Cleaning by Letting Go - 405 Magazine

Cleaning by Letting Go

One woman’s first-person account from the front lines of the clutter wars, and tidying advice from experts.


On various shelves at my house, I have a full library of books about home organization. Their titles practically mock me: File, Don’t Pile!, Behind the Clutter, Feng Shui Your Life, Unstuff Your Life!, It’s All Too Much, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and one of my favorites, ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life.

As I’m writing this, I’ve taken a quick visual inventory of my surroundings, which defy the advice in all the books I mentioned above. Within my immediate reach are: the Christmas stocking that never made it back into the Christmas storage tub, a shoebox from this weekend’s purchases, a freshly emptied magazine basket, another basket of mail that dates back to October, a tray of paid bills, a bird-calling whistle of some kind, a tabletop wine bottle opener (in case I can only grab one thing in a fire) and a large box of misprinted office signs from work.

Surrounded by the proof that I’ve barely bent the spines of my organizing books, I called in reinforcements for this article: Oklahoma City professional organizers Amy Holder from Simplicity Professional Organizing and Darlene Broderick from Clutter Buster.

For the “organizationally challenged,” it can be overwhelming to decide where to begin, but the journey through a thousand Beanie Babies always starts with the first step.

Amy: Being overwhelmed is very common. When clients tell me they want to organize their whole house, I recommend prioritizing by which three areas of the home give them the most stress, are non-functional or need to be repurposed.

Darlene: I usually begin with a client interview and learn everything I need to know to create a customized system for that client. Different systems or organization [methods] work for different people, but as a general rule, it’s good to start by working on the area or areas you use every day.

Then what?

Amy: It’s estimated that we lose seven hours a week looking for stuff like keys, cell phones, pieces of paper. To minimize that, everything should have a home within your home. I like to help clients determine “zones” for their things (i.e., all cleaning supplies go under the kitchen sink). Once you’ve declared a zone and you’ve stuck to it, you should be able to take a quick inventory at any point and know what needs to be restocked.

Darlene: It’s not uncommon for me to meet the movers when someone is relocating, unpack everything and put it away. Clients just keep the system in place. Otherwise, we work together to figure out in advance where things are going to go. I ask them to tell me their favorite charity, which often makes it easier to let things go. If Big Trash Day is coming up, we’ll schedule a clean-out in the days leading up to trash day, so the discarded items don’t have to sit around longer than necessary.

I don’t have to look very far to recognize my own hoarding quirks. What are predictable trouble spots for most people, and how do you recommend tackling them?

Amy: Paper management is a huge thing. Almost anything we’re tempted to keep can be found on the Internet. I also recommend keeping magazine articles, lists or notes on an app such as Evernote. Mail can be sorted between the mailbox and the front door, and most of it can be tossed before you come back into the house. Keep it if it’s something you have to pay or sign and return, or if you need to file it (e.g., a car title).

Darlene: Family heirlooms should be kept, but saving things for “the kids” is a waste of time – odds are, the kids aren’t going to want to clutter up their own space with their old stuff. If you really want them to have something, give it to them now. Help your aging parents to get rid of things while they’re still living and able. When parents die and leave behind a ton of stuff, it’s a huge emotional burden on their loved ones to address the mess.

Amy: I also encourage clients to learn not to pile things up, because stacking is contagious! Kitchen countertops are a good example of a “no-drop zone” — it’s more difficult for someone to abandon their pile of stuff on a clean surface.

Darlene: Likewise, when you become a “shover,” other people start shoving for you. For example, if you shove everything into the front hall closet, before long, everyone else will do the same.

It’s organizing day. What tips do you give to the do-it-yourself organizer?

Amy: Set a goal and start small — a junk drawer, for example – and focus ONLY on that zone. If the zone is a room, start from the door and work your way in. Stay in that zone from start to finish. While you’re working, don’t stop to take misplaced items to their zones — just set them aside for now. Then, use the last 30 minutes to take those items to the zones where they belong. Most of all, remember that organizing is a process that takes weeks or months to work through.

Darlene: Stay in the area you’re sorting! Set a time limit, too. For example, let’s say you’re going to clean the garage for six hours one weekend. I recommend that you set your timer to go off at the halfway point. Sort items by “keep,” “donate” and “trash.” When the timer goes off, put away the items that don’t belong in that area. When you get to the final hour of your sorting, set your timer to go off at the halfway point again, and repeat those steps so that the last thing you’re doing is putting away what doesn’t belong. When you do it this way, you’ll see that you can quickly reclaim that space.

My tombstone will probably read, “Here lies a girl who loved a Rubbermaid container.” Is that my inner hoarder coming out?

Amy: I find that clients who have trouble making decisions to get rid of things have containers everywhere. My recommendation is that you wait until you see everything you have, and then decide whether or not you need storage containers. 

Darlene:  Instead of storing it, let it go — it really is going to be okay. You don’t need to feel guilty about it, even if things still have price tags on them. Consign if you must, but never feel guilty about letting things go.

How do you measure success for your clients?

Amy: I think success is measured differently from one client to the next, but it can be found every day. Success is less daily stress, a system that’s maintainable and manageable and a home that looks and feels nicer.

Darlene: If a client can keep up the new habits of organization through repetition for at least two weeks, they feel really liberated from the clutter that held them down. That’s success. It’s really all about a better quality of life.