Giving Your Home a Good Clean Sweep

Is clutter getting the upper hand at your house? Here's how to give your home a good clean sweep so you can move on to an organized, energized post-divorce life.

By Jane Nahirny
Updated: March 13, 2015
Clean Sweep

Clutter: that useless debris from our everyday lives. It can clog our daily routines and make our lives feel out of control. Worse yet, clutter can waste our precious time and energy, especially during periods of stress and strain. If you're going through separation or divorce, now is a great time to clear clutter from your life. You're already dividing assets and moving apart -- why not jettison the junk from your life as well? Your home will look better and function more efficiently, but more importantly, you'll feel energized and on track with your new life plan.

"I see it as very therapeutic for people going through separation and divorce," says Jan Schlesinger, director of brand communications for California Closets. "When you're in the midst of a major life change, many things in your life are in total disarray. It's very difficult to control the emotional elements, but you can bring yourself comfort and a sense of control by managing your possessions and your physical space."

Here are some tips to help you clear the clutter, once and for all.

Define your clutter comfort level

Divorce Magazine publisher Dan Couvrette is probably the most organized person I have ever known. He practices what I call zero-tolerance clutter control. At the end of each day, Dan's desk is always completely clear, save for the telephone and a sleek black desk set. His home reflects the same clean aesthetic, decorated with a few carefully chosen pieces of furniture and art.

Dan's example is inspiring, but it doesn't work for everyone. And that's okay. To be successful with clutter control, you need to stay within your own comfort level. How do you know when you're at your personal limit? Easy: when clutter starts stealing too much time and energy from your busy day -- when your environment starts affecting the way you feel. "Your outer world very often reflects your inner world," says Carolyn Ellis, a Toronto-based certified integrative life coach who helps people set and achieve personal and professional goals. "You know you have a problem when you find yourself awash in unpaid bills, the mail is falling over all the time, and you can never find your car keys." As Dan taught me, when you have a cluttered life, you spend more time sorting, finding, and focussing on what is urgent at that moment rather than what's important in the long term.

Identify your home's clutter zones

All our homes have their own unique clutter zones. In my house, it's my son's room. I have a pretty good handle on the rest of the house, but all those blocks, cars, dinosaurs, little people...it seems like an endless battle at times (but one I'm determined to win). For Ellis, it was the basement. "It was driving me crazy," she recalls. "It was becoming a very scary place, a place where I would just sort of hide things. I really wanted and needed to clear it out." In your house, it might be the home office, hall closet, laundry room, or kitchen junk drawer -- or perhaps it's the treadmill in your bedroom (I have a friend who uses hers as a coat rack). Take a few minutes now to list the areas of your home that slow you down or frustrate you on a regular basis, recommends Ellis.

Prioritize the jobs on your list -- and start small

Once that list is complete, resist the temptation to say, "Gosh, this is overwhelming! I just don't have time to de-clutter my home." Remember, you don't have to cross off the entire list in a weekend. Choose the area that bothers you the most, or maybe the first thing you see when you walk in the door, and just dig in. "Realize that you are already investing a lot of time and energy treading water in all that clutter," says Ellis. But be careful not to be overly ambitious with your first de-cluttering job. "You want to set yourself up to win," she insists. Make your first job a smallish one -- say, your kitchen junk drawer or hall closet -- then book some time in your agenda to tackle the task.

Take action!

Now for the fun part: purging! I like to keep a stack of folded brown paper bags with handles in my closet for such occasions, but most professional organizers recommend that you use three or four boxes for major jobs. Mark them, "Charity," "Give to Friends," and "Sort Later," or whatever works for you and your job at hand. I also like to drag a garbage bag into the clutter zone for the true trash. Don Aslett, author of five books about clutter, recommends that people work alone as they clear away clutter. "Junk is very personal, so the fewer people, the better," he says. "As you examine each item, ask yourself simply, 'Does it enhance my life?' If the answer is, 'No,' get rid of it." Aslett also suggests that people avoid working in the evening hours. "We can't be objective, we're tired, and there's not enough time to properly finish the job." When de-junking bedroom drawers, place a clean sheet on your bed, then just dump out the contents of the drawer, says Aslett. "Don't try to de-junk a drawer from the inside," he warns. "That just makes the junk in the drawer look like it deserves a place there."

Create a system

"Most of the time, the reason clutter piles up is because you don't have an effective system for dealing with it -- whether that's bills, junk mail, newspapers, or the espresso machine you've never used," says Dan Couvrette. So take some time to think about how you're going to handle the stuff that comes into your house on a daily basis. Consider a small filing cabinet for household bills; a rack for newspapers and magazines; a bin near your mailbox for junk mail. Then set a time-frame for how often you will empty this storage into the garbage or recycling bin.

A word about home- organization products

I admit that I am one of those people whose eyes glaze over in the home-organization aisles of my local department and office stores. I love the idea of a quick fix -- and many of the storage cases and organizational products out there provide just that. However, it's absolutely critical that you plan your purchases before heading out to the stores or having someone in to install a system. Otherwise, says Ellis, you might actually create clutter. "Do an inventory first," she suggests. "Take the time to really look at what you have and what you need."

Be sure to recognize the benefits of your work

Taking action against clutter is empowering. "When people give themselves the opportunity to experience even a small degree of success, they'll notice that they start to feel good about themselves, they'll feel more energy, and they'll be motivated to take on more," says Carolyn Ellis. "You create this wave, and you can surf it as long as you want." When you purge items from your home that no longer suit your lifestyle, you also end up with a much more supportive environment. In a very real sense, you shed your skin and begin anew. "There are so many things we carry with us that we don't really need," says Jan Schlesinger. "When you're faced with a divorce, you have an opportunity to start again...You have this fresh new canvas, and you alone can choose what's important to you."

As long as it's there, clutter will occupy some portion of your consciousness -- using up energy and resources even if you're doing nothing about it. If the task of becoming and staying clutter-free still seems overwhlming, consider enlisting the help of an organized friend, life coach, or professional organizer for support.

Your new attitude towards clutter will also filter into other areas of your life, including work and interpersonal relationships. And if you live with children, it will teach them by example how to be responsible for their possessions. Last, but not least, it will be easier and less time-consuming to clean your home.

Clutter Classified

Here are a few different varieties of clutter you're sure to encounter as you redefine your environment:

  • A lot of the items you'll process will be what I call "volunteers" -- the kind of junk that's obvious and easy to toss. Count in this category items such as pens that skip, worn-out underwear and T-shirts, dried-up toothpaste tubes, duplicate appliances, and unwanted gifts. (If you feel guilty throwing away gifts that can't be exchanged, donate them to a thrift store or shelter.)
  • Then there's the "redundant" category: things you just don't use anymore, like that old car seat for the baby who's now a teenager, the bottle warmer, pair of skis, or musical instrument. Again, these items are easy to get out of the house by selling, giving, or throwing away.
  • More challenging are the "undesirables": perfectly functional items that you just plain dislike. Hold a garage sale, put an ad in the paper, give it to charity, or try Jan Schlesinger's approach: "I had a set of harvest gold and avocado dishes," she recalls. "I couldn't afford new ones, but I just couldn't stand them anymore. So one day, I took them out to the warehouse district in San Francisco and flung them, one by one, against an abandoned building. As I watched each one shatter, something just "went away" -- suddenly, that fight was gone...and that one, too. For me, that was real purging. It was such a physical way of getting rid of emotional baggage."
  • Other difficult items to purge include the "sentimentals": childhood collections, heirlooms, or items that represent a particularly important transitional period in your life. "Here, you really need to be honest with yourself," says Ellis. "Are you ready to let that go? If you are, see it as an opportunity to give it to someone special. You've had your years of happiness with whatever it is -- now it's time to 'pay it forward.'" Go for the "broad strokes," she adds. "I've donated some of my books that I used when going through my separation to a local community group that supports women who are going through divorce or separation." When you give with a full heart, you'll be amazed how great your gift will make you -- and the recipient -- feel. Aslett also recommends that people "miniaturize" sentimental collections. Take a swatch of fabric, a button, or a photograph of an item with sentimental value -- or make a scrapbook. "For stirring memories, a piece, symbol, or sample is as effective as the whole," he says.
  • Some of the most difficult items to sort through for people going through separation and divorce are, of course, the wedding photos and other courtship/marital ephemera. "Deciding what to do with these items is a very tough, very personal choice," says Ellis, who kept her own wedding album for its historical significance to her children. You may need to make a conscious effort to change the way you think and feel about them if you're going to keep marriage memorabilia, warns Ellis. "I can look at my album and say, "I'm glad I had all that happiness and all that pain, because now I'm in a new chapter of my life that I'm really excited about.' I look at it with gratitude. I use it as a way to keep me in a forward direction, rather than going back and beating myself up." Be clear in your mind though about your decision, because once it's gone, it's almost always gone forever. (I say "almost" because a friend of mine intentionally gave her ex-husband their wedding album, only to find it back in her bookshelf several months later after the kids returned from a weekend with their dad.) One last note: if you do decide to discard the album, you can always digitalize the photos and store them away on a computer disk, suggests Aslett.

Staying the Course

Try these strategies for keeping your home clutter-free:

  • Every time you buy a new piece of clothing, give something away.
  • Keep your closet current. Store out-of-season clothing elsewhere.
  • Make a point of throwing or giving away a set number of items every day until your home is the peaceful oasis you desire -- 10, 15, 20...you decide. (This may sound ludicrous, but it's surprisingly easy and incredibly satisfying.)
  • Ask yourself Don Aslett's simple question: "Will this enhance my life?" before making any new purchase.
  • For "sale junkies," ask yourself if you would buy this item if it weren't on sale. Would you be willing to save for a month or two to buy it at full-price? If not, it may not be such a good deal after all.
  • Do as my father-in-law does: ask family and friends to give gifts that can be consumed.
  • Devote a few minutes each day to maintaining a clutter-free home.
  • Choose a set time to go through your mail.
  • Up your quotient of wastebaskets around the house. If there's someplace to put gum wrappers, used batteries, and the odd Post-it note, your rooms will stay clutter-free longer.
  • Make a habit of dealing with clutter as it occurs. Remember the old adage, "A place for everything, and everything in its place."

Less is More

If you're one of those people who believes that "more is more," you will have an instinctive aversion to the idea of cutting down on the amount of stuff you have -- even if it's driving you crazy. But you can look at this as an opportunity to acquire a few exquisite items you'll love while getting rid of mediocre stuff.

For instance, you'll get more use and pleasure out of one really great coordinated outfit than a dozen mismatched separates. Buy one pair of quality stainless-steel scissors and toss out all your plastic-handled dollar-store variety; one expensive pen replaces a drawer-full of cheap ballpoints and markers; one pair of beautiful, comfortable shoes beats five pairs that don't really fit -- your feet or your lifestyle. Go for quality rather than quantity, and you'll stop clutter in its tracks.

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June 13, 2006
Categories:  Coping with Divorce

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