Personal Health: "The Hoarder in You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life," can help in decluttering a life overrun by needless things.
It often takes a crisis, major or minor, to prompt people to change bad habits, especially when the change is time-consuming and anxiety-provoking.
The other day, the drawer in which I store my swimming stuff jammed. When I finally got it open and dumped out its contents, I counted more than a dozen bathing suits (several with their store tags intact), 12 bathing caps, 10 pairs of goggles and countless nose clips and earplugs.
Then I recalled the same thing had happened a week earlier with my drawer of pens and pencils, literally hundreds of them, half of which were dried out or otherwise useless.
And I shouldn’t even mention my full-size freezer or humongous medicine cabinet, where things fall out every time I open them. Or my floor-to-ceiling plastic bins of yarn, mountain-high pile of Bubble Wrap, bags of plastic bags and shopping bags, and shelves of items I thought might be gifts for someone someday.
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Having just read “Homer & Langley,” E.L. Doctorow’s novel about the Collyer brothers, who were found dead in a Harlem brownstone under more than 100 tons of stuff they had accumulated, I finally vowed to tackle my lifelong tendency to accumulate too much of nearly everything and my seeming inability to throw out anything that I considered potentially useful to me or someone else.
Living in a three-story house with full basement made it far too easy to pursue this habit. I had plenty of storage space (and had filled every nook and cranny of it) but often couldn’t find things when I needed them, including clothes, books, articles, even frozen food I knew I had stored somewhere. Last year I found eight unopened jars of cocktail sauce in the back of my fridge; I had forgotten I had any and kept buying more.
When a product I liked at the moment was on sale (graham crackers, lipstick, shampoo, detergent, cereal, supplements), I often bought as many as I could and added them to already overflowing stashes. I’m often afraid I won’t be able to get more when I need it, a concern occasionally validated when a manufacturer discontinues something I like. But more often, I tire of these items and move on to others long before I’ve used up the old purchases.
STEPS TO DECLUTTER
Recently, as if by fate, an advance copy of a book arrived in the mail that is without doubt the most helpful tome for anyone with a cluttering tendency. It’s called “The Hoarder in You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life” (published Tuesday by Rodale Books). It was written by Robin Zasio, a clinical psychologist, a star of the show “Hoarders” and director of the Anxiety Treatment Center in Sacramento.
I would say that Zasio’s book is about the best self-help work I’ve read in my 46 years as a health and science writer. She seems to know all the excuses and impediments to coping effectively with a cluttering problem, and she offers practical, clinically proven antidotes to them.
Unless you are an extreme hoarder (the kind portrayed on the show) who requires a year or more of professional therapy, the explanations and steps described in the book can help any garden-variety clutterer better understand the source of the problem and its negative consequences, as well as overcome it and keep it from recurring.
Although it is not possible here to include all of Zasio’s lessons, here are a few I think are especially helpful.
Perhaps most important is to tackle just one project at a time and stick with it until it is done.
“Start with the easiest, and be proud of what you’ve done,” Zasio said in an interview.
Then gradually move on to more challenging projects.
Schedule time for decluttering — say, an hour each day on most days, until you’re done.
There’s no question that parting with stuff you’ve collected and thought valuable can trigger anxiety. But, as Zasio says and I have found, the anticipated anxiety is usually worse than what actually ensues. Even if it is acute, the anxiety dissipates if you sit down or do something fun or relaxing until it passes.
Make three piles (or bins) of stuff: Keep, Donate, Discard. (Avoid my mistake of making a fourth pile called Undecided that you simply wind up moving to another part of the house.) Get rid of the Discard and Donate piles as soon as possible. Keep only those things that have a realistic “home” in your home.
Zasio admits to owning 175 pairs of shoes, but, she said, “they’re neatly arranged, and I have access to them all.”
I’ve found it easiest to part with clothes, shoes and jewelry I no longer wear if I give them to people I know can use them. But anonymous giving to organizations like Goodwill or Vietnam Veterans of America is satisfying, too.
STRATEGIES TO MAINTAIN
I have particular difficulty resisting “buy one, get one free” offers, half-price sales and bulk-purchase “bargains” in big-box stores. Think first about where the products will go and how many of them you already have. These sales and bargains will repeat themselves, and you’ll get other opportunities. If necessary, stop reading sale fliers and cancel your membership at Costco.
“Ultimately, if you never get to use it, a sale item may end up costing you more than you save,” Zasio said.
Keep in mind that, like food and medications, beauty products have expiration dates, so buying more than you’ll need in the near future can be wasteful.
“It’s OK to have one backup, but do you really need 10?” Zasio asked.
Bring nothing new into the house unless you have a proper place for it.
“If you can’t identify a place for it to live, it probably should not come home,” she said.
In clearing my own clutter, I realized my late husband — who often asked me, “How many rolls of paper towels and toilet paper do you really need?” — had collecting problems of his own. I uncovered old cans of paint, picture frames and books he found on the street, all manner of wood, boxes of chipped crystal, every version of every song and show he ever wrote (he was a lyricist and playwright), and bags of our twin sons’ memorabilia since preschool (they’re now 42).
By cleaning out his stuff and my own, I will spare my children a horrible task when I’m gone. And when I stop wasting time accumulating, storing, searching for and moving around stuff I really don’t need, I might have time for a new companion: a dog.