My house was never going to be featured in a magazine, but I don't think it was headed for "Hoarders," either.
What I had was your usual (I think) clutter problem. Too many clothes in the closet, too many abandoned lipsticks in the bathroom and too many preschooler toys all over the place. Most of that junk had an inconspicuous place to live - like a closet or the dark way-back part of a cabinet - that wasn't necessarily in my way. But it was there, and it didn't need to be. And it was making my stress level rise.
I'd been meaning to declutter, but you know how that goes. Then I saw a thing going around on Facebook called 40 Bags in 40 Days. Pegged to Lent, the idea spread among Catholic blogs and then much wider. It advocates making molehills out of a mountain, so to speak. Instead of cowering from the daunting task of "let's clean out the entire house," it suggests breaking the job into small tasks. One bag each day of stuff to be trashed, recycled, donated or sold.
One bag a day sounded doable, so I decided to try it, and I didn't want to wait until next Lent. So I adapted the idea to 30 Bags in 30 Days - it fits neatly into a month, and that's still a lot of bags.
Or so I thought.
At month's end, I'd cleared out my required 30 bags and many more, but there were still areas I hadn't yet tackled. So the decluttering continues, but I'm confident now it'll get easier. For one thing, I've got the positive reinforcement of seeing and feeling what happens when you unload stuff you don't need, and for another, I've got the advice of two local professional organizers I consulted along the way.
'Like a shot of coffee'
There are a lot of reasons clutter builds up. For one thing, most of us have room for it. Modern American houses have lots of closet and cabinet space, and "it is our nature to fill the spaces we're in," said Geralin Thomas of Metropolitan Organizing in Raleigh.
It takes time and effort to sort through and pare down all that stuff, and the process can be a bit emotional, Thomas said.
"It brings up a lot of different feelings and emotions for different people, so you never know what's going to come out of it," she said.
But the payoff is enormous. You end up with more space, more room to breathe. And having less stuff in your life brings an energy boost, said professional organizer Leah Friedman of Raleigh Green Gables.
"If you want more energy, get rid of your stuff," Friedman said, adding: "It's like a shot of coffee."
Once I got started, I didn't want to stop. I filled that first bag easily and had to stop myself from continuing in favor of a decent bedtime. It felt great to put that bag of books in the car, and even better dropping it off at the Salvation Army the next day.
But sometimes decluttering is messy. Or difficult, physically or emotionally. Sometimes you're stuck doing it in a hot garage or wriggling for boxes shoved way under the bed. For reasons like that and a million others, some people's decluttering efforts stall - or fail to get started in the first place.
Breaking the project into smaller tasks - as this 40 Bags (or 30 Bags) idea advocates - is often helpful, Thomas said (though in some circumstances, like if you've assembled your family or friends to help out, one long, concentrated effort, like a weekend, might be better).
"It's kind of like exercise," she said. "You have to do what's going to work for you."
A little planning also helps to keep the momentum going.
"Some people don't set themselves up for success," Thomas said. "They don't have a plan in place, they don't have the tools in place, they don't have what they need there to finish the job."
If you're tackling your closet, for example, make sure you have boxes or bags ready to help sort clothes you plan to donate or give away - and know where you'll take those clothes and when.
A decluttering project, big or small, feels great when you're done, but we're only human, and clutter has a way of building back up (see tips box for ways to fight that). Thomas and Friedman both suggest leaving any freed-up space you create free. If you empty out an entire kitchen cabinet, for example, resist the urge to rush out and buy a set of pretty plates to fill it.
"Think of as energy - there's energy in there," Friedman said. "Open it up and get a shot of coffee!"