Your Reading List

Clutter Busting 101

These tips really will help you take charge of the stuff in your office, and in your life

Pile of documents on desk stack up high waiting to be managed.

Do you feel stressed by the clutter on your desk, the dining room table and the kitchen counter? Are you tired of tripping over things that “might come in handy” someday? Do you have a basement full of stuff that’s too valuable to throw away, but you can’t decide what to do with it?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone. A 2012 survey by the Professional Organizers of Canada showed 70 per cent of us are not nearly as organized as we’d like to be, says Nathalie Pedicelli, a professional organizer in Montreal.

To make matters worse, adds Kim Eagles, a professional organizer in Moncton, N.B., we all have different comfort levels when it comes to clutter, which means clutter can mushroom into a big source of conflict if one person wants to keep everything, and the other wants to get rid of it.

The important thing, Eagles says, is to not judge or attack the other person. Through communication it is possible to come up with solutions that everyone can live with, she says.

Maybe the easiest solution is simply for each person to have their own individual space which they can keep as they like, says Eagles. Clutter is only a problem when it’s stressing people, she emphasizes.

When clutter is a problem, it can help to understand where it’s coming from. Eagles suggests you start by asking yourself a few questions: What is this stuff? Why is it here? How did it get here? “It’s usually about unmade decisions, things that don’t have a home or that you haven’t dealt with,” she says.

That’s how so many things get piled in the home office in a kind of “stash and dash” reflex, agrees Pedicelli.

When visiting new clients, Eagles sees common patterns in the things that have accumulated. In our consumerist society, these include old décor items, books, hobby items, and unwanted gifts. Sometimes we have too many of one thing so the containers we have for them are overflowing. We also have trouble getting rid of stuff with an emotional attachment, such as family heirlooms or things we used to like.

Sometimes clutter gets out of control when we’re going through a difficult time. After a divorce, illness, death, or having kids, it can be difficult to catch up. Pedicelli says, and she adds that memory loss, aging, loss of mobility or a diagnosis of depression, OCD or ADHD may also hamper our ability to stay organized.

In some cases, people have never learned organizational skills so they don’t know where to start, and both Pedicelli and Eagles encourage those who are really struggling to seek professional assistance.

Pedicelli uses the “3 Cs: Curate, Contain and Control” to tackle clutter. The first step in this clutter-busting strategy is to curate your stuff. To explain what she means by curate, Pedicelli uses the example of someone who collects John Deere merchandise. You start collecting a few things and then the family buys you more, she says, and the next thing you know you have a house full of John Deere stuff.

“But there’s a fine line between a collection and clutter,” she says.

Start a “Maybe Box”

Pedicelli’s solution is to set a timer for 15 minutes, get a basket and round up all of the items. Keep the ones you really love and for the rest, ask yourself if you really need that many. “If you have a dozen hats, do you need to keep them all or could you keep just three?” she asks.

If you aren’t sure, then start a “Maybe Box.” After a few weeks, revisit the Maybe Box and see if you are ready to let it go now.

The next step in Pedicelli’s 3 Cs strategy is to contain the clutter. Just as it’s easier to count your cattle in a pen than when they are out in the pasture, it’s easier to see what you have if you store it all together, says Pedicelli. But don’t rush out to buy containers, she says. Most people already have enough containers around the home, and some containers can be repurposed such as using empty mason jars to store office supplies.

Things that you use together should be kept together, continues Pedicelli. For example, in her home she has a Breakfast Station where she keeps butter, peanut butter, and bread, and a Coffee Station for coffee, mugs and sugar. The Launch Pad is an area by the back door where she puts everything she’ll need the next day.

In the shop, a peg board with outlines of the tools that are supposed to be there lets people easily see what’s missing and know where the tools belong.

The last step in Pedicelli’s 3 Cs strategy is to control the clutter. For example, when dealing with mail which is a common source of clutter, Pedicelli recommends having a sorting station in the area where you open the mail. Immediately put items you don’t want into the recycling bin, trash or shredder. For unsolicited mail from charities, write “not interested” and Return to Sender on it.

Pedicelli keeps several tall upright laundry baskets lined with plastic bags in her garage for things she is discarding. She has one for hazardous wastes, one for donations and one for garage sale items. “Label the laundry baskets and keep them in a designated spot,” she says. When a bag is full, you can deal with it appropriately.

To reduce the amount of paper work you’re keeping, she recommends going on a “filing diet.” Work on a few folders at a time. Sort items into a few piles and keep a paper shredder handy. For instance, separate bills from non-bills and then separate the bills into paid and unpaid. If it’s not paid, file it in an Action file to be paid. Separate school papers from other items. One plastic tote per child should be enough to save artwork.

Keep up with maintenance

The final step in Pedicelli’s decluttering program is maintenance. Here are some of her favourite strategies for maintaining order.

Use a timer and choose one bite-sized task to focus on, such as organizing the top desk drawer.

For teens, she likes to set up a give-away box. When they have something they have outgrown or a book they no longer read, it goes into the give-away box. Every few weeks, go through the box and add it to the appropriate bins in the garage.

With kids in the household, the other system Pedicelli likes is the Sanity Basket. She puts the things the kids have left lying around the house into the Sanity Basket. Once a week, for example on Sunday afternoon, she cleans it out and donates whatever has been left in there. Eventually kids will fetch their stuff back from the box, she says.

If you don’t know where to begin, Eagles recommends starting with what bugs you the most. What do you most want to see improved? Do you long for a tidy entrance? Or is it the kitchen that drives you crazy? Another way to look at the situation is to focus your attention on what you don’t want. Are you tired of tripping over shoes? If so, concentrate on creating a storage area for shoes. Having that dream or end goal in mind will keep you motivated.

Next, plan how it will happen, says Eagles. Who is going to help and when is it going to get done? “Enlist all of your family members’ ideas in creating new systems,” she advises.

The important thing is to make organizing a habit while also keeping in mind that it’s hard to change habits, says Eagles. “Don’t expect too much change too fast,” she says. “Start with small easy changes.”

It’s easiest to create habits if you tie them to routines such as morning, after-school and bedtime, says Pedicelli. “And it helps if you start the routines when the kids are young,” she adds.

The key, both our experts agree, is to keep your goal reasonable. It isn’t perfection. Instead, happiness is progress.

Clutter? What clutter?

Clutter usually falls into one of five categories that spell BRASH, says professional organizer Nathalie Pedicelli. Understanding the source of clutter can help tame it.

B — Bargain. Things you buy because they were on sale but that you don’t really need, or things that you bought too much of because of the price. It isn’t a deal if you don’t use what you bought. Think twice before making a purchase.

R — Reminder. Items you leave out to remind you to do something such as leaving out a pill bottle to remind you to take meds. Instead, put a reminder on your calendar.

A — Aspirational. Things you buy for a hobby or a sport, books we hope to read, clothes that no longer fit. Instead of hanging on to books we hope to read one day, make a list and go digital or borrow them from the library. If you’re hanging onto clothes that no longer fit, be realistic about whether you’ll wear them again.

S — Sentimental. If you have an item that belonged to a relative that you don’t use but can’t bear to part with, can you repurpose the item for another use? Could you take a picture of it and then sell the item and use the money to buy something for the family? Do you have boxes of old family photos that you could you pay a teenager to scan?

H — Home. Everything needs a home to go to when not in use. In other words, if it doesn’t have a home, give it one.


About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

Helen Lammers-Helps's recent articles



Stories from our other publications