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Dive in and declutter

Ever watch the show Hoarders and see a bit of yourself?

Yeah, me too. I let stuff accumulate. I struggle to throw things out.

It hasn't become as severe as, say, fossilized cats under couch cushions or soiled newspaper stacks on the bed. But I recently realized I needed to declutter before it got to that point.

"Junk drawers" had turned into junk cabinets and junk closets and junk rooms. My house was cramped and stuffy; the walls were busy and distracting. I could feel it taking a toll: It's impossible to clear your head and relax when every wall and corner is stuffed with stuff.

So I took a two-week "staycation" and dedicated about half that time to decluttering. It was difficult at first, but got easier as I went along.

Now is a perfect time for you to declutter. You have new possessions coming into your home. It's time to get rid of some of the old ones.

Here are some lessons I learned, along with some wise words from Betty Arnold, a professional organizer in Tampa.

You don't have to make a big project of it

Granted, I did, and it worked. But Arnold says even dedicating 20 minutes twice a week to tackle a corner at a time is a good start.

She tells clients to start with a room, turn to the left and go clockwise. Touch every item and really think about whether you need it.

The main bedroom is a good place to start, Arnold says, as it's a room you really want to be peaceful, calm and free of clutter.

The spare room and office

This is where I started my project. My spare room was stacked with old papers, dusty barbells, outdated Trivial Pursuit games, whole seasons of The X-Files (on VHS tape no less, egad!), 1998 issues of Entertainment Weekly — you name it. I could hardly navigate it. I donated or tossed just about all of it.

This room also doubles as an office. My desk and filing cabinets were thick with paper I no longer needed. I even had the forms I signed when I bought my first car — in 1989.

Arnold says office paper is one of the biggest drags on a household. It builds up and gets out of control quickly.

"The paperless society is a myth," she says. "Everybody is deluged with it."

An efficient filing system can solve this problem, she says.

Seriously scrutinize your kitchen

My cupboards were stuffed with clanging pots and pans — many scratched and dented, others that I rarely used. I pitched most of them.

My utensil drawer was a snarl of old knives and other sharp edges that made fishing for a spatula dangerous. I thinned it to about two dozen items. Might I need those nutcrackers someday? Maybe. But I hadn't used them in years, so out they went.

Arnold says she doesn't allow clients to have a "junk" or miscellaneous drawer. Everything should have a place, she says.

Clothes, of course

If you haven't worn it in a year, Arnold says, donate or toss it.

Though I'm no Imelda Marcos, I had let old shoes accumulate in a corner of my closet. I tossed about a dozen pairs.

My sock drawer was a snake pit of odds and ends that I thinned considerably. Same with T-shirts and unmentionables.

Now those drawers are easy to open and close and are filled with only the things I would actually wear.

Clear out the bathroom

My bathroom cupboard and medicine cabinet were a jungle of long-forgotten hotel shampoo samples, aftershaves, medicines and colognes. I threw out everything that I hadn't used in the last month, though I was careful to wash out all the glass and plastic containers and recycle them.

Arnold says there's no reason to hold on to health and beauty products you don't like — even if you paid a lot for them.

"Unlike wine, they don't get better with time," she says.

Be careful throwing out prescription drugs, particularly narcotics. They can get into the drinking water if flushed and can end up in the hands of a youngster if simply thrown away. Keep an eye out for Oingo Boingo T-shirts from college.

My life was written with these things! How could I part with them?

Well, I did — at least most of them. And I have yet to miss them.

It's hard at first. But once you get going, it snowballs.

Now, what had occupied almost an entire room has been reduced to a single box that sits in a corner of a closet. I call it my "memories box" and it includes photos and some of my favorite memorabilia. And that's it.

"It's an emotional thing," Arnold says. "But just because your Aunt Susan bequeathed you this thing … it doesn't go with your things. If you keep everything that someone gives you, then what happens is your home doesn't reflect you now."

Recycling and dumping

If you're decluttering bit by bit, you might want to try Just post what you're looking to get rid of and wait for someone to step forward and claim it.

You also could donate your items to the Salvation Army, Goodwill or other organizations, which is what I did. Make sure to track what you're donating and get a receipt so you can figure your gifts into your taxes.

You can always hold a garage or rummage sale. I decided against this, mainly because I wanted to get rid of stuff quickly, not have it hanging around for the weekend to see if someone would buy it a dime or a dollar at a time.

For the stuff you can't give away, recycle what you can, discard what you can't. I loaded up my pickup and headed to the Pinellas County dump, where it cost me $10 to unload.


Survey your success

You won't believe how much freer and lighter you will feel once you have lost stuff you don't need. Some people claim it changes their life.

My house looks substantially bigger now that it's not cramped with junk. It's more soothing inside. The stuff that had dominated my spare bedroom now occupies half a closet, so it's mostly out of sight.

"People always say, 'This feels so good, I can't tell you how it feels,' " says Arnold. "You will think better, you will relax more, you will have more time, you will be happier."

Dive in and declutter 12/26/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 27, 2010 1:35pm]
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