The Ins And Outs Of Clearing Clutter

My suggestion that books might be clutter generated more hysteria than my rather controversial thoughts on the murder of Osama Bin Laden and I have to tell you, that cracks me up.

I knew that coming between people and their stuff, or at least delivering messages that made it look like I wanted to, was going to be tricky. I knew there would be a fight. I begged and pleaded the powers that be to show me how to serve, what I could do to be a “major player in the loving transformation of the world.” I wanted this assignment. Then when it came in, I freaked out.

Here is what I heard: Prepare them to travel lightly through what lies ahead by releasing attachments to things and old wounds.

After working as a professional organizer off and on for 10 years, I transitioned into life coaching with pure delight that my trash-bag-holding days were over. It’s not that I didn’t love that work. I really loved it. In fact, clutter clearing is like play for me and it goes all the way back to childhood. But the results were disheartening, only about a third of the clients never needed me again, which may be bad marketing but truly, I wanted people to heal what caused them to attract those conditions. I didn’t want them to continue to need to work with me, they deserved a better way of life.

As with calories and weight, the health of our space depends both on what comes in and goes out. To keep a nice, stable, physical environment. We want to strive for balance, to have enough space within the walls in question–whether it’s 400 square feet or 12,000 square feet, a single room or multiple homes, to hold our possessions and to live. This is about living within our means, not just storing our stuff. We need space to live–room to relax and play, dance and learn, love and grow, breathe and feel–and if it’s full to the brim with stuff, it seems to me that we’re not living very well.

The basics are simple. If the space is empty, then there is room to receive incoming goods. Once the equation is balanced, meaning that there is enough room for the stuff AND the living that needs to take place in that space, it’s important to find a new ‘stuff strategy’ to keep that balance. After finding a healthy balance in the clothes closet, for example, some people commit to an even exchange strategy. This means that for every incoming piece of clothing, you chose an outgoing item in exchange.Another way to keep that balance is to reduce the incoming stuff. If you’re happy with the clothes in your closet, then stop buying more. Eventually clothes in the closet may become unusable (for a variety of reasons), meaning that they no longer serve you, then release them (in a responsible way, please). This creates space for for you to receive new incoming things and still maintain the balance. Pretty simple, right?

Not exactly. It turns out, I don’t hear from a lot of people whose lives are balanced. I’m a life coach. People call me when the scales are tipped so far in one direction or the other that they can’t get it back on their own. And once you’re out of balance, continuing what got you here doesn’t usually keep the situation stable. These out-of-whack (note the highly technical coaching lingo) habits and behaviors cultivate a growing sense of dissatisfaction, shame, frustration, etc., which result in more of the unproductive habits and behaviors. It doesn’t take long before we have ourselves a downward spiral.

These situations get worse over time, and making a change becomes more and more difficult with each new development. That’s when I get a call or an email, “I want to change. I really do but nothing I try works… it seems like every step forward comes with four steps back. I don’t even know where to start with this mess.” It doesn’t matter which area of life is out of balance, once there is too much coming in (as with calories and stuff) or too much going out (as with spending or energy) something has to give.

It takes new habits and behaviors to maintain a healthy way of living, combined with some corrective action to bring back into balance the out of control situation. Once we have extra weight, we can’t just start consuming and burning the same number of calories and expect to lose weight. We have to burn more than we consume to release the extra weight. The same concept applies to everything. We have to bring in more money than we spend in order to pay off debt. And once our house is filled past the point of comfort, one thing out for everything that comes in will not result in balance.

To find balance in an overwhelmed physical space, to make room to truly live, more has to come out than is coming in.

Once more for clarity: Reduce incoming. Increase outgoing.

I’ve never met anyone, not one single person, who had trouble with only one side of this equation. In order to free ourselves from chaos, we must be willing to explore both sides.

What is all of this stuff? Where is it coming from? How does it get here? Why did I purchase these things? How do I feel when I shop online? What makes me go to the thrift store four days a week? Why can’t I just wear the clothes that I already have? Why am I afraid to be without a kitchen full of food at all times? What would happen if I came straight home after work instead of going shopping?

Why do I have so many clothes that I don’t even wear? Why am I afraid to open my mail? How come nobody else wanted to keep all of mother’s things when we cleaned out the house after she died and why do I still have them in my living room? Why can’t I throw that thing away? What do I think will happen if I recycle all of these magazines instead of trying to find time to read them?

The list of questions I’ve asked people about their stuff could go on for days. There are two sides to the story of your stuff, and it’s important to look at them both. Why is so much coming in and what needs to heal for you to be willing to reduce that? Then, what prevents you from releasing things from your physical environment that no longer serve you? And again, it takes digging into why you’re hanging on to those things. This is about exposing the loss or wound or insecurity or fear or, on rare occasions, the positive memory that allows that thing to keep its hook in you. Once you can see the hook, you can gently remove it, and let that thing go for good.

What has its hooks in you? Do you feel stuck? Look around your physical environment, can you see signs there that something is out of balance? What’s going on? What kind of support do you need? What did reading this article bring up for you?

Photo Credit: antony_mayfield


Carolyn Dakin
Carolyn Dakin6 years ago

Yep, I cant totally relate to this article. Thank you... its given me food for thought.

Sheri P.
Sheri P6 years ago

"reduce incoming, increase outgoing"...yes, that needs to be my mantra for a while...then maybe i would be able to live in a clutter-free home and that would feel SO GOOD!

Sonny Honrado
Sonny Honrado6 years ago

Yes, reduce incoming and increase outgoing.

Shalvah Landy
Past Member 6 years ago

Thank you Christy for this article, I do enjoy your writing. And I enjoyed reading the comments as well.
I wanted to send green stars on each comment by Bill K., but only allowed one. I wish to send a green star to Kath R. and to Mary B. but I apparently sent them a green star already this week.

Duane B.
.6 years ago

Thank you for the information.

Bob P.


Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran6 years ago


Martha Nieto
Martha Nieto6 years ago

Clutter rules my life :(

Donna Pulous
Donna Pulous6 years ago

I am getting better about getting rid of things.I only keep books either that are collectors or I will reread at a future date.I ask myself, do I need this, will it serve a purpose or is it just a momentary want? It works most of the time.CD's and DVD's are another matter, but I am making progress. :)

Jennifer Burns
Jennifer Burns6 years ago

Paper is the bane of my existence. I get at least one thing in the mail from my health insurance every day! Books are hard for me to get rid of, so I use the library for most of my reading. I also have an e-reader, which can store many books at a time and when I finish a book it seems easier to delete.