What’s your clutter threshold? I usually hit mine when I’m just about to hit the road and I realize I can’t find any of the things I’ve been squirreling away for the trip: My reversible rain jacket has gone to ground somewhere in my closet, my travel toothbrush has walked away from the medicine cabinet, and those expensive new hiking socks have apparently disapparated like a character in Harry Potter. When messiness starts interfering with my ability to pack, I know it’s time to roll up my sleeves and corral my stuff into some kind of order.
Not everybody dislikes clutter. Years ago, I had friends in Boston who loved the freedom to strew their stuff about indiscriminately, covering every surface with tottering piles of books, clothes, cereal boxes, their children’s toys, and a staggering amount of other jumble. Once, following up on a robbery in their building, a cop knocked on their door, took one glance inside, and exclaimed, “My God, have you figured out what was taken?” My friends had some trouble convincing him this was their home’s normal condition, and not the result of a ransacking. On the opposite end of the scale is a minimalist friend whose kitchen is such a sleek collection of flat cabinets and empty counters that my first reaction was, “Gorgeous. I’d love to see what it looked like if somebody actually lived here.”
Most of us fall somewhere between these extremes, allowing stray objects to collect here and there until they become overwhelming, or some other necessity, such as a trip or a move, triggers a desire for some serious streamlining. I was recently asked by Overseas Packers and Shippers to contribute to an article about decluttering before relocation, and I was so inspired by my own sage advice that I spent yesterday morning giving my closet a massive overhaul. I spent much of that time thinking about what it takes to do the job right. We’ve all heard the classic advice: If you haven’t worn it in a year, it has to go. That’s a good start, but there are exceptions even to that golden rule. To me, it all starts with attitude.
1. Be honest with yourself. That slinky black beaded dress I bought in Hong Kong twenty years ago no longer fits my lifestyle or (yes, I admit it!) my waistline. I loved that dress once, but we have now agreed to go our separate ways.
2. Picture the next user. I find it’s a lot easier to part with things if I keep reminding myself how much the next person is going to enjoy them. I always imagine a chic but impoverished young person in my clothes – knowing full well it’s more likely to be one of the local bag ladies.
3. Get organized. Painful tasks – such as weeding out fashion mistakes and saying goodbye to old favorites – are best done quickly. Labeled cardboard boxes and a large trash bin are the most efficient way I know to send things on to their next destination.
4. If you love it enough, find a way to keep it. I might be ready to part with the Hong Kong dress but not the striped sweater I bought for my second date with Rich thirty years ago. Having survived this long, it has earned heirloom status and a place with family mementos in the attic.
5. Buy yourself something new. Getting rid of so many once-loved objects is both exhilarating and demoralizing. At the end of the process, I like to go out and buy something new, even if it’s just an inexpensive pair of earrings or some hiking socks to replace the ones that never did turn up. After all, I’ve cleared out tons of space in my closet. And besides, it’s never too soon to start renewing my clutter collection.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. Right now I'm on a Nutters' World Tour seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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