How to get out from under mounds of junk

Get a jump on spring cleaning.
Get a jump on spring cleaning. MCT

My stuff was really starting to annoy me.

Clothing, shoes, purses, mixing bowls, serving platters, towels, bottles of once-used shampoo and conditioner, books, shopping bags, wrapping paper, boxes of pens. Things I didn’t use, need or particularly like were choking closets, cupboards, drawers. How did I end up with 45 T-shirts, most faded, stained, too big or too small?

I longed to see some open shelf space in my kitchen, to be able to take a shirt out of the closet and not have to iron it, to effortlessly pluck a pair of socks from a drawer.

How could I ever take control of all my possessions and restore my sense of calm? The job seemed so big that I didn’t even know where to start.

I came across a book that promised to help, a bestseller in Japan, Great Britain and Germany, published last year in the United States. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (Ten Speed Press, 224 pages, $16.99) was getting a lot of attention on blogs, good reviews and a No. 1 ranking on the New York Times’ hardcover nonfiction list. I bought an electronic version, not wanting to add another book to my shelves, and started reading. Author Marie Kondo, a self-proclaimed tidying expert in Japan, tells readers to gather everything you own in specific categories, take each item in your hands and ask yourself whether it gives you joy. If not, you are to thank it for its service and discard it.

How smart.

I wanted to start with clothing and costume jewelry, the clutter that I confronted every day and that annoyed me the most. But, even with Kondo’s advice, I just couldn’t muster up the courage to start this seemingly overwhelming task. So I enlisted help. My best friend, Maria, was coming to visit after Christmas. She has decades of retail experience in women’s fashion and accessories and an impeccable sense of style, so I asked her to take on my closets, keeping great pieces and discarding everything worn out, never worn, too big, too small or out of style.

We delivered two carloads of clothing, purses, shoes, belts and jewelry to a women’s shelter. A beautiful, never-worn sweater went to my cousin shivering in New Hampshire.

With that done, I couldn’t wait to start on the kitchen, the bookcases, the closets in bedrooms, bathrooms. Even the patio got the “KonMarie” treatment, as Kondo calls it. Anything that didn’t give me joy was thrown away or piled in the car to be donated.

For the next three weekends I purged the house of unnecessary stuff. While dropping off the last carload of household items at a LifePath Hospice thrift store, a woman who was parked next to me had obviously done the same thing over the weekend. Getting back in her now empty car, she looked at me with a big smile and said, “Doesn’t it feel good?”

Boy, was she right. I could now see closet floors and easily open and close dresser drawers, and my shirts no longer needed ironing. I had open shelf space in my kitchen! I loved my home again. It made me feel so good.

But why? Why did this act of decluttering, discarding and donating feel like emotional cleansing? Why did a sense of accomplishment, relief and excitement last for days each time I sorted and organized another space? Rather than dreading the next cleanout, I made lists of areas to target and looked forward to the job.

“Spring-cleaning gives you a new beginning and a sense of order and predictability, which creates stability,” said Dr. Nick Dewan, the medical director of behavioral health for BayCare. “The process fills you with exuberant anticipation of the new. Out of the predictability and order comes calm and a deep sense of relief.”

Dewan explained that most of us fall into one of three categories.

Some people like clutter and disorder. It’s normal for them. At the extreme end of this group are hoarders, for whom the thought of letting go of anything causes anxiety and panic.

Then there are those who are disorganized and surrounded by clutter and would like to change but, like me, don’t know how to begin. They just need a little help to get started. “They need some coaching,” Dewan said, “and there are lots of books on the market to get you started. That’s a huge first step.”

A third group, according to Dewan, is those who don’t like clutter and do have the skill set to organize but just haven’t gotten to it yet on their to-do list.

Nicole Crawford, a licensed clinical social worker at USF Health and coordinator of the Memory Disorders Clinic, probably straddles the last two groups. Every time she went into her 3-year-old daughter Safiya’s bedroom, Crawford was filled with anxiety because of all the clutter.

“At Christmas she got so many gifts, so much stuff, that I knew I had to do something about it,” Crawford said. They started by sorting the toys into favorites and those her daughter could part with. They went through piles of baby clothes, many of them friends’ hand-me-downs that Crawford had forgotten about and her daughter never wore. All of the unneeded stuff was given away, sold at a garage sale or donated.

Now, they love Safiya’s room. “There’s a place for everything,” said Crawford, “so, when she’s through with it, we know where everything goes and we can put it back.”

Crawford, who also worked on other parts of the house, took an inventory of her belongings by placing all the items of a particular category in the middle of the room. That helped her realize how much she had and how much space her things were taking up.

“Do you really need five pair of black shoes when you only wear two?” she asked herself. That same attitude helped her pare down a collection of decorative elephants years in the making, earrings, necklaces, figurines, a pillow, a blanket, drawings, 75 items in all that “took over my life,” she said.

Crawford kept a few, sold the rest and made it clear to friends that she is no longer collecting elephants. She photographed the ones that were hardest to part with. “That way, I have the memory, the connection to it, without all the clutter,” she said.

Crawford got help from a friend to start her cleanup. They went shopping for containers and supplies that would help with organizing.

For me, it took a book and a friend to take the first step. Kondo tells clients that it can take up to six months to systematically go through everything you own and pare down all your possessions. You may decide on a modified approach, limiting yourself to one weekend or just an “organizing hour.” (Add a little time for vacuuming and cleaning; with clutter come dust bunnies.)

But I recommend taking Kondo’s advice to only keep items that bring you joy. Let go of all those purchases you regret, gifts you simply don’t like, jeans that are never going to fit. Best of all, you may never have to touch up another shirt.

Spring-cleaning tips

There are lots of ways to declutter and organize your personal space. We like Marie Kondo’s approach to keep only things that give you joy, but here are a few more tips:

▪ Make an appointment with yourself to attack a space. Don’t cancel.

▪ Set a block of time to work — a day, an hour, 15 minutes.

▪ Get plenty of garbage bags for trash, shopping bags and boxes for donation and garage sale items, and markers for labeling.

▪ Take inventory: Empty the space, clean it and only put back what you need or use regularly. Toss, donate or sell the rest.

▪ Match up plastic food containers with lids; toss those without a mate.

▪ Dishes, glassware and kitchenware: Toss anything chipped, marked or cracked. Nonstick finish flaking off? Toss. Zesters and peelers dull? Toss. Knives won’t sharpen? Wrap in heavy paper, seal and toss.

▪ Personal care items with limited shelf life, such as toiletries, medications and sunscreen: Toss at the use-by or expiration date.

▪ Makeup: Toss mascara after three months, and pump-bottle makeup and lotions after nine months to a year. Toss open-top creams at six to nine months.

▪ Clothing and linens: Discard stained, frayed, discolored or worn-out items. Toss, donate or sell what you just don’t like or haven’t used in a year, two years, since 1983, etc.

▪ Purses, shoes, belts and jewelry: Discard stained, faded and worn-out items, and repair what you need or love. Toss, donate or sell what you no longer use.

▪ Books: Toss, donate or sell outdated guidebooks, travel books, books that no longer interest you, books you’ve read. See if your local library accepts donations.

▪ Magazines and papers: These take up a lot of space. Will you really go back through them and file or read dog-eared articles? Didn’t think so. Toss or donate them. (Some hospitals and beauty salons accept donations of fairly recent issues. Remove mailing labels before donating magazines.)

▪ Kids’ art and school projects: Take Nicole Crawford’s advice and photograph the ones you love, then toss them after a month.

▪ An overabundance of school, desk and art supplies: Donate items to child care centers, schools and shelters.