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September 04, 2009

Thoughts on Decluttering…

If you get my weekly quick tip, you know that clutter and decluttering have been on my mind lately. Not that this should come as any big surprise given my line of work (a term which makes what I do sound far less gratifying than it truly is.) But nonetheless, my normal pondering about clutter and the hold it has on our life has been cranked up a notch lately. Perhaps it’s the change of seasons. Perhaps it’s the fact that Organizing 101 starts on Tuesday. Or perhaps it’s Janine’s fault. Most likely, it’s a combination of all three.

See when the season’s change, I simply get the urge to declutter. I think it’s hardwired in my genes. The air gets cooler in the fall (or warmer in the spring) and I just want to let stuff go. If I lived in an area where there was no change of seasons, I’m not sure what would happen. (Would things just pile up around me?) Nah…I don’t think so, especially since I’ve now been through several sessions of Organizing 101. Yes, I am the instructor and all but chatting online with students about their own decluttering and organizing journeys has caused my thoughts on my own “clutter” to evolve. (I’ll get to where Janine comes into this in a minute.)

Now before you gasp and say “What, Aby has clutter?” let me back up for a minute and share my thoughts on three different types of clutter. At the one end of the spectrum is clutter that prevents us from living our best lives because it is either physically or emotionally getting in our way. In this case, the clutter is homeless—there are no designated spots for the things that are out or there isn’t enough room for the things that are out to be put away. Let’s call this kind of clutter backlog clutter, for the sole purpose of distinguishing it from the other kids of clutter.

The next kind of clutter is surface clutter. With this type of clutter, the clutter items have a home, but at present they happen to not be in said home. Instead they’re laying on random flat surfaces.

Now to clear things up, I don’t have backlog clutter. Everything in my home has a designated spot. Throughout the day I do create surface clutter (remember, I am human and live with other humans, too) but I declutter the surface clutter on a regular basis and help / encourage the members of my family to do the same. So…let’s get to the third kind of clutter, and finally spill the beans about where Janine comes into the equation.

So, Janine is my friend and fellow professional organizer. And yes, it is very fun when you have friend that is a professional organizer. See, Janine wanted some help organizing her pantry, not because she couldn’t organize her pantry on her own, but rather because we both thought it would be loads fun (and faster) to swap services and work together on some of our projects at home. Janine went first, and we organized her pantry, which for me, is akin to going over to someone’s house for some sort of decadent chocolate and peanut butter dessert—yes I love organizing pantry’s that much. But as if that weren’t fun enough, it got better. Janine returned the favor and came over to my house to help me with some projects! Woohoo!

Pantry-organizing copy

So Janine and I tackled a space in my home that was organized, but contained some things I really didn’t need any more. In that sense, some of the items in this space were clutter. Yet it was organized clutter. Prior to our intervention, the stuff was already sorted and grouped together in logical groupings, and it was even stored in labeled containers. But none the less, it was clutter because these items were things I no longer needed or used that were simply taking up space and serving no purpose in my life. That’s organized clutter.

I became much more aware of this type of clutter while hanging out and chatting about clutter in several sessions of Organizing 101, because organizing is an evolutionary process. As one of the past Organizing 101 participants puts it, decluttering and organizing are like peeling back layers. Often when we take the first pass through a space to declutter and organize, we keep some items that later on (maybe just two weeks later) we realize aren’t actually very useful to us anymore. So organizing is an evolution…like peeling back the layers of an onion.

Now…you may be wondering why I’m sharing all of this. (And that’s a good question, as I could be verging on rambling. Hopefully you find the topic of clutter as fascinating as I do.) But anyway, I wanted to share these thoughts on clutter because often people get really bogged down by their clutter. They feel bad about it. But the truth is, unless you went through your home yesterday with a fine tooth comb, there might be some clutter, whether it's backlog clutter, surface clutter, or organized clutter.

Because organizing and decluttering is an evolution, things that were yesterday useful can today become clutter. The key is this:  how do you feel about the stuff in your home? If it's weighing you down, get up and take action! Invest some time in creating change—clearing out items that are no longer useful to you. Fill your home (and I don't mean to the brim) with items that lift you up, and let go of anything that's bringing you down. There is a tremendous kind of freedom that comes from letting go of things.  

Second, I wanted to share how helpful Organizing 101 is…for everyone involved (including the instructor.) There truly is power in discussing our stuff with other people, and sharing our organizing journey with a group of like-minded individuals. You gain new perspectives on your things and your life and the role your stuff plays in your life. Are your things moving you forward? Holding you back? Lifting you up? Or weighing you down?

Admittedly, organized clutter is a bit more neutral than other clutter. It’s organized so it looks okay which makes it feel okay, too. But when you realize it’s clutter, you have the opportunity to create space and let go of things that are no longer serving you—even if they were previously organized, labeled and contained. Case in point: Three years of Real Simple Magazines left my home the day Janine came over. If you’ve been around this blog of mine for a while you’ll know that letting go of three years of magazines is H-U-G-E! (Really huge, especially since they’re Real Simple.) These magazines were previously sorted by year and month, and stored in labeled magazine holders, so it could be argued that they weren’t really hurting anything. But truth is, these magazines were organized clutter.

Magazine boxes

I didn’t really need these magazines. Yes, I love them, but I have already read them. So they were just taking up space that could be better used to store things I really do use, need and love. I don’t have time to flip through them casually on a rainy day, (or a sunny day, or even on a snowy day, for that matter.) And even if a window of time sufficient to browse through three years of back issues of a magazine did miraculously appear in my life, I’d really rather do something else with that time. So while these items weren’t weighing me down in terms of how they looked, they were a lingering obligation. (And obligations can become a big weight on our psyche.)

See my routine for letting go of magazines is to go through them page by page and tear out articles of interest. Then, I organize those article of interest by topic and put them into binders for future reference. Just think of how much time I saved by simply letting these magazines go. And that’s not the end of it. I also created space in my storage room and removed an obligation off my mental to-do list. Ahhh…decluttering feels good.

Regardless of what type of clutter you have—backlog clutter, surface clutter, or organized clutter, now is a great time to do some decluttering. Take advantage of the change of seasons, or join me and a group of like-minded online friends for thought provoking (and action provoking!) discussions on clutter by joining Organizing 101. The next session begins on Tuesday (and it’s the last time this workshop will run in 2009.) I hope to see you in the workshop and to share your decluttering and organizing journey with you. But whatever path you choose, going it alone, calling a professional organizer, or joining Organizing 101, if you have things in your home that are weighing you down, take action and declutter! I promise you, you'll be really glad you did.


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Oh I wish I could join you but I also have debt clutter and am working on getting rid of that. ;)
However, I am like you with the season changes and since I am done waiting for my husband to arrive to the same emotional state that I'm in, I am embarking a decluttering journey alone. I sense I will be including him even if it only means to lift, carry, and/or move out of the way. I have all three kinds of clutter in my home right now and I am almost done with tackling the surface clutter. I just need to make space for creating some homes for the backlog clutter and that requires getting rid of some organized clutter. Thanks for always making these things simpler and breaking them down into manageable pieces, even if just in your descriptions on your blog or sharing your own stories.


It is almost ironic that you posted this. I have been going through a rough spell lately. After my husband died (or really, while he was sick and in the hospital) I started letting things go, because I was focused on more important things, spending time with him, and then, tending to my grief. But now my house is so disorganized (partly due to the fact we were just starting to renovate when he got sick) and now it is depressing me so much. I am also having some physical issues of my own that have been keeping me from getting more done (have an appointment with my doctor next week to discuss this) and so it is all depressing me.

Just before I read your post here, I was in the kitchen, I had just had lunch and I forced myself to do up the dishes. It made me feel better (even though I was sore.) then somehow, I found myself in the pantry trying to put things back where they belong. (2 years ago, I took everything out and organized it with these cheepo containers. They are round so not perfect, would rather have squares, but they do the job. Anyway I have been just throwing things in there, not taking care of where they belong, the last few months. I feel better (though sore) having done that. I needed a break and checked my blog reader and here's yours talking about your pantry (etc). And the things that become clutter.

I was actually thinking, while I was putting things back, I have a handful of cashews. I do not really like cashews, but I bought them for a recipe. Didn't like the recipe. so I won't be buying more cashews. I hate to throw things out. But it made me think what do we do with these little things that don't warrant dirtying a container for? or what do we do, when the container has just a little bit left but you don't want to fill it up with new stuff on top of the old, but you need to buy new for future recipe?

Sorry for my rambling. :)


Great blog post! I love that you broke up the kinds of clutter. I feel that I am organized, but life gets in the way and suddenly I have lots of surface clutter waiting for me to put away. Up to now, I have felt that something was wrong with my organization skills since I seem to always battle the daily clutter that comes along with 5 people in the house (including 4 who do not find the joy in putting things in their proper place like I do). Now I have a new way of thinking about this everyday stuff--surface clutter--I like that.
Thanks for the perspective.

Jessica Zee @GirlyPC

I love that you got rid of the magazines without pulling out articles--I often do that too (wait until I have time to pull out what I liked), but when I give them un-"edited" to the library, it's always so much more fun because I know that then someone's going to get to enjoy all those articles I would have filed in a binder somewhere never to look at again.

It may be a lovely problem to have--too much inspiration--but it can be a definite source of clutter nonetheless.


Great post as usual. I'm not a huge clutter keeper. But I've recently realized that there are items I hang onto like bad relationships. Just like people who I've allowed to criticize me and bring me down, I have stuff that treats me the same way. I am motivated to say good-bye to it, whether it's organized or not.

Janine Adams

Wonderful post, Aby. I love the contrast between your before picture and mine!

I'm sitting here at my brother's kitchen table in Australia, having had a conversation with my brother and his wife last night about his archive of weekly Sports Illustrated magazines dating back to (gulp) 1991 that he'd been loathe to part with. I read to him what you wrote about Real Simple and he said that it was helpful. And that he thinks he'll be able to go through the magazines pull out truly special ones, and get rid of the rest. So thank you!

That day with you and your magazines was so fun. And you did such a great job, both helping me with my pantry, and letting go of stuff at your house. I look forward to our next session together, both at your house and at mine!


my friend in Ohio gave me a couple of copies of real simple (we don't get in aus) so can't wait to read them !!
I still have a lot of that organised clutter ... will get to it eventually !!!


I get the urge to de-clutter too! I have GOT to organize my pantry, mine looks much worse than your "Before" picture does!

Please stop by my blog and enter some fun giveaways. I've got a really great one that's ending today for a kid's outfit valued at $113! I really need to get some more entries for it, so I'd really appreciate your help! And you have a good chance of winning too!!! :)


Aby, you have truly inspired me. I'm a member of the "organized clutter" variety too. I think your definitions could take off as industry terms! I really like the idea of looking at clutter on a spectrum. Great work!


Great post. I agree with the piece about not clipping magazine articles. I am a professional organizer and I have seen very few clients go back to look at articles they saved.

Also: magazines tend to recycle similar types of information over the years!

Mess Buster

I'm actually one of those people who does go back and read what I've clipped (although not very often). I use a binder for clippings and use tabs to sort them by category. Sometimes when I browse through the binder I toss some clippings because I really don't think I'll read them yet again, or they no longer interest me. For me, saving the clippings is the key that enables me to get rid of the magazines, because otherwise it would be really hard... lol

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