Clearing the Clutter - Free Yo Self

Two decades ago, in a junior high social sciences class, my student peers and I were assigned a simple project. Find an object in our home that holds significant meaning to us, prepare and deliver a two-minute presentation about the object and its significance to the class. I bet your mind is already shooting forward to all the things in your home that hold significant value to you, family heirlooms, wedding mementos, gifts from your children. When I was assigned this project I drew a big old blank. And I’d draw a big old blank today too.

Begrudgingly, I brought in a rubber turtle my neighbor gave me. I used to babysit this neighbor and his brother before their parents went through a messy divorce and the father hacked up the house with an ax in a drug-fueled rage. (I think that’s a true story, but have not cross-referenced it with my parents who were adults with better memories when this happened). The root of the story I told was true. I babysat for this little boy, he was very sweet, and it was kind of him to insist that his parents buy me a present when the family visited an aquarium. But man did I spin that story for maximum emotional impact. I had to spin it because to me, stuff doesn’t hold much emotional value.

This whole Marie Kondo purge your stuff, purge your mind, feel great about your life trend is something I wholeheartedly support, probably because I’m already doing it and it’s nice to have lifestyle experts confirm you’re doing something right.

As a renter for the last 13 years of my life, I have moved at least 10 times. Every time I move, I purge purge purge. It’s so much more convenient than pack pack packing. Also, it allows me to clear out the excess and to start each new living arrangement with the essentials. Three or four times a year, I go through my closet and dump items I don’t wear, clothes that have gone out of style, items that are irrelevant to my current life, and clothes that are worn past the point of public decency. There is box under a table in our entryway that is a permanent fixture in our home. It’s where I stash stuff I find around the house to save up for the next Good Will run. It is possible that 30% of the books lining the shelves of the Napa Public Library are purged from Casa Sanders.  

But I have a deep, dark, organizational secret.

I struggle with paper clutter.

There are piles of articles ripped from magazines, half-finished To Do Lists, post-its of story ideas, mail I haven’t opened, and documents that seem important scattered throughout the small two-bedroom home I share with my husband and our two cats. In the spirit of bare, open arms honesty, the reasons for this struggle with clutter is three-fold.

  1. I have an overactive, anxious mind and am afraid of forgetting all the wonderful ideas that spontaneously spring forth at all hours of the day. So I write them down on whatever pad of paper is near and add it to a pile.
  2. I believe in the power of education and inspiration and am constantly collecting little bits of wisdom that I think may aid me in the future. I rip them out of magazines and add them to the closest paper pile.
  3. I am financially ignorant and do not know the difference between financial documents I need to keep, shred, or recycle. So I put them all in piles around the house and ignore them because I don’t really know what information I’m supposed to derive from them anyway.

Here are the “Before” images of my paper piles located in the entryway, dining room, and guest bedroom/office space.

In the name of investigative blogging, decluttering space and mind, and out of respect for my husband who lives with these piles of papers and never says one word, I methodically worked my way through each pile. But first, I procrastinated. I called my mom, I baked cookies, I ran errands, I accepted a job offer, I texted a whole bunch of friends, I went on Instagram, I watched the Real Housewives of New York City. Because here’s the thing - confronting the piles of paper was equivalent to confronting the issues that cause me to make these stacks of scraps. As anyone familiar with the psychological disorder of hoarding knows, it’s never about the stuff. It’s about the mindset that needs the stuff.

Identifying our struggle zones is different from addressing our struggle zones. Tackling the paper piles became a way for me to find clutter-free ways to wrangle my spinning mind, constant thirst for new information, and financial ignorance.

I slowly worked my way through every single piece of paper. 90% ended up in the recycling. What remained was filed into folders for retirement savings documents, tax information, story ideas, blog plans, and business expenses. Every loose note or stray sheet of paper that was kept to remind me to do something was carefully logged on either a personal or a professional To Do List and the paper reminder was recycled. I created a binder for all of the magazine clippings that seemed useful for the future. One of these clippings was an article about how to recycle common household goods, like eyeglasses. Then, an old pair of eyeglasses that needed recycling turned up in a box of papers. I had considered tossing all those magazine clippings, reasoning that the internet has all the answers anyway, until this neat cosmic coincidence.

In the same spirit of bare, open arms honesty, this project took me about 6 hours over the course of two days. The first 4 hours on the first day wiped me out. I felt overwhelmed by my accumulation of stuff and overwhelmed by a mind that wants to hold on to everything. “It might be important!” kept rising to the top of my thoughts and was difficult to shush.

After a restorative night with friends, I had the energy to complete the project. The second day had the blissful feeling of completion. Taking a full box of papers to our recycling bin genuinely lifted my spirits. I felt lighter letting go of all that stuff. Years of “This might be important!” were released from my mind and my home. Seeing the neat stack of folders and two manageable lists in place of piles of loose papers all over the house brought me tremendous relief. These piles had become visible reminders that there was SO MUCH TO DO! Each one was a little pile of guilt, letting me know that there was work to be done and I wasn’t doing it. But now they’re gone, all of them. And so is that guilt.

And here is what remains, neatly organized and tucked away.