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.




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.

On Minimalism

I do not consider myself a minimalist. In fact, I kind of hate the word. There is something about it that feels austere to me. I picture a bright white room with three things in it - a chair, a light fixture and a singe painting leaning against the wall. It feels clean but cold. While I don't aspire to live in a bare, empty space, I do believe in reducing my possessions until I only own what I need and/or love. I want to feel calm and happy in my home (and garage too, heaven help me), and I find that clutter engenders despair and heart palpitations. So maybe I am a closet minimalist?

Minimalism is a real buzzword these days, and it means different things to different people. Here are links to definitions of the term from people who have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about the concept: From The Minimalists, and from Becoming Minimalist. These guys have all made careers out of practicing minimalism, and I like what they've got to say about it. In a nutshell, you get to decide what it means for you; the basic idea is that you consciously divest yourself of any extra stuff that doesn't add value to your life.

The terms we use to describe our goals vary widely, even when we're talking about the same thing. Don't worry too much about whether you are conforming to someone's idea of the "right" way to live. Think instead about what you'd like to come home to every day. For me that's a home that doesn't have piles of paper in the kitchen or stacks of clothes in the living room or tons of detritus on the dining room table. It's clear surfaces and the knowledge that I can find the things I need because everything has a place and actually lives in that place.

Think about what you'd like to see when you get up in the morning or come home after work. What is your ideal home? Minimalist or maximalist, spend some time really picturing the details, get clear on what you want, then call me. I'll help you get there.


Follow at your peril.

Today I found myself scrolling through Gwyneth Paltrow's Instagram account. I do not like Mrs. GOOP. I find her annoying and self-congratulatory, and she is not someone I wish to emulate. But I followed an internet wormhole and was soon engrossed in her magical selfies and effusive love-laden kudos to her celebrity friends. And although I have NO INTEREST in being like Gwyneth, I couldn't help but notice how pretty she is. And how lovely the locations from which she posts. And how much her fans adore her... Luckily I had a moment of clarity and egressed immediately. 

You've probably heard news stories about the insidious effects of social media on our psyches. I'm here to tell you that it's real. Here I was starting to feel pretty inferior to a person I DON'T ADMIRE. Who clearly filters every photo. And maybe doesn't even maintain her own account? I mean, this is part of a huge marketing strategy, right? And I'm going to let that make me feel that I should be prettier and richer and more popular and...?

All of which is to say that you might want to declutter your social media accounts along with your closets. Are there people you follow who make you feel inferior, lazy, unattractive, boring? Dump them. Do it now. You are doing a great job of being you, and you don't have time to wallow in feeling bad. I would tell you to remember that people only post the highlights of their lives, not the day-to-day reality, but honestly it's too much work to try to maintain perspective while you battle feelings of inferiority.

Do yourself a favor - unclutter your social media feeds, removing anything and anyone that makes you feel crappy on the reg. Find more of the people who make you feel good. My personal favorites are The Rock, George Takei and Lena Dunham. Whoever or whatever they are, follow happiness and throw away pain and suffering.

No, You Really Can't Have It All

I wasn't paying that much attention to geometry in high school. But I'm pretty sure it describes the nature of space. Specifically, that it can be measured and that you are bound by the shapes of things. So stop trying to cram so much stuff into your limited space!

You know that adage "A place for everything, and everything in its place"? I'll admit this has always sounded super anal to me, but in my quest for a calmer life I've begun to embrace it. Every single thing you own should have a home. It's pretty much impossible to tidy up your space if there is a large pile of things that don't really belong anywhere. They sit on counters and end up in stacks on the dining room table and every available chair, then start beckoning to other stuff to join them. The next thing you know you are wading through piles of clutter. 

If you have dozens of items for which you can't find a home, it's likely because you don't actually have space for them: If your bookcase only holds 200 books and you have 250, you've got a problem. You will either have to get rid of 50 books or find another shelf. Piling those extra books in an artful stack on the floor is not really solving the problem. And don't you dare tell me you will buy more storage containers - that is not a solution, it's just a way to disguise your problem.

To be sure, there are lots of ways to be very clever about maximizing the space you do have. I highly recommend checking out Apartment Therapy if you haven't already. It's both crowd-sourced and curated, and you'll see fabulous examples of ingenious storage solutions. And you'll see gorgeous living spaces in which the occupants have opted for less. 

Getting rid of the extra is the first, best way to find homes for your stuff. There is bound to be unused junk taking up precious real estate in your drawers and closets. Once you've cleared the decks, work on finding permanent places for the things you're keeping. Ideally, they will live very close to where they are used. You will find it's fairly easy to clean up quickly if you know where each thing goes... I swear!


Where Do I Begin?

How did we get to this place? So overwhelmed with junk that it's hard to even begin to throw it away. Well, American culture. But worrying about cause doesn't help us overcome the anxiety - think about that when you have enough room to sit and meditate. For now, start small. When I am feeling the need to purge but can't figure out where to begin, I turn to my standby favorites. I can ALWAYS find something to throw away in these categories:

1. Clothing. From stretched out socks to a shirt you love but never wear, there is at least one (more likely 20) thing in your closet that can leave the house. Today.

2. Books. I know, I know, you are a BOOK LOVER. These are not mere possessions, they are like members of the family. But just as you wouldn't invite that loud drunken uncle to move in with you, there are surely members of your bookcase family that are not smart, not amusing, and not likely to improve your life. Also, the library. Buck up and recognize that you don't have to own every single book you have ever read.

3. Bathroom ephemera. Nothing collects junk like a cabinet under the sink. Old medication, melted cough drops, fancy soap that smells too flowery; there is no end to the stuff that you can purge from the bathroom. If you, like everyone else, are fond of picking up the tiny toiletries provided in hotels, do yourself and someone else a favor and donate them to your local food bank or pantry. People who can't afford food can't afford shampoo, either. They will be happy to use those sample-sized soaps and lotions. You do not need them.

Go forth and purge! Just get rid of five things if you can't do the whole room/closet/bookcase. From tiny seeds grow mighty oaks - and from tiny clear-outs grow huge bags of junk you will Never Have To Deal With Again.


How Many Is Too Many?

30 pairs of shoes? 17 Star Trek bobble-heads? When you're trying to unclutter your world, it would be so useful to have guidelines for the ideal number of socks, or books, or teacups. I appreciate minimalism, but I don't think it's right for everyone, and I don't think the goal should be to live a monastic life. Unless you're into that - in which case, get rid of everything, today. Boom, done.

One thing I'd advise against when decluttering is to get rid of things just for the sake of having less. The idea is to toss the excess, not the useful. So if you happen to love repainting your nails to match your outfit, 20 bottles of nail polish may be just the right number for you. If you are training for a marathon it might make sense to have 10 pairs of running shoes. And if you are a fiber artist you might actually use all of the 9 pairs of scissors you own. (I'm looking in the mirror here.)

There is this one little word that really makes it hard to figure out how much is enough - that word is NEED. How many pairs of socks does one really need? I could likely get by on two, if I were willing to wash one out every single night. But that doesn't seem like a good use of my time and energy. How many houseplants does one need? Well, none, really, but they sure brighten up the place.

It makes a lot more sense to stop asking what you need and start thinking about what you use. Do 10 of those 20 bottles of nail polish merely sit on the shelf collecting dust? Is there one pair of scissors that you never take out of the drawer? (Ahem, staring pointedly into the mirror this time.)

We only need a fraction of our possessions for survival, but life is enriched by some of those unnecessary things. So you could expand the word "useful" to encompass things that brings you enjoyment and ease. Clearing out is supposed to make you feel lighter and freer. If you're creating a sense of scarcity and self-denial you are going too far. Keep what you need, and keep what you use, and keep those things that bring you happiness. That is the exact right number for you.

To Every Thing There Is a Season

I have a friend who has an amazing album collection. He collected and curated through the 70's, 80's and 90's. He's slowed down in the digital age; though he'll argue vociferously for the superior quality of vinyl over digital recording, the ease of the download has caught up with him.

This collection has started to cause him pain. It takes up a lot of space, he's constantly trying to keep his tiny children from trashing the records, and his long-suffering wife is beginning to eye those shelves with a proprietary gleam in her eye. 

Collections are tricky things. They generally represent time, place, and passion, and invoke a deep sense of nostalgia. Some collections lose their luster over the years, and are easily discarded. (I'm thinking  about my childhood rock collection.) Others are intrinsically tied to a particular phase of your life. For my friend, the very idea of getting rid of his albums feels like a negation of his younger self. Tossing his collection to make room for wedding pictures and Disney videos? His 20-year-old self likely mocked adults who "sell out" that way. So what to do?

Heck, if they really bring him joy, he could start playing them again! Maybe the whole family will come to love this collection as well, and it will take pride of place as a part of their family culture. Upon reflection, he might find that although he loves them, there aren't that many albums that he still wants to listen to. In that case, maybe he could decide to keep the 25 records that really feel like talismans of his youth. Hang them on the wall where he can see them regularly; bask in those memories.

We throw out lots of excuses for holding on to things that don't serve us. Dig a little deeper; if the value of an object is truly what's keeping you from discarding it, sell it and be done. But the real reason may be that your things may have become stand-ins for your experiences and an earlier iteration of yourself.  Even items tied up with positive emotions can weigh you down. Stuff that is buried in closets and basements does not bring joy, so why bother to keep it at all? Bring those things into the light, love them, appreciate them, then let (many of) them go. You'll create more space for new experiences and other loves.