In general, our belongings should be things we use, need, or love. It is common to accumulate more of the things that bring us special joy than those that are simply utilitarian. However, even things we love can pile up and become overwhelming. When this happens, we end up having too much of a good thing.
Over-accumulation occurs for a variety of reasons:
- We struggle to resist buying things we love, even when we already have a lot.
- We are better at purchasing than we are at purging.
- We can’t find things we own and keep buying replacements.
- Friends/family hear we love a certain thing (frogs, flags, corkscrews, postcards, etc.), and give them to us as gifts.
Whatever the reason, having more than we can manage makes it hard to enjoy.
Often, we reach a breaking point and want to get things back under control, but perhaps have no idea how to even begin. When there is a significant quantity, “normal” decluttering approaches may not work.
- If you have books all over the house, doubled up on your bookshelves, piled on the floor, boxed up in the basement, and otherwise stashed throughout the house, gathering them all together to one sorting location is not practical.
- If you have clothing filling closets throughout the house, hanging out of your drawers, in containers under beds, in bags in the attic, and on free-standing racks in the bedroom, it may be impossible to gather all of your shoes together and decide which ones you want to keep.
- If you have boxes of paperwork going back years and all muddled together, you may not be able to use the OHIO (Only Handle It Once) approach.
When a given category of belongings has grown to the point of permeating multiple locations, perhaps even resulting in limited free space for processing, I suggest what I call the “peeling the onion” approach.
If you have ever handled an onion, you know that the skin has multiple layers. On the outside, the skin is typically quite dry. This layer comes off quickly and easily. In fact, sometimes it falls off as you carry the onion to your counter for shopping. Taking off the outer layer of an onion requires practically no effort. As you go deeper, the skins become softer, and also more difficult to remove. You might need to do a bit of prying or cutting to get it off. It’s only once the outer layers are removed that you are able to cook the fresh, edible portion inside.
Bearing this image in mind, when working through a particularly complex decluttering project, I find it helpful to work through the situation in layers.
Let’s look at the example of having a lot of clothing.
If you are drowning in clothing, you are not yet ready to start buying fancy hangers and deciding what to store where. First, you need to reduce the amount you have. Ultimately, the goal is to match the quantity of your belongings to your available storage space. In the case of clothing, this doesn’t necessarily mean everything needs to go into a solitary closet or set of drawers, but it should fit in a way that allows you to see and access what you want. Admittedly, this may include some bins for out of season clothing, or a cedar closet for lesser worn garments. Nevertheless, all clothing should be stored in a manner that is predictable and safe.
So where do we begin? It is easiest to start with whatever is most accessible and work your way in. For instance, if you have items on the floor or hanging in front of other items, start with these. In Round One, the secret is speed. Our goal is to simply remove the outer layer of the onion, the “low hanging fruit.” Take a look at each item and make a quick decision. If you find yourself equivocating over an piece, keep it. You will be doing a second sweep in the future. At that point, you will have a better idea of what you have and making a decision may feel easier.
Regardless of where you start, it is critical to work sequentially. Don’t look at a shirt on the floor, and then turn and look at one up on a shelf, and then look at a piece hanging on a rod. Start in one spot, look at every piece as you go along. Again, this isn’t meant to be stressful. Simply go through items and remove anything you can easily let go.
There are two major objectives for “Round One:”
- Remind yourself of what you have
- Free up space for a more thorough review in “Round Two”
Keep moving along, one space after another. Round 1 may take a fair amount of time. You won’t get it done in a day. The key with large projects is consistency, so set regular times when you will continue to review. For example, you might try working for 15 minutes a day, or set aside a couple of hours each Saturday morning.
After each session, remove any of the items that you have decided to shed. Don’t neglect this step! Move them to a location in the garage, or even put them in your car. Depending on what things you have, you can probably find a charity who will accept the pieces you no longer want. Another great method for shedding unwanted belongings is to schedule a pickup by a charity. I suggest that you schedule a bunch of pickups, because knowing that someone will be showing up to retrieve your donations can help keep you motivated to move forward.
Sometimes we come across items that we would like to give to someone in particular. This is perfectly fine, as long as you can get them to the intended recipient in a timely fashion. What you want to avoid is having bags or piles for someone that you won’t see for more than a couple of weeks because their presence will undermine the second goal of Round One.
After you have done a first pass on all of the pieces, you are ready to move on to Round Two. You should now have more space for processing, as well as a clearer idea of what you own. If, after Round One, you still have very little space to move around, I suggest you bring in a professional organizer to support you. Remember, there is no shame in getting help. In fact, securing needed resources is one of the smartest (and often financially wisest) things we can do when facing a difficult situation.
If you have made decent progress on Round One, Round Two can now proceed like a traditional decluttering project. Identify a location where you will bring items for review. Going back to the clothing example, this could be a nearby bed. Smaller/more fragile items are better suited to be reviewed on a clear table. If you don’t have a free table, consider setting up a folding table for sorting wherever you are working. However, remember that a sorting table is not a storage location. It is a place to make decisions. Be sure to either clear this table or collapse it at the end of each sorting session.
Once you have designated a sorting location, start bringing items to this location for review. If your items are spread all over your home, you can work in one room at a time. Put like items together to help you make decisions. For clothing, this might include trousers, jeans, blouses, knit tops, sweatshirts, socks, shoes, etc. Review each category with the goal of removing another layer of this “onion skin.” A few things to remember at this stage:
- Depending on how much you have, you may choose to work on one category per session.
- It helps to be realistic. For instance, we may love a pair of jeans, but honestly can no longer fit into them. Let go of items that cannot (or are unlikely to) be a part of your current life. The goal is to prioritize what we love and use now, as opposed to what we may use someday.
- Things you want to keep purely for sentimental reasons are candidates for remote storage. For instance, a letterman jacket from high school can go into a memorabilia bin, rather than hung in your closet.
- You may have some items that need further processing, such as a dress that you need to try on, or a jacket that belongs to someone else with whom you need to check before donating. Set these items aside in a “homework” pile to be addressed before your next sorting session.
- You may have items that you feel guilty shedding because they were gifts, or you spent a lot of money on them. These are never good reasons to keep things.
After Round Two, you should now have a quantity that more accurately matches your storage capacity. This is the time to design an organizing strategy, including furniture, shelving, containers, hangers, etc.
I’ve used clothing as an example in this post, but you may be overwhelmed by any number of belongings, including sports gear, photos, books, art, tools, hats, or many other things. Regardless of the item, the approach to thin them out is the same.
Also, depending on what you have, how you are feeling, and your capabilities, you might need special assistance to help you declutter, such as from:
- A professional organizer
- An accountant
- A photo organizer
- Someone physically strong, to reach and carry heavy items
- A junk hauler
- A mental health professional
- An accountability partner or body double
- A friend
* * *
When what was meant to be fun feels more like a burden than a joy, it is time to declutter. Do you think that “peeling the onion” might help you proceed?