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Clutterbusters!! - Metro DC
Pack Rats Can Learn to Just Say No to Clutter



by Sara Gebhardt
Saturday, June 26, 2004

My wife and I live in a charming corner apartment. I try to keep the place clean. 

Clutter is our biggest problem, so I encourage both of us to throw out items we do not use over the year. My wife hates it when I open storage boxes filled with junk. Do you have any ideas on an organizer (not a home cleaner) who is willing to muddle through the junk with my wife? I swear there are outfits that she does not fit into that are stacked up in the bedroom with the old blankets. 

I can be strong-willed about throwing out papers and plastics, but judging women's clothes is not a strong point. 

A relatively new crop of people who make a living as professional organizers has sprung up in recent years. They serve those who cannot bring themselves to get rid of their old clothes, files and other excessive, outdated or unused belongings. 

The National Association of Professional Organizers (
www.napo.net) allows Web users to search by Zip code for professionals who market themselves as objectively helping people better arrange and eliminate their things. 

You can also find organizers elsewhere on the Internet, in the Yellow Pages or through friends, family and co-workers.

There are also plenty of home-organizing books and products, though these may not inspire the clutter-ridden to say goodbye to that childhood smelly sticker collection or favorite moth-eaten sweater. 

Say-no-to-clutter people often have a difficult time understanding pack rats or even those with mild clutter problems. What one person sees as junk, the other might consider important. Many people attach special memories to their possessions, including clothes that may no longer fit, videos they will never watch again and stacks of magazines they will never read again. Some people just have a hard time letting go.

When my favorite clothes were stolen out of a car in New York last year, I had visions of a stranger wearing them (while simultaneously rocking out to my favorite CDs). I didn't think a thief had any right to enjoy my things the way I did.

As much as I want to be a minimalist, I had staked a claim in material stuff. Sure, they were just cute, flattering outfits; their loss didn't leave me naked. But the point is that some people have a tough time parting with stuff, often because of its symbolic value rather than its utility. 

While being robbed is one way to avoid the hard decision of putting certain items in the giveaway pile, it's obviously not the preferred solution. 

Once people change their mind-set about the importance of accumulating things and commit themselves to dealing with their clutter, there are ways to organize their living space, even without the help of an objective professional. 

In fact, organizing is an important habit for apartment dwellers to develop, because they likely have limited closet space and might have to resort to a rented storage room just to house the overflow.

Plus, some renters like to move a lot, and there is really no reason to expend energy hauling things from one place to another unless absolutely necessary. Moving is difficult enough.

"People can ask friends and family members to help -- there so many organized people out there. You don't necessarily have to hire an organizer," said Betsy Fein, a professional organizer who runs Clutterbusters in Montgomery County, 

Fein said disorganized people who want to get on track often need to bring in an outsider because each piece of paper or clothing can trigger a trip down memory lane. Someone without those same memories will likely keep the process moving so that the organizing continues.

Fein suggests starting small. That means begin with one specific area of an apartment, perhaps the medicine cabinet, then move on to the hall closet, then the bedroom closet, then the living room and onward.

"A lot of times people take on a very big task and get this initial burst of energy and poop out and just say forget it," she said. 

After people feel good about their work in one problem area of their apartment, they are more likely to move on to the next.

The key to a good organizational system, Fein said, is keeping it simple. "The best systems are simple ones to maintain. Don't try to design a filing system that takes more than a couple of minutes to maintain per day. . . . If you know where things go, and there's a home for everything, it's much easier to maintain it.

"As far as eliminating seemingly hard-to-part-with items, Fein recommends evaluating each thing by asking questions such as these about each item: 

  • Are you going to need it later or can you get it easily elsewhere? (For instance, perhaps you can find that magazine article online.)

  • By the time you do need it, is it going to be out of date?

  • Does anyone care if you keep it? (Maybe it's a family heirloom.)

  • Does looking at it bring you joy and happiness?

  • Is it going to be in style by the time you can fit into it again?

  • Have you worn it in the past one or two years? (Why are you keeping your prom dress from 17 years ago?)

  • Do you really need this receipt or these papers? 

Such questions can help you figure out which things in that overstuffed closet should go to organizations such as Salvation Army, Goodwill and homeless shelters.

After the excess is gone, it's time to adopt a simple organizational system for the remaining items. That prevents you from buying the same black shirt you already have and makes it easier to get dressed in the morning, Fein said.

"You have to see the goal at the end. First you downsize. Then you create a system you can maintain, nothing complicated or elaborate. If you're organizing blouses, don't arrange it by style and color. Make it simple, maybe by just putting all blouses together. Unfortunately, there's no cookie-cutter approach. What works for me might not work for someone else," she said.

So instead of thinking it's necessary to throw everything out to create order, renters and others should just do their best to give away and throw out extraneous things.

 If someone isn't comfortable getting rid of certain things, spouses and friends should encourage the clutterer to put those things on hold for a while in a separate box and see if they're actually needed. If the box is untouched after half a year, get rid of it all.

Such organizational baby steps may head off a major overhaul of stuff each year or each time you move. And organization can lead to another realization, especially important for those despairing about cramped apartments: When you don't have so much stuff, maybe you don't actually need more closet space.

Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail at
gebhardts@washpost.comor by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor. The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071. 

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