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Easy Ways to Think and Live Clutter-Free

The author of 'Organize Now!' offers tips for a happier life with less stuff

By Richard Eisenberg

Americans have a serious clutter problem; in a recent Huffington Post survey, the fifth most common stress trigger was "worrying my home isn't clean or organized enough."

Jennifer Ford Berry, the author of the Organize Now! book series, has some smart clutter-busting solutions, however, and I just interviewed her about them.

I was especially taken by the tips in Berry’s new, compact volume (subtitled Think & Live Clutter-Free) — a week-by-week manual that goes far beyond sorting and tossing.

Berry views clutter holistically. “Clutter is anything that doesn’t have a purpose or bring you joy,” said Berry, a self-described life organization consultant based in upstate New York. “It’s stuff that keeps you blocked from moving forward in your life. Any form of clutter will steal energy from you.”

(MORE: 5 Best Ways to Lose the Clutter for Keeps)

I was especially interested in Berry’s advice for people over 50, since many of us find ourselves wanting to “deacquire” (the word my colleague Suzanne Gerber uses), reversing decades of acquiring.

As Akiko Busch wrote in "The Art of Shedding Possessions," her Next Avenue article describing her "de-accessioning" experience: “After spending much of my adult life bringing things into the house, I am now more preoccupied with getting them out.” Busch calls her home “the overcrowded museum of domestic life” and that’s as good a description as I’ve heard.

(MORE: 9 Ways to Simplify Your Financial Life)

Here are highlights from my interview with Berry; I hope you find her insights useful:

Next Avenue: What’s your overall message about clutter?

Berry: Basically, my message is that life is not about stuff. It’s about living. Because, after all, we cannot take any of our stuff with us. Only keep the things you love and use and that you can take care of.

(MORE: The Upside to Downsizing)

Why do you think clutter is about more than just having a messy house?

People assume clutter means clothes on the floor or overstuffed pantries, but it can also be things like the weight you carry from a relationship and the debt you now have because you haven’t organized your finances properly.

What specific clutter advice do you have for people in their 50s and 60s?

They’re in the prime of their lives and they should be enjoying it. But a lot of times, by this point, they’ve accumulated a lot of stuff and that often leads them to get overwhelmed and stressed out.

I tell people who are empty nesters or now retired that organizing your things is the best gift you can give your children.

Because we all know that when we leave here, someone else has to clean up our mess. It can take weeks or months out of your children’s lives and it’s not fair because those items you have were choices you made, not choices you should push on your children.

I was surprised how much of your book’s advice relates to money. Why is that?

When you are spending your money to accumulate, you’re not necessarily living a happy, clutter-free life. I work with people all week long who have more money than they need — and it looks like they’re living the dream when you look at the house from outside the front door. But they’re actually miserable because of all the stuff they have and the internal clutter that’s holding them back from being happy.

We’re living in a society with messages of "Buy this" or "Buy That" and if you do, it might make you happier or save you time or make you think you reached a certain status level. And we believe all that. We feel the more we have, the better we’re doing in life and that whoever has the most toys wins.

You say people need to organize their spending habits to reduce clutter. How?

You could stop yourself from going into stores you don’t need to visit. Or you might take a two-week spending break where you’re not buying online or shopping in stores. If that’s hard, ask a spouse or friend to make you accountable.


Otherwise, there’ll always be something that’s inviting to buy, which will add to your home’s clutter.

You think people need to organize their workdays better to reduce clutter in their lives. How?

The number one thing is to plan out your workday before you arrive. The worst thing you can do is wake up Thursday morning, sit down at work and then start figuring out what you’re going to do. You could wind up spending an hour or two just planning things out.

Pick one time of the week — it could be Friday afternoon or Sunday night, whatever works for you — and plan out your whole week, with a specific schedule. Then, when you wake up in the morning, the plan’s already there so you can get right to work.

But life often intervenes.  Unexpected things come up at work. Then what?

That happens to all of us. But at least we have a template and something to fall back on. If your boss calls on you to do something immediately, of course you’re going to have to get that done. But then you can go back to your plan.

Let’s talk about some of the tips in the book that surprised me. One of them is to organize a vision for your life. What do you mean?

Before you have a family, you have all this time to dream and see the big picture. As responsibilities start to pile on — whether that’s your marriage or your kids, career or home — just getting through the day is your main goal. And you don’t realize that you could change things to live the life you want to live.

So take a step back. You might want to make a list of your goals for the next year, the next five years and the next 10 years and what you have to do to make them happen.

We’ve all heard the advice to follow your passion. But you say people should organize a plan to do it. Why?

You can be passionate about building cars, putting puzzles together or making crafts, but if you don’t have a plan for how you’re going to do it, it’ll never happen.

If you’re retired, that’s a great time in your life to do the things you want to do. Come up with a plan. Maybe you can arrange to teach a crafts class at a local church. Then you’ll get other people excited — and that’s a gift.

Finally, you believe we should make a point of organizing time to give back. Tell me about that.

Many people want to give back but don’t because they think they don’t have the time. But all you have to do is start by helping out once a quarter for two hours and schedule it in your planner just as you would if you were going to the doctor or a wedding. Treat it like a real important appointment.

You need to ask yourself: "When I'm gone, what are people going to say about me?" Nobody’s going to say, "That person accumulated 500 pairs of shoes." They’re going to say, "I remember this one time when he or she brought me soup when I was sick or helped me cut down a tree in my yard." Those are the kinds of things that really make a difference.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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