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Declutter Challenge: What Works Best for You?

Next Avenue readers share their top tips for getting rid of junk

By Liza Kaufman Hogan

My 30-Day Declutter Challenge ended in a flurry as I scrambled to complete the last three days of clutter collection.

The goal of the challenge, started on Aug. 1, was to collect one item on Day 1, two on Day 2 and so forth for 30 days. By the end, on Aug. 30, I had culled more than the requisite 465 items, really closer to 500.

My declutter pile is big (see ugly photo) but not as big as I imagined when I started the challenge — maybe because I didn't have large items like furniture to shed. Instead, I have amassed a large pile of small items like books, toys and electronic flotsam and jetsam.

(MORE: The 30-Day Declutter Challenge: What I've Learned)

The challenge was well suited to a declutter procrastinator like me. Having rules to guide (and force) me to collect a certain number of items per day was really helpful. It occurred to me that you might also do the challenge backwards starting with 30 items when you are most fired up and work down to one item for Day 30. However you get there, you'll be glad you did.

Readers Share Their Declutter Tips

We invited Next Avenue readers to join the challenge (it's not too late to start now) and asked them to share their best tips for paring down their possessions. They had some great advice:

  • "I keep a shopping bag and fill it with things to give away, and donate that full bag every week to a local thrift shop. Then I open a new shopping bag to fill." Pamela Koller, Queens, N.Y.
  • "I decide what has value for me today. What do I really need and want in my life today, and what is something from the past that no longer serves me?" Kevin McGrath, Anaheim, Calif.
  • "I try to think if anyone else will care about this item if I were dead. The answer is most often, no. I still may have a hard time parting with it. I don't like to throw away anything useful, so it must be donated or put on the curb for someone to take." Pam Chapman, Dallas, Texas
  • "I organized and labeled boxes into categories: trash, sell, donate, file." Rich Crossett, Louisville, Ky.
  • "I remembered William Morris' (19th century textile designer and novelist) dictum: 'Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.'”  Jean Melom, Seattle, Wash.

Like me, some readers found it painful to part with some things. Asked what was hardest to part with, Koller said, "cards saved by my recently deceased mother. I can't part with them. Yet."

Marie Scruggs, of Dallas, Texas said, "We gave away a trampoline that wouldn't fit into our new backyard. That was hard. The kids had so many great memories associated with it."

Melom said her books were hardest to discard. "But a friend was having a big book sale with benefits to support the marriage equality campaign in my (former) state, so I felt good helping a cause I believed in," she noted.

Other Ways to Declutter

Doing a declutter challenge or following tips from others are two ways to jettison things you don't need. But what if you have years' worth of stuff and need help going through it? Or you don't have a lot of clutter but need help organizing what you do have or are preparing for a move?

Professional organizer Janine Adams of Peace of Mind Organizing in St. Louis, Mo., suggests partnering with a friend to get two houses done instead of one. The work will go faster if you have someone to keep you on task, she says. Even Adams declutters with another professional organizer. She recommends you choose the friend carefully. Someone who will encourage you to keep everything or is easily distracted or is in it for the stuff she'll get may not be the best person for the task.

(MORE: Finding 465 Things to Toss in Declutter Challenge)

When You Can't (or Don't Want To) Go it Alone

Sometimes you just need a professional if you don't know where to start or don't have time to do it on your own. Adams says there are five common reasons people turn to professionals for help organizing:

1. They feel overwhelmed.


2. They don’t know how to get organized.

3. They are afraid they don't know how to do it right.

4. They want it to go quickly.

5. They need help staying focused.

If you are looking for a professional to help declutter or organize, check the directory of the National Association of Professional Organizers. You can search by ZIP code and expertise, such as help for families with children or hoarders or particular needs or home office set-up. When I did a general search for residential services, I came up with 33 organizers within five miles of my home.

If you are helping a parent move or preparing yourself for a move to a retirement community or a smaller home, you can find tips and someone to help through the National Association of Senior Move Managers.

Adams sometimes works with clients helping a parent downsize or move. These situations call for special patience and empathy. You have to "remember that it's their space and their home. Respecting their wishes is really important," she says.

Generally, Adams does not recommend people rent storage space — what she calls "paying rent on your stuff." But, she adds, "if they want to keep everything, plan to move stuff into storage if affordable."

(MORE: The Benefits of Living in a Teeny House)

She says it's important to keep in mind that the person or couple moving may be OK with a living room crowded with furniture if it means keeping things they love, even if that's not how you would arrange your house.

Whether you are decluttering on your own, working with a professional, downsizing the family home or repurposing a room as an empty nester, Adams has this advice:

"Be kind to yourself. Something about clutter makes people beat themselves up. They ask: 'Why haven’t I gotten to this?'" As Adams knows, we all have clutter to a greater or lesser degree. However you approach the challenge, it's difficult. But trust me, it feels great to let go of it.

Liza Kaufman Hogan is a freelance writer. Read More
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