Eve Schaub, the author of “Year of No Clutter,” joined writer Jura Koncius on The Washington Post’s Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: I’ve gone through a pretty successful declutter, so how do I politely discourage people from giving me more stuff? My family doesn’t want to give up the holiday gift exchange, though I’ve had reasonable success in coaxing them to shop via my Amazon wish list or to give “experiences,” like tickets, or gift cards for events. Friends, however, are another matter. I’d guess that 80 percent of the gifts my friends give me go straight to Freecycle or Goodwill, of course after I’ve expressed thanks as sincerely as I can fake them.
A: I was amazed at how much of my clutter was made up of gifts that I didn’t want but harbored guilt over getting rid of. I write in my book about a friend of mine who, in desperation, experimented with a “gift ban” that kindly requested that no one give her anything ever again. What she found was that the gift moratorium caused some of her loved ones confusion and distress. They kept trying to get around it. “Here’s a plant!” “Here’s some food!” “Here, have our kid give it to her! She won’t say no to the kid!” They felt very uncomfortable about their inability to express their love for her in the form of an object, which of course was never her intention. She ended up lifting the gift ban and now simply donates her unwanted gifts.
I think nudging your friends and relatives toward “experience” gifts is great, but there will always be object gifts. I remind myself that it is the gift givers’ last intention to cause anxiety or guilt, then donate the item to a good cause or sell it at a consignment shop.
Q: Any advice for someone moving into a larger home who would like to avoid clutter before it even starts?
A: In the book, I talk about the difference between clutter and a mess. A mess, I realized, is something we know what to do with: We clean it up. In fact, someone else could probably come in and do most of it for you — it’s common sense.
With clutter, no one can clean it up for you because these are things that don’t have anywhere to go — yet. Clutter is largely the result of deferred decisions, things that are waiting to be dealt with.
So the best advice I can give you is twofold: First, make decisions and do not let objects languish. Second, prioritize living space over object space. Appreciate the space you have and realize that it is beautiful.
Q: Why do we all think our stuff is worth so much? Is there a point where we will realize that we have used something to its fullest extent and that it should be recycled, donated or trashed? Saving bits and pieces to bring to consignment isn’t always worth the effort in the end. Is it OK to feel this way?
A: I think it’s human nature to overvalue the things we have in terms of monetary worth to others; it can be a rude awakening when you visit a consignment shop and learn that your things aren’t nearly as valuable as you thought! For me, it requires a routine. There are enough people in our house that I make a “next season” pile to take to the consignment shop. I make sure they are things in excellent shape, no holes or stains, because I know the store won’t accept them otherwise. Anything else I put in a bag for the local charity shop, even if it’s something that’s beat up, because I know it will at the very least be recycled. Of course, it is totally OK to just bring everything straight to the Salvation Army or a church tag sale — skipping the “but I spent money on this!” step altogether — especially if expediency will help you to part with things more easily.
Q: I hate going through things — it all just stacks up! I don’t even like most of it, but I can’t seem to make myself go through it all and organize it. Any ideas?
A: Whether it’s a single pile or a whole house full of stuff, I think the biggest obstacle is that feeling of being overwhelmed and not knowing how to get started. I had a large room in my house that we dubbed “the Hell Room.” I couldn’t even see the floor. So, I set a kitchen timer every day for 15 minutes, and I had to organize during that set time before I was allowed to leave. This, I found, was what got me in the door. Once I started making some incremental progress, I would get excited and would continue organizing even after the timer had gone off. First, it was 10 minutes more, then a half-hour and then an hour more.
Q: I’ve lived in my three-bedroom home since 1993 and will downsize to a one-bedroom condo in 2020. Because of the years I’ve spent here, I’ve already started decluttering and am even planning a two-week vacation around it. Some say I’m starting too soon, but I see this as a long, arduous project. What do you think?
A: As someone who spent a whole year thinking about and dealing with clutter, I think it makes perfect sense to start now! Different people deal with clutter differently, and the folks who think you’re starting too early may be people who, like my husband, favor the “dumpster method” of decluttering. For that, all you need is an afternoon and a shovel.
But if you’re like me, horrified by the idea of useful items being consigned to the dumpster and something truly meaningful getting tossed out, it takes more time and thought. Making thousands of decisions and then getting the items to the places that can use them may sound like torture to some, but it was the only way I could resolve my clutter problem happily.