Worry of the Day: Am I Really Taking ALL This Stuff Home?

I was doing pretty well here at my mother's house, going through things but saying a polite "no" to owning them. Then the glassware came out - I've rarely met a glass I didn't like. But I did pretty well and managed to identify old glasses that would get the heave-ho when the new ones came home. Likewise the furniture - there was really only one piece I wanted. My father's bureau, described as a "campaign chest" - how cool is that?

But bit by bit, my pile got larger. And the longer I've stayed here and looked at the stuff my mother loved, the more these things from my past have seemed like potentially important parts of my future. Now I'm wondering what happened to the woman who hates stuff and is determined not to be weighed down by more possessions.

You may find yourself in this situation, and here is what I suggest:

1. Stop panicking. Because it never helps to panic.

2. Remember - just because you take something home with you (from the store or your best friend's house or the free box) does not mean that you are obligated to keep that thing for more than 10 minutes. 

3. You can keep from having too much stuff if you get rid of one (or two or ten) things for each one that you bring into the house. I'm looking at some of these items as upgrades rather than additions - when the new version comes in the old version is out.

4. Give yourself a little tiny break. Losing people is hard. Losing your second parent is its own kind of difficult, what with dismantling your childhood and all. If holding on to some of those things for some period of time is healing, then go for it. But know that in six months I will be asking you, as I will be asking myself, if those things are really adding value to your life or are just cluttering up the place.

What to do with the forgotten family heirlooms?

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If your family is anything like mine, there is a lot of inherited stuff lingering in cupboards and closets. This may be fine china, silver tea sets, childhood toys, ancient correspondence, favorite mixing bowls... The list goes on.

It's hard to get rid of the things that help inform your identity. And it's hard to keep a lot of moldering or otherwise unlovely stuff that takes up space and never sees the light of day. I'm here to tell you that there are no easy answers - this is an individual journey. There are some strategies, however, for sorting through these things and making decisions you can live with.

First things first: heirlooms you love

First, sort out the stuff you really adore. Don't worry about whether it's valuable, just choose those things that you'd like to use or look at regularly. These go in the keep pile. Then - USE THEM. I'm a big believer in using the things you love. I've just inherited the family Wedgewood, which during my childhood we only used on very special occasions. As a result, the set is almost complete, but has been used rarely. I intend to use it every day. Who cares if it's valuable - I'm not planning to sell it! I'd rather risk breaking or chipping it than leaving it wrapped up for another generation to worry about.

Likewise, if there are family letters you love to look at, put them in an album or otherwise make them accessible (paying attention to using archival materials to keep them safe). Hang the art, put your great-grandmother's wedding dress in a shadow box and hang it in your bedroom! Revel in these inherited treasures.

What not to do? Keep everything, in the name of history! We live in such a disposable society that artifacts from our family's past can seem like rare antiquities. Unless you are very fortunate, they are not. Resist the temptation to keep every item your ancestors touched. Keep the ones that are important to you, the ones you will use, the ones that really do have historical significance, but don't keep it all. I believe in an incremental strategy when if this gets difficult. Set aside a few boxes and revisit them over the next several months. As time goes by you will likely recognize that many of the items that seemed so special have lost their magic, and then you'll find it easier to let go of them. 

next: the inheritance you just don't want

Inevitably you will inherit stuff you have no use for, and which is not interesting to you. What to do? This stuff is harder, but take heart - you can work your way through it. First, you want to determine whether the items are valuable - either on the market or as historical objects. Letters and other archival information might be of interest to a museum or library, depending on the writer/owner and the contents. My aunt is a historian, and as she's into her 80's she's managed to donate lots of books and drawings to various libraries. My favorite? She won a wooden paddle as a camper back in the early 1940's. She just returned it to the camp, still in operation, for their archives! 

If you've inherited items that may be valuable, work on getting a real valuation. For some things, this is as easy as checking online. If you use ebay, make sure to look at the listings that have already sold, to get an idea of what things really go for. If you think your stuff is valuable, especially if there is a lot of it, hire an appraiser. You want someone who is certified, and never hire someone who wants to buy your stuff (conflict of interest). You can use these sites to find someone in your area: International Society of AppraisersAmerican Society of Appraisers, or Appraisers Association of America. You can use a local auction house or try to sell it yourself online.

I'm sorry to report that many fine antiques have lost value over the last decade or so. Just because they're nice, sadly, does not mean they are worth money. Buck up! Use what you can, sell what you can, release the rest with love and gratitude.

and then, the junk

Realistically there is going to be a lot of stuff that is old but not valuable, or that had sentimental value to the deceased but not to anyone else. It's hard to just dump stuff that was important to your loved one, but be strong! I find that people hate to throw things into the trash - we all want to feel that we are being responsible stewards of the earth, and that we're not tossing out things that still have value. To this I say: recycle what you can, but don't let sentimentality allow you to keep things you really don't want. The landfill is there for a reason. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again: keeping stuff in your house that belongs in the trash isn't saving the planet. It's just moving a tiny part of the landfill into your home.

 

Death In The Family: Uncluttering With Love

My mother died recently. It happened a lot more quickly than we'd expected, so we've all been caught off guard; everyone figured she'd go on and on. Here are the things I'm grateful for: she lived a long (84 years) and healthy life. She was active, curious and committed to her community and her interests. My sisters and I got to spend lots of time with her, taking care of her in her last month. She suffered very little and laughed a lot. 

That said, we miss her very much and are now faced with the task of dismantling her home, which feels a little like taking apart her legacy. My mother was an aesthete - every item in her home was purchased and placed intentionally, from the wooden spoons to the face cream to the lamps. She saw the beauty in everyday things and always purchased the well-designed item over its more pedestrian counterpart. How to begin to pull apart each small vignette, to throw out the utensils her hands so lovingly touched?

That's what I'll be sharing with you over the next few weeks - how the Unclutter Coach manages to talk her talk and walk her walk. Are you on Instagram? Here was our very first tearful challenge: what to do with the tapioca bowl.

 Mom in Paris with Archer, sharing her love of travel.

Mom in Paris with Archer, sharing her love of travel.

 

 

It's Time to Discard Your Landfill Anxiety

A lot of the people I work with are worried about all the stuff that ends up in landfills. I applaud this concern - we should ALL be concerned about the amount of stuff that gets thrown away. I mention the plastic island to my children at least once a week as a means of shaming them into better buying habits, but that's another story.

Here are a few things I'd ask you to think about if you find you are frequently invoking The Landfill to excuse your hoarding tendencies.

1. Do you take things home that would otherwise be thrown away in order to "save them from the landfill"? I do hope not. Making your own pile of junk larger to keep from making a public pile of junk larger? Not okay. If your friend is about to throw away some perfectly good plastic cutlery and you're horrified at the idea of it landing at the city dump without ever having been used, you may take it to the thrift store. Period. Please do not take it home to sit in a dusty drawer. This is not helpful to you or to the planet. Your Unclutter Coach decrees that you may never use this excuse again. Better find another.

2. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but eventually everything is going to end up in the landfill. It's just where things go when they are all used up. I'm a huge proponent of things getting loved and used until there's not an ounce of use left in them, but eventually it's all going to the dump. Please consider that by "saving" things from this fate, you are really just prolonging that journey. So if you think that the macrame pot holder is somehow being spared by its sojourn on your kitchen shelf, I have bad news for you. This might be a good time to practice acceptance.

I hate that our dumps and landfills are full of cheap crap that didn't last long enough to become a treasured part of anyone's household. But please, please, don't turn a dislike of cheap crap into a crusade to keep everything forever. The best thing you can do for our landfills is BUY LESS, buy better quality, reuse and recycle. Then say a little prayer of gratitude for the stuff that has served us and move on. 

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And Now a Word About Setbacks

I broke my ankle recently. Let's just say I was doing something glamorous and wildly fun - it's not actually true, but in this case I'll take fantasy over the mundane truth. 

The result of this little accident was 6 weeks on the couch. I couldn't walk, I couldn't drive. My lovely teenagers took care of me. They also kind of took care of the house. Meaning that when prompted, sometimes rather forcefully, they emptied the dishwasher and took out the garbage They even did my laundry. They definitely did not do the kind of day to day tidying and cleaning that is a regular part of my life. And boy, did it show.

Being stuck on a couch in rainy gray March and April was depressing. Being stuck on the couch in a messy cluttered house was frustrating. Altogether it was not the happiest time for me. But I'm a big believer in silver linings, so I'll share my two big takeaways from what will heretofore be known as The Lost Spring of '18.

1. My to-do list got short. Very, very short. And we did not die. The earth did not stop spinning, the essentials were still managed. It sort of made me wonder about the stuff that's usually on that list. I mean, how essential are those tasks that seem absolutely critical? Apparently many of them are not actually necessary to basic survival. In fact, now I can't even remember what they were, so that gives me an idea of their importance.

2. Now that I'm off crutches and can hobble about, the house is coming back together pretty quickly. Which means that despite it looking and feeling out of control, it is still basically organized and decluttered. This speaks to the years of work I've done to pare down and simplify.

One of my tenets of maintaining order in the house is being diligent about setting aside time to manage the clutter. I've long believed that if you can get control of your stuff and manage it effectively then a setback can be easily overcome. Now I have the proof. Six weeks of neglect definitely had an impact, but in just a few days I'm getting at all back. Now to get back to driving...

 

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If you are feeling overwhelmed with clutter and can't figure out how to get out from under it, please give me a call - I'd love to talk to you one on one and give you some tailored (and free) advice on what you can do to start taking control. Schedule a session.

 

How Did We End Up With So. Much. Stuff?

If you are anything like me, you sometimes look at the stuff in your house and wonder - where did it all come from? I'm not much of a shopper, and I am a pretty conscious consumer, and yet if I'm not constantly vigilant the stuff just flows in. The trick is to learn to turn the tide, sending stuff out at least as quickly as it comes in. And this is where so many of us get stuck.

There are many reasons we hold on to the stuff that doesn't serve us. I'm going to list a few, in the hope that you recognize some of your own patterns here and can take steps to change them.

1. You just don't feel like dealing with it. One of the properties of clutter is its tendency to enervate us. It makes us feel heavy, and tired, and bored. It seems so hard to sort through it, to THINK about it all. The good news? It feels hard, but it's not. I suggest choosing a drawer or cupboard or shelf, setting a timer for 15 minutes, and just DOING it. It's amazing how much you can get done in a quick burst. Don't put it off - do it today. Then do it again tomorrow, and the next day. 15 minutes a day can really make a difference, and it builds a great lifelong habit.

2. You can't decide whether or not these things are necessary or useful. I make fun of my mother for the things she's held on to for 60 years, but I have trouble letting go of potentially useful things myself. So I haven't used the wok in 5 years - what if I find an amazing stir-fry recipe next week and wish I still had it? And address labels are always useful, right? We need to get into an abundance mindset. The things we need are in most cases replaceable. Or borrowable. Or substitutable. We hold on to things that we don't use out of a vague sense of preservation; insurance against future need. Which is fine if you're stockpiling water in case of earthquake, but not so helpful if you're storing tons of unused office supplies. You have all you need and more. You will continue to have all you need next week, next month, next year. Let go of the excess, it's not helping you.

3. You have the feels. You look at an item you don't really like, and remember that your neighbor gave it to you, or it was a wedding present, or it's been in the family for years. You are keeping things out of guilt and shame and obligation, rather than out of love. Not such great emotions to be raising every time you look around the house. But guess what? You are a grownup. You get to decide what to own. If you look at a possession and it brings up negative emotions THROW IT OUT. Life is hard enough without filling your home with things that make you feel bad. I promise that next year (or possibly next month) you will have difficulty remembering what you threw away today.

I know it's hard. I know it sometimes feels futile. But getting a handle on your stuff will make you feel SO MUCH BETTER. Still having trouble? Call me. I can help.

#housegoals

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We've all got 'em. Whether it's Dwell, Architectural Digest or This Old House, there is some publication out there with the home of your dreams. And in those pictures it's pristine - tidy, gleaming, with fresh flowers in every room. Dreamy. But seriously, only in your dreams is your house going to look like that for more than about seven minutes.

Having the home you want has as much to do with setting realistic goals as with painting, reupholstering or digging a fire pit. If you're feeling overwhelmed with clutter and disorganization, I encourage you to think about what you'd like to experience in the house you live in right now. A house that holds your current furniture, your muddy dog, your rambunctious children, your messy partner, your mismatched dinnerware, your dog-eared paperbacks. 

When we're feeling unhappy with our current reality, it's tempting to envision a brand new reality. But you're far more likely to reach your goals if they are, well, achievable. I ask my clients to answer three questions before we start to work together.

  • What’s the biggest challenge you face in feeling happy in your home?
  • On a scale from 1-10, how important is it to you to overcome that challenge?
  • How would solving this problem impact your life?

When you are clear about what is causing you distress, you can tackle that problem, and even solve it. I myself have been guilty of thinking that I'd rather burn my house down than clean and reorganize it! But actually clearing out the clutter and tightening up the organization has been a much better solution.

Once you've gotten your home into a condition that no longer causes you stress, you will have a lot more energy for upgrading and redecorating. I'm not saying that you won't continue to drool over those glossy magazines, but wouldn't it be nicer to do that from a place of liking you home than of hating it? 

 

Another Thing To Jettison - Resolutions!

I'm all about clearing away guilt, shame and discouragement along with your unwanted junk. That means thinking critically about what you bring into your life, and as far as I'm concerned New Years resolutions are just so much junk. Unless you are much more disciplined than the average human you will inevitably fail in sticking to your resolutions. If you're anything like me you will have forgotten their very existence by February. 

If you really like to start a new year with optimism and plans for personal growth I have two ideas that might help you along more than a list of rules, which is what resolutions really boil down to.

Number 1 - Word of the Year. My sister loves this one, and can tell you what her words have been for the last decade. I find that I lose track after a couple of months, but I do have a fairly short attention span. The idea is to think of something you'd like more of this year - abundance, honesty, health, peace. Then repeat that word to yourself on the daily, post it where you will see it, concentrate on ways to get more of that thing into your life. Simple and effective, and much better than thinking about what you don't want. 

Number 2 - Goals List. A friend introduced me to this concept recently, and I find it much more compelling than a resolution list. Goals can be specific or broad, and at the end of the year you can see if you met them, or how well you met them. Examples: explore new restaurants, spend at least four weekends hiking, learn a new skill. They're goals - you can't really fail at them. And they may inspire you to spend your money on things like plane tickets or cooking classes, which will not clutter up your house. Win win. 

Whatever your strategy, I wish you a happy and healthy New Year. Bring in what makes you happy, discard what makes you sad.

The Unclutter Coach's Holiday Shopping Guide

Okay, I know I'm a little late with this, but it turns out that I get stressed and fall behind at this time of year too!

You know I don't want you to buy a bunch of useless stuff for your loved ones that will turn from holiday joy to clutter in the blink of a New Year's party. So what should you get your kids, your co-workers, your BFF and your boo? Here are some suggestions.

Consumables. My rule of thumb is to get something your giftee already uses, and if possible a much nicer version of it. Fancy shaving cream and top-shelf whiskey come to mind. Other consumables: candles, soap, matches, candy, fruit, wine, windshield defogger, fancy salt, subway tokens (or the modern equivalent), lip balm, epsom salts, hard-to-find spices (with recipes), the latest gourmet energy bar, bottles of Vitamin D (good for northern climes), flower bulbs, a really great ballpoint pen... We're looking for things which will be used up by the time next December comes around.

Experiences. By far the greatest gifts, and there is something for every budget. Dinner reservations, trips to the spa, movie tickets, plane tickets, concert tickets, museum admission, bungee jumping, camping trips, historical tours, cooking classes, knitting lessons, fencing lessons, gym memberships, haunted house tours, comic con tickets. The list is endless, and there is not a person in the world who doesn't want a ticket to something or a trip somewhere or a class of some kind. And no clutter! Unless of course you take up a new hobby that includes a lot of gear. So stick to the tickets where possible.

Time. This is the one thing nobody seems to have enough of, so how about buying some for your friends and relatives? This could include childcare, taking over the grocery shopping (or any other time-consuming errand) for a month, offering to drive the kids to some of their many activities, walking the dog, planning a vacation, researching products or services, painting the living room (my sisters did this for me one year, it was fantastic), takeout once per month. These are gifts you give someone close to you, whose time travails you know well. Bonus: many of them do not cost a dime, just your own time.

Finally, useful stuff. This may not feel festive enough for everyone, but in our house getting socks for Christmas is met with great joy. New flannel sheets, an emergency kit for the car, an immersion blender, fireplace tools... All things I'd have to buy for myself, so how nice of you to do it for me! We're pretty practical here chez Williamson; gifts don't have to be particularly innovative or expensive to please us. Here's what we don't want - stuff that will clog the cupboards and sit on shelves and make us feel guilty for not appreciating it more. 

So go forth and finish your shopping, and see if you can do it without bringing a load of junk into the house. And because my children do not read this blog, here are some of the things they'll be getting in their stockings this year.

 

 

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The Kids Are Alright

If you have children, you know that they come with a lot of stuff. Baby equipment alone can make your home feel like it's bursting at the seams, and most kid's rooms are overflowing with clutter of every conceivable kind. I'm here to tell you that it doesn't have to be this way.

Here's an anecdote from my own life: My daughter hated (still hates!) cleaning up her room. It got so bad one year that I finally broke - I removed every single thing from her room except her furniture and her her clothing. Every. Single. Thing. I told her that she could get her stuff back 10 items at a time if she could keep it under control, i.e., not strewn all over the floor. What happened? She never asked for it. Sure, her room started to collect stuff, and a few favorites made it back in, but the vast majority of that stuff sat in grocery bags in the basement for years, until I finally threw it away.

The takeaway for me? Kids don't really want or need all the stuff they own. They may have favorite toys or books or decorations, but most of that is either given to them by well-meaning friends and relatives, or represents a fleeting desire that fades almost as soon as the item enters the house. Kids also have a hard time managing their clutter. Asking a nine-year-old to clean her room may seem like a simple proposition to you, but with upwards of 1000 items in most of their rooms, it's not surprising that keeping it tidy is overwhelming.

I've worked with children on decluttering, and you might be surprised at how easily they let go of things. Like adults, they like to tell the stories associated with their things. Then - they are often happy to say goodbye to them. As with so many things, of course, this is a much easier process if the children involved are not related to you. Left to their own devices, most children have trouble focusing on a decluttering project, and become quickly overwhelmed and/or sidetracked. 

I really recommend incorporating clutter-clearing into your child's weekly habits. When I make chore lists for my kids, they almost always include getting rid of a specific number of things -  anywhere from 2 to 10. By making this a normal, incremental practice, you may find that there are fewer drawn-out battles about getting rid of things. Critical evaluation of your stuff is a habit - do them a favor and start 'em young. And call me if you need to clear the decks without tears.