THE BLOG

Unclutter Your Life, Declutter Your Heart

04/27/2015 04:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2015

Yes. Clutter can make your life a mess both physically and mentally. During my divorce, I knew I had to make some changes to my home to allow in the new and take out the old. So, I turned to Andrew Mellen. He is an expert on the subject of uncluttering things you no longer need and au- thor of Unstuff Your Life. What better person to talk to about letting go of all the things that weigh your down and keep you from moving on? Here is the advice he shared with me.

How does clutter in the home effect clutter in your head or "emotional clutter"?

Physical clutter is often a concrete representation of mental or emotional clutter as well. An inability to stay focused, regardless of the cause, typically results in piles and stacks and clumps of items set down randomly throughout the home and workplace. Clutter is a series of deferred decisions. When we're overwhelmed, distracted, or distressed it's easy to set an object down and keep walking. You may have the best of intentions of later collecting that item and returning it to its home, or you may have been so preoccupied that setting it down was completely unconscious. They both yield the same result: clutter. Living with clutter and disorganization exacerbates an already stressful situation. When you can't feel safe in your own home, you're repeatedly stressing your adrenal system. That level of stimulation makes it that much harder to concentrate for long periods of time. Add in the almost constant interruptions avail- able through digital media and electronic devices, and you can see why many people collapse in a heap of frustration and ex- haustion over something as simple as not being able to find your keys, wallet, or bag.

Ensuring that your home is organized and functioning smoothly reduces stress and lays a foundation for greater peace and serenity. From that foundation you have a much better chance of navigating the emotional upheavals that accompany the dissolution of any intimate relationship.

What is the best way to get started with decluttering?
The best and easiest way to get started decluttering is to get familiar with The Organizational Triangle®: One Home For Everything, Like With Like, and Something In, Something Out. One Home For Everything means one home and only one home. It doesn't matter where that home is, just that there is a home. So where you keep your keys may be completely different from where I keep my keys, but your keys have a home. They're only one of two places--in your hand unlocking something or in their home. Apply this principle and you'll be able to find any- thing in thirty seconds or less.

Like With Like means all like objects live together, not most or some. That means all your office supplies live together, all your cooking utensils live together, all your important papers live together. This ensures that when you go to the home for some- thing you'll find everything you're looking for at one time. These two principles together will solve 85 percent of all organizational challenges.

The last leg of the triangle, Something In, Something Out, is all about achieving stuff equilibrium. That means you have enough of everything that serves you and nothing that doesn't. There are no rules about what "enough" looks like--your space will do an excellent job of communicating that to you. If you have piles and stacks of papers or other items lying around your home and they don't have a home, then you have too much stuff. If your clothes are bursting out of your closet and you claim you never have anything to wear, you have too much stuff.

Chances are on some level you can sense when you're trying to fit more into a space than it can comfortably hold. Letting go of your willful insistence and yielding to the space's limitations is the first step. Determining what enough looks like for you es- tablishes your baseline for this principle. Once you've determined what enough looks like, you're no longer in the business of accumulating--regardless of how cheap, expensive or unusual the item is. You're now in the business of replacing, not augmenting. Applying this principle is all you need to do to stay
organized for the rest of your life.

How important is it to ask a friend for help?

Never underestimate how helpful friends can be when it comes to getting and staying organized. Friends are an invaluable asset, whether they are serving as a "clutter buddy" and actually help- ing you in your organizational process or just keeping you com- pany while you do your own tasking. The simple act of relying on a friend as an external source of accountability will increase your success geometrically.

What decluttering goals should we be setting?

It's easier to describe how to set goals rather than defining what the goals should be. It's always helpful to pick the area or category of stuff that upsets you the most as the best place to begin. That way you get a great return for your initial efforts.

Set goals for yourself that are specific, realistic, and reasonable and that also require consistent efforts. Never attempt something as vague as "cleaning out the garage"--there's no easy way to quantify how long that would take. The better way to state that goal would be to say, "I'm going to spend three hours cleaning out the garage," and then setting a timer for three hours and getting to work. Now we have an achievable goal: working for three hours in the garage.

Regardless of how much you get done, when the timer goes off you've accomplished your goal. The more specific your goals and consistent your outcomes, the stronger and more confident you become. The timer becomes your ally in quantifying all tasks that are impossible to quantify otherwise. Never work for less than fifteen minutes or more than three hours at a time. Less than fifteen minutes is not enough time to get much done on projects the size of a garage or even a closet. And after three hours your ability to concentrate will fade. That's the time to take a break and check your email, get a snack or walk the dog--anything to break your concentration and refresh yourself. After a break, you can set the timer for subsequent three-hour blocks of time, just be sure to take a break between each one.

Be sure to take "before" pictures--these are crucial for those moments when you think you're not making enough progress fast enough. A story might kick up that says this is impossible and you'll never make the kind of change you want to make. First off, don't pay attention to any story that includes "never" or "always." They are seldom true. And given that the goal is not to complete something other than working until the timer goes off, the photographs will show you that you are making progress, even if it isn't your progress doesn't look like what you imagined. Implicit in the goal is change, and the photographs illustrate that regardless of how you feel, change has occurred. That should be enough to counteract any story to the contrary.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that you don't need a break after three hours. You might be quite exceptional in any number of ways, but when it comes to stuff, there are no exceptions. Stuff is inanimate and will outlast you every time. Failure breeds fail- ure and success breeds success--set yourself up for success by relying on the timer.

What kinds of items should a divorced woman consider letting go?
Certainly putting away anything that causes you grief, shame, or regret is a great place to start. Given that you are probably extremely vulnerable and emotional, I'd suggest starting with the
easiest choices first. Things you were holding onto only out of a sense of obligation can be the first to go. If any of those items have significant value, you may consider selling or auctioning them off and investing the funds in some thing or some experience that clearly represents who you want to be post-divorce.

Next I'd suggest turning your attention to those things that are isolated to just you and your former spouse. Leave things that involve children or extended family for a bit later. Consider whether you can use this item in your new life or if it will always remind you, and not in a pleasant way, of your relationship. If the item in question has use and no upsetting associations, inte- grate it among your other belongings. If it will always upset you when you look at it or use it, let it go. For those things that are just too tender to interact with right now, I suggest you box them up and put them someplace safe to return to in six months. Label them carefully including the date you placed them in storage then schedule an appointment with yourself six months from now to revisit the project. Remember, it's only stuff. You bring the story to all of it in and of itself, each item is neutral. We each endow every object around us with meaning. You can tell yourself a different story about any particular item if you want to. It's helpful to examine your motives if you seem to keep telling yourself upsetting stories when no one's listening. Not that you're to blame, but you do have the power to change a story at any time.

What are the best ways to maintain your newly uncluttered space?
The Organizational Triangle® is all you need to stay organized. Applying the first two principles will get your home organized and applying the third principle will keep it that way. Once you've achieved stuff equilibrium, ask yourself the following questions before you bring anything home:

• Do I really need this? Why?
• Do I already have one like it?
• Is it better than the one I already have or do I just like it more?
• Where will it live?
• What will I do with it?
• When will I use it?

Answer the above questions with specific answers. "Just because" is never a good enough answer. And even then I suggest you take a picture of it and defer buying it for thirty days. You'll be amazed how little makes it home from a store after considering a pur- chase for thirty days.

Consider how you spend your time--you may imagine yourself lying in a hammock reading magazines but if that's unlikely, consider how many subscriptions you really need to periodicals you never get around to looking at.

It all comes down to your core values--what matters to you and how aligned your actions and words are with those values. The world is full of beautiful and practical things--it's also full of useless trash. Curating your home and your life to accurately reflect what is important to you is essential to staying organized. When you become more focused on experiences and living your values, you discover you don't need much to physically make that happen. That's the best place to be.