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A change in habits helps control clutter

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Q: What can I do to get a handle on the clutter at my house? — Amy of Walnut Creek

A: A good place to start is on the inside — begin to be aware of where your clutter comes from. Here are some important patterns to consider:

  1. Impulsive buying – see something and buy it, then feel bad later.
  2. Compulsive buying – you ease depression by going shopping.
  3. Connection with the past – grandmother’s teapot, mementos from a special trip, etc.
  4. Hoarding – things are on sale; you can’t have too many of these; might need this someday, etc.
  5. Perfectionism (“all or nothing”) – don’t have time to go through the entire closet, so keep everything.

Any of these patterns of acquiring things can put a hole in the dam through which clutter leaks — or even flows — into your house. While you might feel like you’re drowning, the key to dealing with clutter is realizing that you get to decide what you will allow in your space. It’s a matter of exercising your right to control the inflow of things in your home, and to also determine the outflow.

I used to read my girls a book called “I Can Get Organized,” by Karen Erickson and Maureen Roffey. Its simple format for toddlers gives some great examples of how to get a handle on clutter. Here’s one:

“Everything is so mixed up — who put my shoes in the refrigerator? How did my toothbrush end up under the dining room table? Why is my truck in the kitchen sink?” (Hint: Put like things with like things, and as close as possible to their point of use.)

Then the excuses: “I’ll never get things back in their places. Everything is too messy. It would take forever to clean my room. I can’t do it. I’m too little.”

Then the aha: “But who’s going to do it? Maybe I’ll just start. Pick up. Put away.” (Hint: Just get started. Getting started moves you toward a better balance between order and clutter, and you’ll gather momentum with action.)

To keep the clutter bug from becoming the clutter monster, practice these steps toward a less-cluttered home:

No dumping allowed
When you come in from your day, don’t throw everything on the first horizontal surface you see. Instead, hang purses or backpacks on a hook, door handle or coat rack. Establish a basket to drop the mail in until you have an opportunity to read it. When the kitchen counter and dining table are not used as a repository for these things, you have a clear workspace to make dinner and a place to eat and relax.

Give it a home
Your mother may have called this “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Some items, usually large and odd-shaped (like granddad’s violin), seem to resist finding a home. But when most of your things have a home, you will feel at peace. Having a mental picture of where your things are gives a sense of security and lets you relax.

Practice maintenance
Toward the end of the day, swoop through each room and pick up and put away stray items. Use a basket to gather and redistribute things, but don’t make a marathon out of picking up and putting away. Keep it short and sweet, spending five minutes or so in each room. Get your kids involved.

Do one thing at a time. Make a “pocket of order,” as recommended in “Making Peace With the Things in Your Life,” by Cindy Glovinsky. This means choosing a task that is doable in the time you have available. Once done, it becomes a positive reference point of what you are capable of doing when focused.

Learn to make decisions
Clutter represents delayed decisions. A common reason for letting things pile up rather than putting them away is that we haven’t decided how they fit in our life. “I’m not sure if I want this book on 100 ways to cook chicken, so I’ll just set it here for now.” Forget perfection and strive for progress, which will let you strike a balance between order and chaos.

In the mailbag
In response to a recent column on organizing paperwork, Janice from Pleasant Hill writes: “I would advise that everyone have a shredder, because whenever a paper is tossed that includes your account numbers, Social Security number or other personal information, it should be shredded to prevent identity fraud.”

Regarding the same topic, David of Walnut Creek writes: “When you get junk mail, write ‘Return to Sender’ on it and put it back in the outgoing mail. Junk mail companies don’t want to spend money sending to addresses that are going to bounce back, and they seem to be very quick about removing addresses from their lists that come back to them.”