Inside many of us lurks a pack rat — at least a little one, anyway.
Even inside Deniece Schofield.
Schofield is a nationally known organizing expert who teaches people how to get their clutter under control through her books, magazine articles, TV appearances and seminars. She's long been a favorite of mine, because her suggestions fit with real lives — lives crammed with kids, spouses, jobs, friends and volunteer commitments, with little time or energy left over for ambitious organizing overhauls.
Schofield and her husband are planning a move from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Las Vegas, and the prospect has brought her to the unpleasant realization that she has years' worth of stuff to cull through before the moving truck arrives.
"I'm going to have to practice what I preach," she said with a laugh, "and that's really hard."
Truth is, the tendency to keep stuff is common, though some people have more difficulty than others letting go. In fact, Schofield said pack rats make up the majority of people she meets at her organizing seminars.
Let's be clear on one thing: Pack rats are not the same as hoarders. Hoarding is a manifestation of psychological issues, not housekeeping ones. "A hoarder needs a doctor, not an organizer," she said.
Pack rats are just clutterers, people who keep more stuff than they need and probably lack a good system for managing it. Their clutter isn't so extensive that it prevents them from living normal lives, but it can add to their stress.
Schofield likes to ease pack rats into decluttering by assuring them they don't have to get rid of things — not yet, anyway. But they do have to get the things they don't use out of the mainstream.
Maybe it's the five dull potato peelers in the gadget drawer, the 27 unmatched coffee mugs or the stack of bed sheets that no longer go with your decor. They seem too useful or potentially valuable to just get rid of, but they're standing between you and orderliness.
One approach to dealing with that excess is to box it up, Schofield said. But don't just stick the box on a shelf someplace, where it will become more clutter. Instead, make a list of the contents, note in that inventory where you're storing the box and keep the document someplace where you can find it easily, such as in a file or on your computer desktop.
"That'll give you even more comfort," because you're maintaining control over your possessions, she explained.
Then, write a note on your calendar to check the box in a year. Most likely you'll realize you didn't miss the stuff inside, she said, and you'll be ready to give it away, sell it at a garage sale or take it to a consignment shop.
Another approach is to let yourself keep only so many of a particular item, be it margarine tubs or pens or used greeting cards. Designate a space to store them or decide on a number limit, she said. Once the storage space is full or the number has been reached, don't keep any more until your stock is depleted.
That's harder to do with clothing, so Schofield recommends this trick: Start by hanging all the clothes in your closet backward, so the hanger hook is facing you. When you wear an item and hang it back up, turn the hanger the right way.
Give yourself a year, and then go through your closet. If the hook is backward, you know at a glance you haven't worn that garment in 12 months. It's a good candidate for culling.
What about all the stuff stored in the basement, the attic, the garage or the storage space you rent across town because you've already filled up your house?
Tackle it one box at a time, Schofield said. If you set out to organize the whole thing, you'll just get overwhelmed. It helps to have a friend with you to go through the box, someone who can be more objective about its contents, she said.
Once you've successfully handled one box, you'll be motivated to try another. And another.
Schofield is quick to note that those methods aren't meant for items with genuine sentimental value. Those can be harder to part with, because our feelings about them are tied up with our feelings about the people who made them, owned them once or gave them to us.
"You've got to remember, that thing is not the person," she said. If you can't use it, take a picture of it, and then give the item to someone who needs or wants it more than you do. "You keep the memory; you don't have to keep the monstrosity," she said.
Getting rid of things is only half the remedy for pack-rat tendencies, though. You also have to be judicious about bringing in new things to replace them.
Schofield recommends taking a hard look at your shopping habits and making an effort to curb the urge to acquire.
When you see something you want, write it down instead of buying it, she suggested. Put a date on the note, and revisit it in six weeks. If you still want or need the item, buy it. Most likely, you won't.
And don't buy anything unless you know exactly where you're going to put it, she said. "Exactly" doesn't mean on the kitchen counter or in the office somewhere. It means displayed on this table or stored in that drawer.
But what if the item is on sale? "Well, it's going to be on sale again someday," she said. "You have to be tough on yourself."
Schofield knows from hard experience that decluttering isn't always fast or easy. But when she gets discouraged, she remembers the man she once saw on TV, who had eaten a car. He ground up tiny bits and added it to his orange juice every day, she said, until eventually he had consumed the whole thing.
If he could eat a car, she said, you can tame a pack rat.
And you'll probably be a lot better off than that guy in the long run.