brain fog, stress, time and energy constraints and it becomes easier to live with the mess.

Yet ultimately, a clearer home is so much nicer to live in. Mess breeds stress and adds to the chaotic stew of busyness and not ever feeling on top of things. A tidy home feels so much calmer and frees up the space for better things, whether that’s a creative hobby or family board games. I’m now moving into my fifth home as an adult, and I’m aware of how much nicer it was to live in those homes once they were done up, tidy, clean and buyer-ready. Unfortunately, they didn’t much look like that when we were actually living in them! Having to frantically tackle my current home to get it ready for selling has made me aware of how much can be achieved in a short time – and determined to undertake this work as soon as possible in the new place so that we get to enjoy living there from the outset, rather than once we’ve decided to sell. With that in mind, here are my top tips for decluttering for the Truly Disorganized and Overwhelmed.

  • Reduce, reduce, reduce. Long before you’ve reached the bottom of the box of stuff, you’ve created a pile of things you don’t know what to do with. Stuff that feels vaguely useful, important, or that you can picture using in several projects. All too soon you reach the point of overwhelm, shove everything back into the box and give up on the whole idea. For the Truly Disorganized and Overwhelmed, the idea of completely emptying a box of stuff and either throwing it away or finding it all a rightful place is simply too much. So don’t start out with the idea that you’re going to clear away box after box. Your goal is to reduce; focus on reducing the overall number of boxes, clearing out enough stuff so that three box’s worth now fits into two, and two eventually go into one. Or streamline it so that the contents now fit a much smaller box. This allows you to begin honing your skills in deciding what to keep, and creates a more gradual, gentler process. Yes, you’ll end up having to go through your boxes several times, but it will get easier each time. For “box” you might need to substitute “closet,” “cupboard,” “drawer,” etc. Just have the aim of overall reduction rather than panicking over getting it perfect first time around.
  • Identify the big jobs and get on with hiring. Getting someone in to do the work can feel daunting – what if they turn out to be a cowboy, make the mess worse and rip you off? What about having to live with all the mess while the work is carried out? Websites such as CheckATrade can help take some of the guesswork out of hiring, but I’d still advise asking around. If you ask enough people, you’ll be able to get a personal recommendation for a reliable plumber, electrician, builder etc. Knock on doors when you see a nearby house has had work done, ask if they’re happy with it. If the job needs doing, then do it as soon as you can. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in the position of having to put up with it for years, then paying to have it fixed so that the new family who are buying your home can enjoy it. Do you deserve it less than they do?
  • Know yourself. Would it be useful to have someone helping you, or do you already know that you’ll feel panicky and defensive if someone else starts going through your possessions and pressuring you to make quick decisions? If you’re going to ask for help, choose the person carefully and make sure they realise that you find it emotionally challenging. The last thing you need is someone getting frustrated with you for dithering over whether or not to keep every. single. book.
  • Give yourself enough time. If you’re decluttering for a move then start as early as you can – yesterday isn’t too soon. Don’t pull out more than you can deal with in one sitting, you’ll overwhelm yourself and end up in a worse mess. I’m a fan of Marie Kondo while understanding that it’s simply not practical for me to gather every single item in one go. Take breaks when you need to, but set a timer on your phone so you’ll get back to it. Last Minute Panic can motivate you like nothing else, but you’re always going to regret not starting sooner.
  • If you’re hoping to sell stuff, especially on eBay, you really do need to start early as it won’t necessarily sell straight away. eBay isn’t great for books, but there’s a roaring trade in secondhand Sylvanian Families and Lego so you might be able to persuade older kids to sell their outgrown toys; try to get them to take responsibility for photographing and describing their items so that they’re really earning their money. I’ve even managed to sell bundles of magazines but this works best with specialist titles such as sewing/craft, or foreign imports. Make sure you charge enough for postage as the standard eBay rates are a little low, and don’t forget to set a minimum price so that it’s going to be worth the bother of packing and posting it. Local Facebook groups (or Craigslist in US) might be better than eBay if you have large items and furniture to get rid of. If you’ve got a sizeable number of books, DVDs or computer games websites/apps such as WeBuyBooks might buy some of them; it’s worked out at around £30 per box for me so far – not a fraction of what the books were “worth” but better than getting nothing. Look for voucher codes offering an extra 10-15% profit. You generally need over £25 of sales to make it worthwhile, then the boxes can be taken to your nearest Hermes collection point (or equivalent) so there’s no postage charge – if you have a large amount you might also be able to get them picked up at your home by a courier for no extra cost. Knowing that you’ll get financial compensation for decluttering can really help with the process!
  • Car boot sales – oh Lordy. They can be a great idea at the start of the decluttering process, when you’ve got the most to sell, including some “big ticket” items that will generate enough interest and cash to make it worthwhile. Make sure to get there early, take drinks and snacks and have a very strict moratorium on buying from other stalls because if you’re buying burgers and drinks and forking out cash to the kids to buy more junk, it entirely defeats the purpose of being there and you won’t turn a profit. It’s worth leaving the kids at home unless one of them is older and sensible enough to be actually helpful – otherwise you’re better off using the extra space in the car to load up more stuff for selling; it sounds harsh but younger kids are going to get in your way, get bored, and want to buy up everyone’s cast-off toys. Don’t be too hard-nosed about prices, bear in mind that it’s going to be more profitable to sell it than end up donating to a charity shop, but don’t be bullied by the professional dealers offering you a pittance. Take a helper so that you can nip to the loo without your stuff getting nicked (warning – put anything valuable in a “safe” display spot where you can easily keep an eye on it!). You don’t necessarily have to price everything in advance, the “Make me an offer” approach can work well, and be prepared to haggle. However once you’ve already got rid of a fair amount of stuff, you’ll reach a point where car boot sales aren’t really worth the effort, bearing in mind it costs you for your pitch; consider whether it’s going to be easier and less stressful to just donate the rest. Also – it’s only worth doing it in decent weather, pack the car the night before, and don’t forget your sunscreen.
  • Kids. Leaving aside the hellpit that is a child’s bedroom, kids seem to generate a whole new set of clutter and paperwork, particularly if they have any kind of disability or SEN. Gather up all the random paperwork, get a box file or lever arch file per child and put it all in there. It will look better in a file than it does spread all over the house, and much easier to retrieve at a later date. If you want to be particularly organised, put the oldest stuff in at the bottom and add it in chronological order with the newest stuff at the top – this makes it easier to add in new papers as they arrive.
  • Buy one large scrapbook per child – the old-fashioned kind with large, thin cardboard covers that you can pick up in places like The Works, often with black pages designed for gluing things into. Use this as a repository for their early art work and tape/glue in your favourites. If it’s not favourite enough to be in a frame and hanging on a wall, nor stuck into their Art Scrapbook, get rid of it. Get a couple of cheap frames from IKEA and have at least one picture per child up on the wall, it looks a lot better than Blu-tack, and makes your kid feel super-important.
  • Watch relevant shows/YouTube videos to inspire yourself (do this during breaks rather than using it for procrastination!) – from episodes of Hoarders/How Clean is Your House? to videos about Tiny Homes, or one of the many YouTubers who focus on cleaning and decluttering. Watching Hoarders etc makes me realise I’m not actually that bad, plus it can be inspiring to see how much can be achieved in a very short space of time. Tiny Homes show how little we really need to get by, and help you to prioritise what you’d keep if you were moving into such a small space. Cleaning videos can be played in the background while you’re working to keep you motivated, and can also inspire you by showing how nice your home could look when the job is done.
  • Make a list of everything you’ve decluttered, this helps to keep you motivated when the going gets tough as you can see how much progress you’ve made. You don’t have to specifically list every book/DVD for example, just a general note of how much you’ve let go of. Some people like to weigh the total amount they’ve got rid of, or you might want to photograph it before it leaves. Taking pictures of sentimental items can also help you to then declutter them as you now have a record of it; I’ve found this can really help kids to let go of things they’ve outgrown. It helps to document your progress in some way, find what works for you so you can take pride in how much you’ve done.
  • I’ve spent a surprising amount of time talking about decluttering with my counsellor (who I went to for entirely different reasons.) During one session we realised I’d put myself in a lose-lose situation with a lot of my “stuff,” particularly with potential projects and crafts. If I kept the items then I felt the over-bearing pressure of things I should be doing every time I saw them, from weaving a basket to sewing new clothes. If I got rid of them then I was admitting defeat, I’d failed to achieve my potential and there was an element of grief and regret over not having managed to do it. This Lose-Lose mentality literally meant I couldn’t win and that decluttering was agonising for me – no wonder I was procrastinating and going round in circles. Realising this helped me a lot, and I was able to let go of projects I knew I wasn’t going to undertake or that were perpetually half-finished, as well as saying goodbye to items I’d previously used but was realistically unlikely to use again, such as a paper-making kit. You might have a similar mindset about clothes, for example if you’ve been trying to lose weight to fit some of your old favourites, or books you haven’t got round to reading, or sports equipment that’s been gathering dust for a long time.
  • Donating is much easier if you’re able to find the right homes for your stuff. I knew I was ready to part with my collection of Selvedge magazines, but with a face value of over £200, I wasn’t going to chuck them into the recycling. When I discovered that a woman at my art class loved textile art, it was lovely to hand them on to her in the knowledge that they would be greatly appreciated. Check first though – not everyone wants your cast offs!

Places that might appreciate donations include;

  • Schools/colleges – art and craft materials, including fabric and textiles, plus magazines to cut up and use in sketchbooks or collage (make sure they’re age appropriate!). Books. DVDs, especially adaptations of set texts such as Macbeth etc.
  • Playgroups, children’s charities – toys in good condition, books, colouring books, children’s plates, cups etc. Be aware that it can be very difficult to pass on baby items such as high chairs and cots due to safety fears, and you can’t donate child car seats anywhere, at least in the UK – unfortunately I ended up taking mine to the tip. Sometimes grandparents-to-be will welcome high chairs, changing mats, car seats etc.
  • Doctor/dental surgeries, hospital waiting rooms – coloured pencils/pens, pads of paper, colouring books, toys such as small cars, magazines.
  • Community groups, ranging from youth clubs, Scouts and Guides to the Women’s Institute – will sometimes take furniture such as a sofa or chairs if they have a space they need to furnish – we once donated a sofa to a local Scout troop who wanted to create a hang-out space for their teenagers.
  • Charity shops – as well as the obvious clothes, furniture and bric-a-brac IN GOOD CONDITION, many charity shops also welcome “rag bags” – donations of old clothes/textiles that are not in a fit enough condition to be sold in store, but which they can sell on for textile recycling. Check before as not all shops do it, and make it clear that it’s for their rag bag so there isn’t a volunteer trawling with despair through your holey sweatpants and odd socks. Some charity shops accept electrical items, and some will also take furniture for repair/upcycling as part of their on-going training schemes – again, check with them in advance. Many charity shops will collect bulky furniture from your home, but it needs to be in good saleable condition and you need to set this up in plenty of time as their vans have limited space and might only be in the area once a week.
  • Charities – as well as charity shops there can be local charities who will accept specific items. When the kids’ old bikes failed to sell on our local Facebook group, we were able to donate them to a nearby bike project that taught young people to repair and maintain bicycles. When the charity shop wasn’t able to collect Lily’s old bed in time for the move, another charity that specialised in offering furniture to low-income families was able to take it instead. Women’s refuges are often in need of furniture and clothes. Not all charities have high street shops, so do a bit of research as to what’s available in your area and what they’re looking for.
  • Freecycle – one of the easiest ways of donating, as people will generally come and collect it from your house. There will generally always be someone who is very grateful for your cast-offs; an old mattress is better than no mattress. After moving I was able to pass on our empty cardboard boxes to other people planning a house move, and even have someone collect the large cardboard sheets that had contained Lily’s new IKEA bed (great for mulching a new garden bed.)

I hope this has helped. For me, one of the things that makes decluttering easier is knowing that the items I’m getting rid of will be helping someone else out. Yet even with the worst case scenario – taking stuff to the tip – it always feels so much better to have gotten rid of the extra clutter, you feel palpably lighter on the way home. And with all the stuff I’ve gotten rid of, there are only 2 small items that I regret letting go of – a tiny baby cardigan I knitted for Lily, and an especially lovely birthday card from when I was little, neither of which is that important in the grand scheme of things. It shows that most of the stuff I really can live without and that it’s only the truly personal, sentimental items that I’m likely to miss in the long run – everything else can be replaced.

2 thoughts on “Decluttering for the Truly Disorganized and Overwhelmed”

  1. This was a great article, thank you! By the way, this is a constructive critique, I think that highlihting something or writing headlines for each paragraph would make it easier to read it. Still, thank you so much for sharing:)

    Like

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